Planetary #12: The Game’s Afoot

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 26, 2015.

Planetary #12 Cover

Ray Sonne: While the Planetary series has had a number of connections that string the singular issues along in a forward plot, Planetary #12 is the first issue that does not stand on its own. It follows up with Planetary #11 directly, by having Elijah confront Jakita and The Drummer on their lies.

This issue is set up like the scene where an action movie’s villain announces his evil plans. Of course, instead of the villain, we have Elijah sitting behind his ice desk and peeling apart the mystery of his situation step-by-step. Cassaday and Depuy contain the beginning of this issue in shadows. Blacks and shades of navy mostly color the setting. This not only drapes the issue in suspenseful tone, but also provides a strong lead-up to the panel where Elijah displays an abrupt burst of temper (other revelations are set in blurred sunlight or, in the case of a particularly painful memory, a yellow background).

Planetary #12 Desk Smash

While there have been scenes in previous issues that were set at nightfall, this is the first time we see Cassaday and Depuy playing with lighting. The art’s ultra-realistic style is a huge asset to the series’ action/adventure series and the Cassaday and Depuy’s attention to detail is felt strongly here. Particularly, the different places where they decide to cut off the light on Elijah’s face. Which also, by the way, has quite some intricate linework, as if to emphasize the character’s realization of the depth of his life and experiences.

Chase, what do you think of the creative team’s manipulation of sunlight in this issue?

Chase Magnett: Thank you so much for pointing out this element of Cassaday’s work and asking one of my favorite questions of this series so far. Lighting is the single most significant visual element of Planetary #12 and that says a lot when you consider this is the climax of the series. I use the word climax in the same manner as Gustav Freytag and his pyramid of dramatic structure. This is the midpoint of the series where a significant change occurs that reveals the protagonists hidden strengths (Planetary is more a comedy than drama when all is said and done).

Cassaday guides us through the monumental shift in direction that the series undergoes here by moving us from the polar opposites of darkness and light. That transition reflects a few different transitions that all occur in this issue. The most obvious of which is the revelation of who Elijah Snow is. He actively chooses the settings of this issue, first inviting his team into his darkened office before forcing them to follow him outside. Snow begins the action in the darkness and then moves it into the light as he reveals who he is. The turning point of this issue comes when Snow announced that he is the Fourth Man and is doused in light. There’s not a shadow to be found in that moment. The revelation of Snow’s identity is the centerpiece of this issue and, therefore, of the climax itself.

Planetary #12 Fourth Man

The shift in Snow’s identity is also reflected in his emotions. You pointed out that he’s violent and abrasive in the darkness of his office, but when he goes outside he is unable to resist smiling (something rarely seen in Planetarythus far). In the light of day, he is a man reborn and the reason why is reflected in his speech. He discusses the joy of discovering and learning things. His emotional transition, along with the change in light shifts the emphasis ofPlanetary from secrecy to openness. All of their earlier missions were about covering things up and hoarding new facts. Whether it was protecting the monsters of Island Zero or faking Jack Carter’s death, Planetary has been focused on finding and maintaining secrets. Snow brings the biggest secret of all into the light of day here and it marks a change for the better.

That change is also marked in Planetary’s change of mission. We’ve spoken a lot about the slow shift in the way Planetary does business as Snow pushes them to be a more active group. Although that has been a consistent undercurrent, this is the moment that crystallizes the change. Planetary will no longer be in the passive business of secrets, instead it will work in the active world of truth telling. That work is summarized in the concept of the Planetary Guide, a book that encapsulates the many strange wonders of each year to be distributed.

The Planetary Guide summarizes where the series and team will go from here. What do you think this object says about the future of the series and how Ellis and Cassaday view the importance of the book?

RS: This is where Elijah’s status as a Century Baby kicks back in as a point of importance. He is, essentially, living memory of an entire century. As an “archaeologist” (which we now know means adventurer, detective, or any other number of titles depending on each story’s demand), he gives both himself and his team the prestige of officialness and the implication of academia. The Planetary Guide is the written embodiment of Elijah’s Century Baby existence and doesn’t differ from all of literature from their creators. Literature is often immortal where writers are not so even though Elijah’s 100 years are impressive in their own right, the Planetary Guide will have him “live” beyond this century as well.

Ellis and Cassaday seem to somewhat be going in a meta angle with this. We haven’t seen Elijah write the Planetary guide yet, but we are reading a series called Planetary and have seen enough to recognize that the previous 11 issues resemble a pattern that has occurred throughout Elijah’s life. He confronts genre after genre, story after story, and the series we read is a record of each of these situations even if we don’t see him writing about them afterward. We are reading a book about a book, or books. A guide under the same title works as a series, after all, as much as a fictional comic book title does.

Planetary #12 means a return for the Planetary Guide, but in a repurposed form. A highlight of this issue is Elijah’s start as a detective under Sherlock Holmes. There is mystery reserved here for the first-time reader and Elijah as the detective knows the whole story. He’s just not sharing it.

Planetary #12 Elijah and Jakita

He also declares the famous line, “The game’s afoot.” In Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories, this line referred to the beginning of the mystery and the excitement of eventually discovering a culprit. Here, Planetary knows that their villain is Randall Dowling. The game is in figuring out how they’re going to defeat him.

Chase, do you see any other repurposed elements or circular structure in this issue?

CM: There are definitely some callbacks (and forwards) in Planetary #12, but not as much as I might have expected. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison for example, Ellis is more interested in the narrative of his comics than their formal structure. He could have written this issue to parallel the beginning of the series, as well as events both from the past and future. While those elements are there, they feel more like an afterthought than the heart of the issue.

The start mirrors the very beginning of Planetary #1 with Jakita entering Elijah’s office, seeking him out as he reclines. This time their positions are flipped though; Elijah has called for Jakita and reversed the power dynamic. He is a radically different person than the man we met only 12 issues ago and this shift (along with dramatic changes in clothing and setting) make that obvious.

It is a character driven scene though. The similarities between this and their first encounter are almost coincidental, almost. Most of what we have been discussing about Planetary so far has largely focused on what Ellis and Cassaday are saying about genre, tropes, and periods in fiction. The meta-commentary has always been the driving force of this series, but it has not precluded its creators from slowly building another narrative just beneath the surface. The secret history between Elijah and Jakita has been hinted at since Planetary #1. We have seen Elijah slowly take a more active role on the team, and watched as Jakita and The Drummer accept his leadership with very little tension. At this point it is clear who these characters are and how one of them is changing.

None of Planetary #12 is really a surprise, even if there are a fair number of revelations. All of the flashbacks shown by Cassaday are washed in a cool blue that distorts light, like ice melting to reveal water. The cool exterior of this series isn’t being removed, but altered to show the heart and warmth that has always existed just beneath the surface. Ellis and Cassaday are still holding onto secrets, specifically the significance of Ambrose Chase, but this is now just as much a book about the characters as it is about the big ideas. Future issues will continue to focus on specific concepts, but we will see more and more of that new connective tissue you point out between #11 and#12.

At the end of Planetary #1, Elijah Snow is shown at rest on a hillside watching the sun rise. It is the beginning of the series and light is just starting to emerge. Now at the end of Planetary #12, as the series reaches its climax, he is standing in broad daylight looking directly up into space. That shift between Elijah’s final stance at the conclusion of these two issues reveals both his growth and the direction of Planetary as it enters its second half. What was once passive is now active, what was once obscured is now revealed, what was once cold has begun to warm.

Planetary may be halfway over, but the story is only just beginning to heat up.

Bonus Round!


  • Setting our usual conversation of genre conventions aside, I can’t help but wonder if Ellis and Cassaday are also playing with what makes cliche here. We knew that this issue had to happen because every previous issue promised this direction, but certain conventions (ex. Elijah playing with a piece of Jakita’s hair, a momentous gesture of opening a window shade) that readers would have seen many times before occurred in this issue that didn’t necessarily need to be included in order to play with the general convention of the spy/thriller revelation scene. This kind of begets the question: what elements make certain genres unique? Do genres only survive when they constantly evolve past their cliches?


  • Sherlock Holmes brief cameo hints at a future issue of Planetary. There have been a lot of references to previous stories in Planetary so far, but here is the first obvious allusion to a future story. All of the issues so far have focused on the team’s actions in the present, even when flashing back to previous events. That will not always be the case as the series continues.
  • It’s worth noting that the background of the cover is composed not only of every page of Planetary so far, but that they are all arranged in chronological order including covers. Before you even read the first page, Cassaday and Ellis are informing you that this is the big moment the story so far has been leading to.
  • Elijah’s creation of a massive four in Central Park formed in ice is an inversion of the first appearance of the Fantastic Four’s debut in New York City where Johnny Storm created a four in fire. In the world of Planetary the warmth and love that defines the Fantastic Four has been completely removed, leaving only a cold reflection.
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The Dark Knight III: What the Fuck, Guys?

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 24, 2015.

Dark Knight III Cover

“The only people who use the comics Internet are people who would fuck Frank Miller’s corpse. Other folk just go live in the real world.” – Shea Hennum

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1 is not a good comic. It’s not a bad comic either. It’s a perfectly mediocre superhero offering on par with much of what DC Comics is producing currently. There are action beats, plot twists, and what resemble characters all cobbled together into what is clearly a story. Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello feature some thoughts on gender and America’s police state that, while not clearly expressed, definitely exist. Andy Kubert layouts the story so that you can understand what is occurring on the page. It is the Pizza Hut pepperoni pizza of comics.

If you order a pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut, within 30 minutes a delivery boy will provide you with something that is clearly pizza. It features crust, sauce, cheese, and an identifiable topping. This pizza will contain calories capable of providing energy and perhaps even taste decent, assuming you are very hungry or very high. Quality of ingredients and preparation will denote it as something far worse than most of what you would find in New York City, but far better than what you could pull from a frozen cardboard box. This does not make the pepperoni pizza in question good pizza, it simply makes it pizza.

Examining The Dark Knight III #1 purely on the level of craft reveals craftsmen. There is no doubt that the collaborators telling this story understand how the comics medium functions. This is not surprising considering Miller, Azzarello, Kubert, and Klaus Janson have well over a combined century of experience. But should we applaud work that is described as workmanlike? We do not walk up to a strip mall and marvel at how it does not crumble to the ground or that it’s lights are on or that the tenants have vacuumed the carpet. Many hours of labor have gone into both facades, but the result in both cases is something that meets expectations.

Dark Knight III Minotaur

The Dark Knight III #1 does feature sequences that rise above this workmanlike quality though. An action sequence between Wonder Woman and Minotaur-like creature creates a very real sense of power on the page. The monsters enormity and musculature emanates raw strength while Wonder Woman’s sure actions and their results creates the sense of something greater, but less obvious. Kubert channels bold compositions in both of these characters to develop an exciting scene.

It is the one scene in which Kubert truly feels like Kubert as well. He is drawing superheroes as he understands them here, bigger than life and ready to throw down. It is a scene that looks honest, which separates it from many of his other pages. The Dark Knight III (and most reviewers) are obsessed with discussing the new series’ predecessors. So much talk is really about The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again as opposed to the work at hand. That cannot be blamed entirely on reviewers though, since Kubert is determined to infuse Miller mimicry into both his style and compositions.

Dark Knight III Batcave

The resulting pages read disingenuously. Miller’s trademark visuals are there: broad forms, drastic posing, grimaces like rain. Kubert makes sure to provide a spattering of panels that clearly reflect famous images from the preceding series as well. All of this only serves to call attention to what The Dark Knight III is not. It is not Frank Miller doing Frank Miller. It is Andy Kubert not doing Andy Kubert. The pages may contain affection for the source material, but they are a poor facsimile that can primarily be complimented for being serviceable. Workmanlike.

Azzarello and Miller’s script is a less forgivable thing. Recent comments from Miller indicating that he had very little to do with the actual writing of the The Dark Knight III are born out in the work. Familiar elements from Miller’s previous series surface, but arise like an imitation striving to look like the things it apparently cannot be. Text messages are utilized as an updated form of street speak, yet read like an old, white man imagining how the kids these days might talk. It’s a laughable version of a language that never really existed. The talking TV heads resurface as well, albeit with much more restrained appearances than those that made Miller’s function before. They lack of rat-a-tat rhythm that made the concept crackle in The Dark Knight, acting as the thing, but failing to be the thing.

That style of speech and dialogue is what makes Miller’s noir-infused stories so memorable, even when they fail in other areas. No one writes quite like the man and that writing is barely present here. Dialogue is crafted to sound tough, but it’s never as sharp or mean or ugly as it believes itself to be.

That soft boiled hard edge carries into the plotting of the comic as well. There’s no clear thesis statement behindThe Dark Knight #1 as a series. Scenes jump between characters telling readers who exists and what they are currently doing. It establishes a status quo, but gives no reason to be concerned about how things reached this point or where they might go next. Rather than trying to construct an engaging story it acts just like DC Comics’ marketing campaign, relying on nostalgia and fandom to carry it forward.

Dark Knight III Carrie Kelly Batman

Amidst the imitation of what came before The Dark Knight #1 makes an attempt to address issues of gender and police violence. It can only be considered a feminist comic if the bar is including women in a comic. Wonder Woman, Yindel, and Carrie Kelly are all cast as men with breasts. Kelly is the resurfaced Batman, drawn as the broad shouldered Bruce until her identity is about to be revealed. Even as she stands bloodied and beaten she hunches and wheezes just like him. Wonder Woman is such a dominating and violent force that when she pulls out one of her breasts to feed her child it elicits laughter. That unintended humor is a trademark of representation, resurfacing when she responds to a friend’s outstretched hand with a sword.

Kelly’s appearance as Batman is a mix of her initial appearance as Robin, an overwhelmed kid in a suit and the aging Bruce taken over by a city that is no longer his. The resulting Batman combines the weakest aspects of both characters. The vigor and joy of the former gone and tremendous skill and resources of the latter lacking. She is presented as an inferior Batman dwarfed by the cowl.

Police violence against the black community is not addressed, but brushed past at the start of The Dark Knight III #1. Police have always been a fascistic force in this series and that part remains unchanged. The fact that they choose to attack a black man at the start of the comic seems almost incidental with a “ripped from the headlines” spin going for it. There is no real attempt to address the problem being presented, making me want to offer an apology for this review of Batman #44 where the creator’s at least appeared to be making an effort.

Dark Knight III Superman Penis

The singular flaw underlying almost every other flaw in The Dark Knight III #1 is that it is dishonest. The Dark Knight III #1 is a comic constructed to safely imitate greater works. It bears the names of Andy Kubert and Brian Azzarello, but never takes advantage of their substantial strengths, trying to twist them to be something they are not. The result is perhaps the most negligible comic featuring Frank Miller’s name to date. Even The Dark Knight Strikes Again, as maligned as it may be, is a comic that features what can only be described as a singular vision. It knows what it is and fulfills the artist’s desire on every page. It honest in a way The Dark Knight III never approaches, except for in a single spread after the story has ended. Miller’s depiction of Superman battling The Atom is honest, filled with power and a literal swinging dick. For only these two merged pages does it feel like a comics creator did something they cared about. It is the only true success in this masquerade.

That’s what makes looking at the reception of this issue by the legions of comics sites and blogs so absolutely stunning. Every month leading to this release was filled with dread as commenters made sport of Miller’s increasing focus on sexist and Islamophobic themes in his comics. Yet the final product features very little in the way of hate opting for inanity instead. Is this better? Perhaps, but it does not make The Dark Knight III a good comic.The Dark Knight III #1 is no better than the cardboard shells of pizza served by Pizza Hut. Yet comics reviewers are happy to praise it, applaud it, and tenderly kiss it for being workmanlike. They are Yelp reviewers eagerly posting 4 and 5 star reviews of a pepperoni pizza containing something resembling flavor. If that’s what we want to call great food, then maybe it would be better to starve.

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Finding the Place of All-New Wolverine #1

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 24, 2015.

All-New Wolverine #1 - Eiffel Tower

Comics possess the potential to transport readers literally anywhere. As long as an artist can envision a specific place and has the ability to depict it, that’s where their story can be told. From the personal environs of a childhood home to the extravagant cities in the world today to entirely new alien vistas, comics are limited only by imagination and skill. This is one of the qualities that makes genre stories so alluring to the medium. Superheroes, crime, and adventure comics can all feed on the excitement of simply being somewhere exciting.

It is a quality utilized well in the story of All-New Wolverine #1. The issue written by Tom Taylor and drawn by David Lopez and David Navarrot is a fresh introduction to Laura Kinney, who has assumed the mantle of her mentor, Logan. It features a brief adventure in which Laura foils an assassination with a neat twist at the end. Outside of a heartfelt flashback, there’s nothing exceptional about the plot of this debut, not without the setting. Rather than setting it in the all too familiar environs of Marvel’s New York City, the creative team chose to have it take place in Paris, France: The City of Lights, Romance, and Art.

This decision is clear from panel one of page one in which Laura is shown running across the street. In the background is Gustave Eiffel’s iconic tower from the 1889 world’s fair. There is truly nothing else like this famous piece of architecture in the world and its appearance instantly invokes knowledge (if not visions) of Paris. If that clear visual were not enough to cue readers into the scene, Taylor adds a caption at the top of the page to remind everyone that this is most certainly “Paris, France” and not some rogue nation in the Marvel universe attempting to duplicate beloved steel structures of the world.

All-New Wolverine #1 - Falling

It is one thing to locate an interesting setting and entirely another to utilize it well. All-New Wolverine #1 makes the most of its establishing shot. Not only does the first page introduce the place, it introduces the set piece for this action-oriented superhero comic. Laura’s battle with her mysterious would-be assassin takes place on the Eiffel Tower itself. Bullets are exchanged between a balcony and the landing below, a chase is made up the looming staircases, and they battle high above the city. The majority of the comic takes place within a single block of the Paris cityscape, but it feels every bit as big as it ought to.

Lopez and Navarrot consistently angle their panels to look up or down the length of the Tower, emphasizing its great height. The fear of a sniper perched in tightly woven steel beams is palpable. Laura’s lofty ascent feels like a truly superheroic feat. A batlle on a balcony almost inspires a sense of vertigo, not because of how close either combatant comes to the edge, but because readers have been constantly reminded of the element of height. It is a fun and effectively assemble action sequence centered around a recognizable set piece.

All-New Wolverine #1 - Paris

Even as Laura departs the Tower from a great height, the art continues to utilize the city well. Lopez and Navarrot’s depiction of a bird’s eye view (or rather an Angel’s eye view) of Paris is not very detailed, but it captures the height and rambling layout of the city well enough. The most important detail they include when transporting their characters is emphasizing another iconic Parisian landmark: the Arc de Triomphe. It is not significant in establishing Paris, that has already been done, but establishing the next action scene of All-New Wolverine #1. This is good storytelling, creating connections and utilizing the iconography of its setting to build a bridge between one big set piece and the next.

It is colorist Nathan Fairbairn who really brings Paris to life in these aerial panels. The sharp, cold rain and nighttime shadows balance beautifully against the glowing lights of the city. It hums like an early Edison light bulb, illuminating without overwhelming. For anyone who has visited the city, this coloring feels true. Much like the line work only provides an impression of the geography below, excluding the Arc, so does Fairbairn’s coloring. Yet the impression of how a city glows is something that reads far more accurately.

The depiction of Paris in All-New Wolverine #1 is not the most detailed or well-rendered of even this year. It is effective though. The creative team weaves the cities familiar landmarks into the script in ways that enhance the action. Two big landmarks are used to easily cue reader’s into where they are, giving them a sense of both place and scale. Colors are made to provide an impression of this truly magical city, helping to transport readers back or to a place they’ve never gone. Even in the least detailed of panels, the comic does not lose track of its sense of place and why that matters.

It’s that effective use of setting throughout the first 29 pages of the issue that makes the composition of the final page of the comic so baffling.

All-New Wolverine #1 - Final Page

For those that have never visited or lived in Paris, this spread may appear to fit perfectly within the story that came before it. Yet for those even slightly familiar with the city and its features, it’s clear that the panel is lying. Lopez and Navarrot have dramatically shifted the position of the Eiffel tower, moving it almost a mile closer to Notre Dame and to the opposite side of the Seine River. This is not a minor tweak to the landscape of Paris, but a complete restructuring of the city.

Whereas many of the alterations or dismissals of details in All-New Wolverine #1 were to both the benefit of the story and its sense of place, this change serves neither. Minor changes work within reader’s suspension of disbelief, but this radical of a shift will break that suspension for anyone who has seen the tower or church in question. There is nothing more dramatic or uplifting about the close combination of yet another Parisian landmark with the city’s centerpiece. The reader can have no doubt in their mind as to where Laura is at this moment, so including Notre Dame does not inform so much as it beats over the head. Combining the two does not add a sense of the city, but transforms it into a greatest hits album.

Paris is a city littered with extraordinary architecture and seeking to combine a shot of the Seine and the Eiffel tower, thus leading Laura away from her conflict, is an opportunity to explore the city for a perfect shot. Decades ago this might have been difficult, but Google Maps has made it extraordinarily easy. In only a few minutes it is possible to both verify the impossibility of this presentation and then discover many workable alternatives. This final concept presented the creators with an opportunity to once more reveal Paris to a readership seeking to explore the world in the pages of a comic. It offers an unimaginative solution though, one that fails to serve the story, reveal something new to unfamiliar readers, and shake the rest out of the story.

This is the double-edged sword of setting a comic in such well-known places. It presents many opportunities and an easily accessed shorthand language of place. Yet it also demands a sense of truth. A place like Paris is filled with landmarks and an atmosphere and construction not replicated anywhere else. Putting clawed superheroes and agile assassins there can make for an incredible adventure. In turn that incredible adventure can take readers across the world and help them fall in love with a truly magnificent place, while reminding others of why they wish to return. If you betray the veracity of the city, not through understandable changes, but through unnecessary, distracting reinventions, it can potentially turn a charming story sour.

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Cliff Chiang Discusses Paper Girls, the 80’s, and His Changing Art Style

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on November 21, 2015.

Paper Girls - Cover

Paper Girls, the new series from the all-star team of Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, and Matt Wilson,was released the week of New York Comic Con to widespread critical sat down with Chiang to discuss his development since leaving Wonder Woman, the creation of Paper Girls, and what the future holds for this great new series.

The first issue of Paper Girls is now out in the world. People are reading it and responding to it. So how are you feeling now?

Cliff Chiang: It has been great. The response has been fantastic. One of the things I wanted to do was make sure we were really far ahead so we could figure out what the book was about before people saw it. I didn’t want their opinions to influence me. So I was working in a vacuum for the better part of a year. Now the book is out and it is a great feeling because there has been such a lead up to this moment and it’s finally here.

You’ve only had covers published since Wonder Woman ended, so this is your first comics work in about a year. How has that experience been?

Chiang: I liked it, but it’s a funny thing. You’re sitting at home and it feels like you can see all the other kids outside playing. For me it was all about keeping my head down, working, and knowing that eventually the book would come out.

While there are certainly some comparisons that can be made with your work on Wonder Woman, I think Paper Girls brings a noticeable change in aesthetic and storytelling. What were you focusing on changing during this past year?

Chiang: I think that Paper Girls is not a superhero book changes the expectations. The way in which you make your art look interesting is completely different. For a superhero book I think the audience wants a certain amount of realism in order for the whole thing to be believable, but when you’re working on everyday stuff you can be more stylized because you are drawing stuff like a car and a house. Things need to look cool instead of believing someone can fly.

In that regard it was really liberating to just let go of certain expectations I had because ofWonder Woman. I stopped being hung up on those things and started trying to live up to the legacy of all the great storytellers in comics. There were also those expectations of how she (Wonder Woman) should be drawn and what she should look like. Whereas with this, it’s something we’re just coming up with from whole cloth so we were establishing everything from this first issue.

Paper Girls - Cop Car

Do you think Paper Girls creates a good baseline for what the audience should expect in regards to tone and style?

Chiang: I think so. With 40 pages we definitely cover a lot of ground. The book is going to get weirder and it’s kind of on a pendulum. It’s going to get weirder and then it’s going to get less weird, but I think the first issue is emblematic of what kind of book it’s going to be. There are these really human moments, but then you also get these big, fantastic moments.

Just reading the first issue, you not only get a clear sense of what the story is like, but where it is taking place. There are lots of references to the period in dialogue, but when you look at the setting and the fashion, you know when this is. Maybe not that it’s 1988, but definitely the late 80’s. Is most of this pulled from your own experience and memory or has a lot of research gone into creating that sense of place?

Chiang: It was important to me to show something that was believable or authentic for the late 80’s. When people talk about this being an 80’s book, it both is and isn’t. When people talk about stuff that is quintessentially 80’s, they’re mostly talking about stuff from the early 80’s, the Madonna and Michael Jackson kind of stuff. ‘88 is different in terms of feel. You’re losing a lot of the big cliches from the early 80’s. For me it was about going through my own memories of the time period, having grown up and been around the girl’s age. What was hot? What were kids doing at that time? The rest was presenting life as it was in the suburbs, which is very different from living in the city.

You and Brian [Vaughan] experienced this all first hand. When creating these pages, what was at the forefront of your mind in communicating what it was like to be there?

Paper Girls - Bedroom

Chiang: A lot of what Brian had written in the first issue felt real to me, so it was about how do I capture that and what details can I add to that from the period. It’s different when you’re that age and waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning versus being 30 or 40 and waking up. What is it like to be a kid? What does your room look like? What does your kitchen look like? There are little details throughout that make it feel like a real person’s experience. A lot of it was going over little details in my head and seeing what I could remember, so a lot of my childhood is in the book.

One thing I think you’ve done really well is to not only capture the era, but the age of the girls. They’re at a very difficult point in their life where they’re no longer children, but they also haven’t fully begun adolescence. I think many artists struggle to depict this period of life, but looking at Paper Girls, you know exactly how old these young women are.

Chiang: It was something I was worried about from the beginning. Drawing kids is always a fine balance. You have to make sure they look young, but you can go too far and turn them into Peanuts characters. Then, if you’re actually realistic, 12 and 13 year olds can sometimes look very mature. So I was trying to figure out what reads to the audience as a 12 year old. I think in doing the character designs, I worked a lot of that out. Drawing the first issue with 40 pages also got me into the rhythm of it.

A lot of the maturity you mention comes through in the acting on the page. How they hold and present themselves tells the reader a lot. Mac is obviously very mature for her age –

Chiang: But she’s also one of the shortest too. There’s this whole range. KJ is obviously the tallest. We just wanted to show different body types, heights, and maturity. But they’re all kids and they’re all working through stuff.

That really comes through at the start of the issue when you see Erin wake up and interact with her sister. They barely say a word, but so much about their relationship and maturity can be found there. As Paper Girls continues what are the things you’re most looking forward to depicting, designing, and portraying?

Chiang: I really enjoy working on the book. I’m eager to have people see where we go with it. It does get really weird and we have lots of interesting sci-fi stuff that’s going to happen in the next couple issues. I’m excited for people to see that, but I’m also really invested in the human stuff and that’s something Brian does very well. With each issue, that’s the stuff I just jump into. How do I get the most out of these human moments and balance that with the more fantastic stuff.

Paper Girls - Spread

You and Matt Wilson had previously collaborated on Wonder Woman and I don’t think there was ever a second choice for the colorist on this book.

Chiang: No.

What has the experience collaborating with Matt been like? I think he really makes the first issue pop and brings this one crazy night to life.

Chiang: He does. It’s something we talked about early on, knowing the way the story takes places all at dawn. It can’t just be a standard way of showing nighttime because then everything would just be blue the whole issue or blue-grey. We realized that we needed to vary our palette, but evoke early morning. I had a certain idea of how I wanted it to look, and it was a great collaborative process.

Chase Magnett is a freelance journalist, critic, and editor working with comics, film, and television. He has been hooked on comics since he picked an issue of Suicide Squad out of a back issue bin fifteen years ago. When Chase is not working with comics in some way he spends his time rooting for the San Francisco 49ers and grilling. He currently contributes to and other outlets.

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Greg Pak on the Anger and Identity Politics of Superman

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on November 21, 2015.

Action Comics - Cover

here have been a lot of changes taking place in the life of Clark Kent at DC Comics recently. Superman has not only lost most of his power, but his secret identity as well.Action Comics has focused on the aftermath of these radical changes in the acclaimed run of creators Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder. caught up with Action Comicswriter Pak recently to discuss these changes and what he hopes to accomplish with the Man of Steel.

Action Comics changed dramatically after Convergence ended. Obviously, Superman was powered down with only limited strength and invulnerability, and no flight. The change I find most interesting though is beyond the physicality of the character. Within his internal monologues, you’re focusing on Superman’s anger and that has to work to keep that emotion controlled. What made you want to address anger issues with Superman?

Greg Pak: The whole reason for doing what we’ve been doing is to put our character in as much trouble as possible, which is a smart thing to do in serial storytelling. You want to create big problems for your characters; you identify what is the greatest thing about your character, and then then the villains will attack the greatest thing about your character. Seeing how your hero deals with and overcomes that reveals the strength of the character.

So taking away his strength and his secret identity, and endangering all of the people he loves pushes him not just physically, but emotionally as far as you can push him. The challenge becomes how is Superman going to respond. Does he succumb to the temptations a lot of us would and just become a creature of vengeance? Or does he rise above that and do something different?

That’s a very human story to tell about someone who is faced with the worst situation imaginable, and we’ll see what he’s made of. It has been a great story to write so far, just facing those kinds of challenges as a writer. I love Clark Kent and I’ve loved every minute of writing Clark Kent. I love him even more when he’s in so much trouble, when he has to struggle.

This is the key. We always know Superman does the right thing, but that’s not easy. What makes the character compelling isn’t that he just does the right thing, but that he fights to do the right thing. He has to struggle to do it. This story has really given us the chance to do that, to watch him struggle.

Action Comics - Stay Calm

And in the comics medium, you don’t just want to spell that conflict out in text. Working with Aaron Kuder certainly makes it easier to let that rest on his face as much as his thoughts, and visually convey the struggle.

Pak: Aaron and I are now co-writing. We take the page-by-page and panel-by-panel outline together. We know exactly what is happening beat-by-beat. He draws it, and then I go in and do the dialogue at the end. Since we’ve been doing it all together from the beginning, all of those little nuances are there. The beautiful thing about that is that I can pull back in how explicit I am.

Just as a reality of working in comics, sometimes internal dialogue necessarily has to be used to explain things that you’ve failed to explain better in other ways. Sometimes there’s a little exposition in there, sometimes you have to clarify a little bit, but hopefully people understand and don’t mind. But when the internal monologue really sings for me is when you can use it to bring out the emotional moment in an unexpected way. You don’t have to use it to say, “Boy am I angry” because you’re already seeing the emotion in the art. Then you can use the internal monologue to bring out something different.

For example, in Action Comics you learn that he can feel his blood pumping and throbbing in his eye balls. He didn’t use to feel that because when he was so pumped up, he wasn’t exerting himself as much. All of our emotions move through our bodies, so Superman is feeling all of that. We’re noting that he is just now experiencing that and it’s another way to convey his emotional state without just saying “I’m angry.” And working with Aaron is just a dream.

Action Comics - Anger

Has co-writing with Aaron on Action Comics affected how you script and think about utilizing the medium?

Pak: All of us are storytellers. All of the great artists are just phenomenal storytellers. So we’re always thinking of the same challenges. How do you convey the information you need to in order to tell the story you want? How do you dramatize it so that it’s happening through action rather than just people talking or telling each other? How do you express a character’s emotional journey in new and surprising ways?

Even before we started co-writing, I was working on all of this using words on paper and he was working on the same things using drawings. When we put it together, it was pretty seamless. Aaron is also a writer in his own right; he has written other comics. It has been great and I love working with Aaron.

Action Comics - Alien Go Home

There’s one last thing I want to address before we have to go. An interesting thematic point in Action Comics with the revelation of Clark Kent’s secret identity has been the concept of passing privilege. Clark is an immigrant, but has never had to handle the public perception of him as an immigrant until now and that privilege has been taken away from him. What interested you about this aspect of the character.

Pak: Superman is an alien and he’s not from here, but at the same time he is totally from here. His enemies sense that others would exploit that he is an alien to create fear. That resonates with me and feels like a real way that some folks work in this world. On a personal level, I’m a biracial person. I’m half-Korean and half-white. I think the experiences of Clark Kent have always resonated with me. He’s a person from two worlds, but at the same time he is wholly of the world he is in and villains could identify him as something to be feared.

He was originally created by Jewish creators and that his experience comes from them. I think his experience resonates with millions of people in this nation for that reason as well. It’s nothing new. It’s a return to the roots of the character. That’s part of the glory of Superman though, he can be explored in so many different ways. That’s why we’ve been telling stories with this character for 75 years.

Chase Magnett is a freelance journalist, critic, and editor working with comics, film, and television. He has been hooked on comics since he picked an issue of Suicide Squad out of a back issue bin fifteen years ago. When Chase is not working with comics in some way he spends his time rooting for the San Francisco 49ers and grilling. He currently contributes to and other outlets.

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Review: Mockingjay Part Two Takes a Cue From The Books and Stumbles Across The Finish Line

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on November 21, 2015.

Mockingjay Part Two Review

It is reiterated again and again throughout The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Twowhat a terrible burden Katniss Everdeen must carry. It is unfair that she must endure so much trauma, but it is her incredible force of will that ultimately creates the good outcomes of the story. That narrative can easily be grafted onto Jennifer Lawrence’s role in this film as well. She is forced to shoulder an enormous weight, the success of an entire franchise, because the direction, script, and set creation are not doing this movie any favors. Lawrence’s performance is the most significant quality in a movie that, for the most part, does its best to crash and burn.

Lawrence is very good in Mockingjay Part Two though, good enough that many of the obvious flaws in the film could be overlooked. As the movie enters its overlong denouement, Lawrence cries by herself. She not only cries, but ugly cries complete with wrinkled chin and dripping spit. It is the best moment in the entire film. Despite so much of what led to this moment failing to build any emotional connection with the audience, Lawrence’s visceral portrayal of grief is enough to make your eyes well and stomach sink.

She is helped by a script that only treats her and primary love interest Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, as fully formed characters. Lawrence and Hutcherson get all of the best material in the movie, and use it well. Their extended off-screen friendship helps bring a real sense of chemistry to a romance that never quite worked in the source material. There is a maturity to how they treat and regard one another. When together they act as if in an adult marriage, more focused on the partnership qualities of a relationship than the passion. It works well and they are very endearing together.

This is not to say that the rest of the cast is useless. Despite almost every other role inMockingjay Part Two being largely thankless, almost every actor and actress goes above and beyond to provide some sense of life to what can best be described as sketches of characters. There may be no better example of this than Natalie Dormer and Elden Henson as Cressida and Pollux. The only dialogue they are provided is designed to move the plot along, and they ought to barely be distinguishable from the rest of Katniss’ rather large raiding party. Yet every moment they have in front of the camera is infused with emotion and internal life. There’s no reason these characters ought to feel like people, except for the very talented actors portraying them. Mahershala Ali as Boggs, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch, and so many others all do the same, providing far more than this script or director Francis Lawrence appear to be asking of themselves.

Many of Mockingjay Part Two’s flaws can be traced back to the script. Whereas Part Onewas willing to take what worked from the book and then rearrange and add elements to make the best possible film, Part Two is slavishly devoted to its source material. This is problematic from the start, considering Mockingjay is far and away the weakest of Suzanne Collins’ series often reading like youthful fan fiction. The plot is composed of contrivance after contrivance, striving to place Katniss and a few other characters at very specific events. It is a book and now a movie driven by plot, pasting scenes together rather than building actual connections.

There are still elements within that story filled with potential though. Collins’ love of insane, child murdering traps, post apocalyptic settings, and melodrama are all still intact. Yet Lawrence does his best to squander these remaining potential strengths. The raid of the Capitol is loaded with set pieces that should be some of the most memorable of the year. But either Lawrence or his second set crew manages to make these sequences almost unwatchable. The traps being sprung are bigger than any in the series, but it is often unclear what exactly is happening or who is being affected. Lawrence utilizes both shaky cam and a very fast editing to create so much confusion that it becomes impossible to care about what is supposed to be occurring on screen. When one of the most endearing actors in the film dies, it’s almost impossible to discern why that is. His injury is only shown once in the briefest of cuts and the remaining shots show him looking completely healthy from the waist up.

One sequence in particular stands out as an atrocity. Set in the sewers with monsters that look like something from Guillermo del Toro’s nightmares, it has an incredible amount of potential. What happens in the scene should be horrifying, both on a visceral and emotional level. Once the sequence begins it is never clear who is where or what dangers they might be facing. Two characters appear to be dead until they suddenly reappear, yet there is no clear sense of dramatic flow, they simply are or are not. The conclusion of this scene ought to be gut wrenching, yet its presentation borders on being laughable. There may be no greater example of squandered potential in an action sequence this year than these five minutes of cinema.

These failures are not only found in directing, but the very world occupied by Katniss and her allies. They spend the majority of the film in a bombed out, evacuated city filled with traps and refugees. Yet the city looks remarkably clean and the only time other people appear are when it is convenient for the sake of plot. Rather than being transported away, audiences are likely to feel they have simply seen a movie set with just enough decoration to make it appear that a war might have occurred.

What is saddest about these decisions is that they undermine the film’s intended message.Mockingjay Part Two is clearly supposed to be an anti-war film, showing the terrible costs of war for both sides and how the innocent and noble will always suffer the most. Yet everything about the movie is so sterile that war never truly feels terrible. The violence is shockingly clean, the setting is extraordinarily well kept, and the dead barely feel human.Mockingjay Part Two may want you to oppose war, but it never actually manages to show off a single reason to do so (with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence ugly crying).

Over the course of three movies, The Hunger Games have gradually improved upon their source material, yet in its final installment the series comes full circle. Mockingjay Part Two may not remove the ideas and power packed into Catching Fire and Part One, but it fails to fulfill the promises they made. The conclusion of The Hunger Games may end the story, but only Lawrence and her fellow cast mates manage to provide any reason to care about how it happens.

Grade: C-

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Fastball Feedback: Marvel Edition Featuring Ms. Marvel #1 & More

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on November 19, 2015.

Ms Marvel #1 Cover

The launch of All-New, All-Different Marvel is in full swing (as Secret Wars continues to aim at concluding in 2015) with plenty of new #1’s from the House of Ideas dropping every Wednesday. This week there are seven new series featuring a wide variety of talent, characters, and styles. We’re taking a look a few of the most exciting debuts to help you decide what’s worth checking out and possibly save some extra strain on your wallet.

Ms Marvel #1 Avengers

Ms. Marvel #1

Written by G. Willow Wilson

Art by Takeshi Miyazawa and Adrian Alphona

Colors by Ian Herring

Ms. Marvel is back and every bit as charming, fun, and caring as ever. Even with a new number one and a transition in art, this is clearly the comic that so many readers, both new and old, fell head over heels in love with. The creative team takes advantage of this over-sized issue to hit on all of the highlights of Ms. Marvel as well. Teen friendships and romance, the joy of fandom, over-the-top villains: it’s all there in one returning series that couldn’t have gotten here soon enough.

The issue is split into two parts with the first introducing new series artist Takeshi Miyazawa. It picks up almost directly from where the previous volume ended. 8 months may have passed, but G. Willow Wilson’s script gracefully leaps back into the rhythm of everyday life in Jersey City while introducing changes and new elements. Miyazawa possesses his own art style, but clearly detailed linework and exaggerated forms fit perfectly into the tone of the series. He is just as accomplished in his compositions and deliveries (of both action and comedy) as Adrian Alphona, making this handoff almost seamless. Ian Herring’s soft colors also help to build a bridge between the two artists. His palette perfectly accentuates the high school drama and absurdities of this world, making them feel perfectly at home together.

That smoothness is featured in the comic itself, as the final third transitions to Alphona’s pencils in a flashback sequence. This story focuses primarily on Bruno and reveals just how lovingly crafted Kamala Khan’s supporting cast has been characterized. A Bruno story is every bit as endearing and enjoyable as a Kamala one. The introduction of Mike shows that this cast will only continue to grow, and Wilson avoids innumerable troublesome tropes in order to deliver a fully formed human being in only ten pages. It’s a clear sign that Ms. Marvel hasn’t only returned at full strength, but that this series is going to be even better than ever.

Grade: A-

Black Knight #1 Avengers

Black Knight #1

Written by Frank Tieri

Art by Luca Pizarri

Colors by Antonio Fabela

Weirdworld was one of the best comics to come out during the Secret Wars event. It presented a wonderful setting that could be endlessly mined for high fantasy and adventure. That’s what made the announcement of two Weirdworld series so exciting and the debut of Black Knight, the first of these, such a disappointment. Black Knight #1 fails to capitalize on any of the potential of Weirdworld, opting to churn out a hackneyed story featuring a non-character in a poorly illustrated adventure instead.

The script of Black Knight #1 reads like a drunken imitation of a bad Mike Grell story. There are nefarious enemies and a conflicted hero in a sword and sorcery world, but not a single one of these elements feels fresh or even entertaining. From the hero Dane Whitman to the reptilian hordes he battles, each character reads like a cheap imitation of something that has been seen many times before. Beyond being a facsimilie of entertaining comics, Black Knight #1 fails to even tell its story well. Key facts are referenced, but never actually made explicit. These items are not mysteries, but details simply forgotten. Even worse, much of the issue is bogged down by Whitman’s narrative that reads like the ramblings of a “man off the street” on the Jersey Shore, speaking a lot, but saying very little.

Luca Pizarri does nothing to ameliorate these flaws. His layouts are clear, but the pencils within them all appear rushed, often leaving the impression of having only been sketched or delivering anatomies that don’t quite cohere. His inattention to detail shines through in many panels, including one with a Betty Ross Flag containing 16 stars, instead of 13. Excluding one splash of a waterfall setting, his work is a hurried jumble. Much like Pizarri and Tieri, readers who decided to pick up this issue will be inclined to get through it quickly. There are no rewards to be found here and the more quickly it is set aside, the better.

Grade: D

Star-Lord #1 Spaceship

Star-Lord #1

Written by Sam Humphries

Art by Javi Garron

Colors by Antonio Fabela with Frank D’Armata

Peter Quill is currently ruling over his father’s empire and engaged to Kitty Pride, the current Star-Lord, which makes this (largely) continuity free new Star-Lord series such a refreshing take. Rather than jump into the heart of the Marvel universe, write Sam Humphries and artist Javi Garron take a step back to redo the origins of this increasingly popular character. The result is a fun, if minor, adventure story that feels true to the character.

Garron’s work is primarily set in a militaristic take on NASA that focuses more heavily on people than any special effects. His characters are easily distinguished and read, but never provide as much excitement or humor as when a spaceship finally hits the skies. The design for this particular speedy spacecraft isn’t inspiring, but its sleek appearance is far from generic. A chase scene between it and a couple of jets provides a couple of nice moments, especially when colorist Antonio Fabela gets to light up the sky around the ship. Star-Lord #1 reads like a pilot’s comic, much like the best Hal Jordan stories, and Garron’s work in the air will continue to be key in making that connect with readers.

The story itself is comfortable with the clichés in plays. Quill’s orphaned origin comes complete with a harried caretaker who can’t give the young man anymore chances. A scene in which Quill proves himself to be the smartest guy in the room from the position of a janitor reads like a poor man’s Good Will Hunting. Humphries is telling this story in broad strokes that may not drive fans of the character away, but certainly won’t earn him any new ones either. Where Star-Lord goes next will be the most interesting part of the series. The first issue is buried in an origin that, while nicely simplified is also rote, but what happens in space after this may give it the speed it needs to really take off.

Grade: B-

What did you think of this week’s comics? Sound off in the comments below.

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Review: Vader Down #1 Sets Off an Exciting Crossover with Some Lackluster Art

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on November 19, 2015.

Vader Down #1 Darth Vader

The premise of Vader Down #1 is both very simple and shockingly good. Darth Vader has fallen into a trap and been stranded on a hostile planet surrounded by Rebels (including the most famous heroes of Star Wars) with no backup. There’s not much detail to that concept, and that’s the beauty of it. It is a story that manages to naturally bring together all of the stars of the saga through chases, action (both in space and on the ground), and some very tense plotting and backstabbing. Vader Down #1 takes off like a roller coaster already at the peak of its first hill throwing its leading man and readers into a hurricane of spaceships, laser fire, and lightsabers.

That efficient plotting comes from both of the leading Star Wars scribes in comics Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen. Aaron is scripting this issue, but both writers have designed the story. Plotting means a lot more than writing in Vader Down #1 too since very little of the issue involves speech bubbles. Some dialogue between Han and Leia shows how well Aaron has centered on their dynamic and voices, but it’s a rare talking scene in a comic dominated by action. For the most part characters like Vader and Luke speak mostly to themselves in lines that don’t slow the pacing, but also don’t add much to the page. The only other entertaining verbalizations come from Vader’s supporting crew of Aphra and his pair of murderous droids. Gillen’s oddball sense of humor is well replicated when it comes to these three though.

Aaron is smart to devote so much space to chases and battles though. Vader Down#1 is a amphetamine dosed “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”, taking many of the same elements and running them as quickly as possible. Vader facing down overwhelming odds, again and again, is incredibly entertaining. He is not the same character in the Star Wars films, but instead fills the legendary boots created in the dreams of young moviegoers decades ago. His presence and ability both as a fighter pilot and grounded combatant are so formidable that any rebel whose last name doesn’t end in Skywalker looks like a cub scout. This may be off putting for devotees of the film, but taken on its own merits Vader’s superhuman actions make for some very satisfying sequences.

Vader Down #1 Space Battle

The fun to be had in Vader Down #1 is almost eliminated by Mike Deodato’s art though. Much of the character interaction and individual panels of spaceships are done well enough, but when excitement should be peaking the art hits the rocks. At best his action sequences are functional, but they often fail to rise to even that level. The big space battle towards the start of Vader Downis a complete mess with panel transitions that feature the same characters and objects, but fail to actually connect. A collision between two rocketing ships results in them floating at random angles side-by-side with less damage than the previous panel showed. Lasers often connect with ships outside of where explosions are shown as well.

Deodato features many spreads in Vader Down, attempting to highlight a cinematic sensibility. The contents of these spreads ought to be climactic with a wide array of spaceships setting up, displaying, and reflecting on the space battle. Yet the manner in which these contents are shown is head scratching. Dead Rebels are shown clustered together along with astromechs that all seem to have ejected intact from the ships at the moment of impact within a 20 foot radius. The design and layout of ships and debris in these spreads seems thoughtless, so that any more thought than the slightest pause will cause readers to scratch their heads.

The presentation of Vader Down #1 is unfortunate because it undermines a concept and plot packed with potential. As the start of a larger crossover, this issue shows how much fun can be had in the Star Wars universe between films. The drama and, more importantly, action are all there. Hopefully, future issues will better depict the promise of this premise.

Grade: B-

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Review: Wrath of the Eternal Warrior #1

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on November 19, 2015.

Wrath of the Eternal Warrior #1 Cover

If you haven’t finished The Book of Death, beware of spoilers because they’re coming up right after this sentence.

Gilad, the Eternal Warrior, has done the one thing he cannot do: died. The Book of Death was steeped in blood and horror that ultimately claimed the life of an immortal defender of the earth. So where do you go from there? Looking at Wrath of the Eternal Warrior, it’s apparent that you take a memory-infused trip into a potential afterlife filled with symbolism and unclear metaphors. That may sounds confusing (and it is a bit) but in the hands of writer Robert Venditti and artists Raul Allen and Patricia Martin, it’s really an opportunity to take a look inside Gilad’s life and gain some sympathy along with all of the action.

Wrath of the Eternal Warrior #1 is an issue designed to be read as part of a whole. The premise, setting, and purpose of the series is hinted at, but nothing is truly clarified. From the start there’s a disconnect between time and space as Gilad’s story jumps from an encounter with demonic creatures to four distinct sequences of awakening. Reading this issue isn’t about following the plot but experiencing the life of one character, and the structure of the issue makes that clear.

Allen and Martin formulate a page layout that is repeated throughout the issue, always beginning on a single black panel, that situates readers within the headspace of Gilad. When his eyes open, so do theirs. It’s a clever way to simultaneously frame the point of view and cue readers into the dreamlike state of the comic. Even when the perspective shifts outside of Gilad’s headspace and shows him playing with his children, watching his son, and making love to his wife, it is his experience that feels most important.

That significance also comes through in how they frame Gilad’s form. He is almost always centered and it is his expressions and acting that comes across most clearly. The children present, with a single exception, are simply joyful to see their father. Their lives are defined by their relationship to him, possibly hinting at the unreality of what is occurring. Everything is real to Gilad though and his pain and consternation are clear on the pages.

Wrath of the Eternal Warrior #1 Hell

Venditti’s choice to obscure the purpose of this series and its direction tempts fate, but he structures individual scenes so well that they provide ample encouragement to follow the story. Gilad’s interactions with his wife are touching and gentle. They hint at history that remains subtext, but has obviously been imagined. The action and horror that frames the softer moments of the issue also provide ample reason to stick around. If this truly is some form of afterlife, then Venditti has not disconnected it from hell. There are still battles to be fought and Allen and Martin have designed some otherworldly monsters to challenge the Eternal Warrior.

Whether Wrath of the Eternal Warrior represents a return to battle or a denouement for one of Valiant’s favorite heroes, it’s a series (like so many others from the publisher) that promises to be unlike anything else on comics stands. Venditti, Allen, and Martin are crafting a hallucinatory experience that invites readers to experience each level of this legendary protectors life. Even if the direction is unclear, the journey is promising and it’s advisable to stick close to Gilad as he walks beyond the veil of life.

Grade: B+

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Leading Questions: Recommending Sandman

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 19, 2015.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why on Earth would anyone recommend a newbie start with Sandman?

Mark, are we going to have to have a conversation about using this column to plug your own work? I’m not going to complain this time though because your essay on “Preludes & Nocturnes”, the first volume of Sandman, this week really got me thinking about this topic. Sandman is a giant in the world of Western comics, looming over readers, critics, and publishers with its reputation and success casting an enormous shadow. When discussing the most influential comics in the Western world, Sandman isn’t far behind Maus or Watchmen (the obvious ones people who haven’t read many comics will most commonly use to try and snag some cred).

That sort of reputation has led to the series have a widespread presence in classrooms, recommendation lists, and scholarly examinations of the medium. I don’t believe I’ve ever been to a comic store that didn’t carry it. I rarely see a (collegiate) syllabus that doesn’t include it. I hear about it all the time, especially now that Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III have completed their prequel/sequel Sandman: Overture. Amazon has already called that newest story the best comic of 2015 (it’s not, but who expects Amazon to expend any effort on the topic?). Sandman is too big to be ignored, but that doesn’t make it too big to fail.

As you pointed out in your essay on “Preludes & Nocturnes”, the first seven issues of the series are rough. And, oh boy, are they rough. I decided to reread those issues after finishing what you wrote and before writing this, and was shocked at how much the rose-tinted glasses of time had affected my memories of these comics. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them bad. Even the incredibly dry history lesson of a first issue is significantly better than all but one of Vertigo’s newest roundup of first issues (Twilight Children being the exception and coming from two of the industries best). But those issues still are not great or, in a few cases, even good. I don’t want to dive into the flaws of Sandman #1-7, you already did that well and it’s not what you’re asking about, but they have plenty.

All of this particular prelude helps explain why somebody, even somebody with the resources and experience or an educator, might recommend Sandman to a new comics reader. If you want to introduce someone to something new, you should probably start strong, right? Why go with anything short of the best when trying to make an impression?

That question comes from a place of good intentions, but it’s also incredibly wrong headed.

If you want to show someone how much fun driving can be, you don’t stick them in a Formula 1 racer. If you want to convince someone how impactful movies can be, you don’t put on Battleship Potemkin. If you want to make someone a lifelong comics reader, you don’t hand them Sandman.

“Preludes & Nocturnes” only compounds the problems of giving a newbie this particular series. It’s the comic at its absolute weakest, both in terms of art and writing. Even at its best Sandman is hardly an inviting comic. The first time I encountered Sandman and read the series fourth volume, “Season of Mists”, I was only 13 years old. Even back then I had been reading lots of comics for a few months, collecting Suicide Squad and diving into other notable works like Watchmen (which holds up great) and Arkham Asylum (which only looks good to a pretentious 13 year old). I understood how comics worked and was craving ones that challenged me as a reader. So finding one of the absolute best Sandman stories at this point turned out pretty well, and probably helps explain why I’m still such a fan of the series. But would I ever give even “Season of Mists” to someone truly new to the medium? Hell no.

Even at its best Sandman is dense with a complex mythology and art that embodies what Vertigo was at its start (very, very brown). If you’re trying to figure out how to read a page or track speech bubbles, Sandman isn’t going to hold your hand. This isn’t advocating for simple or reductive comics, but it is possible for truly great comics to be literary (the appellation most commonly used with Sandman), display the unique strengths of the comics medium, and be easily understood. I bring a few comics with me to be added to the library when I teach Watchmen at a high school each year. Comics like Daytripper, Runaways, and We3 have all helped capture the interest of smart young students. They’ve also proven to be far more accessible than the volume of Sandman, they also have in the classroom.

So why do so many people continue to push Sandman as one of, if not THE, first comics that new comics readers should be? It’s not because it’s best choice. Even amongst the limited crowd of comics given plenty of mainstream credibility, it’s probably the toughest nut to crack. So I think the reason for its selection doesn’t have so much to do with its quality as a choice, for better (“Season of Mist”) or worse (“Preludes & Nocturnes”). I think the reason it continues to be recommended to new comics readers is simply the fact that it is one of the very few comics to receive mainstream acceptance as a literary work.

At this point the recommendation and use of Sandman ceases to be about Sandman and starts to be about something else altogether: the ego of the comics community or lack thereof.

We spend our time together chatting in real life, on social media, and here at Comics Bulletin steeped in comics culture. It pervades not all, but many of our waking hours, which may lead us to forget how much of a niche the medium still is in America. Not only is it a fairly young medium, only growing to prominence over the course of the past century, but one whose audience is still very small. Film, a medium just as young has become the most popular form of storytelling, and even more nubile video games are competing for that spot. Meanwhile, comics readers are measured not in millions, but thousands. It has resulted in a serious case of small man syndrome.

We may not be stuck on the question of whether comics are art or if they present literary qualities. The answer to that is a resounding, “no duh.” But plenty of publications (e.g. The New York Times) still stuff their headlines with inane phrases like “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” and “Biff! Bang! Pow!” It’s an uneducated and inexperienced perspective on the medium, but it’s a point where lots of outsiders seem to be stuck. As a result many comics fans feel a need to prove themselves and the medium they care about.

When introducing comics to a new reader, the question of where to begin isn’t focused on what the best possible introduction to the medium might be, but what is most likely to prove that comics are serious stuff. Having a serious literary talent like Neil Gaiman and a renowned title like Sandman seems like a much better answer to that second question than something like Runaways, even if the latter is far more likely to transform a high school student into a lifelong comics reader.

Recommending Sandman to a newbie probably has a lot more to do with the recommender than the newbie. It’s a recommendation that comes with a need to prove itself and reflects popular opinion, even if that popular opinion is being handed down from places that don’t much care for comics. That’s too bad because one of the most important ways in which the medium is growing is through word of mouth. Handing out copies of favorite comics like Saga and Ms. Marvel is attracting more readers than any list of important comics like Sandman might. Recommendations are like gifts; they are best when given purely for someone else’s benefit.

None of this is to say that Sandman isn’t important or that it lacks merit. The final issue of “Preludes & Nocturnes” titled “The Sound of Her Wings” is very powerful stuff and an issue I would happily hand to some newbies as an early recommendation. It’s definitely a series that any longtime comics reader should at least sample, given its historical influence and the literary merit of its best stories. The problem with recommending Sandman isn’t recommending Sandman, but recommending it right at the start. Just like any other medium, from film to literature to video games, there are good starting points in comics and important works that fans should eventually discover. Being able to discern the difference between those two will help new readers and comics fans who want to share this incredible form of storytelling.

In the meanwhile, new readers trucking through “Preludes & Nocturnes” will at least get to read about J’onn J’onzz and Scott Free eating Oreos at 4am, and that’s pretty neat.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman

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