30 Character Showcase #30: Forever Carlyle

This month marks the arrival of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

30. FOREVER CARLYLE

Lazarus2Created by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Here it is, the final entry on our month-long spotlight of the best new comics creations of 2013.  And of all the characters on this list, few had a first appearance more memorable than Forever Carlyle, star of writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark’s ace new Image series, Lazarus.  We begin with her dead, a bullet in her head, her apparent killers circled around her.  Then Forever gets up and kills them all.  In a dystopian future where the world is run by a handful of obscenely rich families, Forever is the “Lazarus” of the Carlyle family: a genetically-engineered enforcer and protector of the family’s interests.  And, as we quickly discover, she’s very hard to kill.

Much of how she’s brought to life is done by Michael Lark, delivering some of the finest artwork of his career.  The fight scenes are framed in a way to show how clinical and precise every strike Forever makes is, using combat as an extension of her personality.  And even how she’s drawn at rest – imposingly tall, wearing deep black that stands out amidst the muddy orange/brown aesthetic – marks her out from the world around her and gives her presence on the page.

Greg Rucka has also managed to invest her with a compelling personality.  Created to blindly follow the orders of her family, we see her showing flickers of doubt and even turmoil over the violent deeds she must carry out, this emerging conscience standing at odds with her sense of duty to her family.  When it’s called for, however, she is suitably ruthless!

Lazarus2a

And that brings to an end my month-long spotlight on the newly-created comic characters of 2013.  If any of you have had the endurance to read from beginning to end, thanks for sticking with it!

REVIEW: Lazarus #1

In the days of advance solicitations, previews and heavy online promotion, it’s hard to recreate that experience of walking into a comic shop and deciding to give a new book you know nothing about a go based on the cover.  And that wasn’t exactly the case with Lazarus #1.  I’d already seen ads for the debuting series in other Image comics I’ve purchased in the past couple of months, so it was on my radar in that sense.  But beyond the quality creative team of writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark, I knew nothing about the comic, beyond that eyecatching cover and the connotations a title like Lazarus dregs up.  Originally, I hadn’t been planning on buying it, given that I’m trying to trim down my pull list of comics right now.  But once I got into the shop, and I took another look at that cover… I decided on the spur of the moment to give it a go.  And I’m glad I did: Lazarus #1 was the best comic I read last week.

Greg Rucka has created a sci-fi dystopia that feels eerily grounded and credible.  I recall watching an unsettling video online about the distribution of wealth in America, and it showed how the richest 1% of American citizens own 40% of the country’s wealth, and the bottom 80% – not only the working class, but the middle class – have only 7% between them.  Lazarus takes that idea to a frightening extreme, where the gap between the richest and the poorest has become so gargantuan that the world is essentially ruled by a handful of monstrously wealthy families, families whose power supercedes any government or ruling body.  And the vast majority of the population has fallen to new depths of poverty, and are now referred to as “waste.”  It’s a chilling vision of the future, as you can actually envision something like this happening more than, say, a zombie apocalypse, as to some degree it’s already happening: the upper class convinces the middle class to view the lower class as scum and subhuman, all the while taking money from them both.

We get glimpses of this world in this opening chapter, but for now our focused is mainly focused on one family – the House Carlyle – and more specifically their genetically-perfected protector, or “lazarus”, Forever.  Forever was designed to be an enforcer, a killing machine, pacified by the illusion that she is a loved member of the family.  But Forever is growing uncertain of her place in this world and the morality of what her and her family are doing, which seem set to become all the more difficult with the unpleasant deed she is compelled to carry out at the issue’s conclusion.

If I had any complaint about this issue, it’s that I felt like I was just getting into the meat of the story when it was over.  Image have released a few double-sized opening issues lately, and this would really have benefitted from that treatment, I feel.  But leaving readers craving for more once your issue is done is a good problem to have, and Greg Rucka makes up for the lack of additional pages with a highly insightful essay delving into the process of creating Forever and the world of Lazarus that’s almost worth the price of admission in itself.

But Rucka’s coup de grace here is his partnership with Michael Lark.  I think some people unfairly summarise Lark as “that guy with art like Sean Phillips.”  I, personally, got into Sean Phillips’ work thinking of him as “that guy with art like Michael Lark.”  And still I think there’s something that sets Lark’s work apart: he finds the sharpness and the hard edges in a scene where Phillips typically brings a gentler, smoother touch.  But it feels like it’s been a while since I’ve read anything of Lark’s.  So I’m glad to see him come back in a big way with Lazarus #1, perhaps the finest showcase for his storytelling abilities yet.

The highlight of this opening chapter for me was the 9-page action sequence that opens the book, ending with Forever being shot dead by a group of armed robbers, before demonstrating why the title of the book is Lazarus.  The final 5 pages of this sequence are almost entirely wordless, with Lark taking centre stage and carrying the weight of the narrative with his visuals.  It’s beautifully, operatically brutal, staged in a way where each panel depicts a deliberate, graceful movement, hammering home the power and pain of every motion.

And it would be remiss of me not to mention the delectable color pallette of Santi Arcas.  In that aforementioned open sequence, we’re awash in clinical blue, complimented with stark red splashes of claret.  The red and blue put me in mind of Jordie Bellaire’s work with The Manhattan Projects: maybe it’s becoming something of a motif in Image books right now.  In general, color is used as a thematic tool throughout this issue.  Forever and her family, and the higher-up officials in their employ, are largely restricted to futuristic bunker-type structures devoid of natural light, bathed in cold blues and greens that make them seem almost inhuman.  However, in the scenes where we see the indentured serfs – the battered remnants of the “middle class” living in poverty themselves but kept from falling off the map entirely by their ongoing service to the House Caryle – they are placed under harsh sunlight, invoking a sense of weathered humanity and a world more grounded than the clinical artificiality of the wealthy families.

Last year Image floored us with a bevy of impressive comics debuts hitting in quick succession: Fatale, The Manhattan Projects, Saga.  This year, Lazarus seems to be leading the way for another round of exciting debuts coming this month, with Satellite Sam from Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin dropping this week and Sheltered from Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas due the week after.  And the Image Expo revealed that there’s a whole bunch of other exciting launches on the horizon.  If the rest of these upcoming titles are anywhere near as good as this exciting debut of Lazarus, Image is set for another vintage year.  With two highly regarded creators operating on top form and bringing out the best in each other, it’s safe to say that while this issue was a pleasant surprise, the next one will be carrying some lofty expectations.

Lazarus1Lazarus #1 is available to buy in all good comic shops.

REVIEW: Batwoman #1

When it comes to comics, I’m a writing guy.  Though I have dropped titles because of a steep decline in the quality of art, as a writer myself, for the most part, it’s a writer’s involvement with  a book that will spark my interest.  There are, however, a few exceptions, most notably Batwoman #1.  As soon as I read that J.H. Williams III would be returning to draw the character he rendered so beautifully in his run with writer Greg Rucka on Detective Comics, this instantly became a comic I wanted to get my hands on, even with the departure of Rucka and W. Haden Blackman and Williams himself replacing him on writing duties.  I was immediately confident that this would be one of the most visually stunning comics of the entire New 52.  As it turns out, I was right.

The trademark flourish Williams’ employed to such masterful effect through his Detective Comics run was the stunning two-page tableau, characterised by uniquely inventive layouts – the very panel borders becoming exquisitely structured works of art – and an immersive level of detail.  That motif is back in force with Batwoman #1, with no less than 7 of these frame-it-and-put-it-on-your-wall triumphs of craftmanship in this single issue.  It’s hard to choose a favorite, but if I had to pick one, it would be a particularly haunting vista where an ethereal, ghostly figure floats through the centre of the frame, the tangles of her hair spreading out as if she was underwater, forming into curves that make the shape of the surrounding panels.  Like I said, a level of invention in panel creation that remains unmatched.

But it’s not just Williams’ layouts that are worth shouting about.  Also acting as inker for the comic, he makes texture and shading into powerful narrative devices in their own right, every aspect of the image serving the story, further enhancing the symbiosis between story and art that suggests a mastery of the medium.  Of particular note is his design of Batwoman herself.  As Kate Kane, she fits in with all the other characters in the cast, well-drawn but still ultimately flat and two-dimensional (in appearance, not character).  But with the detail with which Williams renders the leathery texture of her Batwoman costume, the character is instantly striking, appearing three-dimensional, like she’s about to jump over the page.  She is instantly the most striking image on every panel she appears in.  This is best illustrated in a sequence where we see Kate dressing in her Batwoman costume: the top half of her body is rendered like a regular comic character, but the bottom half (clothed in the costume) is drawn in this hyper-real style, elevating her from her non-costumed peers.  It’s a visual shorthand for demonstrating the symbolic power of the Bat in Gotham and superheroes in general.

I’ve not said much yet about the writing of Williams and Blackman, and to be honest I probably don’t need to.  We could have got 20 pages of Kate Kane taking a dump in the toilet while doing a crossword from the newpaper, and it would be the most beautifully-portrayed dump in the history of the medium, and still enough to warrant at least a 6 or 7 out of 10 overall score for the comic.  As it stands, what we get is a mystery of dead and abducted children tied into a local urban myth that seems like it could be intriguing, offering more of a supernatural twist on the gritty crime stories that may be unfolding in other areas of Gotham, but we don’t really go into it that much in this issue.

The more central focus here, and the most compelling aspect of the plot, is the character development for Kate Kane and her supporting cast.  We see her emerging romantic relationship with Detective Maggie Sawyer, though she still harbors feelings for Renee Montoya (while it’s good to see more sexual diversity, is every woman in the GCPD a lesbian?), and we get to  see her training her cousin Bette, though it feels less like a superhero training a sidekick than a military boot camp, which makes sense given Kate’s military background.  And in the exploration of Kate’s rift with her father, we get a catch-up on what went on during Rucka’s Detective run (helpful for those who never read it or those who, like me, had forgotten what happened because we’ve been waiting so long for this new Batwoman series to arrive) without it feeling like a cumbersome info-dump.  It helps that much of the exposition is delivered as a montage of images rather than being spoken by characters – another example of that symbiosis between story and image.

The downside for Batwoman #1, one which hurts its overall standing in my eyes, is that it’s over too quickly.  It’s a very quick read, and just as the plot was beginning to get interesting, it was suddenly over.  I didn’t notice the “To Be Continued” at first, and literally turned the page, saw I was at the end, and said, “Huh?  That’s it?”  I guess that’s the downside of that abundance of beautiful double page spreads: you don’t feel like you’ve read 20 pages of story.

I said in my review of Batgirl that it would be hard for Batwoman to top it, and in the end, I probably still liked Batgirl a little more.  I’m more of a writing guy than an art guy, after all.  But this is still a great comic: the art is amazing, and the story is engaging enough that this never just feels like a nothing book with pretty pictures.  If you enjoyed the Rucka/Williams run on Detective Comics, J.H. Batwoman #1 should not disappoint you.