REVIEW: Saga #1

Much has been said about 2012 being the year of creator-owned comics, and the reasons why.  Here isn’t the place to go into detail into the various factors that could have influenced their increased prominence, but I will venture to say that Image is at the centre of it, and that in their 20th year, they have the biggest talent lineup of any comics publisher.  Marvel has done much to publicise its A-list writers as “Architects” recently: Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman.  DC, meanwhile, has such top-flight talent as Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire and Paul Cornell at its disposal.  But, writing either current or upcoming books, Image has a talent roster that includes Robert Kirkman, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman, Nick Spencer and, the subject of much of this review’s discussion, Brian K Vaughan.  That’s some of the top dogs from both Marvel and DC, as well as heavy hitters currently doing work for neither.  Image, it seems, is the place to be right now, and that has been reflected in their recent output.  It’s beginning to feel like barely a week goes by without an exciting new Image debut.  Fatale.  Thief of Thieves.  The Manhattan Projects.  But arguably the most anticipated debut of them all, and in my entirely subjective opinion the true biggest comic “event” of the year, is Saga.

Of course, Saga isn’t going to match the brand awareness of Batman or Spider-Man, but for a creator-owned comic, it has received quite a lot of press and attention, both within comics news circles and even in some mainstream outlets.  A big part of what has drawn so much attention to the book is that it’s the return of Brian K. Vaughan – who made his name on acclaimed comics like Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and Pride of Baghdad, but who more recently found success on a grander stage by writing some of the later seasons of Lost – to the world of comics, after an absence of several years.  That, to me, is exciting in itself.  That a creator rather than a character can make a comic an event.  It’s a ropey analogy until we see how successful Saga #1 (already a sell-out at distributor level) is, and I should mention that I didn’t really like this movie, but it reminds me a bit of Avatar a couple of years back.  Here was a movie that wasn’t a sequel, or a remake, or an adaptation of an established franchise, but it was a hit, and people flocked to cinemas to see it, because on one level it featured the return of a creator celebrated as a master of his craft, and on a simpler level it felt like something original, exciting and new.  We need something like that in the comics world, and Saga might just be it.  Of course, in talking about all that this comic might represent, we’re not even getting into the discussion of whether or not Saga #1 is any good.  Well, it is.  Very, very good.

Allow me to illustrate.  I bought 14 comics this week.  Crazy, I know.  That’s a lot of reading to get through, but thus far I’ve only read one of those comics: Saga.  And I read it twice.  Given that this first issue is 44 pages (more on that later), that’s time I could have given over to reading another 2 comics from my pull list.  But instead I felt more compelled to reread Saga #1 – and it was even better on repeat reading!  The world created within and all the narrative possibilities that it could contain were buzzing around in my head all day, so much so that I probably couldn’t concentrate if I tried to read another comic.  This one deserved to simmer a little longer.  Of course, Vaughan has a reputation for delivering killer first issues.  But Saga #1 can’t boast the deliciously simple high concept established in Y: The Last Man #1 or the jaw-dropper of a last page reveal found in Ex Machina #1.  Instead, Saga #1 builds a world, or rather, worlds.  At its core is an intimate love story, but that love story is placed within a mythology that already feels truly epic in scope, a world that could spawn any number of compelling narratives.  I initially thought Saga was a pretty vague title for a book, but once you read the first issue you will see that it absolutely fits.

In attempt to explain in concise fashion (Ha! Concise, he says after 750+ words…) the world of Saga, it seems like we are getting to see the kind of mythical world we might find in fantasy, only instead of being in the distant past, this story is set in a sci-fi future where the fawns and fairies have colonised space, and interact with robots, aliens and anthropamorphised animals.  The inhabitants of the planet Landfall are at war with the natives of Wreath, its orbiting moon, and have been for as long as anyone can remember.  To keep their respective homeworlds safe, the two warring factions have turned the other planets in the galaxy into their battlefield.  It may be a bit premature and simplistic to say there are parallels to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but we’ll see how that angle develops.  Against this backdrop, Alana from Landfall and Marko from Wreath have fallen in love, married and, as the story begins, had a child together.  And now they find themselves hunted by both sides.

With the sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, people might be tempted to throw around a “Star Wars meets The Lord of the Rings” soundbite.  In fact, this plays out more like “Battlestar Galactica meets Game of Thrones“, in terms of the adult content and political intrigue.  The 44 pages we’re given for this first issue are truly a blessing (all the more so when you consider it’s 44 pages for $2.99!!), as it really helps to get us immersed in this dense mythology, and to feel like we’ve gotten a full, meaty, satisfying reading experience from this opening chapter.  We not only get to know Marko and Alana – and Vaughan very quickly makes us care about these characters, and worry that their story will have a tragic end – but we also get to experience time behind enemy lines on both sides of the intergalactic conflict, seeing both the shady authority figures and sympathetic characters who believe in their respective causes.  Prince Robot IV is introduced in eye-popping fashion, and his is an example of a side character who has an implied rich narrative of his own, in terms of the history and the heirarchy of robots in this society, that we’ll hopefully learn more about later.  On the other side, jaded human (?) bounty hunter The Will emerges as perhaps the most badass character of the first issue, and a potential scene-stealer.

What you might get from my observations about the ensemble is that we’re very much dropped in on the moment, with characters having a past and motivations that may be referred to, but we haven’t yet seen.  Rather than exhausting us with info dumps, Vaughan has very cleverly populated his book with a cast of immediately interesting characters who we will be keen to discover more about in the future, but for now we are utterly compelled in the actions they’re presently engaged in.

Another clever technique Vaughan employs is the use of a voiceover as a narrative framing device, in the form of Hazel – Alana and Marko’s baby – speaking as an old woman at some point in the future.  This injects the story with a degree of dramatic irony, as she alludes to future disasters that the characters themselves are unaware of. The idea of having an inkling of the ending right from the beginning is something that Vaughan toyed with to great effect in Ex Machina, but the execution here is quite different.  And throughout the issue, we see Vaughan flexing different creative muscles.  Vaughan has often been widely recognised for his knack for naturalistic dialogue, and the density of pop culture references and obscure trivia has become something of a motif for him.  But by deliberately placing himself in a position where those traits have to be stripped away, we see Vaughan focusing more on the impecabble mastery of narrative structure that has always been there too.  Vaughan is a writer with a high density of undeniable comics classics in a relatively short career, but alreadySagashows signs of added gravitas, a suggestion that this could grow to become his most mature work to date.

But through all this, we haven’t even gotten round to showering praise on the incredible work of Fiona Staples!  On the basis of one issue, I think Miss Staples has already cemented her position as breakout artist of the year.  If there is any justice in the world, Saga is going to make her a superstar artist.  As penciller, inker, colorist and even letterer for the voiceover portion of the book (with primary letterer Steven Finch doing a great job in his own right of giving each species its own distinct font), Fiona Staples is this book’s definite visual architect, and under her pen, this book just soars.  Whether it’s an intimate love scene or an epic battle, or the coldness of space, the rough lines, earthy color palette and occasional storybook-style painterly brushstroke make everything feel like part of a cohesive whole, something visually distinct.

Miss Staples also scores top points on character design.  One quite compelling argument I’ve read in defense of superhero comics having the dominance of the medium that they do is that comics depend on being visually engaging, and the colorful, skintight outfits and action-packed adventures of superheroes offer that spectacle for the eyes in a way that tales of other genres can often find it hard to compete with.  But Saga is populated with characters infused with sci-fi and fantasy influences that are as visually dynamic as anything you’d find in a capes-and-tights book.  This may be an odd compliment, but I could imagine action figures being made of most of the principal players introduced here, and I’d want them all on my shelf!

This little point about “toyetic” characters would be a natural point to talk about how Saga feels like a story with heaps of cross-platform franchise potential.  Already I could imagine a movie, or a TV series, or a video game.  But at the same time, and this is important, while all those possibilities might be tantalising, this in no way feels like it’s being farmed out for adaptation.  This is absolutely a comic, embracing and celebrating the inherent strengths of this medium, and it’s the kind of tale that I don’t think any other medium could pull off quite as well.  And crucially, Fiona Staples has already left such a strong imprint that I fear for the success of any attempt at adaptation (or, indeed, any future fill-in artists), as a Saga not drawn by Fiona Staples would just not feel like Saga.

As you all know, Scalped is my comic book crack, the serialised bliss that I need my monthly fix of.  But Scalped is coming to an end, and I fear its conclusion will leave a large void in my comic collection, nay, my LIFE!  It’s early days yet, and there’s always the possibility of subsequent chapters failing to match this astonishing opener, but if the quality keeps up and even improves (as Vaughan’s stories tend to do), that void could very well be filled.

Saga #1 gives us a gripping narrative, and it looks absolutely stunning.  What more do you want from a comic?  Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples have delivered a triumph.  When the sales for this month come in, it probably won’t topple the old favourites like Justice League or Batman or even this week’s Avengers Assemble, but it should.  Saga #1 deserves to be the biggest book of the month, it deserves the biggest audience it can get.  It may be a bit late to say this now, as here in Glasgow at least it’s already entirely sold out, but if you’re a comic fan, even if you’re a casual “I just read trades” fan, you owe it to yourself to pick up this book.  Believe the hype.

REVIEW: Demon Knights #1

One of the things I like most about DC’s relaunch is the attempt to reach out to a wider audience beyond the superhero genre.  Now, I love superheroes as much as the next guy, but variety is the spice of life.  Amongst the New 52, there is a western comic, war comics, and most notably, an expansion of the horror genre (or, at the least, an injection of horror elements into superhero narratives) under the DC Dark banner.  But one of the exercises in genre diversification that most captured my interest was Demon Knights, DC’s foray into fantasy.

Up until recently, fantasy was not a genre that I was particularly engaged by.  Of course, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, the books and the films, but beyond the world of swords and sorcery just didn’t appeal to me.  But recently, some notable works in the genre have worked to change that.  There was Tears of the Dragon, the quality webcomic from Tyler James and Koko Ambaro, a tale that channels the spirit of The Princess Bride but incorporates a darker, tragic element.  And then I was blown away by Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice novels.  All of a sudden, fantasy seemed more exciting.  So, when news emerged that Paul Cornell – one of my favourite writers – would be tackling the genre with a tale of Jack Kirby’s Etrigan The Demon leading a band of outcast warriors in the Dark Ages, it seemed like a natural fit, and so Demon Knights very quickly found itself on my list of must-buy comics.

With the respective marketing of each title, I actually found myself holding a higher anticipation for Stormwatch, Cornell’s other series.  But I read Stormwatch #1, and while it was a perfectly enjoyable first issue, I think it was overshadowed by some of the other New 52 titles of last week, and didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations I had in my head.  Demon Knights does.  In fact, it surpasses them.  Demon Knights #1 is a comic laced with the wit, invention, and British charm I’ve come to love from  Cornell’s work in titles such as Knight & Squire, and it would seem Cornell has carried over an important narrative lesson  from Knight & Squire #1: there is perhaps no better setting to launch a series and introduce a cast of characters than a good ol’ English pub.

It’s a magnificently constructed set-piece, as our cast of characters – some familiar faces, some brand new – steadily congregate in a little village inn called The Victory in Rome, all while he know a fearsome horde of marauding killers is on an inevitable collision course with the sleepy rural community.  It’s an environment where people go to sit and talk, and so it allows for our ensemble to be introduced in quick, economic succession.  But Cornell skilfully gives each character their own distinct voice and personality, and very quickly seeing how these personalites will interact and clash becomes a point of intrigue.  Even though in some cases they only have a few panels to make an impression, each of our “magnificent seven” brings something to the narrative, as I hope to demonstrate:

I really am full of love for humans at this point.

One small touch that I appreciate, and an example that perhaps more writers could have followed in these supposedly new-reader-friendly #1s, is that in the opening sequence of the comic, Paul Cornell gives us a quick recap of our eponymous Demon’s origin, set against the dramatic backdrop of the fall of Camelot.  Etrigan is a character who I’ve enjoyed when he’s popped up in supporting roles in other books, but even I wasn’t familiar with his backstory beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia.  This reads very well as an introductory comic for someone who has never read an Etrigan comic before, following the story of how Merlin’s servant Jason Blood was mystically bonded with the demon Etrigan by letting us frst spent time getting acquainted with the pragmatic Jason Blood before his monstrous other half is unleashed in the issue’s climactic moments.  This lets Etrigan be built up as the heaviest hitter in a pub full of hard-as-nails badasses, but it also provides a nice twist, as while much of the setup seems to be about Jason Blood as a Bruce Banner figure trying to contain the savage beast within, when he does make the transformation, Etrigan is introduced as an eloquent figure with his own distinct personality, and his own human attachments.

Just one quiet pint.  That’s all I ask.

Though the comic is called Demon Knights, and though it is presented as a team book, judging by this first issue, it will be a series with two leading roles, the second one being filled by Madame Xanadu.  In the wake of this relaunch, Xanadu might be the character that gets one of the biggest boosts in status.  This week alone, she appears in two different titles, and is also slated to be on the roster for Justice League Dark, making her something of a lynchpin figure linking the various titles under the “Dark” banner.  While my limited knowledge of Xanadu always had her as a wise, enigmatic figure, here Cornell has fun giving us a younger version of the immortal sorceress, only a few hundred years old, seeming more human with her less sage, more ill-tempered demeanour.  I think we’re going to have a really interesting dynamic running through this series, a twist on the “unconventional love triangle” of Superman, Clark and Lois, in that Xanadu seems to be telling both Jason Blood and Etrigan that she loves them, and would rather they not change into their other form.  There’s a note of ambiguity as to which one she’s lying to… or maybe she has feelings for them both?

I have almost no ethics myself, you understand… but I like them in others.

Vandal Savage is a prolific DC villain that has shown up in a wide range of titles I’ve read, and while plenty of these have been great stories, Savage has never really stood out as a favourite of mine.  This, however, might mark one of my favourite appearances by the immortal (notice a trend here?) rogue, adding the wrinkle that, when you get over the fact that he’s pure evil, Vandal Savage is actually a jolly, personable kind of fellow who’s good to have a drink with.

The celts have odd ways.  Nod and smile.

Perhaps best known for her appearance in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, Shining Knight is a girl who has adopted the male guise of “Sir Ystin”.  We get a brief but telling glimpse of her personality here, as she makes a big show of being a man, overcompensating for everything – the showy armor, the massive sword, the giant pitcher of ale, and the manly boasts – but still looking totally ladylike with the way she’s sitting (a nice touch by Diogenes Neves, more on him later).  One particularly effective beat is that we see all the other characters immediately cotton on to the fact that this is a woman pretending to be a man, but politely play along with her ruse.  Nice to see such an enlightened view of the transgendered in medeival times!

Listen, I am Al Jabr.  I bring mechanisms that can make you rich.

Sadly, we see in the treatment of Al Jabr that in other ways, we share many of the same prejudices that some of us still have today.  Coming across as a suave, Middle-Eastern prototype for Tony Stark, we learn most about Al Jabr by how the barkeep treats him, regarding him with distrust and suspicion because of his ethnicity.  It’s a small beat, but it’s a nice bit of social commentary thrown in by Cornell, demonstrating the era where such unenlightened attitudes should have remained.

I come from an island where men are castrated… and women are pleased.

Enrichening the mythology of Wonder Woman before her new #1 is even released, Exoristos is a nice way of showing that Diana wasn’t the first Amazon to have the idea of walking among men, and not all of them are going to be as friendly and compassionate as her.  But despite her violent, aggressive nature, Exoristos’ abuse of the barkeep is in defense of Al Jabr, so in that way, it could be suggested that heroism seems to be naturally ingrained in the race.

But please, whoever you are… take this news to the village… disaster approaches!

Of our seven characters, the one we see the least of is the mysterious, horsebound archer we only get a single glimpse of, obscured against the glare of the sun.  But with the ease with which she takes out three of the horde, she seems to be a formidable combatant, and one I’m interested in seeing more of in the future.  I’ll take this moment to note that the majority of the central ensemble are women, and none feels like a “token woman”: each is given their own rounded personality, and they’re arguably the most interesting characters.  This is the kind of book the Batgirl of San Diego criticised DC Comics for not having enough of, so I really hope she gets a chance to read Demon Knights #1 – I think she’ll like it.

We find the source of the problem… and we throw dragons at it.

As our heroes gather, our villains plot in the distance, giving everything that’s going on at the inn an air of impending doom.  This strand of the narrative is deftly executed, with Mordru and the Questing Queen posing a threat whose scope is not quite yet clear.  There’s also a moment of unspeakable evil involving a baby I had to actually reread to be sure I was actually seeing what I thought I’d seen.  Yes, I did.

All this is not to say that, amidst all the characterisatio, nothing happens.  This is a meticulously plotted comic, making the very most of its 20 pages by ensuring something important happens, or someone interesting is introduced, on every page.  This is a very dense, plot-driven book, packing a lot of story into a single issue, but importantly, it never feels dense.

A big part of what makes Demon Knights such an easy read is the beautiful artwork of Diogenes Neves, whose large, open panels give everything an expansive, epic feel.  The colors of Marcelo Maiolo aid in establishing a warm, vibrant atmosphere within the pages, giving the art a classic, painted vibe.  Of particular note in the art department is the excellence with which Neves renders Etrigan.  Bolstered by a well-judged update of his costume, Neves’ massive Demon is one of the finest depictions of the character I’ve seen, even better than the also-impressive rendition provided by Tony Daniel for the cover.  Though I also have a soft spot for Jimmy Broxton, I’d venture to say that Diogenes Neves is arguably the finest artest Paul Cornell has worked with.

Overall, Demon Knights #1 is a towering success, easily the best of the new DC offerings this week, and up there with Swamp Thing and Animal Man among the best of the New 52 overall thus far.  The fact that all three of these are DC Dark titles further cements my opinion that this is the corner of the DCU to be most excited about.  I read this whole comic with a big, goofy grin on my face.  The biggest compliment I can give to Demon Knights is that when reading it, I quickly got the impression that this could be a spritual successor to Secret Six.  It shares quite a few traits in common with Gail Simone’s consistently excellent supervillain team book: an ensemble of bad, bad people who are actually quite nice when you get to know them, a pitch-black sense of humor, and a sense that, even when the protagonists are in the most dire of straits, this is a comic with its tongue ever so gently prodding its cheek.

I just hope that, like Secret Six, Demon Knights can avoid cancellation, and is given time to build up the cult audience it is surely good enough to attract.  Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves have crafted something really special here, and if you like diversity, if you’re up for trying something a bit different from the norm, give Demon Knights #1 a try.  I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.

REVIEW: Tears of the Dragon, Volume 1

I’ve not always been the biggest fan of fantasy.  Sure, earlier in the decade I got caught up in Lord of the Rings fever with much of the rest of the world, but aside from that it’s not a genre I’ve generally immersed myself in.  I’ve found that to be changing in recent months.  It began with my rediscovery of The Princess Bride, watching it on DVD after not seeing it for many years, and falling in love with it all over again.  Then it was taken to the next level by Game of Thrones, HBO’s brilliant adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novel.  Most recently, amongst the barrage of news regarding DC Comics’ big September relaunch, one of the new titles I’m most looking forward to is Paul Cornell’s sword-and-sorcery themed Demon Knights.  Fantasy has suddenly became a genre of much interest to me.

Another major part in my own personal fantasy revival has been Tears of the Dragon, the excellent webcomic from writer Tyler James and artist Koko Ambaro.  For those of you who don’t follow webcomics, fear not: the series thus far has been collected in this gorgeous graphic novel edition, presented in a landscape format to preserve the layouts as originally presented online.  Something as simple as this – the fact that it’s shaped differently from  other graphic novels – is another small way the book stands out.  It reminded me of Daniel Clowes’ Mister Wonderful, which is rather nice company to be keeping.

But I’m not here to talk about how Tears of the Dragon will look on your coffee table, but rather about the story inside.  It is a story of two quite distinct halves.  The first, “To Become a King”, reads much like standard swashbuckling fantasy fare.  We open with a grandparent telling his children a story of long ago, a bookend which instantly put me in mind of the aforementioned The Princess Bride – something Tyler James himself acknowledges as a major inspiration.  Like that film, the story at this stage is injected with a certain relish for the genre.  Koko Ambaro throws himself into the epic widescreen panoramas with gusto, as we watch prospective king Torvuld do battle with a dragon.  It is in his rendition of the dragons that Ambaro really gets to strut his stuff.  Under his pen, their sheer size makes them intimidating, but they are brought to life with a fluidity that suggests grace as well as power.

The coloring of Paul Little in the first 10 pages gives the story a nostalgic glow – it’s story-time for the kids, and the aesthetic almost feels like a children’s storybook.  But when the talented Miguel Marques takes over from page 12, he brings an earthier tone to the colors, which in turn seems to herald a deeper complexity in the story.  After Torvuld is victorious and is crowned as king, we return to the dragon Sythic, and see him crying over his lost love, slain dragon Mettai.  This dragon is not just another monster, but rather a complex character in his own right, who as this chapter comes to a close we get the sense we’ve not seen the last of.  Then again, as the narrative continues, we learn this is not just another fairy tale either.

It is with the longer second chapter that makes up the bulk of this first volume, “Torvuld’s Plight”, that we get a stronger sense of the tale Tyler James is crafting, and that Tears of the Dragon truly comes into its own.  We still get a fare share of dynamic action and classic fantasy tropes (take a bow, tomboy daughter who wants to be a warrior like the boys), but its laced with poignant human drama, and some really powerful, dark moments.  “I don’t think I like this story, grandfather,” says the little girl as decidedly modern story beats we’re not used to seeing in a fantasy tale start to infect the narrative.

Tyler strikes an effective balance with the voices of his characters, making them feel authentically of a fantasy time and setting, while still feeling striaghtforward and relatable rather than overblown and stilted.  But his true strength comes in his plotting and structure.  You get a sense that this first volume is but the tip of the iceberg for where this story is going, but that every plot development and character established here is done so precisely and deliberately, set to play a bigger role in the future.  Indeed, this volume’s front cover shows us characters we haven’t met yet, and others who look much different to the way they look at this early stage in the narrative.  Clearly, Tyler has meticulously planned well ahead.  But with the way it’s all paced, we never feel like we’re getting an info dump, as the story thunders along and there’s always a more present drama or conflict to occupy our attention.

If there’s any complaint to be had, it’s that it’s over all too quickly.  In the closing pages, we get a twist on that bookend with the grandfather telling the children a story that seems to up  the stakes, while the story of Torvuld and his children takes a tragic turn.  But just as both plot threads seem set to become really compelling, volume 1 is over!  Have no fear, though, because the webcomic resumes in August.  There should be just enough time for you to buy this book and get all caught up.

Tears of the Dragon is a great showcase for all involved.  Tyler James, who already impressed me with his work on Over, shows here an increase in scope and ambition that suggests he is continuing to evolve as a writer.  Koko Ambaro’s simple yet dynamic art is the perfect fit for the story, and is perfectly showcased in this widescreen format, allowing for lush, at times even poetic page layouts.  The colors of both Paul Little and Miguel Marques work to set the tone, with the increasing darkness in the pallette reflecting the direction of the narrative.  Top notch work from all involved.  If you’re a fan of fantasy, this is a comic you need to add to your collection.  With the diversity of its respective plot threads, Tears of the Dragon deserves a place alongside both The Princess Bride and Game of Thrones.

Tears of the Dragon, Volume 1 is now available to buy from Amazon.