Last year, Oni Press announced that it would be accepting open submissions from the public, and from over 2,500 creators that submitted, Natalie Riess is the first to have her project see print. It’s easy to see why Riess’ Space Battle caught the attention of Oni editors: It has one of the best titles of any comic currently on sale, but more importantly, it features a strong, confident, and creative vision that is extremely impressive considering Riess’ youth.
The series tells the tale of Peony, an earthling human who is swept away off-planet to compete on Space Battle Lunchtime, a reality TV cooking game show in the vein of Chopped and MasterChef. The main difference is that Space Battle Lunchtime features alien competitors, judges, ingredients, tools, and appliances, putting young baker Peony way out of her element as she faces off against people with far more experience. Peony is no quitter, though, and despite the odds against her, she sees the value of this opportunity and refuses to squander it. Riess makes a very proactive storytelling choice in having Peony quickly accept the reality of her fantastic situation and fully commit to the competition, and she’s mostly excited even if she’s occasionally touched by fear and loneliness. Devoting attention to those negative emotions gives Peony more dimensions, but Riess doesn’t linger on them too heavily, understanding that the sunny, happy tone is a big part of this book’s appeal.
Space Battle Lunchtime #4 (Oni Press) concludes the first story arc with a partner challenge that determines who will compete in the final round of the competition, forcing Peony to work with the icy Neptunia. The moral of the story is basic—working together as a team produces better results than two people pursuing their own agendas on the same project—but that simplicity is what makes this series especially great for young readers. The vibrant, cartoonish art style and easy-to-follow story make it accessible for children, but the book’s themes of friendship and perseverance are universal and the imagination of Riess’ concept and designs will appeal to any adult who enjoys the works of Pixar or Studio Ghibli.
While Japanese manga have explored the storytelling opportunities of the cooking genre, American comics have largely ignored it and that’s a shame. It’s a challenge to make the act of food preparation visually dynamic, but it’s a lot of fun when creators accomplish it. Riess does exceptional work bringing both humor and drama to the cooking process, and Space Battle Lunchtime could spend even more time on that aspect of the narrative. The introduction of all these alien elements gives Riess plenty of room to play with how she presents the construction of the contestants’ dishes, and hopefully she’ll take the food to even bigger, stranger places in the next arc. [Oliver Sava]
World-building is a serious issue in any medium, but when it comes to serialized comics it can sink an otherwise excellent story. Individual monthly comics with a lot of intense backstory and huge casts can suffer because of the nature of the print schedule, and it’s an issue that’s unfortunately often overlooked by those working on sci-fi and fantasy comics. Webcomics can thankfully avoid that issue far more easily by providing regular updates and taking advantage of having an entire website to host information about characters and the worlds they inhabit.
It’s a testimony to her skill that Der-Shing Helmer’s The Meek (webcomic) survived a fairly long break and despite that hiatus manages to avoid the stumbling blocks of complex world-building that a lot of other comics trip over. Though The Meek does explore the relationship between magic and technology, religion and politics, Helmer’s story forges confidently away from other similar stories. Each of the three main arcs blends a deeply personal story with the larger political context. A girl struggles to complete her grandfather’s request, a political leader fights his own demons and faces the dangers threatening his people, and a stubborn woman on a quest for revenge does her best not to get killed. At first they all seem disconnected, but over the course of the first few chapters it becomes clear that Angora, Luca, and Soli all exist in the same time and that their decisions and actions may actually impact the others’ stories. It’s high fantasy in the best sense of the word, full of political intrigue, gray morality, and drama, but also personal stories of loss and bravery. There’s no guarantee of success, let alone happiness, and Helmer has done a great job of establishing serious stakes for each of the characters, making it clear that there are potentially life-threatening ramifications for their choices.
Helmer draws, colors, and letters both The Meek and her other webcomic, Mare Internum, and the quality of her artwork is staggering. It’s easy to use the word “atmospheric” to describe it, particularly the way she uses light to create a vibrant contrasts. There’s a lot more nuance and depth to the shading in her art than in many other comics—printed or online—and it lends an air of realism to her art that’s remarkable.
Though the features on The Meek’s characters are exaggerated, Helmer’s anatomy and understanding of motion and physics is firmly rooted in the real world, so the comic reads as incredibly dynamic and intimate at the same time. It’s some of the most detailed and lovely art in a comic, and the colors make it feel so much softer and more textured than if it were flatter. The first four chapters and a good bit of the fifth are available to read online, but Helmer is also in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to print a volume collecting the first three, with one chapter each for the main characters. There will be bonus material only released with the printed edition, and, if it’s anywhere near the quality of the work she’s put out so far, worth checking out. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Drawing together fantasy and science fiction, Moto Hagio’s Otherworld Barbara Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics) is unbelievably knotty. The book follows Tokio, a dream pilot from Frankfurt’s 21st-century Jungian Institute, as he draws together the threads of his estranged son, an island that appears only on satellite photos and in the dream of a comatose girl, and other disparate connections that seem to portend the unmaking of reality. There’s a discredited theory of Mars, a dream of the future, a prophecy, a child’s drawing, a pharmacological mega-corporation, and Last Year At Marienbad. A more recent work of Hagio’s—it originally ran between 2002 and 2005 in Japan—Otherworld Barbara is rendered in the same style that earned her the reputation as the founding mother of shojo manga. She keeps it simple—detailed, but not overly so; large, expressive features; beautifully rendered backgrounds that never distract the eye—and she emphasizes her acting, that is, the body language and facial expressions of her figures. Her lines are thin and precise, and her figures are lithe and fashionable. These wispy, curvilinear lines give the book an expressive texture, and Otherworld Barbara, to its benefit, at times resembles the refreshing melodrama of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. She understands well the effect that the weight of a line can have on an image, and she alters it to reflect the tone of a scene, a character’s mood or relation to another character, and even certain story elements. Aspects of her aesthetic closely resemble the more stereotypical and common tropes of manga, particularly the way she draws hair and eyes, but Hagio has a knack for selling you on those features. Instead of seeming crude or ugly, they work well with the other elements of her style, and you come to accept them as part and parcel of the moving affect of her storytelling.
In its plot, Otherworld Barbara recalls other familiar works—the intrusive dreaming of Inception and Paprika, the reality-warping and enigmatic mystery of The Lathe Of Heaven—but these high concepts are buoyed by the poignant and present theme of parental neglect. In contrast to something like Isaac Asimov’s The Caves Of Steel, which is a cold and mechanical exercise in facile plot contrivances, Hagio’s story prioritizes the elucidation of conflicted parental relationships. Aoba, the comatose girl at the center of the story, falls into her unconscious state after eating her parents’ hearts. Kiriya, Tokio’s son, seems hell-bent on killing his father, and this patricidal theme drives the narrative; it informs, furthers, and even, in some instances, takes priority over the book’s more intellectually stimulating ideas.
These relationships and recurring dysfunctions ground the narrative, offering stakes and consequences. Hagio’s facility with sharply drawn and complex characters cannot help but beam through the heady sci-fi ideas. And it is here that Otherworld Barbara teases out its most interesting arguments. What those arguments are precisely—or rather, how those arguments will play out—remains to be seen; whether or not they are nihilistic or idealistic, whether it is through reconciliation or detachment that the world can be saved, will be played out in later volumes. Hagio, however, lays the groundwork for a compelling narrative, weaving a humane pathos through a compelling sci-fi world of dreams and mystery. [Shea Hennum]