Starlight #6 Achieves Its Goals, Then Transcends Them (Advance Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 20, 2014.

Starlight 6 - Cover

Going into Starlight #6, you should know exactly what to expect. The series has made no effort to disguise what it is. Its tone, plot, and characters have all captured the essence of a pulp adventure. Duke McQueen’s adventure on Tantalus ends exactly how you would expect. Yet with its resolution, the story manages to evolve beyond being just an exciting homage to a classic genre.  It becomes something even more thrilling.

The conclusion of Duke’s adventure on Tantalus alone would be enough to make this issue a top pick of the week though. Mark Millar and Goran Parlov do everything they can to make the big finale gripping. They include massive set pieces, clever reversals, and loads of action. It is everything you could imagine wanting from the conclusion of a blockbuster movie.  The explosions, one liners, and punches are all presented with precision and allowed to settle with readers.

The emotional conclusions achieved in the final battle are just as satisfying. The conflicts that play out in this final battle have all been set up since the first pair of issues. Every protagonist is seeking a specific resolution. The reason that these resolutions are gratifying isn’t just that they are the ones desired by protagonists and readers, but that they are presented with style and panache. Dialogue and action beats in these conflicts hit with the skill of an expert boxer delivering a one-two punch. They land just where and how they should with explosive impacts. The big moments are absolutely obvious, but they don’t seek to be anything else. They work because they provide the desired ending in the most satisfying fashion possible.

It’s for that reason the first half of this comic works so well. It’s good at being what is and knowing what it isn’t. Millar and Parlov have succeeded in telling this adventure story by understanding the genre and what makes it work, not by attempting to reinvent or subvert it. The heroes are heroic and the villains are villainous. The action is exciting and the emotions are sentimental. The first section of Starlight #6 doesn’t work to be something it is not; it only aspires to be the best of what it is. Rather than pointing out the farcical nature of science fiction pulps, Millar and Parlov embrace what is great about Starlight’s influences.

Starlight 6 - Duke McQueen

Parlov is the real hero of this section. He has brought the world of Starlight to life, bringing an aesthetic that is perfect for this world. Starlight has combined two distinct settings into a single story. There is the aged vision of Duke and the ugliness of Lord Kingfisher’s despotism set side-by-side with the wonder and beauty of Tantalus’ palaces and terrain. Parlov has blended these two concepts seamlessly into a single story. The vicious moments such as executions and slaughter retain a hard edge. Duke too feels hardened.  It’s easy to see the age in Duke’s face, his stubble and hair give him a haggard appearance. He’s not a classic beauty (although he might once have been). Parlov doesn’t revel in the ugliness though, but brings it into existence alongside the transcendent spectacle of an alien world. His smooth linework and geometric designs bring forth wonders. Forests and palaces alike are made to be marvels.

Starlight 6 - Castle Without Doors

Parlov’s sense of storytelling is just as worthy of praise as is his style. All of the drama and action in Starlight #6 don’t function simply because they are part of a story well crafted in the tradition of pulp adventures; they function because they are perfectly told.

The pacing is spot on. There is a lot that occurs throughout the climax of the story, but it never feels rushed or slowed. It is the baby bear of comics action: just right. The key to this is that Parlov always provides just enough information to communicate changes in action and momentum. He never wastes a panel on an unnecessary action, nor does he ever provide too little information. The connections between each panel in Starlight are chosen with purpose and presented effectively. It is possible to study each transition and note how it informs the reader and why it is important.

Parlov makes use of single page spreads sparingly, but uses them to maximum effect. There is only one in the climactic battle sequence. Unlike many comics artists, he doesn’t use the page in the manner of a poster focusing on a single impactful pose that adds little to the story. Instead, he opts to make the scope of the story as wide as the panel. This page provides a lot of information. It details the state of the battle and the positions of the major characters. It is composed so that readers will naturally move from top to bottom and pick up on all of the necessary details as they do so. Every page of Starlight #6 reveals Parlov’s incredible instincts for visual storytelling.

The first half of Starlight #6 is a beautiful example of effective comics storytelling, but the second half is even better. Duke makes a decision and that choice transforms Starlight from a simple adventure homage into a commentary on the nature of heroism and the fictional heroes celebrated by society. It adds depth and meaning that is entirely unexpected based on previous Millarworld comics.

Parlov executes the transition from big action to a series of much softer, quieter moments. The big, obvious story beats that fill the comic’s front half are subverted with a series of much more genuine, human scenes in its end. The final two pages are some of the most striking and tear-inducing that have been published this year. It is a surprise to say the least. Parlov takes what could have been a jarring tonal shift and seamlessly connects the two narratives.Starlight #6 is telling two very different narratives, but they are part of a greater whole.

Starlight #6 is a beautiful story, wonderfully told and expertly crafted. It’s impossible to discuss the conclusion of Starlight #6 without removing some of its impact. As a final issue, it is honest and human in a way that very few genre comics are. It is a conclusion that not only manages to complete a story in a gratifying and deserved manner, but also transcends itself to become something very special.

Grade: A

Come back on Friday for “Starlight: Resilience, Hope, and Optimism” a deeper look atStarlight and its place in the Millarworld line of comics.

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REVIEW: Avengers & X-Men: Axis #2

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 16, 2014.

Axis 2 - Cover

Axis #2 is more of the same. There’s no significant difference between what happens here and in the first issue of the series. The Red Skull continues to be an overwhelming threat. Heroes continue to fall while attempting to combat his nefarious plan. The momentum continues to move in the exact same direction, at least until the very last page.

That creates a two-fold problem. First, nothing new happens in this issue. Drama comes from reversals and changes. Shifts in momentum build a story, but these two issues have continued to move in the same direction. More heroes arrive and are then defeated. Whatever effect this had when the Red Skull batted down heroes in the opening pages of the series is experiencing significantly diminishing returns. When a small group is presented as being the last hope of defeating the Red Skull, it feels no more desperate than the battle that came before.

Second, all of the flaws of the previoius issue continue to affect the quality of the story. The drama that is present within this series is grafted on from other series and previous events. Alex Summers relationship with his brother Scott and wife Janet are emphasized, but without the context of Uncanny Avengers their dialogue and actions land with little impact. Some shorthand could go a long way in investing value in these moments, but they are presented only as climaxes of ongoing stories. There is an expectation that readers will appreciate what is occurring without providing a reason.

The stakes of the series continue to be big, but entirely non-specific. There are mentions of worldwide war and the loss of heroes. These stakes are big, vague nouns. The world and humanity are at stake, but there’s no attachment to these impersonal ideas. What is needed is investment in characters. The risk of a single character who readers care about can mean significantly more than the potential loss of a fictional world.

Adam Kubert’s compositions continue to fit the epic scale that Rick Remender has created for this story. Red Skull in his Onslaught form towers over the field of battle and strikes sufficiently frightening poses. The pacing of this semi-weekly series has already begun to show in his work though. While the larger panels and big moments are given sufficient effort to breathe and be enjoyed, smaller moments often feel rushed. Kubert’s ink work is lacking, specifically in panels focused on dialogue. Faces are often left without depth or detail.

The last page presents the first significant shift in momentum of the series thus far and a reason to anticipate Axis #3. This series was marketed with a set of interesting hooks to alter the status quo and allow for some intriguing stories. That promise is finally being realized and may allow Remender to still make Axis an event worth reading.

However, this issue carries the multiple problems of its predecessor and, refusing to alter its course, reads like a continuation of an already unimpressive comic. Change may never be permanent in superhero comics, but that doesn’t mean it cannot occur within individual stories. Change is the lifeblood of drama and the quicker Axis focuses on altering the status quo, no matter how temporary it may be, the better the series will be.

Grade: C-

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REVIEW: The Death of Wolverine #4

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 16, 2014.

The Death of Wolverine 4 - Review

I can honestly say that The Death of Wolverine is an entertaining mini-series. Steve McNiven has beautifully rendered all four issues and the various beats of Charles Soule’s story have been amusing, if nothing else. At its conclusion, I found myself laughing with a big smile on my face. I doubt that was the intent, but it is a positive quality nonetheless.

The small delays in the weekly series have been worth the wait, as McNiven has managed to maintain the quality of his work with the extra time. His art in the final issue is consistent with the first, second, and third. Although the story is lacking in the scenic landscapes and colorful villains of earlier installments, McNiven still discovers opportunities to show off his style. The violence that fills these pages is as dirty and overblown as any he has portrayed before. McNiven plays the ridiculous fights straight so that it’s possible to enjoy them for what they are: ultra violence.

There’s also a brief montage close to the end of the issue highlighting Wolverine’s life. The sequence reflects a life literally flashing before the reader’s eyes. Each moment is picked for maximum nostalgia and iconic appeal that will appeal to even casual fans of Wolverine. It’s a cliché, but with McNiven’s pencils and without the context of the surrounding panels it works. The problem is that the context that surrounds this sequence alters the tone from one of melodrama to comedy.

It’s impossible to discuss why the conclusion of this series falls apart without spoilers. Obviously Wolverine dies, but the manner in which he dies is hilarious. If you don’t want to read any spoilers, stop here.

Wolverine dies by being covered in molten adamantium and forming into a statue of while watching the sunset (even though his face is entirely covered in liquid metal). That sentence is patently silly and it is the most serious representation of the conclusion that I can conjure. It’s a histrionic conclusion, so much so that it plays like a joke. Soule plays the ending entirely straight though and it makes for a jarring experience. The moment and manner of death is so overblown that it feels ridiculous in conjunction with the heartfelt memories and poetic final thought.

The events of the final issue essentially exist within a vacuum as well. Very little from the previous three issues is pertinent to what happens here. The villain and conflict are all introduced at the beginning of this issue. Excluding a few minor details, this series could have been transformed into a one-shot. It also leaves Wolverine’s final actions feeling rather unimportant. He saves a few random people who have no emotional connection with the audience and kills a foe who is unthreatening and unrecognizable. There’s very little reason to care about what happens in this issue when readers only know one character and his actions all exist in relation to a group of unknowns.

The Death of Wolverine is one of the better event series to be released in the past few years. It may not succeed in its intended purpose, but it is enjoyable and (relatively) succinct. It’s a cut above most event series, managing to be entertaining without ever becoming aggravating.

Grade: C

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Fables #145 Review

This article was originally published at Infinite Comix on October 16, 2014.

Fables 145 - 1

It’s beginning to feel like Fables is spinning its wheels. The first few issues of “Happily Ever After” laid compelling groundwork for a series of conflicts and confrontations that would make for a fittingly legendary end to this series. Now it seems like Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham have overestimated the amount of space it would require to tell their final tale.

The last few issues have all been circling the same plot point: Bigby’s rampage. Fabletown residents go out to find or fight him and are slain. There have been small changes occurring in the background of this cycle, but it remained the centerpiece for the last three issues. The repeated actions of a character leaving Fabletown, confronting Bigby, and being attacked have lost any sense of drama. Instead, it feels like routine and that risks violating the greatest sin any comic can commit: to be boring.

Fables 145 - 2

The conflict in this issue at least manages to move the metaphorical goalposts by presenting Bigby with a genuine threat and changing his physical location. The change is so small though that it is primarily exciting because it provides an opening for the story to move beyond this sticking point. The conflict here ends in a literal draw, which is perhaps the least exciting conclusion to a fight possible. When the only loss is of a dagger, it’s hard to feel excited about the story.

This repetitive narration has created a monotonous rhythm like waves slapping against a boulder, slowly wearing it down. The small changes occurring in the background, plotting at cafes in Fabletown and rumblings in Flycatcher’s kingdom may be important, but come with little impact. Even the twist introduced on the very cover of this issue in Cinderella’s “final story” feels more like a promise that drama will ensue than actual drama itself.

Fables 145 - 3

Buckingham’s illustration of Bigby’s latest battle is compelling at least. He consistently composes his figures so that their motion between panels is clear and effective. Each juxtaposed pair of panels creates a cause and effect correlation. Every action is met with a reaction, which is key to composing a dynamic battle. Even when he reverses the point of view, figures and movements flow naturally between panels so that the status quo is never in doubt.

Fables #145 ultimately feels like filler, a decompression of this tragic part of “Happily Ever After”.  The stakes of the story are still high, but it needs to retain what little momentum it has left and build from that in order to keep this story interesting. There are still five issues left in Fables and no reason to wait until issue 150 to move the story forward.

Score: 6/10

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Daredevil #9 is Superhero Comics at Their Best (REVIEW)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 16, 2014. 

Daredevil 9 - Cover

Saying that Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil is great is a lot like saying Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil is great or that Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack’sDaredevil is great. These are statements that simply go without saying. For some reason, the character Daredevil tends to attract some of the best talent in comics and consistently produces some of the absolute best superhero comics. Daredevil #9 shows off why Waid and Samnee are some of the best storytellers in comics today.

Daredevil #9 is the second part of a story that was started in Daredevil #8. The previous issue was a terrifying tale that reintroduced the Purple Man and created a new menace in the form of his children. All of his children are the result of rape, committed through the use of mind control abilities. As a result they have been raised in less than ideal circumstances. In the best cases they were raised without a father, in the worst they were abandoned to social services. When given the immense power of their father, to twist the minds of anyone to give them what they want and do what they would like, their traumas immediately come to the surface.

That premise is terrifying and Daredevil #8 created a palpable mood of terror. It was an issue that stuck in my thoughts, as it revealed monsters both very real (in the form of child abuse) and impossible (in the form of collective mind control). Here the story moves beyond the horrific and begins to weave its structure into something more cohesive. The separate stories of Daredevil and the Purple Man’s children merge together along with the larger themes of Waid and Samnee’s Daredevil.

The current run on Daredevil has focused on the concept of recovery: handling past traumas and moving past them. The character of Daredevil has proven to be a perfect one to address these themes. Throughout the many acclaimed runs of the series he has been put through incredible trauma, even within the context of the Marvel universe. Matt Murdock has lost parents, lovers, a wife, and many, many friends. He has been unmasked and disbarred as a lawyer, forcing him away from his chosen professions and his home, Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil’s career has been an ongoing tale of suffering and loss. He is now addressing that accumulated trauma, working to recover and create a new life. The concept of trauma is key to understanding the events of Daredevil #9, as well as the entire current volume of the series.

Matt’s past has been brought to the forefront of the series through an offer to write an autobiography. He has been given an eight million dollar advance to write the story of his life. It’s a deal that sounds too good to be true and is. Matt is forced to confront what it really means to write about his life by his loved ones. Kirsten and Foggy, his girlfriend and best friend, point out that besides not being a good writer, that self-reflection is something that will bring Matt into conflict with the pain he is trying to move past. The idea of writing an autobiography is compared to wallowing in misery, failing to create a new life by choosing to live in the past.

Rather than run through the myriad traumas and deaths that have defined Daredevil’s story so far, Samnee constructs a pair of panels that serve to remind or inform readers of the issues to which Kirsten and Foggy refer. There’s a striking splash page that resembles the cover of a novel, like the imagined façade of Matt’s autobiography. It shows Daredevil surrounded by bodies beneath the forms of his enemies. Samnee presents the concept of autobiography as a regressive nightmare.

Daredevil 9 - The Past

A second reflective panel is even more striking. As Matt considers his life, he moves between a series of particularly painful memories, shown in a long horizontal panel. The succession of moments come in chronological order, a greatest hits of pain. Samnee composes each moment to come with the greatest possible impact. The loss of Matt’s father is shown with a towering overhead shot of him as a child in bed, expressing the smallness he feels in that moment. The loss of his ex-wife Milla Donovan is shown with a literal distance between them. Although she is still alive, Matt is incapable of reaching her. The entire panel is cast in a monochromatic color scheme of various shades of purple. Matt Wilson creates a connection between trauma and the color purple here that informs the rest of the story when Daredevil comes into conflict with the children of the Purple Man.

Daredevil 9 - Purple Kids

The Purple Man’s children are used to reflect the scars of the past. In a beautiful composition at the end of the issue, Samnee shows them in conflict with Daredevil and creates a series of connections between their own traumas and those of the hero. Concepts like grief, loneliness, and despair are constructed with snapshots of their lives. Samnee builds a story for these five young people in five panels, and then relates each of their experiences to those of Daredevil in five more. This page manages to accomplish a great deal, presenting the defining trauma of each character with a carefully selected image and word.

Wilson’s colors blend the two narratives of traumatized children and an adult who learned to cope with trauma. Reds and purples are inverted between the left and right columns, connecting past narratives with present faces. The children are not shown to be villains, but young people who are still intimately close to their sources of pain and unable to handle it. They have the same scars as a hero, but lack the time and wisdom to cope.

Metaphor is a key tool in the superhero genre. From its very beginning, the superhero has been used to express mundane ideas through big, operatic characters and conflicts. Waid and Samnee have crafted their run on Daredevil into a metaphor about pain and recovery, specifically childhood trauma. They are telling stories about coping mechanisms. Those mechanisms may be expressed through the use of super villains and lucrative career moves in the Bay area, but the story and ideas are honest.

It’s easy to be cynical about superhero comics, and that cynicism is often not wrongly felt. Yet in the case of Waid and Samnee’s Daredevil, nothing could be further from the truth. In every page and story beat, it is clear that this comic is being written with a completely genuine interest in the characters and the ideas they express. This is a story about dealing with pain and building a better future, and it is told with complete honesty. It’s a big, bold metaphor for something many of us can relate to on a deeply personal level. Although it’s fun, it’s also incredibly human. Waid, Samnee, and Wilson are giving their all to this story and Daredevil #9 is an example of superhero comics at their absolute best.

Grade: A-

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Edge of Spider-Verse #5 is Filled with Fresh Concepts (REVIEW)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 16, 2014.

Edge of Spider-Verse 5 - Cover

Gerard Way has created some of the most engaging and interesting twists to the superhero genre in recent memory in the creator owned series Umbrella Academy and The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Way has shown a knack for intriguing concepts, visual design, and establishing excellent collaborations with some of the best artists in comics. His debut at Marvel, given almost carte blanche to reinvent Spider-Man in an alternate universe, is a reason for excitement.

In Edge of Spider-Verse #5 Way and artist Jake Wyatt create some of the most intriguing visual and thematic concepts of the mini-series. This team does not take any half measures when reconstructing the Spider-Man mythos. Instead, they opt for a complete overhaul. The result is a comic that feels almost entirely new with only some slight connections to its origin material.

The being called SP//dr that serves as the issue’s protagonist is a three-part combination composed of a large mechanical suit, a tiny spider, and a young girl named Peni. These three act as individual characters and contrast one another in a variety of ways. They are separated by massive differences in size. Peni dwarfs the spider that often rests on her wrist and is, in turn, dwarfed by the massive mechanical suit. When together, the three parts create a dynamic hero filled with both power and grace. They all contribute a distinctive element to the hero’s effectiveness. The suit provides the powers, but is lifeless. Peni adds a human element and moral compass. The spider is the animalistic instinct that makes the other two effective.

That combination speaks to the various ways in which technology and biology combine to create new potential. It’s a concept that Way and Wyatt explore in the comic’s villain as well. Engineering, both genetic and mechanical, also warps this version of Mysterio. He is re-envisioned with a spherical motif and the personality of a celebrity obsessed Redditor. These versions of both Spider-Man and Mysterio explore themes far different from the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko creation. There is an emphasis on progress and the multi-faceted advancement of technology that is nowhere to be found in Amazing Fantasy #15.

There is also an interesting commentary on the concept of destiny. The most recent incarnations of Spider-Man on the big screen have become obsessed with the idea. Way and Wyatt tap into that theme, but bring out the horrific nature of pre-destination, rather than making it seem heroic. Peni is the only person capable of becoming SP//dr and has very little choice in the matter. The spider chooses her after it is released in a room without her knowledge. Ben and May are transformed into captors locking Peni into a role. The sequence in which she is “chosen” carries some frightening overtones of parental subjugation and the loss of control.

None of these ideas ever cohere into a story. The issue is offered as a series of vignettes instead. There is an origin, a super villain battle, a superhero team up, and a big crossover. Way and Wyatt hit all the staples of superhero comics, placing their ideas into a variety of settings and tones. It lacks a through line, but instead gives a feeling of what SP\\dr could be about.

Despite its lack of a traditional plot, Edge of Spider-Verse #5 succeeds. It leans on its ideas and their visual presentation, giving readers images that they can chew on. For readers and critics preoccupied with story, this may be disconcerting, but I found it to be an appealing stretch of a mainstream superhero comic. There are a lot of appealing factors within a comic besides plot.

Grade: B

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REVIEW: Veil #5 – “A Damning Commentary on Gender and the Treatment of Women”

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 15, 2014.

Veil 5 - Cover

Veil has been interested in issues of sexuality, objectification, and control from its start. Greg Rucka and Toni Fejzula have always been aware of what this comic is about. It began with a beautiful woman wondering naked without a single memory and was driven by the impulse of men to control her. This is the issue that transforms every remaining bit of subtext in Veil directly into text and it wraps up this mini-series perfectly.

For a series that often presents the human body in a vulnerable state while addressing ideas of sex and control, the presentation was always going to be key to its success or failure. In Veil #5, it continues to be abundantly clear that Fejzula has been a perfect fit for the series. His depictions of Veil have always shown her to be beautiful and desirable, key components of the story, but have never objectified her. Veil has always been shown as a human being (or at least a being that appears mostly human) and her sex has never been emphasized over her humanity. Fejzula’s compositions of her naked body in this issue present her as a complete person, not a collection of parts. That balance between sexualization and objectification is an incredibly difficult line to walk and one Fejzula navigates with seeming ease.

Fejzula’s work presenting the more monstrous aspects of the story is every bit as beautiful, although considerably more terrifying. Decay is rampant in this comic, as half dead rats and dismembered corpses fill the panels. Under his pen, these aspects appear appropriately broken and disconcerting. They are a shattered stained glass window doused in blood.

Through Fejzula’s art, the themes of Rucka’s script are allowed to come through clearly. Veil has explored the role of women in a predominantly male society. Veil is the sole female presence of any significance forced to endure various attempts at control and restriction throughout the series. In Veil #5, Rucka places her in direct opposition with the man who began the entire ordeal, the one who seeks to literally control her body and soul. He acts and looks like someone pulled from a Gamergate video on YouTube, displaying the most self-assured and idiotic combination of physical and verbal traits. Rucka also poses an alternative to this behavior in Dante. The villain refers to Dante as a “white knight”, a phrase used by Internet misogynists to demean men who defend women.

There’s an important distinction that Rucka creates in Dante’s role though. Dante is capable of doing the right thing and helping Veil, but he is not the hero of the story. Veil is still the character who overcomes the villain. She works to save Dante, just as much as he does the same for her. She is ultimately the last person standing. Veil is not defined by Dante’s heroism, but by her own actions. That’s incredibly important. Although Dante is a hero within it, the narrative is still driven by a woman.

There are plans to continue Veil in future series and that’s a good thing. Although this story has found a natural conclusion, Rucka and Fejzula still have a great deal of fertile thematic and dramatic material to explore. Veil is a damning commentary on gender and the treatment of women, and a necessary one at this moment in pop culture. It uses horror to explore our basest impulses and offer some small flicker of hope. At the end of this issue, Dante reveals that doing the right thing is every bit as simple and straightforward as it ought to be. That conclusion makes for a powerful statement by Rucka and Fejzula.

Grade: A-

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REVIEW: Deadly Class #8 is a Terribly Beautiful Meditation on Depression

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 15, 2014.

Deadly Class 8 - Cover

Mental illness and the scars we carry inside have been constant themes throughout Rick Remender’s comics ever since his work on Fear Agent. The causes and ramifications of our internal scars, specifically depression are found in Uncanny X-Force, Low, Black Science, and most projects Remender touches. However, nowhere in his bibliography have these ideas been better explored than in Deadly Class. Wes Craig (pencils) and Lee Loughridge (colors) have translated Remender’s script to the comics page in such a way that these ideas are crafted in beautiful, undeniable visual metaphors. They not only tell the story impeccably, but use every tool at their disposal to convey these themes and ideas in impeccable style. That style has never been more clear than in Deadly Class #8.

The newest issue of the series is a flashback framed by two sequences in the present timeline of the story. It is the second half of Marcus’ origin and a mystery that has been teased for the previous seven issues. This is a narrative that had to be told. It is both an integral part of who Marcus is and why he is in this story. Yet backstories and exposition like this rarely make for great comics, or stories in general. The obligatory flashback to key motivating events is often more likely to slow the narrative or provide important details in a convenient and hackneyed manner than anything else. But this… this is an example of how a flashback can be used to not only create an incredible comic, but to elevate the rest of a series.

Remender, Craig, and Loughridge take advantage of this shift in time to increase the depth and complexity of Deadly Class. They recognize the importance of Marcus’ past and how it can enhance both the character and themes of the narrative. This issue is told entirely from Marcus’ perspective. His thoughts literally color the scenes and transform the third person perspective of most panels into that of the first person. Even though the panels show Marcus, they reflect his memories of himself and his actions. He is telling the story and his thoughts and feelings are what shape how it is told. In this issue, the creative team has crafted a comic that delves into the experience and origins of depression. They have confronted what David Foster Wallace referred to as “the bad thing” and created a portal for others to better understand it. The story of Deadly Class is impossible, but the experience real

That immersive, personal experience doesn’t start with the flashbacks though. It begins on page one and runs throughout the entire issue. Lee Loughridge is the artist who makes the effect possible by creating a series of monochromatic color schemes that change and intermingle throughout the issue. In the opening pages though, the grey that overwhelms every panel reads like a scene taking place in the fog and gloom of San Francisco. It blurs the line between a depiction of normal Bay area conditions and a color scheme that reflects Marcus’ inner thoughts and feelings or, rather, their notable suppression.

Deadly Class 8 - Grey

The importance of Loughridge’s color choices don’t become clear until midway through the issue which makes a second (and third) reading of the comic so important. Only after the timeframe shifts does it become clear that the grey of the present is a decision that reveals Marcus’ emotional state. Everything about the opening pages focus on Marcus’ sense of isolation and the cold, pale colors of each panel emphasize this.

Craig’s compositions make the solitude clear on an initial reading though. He divides pages in order to keep Marcus and Saya visually separated. Even when they occupy the same panel, Craig creates artificial barriers in his composition. A building in the background or toss of a journal emphasizes that even when Marcus is with someone else he feels alone.

Loughridge’s use of monochromatic color schemes in this issue does not become clear until Saya reads Marcus’ journal. The comic narrative moves back in time and the colors shift from cool greys to a variety of unrealistic hues. This flashback is colored by three distinct schemes that are separated into three distinct events and settings before converging in a climactic fourth section.

Deadly Class 8 - Yellow

It opens on a child sweatshop that is steeped in dull yellows. It’s a terrible situation and one that the shades of yellow reflect. They create a sense of caution for readers, warning them that there is nothing good to be found here. Marcus’ life is set in a place where only decay is possible. Whether it is the children being worn out by long hours of physical labor or the destruction of their overseers’ souls, nothing is generated in this setting. The yellows run like urine down the page, appearing just as disgusting as what is happening.

Deadly Class 8 - Red

Loughridge’s colors shift to reds when Marcus is confronted by the monstrous human beings who run this sweatshop. His caution and weariness is transformed into wrath. The woman behind the operation shows no trace of humanity in her treatment of children. Although Marcus stands and accepts his abuse when stripped and demeaned, his anger is made palpable on the page. His face twisted in pain and anger, focused through the lens of a deep, dark red, holds endless reserves of contempt.

Deadly Class 8 - Green

Finally, Marcus must suffer abuse from his roommate. Although they come from similar origins, this young man perpetuates the same sadistic behavior he has suffered on the world around him. His actions and words are awash in a sickly yellow-green. The rage and decay of this place has created a monster far worse than itself. There is nothing redeemable about this character, every panel he occupies only serves to reveal another sickening facet to his personality.

This combination of decay, hatred, and sickness combine to create a setting from whence nothing good can come. What comes next is every bit as horrific as the factors that make it possible. The yellows, reds, and greens combine to emphasize the horror of the climax. It is an answer that satisfies the central mystery of Deadly Class and provides insight into Marcus’ state of mind.

The flashback is not an impartial accounting of what occurred. It is the story as told by Marcus in his journal. It is a series of memories colored by time and pain. Loughridge’s choice of colors are not accidental. The selected hues are all tied with negative, destructive concepts that comment on the moments and settings they occupy. These are Marcus’ emotional scars, the ones that cannot be seen, but are always present.

Marcus’ scarring has been a visual motif throughout the series. His body is covered in scars, most of which can be covered with clothing. Yet there is the cut across his right eye, one that cannot be hidden. It represents only a small portion of his collected suffering, but it is impossible to hide. That scar reveals that you cannot entirely cover up pain. There is always some reminder or clue to that which haunts us. The same applies to Marcus’ emotional scars. Here they are shown in all of their horrendous depth, but they have always peaked through. In the seven issues that led to this revelation, Marcus has clearly been affected by something, but it was mostly hidden.

That conception of scars both physical and mental is a potent perspective on mental illness and depression. Marcus is capable of disconnecting from the world. He is able to hide most of his pain, but the pain is still there though and the signs are never entirely hidden. Although Marcus begins the comic isolated by his own choice, the truth of his suffering is there to be found. It is noticeable to those who look at him and choose to acknowledge what they see.

The conclusion of Deadly Class #8 is not overtly positive, but is contains a subtle hint of hope. It builds on the idea that Marcus’ pain is not invisible by acknowledging it. Both readers and Saya are aware and provide a bridge for Marcus. The cold, greys of his world are still present, but there is a small splash of color. There is the possibility that things may get better.

Deadly Class #8 is a tour de force, a terribly beautiful meditation upon pain and depression. Through this outlandish narrative, Remender, Craig, and Loughridge have constructed a story that is emotionally true. It acknowledges what it means to be in pain, what it is like to hide its origins, and the difficulty of seeking and obtaining help. It is does not aim to provide easy answers or solace, but it is a true story. It is authentic in the way that matters most, in reflecting what it is like to be human. In telling that truth, it provides some small opportunity for relief and understanding by showing its scars.

Grade: A

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REVIEW: Trees #6 Asks What It Means to Find Safety

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 15, 2014.

Trees 6 - Cover

Where do we fit in the world? Are we capable of finding a place that will accept us without judgment? Is it even possible to be safe when greater powers act without regard to individual’s rights and liberties? These are some of the questions that Warren Ellis and Jason Howard are attempting to address in Trees, and they are the focus of Trees #6.

The majority of this issue focuses on the narratives surrounding Chenglei, a bisexual painter from rural China, and Eligia, an Italian woman attempting to gain power in an overtly masculine culture. They are both outsiders struggling to understand the setting in which they live and to create a place for themselves within it.

Chenglei’s story and his emerging romance with Zhen, a transgender woman, has been one of the highest highlights of the series thus far. That relationship is the centerpiece to this issue and occupies more than half of the pages within. There is a distinctive lack of high concept science fiction and action in this story. Unlike much of Trees the drama here is almost entirely based on human relationships and functions purely on that level. It is a story that could just as easily be set in certain parts of modern China without alien invasions. Uncle openly acknowledges the connection between Shu, the liberal city in which they live, and Shanghai.

All of this occurs in conversation. Speaking with both Uncle and then Zhen, Chenglei questions who he is and where he can exist. For the first time he acknowledges that he is bisexual. These are conversations that transform what had previously been subtext into text. They do not appear obvious or heavy handed though because of the setting in which they occur. The city of Shu has been shown to be a bastion of acceptance, the kind that can encourage this sort of open discourse. In fact their open acknowledgement of difficult issues, helps to transform Shu into an endearing character itself. It also makes the final pages of the comic all the more foreboding.

Trees 6 - Shu

Shu exists under the shadow of the Chinese government and the appearance of a military drone does not bode well for the hope and progress found here. It crosses the line from foreshadowing into literal shadowing as it moves over the city. It creates a black X on the streets below, a sign of disruption and change. The hope for advancement and acceptance is under direct threat, and Ellis and Howard make no qualms about pointing to the Chinese government as the threat. Although the trees are the focus of the series, they do not appear as threatening as the people who claim to govern the land they rest upon. It is a direct commentary on the events in Hong Kong and throughout Xi Jinping’s China.

Although there is only dialogue found on these pages, Howard keeps these sequences interesting. Chenglei, Zhen, and Uncle are all expressive and in constant motion when talking. Howard understands how people actually communicate, where the look on someone’s face and the form of their body can be every bit as important as their words. He uses that knowledge to build upon Ellis’ dialogue, adding depth and personality to what is being said by showing how it is said.

Howard’s work displays a depth of understanding about how comics function. They are a visual medium and require visual engagement. Even the best crafted dialogue can become boring in a film or comic when it is conveyed by talking heads alone. Howard works to keep the characters active in their conversation. Their faces, bodies, and setting are commenting on the scene just as much as their words themselves, if not more so.

Eligia’s story reflects similar ideas from a very different perspective. All of the acceptance and open conversation in Shu is contrasted by the hateful philosophies and backstabbing in Cefalu, Italy. Her boyfriend runs a small fascist gang, one that preys upon closeted gay men in order to earn money. Cefalu provides a modern alternative to Shu, revealing the disparate perspectives on sexual orientation that can be found within two modernized countries.

Trees 6 - Eligia

Howard’s colors help to contrast Eligia’s story from Chenglei’s. Eligia’s Italian home is cast in rain and clouds. Pale blues color both the interiors and exteriors of her setting. She, in her red coat, is an isolated component of warmth in a cool environment. This all works to emphasize that she is alone, and that this loneliness is impacting her outlook as she becomes angrier and begins to plot against the men who run her home. Chenglei, on the other hand is surrounded by warm oranges in most of his dialogue. The colors of Shu reflect a glowing diversity of life, one that helps to mirror the open conversations he has with Uncle and Zhen. That coloring shifts, along with the tone in the final panels where the drone appears. As its shadow is cast onto Shu, the city becomes a colder, more hostile place that feels much more like Eligia’s home.

Howard’s art and Ellis’ thematic connections are excellent. What troubles Trees #6 is the same problem that has affected each issue of the series to varying degrees: structure. Treeshas introduced six distinct narratives thus far. Unlike a television series, Game of Thrones for example, where each installment is given ample time to check in with a wide variety of characters and plots, Trees is restricted to only about twenty pages. Within that space, it’s difficult to focus on many stories. The first issue did the best work of balancing the various threads, providing momentum to four separate plots. However, each subsequent issue has had trouble maintaining that balance.

Trees #6 contains brief asides to stories occurring in Northern Norway and Somalia. These pages don’t do much to forward these plots though. The final page seems to only serve as a reminder about what happened at the end of Trees #5, when a set of trees were militarized. The first page that shows Norway acts as nothing more than a disruption to Chenglei’s story. These moments only serve to disrupt the story, pulling focus away from the themes being focused upon in this issue. It is a difficult balancing act to tell so many stories in such limited space month after month. That doesn’t make the breaks in what is an otherwise thematically cohesive issue any more forgivable. The overall experience of a single issue of Trees often becomes an uneven one due to the comic’s structure.

Trees continues to provide some excellent commentary on modern political and economic situations within the guise of a high concept science fiction tale. The fractious nature of the story and its monthly schedule make for a troublesome presentation at times though. Ellis and Howard have a lot of valuable things to say in this comic, but will have to continue to refine the shape of the book in order to best present their ideas.

Grade: B

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REVIEW: Sleepy Hollow #1

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 15, 2014.

Sleepy Hollow 1 - Cover

I love self-contained issues: quick, compressed comics that move efficiently from beginning to middle to end. That kind of compact storytelling is tricky though. Without crystalline focus and sharp instincts, a twenty page short story can become a convenient jumble. That is the case with Sleepy Hollow #1.

Sleepy Hollow is based upon the popular Fox television show of the same name. It follows time displaced Ichabod Crane and his friend and partner Lieutenant Abbie Mills as they combat the forces of evil in a small Northeast town. The groundwork has already been laid and it allows for any number of mysteries and monsters to be introduced. That premise is excellent and could still be made to work for future issues. However, Marguerite Bennett and Jorge Coelho’s tale in this debut issue suffers from some muddled plotting.

The core concept is intriguing. Bennett composes a mystery that involves possession, witches, and American history. With a few twists and a genuine threat, it plays like something that could easily be a memorable 44 minute episode of the television series. The problem is one of presentation.

Most of this mystery is explained in a single page of exposition that is a slog to read. The clues within the comic are only loosely bound together by a far fetched series of connections. Ichabod and Abbie’s guess at what is causing problems feels like a lucky shot in the dark. The biggest issue with the entire story is that everything feels convenient for the protagonists. Their discovery of the problem and eventual solution to it seem to appear because the page count is running out, not due to hard work or creativity. At the end of the issue, Ichabod is either the luckiest man on Earth or has gained control over the weather. Nothing here ever really feels like a challenge.

The character work between Ichabod and Abbie weaves across the line between being fun and forced. Their banter is often enjoyable, but in a couple of sequences crosses over and openly appeals to the audience to like these characters. There’s nothing that resembles drama between the two and their interactions could be best characterized as cute. It’s a style that plays much better in Noelle Stevenson’s backup story. That backup is most certainly cute, but it embraces that tone and makes for a delightful bit of bonus material.

Coelho manages to have some fun with the unlimited off screen budget of comics. He composes some panels of body horror with shiver inducing effects. The best pages of the issue come in two big splash panels where the fury and power of some big moments can be felt. A vehicle tumbling through the air feels every bit as dramatic and loud as it should.

Similar to this week’s other television adaptation debut, Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor #1, Coelho’s art suffers when presenting the stars of Sleepy Hollow. Coelho is working very hard to capture the likenesses of Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie. In doing so, he fails to make these characters his own. Their appearance is often inconsistent and doesn’t always suit the style of the comic they occupy. Coelho has a style that suits this book and it is not one that plays to photo realism. That would be a good thing if less effort were put into making these characters appear so much like that of their televised inspirations.

Sleepy Hollow #1 is off to a rough start, but it shows promise. The concept can function within a comic. It contains likable characters, easy opportunities for humor, and loads of creepy potential. If Bennett and Coelho refine their work, then this series could be a lot of fun.

Grade: C-

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