More than any other version of Wonder Woman right now, Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman has managed to identify what makes the character successful and necessary. Published as a digital-first book, Sensation Comics is composed of individual issues written and drawn by different contributors, telling short stories that epitomize the character in all her strength—and faults. Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman #13 (DC) is written by Barbara Randall Kesel. Kesel is an experienced writer and does very well by this book; she’s known both for her solo writing as well as work she did with ex-husband Karl Kesel, though she’s also won awards for editorial work on titles like Hellboy and she’s long been vocal in her opposition to sexism in the comic book industry.
Kesel works with three different artists and three different colorists to deliver a deceptively straightforward issue. Diana interrupts three young women on the beach and their conversation, in turn, is interrupted by the arrival of the Crime Syndicate’s Superwoman. The first third, which focuses on Wonder Woman and the young women, features soft, almost cartoony art from Irene Koh with matching colors by Wendy Broome. Koh is also the artist on IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Casey & April miniseries, but her style here is a little looser and upbeat. Part two has art from Emma Vieceli, who’s worked on titles like Vampire Academy. Her lines are sharper, more traditional than Koh’s, and saturated colors from Kelly Fitzpatrick highlight that difference. Most of this section of the story focuses on Wonder Woman and Superwoman’s battle of wits, and the art relies heavily on Vieceli’s excellent expression work. The final portion is all fists and fighting, which artist Laura Braga delivers with stunning skill. Here is proof that female warriors can kick ass and look sexy without being sexualized, that a cat fight doesn’t always require improbable poses. Colors from Carrie Strachan keep Braga’s lines dynamic and interesting, highlighting each individual character beautifully.
Ten women, many of them relatively unknown to the industry, were featured in this single issue: letterer Saida Temofonte and editors Jessica Chen and Kristy Quinn were just as vital to the issue as Kesel and the art team. As a digital-first series, Sensation Comics #13 (which in digital sales is chapters 45-47) is not only available online before it goes on shelves but also is less expensive than print copies. Sensation Comics doesn’t require knowledge of decades of backstory, it doesn’t require a massive monetary commitment to read an entire story arc since they’re contained in one issue, and perhaps most importantly, doesn’t require physical access to a comic book store or months of waiting for a trade. It is the ideal jumping-on point for a newbie, particularly women. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be around for much longer, as DC recently announced that Sensation Comics and Batman ’66 are two of the digital-first titles to end this November. It’s a staggering loss for new readers and those who love Wonder Woman, given the problems faced in the other editorial offices at DC.
Kesel’s Diana is brash and brave and a little bombastic. She’s not always right, she says some things you maybe rather she wouldn’t, but at the end of the day she protects people who need her and believes in herself without equivocation, two traits that are so foundational to the character it’s difficult to believe in a Wonder Woman who doesn’t have them. Too many current versions of Wonder Woman seem to focus first on the fact that she is a woman and assume that means she should be identified by her love interests or her insecurities. Sensation Comics understands that, at the heart of all things, Wonder Woman is identified not only by her womanhood, but by her sense of wonder and the joy she takes in the world around her. It’s a shame that won’t last much longer. [Caitlin Rosberg]
The consumption of the artist by their art undergirds Becca Tobin’s Frontier #9 (Youth In Decline), the most recent installment of the quarterly one-cartoonist showcase. The issue, whose slimy, chunky cover exudes an uncanny balance of repulsion and attraction, features a young musician who is so desperate to create new, original music that she develops a new, original instrument by which to do it. But like something out of a David Cronenberg film, the instrument is sentient and seeks to supplant its creator. This all happens rather quickly, and Tobin emphasizes mood and feeling rather than plot; it would be more accurate to describe Frontier #9 as a sequence of emotional states than as a sequence of events. Much to the work’s benefit, Tobin has an immense facility with drawing emotion; she is able to visually render impossibly vague, inarticulable feelings. The sensation of pure joy, for example.
Comics, lacking an aural component, is a medium notorious for its difficulty to approximate sound. It has images as well as text, which gives it an advantage over prose, but even still—no easy feat. It’s the rare cartoonist who can represent sound in any meaningful or interesting way. Liz Suburbia’s recent Sacred Heart contains a few moments where sound, the physical phenomena, is rendered in an aesthetically compelling way. But the experience of hearing a sound is something completely distinct, and something that few cartoonists even attempt. Tobin, who colored this issue with an incredibly rich palette of watercolors, uses an almost-surrealistic style to great effect, and she does attempt to visually approximate the transcendent quality of a particularly enjoyable sound. She does so by altering her line weights and her colors, by drawing her characters’ heads exploding and reforming, and by translucently overlapping multiple bodies on top of one another. She manipulates both form and content to achieve her effect.
Beyond just that particularly resonant moment, however, Tobin’s art is a revelation. Her watercolors add a splotchy, uneven texture that lends itself well to the psychologically tenuous elements of the narrative, and the hues of the radiant, kaleidoscopic palette make for a very jarring read. The colors don’t match; they scratch and scrape at each other, creating a dissonance that unbalances each image. Everything is just slightly off-kilter, and the effect is a slight unease—similar to the low-frequency industrial hum that permeates David Lynch fare. That is to say nothing of her incredibly expressive linework, which is more stylized than illustrative. She favors a curvilinearity that, with the shifting textures and shades of her watercolors, imbues the images with a discordant energy that makes each form seem living, tangible, animate. This inconsonance is a recurring element of Tobin’s aesthetic, and while it does work well with her themes of art and artists and, more specifically, music, its most potent affect is the way it makes her figures and forms seem alive. [Shea Hennum]
Cartooning must be the easiest job in the world, since so many people think they can do it. From one angle, this isn’t a bad thing: For the cost of a piece of paper and a pencil, you can tell any story you can imagine. But this also means the industry has a notoriously low bar for entry, as is proven every day on the editorial pages of newspapers across the country.
While it may be excessive to call celebrity stunt cartoonists “carpetbaggers,” it’s also a relatively accurate term with which to describe people who are famous for things other than their cartooning talent who suddenly become cartoonists. Two such people have gift books set to drop for the Christmas shopping season—Charlyne Yi’s On The Moon (Harper Perennial) and Judah Friedlander’s If The Raindrops United (Hachette). Yi is an actor and comedian best known for her 2009 romantic mockumentary Paper Heart, as well as her appearances on House and—more recently—voice work for Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe and We Bare Bears. Friedlander played writer Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock (the guy with the trucker caps). Neither of them have appeared in print as cartoonists until now.
Oh The Moon is an attempt to recreate the appeal of Shel Silverstein’s immortal collection Where The Sidewalk Ends. But Yi is no Silverstein. Her cartooning can best be described as functional, inasmuch as she usually succeeds in drawing things that loosely resemble the things she is drawing. Some of her cartoon people approach cute, even. Her work is better the simpler it becomes: The more detail she adds, the more her limitations as an artist manifest themselves. The overall effect of Oh The Moon is the gradual realization that this material may very well have worked better in prose, because some of the stories—such as a tiny boy who fails to save the life of a giant, or a man who sold his soul for the world’s tallest hat—gesture in the direction of interest, even if the illustrations betray them. But then, just when you might start to feel charitable, there are pages and pages and pages of tiny particles circling on blank pages, which appears less as minimalism than a concerted effort to measure how effectively she can troll her readers.
If The Raindrops United is an old-fashioned book of gag cartoons. Friedlander’s skill level is comparable to Yi’s, but he manages to cover more ground simply by virtue of doing less. These cartoons, while occasionally funny, are clearly little more than doodles. Instead of punchlines, they usually consist of non sequitur gags of the kind you might draw during a long lecture and pass to your friends. Ideas like “Mushroom Cloud Pizza” and “Teethbrushes” are harmless but insubstantial. There’s nothing really here to recommend, because there’s nothing really here, period. The drawings just aren’t funny. The book comes heaped with praise from the likes of Tina Fey, Paul Giamatti, and noted cartoon scholar Susan Sarandon, all of whom attest to Friedlander’s creativity and talent, of which very little of either appears on display.
Both books have clearly been designed to appeal to holiday shoppers buying gift books for people they don’t know very well. The best that can be said for them is that you can read them both cover-to-cover while waiting for your friend to use the restroom at Barnes & Noble. [Tim O’Neil]
Stranded on a deadly foreign planet, a pious cook is forced to fight to survive in Aliens: Salvation (Dark Horse), a 1993 one-shot that combines the defining elements of the first three Aliens films in a thrilling sci-fi action horror narrative. Written by Dave Gibbons with art by horror master Mike Mignola, inker Kevin Nowlan, and colorist Matt Hollingsworth, the comic has been re-released in a handsome hardcover edition, and it’s a must-read for fans of the Aliens franchise. The unsettling, tense atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien is blended with the bombastic action spectacle of James Cameron’s Aliens and the nihilistic philosophy of David Fincher’s Alien 3 to make Salvation feel like a natural evolution of its cinematic pedigree, concentrating all these elements in a tight, briskly paced tale with no dead air.
Gibbons’ script does remarkable work detailing a man’s crisis of faith through a white-knuckle sci-fi lens, and Selkirk’s internal conflict is as captivating as his mission to make it through the jungle alive. He needs to make certain moral sacrifices in order to survive, and while his actions are justified by his desperate circumstances, he can’t escape an internalized ethical code that questions his righteousness. Gibbons also cleverly uses the audience’s expectations of the franchise for misdirection, particularly through the character of First Officer Dean, an ass-kicking woman whose surface similarity to Ellen Ripley draws attention away from her true nature.
Published the same year as the debut of Mignola’s signature character Hellboy, Salvation is a snapshot of an artist in the midst of a major creative transition. Mignola honed his skill for Kirby-esque cosmic storytelling with his work for Marvel and DC, and he puts it to good use during the more fantastic moments in Gibbons’ story, but the scenes with the most impact are the ones where Mignola focuses on mood and capturing how Selkirk’s perspective of the world changes as his situation becomes more dire. Hollingsworth’s coloring is essential in this regard, reflecting Selkirk’s turbulent emotional state with an expressive palette.
On Hellboy, Mignola would simplify his linework by placing more emphasis on limited but specific details and heavy shading, and he’s starting to move in that direction with Salvation. Nowlan’s inking flawlessly navigates Mignola’s shifting artistic impulses, highlighting the finer details while also using big chunks of black to intensify the contrast on the page. The best thing about this book is seeing Mignola tackle H.R. Giger’s alien design, and he imbues these creatures with a cold menace that is especially frightening. The aliens are covered in thick shadows that cling to the sharp angles and ridged piping of their exoskeletons, and the only hint of expression come from bared teeth covered in drool. Rabid hunger is the only feeling these aliens know, and it will take much more than prayer for Selkirk to find salvation. [Oliver Sava]