30 Characters Showcase #5: The Three Horsemen

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.



Created by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Okay, I don’t know if this entry is kinda cheating, since it’s three characters for the price of one.  But really, these three come as a set – War is arguably the most prominent of the trio, but I can’t recall any scene with one where the other two don’t also show up – so I’m including them all as a single entry.  In this week’s extended showcase of the excellent new characters introduced to the world in East of West, I began yesterday with Death, and so it feels natural to now pass on the spotlight to the remainder of the Four Horsemen: War, Conquest and Famine.

East of West #1 begins with them being reborn in the form of children, and we quickly learn that their return has dire implications for the world.  It’s funny, after introducing us to an utterly adorable cast of kiddies in FF, Jonathan Hickman can turn around and give us the most utterly vile, horrific children seen since King Joffrey.  In a world filled with moral murk and dangerous people, these little terrors – not even yet matured into their adult form and their full power – are already undoubtedly the Big Bads, casually massacring enough people to leave literal hills of corpses in their wake in issue #1, wiping out half the US Government in issue #2.  Where they go, bad things happen, and their presence brings with it an involuntary sphincter-tightening of the reader bracing themselves for the worst.  And their badness is hardly new, with flashbacks hinting at betrayal and maiming of our protagonists in times gone by while not yet going into the specifics: cryptic snippets of a terrible past reminiscent of Once Upon a Time in the West, with Hickman and Dragotta very much casting War, Conquest and Famine in the Henry Fonda role.

I also like how, despite how despicable and intimidating the Three Horsemen are, Hickman finds a way to make them blackly funny.  I’ve probably laughed at least once in just about every appearance they’ve made.  Or maybe that’s just because I’m a sick puppy.

Going forward, I’m keen to learn more about these villains individually.  So far, we know that War is the apparent ringleader, that he relished being a woman for centuries until this recent rebirth has left him unwillingly gender-switched into a boy.  We know that Famine is very visually striking, a skeletally gaunt woman with weapons that resemble a pair of whips.  Conquest is the least distinct thus far, though I noted that he seems more visually striking in his briefly-glimpsed adult form from the flashbacks.  But I see that there’s a spotlight issue on the Horsemen coming up, so hopefully that will give us a fuller portrait.



REVIEW: Drones #1

I’ll admit, I found Drones #1 to be a rather confusing experience on my first readthrough.  My first impression was that this was a war comic with incredibly well-realised, credible soldier dialogue from writer Chris Lewis.  I actually recall thinking that this guy has either meticulously researched how military personnel interact on the field, or that he was a former soldier himself.  Either way, Lewis did a very commendable job of immersing me in a believable world.

Then, all of a sudden, things get strange.  And after what I can only describe as a hallucinatory experience, we’re not in a war comic anymore.  Well, we are still dealing with participants in a war, but they’re located in Las Vegas.  And we realise our story is set to follow the adventures of a group of drone operators, hence the title.  I do think the jarring disconnect is intentional, as it’s something of a reflection on the inherent strangeness of some of the stuff modern technology allows.  But then we seemingly jump back to a war setting, and the highly credible, naturalistic presentation of our opening gives way to a depiction of terrorist baddies that are outright cartoonish.  And as segments intercut and mesh and fake casino theme-terrorists overlap with real ones, it all becomes very hard to follow, and I as a reader started to lose track of what was a war and what was tacky Vegas theatrics.  By the end, I was left with the impression that I didn’t have a clue what I’d just read, but I somewhat liked it nonetheless.

On rereading, and on looking at the synopsis for the series, it does seem like Lewis was striving to create this sense of bewilderment to comment on the bizarre existence of a drone operator, fighting a war on foreign soil in America, taking human life without leaving “the office”.  And that’s a tricky balancing act to pull off.  Because even if you succeed in leaving the reader confused about what is real and what isn’t and that does the job of effectively putting you in your protagonist’s mindset, it still leaves you with a comic where you don’t quite know what’s going on.  And while a Brechtian emotional remove can encourage some readers to assess the comic in a different way, there’s a risk that it might make many readers just give up and walk away.

The plot is a bit scattershot, but some consistency in tone is maintained by the artwork of Bruno Oliviera.  His manic expressions and scratchy, wildly animated bodies make the comic feel permeated with a sense of barely-restrained lunacy that works quite well with what I believe to be the intended tone.  There are a couple of clumsy areas where the dialogue doesn’t quite match the expression of the character saying it, or the transitions don’t quite help us coherently follow what’s going on, but for the most part it’s a lively, animated style that keeps things moving along nicely.  He’s done some really slick, minimalist covers for the series, too.

The team is rounded out by the strange, dayglo-vivid colors of Cabral and the dependably solid E.T. Dollman on letters: it seems he’s lettered quite a lot of the books reviewed on this blog, and he might not always get mentioned, so I’ll say that letters are often something that marks a book out as amateurish when they’re done wrong, and Dollman knows how to do them right.

Overall, Drones is a tricky book to recommend.  It doesn’t really come together in a way that makes sense to me, not yet at least, but I don’t really know if it’s supposed to.  But there are enough individual scenes, ideas and characters that intrigue to suggest this might come together into something worth reading.  An odd curio that could be worth a look, if you’re an adventurous sort!

Drones1Drones #1 (and #2 and #3) are currently on-sale digitally from Graphicly and DriveThruComics.  The series is also being serialised for free at www.dronescomic.com.

REVIEW: The Calamitous Black Devils #1

Here’s a Kickstarter success story: The Calamitous Black Devils, by cartoonist Joseph Schmalke, had its first three issues funded through the crowdfunding program.  Blending the genres of war and supernatural horror, this tells the story of an elite commando unit tasked with breaking up a demonic summoning ritual, only for things to turn quite messy.  It’s a good concept, and the strong front cover made a good first impression.

Sadly, the content within was highly problematic.  The prologue was intriguing, and quickly caught my interest by introducing a menacing villain and defiant heroes, and a tense life-or-death cliffhanger that also does the job of setting up the eponymous Black Devils as a formidable force.  But from there, things quickly fell apart.  Really, the problems begin with the”This all started” caption at the beginning of page 3, as this marks the beginning of near 30 pages of Priest relating via captions the story of how our protagonists got to be in their current situation, with only 3 pages at the end of us seemingly experiencing the “present” of the story and the status quo that will carry the series forward.

I’m reminded of an early script of my own that I wrote at one point that was heavy in flashback, and editor Steven Forbes gave me advice I haven’t forgotten: in a flashback, you’ve added an extra degree of disconnect between the reader and the story, and they won’t engage as much as they could because they feel like they’re witnessing something that’s already happened in the world of the story, and so any flashback has a built in expectation for the sequence to end and for us to get back to the “real” story that we’re actually supposed to be invested in.  As a reader, I experienced that with The Calamitous Black Devils #1.  I read the issue, and I didn’t feel in the moment, I didn’t feel like I was experiencing the battle.  Because every image was accompanied by a narrative caption that said “And then this happened”, describing what we were seeing as something the protagonist has already lived through and moved on from.  I don’t know if I’m being nebulous with this complaint, does this make sense?

But more than the inherent disconnecting nature of this narrative structure affecting my enjoyment of the book, I had issues with how that structure was executed.  The story is at its best when it lets the characters talk and interact with one another.  At these points, the personalities shine through and the plot flows quite nicely.  But then you have sequences like page 6, where literally half the page is taken up with a wall of text.  And even elsewhere, in general the captions are just too loaded with content.  There are chunks of this issue where the storytelling is based around a picture of a guy standing still, accompanied by a massive caption detailing their life history and the role they play within the ensemble cast.  It’s “tell don’t show” writing, and as big ideas and dense mythologies and secret histories and old gods are thrown at us in heaps, the exposition dump had my eyes glassing over.  Take, for example, the Dark Bishop.  We are told about what a vile, terrifying, evil human being he is.  And we are told that Priest hates him, that the Dark Bishop has made his life hell and he’s desperate for retribution.  But we see none of this on the page.  The Dark Bishop hardly gets any lines.  He’s a total cypher.  It all comes back to that feeling of disconnect.

More frustrating, even on the basic mechanics, the writing falls down at times.  “Vomitous” is spelled as “vomitus”, “lose” mispelled as “loose”, “murder” is written when it’s meant to be “murderer”, “they learned about the purpose of bombing mission” clearly has a missing “the” in there.  More than narrative faults, things like this really bug me, as they’re so easily fixed.  Simple spellchecking, or close reading of your work both as a script and as a lettered comic, would have picked up on these glaring errors.  But that wasn’t done, and there’s no easier way for your book to look amateur than for it to be littered with typos.  Whether or not you can tell better stories than the big boys at Marvel and DC, how often do they let such basic errors slip through the net?  Little things like this are what make an editor invaluable, folks!  And if you can’t hire an editor, make sure to be your own!

The art is good in places – I love the design of the baddie in the opening prologue – but in other areas it feels very rough, with shaky anatomy and characters having inconsistent appearances.  Furthermore, I think it feels too bare.  It doesn’t necessarily need colour, but I think some more tone or grayscale could have enhanced the aesthetic of the comic a lot.  Instead there’s something about the visuals that just feel incomplete.

So, The Calamitous Black Devils gets off to a ropey start.  However, the status quo established by the end of the first issue suggests a much more promising issue #2 lies ahead, so it could be worth sticking with this series and seeing where it goes from here.


Calamitous Black Devils #1 is available to buy from Joseph Schmalke’s website.