It’s been an interesting few years for James Robinson. While Robinson’s Starman was a decade-defining series in the 1990s, Robinson languished for much of the ’00s. Between writing the script for the ill-fated League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen film and Justice League: Cry For Justice, it’s fair to say that Robinson struggled. He returned to Marvel in 2014; Robinson had done work for Marvel in the ’90s, but his writing on titles like Cable and Generation X made for a poor fit. After his return Marvel put Robinson on Fantastic Four and Invaders—they sold poorly but were generally well received. In 2015 Robinson tried to capitalize on this minor spurt of attention with a return to Image for an Airboy revival. Pitched as self-excoriating black comedy, the book initially succeeded until an ill-advised episode with an offensive transgender stereotype killed any momentum dead in its tracks, very much an own-goal.
The “mystery” of C-3PO’s red arm was one of the more annoying details in The Force Awakens, a movie whose attitude toward narrative particulars can best be described as expressionistic. To be fair, C-3PO’s arm was obviously intended as a joke, an attempt to lampshade the fact that while so much had happened in the years since Return Of The Jedi, the movie intended to reveal very little of it. The task of relating this epic adventure fell to Robinson, in the pages of last week’s C-3PO Special (Marvel). Any reader may have been forgiven for dismissing the book out of hand. But somehow, against all rational odds, the book succeeded in being not just interesting but actually very good.
Yeah, it’s a story about C-3PO getting a new arm. But it’s also a reunion between Robinson and his Starman collaborator Tony Harris. It’s idiosyncratic in a way that none of Marvel’s previous Star Wars offerings have been. Star Wars is the biggest selling line in comics right now, and Marvel has maintained a consistently conservative attitude toward creative choices. This special indicates that attitude may be changing ever so slightly. The story begins as a group of droids led by C-3PO crash land on a deadly planet and can only rely on their wit and skill to survive. The story is framed as a discussion of one of the more troublesome aspects of the Star Wars mythos—if droids can think and feel, how are they also bought and sold like slaves? This isn’t an aspect of the franchise you expect Disney to spend much time exploring.
Harris’ art is lurid, and his colors give the proceedings a queasy intensity that sits at a remove from the relatively naturalistic approach of a book like Darth Vader. Some of the droids don’t even speak human language, but Robinson manages to sell the odd warbles and blurps of these creatures as fully engaging as any human conversation. It’s a Star Wars book tailor-made for people who would never be caught dead reading one, an odd one-off built around an unlikely protagonist, and which highlights the reunion of two creators who last collaborated during the Clinton administration. With all the Star Wars product flooding shelves now, surely there’s room for more unique offerings along these lines. Anyone who had given up hope on Robinson after years of diminishing returns should check this out immediately. [Tim O’Neil]
After being dead for quite a while, it seems like you can’t turn around without bumping into a Gwen in Marvel 616 these days. Following the success of Spider-Gwen last year, Gwenpool got her own holiday special in December and Marvel subsequently announced a solo series. Starring Gwen Poole, the unholy union of Wade Wilson and Gwen Stacy, Gwenpool #1 (Marvel) will feel immediately familiar to fans of Deadpool, particularly readers who might be coming in because of the recent movie. It’s funny, fast-paced, wacky, and relatively lighthearted, with little pink boxes replacing Wade’s little yellow ones.
Unfortunately, it also falls into the same traps that some of the other new #1s at Marvel have tripped into in the last year. Just like in Spider-Gwen, this Gwen has very little personality of her own. Writer Christopher Hastings, best known for his work on The Adventures Of Dr. McNinja, is comfortably in his own wheelhouse of comedic styling, and he relies heavily on previous versions of Deadpool to inform his take on this new character. Hastings has an absurdist sensibility that fits -pool characters well, but that lack of differentiation between Gwenpool and Deadpool is a big stumbling block. It’s doesn’t help that Gwenpool is yet another book about a young woman written by a man, in an industry that continues to struggle to hire women to the point of reasonable representation, let alone parity.
The pacing feels like the first few issues of Howard The Duck, with Hastings packing too many jokes too tightly. It’s a good story to kick off the series, but the issue is further weakened by being split in two parts. Danilo Beyruth and Tamra Bonvillain provide art and colors for an 11-page prologue, while the meat of the issue is twice as long and illustrated by Gurihiru, a studio composed of Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano. There’s a lot of little pink boxes in the first few prologue panels explaining that this isn’t even the “real” story, which feels like Hastings is trying to apologize for something.
Gurihiru’s art is the most outstanding part of the book. It’s cartoony and full of pink without being cloying or saccharine, generous to the characters and their bodies, expressions, and personalities. Gwen and her supporting cast look real and comfortable but kinetic and powerful. She’s not overtly sexualized or subject to any egregious examples of Escher Girl poses, and the action sequences are controlled but fluid with incredible comedic timing. Visually, the book might attract people who love things like Adventure Time, Bravest Warriors, and Power Up, which may end up confusing them when they actually start reading Hastings’ cartoonishly hyper-violent story.
Ultimately, this is a funny, silly book that fans of Deadpool and Gwen Stacy might enjoy. But it also sits squarely in niches that are already occupied by Deadpool himself, not to mention Squirrel Girl, Spider-Gwen, and a slew of the other new Marvel books starring young women. It’s caught between well-trod successes and newly familiar stumbles, perfectly demonstrated by the price on the cover: $4.99 is steep, and while a meta-joke on the page eases the sting a bit, it also calls attention to it. [Caitlin Rosberg]
It’s been a sensual spring of Italian imports at Fantagraphics, and after putting out an oversized tome of Guido Crepax’s comics, the publisher is bringing Manuele Fior’s work to the U.S. for the first time. 5,000 Km Per Second (Fantagraphics) is a striking introduction to the cartoonist, a fully painted drama spanning 20 years in the lives of Piero and Lucia, teenage lovers who grow apart over time. The story takes readers to Italy, Norway, and Egypt, and the lush watercolor paintings of these locales are reason enough to check out this graphic novel. Fior’s immense skill with the brush is evident in every precise stroke, from the clean, thin lines used for the finer details in his settings and figures to the thicker streaks of color used to add texture and create distinct moods on the pages.
Fior’s approach to Piero and Lucia relationship will appeal to fans of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy, with each chapter offering a glimpse at a specific moment in time for the two, alluding to events that happen in between, but not explicitly showing them. Piero and Lucia actually spend the majority of the book apart. Fior begins with their meeting as teenagers in Italy, but jumps past the entirety of their young romance to show their individual paths as adults, with Lucia moving to Norway for school while Piero heads to Egypt for his work as an archaeologist.
The decision to fast-forward past the meat of Lucia and Piero’s relationship is a risky one that could have backfired, but over the course of the book, Fior gives readers a strong impression of the emotions that defined that unseen period in their lives. The vagueness regarding the details of their adolescent courtship becomes an important part of the overall narrative as Fior reveals the different ways Piero and Lucia look back at their initial time together, and when they finally reunite, their conflicting perspectives create considerable tension. The character of Piero’s childhood friend Nicola indirectly plays a big part in this final interaction, and Fior does exceptional work making Nicola feel like a fully formed character despite his few appearances in the plot.
The jumps in time require Fior to create strong bonds between characters in concise ways, like the fever dream Piero has about Lucia and Nicola during a long train ride to his archaeological site, spotlighting how these relationships haunt Piero as he moves farther away from his childhood home. The intimacy between Lucia and her new beau Sven is established in a scene where the pregnant Lucia bathes herself while Sven sits on the toilet, quickly revealing how close they’ve become in the time between chapters. Fior’s deep understanding of character expressions heightens the emotion of these moments, as do his evocative color palettes, consistently choosing the ideal shade to reflect the characters’ inner selves in their surroundings. The visuals ultimately fill in most of the blanks in 5,000 Km Per Second, and Fior’s story wouldn’t have the same impact without his rich watercolor artwork. [Oliver Sava]
Described on its back cover as “probably the greatest zombie manga ever,” I Am A Hero omnibus volume 1 (Dark Horse Comics) is an unusual work of survival horror. Collecting the first two volumes of the Japanese publication, this omnibus edition runs to nearly 500 pages. Strangely, though, zombies don’t truly make their first appearance until about 300 pages in. It’s as if someone forced you to sit through series one and two of Spaced before you could watch Shaun Of The Dead. When the zombies do appear, though, the book’s driving genre conceit arrives in a cacophony of menacing gore.
Drawn beautifully by author Kengo Hanazawa, I Am A Hero perspicaciously balances on the knife edge of humor and horror. Stylistically, the book often appears photo-realistic, and the series is visually grounded in a powerful and tactile world. This realistic detail is most noticeably felt in the movement of the zombies; their limbs spun around, their bones bent and broken, Hanazawa’s zombies are dripping with blood and viscera and they move like spiders. Unlike the undead in zombie fiction du jour, The Walking Dead, these creatures don’t move like humans stymied by obstacles and decaying flesh; Hanazawa treats his zombies like inhuman animals, and their movements are often bizarre, uncanny, and legitimately frightening. Amazingly, though, this potent horror element is married to an affinity for humor, and Hanazawa often draws protagonist Hideo Suzuki as a goofy schlub. In brief moments, his—and other characters’—eyes and mouth become slightly larger and slightly wider to accentuate the humor of a scene. Even the scenes themselves are jovial, and some of the first few pages are devoted to Hideo dancing humorously for our amusement.
In fact, much of the this first omnibus volume is devoted to the quotidian, which actually lends the world of the work an incredibly rich and detailed texture. Hanazawa observes the spaces in the work with an impeccable eye, and he pays a lot of attention to ensuring you understand these complex spatial relations. For a staggering 250 or so pages, I Am A Hero volume 1 is actually a manga about manga. It concerns, almost exclusively, the daily struggles of Hideo—juggling his work as an assistant with his attempts at creating his own work and his romantic life. Less horror than melodrama, the series begins as a story about approaching middle-age, and about having failed to accomplish anything. There are frequent digressions about what “real” manga should be, and we are treated to Hideo’s unsuccessful pitch meeting. If I Am A Hero volume 1 has imperfections, and it most definitely does, its biggest is that its melodramatic prelude is more interesting and more moving than its horror elements. To be sure, there is some audacious cartooning in volume 1’s concluding kinetic chase sequence—including a sequence of two-page spreads wherein someone is decapitated by an airplane’s landing gear. But Hanazawa’s deft handling of relatable emotional expression and repression simply puts his zombies to shame. [Shea Hennum]