Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s Weirdworld #4. Written by Sam Humphries (The Legendary Star-Lord, Citizen Jack) with art by Mike Del Mundo (Elektra, Superior Spider-Man Team-Up) and co-colorist Marco D’Alfonso (Elektra), this issue adds considerable emotional depth to one of Marvel’s most exciting titles. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

Marvel Comics may publish Weirdworld, but calling it a superhero title is a stretch. The story of a teenage girl, Becca Rodriguez, who is stranded in the titular magical dimension, the series has been a light-hearted fantasy adventure that shares more in common with Alice In Wonderland and Adventure Time than it does with the rest of Marvel’s lineup. That Adventure Time influence is especially strong in this week’s Weirdworld #4 as Becca and her companions, Goleta The Wizardslayer and Ogeode The Catbeast, make their way into the Enchanted Village, a candy town not unlike Adventure Time’s Candy Kingdom.

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That vibrant, edible environment poses hidden dangers for Becca and Goleta, who are lured into a trap by being offered their hearts’ desires. (Ogeode is immune to the island’s hallucinogenic influence because he’s a wizard trapped in a fire-breathing flying cat body.) Exploring these desires allows writer Sam Humphries to dig deeper into the backstories of his main characters and the key relationships that motivate their actions, giving the series a stronger emotional foundation grounded in Becca and Goleta’s grief. It’s the most serious issue of Weirdworld yet, but Humphries doesn’t lose sight of the silliness that makes the story so refreshing, bookending the dramatic issue with humorous scenes that spotlight the developing team dynamic of Becca, Goleta, and Ogeode.

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Weirdworld is Humphries’ strongest Marvel work to date, elevated by the stunning digitally painted artwork by Mike Del Mundo and co-colorist Marco D’Alfonso. The art team worked together on last summer’s Weirdworld miniseries with Jason Aaron, and while Marvel could have easily moved Del Mundo and D’Alfonso to a higher-profile project, the publisher wisely kept them on a book that allows them to let their imaginations run wild. An Eisner Award-nominated cover artist (his run of X-Men: Legacy covers is one of the greatest in recent memory), Del Mundo has a talent for creating bold full-page illustrations, like this issue’s opening splash page showing Becca and her crew in the middle of the candy village. The rich design work, vibrant colors, and intense depth of field combine to create an immersive, spectacular introduction to the new setting, and those three components are also at work in this issue’s eye-catching cover, showing Becca in a lollipop forest, her face obscured by hardened sugar spirals.)

Del Mundo and D’Alfonso’s art looks great on the printed page, but it also reads exceptionally well in guided view on a digital device. Del Mundo is aware of how his page layouts will translate in that digital reading mode because he’s worked on digital-only comics and understands what panel shapes work best and how to make those transitions flow smoothly. This issue’s second page is a great example of this; with nine panels and a lot of dialogue, it’s a busy page that doesn’t invite the reader to slowly absorb the information in each panel. The pacing is quick, accentuated by letterer Cory Petit overlapping the word-balloon borders, and it’s easy to overlook the finer details of the artwork in the rapid flow of the dialogue. In guided view, the reader gets to see each panel individually, which draws attention to the changes in character expressions as well as environmental details both sugary and sinister. In the flurry of information on the printed page, the reader may not notice the tentacles creeping around the characters, but in guided view, those visual omens become much more prominent.

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Becca ended up in Weirdworld after her plane crashed on the way to Mexico, where she was heading to spread her late mother’s ashes. Becca’s complicated feelings about her mother have gotten more attention as the story continues, and they’re at the forefront of this week’s issue, beginning with Becca’s hateful interaction with the hallucination of her revived mother. She’s overcome with anger, resentment, and sadness over her mother’s suicide, and the hallucinogens in the air intensify these emotions when Becca has the opportunity to confront the woman that left her alone. Meanwhile, Goleta is ensnared by the illusion of her lost lover, Zirkana, and these two scenes give the creative team the chance to bring the story down to a more personal level by spotlighting the tension and affection that define Becca and Goleta’s respective past relationships.

This shift in the narrative allows Del Mundo to show off the expressive range of his characters, and he breaks down the emotional beats of Becca’s meeting with her fake mother in crisp detail. Becca’s shock becomes confusion, then sadness and ultimately anger as she lashes out against her mother, who wears a forced, uncomfortable smile that suggests something is wrong here. Goleta hasn’t shown much vulnerability in previous issues, but Zirkana is her soft spot. When she discovers that her lover’s image has been used to deceive her, a close-up shot of her crying face shows a completely different side of her, but she only allows herself a moment of despair. That panel is immediately followed by a powerful shot of Goleta shattering Zirkana, and the dramatic composition of the image reflects Goleta’s fury in that moment.

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All of those bright colors from the start of the issue gradually fade as Becca and Goleta are overwhelmed by sadness, but they find strength and hope in each other, making their friendship the light that punctures their inner darkness. This idea is visualized in the emotional climax of this issue, a splash page of Becca and Goleta holding each other in the middle of a cold, dark expanse, illuminated by the light of Goleta’s gleaming axe.

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That poignant visual reinforces the bond between these two women, but the creative team doesn’t linger in this moment for long, interrupting the cry session with a thrilling action sequence that ends with Goleta driving her flying car through the skull of the giant green monster that has swallowed them up. These quieter character moments are always followed by a burst of fantasy action, and when Becca and Goleta share more personal stories at the end of the issue, they’re interrupted once again by Skull The Redeemer, who is convinced they’re spies working for Weirdworld’s evil queen, Morgan Le Fay.

Weirdworld is a strange book with no big Marvel superheroes and no overt connections to the rest of the Marvel Universe, so it’s not a surprise that it’s also one of the publisher’s lowest-selling titles. With its current sales, the series will be lucky to make it to 12 issues, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s enough storytelling potential in this book’s concept that it could run for years if it became a breakout hit for the publisher, but narratives benefit from endings, and sometimes its better to reach that conclusion sooner rather than dragging out the plot and losing steam over time. A short run also increases the likelihood of the artist sticking with it the entire time, which is a rarity in an industry where artists are moved around to different books. So much of Weirdworld’s appeal is in its artwork, and while there are certainly artists that could fill in for Del Mundo and D’Alfonso and still bring a lot of imagination and personality to the page, ideally they will be on the book for every step of Becca’s journey.

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In the current superhero-comics landscape, it’s worth looking at the more esoteric books as limited series that are intended to last about a year. For creators, structuring stories to end after 12 issues is the smart thing to do, and having a contained narrative fully planned in advance tends to bring stronger focus to these books (see: Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s She-Hulk, Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision). For readers, assuming these books will last a year weakens the blow of cancellation, and given the financial reality for superhero comics starring lesser-known characters, it’s sensible to adjust expectations for what exactly “ongoing” means nowadays. Whether or not Weirdworld sticks around in the future, this creative team is doing remarkable work in the here and now, offering a distinctive, beautifully illustrated story that embraces the wonder of a superhero universe without being beholden to its continuity and conventions.