The Black Hood #2: James Ellroy Painted on the Comics Page

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 2, 2015.

The Black Hood 2

In my review of The Black Hood #1, I spent a lot of time discussing the look and feel of the comic. Duane Swierczynski, Michael Gaydos, and Kelly Fitzpatrick crafted a story that was pure noir. It was a comic coated in darkness with a fire burning just beneath the surface. The Black Hood #2 clarifies its place within the genre. The Black Hood isn’t just a noir tale, it’s bleak and ugly in a way that few of its peers are. There is no place for a man of the people or reluctant hero here; no Sam Spade’s or Phillip Marlowe’s to be found. This is more like the work of James Ellroy where the closest thing to a hero is the man with the least stains on his soul.

Looking at Gaydos and Fitzpatrick’s artwork on each page of the issue, it’s easy to imagine them crafting the storyboards inside Ellroy’s head for a novel like The Big Nowhere or White Jazz. Gaydos composes his pages to be confrontational. There’s no looking away from the violence of the pain he is presenting. Action sequences land each panel with a sickening thud focusing on the force of human bone on meat. Less obvious moments can hit every bit as hard. The drugs and extortion witnessed as Greg falls even further is just as sickening. Gaydos’ holds onto your head and forces you to watch it all as it happens, never providing a release from the tension he builds on each page.

Fitzpatrick is comfortable coloring the world of Philadelphia. Unlike Ellroy’s novels, there are no giant neon signs or glitzy strips to light up this twisted nightmare version of an American city. What Greg called “Killadelphia” in The Black Hood #1 is drenched in the smog and ash of an industrialized hellscape. Looking at exteriors in The Black Hood #2, you can imagine wiping your fingers across the page and pulling them back to find them covered in soot. Smoke hangs across these panels firmly planting readers in the terrible world Greg cannot escape by turning the page.

That mood is not as consistent in the narration of Greg Hettinger written by Swierczynski. The Black Hood #2 picks up directly from the end of #1 with Greg facing down a mugger as the new Black Hood. Almost every panel of the confrontation is accompanied by a narrative caption. Some lines, like “I had the element of WTF on my side”, go from the stylized nature of noir cop-speak into pure goofiness. Writing like this is so hardboiled that it has become a rock, impossible to chew on.

This raises the question of how necessary the narration throughout The Black Hood #2 is. Many sequences, specifically the action beats, function perfectly with only the dialogue on the page. Captions slow the pacing of the story and point to themes and ideas that are already present for observant readers. Swierczynski’s plotting and character beats fit the tone of the story perfectly, but his scripting is overly verbose. Rather than trust the visual medium he is interacting with, he writes to underscore each moment. It is the curse of a novelist transitioning to comics, unable to truly trust a story that functions without the constant involvement of words.

Swierczynski, Gaydos and Fitzpatrick are some of the most potent purveyors of modern comics noir since Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso debuted 100 Bullets. The look and feel of The Black Hood are entirely different, but the underlying sense of dread and soiled world building are just as good. The Black Hood #2 continues down a dark road, one that doesn’t allow any beam of light to intrude, making it a must read for fans of crime comics everywhere.

Grade: B

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This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on February 27, 2015.

House of Cards - Season Three

The third season of House of Cards premieres this Friday on Netflix meaning that many of us will be in a Frank Underwood induced stupor as we barrel through almost 13 hours of television. The series attraction is hard to deny with the raw charisma of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright paired with a story that is fascinating in all of its cold calculation and cruelty. As much fun as it will be to revel in the return of Frank and the beginning of his presidency (it’s okay to shudder when you hear that), it’s important to take a break. So why not give your eyes a break from the computer monitor or television screen by turning to some comics instead?

Television doesn’t have a monopoly on morally ambiguous or outright villainous protagonists and the sorts of twisty, political plotting that provides House of Cards with all of its charm. There are plenty of great examples of this kind of storytelling in comics. Just like television, the potentially endless and chapter-based form of comics makes for an excellent place for creators to craft convoluted plots and extended character studies. There are a few series published in the last 20 years that should instantly appeal to any fan of House of Cards for these reasons and more.

East of West - Hickman

1. East of West (Image Comics)

Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Hickman and Dragotta have fused alternative history, science fiction, and biblical prophecy into one of the most complex and exciting comics reads being published today. East of West is set in a version of the United State which has been separated into seven unique nations. At the center of this landscape is a conspiracy to bring about the apocalypse, a goal supported by very real versions of three of the four horseman. Death has other plans.

The scope of East of West is massive. Hickman and Dragotta recently released a guidebook to help readers keep track of all seven of the distinct nations and the characters that populate them. In this comic everyone has their own agenda shaped equally by history and their relationships with others. The complexity of the political maneuverings is balanced by some of the slickest gunfights and battles being drawn at Image Comics or any other publisher.

100 Bullets - Azzarello

2. 100 Bullets (Vertigo)

Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

The Eisner Award winning 100 Bullets began as a simple revenge drama based on the concept of presenting suffering men and women with a briefcase containing a gun, 100 bullets, immunity from prosecution, and absolute proof as to who had wronged them. The initial stories are incredibly compelling, but as the series continued it began to widen its scope. A conspiracy emerged concerning The Trust composed of 13 families who secretly control the United States. Their internal affairs and battle against their former enforcers The Minutemen morphed the series into a comic featuring plenty of plotting, backstabbing, and power grabs.

Whether it is read as a revenge story, a conspiracy thriller, or epic tragedy, 100 Bullets is clearly a modern classic. Azzarello’s tight dialogue and dense plotting is perfectly accompanied by Risso’s eye for detail and dynamic sense of both place and action. No matter how ugly things in the series get, it’s impossible to look away due to Risso’s incredible compositions. 100 Bullets is a great comic for anyone who doesn’t mind unhappy endings.

Ex Machina - Vaughan

3. Ex Machina (Wildstorm)

Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris

Ex Machina is set in a very realistic political scenario with one notable exception. The story follows Mitchell Hundred during his four years in office as Mayor of New York City who is elected after saving the second tower during the 9/11 attacks. He is constantly torn between his responsibilities as Mayor and his old life as the only superhero on Earth, able to control machines with the sound of his voice.

Unlike the other comics on this list, Ex Machina takes a serious look at the political realities of modern America. It is focused on the morality and ethics that accompany many hot button issues and approaches them with the careful, detail oriented eye of an engineer. Laws and appointments are not just another tool to secure power for Mitchell Hundred, but a vital component of improving the city he loves. Ex Machina is not set in a utopia though and politics influences everything that occurs in the series leading to Hundred’s successes and failures alike.

Lazarus - Rucka

4. Lazarus (Image Comics)

Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Rucka and Lark’s newest collaboration takes place in a not too distant dystopian future in which corporations have replaced governments as the holders of world power. Lazarus focuses on Forever Carlyle, the daugher and protector of one of the major houses of power. She has been trained and modified to be a perfect and nigh indestructible assassin. However, as she learns more about the greed and hatred that drive her family and others, Forever begins to question the way the world ought to work.

Lazarus, like Ex Machina,  is a series that features a likable, noble protagonist who exists in a world dominated by politics. One of the primary conflicts of the series is within Forever as she attempts to reconcile her love for her family with the cruelty and lies that dominate her environment. That struggle along with the many multi-faceted allegories for modern political topics makes for a potent concoction. Rucka and Lark are telling a story with a noble core struggling against the evils that dominate stories like House of Cards or 100 Bullets.

Empire - Waid

5. Empire (Thrillbent)

Mark Waid and Barry Kitson

Empire is based on a very simple, but intensely enjoyable premise: What if Doctor Doom ruled the world? The story features Golgoth, a facsimile to the classic Jack Kirby villain, who has conquered almost all of the planet. He appears to be almost omnipotent, but on the outskirts of his vision his superpowered generals plot to discover more power for themselves or even to supplant Golgoth. It is a story about those supporting the most powerful man in the world and all of their plots.

Like most of Waid’s work in the superhero genre, Empire subverts many tropes and manages to surprise readers on a regular basis. The first issue offers a standard format for the series before tearing it down in the final pages. Golgoth is a truly ruthless dictator obsessed with securing his own power at any cost. The manner in which he does so is frightening and might even cause someone like Frank Underwood to blink. Kitson’s artwork and designs certainly carry some flavor from the late 1990’s, but still look great even 15 years after their initial publication.

So don’t forget to take a break this weekend while enjoying the new season of House of Cards. Turn off the TV for a few moments, snag a comic book, and wrap your mind around a whole different set of twisted characters and their convoluted machinations. As much fun as it is to spend time with Frank Underwood, just imagine what it would be like if he had superpowers or a criminal empire at his disposal. That’s part of the fun of comics.

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Lightning Strikes Twice in Spider-Gwen #1

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on February 25, 2015.

Spider-Gwen 1 - cover

When Gwen Stacy, Spider-Woman (better known as Spider-Gwen) debuted in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, I ended my review by essentially begging for an ongoing series. It’s all here. There was comics magic in that one-shot story connected to Dan Slott’s epic “Spider-Verse”. Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez, and Rico Renzi took the essential elements of the Spider-Man mythos and spun them into something truly fresh. Gwen Stacy and her world may have felt familiar, but the core of their characters and story was new. Edge of Spider-Verse #2captured lightning in a bottle, and Spider-Gwen #1 shows that lightning can strike twice.

Spider-Gwen #1 functions as both a first and a second issue. The number on the cover and marketing all pose it as the beginning of a series, but it’s connection to the events of “Spider-Verse” are undeniable. Not only was her origin introduced, but she revealed her identity to her father Captain Stacy and disappeared from her world in comics preceding this one. A lot has happened and Spider-Gwen #1 begins in media res, focusing on the momentum built over the past few months instead of slowing down for excessive exposition and recaps. At one point Gwen refers to “fighting in a war for all reality” and the editor’s note below is simply a caption of Spider-Gwen editor Nick Lowe shouting, “See Spider-Veeeeeeerse.” It’s a good decision.

What defines Spider-Gwen most to me is the propulsive feeling of the book. It’s all about movement and action, both literally and metaphorically. Gwen is a young woman on the run. Not only is she being chased by police, but she’s trying to make a life for herself just as it seems to be falling apart. She been kicked out of her band The Mary Janes, and she isn’t sure where she stands with any of her family or friends. Life is moving fast for Gwen and she’s barely keeping one foot ahead of the crumbling bridge behind her.

The velocity at which her life appears to move is significantly enhanced by the work of Rodriguez and Renzi. Their instincts for superhero storytelling are undeniable. Each panel is crafted to speed the story along, never giving the reader or any of the characters much of a break. Drawing a back alley brawl, the revelation of a new character, or an investigative sequence, Rodriguez does not waste an iota of space. Every panel serves a purpose.

All of that is apparent from the very first action sequence featuring Gwen facing off against the Bodega Bandit (who is definitely the worst arch-nemesis ever). The fight takes no more than six panels from beginning to end, but it’s a great exercise in choreography that highlights both Gwen’s fighting style and attitude. She’s loose and limber in each moment of the sequence dropping from a fire escape to the cement below comfortably. The fight doesn’t play to her super-strength, but to her skill and grace as she throws her opponent through the air into a distant dumpster. It is the work of a judo master on steroids, moving as smoothly and powerfully as a tidal wave. Each action is highlighted by onomatopoeia that mimics the size and effect of the action, continuing to highlight the significance of sound and music to the character. The efficiency and casualness of this sequence speaks volumes about Gwen. Nobody has to tell you who she is when she dons her mask as Spider-Woman; it’s all there in her actions.

Rodriguez’s eye for detail helps to maintain momentum in smaller moments. The hood of Gwen’s costume is used to great effect in displaying motion. As she swings across the city, it kicks out behind her giving readers a sense of the speed at which Gwen is moving through the air. Even in the quietest of scenes, a hushed conversation taking place in a hospital room, Rodriguez discovers the tension and action beneath the surface. Body and facial language are used to great effect transforming what could have been a passable moment of exposition into something exciting.

Rodriguez doesn’t just accentuate the movement of fights and chases, he makes music and sound come to life in the same way. Renzi takes the big, bold lettering and instills it with neon emotion, plucking just the right colors from his arsenal to highlight how each moment should feel. Whether it’s the lyrics of The Mary Janes or a jailhouse interrogation, sounds fill the page with energy. In the case of the former it’s a frantic, exciting punk rock vibe in hot pink, and in the latter it’s a loud, ugly repetition in blue.

Latour’s script for the first issue is every bit as packed with action and energy as the art is. He walks the line between continuing the story from Edge of Spider-Verse #2 and debuting a new ongoing series perfectly. Part of the fun of Spider-Man stories in the past has always been the massive supporting cast of characters, and Latour does not hesitate to introduce his own. A bevy of familiar faces appear in Spider-Gwen #1, each with their own unique twist. In the same way that this version of Gwen Stacy feels both familiar and entirely fresh, so do many other classic Marvel heroes and villains.

The most fascinating reinvention in this issue is that of Adrian Toomes better known as The Vulture. He’s a creepier more twisted version of the one Spider-Man typically fights, but what is most interesting about the character is the sub-text Latour includes. Toomes is a vain man, angered by the attention given to Spider-Woman by J. Jonah Jameson and the NYPD. An old, white man angered by the appearance of a young woman in Marvel Comics certainly mirrors reality in some ways. This makes Spider-Woman’s confrontation with the Vulture all the more enjoyable, especially given the manner in which she lures him into revealing himself.

It doesn’t matter how much The Vulture wants attention though because this comic and the hearts of its readers belong to only one person: Gwen Stacy, Spider-Woman. Edge of Spider-Verse #2 revealed an exciting new vision, and Spider-Gwen #1 is all the reassurance anyone should need that it was not a one-time fluke. Spider-Gwen is a fresh take on classic ideas, featuring some of the best art and writing in superhero comics today.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Face it Marvel, you hit the jackpot.

Grade: A-

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REVIEW: Criminal Special Edition is Filled with Swords, Sorcery, and Savagery

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on February 25, 2015.

Criminal Special Edition - Cover

A sparsely garbed warrior wields his sword to strike down thieves, thugs, and anyone else who may cross his path. He revels in adventures where he seizes both treasures and flesh. This is a man without conscience driven by his most deep seated desires, no matter how dark.

A man in numbered blues behind bars uses his fists, sharpened toothbrushes, or anything that comes in handy to stay alive. He viciously assaults fellow inmates and engages with crime in order to make it out of a small pocket of hell called prison. This is a man without conscience driven by his most deep seated desires, no matter how dark.

What’s the difference between these two arrangements? The former is embedded firmly in the world of fantasy, while the latter could be easily set across town in South Boston or North Omaha. This is the divide which Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ newest Criminal story dances upon.

In Criminal: Special Edition Teeg Lawless finds himself doing a 30 day stint in county jail for an outstanding warrant after pulling off a big heist. What should be a month of monotony becomes much more dangerous when a contract is placed on his head making every day a fight for survival. His story in prison is mirrored by a comic he is reading by the name ofSavage; it tells the tale of the barbarian Zangarr who seeks revenge against those who betrayed him in a robbery.

This isn’t the first time that Brubaker and Phillips have used a mirror narrative in the pages ofCriminal. It’s not even the first time that they have used one that plays with the comics medium. In previous installments they have utilized newspaper strips and homages to classic Archie comics in order to reveal characters and plot. Their love for both the medium and its history is woven deeply into the fiber of the series and all of their extensive collaborations for that matter. The inclusion of comics references aren’t used for their own sake in Criminal, but as an integral part of the story.

The tale found within Teeg’s copy of Savage not only serves to mirror some aspects of his own journey, but to reflect his humanity. That is a far more significant contribution of theConan the Barbarian-style story than any surface-level resemblance between the two. Similarities found between Zangarr’s journey and Teeg’s are not necessary to explain the surface plotting of Criminal Special Edition. At the end of 40 pages it does not need any outside explanation; it is a classic blend of heist and prison genre fare. The story’s depth relies instead on how it humanizes Teeg’s journey through the lens of fiction.

Teeg is a remorseless killer and thief. He is the father of the most effective and brutal protagonist to ever grace the pages of Criminal, and he makes it clear that those traits run in the family. This man is dangerous and neither Brubaker nor Phillips show any interest in softening him. None of this removes his humanity, however. No matter how much blood covers Teeg’s fists, he is still a father, a husband, and a guy with a job to get done. His experiences are vastly different, but he’s not devoid of emotion or connections. He is still a man.

That becomes perfectly clear in how he interacts with the world around him. When he’s not shanking his fellow inmates or trying to get his portion of a big score, Teeg is spending time with his kid and reading comics. Whatever he does that may alienate him from the reader, there is still a connection. The heart of Criminal Special Edition relies on the fact that Teeg likes comic books and has at least this one thing in common with with the reader. Teeg and reader alike use the same medium in order to escape their mundane reality and forget about the troubles, if only for a few pages at a time.

Criminal Special Edition - Zangarr

Phillips’ work in the Zangarr comic captures the essence of a 70s barbarian strip perfectly. The style is clearly that of Phillips, but he imbues it with a raw, unrefined energy that removes it from his recent work in Fatale and The Fade Out. His lines are dark and filled with passion and ink, as if they were made by an emerging talent focused primarily on the testosterone and titillation that define this genre. While Teeg’s and Zangarr’s story are clearly being told by the same artist, they are separated by more than the inclusion of color or lack thereof. Phillips instills the black-and-white Zangarr scenes with a nostalgic touch. Backgrounds are dotted and patterned as imperfectly as any American comic published in 1974, and are slightly yellowed. They are not so obvious as to draw attention to themselves, but are certainly apart from the rest of the issue. Not only does Phillips’ work lend the “fictional” scenes a sense of realism, but it helps immerse readers even further into Teeg’s world.

Elizabeth Breitweiser is an integral contributor to this experience as well. She captures the essential feel of past Criminal volumes dating back to well before her entry into comics as a colorist. It’s possible to set Criminal Special Edition side-by-side with “Coward” from 2007 and believe that they are derived from the same cloth. Breitweister’s lighting adds something special as well. Her work in The Fade Out has been the best of her career thus far, and she brings many of the nuanced techniques to denote different styles of lighting to play here. She enhances the book in a way that makes me hope to see her continue to contribute as the Ciminal colorist for future installments.

Criminal Special Edition - Teeg

That devotion to history, style, and tone is even embedded into the publication of Criminal Special Edition. Just like they did with the debut of The Fade Out #1, there is a magazine-style printing of this comic and it fits both the content and ideas contained inside so well. There is an element of a time past that comes with both the format and the genres that defies nostalgia. Brubaker and Phillips are not attempting to capture something from their own childhood. They are playing off of familiar elements in order to build a something new. Crime and barbarian comics are not here to make us smile, but to reveal a connection that we may not have been fully aware of. Teeg Lawless is a viscious, violent man, but he is ultimately a human being just like all of us reading Criminal Special Edition. Just like us, Teeg is a man who enjoys a good comic book.

That connection is an uncomfortable one, and it’s intended to be. Brubaker and Phillips have never pulled any punches in Criminal. Their heroic figures are always destined for a tragic end, and the ugliest characters they present tend to enjoy success. The irony and cruelty contained in Criminal isn’t just a play at classic EC crime comics though, it’s a funhouse mirror reflection of humanity. Criminal Special Edition isn’t a story that we are supposed to be able to view as pure fiction; that’s Zangarr’s tale. The world of Teeg Lawless is the same one we’re trapped in, one filled with criminals and comics fans just like us.

Grade: A-

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Silk #1: Pop Comics Done Right

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on February 25, 2015.

Silk - Title

Sometimes you only need to read a few pages of a comic in order to make up your mind. When a creative team puts their best work right at the front a first issue nailing the artwork, dialogue, colors, and every other element on the page, it’s possible to fall in love pretty fast. That was how I felt when I read the first Spider-Gwen story in Edge of Spider-Verse #2 and it’s how I felt after reading the first few pages of Silk #1. This is a comic that understands itself from the very first page and dares you not to like it.

I wasn’t even inclined to like Silk either. The character never really sold me in the pages ofAmazing Spider-Man or throughout “Spider-Verse”. She read just as much like a function of plot in those comics as an actual character, but this is a whole different story (for the most part at least). This is Cindy Moon (a.k.a. Silk) given an opportunity to flourish outside of a comic dedicated to Peter Parker and with Robbie Thompson’s script and Stacey Lee’s gorgeous art, she absolutely does.

The first four pages of Silk #1 are an action sequence in which Silk faces off against a D-lister by the name of Dragonclaw. Thompson recognizes the similarities between this set up and every other Spider-Man comic ever published. He plays on that in order to distinguish Silk as her own, charismatic lead. Banter is replaced by awkward one-liners, and Silk’s inner monologue reveals a great deal about her in no time at all. It’s impossible to deny the connection to the Spider-franchise, but Thompson defines Silk as a unique, vibrant addition to the Marvel universe with only a handful of text.

Silk - Dragonclaw

As clever as Thompson’s writing may be, it is Lee’s art that sets this sequence apart. The action is fast, clear, and pops off of the page. There’s not a wasted panel in any of her compositions, and she can deftly layer a page with them. While there is an element of danger to the sequence, Thompson’s tone is much closer to the fun found in classic 70s Amazing Spider-Man issues. There is a playfulness to her work that makes the fast pacing all the more propulsive. Colorist Ian Herring enhances everything that Lee does in these pages, bringing bright colors and selecting perfect monochromatic background shades for background shots. Lee sets Silk up as a pop superhero adventure and Herring delivers on that promise 100%.

Talking with a friend I realized that my enjoyment of Silk began even earlier than this opening action sequence though. It began with the Silk logo at the top of the cover. Unlike so many titles in superhero comics, it appears to be handdrawn. An artist took the time and effort to craft this fusion of groovy 60s fashion and a curvy, spider insignia to inform readers about the book. It’s not a major part of Silk #1, but it shows the kind of love and care being put into the title, and it starts before you even open the comic.

This isn’t to say that Silk #1 isn’t without flaws. The initial flashback sequences in Silk #1 rely heavily on reader’s prior knowledge of recent Spider-Man stories, making the prologue a necessity for truly new readers. A few transitions between sequences move so quickly that a timeline is difficult to construct.

The flaws in Silk #1 are minor though and never dominate the reading experience. They are background noise getting filtered through the energy and momentum created by Thompson and Lee. The care and love they put into Silk #1 along with everyone else on the creative team creates a comic that is propulsive, fun, and really damn good looking. Silk is a fresh, invigorating take on the Spider-Man mythos and I cannot wait to see where she goes next.

Grade: B+

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ADVANCE REVIEW: Frankenstein Underground #1 Resurrects Gothic Horror in the 20th Century

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on February 18, 2015.

Frankenstein Underground - Mignola - Cover

A character who possess the soul of a man, but the appearance of a monster. A narrative defined in equal parts by mad scientists attempting to play god and the supernatural mysteries to which they aspire. Themes of self-determination and questioning one’s role in the universe. Am I discussing the story of Hellboy or Frankenstein’s monster (henceforth referred to as Frankenstein)? It’s hard to tell.Given that comparison, it’s hard to believe that it has taken this long for Mike Mignola to incorporate Mary Shelley’s classic gothic vision into his massive tapestry of modern horror. Frankenstein plays upon so many of the same tropes and concepts as Hellboy, but is capable of expanding these ideas in an entirely different direction. Whereas Hellboy was always intended for a very specific purpose, Frankenstein is a creation who was brought into this world simply to exist. Hellboy must confront beliefs of pre-destination, while Frankenstein is confronted with existential ennui. It is this difference that defines Frankenstein Underground #1 and makes it instantly obvious that the inclusion of Frankenstein within the “Mignola-verse” was inevitable.

The first issue, written by Mignola and drawn and colored by Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart, respectively, is set after a chance encounter between Frankenstein and Hellboy in Mexico in 1956. Frankenstein has been chased into the countryside by a populace that fears and hates him once more. There he discovers an old woman who, like him, has been forced to abandon society due to her supernatural qualities. Everything is not allowed to remain peaceful for long as outside forces seek to capture and control Frankenstein.

Mignola’s plotting is direct and to the point. He wastes no time dragging out convoluted back stories; they certainly exist, but will emerge naturally through the story itself. The script resembles the best of his work on stories in Hellboy or Baltimore, establishing characters and conflict with ease. While Frankenstein Underground #1 may be based within a pre-existing universe, this is a true number one issue that allows for easy access and consumption.

That shouldn’t be mistaken for simplicity or plainness though. Mignola and Stenbeck are obviously both lovers of their chosen genre and character, and play to the thematic strengths of these concepts. There are strains of Lovecraft and Mignola’s own creations embedded within Frankenstein Underground #1, but its heart is that of a gothic horror novel brought forth into the 20th century (when Shelley’s novel was first widely embraced). Purpose, secrecy, monstrosity: These are familiar chords woven together into the first movement of a comics symphony.

Stenbeck encapsulates Frankenstein’s origins and ongoing plight beautifully into an origin sequence that takes only a few pages to tell. A quick series of panels compose a montage of conflicts in which Frankenstein was engaged, each of them bookended by a single descriptive word and a caption for the setting. The first panel reveals Frankenstein hiding behind a tree as soldiers march past him through the forest. The only words needed are a solitary “hunted” and the time and place: “Macedonia, 1826”. This progression not only details Frankenstein’s elongated life and vast travels, but summarizes his personal experience. Stenbeck composes each panel to capture the essence of the moment. Whether Frankenstein is hunted, fought, or caged, his feelings of fear, anger, and despair are what dominate the panel. Even as Frankenstein’s origin becomes more verbose and linear in nature, Stenbeck masterfully selects each moment in order to best create a sense of empathy with the monstrous-looking man.

This is made all the more powerful by the way in which Stenbeck’s presentation of these moments contrasts with Mignola’s narration. Frankenstein details his life to the woman who has helped him, but he understates many of the depicted events. His anguish in some panels is left out of his words to be only hinted at by a melancholy tone. This places reader’s in Frankenstein’s position as they are made aware of his personal knowledge and the active choices he makes in revealing or concealing it. It makes Frankenstein a more sympathetic protagonist, and helps to convey his morality as he reflects on terrible moments with a clear sense of shame.

Stenbeck and Mignola take full advantage of this sympathy to make Frankenstein’s fears and angers those of the reader. As he lashes out at a chaotic and uncaring universe, that rage feels real. The exaggerations of the genre are no match for a story that is written and presented based on real human experience. Death and loss are not obfuscated by the inclusion of monsters and mysteries, instead they are heightened. As Frankenstein Underground #1 gives way to darkness, it feels like an invitation to continue exploring the struggles of a character grappling with very real existential woes.

Stewart has refined his craft as a colorist on horror comics for almost two decades into an absolute mastery of the form (deservedly earning him 8 Eisner awards). His colors in a Mignola comic tend to skew dark, but his palette in Frankenstein Underground #1 is even more oppressive than usual. Every sequence occupied by Frankenstein is dominated by blacks that push down on his world. He is in a cave at night and Stewart ensures that the story feels just as dark as it should without obscuring Stenbeck’s line work and storytelling. It is a daunting experience that reinforces the reader’s connection with Frankenstein. The final panel of the issue speaks volumes to both the story it presents and the keen choices of Stewart and Stenbeck in presenting that story.

Frankenstein Underground #1 has introduced another element to Mignola’s every expanding pantheon of horror and adventure comics. It fits in perfectly alongside the likes of HellboyB.P.R.D.BaltimoreSledgehammer ‘44, and all of the others, but never feels like an unnecessary mirror to any of its sister titles. Instead, Frankenstein Underground plays on similar concepts and themes, but sets itself up to explore them in a manner that feels entirely new. Mignola and Stenbeck are prepared to delve into the existential quandaries of existence and the horrors of a universe that is so massive as to dwarf even Frankenstein’s enormous form. Frankenstein Underground is a series worth looking out for in 2015.

Grade: B+

Frankenstein Underground #1 will be published by Dark Horse Comics on March 18, 2015.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

This article was originally published at Psycho Drive-In on February 14, 2015.

I sat down to watch Kingsman in an empty theater right after lunch on a weekday. It was going to be one of those great cinema going experiences where you get the big screen and top notch sound system, but don’t have to worry about another soul in existence. Then a couple came in and sat directly behind me right as previews began to roll. They watched the movie with audible reactions: gasps, laughter, squeaks, and even an announcement of “She is cold” every time one character came on screen. My viewing experience was made all the better by their presence.

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As Kingsman ramped up to its conclusion with a hyper-violent action sequence set to classic Southern rock, I realized that we were having very different (but equally enjoyable) experiences. I was laughing out loud while the couple was sharply inhaling their breath and mumbling “damn” to one another. We were in the same theater, but watching two very different movies. That’s the trick to Matthew Vaughn’s newest film. While it works on a very clear and obvious surface level, there’s something completely different happening just beneath that for anyone who cares to pay attention.

For the second time in his career Vaughn has added depth and intelligence to a comic adaptation from Mark Millar. On its surface Kingsman is a movie firmly locked within the super-spy genre, comfortably resting alongside the craziest antics of James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer. Action, gadgets, conspiracies, megalomaniacal villains, sex: It’s all there. Vaughn embraces the genre, but also manages to critique and parody it along the way. It’s a chiding hug, reassuring viewers that it’s okay to have fun at the movies, while pointing out the troublesome politics that reside in these sorts of romps. As much as the source material of The Secret Service is unintelligent, lazy, and obvious, Kingsman is smart, ambitious, and subversive.

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Kingsman centers around the Kingsman service, an independent group of posh spies who seek to maintain world peace. Each of the agents takes a codename from a Knight of the Round Table with Arthur (Michael Caine) leading them and Merlin (Mark Strong) as their gadget and weapons expert. When one of them is killed, they all bring in a potential replacement. This is how Eggsy (Taron Egerton, who we can only hope to see lots more of in the future), a well-meaning but delinquent youth, is brought into the organization by suave spymaster Harry Hart a.k.a. Galahad (Colin Firth, who is simply superb). In addition to his training and competition with the Elite of Britain, Eggsy must also contend with a massive globe-spanning conspiracy led by tech mogul Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson).

There are plenty of elements within Kingsman that my generation of writers (fresh out of college and extra wary of privilege) would probably deem problematic. The central conflict lies between a group of wealthy, white British men working as super spies and a powerful, self-made black man and his female Algerian assistant attempting to enact an insane scheme. On the surface it’s a reinforcement of so many things that are wrong with the status quo of pop culture. Vaughn isn’t unaware of this though, and to write off the film as racist, classist, or sexist on the premise alone would be to ignore what is actually being said. Rather than swerve away from this all too common setup, Vaughn leans into the curve. In the process he makes these roles obvious and draws attention to the problems that lie within them.

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The characters within Kingsman are all exaggerations, big exaggerations, but they do not go so far as to fall into the realm of caricature. Samuel L. Jackson comes the closest to this in the villainous role of Valentine. A lisp and extreme aversion to violence are played for laughs, but Jackson still manages to summon an air of menace and odd humanity. His personal assistant, the deadly double amputee Gazelle played by Sofia Boutella is vastly more interesting though. She emanates everything that is amusing with a classic Bond henchman like Odd Job or Jaws with her razor-bladed artificial legs. Yet she plays the character with a depth and personality that prevents the role from becoming too cartoonish. Her confidence, gusto, and warm scoldings of Valentine all belie a complete human being.

Vaughn does far more than exaggerate standard genre fare in order to cue readers into the subtext of Kingsman, he actively winks and nudges them throughout the film. One of the very first things Eggsy does is to save a cat. For anyone familiar with writing and film, it’s a wink to the bestselling book on screenwriting Save The Cat! The central concept at play is that in order to easily make an audience like a film’s protagonist all you have to do is have them save a cat at the beginning of the movie. The reverse of this idea is that to make a character villainous, you simply have them do the reverse and kill an animal (another easy concept that Vaughn also doesn’t mind using). In this moment Vaughn isn’t being lazy, he’s grabbing film buffs by their collars and making it clear that he is perfectly self-aware.

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These sorts of stabs at Hollywood and genre films are loaded throughout Kingsman, but in such a way as to swim just below the surface like a shark whose fin only occasionally crests through the water. Oftentimes the most obvious jokes manage to play on both levels simultaneously. At one point Harry Hart sits down to dinner with Valentine. It is a lavish spread of wine and cutlery, but the meal itself is unveiled on a silver platter as McDonald’s. This may seem like a goofy bit of eccentrism from Valentine, but both Firth and Jackson play the scene so wonderfully straight that it is clearly parody. As they discuss wine pairings for a Big Mac or double cheeseburger, they take hold of this product placement with both hands wrapped firmly around its throat. By lauding so much praise upon McDonald’s, they serve to mock the concept of placing obvious corporate brands within a blockbuster.

One element that ought to work for all viewers in a similar fashion is the action. While it may glean varying reactions ranging from shock to amusement to laughter, it is all very well shot. Vaughn is still refining his craft with the camera, but has grown considerably since the action sequences in Kick-Ass. Here he is much more assured and the fast pace and clear storytelling of bar brawls and savage 100-man battles alike show that. Whether you perceive them as simply intense action beats or clever plays upon the violence-saturated films of Hollywood, they are an absolute thrill to watch.

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Kingsman isn’t a perfect film. There are moments where the jokes fall flat or veer into unnecessary crudeness. The last joke before the credits was bad enough to almost ruin the positive afterglow of the entire experience. Vaughn sometimes stumbles when leaping between disparate tones of humor and pathos. There is a message about class and the ability for any man (or woman) to become a gentleman that is not fully fleshed out. At the end of the film, it feels like a tacked on warm message that doesn’t quite jive with the politics of reality. Eggsy may have overcome his poor beginnings, but has still abandoned the rest of his class to the status quo after all. Those rough edges are far less common than the film’s many successful scenes and achievements though. No matter what nits I found to pick during the movie, I found myself quickly forgetting them as I marveled at the ambition and smarts on display throughout the rest of the adventure.

As we left the movie theater, I could tell that both the couple behind me and myself were thrilled with what we had just watched. While I mused over my own thoughts, they talked and laughed over favorite moments. We may have been watching two different movies, but we shared the same theater and experienced something that seemed to resonate with all of us. That may be Vaughn’s greatest achievement in Kingsman. He has made a movie that is accessible to two very different audiences. There is no disdain for high falutin’ movie critics like myself or viewers who simply want to relax for two hours. Instead he has infused a fast-paced super spy flick with intelligence and humor that so many blockbusters lack. Kingsman shows that a fun, genre movie need not lack in wit or complexity.

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Fast Cars, Fast Comics

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on February 13, 2015.

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In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the car chase emerged as a dynamic and powerful trope in cinema. Requiring no dialogue, they could tell a story relying only on the energy captured within the frame. Films like The French Connection and Bullitt featured scenes so thrilling that they are still discussed by fans and academics today. Even The Blues Brothers featured one of the most exciting chase sequences in movie history amidst its raucous comedy. The combination of power, speed, and danger make the car chase a signature of modern visual storytelling. Yet it has become a truism it is almost impossible to convey the excitement of a car chase in comics. Despite their visual nature and ability to cut between any imaginable perspective, the car chase has not been utilized often or well in comics.

The primary challenge of adopting something that works so well in film to comics is the loss of motion. Although both mediums rely on images to tell a story, comics can only provide static images, whereas film can utilize the motion of both its subjects and the presentation itself as the camera moves. The momentum created by capturing this motion is incredible and allows for even badly shot car chases to relate the excitement of massive vehicles charging forward at 40, 70, or more than 100 miles per hour. A comic has to relate that sense of momentum without being able to actually show it, which may be why there are so few car chases in comics.

That trend is beginning to change though. Justin Jordan and Matteo Scalera’s Dead Body Road was published last year and collected by Image Comics in June. It featured some of the most thrilling comics action of 2014. Scalera crafted the comic to pack a lot of visually visceral sequences, including a twenty-page long car chase in #4.

The most notable thing about Dead Body Road #4 is that all but 2 of its 20 pages are parts to two-page spreads. Read as individual pages, most comics are held vertically, this issue is almost entirely horizontal encouraging readers focus to move from left-to-right rather than from top-to-bottom. This shift creates an important change in pacing. Western readers are used to a reading experience, both in prose and comics, that encourages them to move down the page. Forcing their attention to follow along a longer page spread creates a small increase in the motion necessary required to read. Although the change is small, the internal effect of the shift is much greater than its physical contribution, surprising readers conditioned to read in only one direction.

The horizontal panels also focus on action, rather than the juxtaposition of static panels. Wider panels allow for a broader range of motion to be captured and for the motion of a single action to be better captured. It makes the difference between someone being punch and that same person being punched from the left of the panel to the right. This shift helps show what direction cars, bullets, and bodies are moving.

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The action also drives a horizontal reading of the comic. Gunfire, falling bodies, and accelerating cars all pull the readers attention to the left or right side of the panel, but never up or down. In addition to helping emphasize the comics pacing, it also helps to emphasize the impact or surprise of certain moments. On pages 8 and 9, Orson shoots Quint in the gut. The gunshot is shown in a panel that is dark on the left, but a bright yellow on the right that has further attention drawn to it with the bold onomatopoeia “BANG”. This emphasis on the right side of the panel drives attention to its immediate connection, Quint’s face which is equally shocked and pained. The connection between the gunfire and Quint’s reaction are inextricable. In the following two panels, the opposite effect is created when a biker fires his gun while facing the left side of the panel. This leftward momentum draws attention away from the following panel when Rachel is surprised by the gunfire. The dissociating created by directing the action in the opposite direction of the story allows for the reader to be surprised as well. Scalera finds ways to make the horizontal framing best capture other story beats, in addition to drawing out the excitement of a car chase.

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Scalera’s rough, thin line work also helps to exaggerate the motion of the chase, specifically through motion lines. In the bottom row of pages 8 and 9, there are three distinctive sets of motion lines. The first panel leaves horizontal lines scattered about to emphasize a biker’s acceleration. In the following panel they spiral out from a gunshot to fill the rest of the panel. In the third and final panel, they streak diagonally, parallel to the force of Rachel’s leg and cutting a perpendicular angle to the gas pedal. This not only creates a sense of momentum for her leg, but pushes that momentum into the pedal. Each of these panels focuses on the central action drawing attention to it, while providing a sense of how it is affecting the world around it. All of these lines are thin, only widening towards their center if at all. They appear like scalpel cuts across the art, exaggerating the art beneath. The end result of all of these purposeful measures, from the horizontal spreads to the motion lines, is a car chase that is genuinely exciting.

Frank Miller is a strong influence here. In his seminal Daredevil run published between 1979 and 1983, Miller developed a method of structuring action using both page layouts and implied motion that made superhero action feel fresh and exciting. Action sequences in Daredevil often relied upon long horizontal panels that drove action across the page and allowed readers to simply read from top-to-bottom with no difficult transitions. The actions of his characters moved in the same direction the reader’s eye should be following as well. This provided a sense of implied momentum, where both the actions of the page and the action of reading reinforced one another for a fast reading experience during fast paced scenes. Scalera opts to use two-page spreads, but his panels utilize a wide horizontal layout and reinforcing actions in the same way Miller’s did.

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Scalera isn’t the only artist currently working to better adapt car chases to the comics medium either. In All-New Ghost Rider #1-5 Tradd Moore utilized an eastern influenced style with lots of inked motion lines to create thrilling car chases on the streets of Los Angeles. He is applying additional tools as well, like the use of a GPS in panels, to help track action and convey motion in static images. In four issues thus far, it has resulted in some thrilling sequences that make the comic stand out as being truly unique in a market flooded with superhero comics.

The result of Scalera and Moore’s work is that it’s an exciting time to be reading comics. The excitement of motion that was best captured by film is now being translated into a medium with no limits besides the human imagination. Fiery ghost cars, train jumping vans, and packs of mercenary bikers roam the page at incredible speed to thrill and delight readers. Watching artists like Scalera adapt these stories to effectively convey the visceral nature of a car chase is a wonder in and of itself, pushing the medium to do new things. It serves as a reminder that comics have so much room to grow and today’s readers have a front row seat to the most exciting, game changing work in decades.

It’s an exciting time to be reading comics.

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REVIEW: Shutter #9: A History of Violence

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on February 12, 2015.

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*Spoilers for Shutter #9 ahead*

One of the most powerful elements of long-form storytelling, whether it is in comics, television, or any other sequential medium, is the ability to explore characters thoroughly as they continue to grow. Heroes, villains, and all of those who fall in between are not restrained to a single arc or defining alteration. They are allowed to continually evolve, constantly incorporating new experiences and choices into who they are. When written well this results in characters who resemble something much closer to our own existence.

In Shutter Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca are interested in telling a long story, one that thoroughly understands its characters and infuses them with life. The series is filled with wild imaginative strokes and a complex history. It’s beautiful to look upon; Del Duca structures a world where it always seems there is more just outside of each panel. That depth does not exist for its own sake though. It is there so that Kate, Chris, and Alarm Cat all exist somewhere that is just as complex and believable as they themselves are. No matter how rich and vibrant the world around them becomes (and it is so very rich and vibrant), it cannot distract from the very human drama that lies at the core of Shutter.

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There is a perfect example of just this sort of drama and the long-term sequential storytelling that allows it to flourish in Shutter #9. It builds on events from Shutter #6, when Kate and Chris were tracked down by Ekland and Shaw, a pair of lion-like bounty hunters. When Shaw attempts to force his way into Chris’ room, Chris fired at Shaw with a shotgun apparently killing him. It was an incredibly brutal scene, one that did not shy away from the visceral, raw experience of violence. That moment had a transformative impact not only on Shaw, but on both Kate and Chris. Del Duca’s character work in those moments distilled a greater response in their faces than any extended dialogue could hope to convey. The shock and horror of Chris’ response as he slowly slumped to his knees, tears streaming from his face is painful to read. The dismay on Kate’s face mirrors your own, shattered that a young boy was even put in such a terrible situation. In Shutter, Del Duca and Keatinge recognize violence as a traumatic experience for all parties and don’t shy away from its consequences.

This one moment has continued to reverberate within the following issues, weighing on every step of Kate and Chris’ journey together. It comes to the forefront in Shutter #9 when Chris is asked to return home with The General, the woman who taught him how to use a gun. His response is immediate and heartbreaking. Fear and shock resurface instantly. He is pulled back to the same moment in which he shot Shaw. Strains of post-traumatic stress are layered over the reactions of a child still struggling to make sense of what has happened, as he cries out “Don’t wanna shoot another gun!” It is a challenging transformation from the happy and shy young boy that Kate first met at the end of Shutter #4. He’s not broken, but he’s been irrevocably changed and it will be a long time before he is capable of reconciling what has happened.

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Throughout Shutter #7 and #8, Chris was shown struggling with his actions as he attempted to help Alarm Cat with his own struggles and attempted to make a new friend. He was reserved and focused on anything that wasn’t about himself. Keatinge and Del Duca have been perfectly aware of Chris’ emotional state without needing to address it directly in each issue. The pain always lay just below the surface of his watery eyes. Chris’ reponse here is the inevitable confrontation of what has been an internal conflict for the past couple of issues. It is tremendous character work.

Kate’s response in this scene is every bit as obvious. She is protector and caregiver lashing out at whatever the source of Chris’ pain is. The General is not an enemy, but Kate allows no defense for her point of view. She is aware of what Chris has been through and is striving to protect him, no matter how difficult it may be. It is a fierce response inspired by love and empathy.

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It is not just Kate’s relationship with Chris that has been changed though. Acting as his caregiver, she has been forced to question her own decisions and character. It’s not only about how she decides to protect Chris, but who she wants to be for him. This is what leads to the twist at the end of Shutter #9, when she ditches her weapons and backup when going through a mysterious portal with Kalliyan. She finds herself unable to support Chris’ denouncement of violence and guns, then use those same tools to protect him. So she throws away the most obvious means of survival announcing “No guns”.

This is an example of character driving plot, instead of the reverse. Too often in comics, especially superhero comics, what happens is treated as being significantly more important than why it happens. Exciting twists and complex plotting are treated as the ends, rather than means to reach it. That’s not the case here. Keatinge and Del Duca deliver exciting plot twists in Shutter #9, but they all stem from Kate’s decisions. She has been changed by her experiences with Chris. They have altered her priorities and desires. Instead of simply wanting to be left alone with her photography, she is striving to protect Chris and be the sort of role model that he can look up to. Her decision to dive into the unknown without weapons or backup could be viewed as foolish, but given the context of the story it’s incredibly brave. This isn’t a character being thrown defenseless into a dangerous situation, it’s a person choosing to do the hard thing because they also believe it to be the right thing.

Shutter #9 is many things. It’s a rich fantasy world populated with fascinating characters and a layered history. It’s a fast-paced drama with plenty of twists and turns. It’s a brave moral statement about the cost and cause of violence. But before all of that, it is a story about people. Kate and Chris are two individuals who have changed dramatically in less than ten issues. Every decision they make further alters who they are and drives their stories. No matter how crazy Shutter may appear, it’s heart is human.

Grade: A-

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REVIEW: Divinity #1 is Tripping Into the Unknown

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on February 11, 2015.

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Valiant Entertainment is a publisher that provides its creators plenty of freedom. Looking at the wide range of scope and tone featured within its small, but growing superpowered universe, it’s difficult to imagine all of these elements coexisting so well. Yet they blend together wonderfully, and are only continuing to grow. Divinity #1 introduces another new character to Valiant, one that is unlike any other in the current line up.

Writer Matt Kindt and penciler Trevor Hairsine tell the story of Abram Adams, a Russian cosmonaut launched into space on a 30 year mission before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He returns in the modern era of the Valiant universe looking the same, but somehow altered by unknown forces. It’s a mysterious premise, one that is in no hurry to explain itself. That’s not a fault in Divinity though. Enigmas and mysteries are Kindt’s wheelhouse. He weaves complex webs of characters and timelines that reward invested readers with the long game, and fascinate them with each individual issue. It’s difficult to ascertain where Kindt may be guiding Adams’ story, but Divinity #1 is still a fascinating first chapter.

The issue is narrated by an unseen entity; its speech cold and removed. Observations of individual characters and the fluctuating timeline within the story are commented upon as if by an alien fondly marking notes concerning a favorite experiment. There is a connection, but it is distant. It begs the question of who is observing the story and why it would attract such an odd entity. This narration provides the greatest clue to how Adams’ journey has changed him, suggesting a perspective that is beyond human understanding of time and space.

For every detail that Kindt and Hairsine make explicit in Divinity #1, there are at least two left floating ready to be explored as the series progresses. Besides alluding to the pressure of the Cold War when launching Adams into space, they do not make a significant point of his origin as a communist or USSR patriot. His life is presented as a relatively normal one with very human dreams and desires. Adams origin as an unsung hero of a failed state is bound to play into his narrative as the series continues though.

Hairsine weaves the mundane and fantastic together in such a way that readers will be left questioning what is real as Divinity #1 delves into the odder aspects of its plot. He presents images of Adams working through school and struggling with his choice to leave Earth with a very real sense of humanity. When transformations and waking dreams emerge in the second half of the issue though, they are just as lush as earlier sequences are commonplace. His design for Adams suit blends these two aspects together beautifully. It is an iconic outfit with a striking silhouette, yet it also retains the believability of a 1960s space program.

Inker Ryan Winn and colorist David Baron complement Hairsine’s pencils very well. Winn captures a shimmering quality within Hairsine’s lines, keeping them sharp, thin, and striking. Rather than add unwanted depth, he aims to distill the essence of each composition and draw forth details in the background of larger panels. Baron balances the human and beyond-human focus of the issue by switching between earthy and rainbow-inspired palettes.

Divinity #1 pushes the scope of Valiant ever further, striking into the territory of surrealistic science fiction. It is a beautifully designed introduction and one that plays to all of Kindt’s strengths as a writer. While it may be unclear where Abram Adams’ journey may lead, it is certain that it will be an experience worth reading.

Grade: B+

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