Perhaps the most anticipated comic premiere from the big three of 2016 so far, Black Panther #1 (Marvel) is also one of the strongest. Though T’Challa has not exactly been waiting on the bench for someone to come get him, it’s been some time since he had his own solo title and the level of attention you’d expect for the leader of the most technologically advanced nation in Marvel 616’s version of the world. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, better known for his non-fiction work, expresses concern in the letters column that he’s afraid he might “completely suck” given that this is his first comic book. It’s a fair but altogether misplaced worry. Despite relying heavily on words in his other writing, Coates does an absolutely remarkable job here truncating the dialogue, concentrating on showing his readers what T’Challa is capable of instead of telling them.
It’s a testament to Coates’ skill as well as his love of the medium that he already understands artist Brian Stelfreeze needs more space per panel than word balloons do. Black Panther #1 finds T’Challa returned to a Wakanda in turmoil, citizens both weary and wary of their Orphan-King after the death of his sister Shuri. He isn’t sure what has caused the unrest, but this first issue reveals a tangled tapestry of overlapping loyalties, conflicting needs, and bitter emotions that’s Shakespearean in both scope and tone. People may draw comparisons to Jason Aaron’s Thor, a complex royal family dynamic being only one of the similarities the books share. If Coates can be convinced to take on another book, it has to be Namor; though the issue features just a single panel of Imperius Rex, it’s enough to create a demand for more and his skill at handling the Wakandan king indicates he could manage the Atlantean one, too.
Coates’ work isn’t just theatrical and evocative—it’s also firmly rooted in Afrofuturism, beyond just the legacy of Wakanda as a fictional place. Coates pushes both T’Challa and the reader into new, fascinating territory. Stelfreeze’s excellent, intentional work with character design and Wakandan technology only heightens both the sense of drama and the Afrofuturist tone. There are several behind-the-scenes pages in the backmatter that are well worth checking out. Stelfreeze is no stranger to the industry, though it’s been a while since he had a long run on a book. His style for Black Panther is staged cinematically, grounded by closeups and punctuated by wide shots featuring striking architecture and crowds of people.
Stelfreeze draws fights not just to display movement but also impact, treating claustrophobic panels like punches to give them heft and keep things dynamic. Color artist Laura Martin does an excellent job maintaining the lush, nuanced feeling of Wakanda as physical presence, providing characters and their clothing with the same attention to detail. The people in T’Challa’s world do not all have the same skin tone, boasting a variety of hair textures and clothing styles, and it’s clear that both Stelfreeze and Martin are being intentional here, avoiding issues that have plagued other books in the past. Hopefully Black Panther will be excluded from this summer’s manufactured conflict season at Marvel, leaving Coates, Stelfreeze, and Martin to continue their stellar work. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Uptight #5 (Fantagraphics) is an odd package. Somewhat larger than a large issue of a regular-sized comic book, it sits in the reader’s hand like a glossy magazine. It doesn’t have the normal card-stock covers you would expect from a 100-plus page trade paperback, but it doesn’t quite have the price, either, at just $10. The identity crisis in quote-unquote “alternative comics” appears to have been resolved some time back, in favor of those creators who abandoned serial floppy creation in favor of semi-regular releases of square-spine books that can be conveniently shelved as “graphic novels.” Adrian Tomine’s insistence on continuing to publish Optic Nerve in comic-book-sized installments was justified on the grounds of a willful perversity, a Luddite’s reaction to changing fashion in the comic-book industry—but, of course, even those stories were eventually bound together under one cover, the better to be sold in bookstores.
Surely the contents of Uptight will eventually be strip-mined for a long afterlife in book form as well. Uptight is interesting not merely on the strength of the work, but because of the alacrity with which Jordan Crane approaches the presentation of his material. This is a novel format, and the glossy-magazine presentation frames the stories in an interesting way. It feels like a substantial chunk of reading while also seeming like a bargain. Although it’s a single-creator anthology, it definitely feels of a piece with similar format experiments like Image’s Island, another example of the shape of a book influencing the aesthetics of its contents.
Crane is a remarkably flexible cartoonist, and the variety of approaches are what make the volume work so well. The lead story is part of a longer narrative, “Keeping Two,” but it can be appreciated without reference to previous chapters. On its own, it’s the story of a man suffering alone in the wake of his wife’s departure. Without veering into mawkishness or melodrama, it vividly examines the consequences of losing a partner at a young age (even if she’s not really gone). It’s as emotionally brutal as that description implies. The next story is a brief dream fantasy about cleaning up after a murder. Crane’s debt to Jaime Hernandez is most clear here, but there’s also a bit of Jeff Smith, particularly the later post-Bone Smith, whose RASL was similarly desperate and bloody.
The volume is capped by two genre exercises, one in the vein of hard sci-fi and another pure fantasy. “Discovering The Dark” is the story of a wildcat mining expedition in the asteroid belt that goes spectacularly wrong, a disaster whose violence is offset by Crane’s use of purple tones to communicate the darkness and scale of interplanetary space. Finally, “The Middle Nowhere” uses gray tones to convey existential loneliness in the mind of an isolated researcher who finds himself overcome by flood waters. Loneliness and isolation are the overriding sensations throughout the volume, but it’s a credit to Crane’s skill that, rather than deflating, the downbeat Uptight #5 remains thoroughly engaging from front to back. [Tim O’Neil]
The most recent mini-comic from Black Is The Color author Julia Gfrörer, Dark Age (Thuban Press), announces itself with an auspicious and profane cover. The desiccated carcass of a deer—identifiable only by the familiar hindquarters and hooves, which loop around the spine and appear on the back—festers before the reader. While the image itself is disconnected from the functional details of the comic’s plot, it serves as ingress to the work’s provocative thematics. Twenty-four pages in length, Dark Age centers on two young lovers, rebellious adventurers who wander away from the encampment of their pre-historic tribe. Her scratchy, lurid figures lurch and stumble through a foreboding and ominous landscape, and Gfrörer imbues her pages with a captivating texture. In their satyric frolicking, one of the pair of protagonists traps himself in a cave and, in his dread, accedes his being toward death.
Gfrörer exerts a hypnotic control over the reader’s experience of time, and she exclusively uses a 12-panel grid. Sometimes she collapses six panels into one, or three into one, but she remains faithful to some variation of that underlying rhythmic hum. Dark Age then has an immensely readable quality, and the experience is immersive and engaging. This authorial control, however, reaches a simply stunning (and stunningly simple) apotheosis wherein the reader is transposed into the subject-position of the trapped protagonist. The light fades for him, and a dark pitch creeps across the page.
Gfrörer strings together a sequence of inky, black pages that embody the reflective Nietzschean abyss, but curiously enough, she continues to delineate panel borders. The diegetic tempo persists, forcing you to read each panel before continuing to the next. What’s more, this conceit carries on for several pages—much longer than most any other cartoonist would’ve bothered. Here, Gfrörer invokes a Tarkovskian drabness, and you are made to bear the same angst, the same intractable weight, as the trapped figure. This reflexive confrontation persists almost until you can’t take it any longer, and then Gfrörer opens an escape hatch and admits catharsis. Returned to the light, the young man is blinded and his story closed. But what is to be made of this? Is the Manichean darkness then an edifying medium or a destructive one?
Painstakingly rendered in a morass of minute and fracturous lines, Dark Age does not even pretend to hold those answers. The brief, poetical mini-comic is a work whose simplicity of form and of function almost precludes intellectualization. There is a resistance; talking about it instead becomes talking around it, which makes a recollection of its reading satisfying and beyond frustrating. In that way, the comic reveals the ineffable underbelly of art: How do you articulate something whose form was chosen to circumvent articulation? [Shea Hennum]
What do you when your creator-owned comic isn’t selling enough to make it financially viable? If you’re Rich Tommaso, you burn it all down, as he does with Dark Corridor #7 (Image), the final issue of his striking crime series. The chapter begins with four splash pages showing The Red Circle’s skyline in flames, and by the end of the story, the city is in ashes and nearly all of the main characters have been killed off. Tommaso is firmly shutting the door on this world, and he does so in the thrilling, stylish, slightly surreal manner that has made Dark Corridor such a fascinating title.
Tommaso hurries to wrap up the remaining threads of his story in this issue, but the rapid pace is a natural endpoint for a narrative that has gained momentum with each chapter. The stakes have never stopped rising and the suspense has never dipped, and all of that building tension explodes in this finale. Tommaso showcases his talent for dramatic composition and bold design with those first splash pages, giving the final chapter more gravitas by printing the opening text on the black sky above the burning city. It’s ominous and loud and extremely evocative, drawing the reader into the environment with a sequence of expansive establishing shots that ends with Angie in the home of her latest target, watching The Red Circle burn from a distance.
Angie goes on a rough emotional journey in this issue after discovering the charred bodies of her fellow assassins, and Tommaso does exceptional work detailing the impact of this loss on Angie’s mental state. The copious amounts of narration, contained in big yellow boxes that pop against artwork, highlight how the details of this event linger in Angie’s mind, and the visuals accentuate her loneliness with panels that show her completely isolated in her environment. When she finally does encounter other people, it’s to brutally murder them, and the majority of the issue involves Angie’s one-woman mission to continue the work she began with her late friends, depicted in grisly action sequences intensified by Tommaso’s vivid colors and expressive lettering.
It’s a shame that Dark Corridor didn’t find an audience, because it’s one of the slickest books at Image Comics, with a narrative and visual sensibility that reflects the distinct point of view of its creator. No other book reads like Dark Corridor because there’s only one Rich Tommaso, and while his art is reminiscent of alt-comic icons like Daniel Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, and Chris Ware, various elements of those cartoonists’ work are combined to create Tommaso’s visual style.
Dark Corridor would have been a great fit for a publisher like Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly, who would probably release it as a graphic novel instead of a monthly series, but it’s alt-comics perspective made it an especially refreshing part of Image’s fairly mainstream line-up. Fans of Tommaso’s work won’t have to wait long for his next Image series, though, and She Wolf debuts June 22, the same day that the Dark Corridor collection is released. [Oliver Sava]