REVIEW: Ark

The original graphic novel format has some advantages in comics storytelling.  For one, it lets you take your time.  In a serialised format, a story like Ark might have played out a bit differently, launching more quickly into the dramatics and being a more streamlined, strictly functional narrative.  And it would have been poorer for it.  As it stands, the measured pacing is one of the more distinctive features that marks this graphic novel out.

Writer Peter Dabbiene does love to take his time, though.  In the approximately 140 pages given to Ark, I’d say it’s about 50 or so before the plot really starts moving.  The set-up has a spaceship full of genetically-engineered “metahumans” and their human crew out on what is apparently a colonising mission, and just as they reach the fringes of our solar system after 13 years of travel, they lose communication with Earth.  Such sci-fi tales about the isolation of the frontier of outer space will typically result in protagonists quite quickly encountering calamity, be it external, internal or both.  But reading Ark, I started to find myself wondering if any such inciting incident would happen.  I thought, “Maybe this will be a rare story where nothing disastrous goes wrong and we just see the human frama of these interacting humans and metahumans unfold?”  And interestingly, as I thought it, I didn’t necessarily think this would be a bad thing, with how well-realised Dabbiene’s characters are.  But when tensions do start to escalate, it’s handled masterfully, Dabbiene making the situation worse by degrees, control slipping away in a manner that lets the earlier human interest stuff pay off in devastating ways.  And by the time we get into the third act, the pages are flying by and the pace is breakneck.  And the thrills are all the more dramatic for the fact that they feel earned within the narrative.

The artwork of Ryan Bayliss has its ups and downs.  There’s a lot here for an artist to get their teeth into, what with designing all the unusual meta characters, and in this aspect, Bayliss soars.  The population of the spaceship Explorer is brought to life with all manner of odd, distinctive designs: from the balance between alluring and uncomfortably alien (which is something of a plot point) of plant girls Iris and Darien, to the way humanity is injected into the animal hybrid characters, and my particular favourite: the aspects of danger and vulnerability conveyed in short-fused Lee.  Sadly, it’s with the human characters that Bayliss falls down, with some awkward anatomy and the odd goofy, unnatural facial expression.  There are moments and sequences where the humans are realised incredibly well, but it’s not consistent.  Thankfully, what is consistent is the rich, understated coloring, done with a light touch that resembles a brushstroke effect.

Ark is a slow-burn, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a rich pay-off.  If you like your sci-fi thoughtful and idea-driven, this graphic novel could be for you.

ArkArk is available to buy now from Comixology, and will be available in print later this year.

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: Comeback

Let’s get this bit over with  early.  For a while now, it seems like the Looper parallels have loomed large over Comeback.  Both bring a grungy, low-tech, noir-tinged approach to time travel, placing it within a grounded sci-fi mythology more recognisable to our own world, and both debuted around  the same time.  I know when someone first mentioned Comeback to me, they compared it to Looper.  But there are some key differences, namely that while Looper applies its black market time travel tech to the business of taking lives while Comeback applies it to saving them, on the surface, at least.  But I happened to like Looper, and so my curiosity was piqued about checking out a similar tale with Comeback.  I never did get round to reading the single issues, but I was pleased to pick it up this past week as a collected graphic novel.  And upon devouring the whole thing in a single sitting, I realised it really isn’t all that much like Looper after all beyond those surface details.  If anything, it reminds me more of the time travel in Timecrimes – people meddling with something they quite clearly shouldn’t be, resulting in increasingly head-spinning changes and tinkering within a relatively confined timeframe – and the atmosphere generated by quietly sinister British conspiracy thrillers like State of Play or Edge of Darkness.  So, writer Ed Brisson and artist Michael Walsh’s Image miniseries is very much its own thing, and more than capable of being assessed on its own merits.

The backmatter in this collected edition of Comeback makes for some inspirational reading, with Brisson delving into how he and Michael Walsh made a vow to get themselves picked up by a major publisher within the space of a year, and how, after 8 months, they did it.  Not by nurturing a single idea, but by bombarding with pitch after pitch, coming up with as high a volume of ideas as they could to increase the odds of honing in on that one killer concept that would capture an editor’s imagination.  The successful pitch for Comeback is included in this volume, and what a high concept it is.  In a world that is not really recognisably sci-fi at all (indeed, it’s referred to as “The Present” in the captions), there is a company called Reconnect.  For a lofty price, they will reunite bereaved people with their lost loved ones, by travelling back in time into the recent past and plucking the deceased out of the timeline shortly before their death.  Reconnect will then perfectly restage that death with another body so as not to meddle with the fragile timeline, and the reunited loved ones are taken off to live a new life with new identities far away elsewhere.  Of course, as is the case with such tales, all is not as it seems!

I first became familiar with Ed Brisson through two avenues.  First, as a ubiqutous letterer on the indie comics scene, who has applied his considerable skills across a wide range of creator-owned titles I’ve reviewed over the years.  And second, as a promising emerging writer on 215 Ink’s gritty crime oneshot, Black River.  But with Comeback, Brisson steps up to a whole other level.  Trying to get around the mechanics and paradoxes of time travel is enough to make my penis bleed, but Brisson makes it all feel very straightforward and accessible.  Things get a bit mental in the later chapters, with history getting rewritten and re-rewritten at an increasingly frenzied pace, but it works so well because we gradually ease into it, starting with sporadic, surgical incisions into the timeline before steadily escalating to this craziness in a way that feels organic within the story.

But one of the smarter plays Brisson makes is not getting too wrapped up in the mechanics of time travel and the mythology of this world, instead narrowing the focus and giving us a character drama.  Mark, our ostensive lead character, has an interesting journey, going from fastidious company man to uorthodox action man and rebel.  But for me the most fascinating figure in Comeback is Mark’s partner, Seth.  I can’t go into the role he plays in the narrative too much without delving into spoilers – and the less you know about the specifics of the plot beyond the initial setup going in, the better – but it’s through him we most clearly see the physical and spiritual toll that meddling with time can take.  I also really liked the character of Owen, a blue-collar heavy who exudes a kind of understated menace.  The only person who really seemed to get short thrift to me was potential car crash rescuee Kelly, whose motivations are erratic and, without further contextualisation, make her seem pretty unlikeable.  Brisson himself notes in the back pages that one of his big regrets was not having the space to flesh her character out further.

Michael Walsh’s art is interesting.  When I first flipped through a single issue of Comeback (I think it was around the time issue #3 was released), his style initially didn’t really geab me.  But though it’s not flashy or immediately eye-catching, once you get into it there’s a lot to like.  His characters have this real lived-in feel about them, where you read so much into the personalities of even relatively minor figures based on the way they stand or the nuance of expression on their faces.  The minimalist linework is reminiscent of the likes of Chris Samnee or Dave Aja, and feels like a suitable fit for the crime genre leanings of the tale.  More than suitable, I think it’s Walsh’s muted approach that grounds everything, and really sells the believability of the concept without making it feel too futuristic and alien.

Also worth mentioning are the colors of Jordie Bellaire, who is fast establishing herself as one of the most versatile colourists in the field.  As a demonstration of her diverse range, would you guess that the person who coloured The Manhattan Projects also coloured this?  While that is all bright acid pop, with those bold red/blue washes, here the pallette is much more restrained and washed-out, save for the odd flourish of nightmare-red in moments of violence.  The ambient lighting is handled very well throughout, with early morning, daytime and night all identifiable at various points of the story, and best of all one apartment scene bathed in neon-purple lights from outside signage that put me in mind of Nicholas Winding Refn psycho-pulp.  Jordie and Walsh make for a good visual team.

It seems like, every year, there emerges a breakout talent in the comics world that seems poised to strike out into the next level.  With his upcoming Image series Sheltered looking highly promising, and this lovely graphic novel release of Comeback collecting the story for the trade-waiters, it seems like Ed Brisson could be the breakout creative voice of this year poised to leap to the next level.  His talent for coming up with those killer ideas, paired with an ability to realise those in compelling stories with perfectly-chosen artistic collaborators, definitely marks him out as someone with the tools to make a splash in the field in years to come.  Unlike the characters in the story, the creative team of Comeback certainly seemed poised for a bright future!

ComebackComeback is available now from all good comic shops.

REVIEW: Sunsara #1

I have to acknowledge that I’m starting this review on a guilty note.  To explain a bit about how many of these creator-owned comic reviews come about, while some comics are titles I discover myself, other times creators will contact me by e-mail and point me in the direction of their comic in hopes of me reviewing it.  I do try my best to review every single comic that is sent my way, but by this stage I’m afraid I have a pretty big, sprawling backlog, and every so often comics fall between the cracks.

Take Sunsara #1, this sci-fi comic written and drawn by Chris Pritchard.  Today, when trawling my inbox for a new creator-owned comic to review, I found nested within some other already-read messages an e-mail from Chris, explaining that he was launching a Kickstarter to help get this comic off the ground, and he’d love my help in publicising the book and the campaign.  Doing a bit of research, I was sad to discover that the Kickstarter campaign never made its funding, and Chris has shelved Sunsara – whether he’s done so temporarily or permanently, I do not know.  After actually reading the first issue I’m even sadder, as it’s very good, and this is a campaign I would likely have ended up supporting or at the very least publicising.  So, meagre consolation prize it may be, but I thought I’d share a belated review of Sunsara #1 today.

Reading Sunsara, the first thing that will grab you is the artwork.  This is beautifully rendered stuff.  With its highly detailed figures with textures flesh and clothes, and meticulously-realised cityscapes and locations, I was put in mind of the work of Scottish artist Alex Ronald, whose work I greatly admire.  There’s a real Philip K Dick vibe to the sci-fi aesthetic Pritchard crafts for Sunsara, with the murky future metropolis putting me in mind of Blade Runner in particular.  Also of note is the slick manner in which Pritchard frames his action sequences,utilising the technique of depicting each stage of a character’s movement in a single panel to convey a sense of quickness and fluidity.  In addition, I’d like to state a note of admiration for the design of our lead character, vengeful assassin Sunsara.  Pritchard has resisted the urge to go the cheesecake route, making Sunsara actually look relatively plain rather than the impossible knockout beauties that usually occupy genre comics, and dressing her sensibly in practical attire rather than something Barbarella-style held together by string.  Are there missteps?  Sure, there’s the odd panel with a strangely-drawn face.  But overall, Chris Pritchard really marked himself out as an artist worth keeping an eye out for with his work here.

As far as the writing goes, that’s pretty solid too.  The plot itself is pretty standard fare, with Sunsara witnessing the death of her father as a girl and growing up determined to find and get revenge on her father’s killer.  But there are enough wrinkles in here to give it some original spark, with some unconventional twists on family dynamics that give the comic a surprising amount of heart.  Pritchard shows craft as both an artist and a writer, then, but if there’s any weak-point, it’s in his lettering.  Generally, it’s fine.  But there were quite a few spots where I spotted basic spelling and grammar errors, or typos.  And when comic lettering has things like that in it, it’s a surefire way to immediately take me out of the story.  Proofreading is ESSENTIAL, as slip-ups like this can really hurt the credibility of a book that otherwise looks professional in quality.  Though I will say he gets some brownie points on the lettering front by making “PEW!  PEW!  PEW!” the sound effect of the laser guns, even in serious, dramatic scenes.

It’s a shame that this may be an abortive comics project that I’ve discovered too late.  But what there is of it is still highly worth checking out.  Be sure to visit the official website, http://www.sunsaracomic.com, where you can check out the first (and I believe the second) issue for free, as well as scripts for the remaining issues, and support the book and its creator by picking up all manner of cool merchandise.  But whether he chooses to return to Sunsara or not, I for one hope we’ve not seen the last of Chris Pritchard.

Sunsara1Sunsara #1 is available to read for free on the comic’s official website.

2013 Preview: Bad Sun

Thus far, all the comics projects I’ve previewed in this series have already had some degree of exposure.  The Standard, The Oxymoron and the GLoW anthologies have all been publicly promoted and available for sale in one market or another.  Even Black Leaf had a little preview book that I made up for handing out to editors and publishers at cons that some folk have had a look at.  For the remainder of the week, though, we venture into the unknown, as I get to announce two brand new comics that I’m currently writing, set for release in 2013.

The first of these is Bad Sun, co-created with artist Chris Connelly.  The story behind this is quite interesting, as instead of me coming up with a story idea then seeking out an artist, in this case the artist came first.  I’d gotten to know Chris via having mutual friends on the Glasgow comics scene, and hanging out together at cons and events.  His award-nominated comics debut, Reality War, had been another big success story of Glasgow Comic Con, and currently holds the record as Scotland’s fastest-selling indie comic ever, I believe.  We worked together on the GLoW 2 short featured on yesterday’s blog, and from there thought it would be fun to work on something bigger.  So, Chris asked me to come up with ideas for stories for him to draw.  That was an interesting challenge for me: after my beginnings of working in comics, where trying to find artists for your script was a titanic struggle, now I had talented artists approaching me looking for a partnership!  I came up with a couple of ideas that didn’t grab Chris’ interest, but then one sunny afternoon (a rarity for Glasgow, I know!), while digging up soil in the garden, the idea for Bad Sun came to me, and I knew it would be a great fit for Mr. Connelly.  I refined the idea, pitched it to him, and our collaboration was decided!

Lennii1This handsome fella is Lenniidasz Cowan, better known as Lennii.  He’s the protagonist of Bad Sun.  He’s a policeman in a future Glasgow not entirely unlike the present-day version.  And, as you might have noticed, he’s also an alien.  In the not-too-distant future, an alien race known as the Tchairabun arrive on Earth.  A portion of their population had escaped from their dying homeworld on a ramshackle armada of ships on a one-way journey, settling on Earth as their final destination.  They landed all over our planet, being treated differently by different countries.  In Glasgow, they were pretty much accepted and integrated into society, but even as our story begins, 35 years after their arrival, they still carry the stigma of being second-class citizens.

Lennii here is something of an exception.  Raised from infancy by a human family (hence the “Cowan” surname), Lennii was granted many of the opportunities denied his Tchairabun brethren, enabling him to enjoy a good education, and an opening in his dream career on the police force.  After excelling in his duty, he has found himself recently promoted to Detective Inspector, placed in charge of a new specialised unit specifically focused on Glasgow’s Tchairabun community and human-Tchairabun relations.  Torn between the outside threat of an enigmatic Tchairabun extremist group known as Red Kroara and the interior challenge of an all-human team under his command that may resent taking orders from an alien, and set against the heated political backdrop of a nation divided over the Tchairabun right to vote, Lennii also has to wrestle with dark secrets and personal demons that threaten to destroy everything he is fighting for.

For me, sci-fi is at its best when it uses the future to say something about the present.  The prejudice the Tchairabuns endure certainly holds some parallels to stuff going on in the world and even in Glasgow specifically today.  Of course, while I wanted to tell a story that’s culturally relevant, I still want it to be a rollicking thriller with badass action sequences and tense set-pieces, so hopefully I’ve captured that balance.  Narratively, this could be the most ambitious comic story I’ve attempted yet.  Like The Standard, it will be a 6-issue miniseries, but the complexity of the plot and the sprawling size of the supporting cast is going to make it a challenging juggling act that I hope I can pull off.  Also, for me, setting the story in Glasgow was a crucial aspect of the story.  We’ve had so many future visions of New York, or Los Angeles, or even London, why not my beloved home city of Glasgow?  This is a city with interesting, unique architecture and character that has not yet been explored to its fullest potential in fiction, certainly not in comics, and I want to do my part to amend that.

The first issue of Bad Sun has been written, and is currently being drawn up by Chris Connelly as we seek out a colourist and assemble together a pitch document for submitting to publishers.  But whether it’s lined up with a publisher by then or we have to self-publish a preview run, one way or the other look for Bad Sun #1 to make its debut at Glasgow Comic Con in July.  With the story’s strong Glasgow connection, how could we not debut it there?  In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here’s a sneak peek at the pencils and inks of the first two pages.  Some excellent, career-best work by the fantastic Chris Connelly, if I do say so myself!

BadSunPage1

BadSunPage2

REVIEW: Saga #2

Noting that I liked Saga #1 is something of an understatement.  I wrote a review of that first issue that was long and gushing even by my long and gushy standards, even suggesting that Saga had potential to be the successor to Scalped as my comics obsession – and that’s fighting talk for me!  Saga #1 was pretty much a note-perfect debut, with Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples giving a masterclass on how to do an issue #1.  Clocking in at 40 pages (and still at a bargain $2.99 price), that comic was an immersive introduction to this intriguing new world, and was a full, satisfying reading experience.  But now that the hype and excitement over that first issue has died down, the question becomes whether “a great first issue” can translate into “a great series”.  With issue #2, we’re back to a regular page count, and we start to get a sense of the regular format that Saga will be slipping into going forward.  Does Saga still manage to succeed past that triumphant glow of issue #1?  Time for another understatement: yes.

One of the standout characters for me in the first issue was intergalactic bounty hunter The Will, so I was pleased to see that Saga #2 begins by expanding his world.  I’ve long loved the idea of a blue-collar assassin who treats killing people as a job like any other – it’s why Kill List was one of my favourite films of last year – and The Will seems to fit that description, as he checks into an office with a friendly, encouraging agent/secretary who sets him up with work.  A secretary that happens to look like a giant, talking sea-horse.  We also learn that The Will is one of a whole network of mercenaries, all with “The” names.  Most feared of all of these is The Stalk, who we get to meet later in the highlight of the second issue.

Fiona Staples does more stellar work throughout the issue, but her star contribution here is certainly the design of The Stalk.  It’s eerie and badass in equal measure, and I won’t give away the specifics, but I once again finding myself using the word “toyetic” – I’d like this character as an action figure on my shelf.  Vaughan brings her to life effectively, with her monstrous appearance contrasting with a voice that ranges from arrogant and snide to quite pragmatic and human.  Definitely an interesting, scene-stealing character that I hope we get to see more of in future.

Not that this means our leads get overlooked.  Alana and Marko find themselves in dire straits here, and both get a chance to show their skill and bravery in a tight spot.  But there’s also a suggestoin of darker undertones in both of their characters.  The Stalk alludes to Marko having a shady past, though there’s always the possibility of this being anti-Wreath propaganda.  Alana too shows something of a ruthless streak, so much so that even The Stalk is taken aback.  The interesting thing about getting thrown in the deep-end with these characters and launching right into the action is that there are unanswered questions and a history there for us to explore in upcoming issues.  Prince Robot IV’s investigation into Alana’s time as a prison guard could lead us to some answers, but for this issue it gives us some insight into this unusual, haunted character.

The cliffhanger we end with on this issue isn’t all that different from last issue’s, with the difference being that we see a lot more than we did last time round.  I don’t know what I was expecting with “The Horrors”, but it certainly wasn’t what we get.  I definitely want to see where this goes next.

So really, it’s a case of more of the same with Saga #2, and that’s a good thing.  After introducing us to this expansive world last issue, here Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples get more intimite, fleshing out the details and the characters, and keeping the story continuing apace.  That first issue wasn’t a one-off.  It seems Saga is set to become a comics highlight of every month.

 

 

 

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 – Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly

In the “Page Process” backmatter of Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly, the first volume collecting in print the Valkyrie Squadron webcomic, creator Jules Rivera goes over the various stages of bringing a page to life.  It’s a reminder that she is one of these obnoxiously talented people that has mastered every aspect of the creative process, and so Valkyrie Squadron stands as an unfiltered showcase of her authorial voice.

We’ll start by taking a look at Jules Rivera the writer.  This collected edition gives us a brief prologue that helps to set the scene and give this world context.  Here, Rivera effectively creates a portrait of a war in the distant future, waged in space, with humans battling robotic drones, that still manages to draw parallels with the wars going on in the world today, complete with questions  about beurocracy and the soldiers’ belief in the war they’re fighting.  Even the desert-like setting further puts us in mind of battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This opening sequence, with its slower pace and focus on character dynamics, is very much welcome, as the first chapter of the story proper begins in media res, launching us right into the action.  Rivera wisely avoids the mistake of opening with some hefty exposition about the history of the war (we get a sense that will come later), instead beginning with a bang, with an action-packed rescue mission that tightens the scope to one particular squadron engaged in this massive war.  It’s a set-up that puts me in mind of the Gears of War series, but with the blokey-blokey macho overload those games can sometimes veer into neutralised by the Valkyrie Squadron being made up entirely of women.

In a time when there is a lot of talk in the comics world about a lack of female characters in prominent roles, this predominantly female ensemble has the potential to create a diverse cast of female leads.  However, aside from some likeably nuanced work done with optimistic team leader Priscilla Vega and foul-tempered Casey Anders, the team feel a bit underdeveloped.  Hopefully future instalments will go further into the personalities of Jocelyn Gomez and Adia Ukpo, giving them traits that make them distinct.  Both shady authority figure Commander Duri and rescued survivor of a drone attack Eve have limited panel-time here, but are given some intriguing foreshadowing that suggests they’ll become a lot more compelling as the story continues.  Ironically enough for a female-led book, the male characters fare better, with uber-jock Leon Zantha providing a few laughs and Trey Zantha proving to be an interesting foil who’s viewed in starkly contrasting ways by the various members of Valkyrie Squadron.

Moving on to Jules Rivera the artist, and I have to say this may be the hat she wears best.  Rivera’s linework evokes a latter-day John Romita Jr vibe, but with a bit more of a cartoony streak.  Her sweeping, widescreen panel layouts create an epic scope, and also help give the reading experience a brisk, exciting pace.  And aside from the occasional awkward cross-eyed moment, the facial expressions are fantastic.  There are numerous comedy beats peppered throughout the chapter, and more often than not, it’s Rivera’s faces that sell them, from Priscilla’s glances of confusion or exasperation, to Leon’s wide, vacant, puppy-dog eyes and idiotic grin.

There is another aspect of the art I want to take a moment to acknowledge, particular in light of my recent criticism of the cheesecake visuals of Catwoman #1: the costume design.  It’s refreshing seeing the women wearing the same costumes as the men, with outfits that are designed for practicality rather than the titilation factor.  This is the kind of thing that ideally we could take for granted, so maybe it’s a sad state of affairs when such costume design as this is marked out for praise.  But all the same, good work by Jules Rivera here.

Unfortunately, Jules Rivera the colorist doesn’t fare quite so well.  Basically, the colors do their job competently enough.  But there is a certain flatness and lack of texture in places, dulling the expressiveness and detail of the pencils.  I would also suggest that the palette is at times a bit bright and based too much around primary colors.

Jules Rivera the letterer does well.  The colored word balloons was a bit hard to get used to at first, but when it became clear that the shading of the balloons was shifting to fit the ambience of the scene they were featured in, the decision became more understandable.

But it should perhaps be mentioned that Jules Rivera did not work entirely alone on Valkyie Squadron.  Josh Finney is credited as providing “Sci-Fi Textures and HUDs” to the story, which I imagine means he offered a contribution to the design and aesthetic of the pages.  If this is the case, then he’s done good work, giving the comic a futuristic vibe that might actually make Valkyrie Squadron a better fit for the computer screen than the printed page.

Overall, I found Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly to be a highly enjoyable introduction to this world.  The webcomic is updated twice a week, but I’d say this first chapter – and the extras included in the package – are still a worthwhile purchase to have in print.  Jules Rivera proves to be a talented creator in every stage of the creative process, and I’m interested to see where her story goes next.

Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly is available to buy from the official website.

REVIEW: Fall

I always feel like I’m late to the party when it comes to discovering the hot new talents of comics.  I became a fan of Jeff Lemire thanks to Sweet Tooth, when those in the know were already heralding him as one of the next comic greats in the wake of Essex County and The Nobody, for example.  But one of the good things about my review work becoming a bit more prominent and more creators getting in contact with me is that I now might get the chance to be there from the start, and watch a creator grow and mature into a master storyteller.  I think that might just be the case with one Fabian Rangel Jr.

Several months ago, in my review for the second issue of 215 Ink’s werewolf caper Extinct, I said that Rangel Jr was “a rising star to watch in the comics world.”  Well, if his latest effort – Fall, an original graphic novel, also from 215 Ink – is anything to go by, that star has risen.  Extinct was a series I enjoyed, with clever writing from Rangel Jr and some quality artwork from Jethro Morales, but Fall is a superior work.  It covers some similar themes – the isolation of high school, nostalgia for a bygone era (this time the ’90s, rather than the ’80s), and a mix of humor and horror.  But Fall has heart as well as wit, and in spite of the sci-fi elements, feels like a deeply personal tale.  The execution of the narrative suggests a writer who has grown in confidence as well as skill, his voice emerging as he gains a surer grasp of the medium with experience.

To offer a plot summary, Fall is about a lonely boy called Josh who befriends an alien called Russ.  Only it’s about so much more than that.  It’s about the strength of childhood friendship.  It’s about seeing the beauty in a world we float through and all too often take for granted.  It’s about the harsh realities of growing up, and putting away childish things.  This is a story steeped in such earnest emotion that it would take a heart of stone not to get caught up in it.  The narrative may not be set in the ’80s anymore, but that’s the decade the story seems to draw its influence from, reminiscent of such great childhood fables as Stand By Me and, of course, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  But it’s not all sentimental and saccharine, with an emotional gut-punch at the end that gives the warm glow that precedes it a bittersweet aftertaste.

Amidst all this praise for writer Rangel Jr, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fine work of artist Juan Romera.  I’ve praised Romera before, noting him as a standout amongst the stable of artists working on the Western anthology, Tall Tales from the Badlands.  In his story for that book, A Thousand Deaths, I noted a similarity to the work of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, and the visuals for Fall have a certain Daytripper vibe to them.

Romera’s style is very simple, but that very much works in the graphic novel’s favor, given that dreamy, fable-like quality the story strives for.  The art strikes just the right chord of emotional resonance at all the key moments, from the stunning beauty of the autumn leaves in the eponymous Fall (it’s a title that works on so many levels, but I’ll leave it to you to mull  over them once you’ve read the comic yourself) to the big, round, expressive eyes of Russ.  I should note that Romera’s biggest triumph is the design of Russ himself: he’s suitably cute, cuddly and toyetic, but the battle armor and sharp edges to his features also suggest a little edge, giving him an added cool factor.  The rich, sepia-toned colors aid in enhancing that aforementioned warm glow of nostalgia, and Ed Brisson’s diverse lettering helps to give Russ a distinct voice.  Overall this is a very nice looking graphic novel.

215 Ink have progressed a lot this year, and I’ve watched their development with interest.  They seem to have placed their faith in an intriguing crop of emerging talent, providing for them an open community within which to grow roots.  And now, as a little time passes, we see some of that crop develop into big, impressive… creator trees (to exhaust that metaphor), with 215 Ink reaping the benefits of gaining the loyalty of these folk they saw potential in.  In finding a story to compare Fall to, the first one that springs to mind is Scott McCloud’s seminal work, Zot!  And people who know me and the mad love for that story will know that such a comparison would not be made lightly.

As a final illustration of just how much Fall blew me away, let me relate this anecdote: I have read many comics sent to me for review purposes, I’ve enjoyed most of them, and I’ve found a few to be genuinely great.  But Fall is the first one that I’ve read, then checked out the Previews code (it’s SEP111247, by the way), and seriously considered contacting my LCS about ordering it so I can buy a physical copy to own.  It’s that good.  And you should all be seriously considering doing the same thing.

REVIEW: Stormwatch #1

Much fuss was made of Justice League #1, the comic by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee that launched DC’s New 52 last week.  But another team book came along this week to less fanfare, nestled amidst some higher-profile new releases, and might just have trumped Justice League.  Say hello to Stormwatch.

Stormwatch #1, by writer Paul Cornell and artist Miguel Sepulveda, is one of the DC relaunch titles I’ve been most looking forward to.  I’ve never read an issue of The Authority or the original Stormwatch in my life, so my interest was based primarily around the presence of writer Paul Cornell.  His name alone was enough to sell both this and next week’s Demon Knights for me.  But with the more I heard about Stormwatch, the more I began to suspect this comic might be the dark horse of the whole bunch, the one to emerge and steal the show from all the others.  It is more a testament to the incredible quality of DC’s output this week than any real detriment to this particular comic that Stormwatch #1 wasn’t among my favorites, as in most other weeks this would have been a standout.

One of my issues with Justice League #1 was how little actually happened here.  In this first chapter of Stormwatch, we have a superpowered smackdown on the streets of Moscow, a quest to the Himalayas where a giant, monstrous creature is discovered, and a battle with the moon, which has become sentient and turned against Earth.  Yes, you read that right.  Any one of these plot strands could sustain Justice League for several issues at the pace its currently going.  Furthermore, whereas in Justice League we only got to meet a few team members, here we get a whirlwind introduction to the whole Stormwatch roster, with a glimpse at their powers and personalities.  This was my first time reading a comic with a lot of these characters, so this exposition was appreciated.

If there’s any shortcoming, I’d probably single out the ending.  I’m aware of the relationship between Midnighter and Apollo, and for a longtime Authority fan the arrival of Midnighter might be a big moment.  But for a newbie like me, the conclusion lacked the jawdropping impact of some of the other cliffhangers the DC #1s have provided thus far.  Sure, not every comic needs a big shocking cliffhanger at its end, but in the case of this week, with so many comics starting with a screaming bang, beginning with a polite introduction puts you at risk of being overshadowed.

I’ve seen some criticism of Sepulveda’s artwork, which I don’t think is entirely fair.  His character designs might not leap off the page, but when you see his rendition of some of the crazier, epic stuff on display, you get a real taste of where Sepulveda’s strengths lie.  The giant eye that opens in the core of the moon, the creature in the Himalayas, the menacing forms Martian Manhunter shapeshifts into, even the Stormwatch HQ hurtling though hyperspace… this is a book that owes just as much to heady, high-concept sci-fi as it does superheroics, and that shows in the visual presentation.

Comparing this to Cornell’s other work, I wouldn’t say Stormwatch hooked me as fastly and as strongly as Knight & Squire (which, by a few pages into the first issue, had me wanting to just put the book down and scream, “I LOVE THIS BOOOOOOOOK!”), but there are big, inventive ideas here, and plenty of potential for this series to be a real grower.  Like most of Cornell’s work, it’s instantly likeable, and shows a skillful balance of the wildly inventive and the relatably clever and witty.  A promising start.