From pulp heroes and barbarians to the farthest reaches of space, this was anything but a dull week. There’s a little something for everyone, and a couple of real heavy hitters to be found! Saga #9, Green Hornet: Year One Special #1, Bloodshot #7, Conan the Barbarian #12, and Black Beetle: No Way Out #1! Marc Buxton, Mike Cecchini, and Bob Chamberlain break down five titles that remind us why we buy comics in the first place, and that capes aren’t always mandatory. While not every book was a home run this week, these are the ones that we just had to talk about!
Saga #9 (Image)
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Saga #9 switches point-of-view to The Will, the freelance bounty hunter who was hired to find and bring back baby Hazel. Vaughan continues to bring it, as this issue has countless twists, and humor combined with disturbing imagery and intensity. The Will’s character and motivations are explored, as Vaughn reveals nobility within the money hungry hunter. The issue opens with a fantasy of The Will freeing a character named Sex Slave from, well, sex slavery. He celebrates his delusional victory by having sex with The Stalk. Now, if you’ve seen The Stalk you can imagine how disturbing this little sequence can be. The Stalk is a woman with spider legs tipped with hands, no arms, eight eyes, and a banging body. The book delights in scenes like this; disturbing images that serve as character revealing moments and add flavor to the richest narrative tapestry in comics. It’s rare that a reader can say “eeeeek” and “whoa” in the same second, but there you go.
Since the series’ inception, readers have had the chance to experience Saga’s world through the eyes of Marko and Alana. Vaughan has done all his world building through these characters. By switching perspective to The Will and Isabella, readers get to see a different P.O.V. of the hows and whys of this galaxy. There is a sense of innocence with Marko and Alana, but Isabella and The Will are world weary and experienced. They will clearly be future antagonists in the series, but this issue provides perspective and motivation for when they finally encounter Alana and Marko. Vaughn establishes The Wills’ strength, weaponry, and abilities. He is a determined hunter, and even if he has a shaky moral code, his quest to save Sex Slave shows that he has some purity to him. Readers will feel a sense of sympathy for Isabella, as she was the woman Marko left to marry Alana. She is the spurned ex who has a righteous reason for seeing Marko punished. Seeing the world of Saga through the eyes of these two characters provides even more details on Vaughn’s rich world.
While the characters are multi-dimensional and robust, it is world building where Vaughan truly excels. It is not often in today’s market that a truly gifted creator is allowed to craft a fully functioning world from whole cloth. The world of Saga has its own unique cultures, system of magic, interactions, and rules. These are established almost primarily through dialogue and characterization. It is an impressive lesson in craft that never fails to disappoint. Saga is unique experience unlike any in comics today, and I look forward to my next visit. Plus, the book always contains the best letters page in comics.
review by: Marc Buxton
The Black Beetle: No Way Out #1 (Dark Horse)
Writer: Francesco Francavilla
Artist: Francesco Francavilla
The Black Beetle is a costumed, gadget-wielding, fighter of crime in the tradition of Batman and The Green Hornet. His mission to take down various Colt City mob families is repeatedly interrupted by an unknown assassin who proceeds to eliminate the mobsters that The Black Beetle is determined to implicate. His mission takes him to Colt City’s version of Alcatraz, where the mysterious killer strikes again and leaves our hero to explain things to the authorities.
The character was first introduced in the pages of Dark Horse Presents, which was then collected in a zero issue, in anticipation of this and future miniseries. While the zero issue felt like a chase-the-artifact movie serial, this issue is pure pulp. Whether Black Beetle is tight-roping between city buildings or infiltrating an island prison with a helicopter backpack while his inner monologue provides florid exposition, this book drips with pulpy goodness.
Francesco Francavilla has quickly become an industry darling, being tapped for covers by every publisher in the business. His line has graced the covers of The Lone Ranger, Hellboy, and even Archie. Francavilla’s most prominent work (arguably) was in Detective Comics, where he handled the art for a back-up tale during Scott Snyder’s career-making run in 2010.
His work in The Black Beetle rivals some of his best, to date. The action is presented nicely and he really pushes the format to the brink with experimental panel transitions on virtually every page. His color scheme utilizes mostly warm colors, which I thought was odd at first glance, but it really works in context. The Black Beetle’s world glows and the balance of light and dark creates a visually interesting environment.
Francesco’s writing is, well, it’s interesting. The dialogue and captions are clear, but there’s something odd, that I can’t quite put my finger on. The English isn’t improper, but there’s a certain clunky quality to it, almost as if it were translated from another language. I felt like I was reading an Italian comic book that was newly published in an English-speaking market. For all I know, this was Francesco’s intention, or perhaps it’s just a product of limited experience writing in English. Either way, it takes nothing away from the book and actually added to the pulpy-ness.
If you are a fan of pulp novels, or action/adventure stories, there is a lot to enjoy in this new series by one of comicdom’s fastest rising stars.
review by: Bob Chamberlain
Green Hornet: Year One Special #1 (Dynamite)
“The Green Gun Girl”
Writer: Nate Crosby
Art: Edu Menna with Evan Shaner
Colors: Marcelo Pinto
Bridging the gap between Matt Wagner’s 12-issue exploration of the Green Hornet’s origin (the first of its kind), and Mark Waid’s upcoming ongoing series of the same name, Dynamite brings up the Green Hornet Year One Special! These “specials” that Dynamite have been putting out for many of their licensed properties seem to serve the same basic purpose of an annual: they allow a self-contained story to be told with a different creative team than the one that normally works on the book. I love golden age and/or pulp characters, I love that Dynamite has been putting them to good use, I love the Green Hornet in particular, and I love one-and-done stories that don’t needlessly stretch stories out over six issues. I really wanted to love this comic.
“The Green Gun Girl” is the story of Ruby, a young girl trying to make ends meet for her and her alcoholic father by selling copies of The Daily Sentinel on the street. The Sentinel, of course, is Britt Reid’s paper, in which he rails against the activities of the “criminal” Green Hornet by day, while going out and creating headlines as the Hornet at night. Ruby suspects that the Green Hornet isn’t the criminal that the papers make him out to be, and idolizes him. Her imaginary adventures of the Green Hornet occupy several of pages in the comic, which are charmingly rendered in a simple, golden age style, complete with exaggerated Ben-Day dots and heavy, unsubtle ink-lines. Ruby soon finds herself in the middle of one of the Green Hornet’s street level battles, and that’s where things get interesting.
The problem is I feel like I’ve read this story before. Other than the obvious sympathies a reader would feel for Ruby and her drunk (although, thankfully, not abusive) father, there’s not much to go on. With a tweak or two, this could be a story featuring Batman or the Shadow or any number of shadowy crime fighters. Green Hornet and Kato are incidental to the story, although that’s certainly by design. I hate to say it, considering my love of self-contained comics, but Ruby isn’t developed enough for us to particularly care about her. She seems like she’d be at home in an ongoing Green Hornet title as a background character, who then gets a spotlight story like this one once the readers have developed some kind of a relationship with her.
“The Green Gun Girl” comes off a little flat, unfortunately. But I still have to applaud the creative team for trying something a little different. Green Hornet die-hards (ahem…we DO exist) will surely find something to like about it. If nothing else, it may even serve as a fine introduction to the Hornet and his world for younger readers. And, really, I shouldn’t complain too much whenever I get a new dose of pulp-style action.
review by: Mike Cecchini
Conan the Barbarian #12 (Dark Horse)
Writer: Brian Wood
Artist: Declan Shalvey
Colors: Dave Stewart
Wrapping up the three part “The Death” storyline, Conan the Barbarian #12 finds Conan on the treacherous streets of Bakal. Here he sits helplessly, while the crew of The Tigress lay dying, afflicted with plague. Among the sick is Conan’s beloved queen, Belit, who has ordered Conan to leave her to die and not have his last memory of her be an emaciated corpse. While drowning his misery in a tavern, Conan is approached by a healer, who offers to help revive his men and his queen. Meanwhile, a mob has formed and is headed to the dock where The Tigress is secured. With its crew in a weakened state, many who have run afoul of the pirate band attempt to seize this opportunity for vengeance. Conan fends off the horde and allows the healer to make good on her offer, but at a terrible cost.
Brian Wood presents us with a Conan that feels closer to his prose roots than the various filmed versions. Wood also handles the emotional extremes of Conan’s personality with great style. The dialogue feels like proper Conan and the captions read with some of Robert E. Howard’s flair. This story is a transitional one, designed to aim Conan off of the open sea and back to his days of conquest and throne-seeking. It not a dull story, but it definitely feels like an interlude before the more action-oriented adventures begin. However, the book does have its share of blood, guts and severed parts. The body count is substantial, but there should never be a Conan story told that has a reasonable survival rate.
Declan Shalvey’s art works well with the material. His Conan is dark, sullen-eyed and strong. He presents the violence with ferocity and isn’t afraid to show the reader every consequence of sharpened metal meeting living meat. There is a two page spread (just past the staples) that shows Conan, sitting silently outside of Belit’s cabin door, with his bloody sword and armor on the floor beside him. This image is absolutely gorgeous and in my opinion, perfectly encapsulates the “gigantic melancholies” described in the original Robert E. Howard introduction. Dave Stewart handled the colors, so they are gorgeous. I’m running out of adjectives to describe his work, so I’ll leave it at that.
Dark Horse’s Conan the Barbarian has been consistently well put-together since its inception and has really delivered Conan the way he was originally intended to be. While this issue is definitely not an optimal jumping-on point, the coming issues promise to be exactly that.
review by: Bob Chamberlain
Bloodshot #7 (Valiant)
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Penciler: Matthew Clark
Inks: Stefano Gaudiano
Many still consider the Valiant characters an exercise in excess, which is common belief about any character that sprang to life in the foil-embossed ‘90s. But with Valiant’s revival, it’s clear that plenty of thought and character building has gone into the rebooted Valiant pantheon. Bloodshot is not just a pale Punisher clone. He’s a soldier, infused with nanites, that is pre-programed before each mission with the proper personal motivation to complete each mission. For example, if he goes against a terrorist, his handlers program Bloodshot with the memory of that terrorist murdering his wife.
Bloodshot #7 opens with a flashback to World War I, where a soldier is seen finding courage in the memory of his fiancé. The same idea is the conceptual core of Bloodshot, as he is programmed with personal motivations to fuel his violent psyche before each mission. This particular mission he is programmed to believe the organization that kidnapped his daughter is holding a group of kids hostage in the Philippines. The programed killing machine believes that if he saves these kids, the trail will lead to his fictitious daughter.
Swierczynski explores the theme of manipulation through Bloodshot, and this idea gives the series its identity. Bloodshot is not a real character, he is a blank slate that becomes the type of killer his programmers wish him to be. Somewhere buried in his nanite-filled body there is the soul of a hero, but it’s more convenient to keep the human side buried for the sake of the missions.
In this issue, Bloodshot is sent to bring home a group of youthful Harbingers so they may be manipulated the same way Bloodshot is. Obviously, the series is leading to a point where Bloodshot will break free and finally reveal his true character, but it’s the where and the how that provides the series its dramatic edge. In fact, this whole issue is a flashback. In the present, Bloodshot is beginning to free himself from his programming and tasks himself with the liberation of another group of Harbingers. The relationship between the Harbingers and Bloodshot brings the two series together in compelling way that makes the coming crossover seem more important to the overall landscape of the Valiant Universe.
On the surface, Bloodshot is a familiar title: big hero, big guns, along with big violence. Yet, the constant questioning of what is reality and what is programming gives this series a distinct feel and makes it a worthy addition to Valiant’s, so far, eminently readable revival.
review by: Marc Buxton