Saga #24 is Everything You Want It To Be in Three Pages (Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 29, 2014.

Saga 24

What more needs to be said about Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga? Besides The Walking Dead, it is consistently the best selling creator owned comic in the American marketplace. It has made regular appearances at the biggest award ceremonies in comics since its debut and walked away with plenty of statues. Its fan base is as excited as ever, creating incredible costumes and continuing to buy up the collections as they share them with friends and family.

Saga is great. A more obvious statement does not exist in comics.

Saga #24 marks a change though, as it moves away from the pattern established in earlier arcs of the series. The central storyline of the current six-issue run was already concluded inSaga #23, so this issue acts as a coda. It does not relate directly to the events of the previous five issues, but expands its scope to the many characters absent from them. What could have easily become an issue of filler or a plot dump is woven into a cohesive short story that consistently surprises, shocks, and delights. There are three distinct splash pages in Saga #24 that perfectly summarize what works so well not only in this brief tale, but the series as a whole.

Staples’ opening pages have developed a reputation for being impactful. The range of reactions evoked by the 24 splash pages she has created so far range from befuddlement to shock, from horror to delight. This issue’s page is most certainly of the delightful variety. It’s the sort of image that instantly forms a smile on your face and will cause you to hesitate before turning the page. The image is so effective because it is so well composed. Staples places the reader above the centered subject of the page, making it seem considerably smaller by comparison. It’s diminutive size and open posture make it the most friendly of figures. The appearance of the character is delightful as well. Staples has a knack for anthropomorphism and can easily focus on the features that are most effectual throughout the animal kingdom.

The second splash page occurs at the midpoint of the comic and reveals Vaughan’s ability to quickly invest a story with drama. It builds upon a sequence that shifts from being funny to exciting to horrifying in a handful of panels. The entire sequence is a masterful showcase of rising drama and reversals in momentum. When the final reversal is revealed in a beautifully illustrated page, it brings with it a wave of emotion. In the grand scheme of Saga, this brief encounter is a very small moment, but Vaughan and Staples instill it with as much meaning and feeling as some of the series biggest.

Then there’s the final page. Nobody in monthly comics crafts cliffhangers like Vaughan and this is one that will stick with readers until Saga #25 hits the shelves. To mention any detail about it would be to ruin the fun of turning the page. Staples composes the panel in such a way that plenty of information is available through posture and design in order to create a potent mystery. She sprinkles plenty of minor details throughout it as well to excite readers. It’s a perfect cliffhanger, one that leaves you starving for just one more panel.

Saga #24 changes the rhythm of the series and alters the landscape of the story, all while providing the same incredible standard of storytelling fans have come to expect. It’s a reminder as to why this series is so well loved just in time for its next hiatus. The wait will be long, but Staples and Vaughan have proven time and again that the new issues are worth the long months away. It’s a perfect time to enjoy the newest issue, and then start again from the beginning.

Comic pages simply don’t get better than this.

Grade: A

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Southern Bastards #5: Blood on the Field (Advance Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 28, 2014.

Southern Bastards 5 - Cover

I just returned from a college football game. The Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, NE and won handily 42 to 24. Some fans may have been nervous in case of a potential upset, but the men of Nebraska created a 14-point lead before halftime and only increased it in the second half. Looking around the stadium, the almost 100,000 fans that filter in for every Husker game day made a massive, screaming tapestry of red. Football in Nebraska is not just a game. I can sincerely say that for many it’s every bit as important as religion or family. It’s no coincidence that Nebraskans bleed red.

That excitement, that fervor, that pandemonium can be exhilarating. It creates an instant bond between fans. The celebrations are on par with the most debauched revelry of the Romans. Fans, staff, and athletes stake their lives on what happens on Saturday. They put everything they have into those sixty minutes of play and spend all week, more often all year, preparing for them. They leave it all on the field, literally and metaphorically. Blood, sweat, and tears are all shed, but most importantly blood.

Blood on the field.

Southern Bastards 5 - 1

That’s the first image that comes to mind in Southern Bastards #5. Artist Jason Latour opens the issue with Coach Boss before he was Coach. Here he is just Euless Boss, a kid with an obsession for football and a chip on his shoulder you can see from space. He’s a high school student in football gear on the ground hovering above a puddle of something he just spit up.

Latour colors the panel and every sequence set in Coach Boss’s past in hues of red. It effectively distinguishes the past from the present, but also shades the historical retelling in Boss’s perspective. The monochromatic color scheme shows the world through the eyes of a bull, snorting and ready to charge. Everything resembles fire and meat and blood. Latour composes these scenes with ample shadows as well, focusing on the darkness that comes from every figure’s form. Boss is gaining an incredible work ethic and unflinching resolve on that field, but nothing good can come from it. All of it is built on hatred, spite, and resentment.  It’s cast in a dirty shade of red like blood mixed with mud.

Southern Bastards 5 - 2

Latour’s depiction of Coach Boss and his cronies in the present follow this outlook and realize the inevitable outcome. In his previous appearances, Boss was certainly ugly. In Southern Bastards #5 the story starts to center around him. As it does, his ugliness, both physical and spiritual, becomes even more apparent. Latour applies thick lines that connect in sharp angles to construct his face and the ultimate effect is a broken mess held together by anger. Time and brutality have twisted his forehead, cheeks, and mouth into a near constant scowl.

Boss is depicted as a monster not only through his actions, but also his very appearance. A panel at the end of the issue looks down upon him as he completes an act every bit as terrifying as it is bold. His jaw juts out at a lopsided angle and his nose is pushed inward like an upside-down pitchfork. He resembles a monster lurking beneath the bridge in a fantasy story every bit as much as he resembles a man of flesh and blood.

That depiction is emphasized in Jason Aaron’s scripting. Coach Boss fits naturally into the role of the biggest, meanest monster in all of Craw County. Even after killing a man, he is allowed to freely walk through town, simultaneously feared and worshipped. Earl Tubbs is an afterthought to the people of this place compared to the man who leads their football team to victory. Aaron presents the cult of personality that surrounds Boss in a sequence that is one of the most deeply saddening he has ever written. The biggest monster of Craw County is also its biggest hero, and his place in the community allows him to do as he pleases.

All of that ugliness is not the sole responsibility or creation of Coach Boss though. The final moments of Southern Bastards #4 happened in the middle of the street in front of the county residents. Every person knows what Boss is and none of them do anything about it. Neither Boss nor Aaron is willing to let their silent complicity go unpunished. Southern Bastards #5ends with a relatively quiet moment, but one that will be heard about by every person in Craw County. It literally places the biggest problem of the series on a stand. For as ugly and terrible of an antagonist as Coach Boss may be, he is not the true villain of Southern Bastards. The villain is the very culture that not only allows him to exist, but encourages him to continue existing. Coach Boss recognizes that. Aaron and Latour recognize that. And now readers are forced to recognize that.

Southern Bastards 5 - 3

Football is the centerpiece of Southern Bastards #5, a story aptly entitled “Gridiron”. This game is the bleeding, beating heart of Craw County and that isn’t an exaggeration. It’s a reality that can be felt in Southern football stadiums on Friday nights, in cities across America on Sundays, and all across the state of Nebraska every Saturday in the fall. People give themselves over to the game like a tent revival seeking salvation.

Not even a ham-fisted foreshadowing sequence, one that provides snapshots of the various characters and groups yet to be introduced to the world of Southern Bastards, can detract from the issue’s thesis. Aaron and Latour understand small town America and the importance football holds within this culture. It’s a gateway to explore violence, cultural idols, and crimes of silence and apathy.

Aaron and Latour are observing the reality of life in the South and across America inSouthern Bastards. Their presentation of high school football looks at the devotion heaped upon entertainment and the dangers that come with it. The groupthink and dedication that arise around our cultural idols lead to a passion so fervent that it becomes uncontrollable. It removes the focus from individuals, treats monsters as heroes, and encourages complicity in the acts of those monsters. It allows for blood to flow freely.

In Southern Bastards #5 and the society it reflects, blood isn’t just on the field.

It’s everywhere.

Grade: A-

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Comics Are High Art, A Response to The New York Times

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 27, 2014.

Original Cartoon by Heng Kim Song, Digitally Altered by Zach Janky

Chris Suellentrop, a freelance contributor to The New York Times, wrote an opinion piece printed on Sunday (October 26, 2014) regarding the future of videogames and the recent Gamergate debacle. The column is generally thoughtful and well written with one major exception. Suellentrop makes a comparison between videogames and comics, and uses it to diminish the value of comics as art.

If this continues, the medium I love could go backward into its roots as a pastime for children. Instead of being a mainstream form of entertainment, it could end up beingsomething like comic books, a medium that has never outgrown its reputation for power fantasies and is only very occasionally marked by transcendent work (‘Maus’, or the books of Chris Ware) that demands that the rest of the culture pay attention to it.

There’s no way around it. This statement is deeply, incredibly, blatantly ignorant of the subject matter it mentions and quickly dismisses. It treats the comic book medium like an inherently less valuable artform, represents an evolving reputation in the most diminutive form possible, and speaks as if only a few comics are worthy of any critical attention. The various problems found in this paragraph deserve to be unpacked.

Suellentrop stages the argument by acting as if the most valuable commodity in art is to be thought of as mainstream. If the column was based purely around the status of video games as a popular form of entertainment, this might be a fair consideration. But it is not. The focus of the piece is on the medium’s ability to be taken seriously as a form of art, one deserving of criticism and consideration. The only reason to connect those two ideas is to create a shortcut to artistic viability for the medium of video games, a relatively new art form that is massively popular. The concern that not being part of the mainstream invalidates the value or quality of art is patently silly. Looking back at the last century, for example, it’s possible to see blues transform from an outsider in popular music into a mainstream art form whose oldest artists are praised for their form and style. If Suellentrop is actually interested in video games’ advancement as an art form, then his focus in the above paragraph is clearly in the wrong place.

CCA Seal

There’s certainly some truth to the assertion that comics are perceived as “power fantasies”, but it’s far from the whole picture. What may have been the status quo in 1954 when the Comics Code Authority was formed is no longer the widespread perception of comics. Comics are taught in classrooms across the United States. Comics creators are winning national and international literary awards. The medium is recognized for its limitless potential with the assistance of Hollywood. Although some people may still be unaware of the inherent value of comic books as an art form, that arguably no longer applies to most Americans. And this assertion also ignores the widespread popularity and acceptance of comics in countries outside of the United States, most notably Japan, France, and Belgium.

The single most troubling part is the conceit in Suellentrop’s opinion piece is that comics produce “only very occasionally… transcendent work”. Looking at my bookshelves alone, I am staggered by the problems in this statement. From immense conventions like San Diego Comic-Con to smaller affairs like the Small Press Expo (SPX), it’s easy to see in person the enormous diversity and quality of art being produced in the medium. And every week in comic book shops and bookstores across America it is possible to discover dozens of new comics for a wide variety of readers, expressing incredibly personal experiences, challenging cultural ideologies and precepts, and often doing both at the same time.

There is no value to be found in attempting to determine the comparative value of different forms of media. Yet it’s undeniable that the breadth and scope of comics produced in the past ten years alone far outmatches that of video games. The quality and diversity of art being produced in comics is something that the video game medium should aspire to, not disparage.

Building Stories by Chris Ware

Building Stories by Chris Ware

Suellentrop’s brief examples of transcendent work are certainly excellent, but are also the two most obvious examples available. It reads as if he has no foreknowledge of the medium and instead googled the phrase “good comics”. This reveals a minimal lack of research or concern, focused only shallow misperceptions rather than any actual understanding.

All of this relates to an idea that creators, critics, and readers of comics are all too used to hearing: comics are just for kids. It’s the most common objection made by those unfamiliar with the medium and, very often, the first objection expected by those who are. People on both sides of that divide have become used to comics being perceived as a children’s medium, no matter how silly that idea has become.

The statement “comics aren’t just for kids” hasn’t been relevant or necessary since the 1960’s.

The problem is not that comics need to overcome a reputation of being childish power fantasies. The problem is that this idea needs to stop being perpetuated by people who ought to know better. People like Suellentrop.

Ignorant statements like his are the basis for much misunderstanding in popular culture, and it’s an issue that can be resolved through discourse and research. The problem here is not what Suellentrop said, but that it was said by Suellentrop in The New York Times. A journalist for a well-respected newspaper made an unfounded comment that unfairly disparages an entire medium. If he had made these comments at a bar with friends, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to point out the absurdity of his argument. Instead, it has been published by one of the best known periodicals in the world for all to read.

Tonoharu by Lars Martinson

Tonoharu by Lars Martinson

Comics have not been just for kids for a very long time, and this argument should have died more than forty years ago. There is no need to justify their value anymore. Academics, critics, and readers all understand that comics are capable of being and often are high art. From the best known and most renowned works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus to incredible independent comics like Lars Martinson’s Tonoharu or Erika Moen’s Oh Joy, Sex Toy, comics have established themselves as an artform with unlimited potential. Potential that is being recognized and harnessed everyday.

The continued existence of this misperception is not a reflection on the medium, but on the arbiters of cultural significance. Periodicals like The New York Times are willing to express the power and magnificence of comics in one column discussing Chris Ware’s Building Stories, then treat them like a lesser medium throughout the rest of the arts section. That sort of doublespeak only serves to continue an undeserved reputation. The problem isn’t comics, it’s the people writing about comics.

It’s time we all move past that notion. The medium has proven itself to be one of the greatest modern forms of artistic expression time and again. That is the reality of comics.

It’s time for that to be the conversation.

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Sunday Slugfest: Stray Bullets: Killers #8

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 26, 2014.

Stray Bullets - Killers - Cover

Incredible. Heart rending. Tremendous. Powerful. Transcendent.

I do not have enough superlatives for David and Maria Lapham’s Stray Bullets. After an almost decade long hiatus, it returned this year in the form of the new series Stray Bullets: Killers giving younger readers like myself a chance to discover this jewel of Western comics. This issue concludes the first collection of the resurrected series and it is loaded with every bit as much potency as the preceding 48 issues.

Stray Bullets: Killers #8 is simultaneously a standalone story of heartbreak and violence and the culmination of the previous 7 issues (and, to a lesser extent, the other 41). As a narrative vehicle it functions on two distinct levels as a one act play and a single scene in a grand Shakespearean tragedy, yet never falters in either regard. Lapham is interested in a wide array of ideas (most notably the causes and effects of violence) and explores them on both a micro and macro scale. He constructs stories that present the little tragedies of an individual life ruled by entropy and coincidence, while allowing readers to move beyond that scope and immerse themselves in a broader world where every person is somehow connected and every action has far reaching consequences. Not since David Simon created The Wire has anyone created such a complex and cohesive story.

Unlike The WireStray Bullets is not focused on realism. Instead, it takes advantage of its medium to exaggerate reality. Every person and incident in the series reads as if it occurs in a slightly heightened version of our own world. Irony and tragic coincidence are the rules of this story, and work to create a bleak commentary on the most terrible aspects of the human condition. In Killers #8 that is more apparent than ever. Lapham explores a relationship, one filled with all of the love, mistakes, and random hijinks of anything real. He raises the volume with a mob war, a secret hideout, and plenty of guns, then uses that concoction to examine his characters. The result is a comic that will force readers to examine their own beliefs and ideas about their responsibilities to themselves and one another.

I’ve avoided discussing this issue in too much detail not to avoid spoilers, but to encourage you (yes, you) to go read it. Stray Bullets is simply too well crafted and too important to be ignored.

- Chase Magnett



I was introduced to David Lapham through his Marvel work but I’ve become a fan through his creator owned comics. Caligula, a raunchy, yet poetic, work, opened my eyes to his ability to build a story so utterly fucked up that it made me hungry for the next issue. Pulling a dozen issues of Young Liars out of a bargain bin only confirmed his aptitude in writing stories with originality, humanity and disregard for appeasing the everyman.

Lapham is simply one of the medium’s best creators. He has a highly distinguishable style, a mind that in unrivaled in terms of presenting fresh ideas wrapped around common concepts. I consistently find myself floored by the willingness to tackle taboo ideas without ever jumping the shark. I didn’t read any of the Stray Bullets series before Killers #1 but the title somehow turned into one of my favorite of 2014

The end of this arc features a very satisfying, and shockingly bloody, cap to a story about two teenage lovers and their struggle to understand a complex and gray world. The adventures of Eli and Virginia are just like any other coming-of-age love story when viewed from the outside but once you dive in it’s impossible to refute the raw smarts of David Lapham’s, and editor Maria Lapham’s, storytelling ability. The pacing, the dialogue, the awkwardness and confusion, the shady morals and conundrums they produce — they all harmonize into a tale that leaves you wanting more and more.

Lapham is a very talented penciller and his vision for this series is tightly compressed, packing in loads of story into every issue. His layouts, typically nine panels per page, should be a guidebook for up-and-coming sequential storytellers. Overly dynamic paneling is not necessary in building a successful comic, in fact it often gets in way of the true heart of the story. David Lapham’s vision is as clear and concise as his linework, and the finished product is brilliant in all its black and white glory.

Stray Bullets: Killers #8 ends a very successful “mini-ongoing” by utilizing a bunch of characters introduced over the previous seven issues and putting them against each other in unforeseen ways. With a savvy mix of violence, emotion and absurdity I recommend this series to anyone looking for a damn good read. Now excuse me while I catch up on the 1000 or so pages that I missed.

-Jamil Scalese


 

Stray Bullets #8 is a masterful, well-constructed narrative that explores not just violence, but rather the characters and relationships through the violence. It’s a wonderful examination of how seemingly unrelated and bizarre turns of events pan out in a cause and effect type of storytelling.

I should start by saying this is the first issue of Stray Bullets that I have read – ever. It’s a confession I am slightly embarrassed to admit, but I believe is incredibly germane to the review at hand. The Laphams do such a great job at creating a strong cast of characters and a well-constructed plot that starting at the very end of the story arc did not effect my reading of the story in a negative way.

The issue reads as a cohesive piece and supplied me with enough information that I was able to engage with the story and connect the dots. No previous information was necessary in order to understand what was going on and when it was, Lapham provided that information in a way that was not overwhelming or watered down. This takes a great understanding of storytelling technique to pull off without readers feeling cheated.

Nearly duplicate images occuring in the past are juxtaposed with panels in the current timeline to subtly let readers know that these were memories without needing to use caption boxes.  His line work is tight and purposeful and doesn’t overload the panels with distractions from the story that he’s telling. We see a full-range of emotions displayed in Stray Bullets that bring characters to life through gestures.

I was able to connect, sympathize, despise, and root for characters even after just reading one issue because of how much is character development is crammed into this story. The plot touches on multiple relationship problems, large and small, between Eli and Virginia, Adam and Jane and all variations of the couples. It’s a serious comic and a seriously good read.

I’d tip my hat to the Laphams (if I were wearing a hat) because being thrown into the middle of a comic is usually a hellish mess, but I felt comfortable and confident reading this comic. I couldn’t be more happy that the arc is finished, because that gives me some time to go catch up on years’ worth of Stray Bullets while anticipating the new arc come January.

-Michael Bettendorf

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Sunday Slugfest: Multiversity: The Just #1

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 26, 2014.

Multiversity - The Just - Cover

I would not be opposed to Grant Morrison creating number one issues for DC Comics as a full time job. The centerpiece of his series Multiversity is a collection of issues that introduce brand new takes on the DC universe. Two issues in and he has struck gold twice. Here he follows up the pulp-inspired JSA riff Secret Society of Super-Heroes #1, with a modern combination of superheroes and celebrity culture laced with parody.

Morrison and Ben Oliver manage to both introduce a brand new world while also navigating a complete narrative. Oliver should receive a large share of the credit for his design work alone. He creates outfits and costumes that inform readers on both the personalities and heritage of the many heroes that populate these pages. Damian Wayne is clearly Batman, but his use of a leather trench coat (making him resemble the Midnighter as much as his father), reveals the surly attitude that lurks beneath it. The summer dress of Sasha Norman looks natural and displays her open and fun-loving personality, while making reference to her father Mister Miracle. The focus on fashion itself serves to emphasize the superficial focus of this story.

The Just #1 isn’t necessarily interested in what would happen if superheroes existed in reality, but it is interested in how they would interact with the reality of celebrity culture. The importance of image, superficial relationships, and a complete lack of responsibility creates a world where the most important parts of life often seem trivial. The antics of Batman, Superman, and Alexis Luthor are amusing, but are divorced from the ideals of the superhero genre. Concepts like justice, self-sacrifice, and the sanctity of human life are all notably undervalued. In this way The Just #1 serves as both an appraisal and criticism of the superhero genre.

Although the overarching story that connects all of these #1 issues is intriguing, it is not nearly as exciting as the concepts within each issue. The Just #1 recreates the old intellectual property at DC Comics with an amusing new conceit. There are only 40 pages to be found here, but it has left me wanting more. If this trend continues, Morrison and his collaborators will not have created one of the most exciting new ideas at DC in the past decades, but seven of them.

- Chase Magnett


 

 

 

It’s possible that Grant Morrison doesn’t actually exist. It’s might be true that he’s the creation of a fifth-dimensional imp that causes havoc on our Earth when he comes here and who is forced back to his dimension whenever he says his name backwards. It’s possible. It might be true. The concept sounds like it comes from one of Morrison’s comics; in fact, this could be the plot of the next Muliversity crossover. The man loves his ideas – and thankfully he also loves to play.

Multiversity: the Just is another chapter in Grant Morrison’s exploration of the concepts that fascinate him: parallel worlds, killer comic books, doppelgangers, alien invasion, fashion, the differences between the ways that we see ourselves and the ways that the world sees us. But as always with Morrison this delightful book is more than the sum of its parts or its notions.

Morrison delivers an absurdist, wild, ridiculous comedy short film, with a cracking hilarious script full of awesome one-liners (“That was your big team-up with Sandman? You fell asleep and had a dream?”), stupidly hilarious scenes (Arrowette teasing her dad Green Arrow is hysterical), clever continuity call-outs (Kyle Rayner still mourning his girlfriend who was killed and left in a refrigerator) and the mystery of a suicide at its center that’s haunting and weird and full of techno-organic call-outs to us uber geeks.

This issue is short on action but long on talk and deep thought. The Just is deliberately claustrophobic, the world of the super-heroes in this story feeling tight and clannish in a way that seems ultimately more destructive than constructive, where everyone in a costume knows everybody else in a costume way too well, and that situation leads to a world of true super-hero decadence, of wild parties and secret girlfriends hiding inside lead-lined jackets and, oh yeah, a frightening threat that appears as the issue wraps up and shows that there are consequences for the loose lifestyle.

Ben Oliver draws everything in a slick, fashion-influenced style in which the heroic characters look bold and beautiful (especially in civilian clothes) but that de-emphasizes the backgrounds. And that works because the backgrounds show the worlds of normal people, and that doesn’t matter at all.

It all amounts to a hilarious first half of a great summer action flick – the calm and character setting before the giant invasion that will happen in the second act. We’re giggling and ready, Grant. We’re ready for the action to begin.

- Jason Sacks

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Axis #3: Lots of Noise with Little Defintion

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 24, 2014.

Axis 3 - Cover - Marvel

The first act of Avengers & X-Men: Axis, “The Red Supremacy” is complete. Although there’s still a lot of story in this mini-series left to be told, it’s a good point to stop and assess the event so far. In my reviews of Axis #1 and Axis #2 I addressed the series lack of focus and inability to craft conflict. The third issue continues to trend along the same lines as the previous ones. Although Leinil Francis Yu’s artwork provides some exciting individual panels, the issue is a mess when read as a whole. The action sequences are often underwhelming and the inks appear rushed. The problems with the first act of Axis are not created by the art though, they come from a complete lack of direction in the story.

Axis is an event comic. It features over the top action, big consequences, and loads of characters. It’s a fever dream of superheroes paced at the speed of insanity, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Event comics are a very, very specific sub-genre. Although not everyone enjoys them, there’s nothing inherently wrong with their scope or style. Whether a series is or is not considered an event, doesn’t excuse a lack of quality though. Event comics are every bit as capable of telling compelling stories as anything else. To see that, you don’t have to look any further than the master template for them all: Crisis On Infinite Earths (henceforth referred to as COIE).

COIE is an excellent comparison for understanding why Axis #3 doesn’t read very well. They both feature an enormous antagonist being confronted by a vast number of heroes with the entire Earth at stake. The goals of the two series may vary, but the narrative vehicle is the same make and model. Axis #3 suffers from a lack of definition in its problem, solution, and why anyone should care about the consequences; those three components are never in doubt when reading COIE.

The central problem of “The Red Supremacy” seems obvious at first. The Red Skull has gained an inordinate sum of power and plans to use it. What he plans to use it for is less tangible. There is certainly a lot of bad stuff occurring in Axis #3. People around the world are attacking one another and the heroes are being handily beaten by a pair of Sentinels. There’s no urgency to their fight though. The events leading to this battle have occurred over an indeterminate frame of time. Readers are unaware how long the Red Skull has been wreaking havoc or what the results of the havoc have been. What is the Red Skull’s ultimate objective? How does he plan to achieve it? These are no satisfactory answers to these questions.

Compare this to the antagonist of COIE, the Anti-Monitor. Despite a goofy name and appearance, this character works as a great engine for conflict and narrative. He is driven by a singular goal: to eliminate all existence. His means for achieving this goal vary, but are always clearly explained. For example, he must construct an anti-matter cannon to overcome the defenses of the five remaining universes and destroy them. The threat of the Anti-Monitor is clear because his goals and plans to achieve these goals are clear. Story’s require a conflict that can be understood. They must be able to answer the question: what happens if the heroes fail? In COIE the answer is plain: the multiverse is destroyed if the Anti-Monitor constructs and activates his cannon. In Axis #3, the only answer available is “bad stuff”.

Without a clear objective, time table, or detailed plan, there’s no way to craft an understandable solution. Readers want to root for heroes. They want to cheer on the defeat of the bad guys and cringe when a potential route to victory is blocked. For that to be possible, there has to be an understood path to that victory. Axis #3 presents a solution, but it happens so quickly that there is no space in which to build tension. Most of the issue is a throwdown between Red Skull and Magneto’s villainous reinforcements. The closest semblance to a plan here is to hit the bad guys until they fall down. When a magical solution is discovered, readers are never actually shown why or how it will work. It’s simply a matter of telling. Magic happens and then the Red Skull is defeated. Although it’s possible to understand what happened, the experience of reading it is anything but exciting.

COIE again provides an excellent example of how to set up and implement a solution. The construction of the anti-matter cannon makes it clear that the device is absolutely necessary to complete the Anti-Monitor’s plans. Therefore the heroes devise a plan to attack in the hopes of destroying the cannon. The problem and solution are rudimentary, but easily understood. That simple plot allows for exciting drama to unfold though. When the massive group of heroes are unable to reach the cannon, it feels as though everything is lost. Then The Flash manages to reach it and devise a new plan to destroy the weapon. The conceit is uncomplicated, yet it creates big shifts in momentum and drama.

That’s the reason that an understanding of the problem and solution in Axis #3 is important. Conflict is the key to drama. Without being able to understand conflict, readers cannot invest in the drama of a story. The mayhem and pandemonium of an event comic should inspire excitement and reactions to rival their sweeping scope and impacts. Drama isn’t born from scope and shocks though. In the world of superhero comics, it’s impossible to find stakes bigger than what has come before or or even convince that anyone will stay dead. Drama in events comes from the same place it does in every story: characters.

The most dramatic moment in Axis #3 arrives after the Red Skull has been defeated when the X-Men and Avengers argue over what is to be done with him. The conflict seems to be grafted on to the characters, a necessary disagreement for the plot to move forward. It is over something so minor (where to take the Red Skull before he awakens) that it’s hard to believe no one is willing to offer a compromise. Havok and Wasp’s marriage breaks apart as part of the argument and it is treated like a significant and emotional moment, but it feels meaningless. Axis has lacked any legwork to invest the marriage with value (or to even clarify that the characters are married), so the lowest point of the issue falls flat. That marriage and a few smaller dramatic beats are based upon events from other series written by Rick Remender like Uncanny Avengers and Uncanny X-Force. Still, the motivations for the dramatic choices made here seem farcical even with that added context.

And once again COIE offers an example of simple, character-driven drama. In order to destroy the anti-matter cannon, Barry Allen has to sacrifice his own life. It’s easy to view a superhero’s death with skepticism, but the reaction of Wally West to discovering his mentor and best friend’s costume is heart breaking. It’s built on a connection that any reader can understand, one that is set up in the preceding pages, that Wally really cares for Barry. The connection between their costumes and names alone is enough to understand the significance. There’s no nuance to the scene drawn by George Perez. Wally’s cries accompanied by the disheartened faces of those around him are pure pathos, but it’s very,very effective.

The problem with Axis #3 is not that it is an event comic. One of the most absurd and busiest event comics of all time has managed to remain a fan favorite after thirty years, one that still holds lessons in storytelling. The problem is that Axis is lacking a clearly defined story. There are emotional beats and action sequences, but they never combine to create a clear sense of momentum. Axis #3 doesn’t give readers a good reason to care about what characters do or what happens to them. It never bothers to clearly define the problem, the solution, or why any of it should matter. It focuses on the scope of the comic while ignoring the narrative. Even in the most convoluted of events, it is possible to construct simple, effective stories.  Axisdoesn’t.

Despite all of the cynicism and skepticism from readers about events, “The Red Supremacy” was not destined to be a bad comic. The fault for that lies with the storytelling.

Grade: D

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Arkham Manor #1 Presents a Fascinating New Premise for Batman (Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 24, 2014.

Arkham Manor 1 - Cover

Arkham Manor #1 acts more like a prologue than a first issue. It sets up the series as it spins out of Batman Eternal #30. The premise of Wayne Manor being transformed into a replacement for Arkham Asylum is woven into the narrative in a surprisingly tactful manner. The exposition is neatly presented, so that the necessary housekeeping reads naturally.

Although this issue may only serve to lay the framework for the story to come, that’s not a bad thing. Gerry Duggan and Shawn Crystal use these pages to beautifully construct a fascinating premise, one that has me hooked.

The story focuses around Batman, but here is a character that is almost unrecognizable when compared to appearances in Snyder and Capullo’s Batman and Brian Buccelatto and Francis Manapul’s Detective Comics. Here he is defined by his anger and violence. Batman goes beyond being a fearsome vigilante to being someone who is often selfish, unlikable, and sadistic. There is a sequence in this issue where after successfully stopping a pair of muggers and forcing them to apologize, he continues to brutalize them as their victim runs in terror.

Arkham Manor - Batman Torture

Duggan and Crystal do not present this scene as being cool or the act of a just superhero. It’s mean spirited and ugly. Here they are removing some of the allure of Batman in order to get at the interesting conflicts that exist within the character’s basic mythos. Batman has always existed as a member of America’s wealthiest. His origin is steeped in money, as are his powers. Without the immense Wayne estate, the orphaning of Bruce would not be presented as special and there would be no Batman. Removing that estate and forcing him to view the criminals he terrorizes as peers seeks to explore the nature of Batman’s privilege and its troublesome nature.

There is a murder mystery at the heart of this story, but that’s not the driving conflict ofArkham Manor #1. Instead, it is choosing to address the issues of class and recidivism that are perpetuated in all Batman stories, but almost never addressed. The potential in that concept alone is good reason to read Arkham Manor.

Crystal’s art is an equally good reason to seek out this comic. Arkham Manor #1 marks his debut at DC Comics and it is an impressive start. His work here contains strains of Sean Murphy. Sharp, plentiful line work is used not to create overly detailed images, but ones that strike a powerful atmosphere. His compositions are tense and angular, but never cramped or overly busy. Some of his lines are so taut that it’s possible to imagine playing the violin across them.

Arkham Manor - Shawn Crystal

In the panels above it’s easy to see how naturally Crystal’s style fits (and creates) the tense, moody atmosphere of Arkham Manor. In the top panel, he places Batman at a distance from the reader and steeps him in shadow. It’s a technique used throughout the issue to make Batman seem antagonistic and intrinsically different; he is made to be the other. His long outstretched arm creates a stressed, rigid line across the panel. Even when the panel below creates a close up, it focuses on his gritted teeth and jaw line. His face is composed of sharp angles and signals stress and anger. Even when close to Batman, his appearance seeks to drive the reader away.

Arkham Manor #1 is an exciting start to a series that is packed with potential. Duggan and Crystal have created a scenario that gets at the very heart of this 75 year old character, touching upon ideas that are rarely recognized in Batman comics. Just as important, here they show the skills to tell that story in a way that is visually striking and always engaging. This could be the beginning of a beautiful series.

Grade: B+

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Rasputin #1 Reintroduces One of History’s Strangest Villains as a Hero (Advance Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 24, 2014.

Rasputin 1 - Cover

Rasputin #1 introduces one of history’s favorite villains as the protagonist of a new series. It’s far from the first time that Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin has been reinvented for a comic, but this new take does stand out as something unique. The first issue uses the infamous night of his murder as a framing device to introduce the character as someone more sympathetic and human than the bogeyman presented by history and Hellboy.

Riley Rossmo’s depictions of Rasputin as both an adult and child craft a one-act play that works based on the power of its visual language alone. Almost the entire story occurs in the past, with adolescent Rasputin growing up in the harsh climate of Siberia. No more than four words are ever spoken on any 1 of the 19 pages set in the past. Rossmo crafts characters, setting, and action without the help of any words and there is never a lack of clarity or understanding. For that alone, Rasputin #1 is worth examining. It is a beautiful example of how to tell stories with images.

Rossmo’s character designs tell the reader everything they need to know about these people and their relationships before the story even begins. His father Efim is a gigantic bear of a man. He towers above his wife and son and possesses absolute power over them. His unkempt beard and withdrawn eyes reveal him to be a cold, pitiless person. Even without the scenes of abuse, it would be easy to infer that Efim beats his wife and child. His unnamed wife is a much meeker figure, composed of limbs and a torso that might as well be sticks. The hard angles of her face show her to have enough willpower to stand up to Efim, even if she cannot hurt him. Rasputin resembles his mother. He is clearly part of her and opposed to his father’s ways. Like her, he possesses no physical strength, but great resolve.

Alex Grecian’s plot is a simple one-act play presented in three scens. It could easily be adapted to the stage as a brief production. The drama is clearly presented with easily understood characters, motivations, and choices. Rasputin is transformed from villain to misunderstood hero through this brief reflection on his origins. His situation and upbringing makes sense of his future and adds an ironic twist to his death. The only problem with this concise story is that it provides no hook to compel readers to seek out more. Rossmo’s art and storytelling may be enough to bring back some, but there is no cliffhanger or grand premise to capture fans of episodic narratives.

Grecian’s presentation of Rasputin’s father is almost comically evil. He is the caricature of an abusive paternal figure. More archetype than character in this issue, everything he does acts to inform the reader that he is a cruel, loveless man. While this may function for a short parable, it’s unlikely to hold up under scrutiny as the series continues.

Rasputin #1 is a very well told single issue. It presents a short and (not so) sweet story about the tragedy and irony of life. Grecian and Rossmo use one of history’s most interesting characters to craft a tale that fits perfectly into the Halloween season as well. Whether they can build this story into something larger has yet to be seen.

Grade: B

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Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor #1 – “Imagination Without a Budget” (Review)

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 23, 2014.

Doctor Who - Twelfth Doctor - Cover

Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor #1 is striking while the iron is hot, following the debut of BBC’s eighth series of the beloved character by less than two months. That quick proximity presents both a risk and an opportunity to writer Robbie Morrison and artist Dave Taylor. They can help define what makes this version of the Doctor special, but are also relying on very limited source material to capture the right tone for fans of the series.

The tone of this issue suits the character very well though. Taylor recognizes what makes the mythology of the Doctor special and emphasizes it on most of his pages. The wild imagination of the series and creative scenarios are a consistent presence in his art. He details wide jungle landscapes, creating images that would be unconvincing on a television show’s budget. The flora and fauna that occupy the setting is fascinating. Although many animals are roughly based on those occupying Earth (for a good, plot driven reason), they are all unique. The inclusion of Skunkies (Skunk-Monkeys) is amusing and shows off what a Doctor Who comic can do better than a television show.

That is to say, Taylor is not restricted by technical limitations. He can add quirks and aliens wherever and whenever he wants. The inclusion of random alien cast members help to make the comic feel more diverse based on Taylor’s whims alone. He conjures up creatures and robots that contain their own unique histories, but act only as extra bodies here. In this, the comic feels much more like a bar in Star Wars than a typical episode of Doctor Who.

Taylor’s art sometimes suffers when focusing on the characters of the Doctor and Clara. Their faces appear less naturally constructed than his original creations. He does not appear to have quite made these imitations of the actors his own yet, and is clearly working to mirror their on screen appearances. As a result, they often appear stiff, almost statuesque.

Morrison seems to have a firm grasp on the Doctor Who property as well. He understands both the attractiveness of the concept and the attitude behind Peter Capaldi’s performance. Both Clara and the Doctor are fully realized as individuals within the script. The banter between the two reads naturally and is funny without ever feeling forced. Their voices are consistent and it is easy to get a handle on who they are, so much so that someone unfamiliar with the newest Doctor could get a solid impression of his personality from this comic alone.

The biggest problem the script suffers from is an overabundance of expository dialogue. Skimming the pages of The Twelfth Doctor #1, it’s easy to detect that word bubbles cover many of these pages. Between discovering problems, discussing past events, and humorous banter, there are plenty of pages that consist only of figures standing around talking to or at one another. It slows the pacing of the story and sometimes avoids showing off Taylor’s imaginative vistas.

Overall, The Twelfth Doctor nails the tone of the show and it’s newest cast of characters. Fans of the show will doubtless enjoy seeing more of what they love on television, but in a medium that doesn’t restrict imagination based on budgets. It manages to provide points of interest beyond simple imitation. Taylor’s art allows for scenes and effects that would be impossible on the BBC, and if the series focuses more on this strength, it will be better for it.

Grade: B

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Starlight: Resilience, Hope, and Optimism

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on October 23, 2014.

Starlight - 1

Resilience. Hope. Optimism.

These are not words that I associate with the works of Mark Millar. Comics like Kick-Ass,Nemesis, Wanted, The Ultimates have defined Millar’s style. They are comics defined by cynicism, ugliness, and a disdain for readers. Millar’s scripts have brought us fine moments like an incestual baby bomb, gang rape with plenty of wisecracks, and ending a comic by giving the reader a middle finger while anally raping them. Even his more light-hearted recent works like Superior and Super Crooks have not been able to resist the temptation to play in the muck, cracking lewd jokes and including ample gore.

His Millarworld comics have built a wide audience though. They sell and sell well, and there’s nothing wrong with Millar making these comics. Millar’s adolescent sense of maturity appeals to audiences. While his books  are obviously entertaining for many;they’re too often racist, sexist, and hateful tracts that play to the lowest common denominator. Millarworld specializes in trash entertainment, which can be enjoyable when read for what it is. It’s not for me and that’s fine.

Then Starlight came along and forced me to reevaluate my thoughts about Mark Millar’s comics. Starlight is written by Millar, drawn by Goran Parlov, and it is everything that Millarworld comics typically are not. It is sincere instead of cynical. It is beautiful instead of ugly. It is authentic instead of disdainful. It’s a comic defined by a sense of resilience, hope, and optimism.

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Starlight is the story of Duke McQueen. Duke is an homage to Flash Gordon. He is a man who was transported across the galaxy to fight an evil dictator and free the subjugated people of the planet Tantalus. This story starts almost forty years later though. Duke returned to Earth with no proof of his alien adventures and was berated and mocked for his stories. Instead of living the life of a hero, he lived a much more humble existence with his wife and two sons. Now his wife has died from breast cancer and his sons are too busy with their own lives to pay attention. Old and alone, he is called to return to Tantalus to save the alien world once again.

The conflict is the same as before. Duke must confront a tyrannical dictator with superior forces, weapons, and innumerable other advantages. This time, Duke is an old man. He may still be strong, but the years have their toll on his body and confidence. Flashbacks to his old battles in Starlight #1 show him as a man in his prime filled with jokes. The man remembering these moments is hunched and lacking in the same wit. It is as if a light has been turned off.

This contrast between classic Duke and modern Duke makes for a striking comparison between legends and reality. Duke is brought back to Tantalus by a child, Krish Moor, who has heard tales of Duke and believes him capable of saving the world once again. On Tantalus Duke has not aged at all. He is still remembered as a brave hero capable of conquering the most fearsome of foes. A massive statue of him rests in the center of the capital city. The years have taken a toll on the man, but not his legend.

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Krish is not deterred by the obvious aging of his hero though. Even after seeing the aged Duke, Krish is entirely confident the “two-fisted pilot” can save the world again. Duke’s tired, world weary demeanor is placed into conflict with the boundless optimism of youth, and Krish is certainly a child. He comes off his starship assured that with Duke, saving his planet will be an easy jaunt. When Duke attempts to dissuade him, Krish responds by throwing a tantrum. He throws Duke’s reluctance back in his face and pouts. Millar creates a dichotomy between Duke’s pessimism and Krish’s optimism, perspectives that could also be seen as realism and idealism respectively.

This duality of perspectives can be applied to the stories which provide the inspiration forStarlight. Heroes like Flash Gordon and Superman in their original stories were uncorrupted ideals of heroism. In the decades that have followed their creation though, that spirit has been corrupted. The terrible treatment of creators, propagation of characters as nothing more than corporate property, and urge to make superheroes grim and gritty have created an environment in which it is easy to be cynical. The heroic social ideals originally found in these fantastic characters have been undermined by their status as money making machines and the trend of making children’s comics grittier and faux realistic.

That history doesn’t appeal to the imagination of children, however. No matter what has happened to heroes since their inception, Flash Gordon is still capable of providing an inspirational ideal to a child. Duke’s physical limitations and world weariness are unimportant to Krish. He has complete faith that Duke is a hero. That faith is ultimately rewarded. Duke decides to pick up his old mantle and return to fight for Tantalus again. The ensuing conflict is not fought by Duke alone. He becomes a figurehead for the resistance. In the end, he is just as valuable as a source of inspiration as a fighter.

Starlight builds to a final issue that is everything that is expected from a Flash Gordon story, and then something else. It’s a battle against the evil dictator Lord Kingfisher, his terrible minions, and entire army under the worst possible circumstances with every hero but Duke captured and ready to be executed. Starlight #6 is high action in the classic pulp tradition. Of course, Duke wins the day. He defeats Lord Kingfisher in a suitably ironic way. Krish avenges his parents. The people of Tantalus overcome their oppressors and take back their planet. It’s an outlandish, impossible comeback, and it is absolutely thrilling.

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Everything about the finale is big, bright, and bold. It’s good defeating evil writ large; there’s nothing subtle about it. That’s okay. Millar and Parlov embrace the optimism of this victory and let it play out according to genre tropes. Yet their presentation of Duke and Krish are so endearing that it never feels cliched or naive. Instead, it feels exciting and inspiring. It’s an uplifting battle because it is wish fulfillment. You want Duke and his companions to win the day with wit and style, and they do. It presents itself as what it is: a fantasy.

And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s enough to find some bit of hope and consolation, a bit of inspiration where heroes do win the day no matter how great the obstacles they face.

The most significant victory in Starlight is not Duke’s defeat of Lord Kingfisher, but his choice to return home once more. Millar and Parlov begin Starlight by separating Duke as far from Earthly concerns as possible. He is retired and disgraced. His wife is dead and his children distant. Yet he chooses to return home rather than remain on Tantalus where he is celebrated as a hero.

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The fantasy that occurs on Tantalus is the centerpiece of Starlight, but it is framed by Duke’s life on Earth. That life doesn’t involve planetary dictators, starships, or epic struggles. It’s defined by far more real struggles: the loss of a beloved wife, distant relations with children, and finding purpose in the world. Duke chooses that mundane and ordinary world with its mundane and ordinary struggles. He chooses the world with his children and grandchildren over the one that could give him an endless fantasy. What he accomplishes on Tantalus serves as his inspiration to return home and continue the same fights he was fighting as the book began. His actions as a grand fantasy hero give him the urge to keep fighting, to reconnect with his children and honor his wife. The romanticism of Duke’s life on Tantalus provides inspiration for his real life on Earth. Krish’s belief in heroes is the fuel that makes Duke’s more subtle heroism possible and reveals the unending potential of characters like Duke.

On Tantalus Duke is a symbol. He is valued for what he represents, for being a legend. At the end of Starlight though, Duke is not a hero because he of his impossible feats and bigger-than-life heroism. He is a hero because he is a good husband, father, and grandfather. He is a hero because he is human.

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Starlight is unlike anything in the Millarworld line of comics, and almost anything Millar has scripted before. The shift in tone and theme is so drastic that it is almost impossible to reconcile with Millar’s previous books, and that’s a very good thing. What Millar and Parlov have crafted together is a comic that embraces its operatic, pulp source material and provided a new life to it. They have discover what makes these stories and heroes valuable and presented that value in a thrilling, new adventure. Starlight is a comic without a hint of cynicism. It believes in heroes without being naive, and presents a beautiful portrait of resilience, hope, and optimism.

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