Fastball Feedback: Comics Reviews for September 2

War isn’t contained purely to fields of combat. After battles are won, there is always the question of what comes next. In the case of invasions, that means soldiers must stay behind to ensure the land and resources conquered remain under their control. This week we’re looking at three different comics that examine occupying forces. These stories are tense and violent whether they’re based in a future Canada, a secret war, or in the middle of a United States filled with aliens and Visigoths.

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We Stand On Guard #3

Written by Brian K. Vaughan

Art by Steve Skroce

Colors by Matt Hollingsworth

We Stand On Guard, the allegorical war story depicting a US invasion of Canada from comics all-stars Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce, takes an even darker turn this month. With the cast and stakes clearly established, plans have already begun to go awry in issue three. One member of the Two-Four has been captured and now Chief McFadden has been captured revealing the depravity of the American invaders and what the Canadians are ready to do between a rock and a cold place.

The capture of McFadden provides Vaughan and Skroce with yet another lens to critique recent American invasions, focusing on the use of torture. The commanding officer makes the parallel clear by referring to her methods as “enhanced techniques” and making use of simulated drowning (i.e. waterboarding). There’s a sci-fi twist, but the conceit is obvious. Skroce makes these moments particularly painful bringing the pain and humiliation to life in obvious and subtle ways. It’s not just the obvious presentation of pain, but the feelings his characters emotes that make it hurt as a reader. His detailed linework combined with life-like coloring of cheeks and eyes by Matt Hollingsworth makes everything being done feel a bit too real.

This very understandable horror is contrasted by the massive scale of the war being conducted against Canadian insurgents. Both in the Two-Four’s bunker and amongst the American forces, everything is extra big. Arguments among five Canadians are made to feel epic due to their cavernous headquarters and the wonders that populate it. Its the Americans that steal the show though. In a spread of the USAF, Skroce once again drops jaws with intensely detailed designs, beautifully replicated. His work on the massive war machines in this mini-series beg for posters to be made of them.

Vaughan, Skroce, and Wilson seamlessly fuse Hollywood blockbuster aesthetics with an acerbic take on American foreign policy, creating a comic that is equally entertaining and thought-provoking. While it lacks the heart that typically characterizes Vaughan’s work, it offers tremendous visuals and smart plotting instead. We Stand On Guard continues to be one of the most pleasant surprises offered by Image Comics in 2015 for what it offers and how it does so.

Grade: B+

Squadron Sinister #3 Review

Squadron Sinister #3

Written by Marc Guggenheim

Art by Carlos Pacheco and Mariano Taibo

Colors by Frank Martin

Things are heating up in Utopolis now that the Squadron Sinister has conquered three of its neighboring domains while crumbling apart from the inside. Hyperion, Warrior Woman, and Nighthawk are all at odds with one another, whether they know it or not, and the collateral damage from their conflicts grows even greater in Squadron Sinister #3. It is a mean-spirited story that could be a lot of fun, but fails to ever give its readers a reason to care.

Marc Guggenheim has presented the entire Squadron as a cast of simply motivated jerks. Hyperion wants to rule everything; Nighthawk wants to overthrow him; Whizzer and Dr. Spectrum lack even that much substance. There’s no detail to any of these men, and it’s difficult to even like them as villains. Warrior Woman’s heroism would seemingly provide her with an interesting hook, but she is defined solely by being an inside man and having sex with Hyperion at least once per issue (which is an absurd, continuing choice for the one woman in this comic). All five are simply drivers of plot, cardboard cutouts being pushed across a board game.

The ridiculous nature of the setting and melodramatics of the plot do provide opportunities for this to be a flashy, calorie-less read though. Unfortunately Carlos Pacheco presents much of what happens clearly, but with very little panache. Details are lacking here as well. The supposedly brutal torture of Paste Pot Pete looks almost silly with a bad case of Psoriasis on his face. The concept of a Starbrand army is used to minimal effect with costumes even more under-designed than those of the Squadron. Even this issue’s super-powered sex scene reads in a mundane fashion.

Squadron Sinister is perfectly functional, clearly relating plot points and character motivations, but it lacks any real substance. The series presents no reason to invest in what is happening to Utopolis or any of the jerks ruling it. Even the over-the-top, melodramatic story is robbed of any impact by a bizarrely standard presentation. After reading Squadron Sinister #3, it’s easy to recall what’s happening, but hard to understand why you should care.

Grade: D+

X-O Manowar #40 Review

X-O Manowar #40

Written by Robert Venditti

Art by Rafa Sandoval

Colors by Jordi Tarragona

Things got very tense in X-O Manowar #39 with American, Vine, and Visigoth forces all ready to start a devastating war at the slightest provocation in Western Nebraska of all places. That tension is ratcheted up even further in X-O Manowar #40, where Aric must not only contend with three military forces, but a mysterious threat from the past as well.

Robert Venditti clearly has a larger plan in mind as characters are moved about the issue like chess pieces, with supporting cast members being reestablished and new antagonists being introduced. However, that positioning is never to the detriment of momentum. The stakes are constantly being reinforced with guns, big and small, being aimed in almost every scene. It makes for a very taut reading experience, and shows Aric’s actions in a diplomatic role to be all the more impressive. While there aren’t any big explosions like in #39, Venditti’s quick pacing replaces the need for fireworks. The only drawback is the new villain feels like a very convenient foil for Aric. His history, connections, and plan all feel very convenient, especially stemming from a single flashback sequence.

Rafa Sandoval continues to show a flair for the dramatic as well with war-torn landscapes and very emotive aliens. However, the stylishness surrounding Aric’s battlesuit and other tech sometimes fails to cover missteps in storytelling. When Aric is conferencing with Saana, she goes from hovering over an injured Vine to embracing Aric and back with no connection or cause. It reads like a badly edited C-movie in this moment, jerking readers from a story that reads smoothly on most other pages.

X-O Manowar takes a very strong beginning and pushes it in all of the right directions. The stakes feel increasingly high with threats meriting the full attention of Aric and revealing who he now is beneath the battlesuit. It’s a middle chapter of a much bigger story, but never drags or pauses. Instead, it continues to deliver action and intrigue, making for an exciting superhero story.

Grade: B-

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

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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