Any long relationship reduced to a few dozen panels will necessarily resemble a highlights reel: Here’s the first date, here’s the sex, here’s the heart attack. For most people, life is a long line of routine punctuated by moments of sharp melodrama. Cutting out the long and boring stretches—driving to the supermarket, sitting in an office chair for eight hours at a time, calling for an appointment with the ophthalmologist—has the effect of making all the most interesting parts seem like scenes from an sitcom clip-show. That’s one reason why, for all the prevalence of biography in popular entertainment, so many of the most interesting true stories seem mawkish when boiled down to their component parts.
The People Inside (Oni) by Ray Fawkes is a serious-minded book by a serious-minded cartoonist, and it deserves a serious-minded appraisal. It confirms Fawkes as a rising talent in the field, a cartoonist whose experimental leanings do not affect his storytelling. But for all the ambition on display, the book also demonstrates a significant discrepancy between Fawkes’ reach and his grasp.
The book tells the story of a group of (mostly) unrelated couples over the course of their lives together (and apart), beginning at the moments of initial contact and ending with the deaths of one or more parties. The book begins with these characters’ fumbled/passionate/ecstatic first kisses and tentative steps toward couplehood. Fawkes tells each pair’s story one panel at a time, spread one by one across the page like a collage. It is possible to read the book over a dozen times and walk away with a different perspective by following each story individually, but the book works best when all the stories are allowed to intermingle on the page, reflecting and amplifying each other as the couples face similar and dissimilar challenges.
So far, so good. What could have been a difficult read actually flows well. Even if the details of individual stories begin to blend after a while, the book’s effect arises from the ways that even the most seemingly incongruous lives resemble one another in aggregate—life reduced to stochastic probability, chaotic in detail but structurally consistent. The problem is primarily one of tone: Fawkes’ choice of stories to tell veers from predictably banal to predictably unusual. A hetero couple engages in a master/slave BDSM relationship, before she leaves her “master” with a terse note; in response, he opens a S&M club over which he presides as the impassive, broken-hearted impresario. A gay couple opens a bakery that soon becomes a massive success, spawning an empire of franchises—but the master chef dies of a heart attack in his lovers’ arms because he refuses to give up sweet and fatty foods.
While the format and structure are interesting, the stories teased out on their own merit lack any real gravity, and often devolve into juvenile stereotypes (the man who kills his wife in a car crash overdoses on sleeping pills, for instance). It bears repeating that Fawkes is a seriously ambitious cartoonist, but despite the book’s readability his sketchy draftsmanship can make it difficult to identify recurring characters spread across multiple pages. As of now, his ideas regarding the shape and form his comics should take are a lot more interesting than the stories themselves or the drawings he uses to tell them. [TO]
Lose #6 (Koyama Press) begins with cartoonist Michael DeForge lost in the woods, where he meets two bipedal Canadian dogs that reveal a conspiracy to replace him. They’ve sent two “residents of the forest” to DeForge’s parents, who have adopted the animals as their new children, and the dogs are also taking over DeForge’s annual comic series Lose. The two-page story ends with the artist’s death and the Canadian canines at work on a new comic, DeForge’s unique way of telling his audience that he’s changing as an artist, and his output is going to be different as a result.
“Heartwarming” isn’t a word typically associated with DeForge’s often unsettling work, but the main story in Lose #6, “Me As A Baby,” is a surprisingly sweet tale about how far a “cool aunt” will go to make her niece happy. That’s not to say it’s a completely light and breezy affair; lead character Cherelle is harboring immense anger toward her complacent lifestyle, and she does deplorable things to retrieve her niece Sally’s clarinet, which has been stolen by the Mafia and added to the shadowy organization’s sprawling trophy shelf.
Stylistically, DeForge is moving away from the grotesque detail of his earlier works, simplifying his linework and focusing on the visual impact of specific geometric shapes. The abstraction helps maintain the alien quality that has made DeForge’s work so captivating, and the streamlined rendering brings a childlike purity to the art, playing off the darker elements of the script to create a fascinating contrast between youthful innocence and adult wickedness.
Cherelle talks about Sally’s “barely formed facial features” and the “gummy, doughy quality that kids have,” and DeForge’s design for the character vividly reflects that description with minimal detail. Her large nose juts out from a rounded brow and chin, and her hair is a wavy mass that points in a single direction like a fin. Sally is like the tadpole version of a human, and her design is just one of the ways DeForge reflects character through form.
The cartoonist’s dark sense of humor shines during the sequence following Cherelle as she infiltrates the Mafia by donning one of their black robes, unable to fully blend in because of her huge puff of hair. Violence is often the punchline in these pages, and being a part of the Mafia gives Cherelle the opportunity to indulge her impulses of rage and anger in a twisted type of therapy. The experience leaves her emotionally vulnerable, and when she sits down to watch Sally play her clarinet, Cherelle is overwhelmed by feelings of pride and fear and regret.
DeForge does exceptional work navigating Cherelle’s mental shifts during the final concert scene, repeating the simple, joyful image of Sally playing onstage while the narration details Cherelle’s turbulent emotional state. The music can’t be heard, but it’s deeply felt because DeForge breaks down its effect on Cherelle so effectively. Her niece wrote that music herself, and she’s able to bring it to the world because of her cool aunt. It’s really quite touching, as long as you’re willing to forgive the string of dead bodies left by Cherelle on her path to triumph. [OS]
George Perez has had a rough couple of years. His last high-profile project was a brief run on the New 52 Superman that was notable only for Perez’s noisy exit, accompanied by interviews in which he detailed the apparent chaos behind the scenes of DC’s then-new reboot. After that he was sidelined by health problems. He underwent surgery in late 2013 to fix the vision in his left eye, in which he had become almost blind due to complications from diabetes. The operation was a success and Perez’s first major work since his surgery is here, in the form of the creator-owned Sirens (Boom).
Anyone familiar with Perez’s work can probably guess what the series is about based on the title alone. Left to his own devices, Perez is fond of drawing buxom young women in overly complex costumes, and that is exactly what we are given here. Those among the readership with long memories might recall Perez’s last significant creator-owned project, Crimson Plague (initially published through Event, and later Image). That series was based on the questionable premise of a young woman whose blood was lethal poison, and who therefore became a walking toxic dump every month or so. On first blush, Sirens might appear less problematic, but the plot of this premiere issue actually does feature the daring rescue of a legendary warrior woman after years of rape and torture.
One may ask, do readers really need to see this legendary warrior, Highness, brought low by years of degradation and sexualized violence, in order to sufficiently establish her badass bonafides when she finally breaks her chains? (Of course she’s in chains.) Whether it’s necessary, it is provided, and Highness loses no time in assembling her team of time-tossed female warriors for the purpose of doing—something? Truth be told, it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on. The story doesn’t just begin in media res, it begins in Iceland in 1104 A.D., before skipping around to ancient Rome, the Old West, and 1949 Alabama. The story’s “present” is the far future, at which time mankind is aided by a race of space-faring dragons who owe a great debt to Highness and her Sirens for reasons that will hopefully one day be explained. It appears to be sci-fi, but makes pit stops at sword-and-sorcery, Westerns, and historical drama. All of this occurs in the span of a mere 20 pages.
So, who are the Sirens? What do they do and why do they do it? What is their relationship with the space dragons? Why are they being chased by someone who appears to be an evil ex-Siren (a character named Niada who happens to bear more than a passing resemblance to the aforementioned Crimson Plague)? All of these very interesting questions must wait for another day, and another impossibly dense issue. If it sounds like Sirens is a bit of a mess, it is necessary to confirm that, yes, the book is all over the place, in addition to being full of some of the most clichéd, offensively sexist storytelling conventions imaginable. But its very weirdness is at the same time strangely compelling. As confusing and confused as the book is, it also betrays every sign of being a labor of love. Perez carries his peccadillos on his sleeve, and seems to desire nothing more than to share his impossibly dense, genre-bending stories of hot babes kicking ass across time and space side by side with fire-breathing dragons and ray guns. [TO]
Image Comics has seen a notable increase in its number of science-fiction titles, but Copperhead #1 (Image) sets itself apart by embracing Western elements in a sci-fi environment. As writer Jay Faerber notes in his backmatter essay, he’s hardly the first person to combine these two genres, and his story for this first chapter shows why that pairing is so appealing. Sheriff Clara Bronson and her son Zeke have just moved to the desert town of Copperhead, a location run by the local mining tycoon, surrounded by angry natives, and populated by a variety of alien species. The Western elements of the story provide a gritty attitude that grounds the narrative in a simpler time, directly contrasting with the complexity introduced by the uninhibited possibility of science fiction.
Sci-fi and allegory are noted bedfellows, and Faerber uses this book’s non-human cast to explore real-world racial politics in an extraterrestrial setting. Deputy Budroxifinicus (“Boo” for short) is an alien that is bitter about his kind always being passed up by humans for promotions, and local mining kingpin Benjamin Hickory employs a posse of artificial humans, discriminated citizens that are desperate for any kind of work. Faerber defines the social hierarchy of this world without resorting to heavy exposition, parceling out information throughout the issue and leaving plenty of room for elaboration in the future. Background details arise from character concerns, keeping the momentum of this first chapter moving quickly as readers become acquainted with the cast and the setting.
Scott Godlewski’s art combines the stark staging and dense design work of Sean Murphy with the smooth line of Invincible’s Ryan Ottley, delivering sleek visuals that create rich, active environments and maximize character expression. There’s no lack of texture in the linework, but Godlewski trusts colorist Ron Riley to bring the majority of the grit to the page with his weathered color application. Using a technique similar to Lee Loughridge’s work on All-New X-Factor and Captain Marvel, Riley assigns dominant shades to each scene, then offsets the characters with colors that interact with the primary hues in different ways. The coloring highlights the science fiction influence on the narrative, embracing a full spectrum rather than just the earthy hues typically associated with western stories. With the script leaning in the Western direction and the visuals moving toward sci-fi, Copperhead achieves a delicate balance that highlights the strengths of both genres. [OS]
Never underestimate the importance of a strong title. A big event needs a title that has gravity to it, which is why DC and Marvel give these books loaded, but catchy names like Infinity, Doomed, Original Sin, and Forever Evil. Valiant’s line-wide event this year was called Armor Hunters (Valiant), and that bland, blunt title betrays the blockbuster superhero narrative told by writer Robert Venditti, artist Doug Braithwaite, and colorist Laura Martin.
The plot isn’t groundbreaking, by any means—a group of hunter aliens have come to Earth to destroy a weapon of interplanetary destruction, and the heroes of the Valiant universe come together to stop them—but it’s executed with a level of care and commitment that makes it more than just another conventional superhero story. Venditti develops a situation that organically incorporates a variety of valiant characters, and the tie-in titles expand on the main series’ events without retreading too much ground. In the pages of his ongoing series X-O Manowar, Venditti has done valuable work fleshing out the motivations of the crossover’s villains, showing the conflict from different angles and creating a more multidimensional reading experience.
Venditti’s dialogue can get a bit hokey, particularly in the miniseries’ final chapter—“Traffic is murder” is a line that needs to be retired permanently—but the stakes are high, each character gets a moment to shine, and the action looks excellent. Braithwaite is one of the most underrated artists working in superhero comics, with a talent for imbuing realism in his art without sacrificing spectacle and energy. He’s been given the opportunity to stretch his cinematic storytelling muscles at Valiant, and Armor Hunters is his strongest work yet for the publisher, thanks to his superstar colorist Laura Martin. She brings depth and texture to his artwork while maintaining the more fantastic superhero elements with a bold palette, and hopefully this is just the start of a fruitful relationship between the artists.
The title may not grab attention, but the interior contents have made Armor Hunters a highlight of this summer’s event season. And Valiant appears to have learned its lesson based on the title of its next event comic: The Valiant. It’s an appropriately majestic title for a book featuring the all-star creative team of writers Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt with artist Paolo Rivera, and hopefully it will garner the type of interest (read: sales) that Valiant’s line deserves. [OS]
After releasing a graphic-novel continuation of Jim Henson’s 1988 TV miniseries The Storyteller back in 2011, Archaia revives the property in a new format to showcase the skills of specific cartoonists on a monthly basis. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches #1 (Archaia) kicks off the new four-part miniseries with a gorgeous fairy tale written and illustrated by S.M. Vidaurri, a fully painted, hand-lettered story that immerses the reader in a rich fantasy world. “The Magic Swan Goose And The Lord Of The Forest” may be a clunky title, but it’s a smooth read that turns expressive text into an engaging visual element. The lettering works to enhance the overall aesthetic of a page, and Vidaurri’s meticulous eye for design allows him to convey information in a way that carries the raw emotion of the art through the words.
Vidaurri’s fairy tale exists in the realm between a children’s picture book and a comic book, alternating between full-page illustrations and pages broken up into smaller panels. Each page has its own distinct atmosphere, and Vidaurri is constantly surprising the reader with his diverse layouts, color palettes, and ornamental details. The actual story incorporates a lot of conventional fairy tale elements, but everything is presented with a visual panache that invigorates familiar concepts. Vidaurri tells a charming all-ages story with a confident, fully formed sense of design, making this a fairy tale that fits perfectly in the larger Jim Henson fantasy library. [OS]