Monthly Archives: March 2016

Giganto Maxia

There’s a new volume of “Berserk” slated to come out in Japan this summer.  If we’re lucky, Dark Horse might be able to put it out in English by the end of the year.  Even if they do manage to pull that off, three years will have passed between the release of new volumes of that title on these shores.  For a series that is already on its thirty-seventh volume and shows no indication of reaching its climax anytime soon, that kind of delay between volumes is disturbing.  It gives you the feeling that its creator has lost his passion for doing this series.  For a title as ambitious and epic in scope as “Berserk,” you would think that Miura should be chomping at the bit to impart more of his vision to us.  Instead, the long delay between volumes, the manga’s return to serialization being described as an “irregular” one, and Miura’s rumored obsession with “Idolm@ster (no, really) really make you start to fear that we may never see the end of Guts’ quest.

It’s under these circumstances that “Giganto Maxia” has been released into the wild.  Viewed in the most generous terms, you could think of this story as something that Miura wanted to tell so badly that he put his signature series on hiatus to do so.  Or, its existence may just be one more sign that “Berserk’s” creator is tired of the series he has been writing and drawing for the past quarter-century.  This is more baggage than any title should have when it comes to market.  Which is a shame because it’s pretty good for what it is.  However, you’ll probably be able to guess my ultimate feelings towards it before you get to the final paragraph of the review.

“Giganto Maxia” takes place (according to the back cover) one hundred million years in the future.  Most of civilization is in ruins and giant monsters known as Giganto either roam the landscape, or are shackled by the Empire as tools of warfare.  It’s through this landscape that Prome and her wrestler bodyguard Delos roam.  While their ultimate goal is never stated, they clearly enjoy taking in the many strange sights that this world has to offer.

We first see them in this volume wandering through a desert and subsequently captured by a tribe of demi-human natives.  Bitter at the Empire’s treatment of their kind, the tribe’s greatest fighter prepares to extract his vengeance from Delos in the arena.  Yet the wrestler is far more crafty and full of heart than he is initially made out to be.  It’s these attributes that will serve him and Prome best in the process of winning over the tribe, and facing down the Empire and its Giganto when they come calling.

If “Giganto Maxia” is remembered for anything, it certainly won’t be its plot.  The adventures of Prome and Delos with this tribe is a bog-standard mix of fantasy (or sci-fi, as we are in the future after all) and shonen manga tropes.  You’ve got the mismatched protagonists, the downtrodden yet noble natives, the evil Empire, and the familiar conflicts, misunderstandings, and calls for forgiveness that reverberate through these parties.  I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that Prome and Delos also have a special ability that allows them to fight back against the Empire and their Giganto that gives the story its name, “War of Giants.”

The funny thing is that the utter predictability and lack of originality to this story doesn’t really matter in the end.  “Berserk” has shown Miura to be a top-tier storyteller, and he demonstrates that again by making this familiar material engaging and involving.  It starts with the protagonists:  Delos may seem to be a standard issue dumb, yet strong guy at first.  Yet he demonstrates some real heart and intelligence in the way he takes on the tribe’s champion in a way that wins them over in the end.  We also learn enough about his history as an arena fighter to see how it informs his actions in the present.  Prome initially appears to be designed to cater to fans of moe and lolicon, except that she’s revealed to have an actual personality capable of expressing humor, sarcasm, and even embarrassment at one point.  The rest of the cast isn’t as developed as its protagonists, but Prome and Delos have enough personality to propel the narrative and get you invested in their fate.  Though, I could’ve done without the crass “nectar equals watersports” joke that runs between them throughout the story.

Miura’s storytelling skills also extend to his art and how he’s able to render a visually interesting world while also showcasing some impressive fight scenes.  “Giganto Maxia” may start off in the desert, but its locales quickly grow more exotic from there.  We’re shown the underground tribe stronghold and its intricate levels carved out by beetles.  There’s lush greenery of the Shard of Gaia, a mostly dead giant that allows the tribe to live out in the desert.  Then you have the last chapter, a stand-alone story which acts as a stunning showcase for the many ideas that Miura couldn’t fit into the main story.

The fight scenes are also key here as there are only two real ones, but they are both memorable for different reasons.  Delos’ one-on-one with the tribal champion has lots of hard hits, bruises, and blood.  It’s distinguished by the smarts our protagonist uses in taking on his opponent.  You see, it’s not just enough to beat him as Delos has to do so in a way that defuses the hate that the tribe feels towards outsiders.  The end result is immensely satisfying.

Then you have the actual Giganto Maxia itself.  Even though the trim size for manga is substantially smaller than American comics, Miura manages an impressive sense of scale for the format that he’s working in.  You can chalk part of that up to the double-page spreads he uses to get the scale of the battle across.  Even though he’ll sometimes do one after another, the changes between the spreads always feel significant and never indulgent.  When the actual fighting between giants starts, Miura structures things so that every move feels like it matters.  There’s no padding here — every punch has a reason behind it, all leading up to the insane near-orbital maneuver that Delos uses to end the war.  “Giganto Maxia” may borrow a lot from the shonen manga rulebook, but its fights are masters of economy and free of the bloat that occupies far too many of the battles in other such series.

What’s here may not be original, but it’s still executed in a way that feels incredibly satisfying.  I only have a couple real issues with what’s presented here, actually.  The first is that general tone-deafness most Japanese creators have towards issues of race.  I don’t want to dissect it here, but I have to mention the fact that the tribe here is made up entirely of black people and Delos has an unmistakably caucasian appearance.  Yes, the whole “white savior” bit is better executed here than, say “Far Cry 3,” but if you’re tired of that particular trope then what’s here is just going to annoy you even more.

I’m also kind of curious as to why Miura felt that we needed the final chapter in this volume.  The main story ends in an appropriate way at the finale of the sixth chapter, while the seventh showcases more of the world and the relationship between Prome and Delos in an open-ended way.  As I mentioned before, we get some really incredible visuals out of this chapter, but it could’ve been dropped from the volume entirely and nothing important to the overall narrative would’ve been lost.  The feeling I get — and this is what bugs me about this — is that Miura did this last chapter as a way of saying, “Hey, if you like what you saw in the main story, there’s plenty more where that came from!”  I may be reading too much into things here, but it felt like he was essentially testing the waters to see if there was enough interest in making an ongoing series out of this.

Fortunately for fans of “Berserk” there was not.  Now we’re just biding our time until the release of the next volume, and (I guess) the new anime series set to debut later this year.  Maybe if we’re lucky the new anime series will re-ignite fan interest in the series and persuade Miura to get back to the manga on a more regular basis.  I kind of doubt it because artists are fickle like that.  After all, here’s a creator who took a lengthy break from the series that made his name to put out this entertaining story.  I’m not saying that Miura shouldn’t have given us “Giganto Maxia,” but it all comes down to this:  I’d rather have had a new volume of “Berserk” instead of it.  It would’ve taken something transcendent to make me feel otherwise.

Marvel Previews Picks: June 2016

WonderCon will have wrapped up as I post this, but not as I’m writing.  Who knows, by the time I come back to this on Sunday maybe I’ll have some interesting Marvel news to write about here.  As it stands, on this Friday evening, all we have are a couple panels of creators extolling the virtues of their current and upcoming series.  Meh.  At least there’s news from IDW that they’ll be publishing the first print collection of the new “Bloom County” online strips later this year.  That’s something to look forward to.  C’mon Marvel, you’ve got to give me more than this!

[Post-WonderCon Edit:  Nope, they didn’t.  Though the new “Jessica Jones” comic later this year should be something to look forward to.]

Civil War II #’s 1&2 (of 7):  Bendis takes on another project that was originally done by Mark Millar after “Old Man Logan.”  Sure, the dialogue will be better here, but I’m not so sure about the core premise.  While the original “Civil War” tapped into the always-relevant hot-button issue of civil liberties, this one centers around the problems of “Minority Report”-style pre-crime when an Inhuman gains the ability to see the future.  Now the Marvel Universe is torn between those who want to protect the future as we know it, and those who want to use this knowledge to change it for the better.  Which is a moot point because Kang will eventually show up (maybe even later in this miniseries) and ruin all this for everyone.  I dunno, even if it’s Bendis working with his “Ultimate Spider-Man” collaborator David Marquez, I can’t seem to get excited about this.  Maybe I’ll read all the spoilers first to see if there are any that will get me to pick this up in hardcover (or even softcover for that matter).

Civil War II:  X-Men #1 (of 4):  Of course, with every crossover comes the tie-in issues and miniseries.  Just like the first “Civil War,” there are a truckload of them to be had here.  Not that you can’t do interesting stuff within the context of an event like this.  Such is the case here as the new future-profiling Inhuman is seen by Magneto as a further threat to mutantkind from the Inhumans.  Now the Master of Magnetism is preparing to go to war against a kingdom for the sake of his people.  Or is it just for his own glory?  This is coming to us from “Magneto” and current “Uncanny X-Men” writer Cullen Bunn, so it’s not an unfair question considering his take on the character.  Regardless of my feelings about the core event series, I’ll be picking this miniseries up when it’s collected.

Vote Loki #1:  This current presidential election cycle has been quite… unconventional, to say the least.  So the fact that we’re getting a [one-shot(?), ongoing(?)] about Marvel’s resident trickster god running for the highest office in the land doesn’t faze me at all.  In fact, it even seems like the next logical step here.  As this is coming to us from “Dr. McNinja” writer Christopher Hastings, and artist Langdon Foss it’s likely going to be a good read.  Hastings in particular seems well-suited for this kind of story.  However, there’s no indication as to which party Loki will be trying to secure a nomination from.  Surely the God of Lies isn’t so foolish to think that he can run as a third party candidate in this country?  He’s just setting himself up for disappointment with that approach.

Howard the Duck #8:  The solicitation text reads, “Howard finally goes home, but is there such a thing for him anymore?”  You know, I didn’t think Chip Zdarsky (who’s still writing this series) could actually do maudlin.  I mean, his style starts at “irreverent” and never clicks out of gear from there.  Keep reading to see if he can actually demonstrate growth or if this series turns into a trainwreck of melodrama.

Star Wars:  Han Solo #1 (of 5):  You know, I’m honestly surprised it took us this long to get a miniseries about Han Solo from Marvel.  I almost want to congratulate their restraint here.  Anyway, the miniseries revolves around the scoundrel undertaking a secret mission for the Rebellion to rescue a number of informants and spies using an infamous starship race as cover.  Problem is that Han has wanted to compete and win this race for most of his life, so things have just become exponentially more difficult for him.  Marjorie Liu writes and Mark Brooks illustrates after years away from interior art with his (admittedly great) cover work.  The first volume of Liu’s “Monstress” will be out before this volume is collected, so I’ll have a better idea of how excited I should be for this miniseries after I read it.

Avengers:  Standoff HC:  The event before “Civil War II” gets collected just in time for everyone to get caught up.  Here we have S.H.I.E.L.D.’s latest questionable plan of action preparing to blow up right in its face, and those of several Avengers teams along with three men who have been Captain America at different points in their lives.  Man, that S.H.I.E.L.D.  Can’t they do anything right?  You’d think that someone would’ve disbanded them long ago, but a competent international peacekeeping force would be anathema to drama in the Marvel Universe.  So they’ll keep doing questionable things and the heroes will be on hand to clean things up when they go wrong.  It’s a vicious cycle that has resulted in a decently priced collection at 384 pages for $35.

Inhumans/X-Men:  War of Kings Omnibus:  In case you missed it the first time around, it now comes with extra “Emperor Vulcan.”  The saga of the third Summers Brother is captured almost in full here as this omnibus collects the Abnett/Lanning event, but the Ed Brubaker-written “Rise and Fall of the Shi’Ar Empire” arc from “Uncanny X-Men” and “X-Men:  Kingbreaker” miniseries that set it up.  It’s all good reading and while the cover price for this is $100, you’re getting over 1,300 pages of comic books for that amount.

The Vision vol. 1:  Little Worse Than a Man:  In which the title character settles down, builds himself a family, and tries his best to be ordinary.  Being an incredibly powerful synthetic being, now with similarly powerful wife and kids, in the Marvel Universe you can probably guess how well that’s going to go.  While no one was really clamoring for a Vision solo series, word-of-mouth has it that writer Tom King has delivered something really special here.  So special that DC snapped him up as an exclusive writer soon after this series started.  King will be seeing this series through to its end with issue #12, though, and I’ll be interested in seeing how much of the hype is justified with this first volume.

The Ultimates:  Omniversal vol. 1 — Start With the Impossible:  With Hickman taking a break from Marvel for the foreseeable future, where can people who liked his big ideas on an epic scale go for their fix?  How about this Al Ewing-written series that has the title team trying to solve the problem of Galactus once and for all and trying to solve the whole “spacetime is broken” business that Bendis started all those years ago.  Normally I’d be wary of a writer trying to pick up on threads like this, but Ewing did the near-impossible in providing a worthy follow up to Kieron Gillen’s “Journey Into Mystery” with his “Loki:  Agent of Asgard” series.  I’m willing to give him a shot to see if he can make lightning strike twice with this title here.

Starbrand & Nightmask:  Eternity’s Children (Attend University):  Speaking of Hickman, while his takes on the two characters here worked well in the context of the story he was telling, I don’t think that anyone was really clamoring for them to have their own series.  Even one from “Gargoyles” and “Kanan:  The Last Padawan” writer Greg Weisman.  Yet we got one anyway and it lasted all of six issues.  Still, the idea of cosmic superheroes trying to fit in at college sounds like a fun idea and one that’s right up the writer’s alley.  Even if a successful ongoing series was too much to ask from these niche characters, maybe a collected edition of their adventures will allow them some measure of cult success.

Image Previews Picks: June 2016

This is the month where just about EVERYTHING comes back for another arc.  You’ve got titles that I read and was waiting for to return:  “Casanova:  Acedia,” “Descender,” and “Lazarus.”  Titles that I read, but wasn’t sure if they’d be coming back for another volume:  “Rumble,” and “Thief of Thieves.”  Titles that I haven’t read yet, but am looking forward to:  “Paper Girls,”  and “I Hate Fairyland.”  A title that I haven’t read yet but may get around to at some point:  “Birthright.”  [Post-WonderCon Edit:  Got the first volume.  Now I just have to find the time to read it.]  And another Mark Millar title that I’m just not going to bother with:  “Jupiter’s Legacy.”  With these titles all starting new arcs in June, it’s not likely that we’ll see new volumes for them by the end of the year.  In fact, it’s far more likely that I’ll finally get around to reading their arcs one year from now as I type this.  That’s… interesting, I guess?

Midnight of the Soul #1 (of 5):  Howard Chaykin flies solo again after teaming up with writer Matt Fraction for the entertaining “Satellite Sam.”  This series is about a former G.I. who participated in the liberation of Auschwitz and is now drunken damaged goods five years later in 1950.  He may have built a sheltered life that allows him to continue his bad habits, but it’s all about to come undone over the course of one long night.  I haven’t actually read a lot of Chaykin’s solo work.  Though I’ve heard the praises of “American Flagg!” sung over the years, I have yet to actually check it out.  One of these days, I swear!  As for this, it sounds like a fairly straightforward 50’s noir story only likely to have more explicit sex and violence because that’s the way Chaykin rolls.

Casanova:  Acedia #5:  Ah.  So the reason that the previous volume didn’t feel like a complete story like the other volumes was because it was only the first part of it.  Good to know that Fraction (and Ba, and Moon, and Chabon) are committed to finishing what they started.  Even if it sells for crap.  Hmmmm… probably a good idea for everyone to start picking up the collected editions to give these guys additional incentive to keep working on it if the single issues for this run sell as bad as the last one.  Ditto for “Rumble” too.

Invincible #129:  In which Thragg begins rebuilding the Viltrumite Empire as his hybrid children come of age.  Definitely not a good thing for the galaxy.  However, based on this news I’m willing to bet that readers can expect a sequel to “The Viltrumite War” arc sometime down the line.  While I’m sure the Earth-based Viltrumites will have no problems murdering teenagers in the name of war, the drama is likely going to come from the issues that Mark and Nolan are going to have with such an act.  Or maybe they’ll just grit their teeth, dive right in, and the war will be over in an issue.  I wouldn’t put it past Kirkman to have the story play out like that given how he plots this series.

Starve #10:  The series finale.  Well, that was quick.  I kind of doubt that the issues I had with the first volume will be fully addressed here, but no matter.  The stuff that I liked about vol. 1 is enough to get me to pick up the concluding volume when it arrives.

Stray Bullets:  Sunshine & Roses #16:  Sixteen issues and no collected edition in sight.  Just what kind of game are you playing here Mr. Lapham…

Adventures in the Rifle Brigade:  In case anyone was wondering, Garth Ennis can be just as entertaining with the war story genre when he’s ripping it a new one as when he’s playing it straight.  Pick this up if you don’t believe me.

Citizen Jack:  In which a scandal-plagued small-town politician teams up with a demon to run for president.  Given the state of the current presidential campaign, this… doesn’t seem all that outlandish or over-the-top anymore.  Hell, even without knowing more about this politician beyond the whole “backed by a demon” deal, he still sounds like a more appealing candidate than Ted Cruz.

Monstress vol. 1:  It’s the early 1900’s and a teenage girl is struggling to survive the horrors of war.  Oh, and she has a psychic connection to a monster of incredible power.  This is a title that I’ve heard good things about, even if I don’t own anything by its creators:  writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda.  Expect that to change come this June… or July when the volume actually comes out.

Injection vol. 2:  Human deli meat is a plot point in this volume.  Just pointing that out in case you thought that Warren Ellis was starting to go soft after all these years.

The Legacy of Luther Strode:  This is the final volume in a trilogy that started with a teenage boy attaining ultimate power through one of those muscle-growth plans that you could send away for in the back of comic books.  It continued with a miniseries that was basically one big fight scene from beginning to end and a great example of how to do style over substance.  For the finale, Luther faces off against Cain (yes “the first murderer” Cain) to get some payback for all that his murder cult has done to him over the years.  After the first two volumes, I’ll definitely be picking this up.  I just hope that writer Justin Jordan and artist Tradd Moore don’t try to top what they did in the previous volume.  Mainly because I don’t think it can be done.  Adding actual substance to Luther’s quest is the way I’d like to see them go.

Velvet vol. 3:  It only comes out periodically in single issue form, but that doesn’t matter anymore because vol. 3 looks to be the finale of this great spy series.  Not much more to say than that, except to express my hope that Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting have another series in the offing to follow up this one.

The Eltingville Club

Meet Bill, Josh, Pete, and Jerry.  They’re the members of The Eltingville Comic Book, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing club, experts in their respective fields of geekdom, and some of the most awful and repugnant characters I have read about in fiction in some time.  Seriously, they’re personifications of some of fandom’s worst traits blown up to ridiculous proportions.  The pettiness.  The unfriendly bickering.  The unchecked rage at the most minor of offenses.  All of these and more are on display in this collection of short stories from over two decades by creator Evan Dorkin.  Read on in horror as Bill and Josh engage in a hours-long triva-off for the privilege of buying a $250 mint-in-case 12-inch Boba Fett action figure.  Cringe as Josh opens dozens of Wonder Bread bags in a supermarket in hopes of finding the one “Batman Forever” trading card he doesn’t have.  Gaze in stunned disbelief at how arson at a Toys ‘R Us turns out to be the least crazy part of the group’s multi-day “Twilight Zone” marathon.  The back cover proclaims this to be “fandom at its fan-dumbest” and that’s some of the truest copy I’ve ever read!

Repugnant as these characters are, “The Eltingville Club” is still a fun and funny read.  Dorkin has some amazing cartooning skills and they’re put to great use in showing the extent of his characters’ crazed passions.  We’re also not asked in any way to sympathize with these characters, merely look on at how their awful behavior makes life terrible for themselves and any poor fool who decides to get caught in their orbit.  The situations the characters find themselves in, as well as the overall tone, are pitched to be so far over the top that they come off as more ridiculous than anything else.  However, the internet has shown us that there are people in real life who do act just like the Eltingville crew, which is more than a little depressing to consider after having read this.  Dorkin does offer redemption of a sorts for one of his cast in the final story, but the majority of this volume is a hard dose of concentrated nerd rage that isn’t meant to be taken seriously at all.  I enjoyed it on that level.  Anyone who would rather not look for humor in fandom’s deepest, darkest, most unwashed regions, or requires their stories to have likeable protagonists should consider themselves warned.

Batgirl vol. 2: Family Business

The good times continue in this volume as Barbara Gordon finds out that her dad is the new Batman.  How does this happen?  Well, like any responsible parent, Commissioner Jim Gordon tells his daughter straight up.  It’s a nice scene that bucks expectations and leads to some interesting dramatic irony when Nu-Batman meets Batgirl as she’s facing off against Livewire.  Once the initial meet-awkward is out of the way between the two superheroes, they eventually team up to take down the villain that has writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher cleverly inverting the usual “Batman” dynamic.  Barbara takes the lead here and leads her dad to victory, along with some good-natured ribbing along the lines of, “This is the part where you’re supposed to vanish on me” at the end.  The situation with the current Batman does put an interesting spin on this straightforward superhero team-up story, though you’re left wondering how a top cop like Jim Gordon can’t seem to recognize his daughter even when she’s wearing her bat-gear.

As for the other stories in this volume, they follow along the same agreeably fun lines.  We have an annual where Barbara investigates some missing diplomats and doesn’t meet up with the presumed-dead Dick Grayson.  She does, however, meet up with all of the other notable female characters in the bat-family to solve this mystery.  Then Barbara gets involved in a series of tiger-related killings that involve some of the people closest to her, and follows it up by being a bridesmaid at the wedding of her friends Alysia and Jo — where she actually does meet up with Dick.  None of the stories here reinvent the wheel as far as superhero storytelling goes.  As was the case last time, it’s the art of Babs Tarr that really distinguishes the book by giving it some real energy and fun.  This time around she gets an assist from several other capable artists, particularly Bengal who walks the tightrope of maintaining artistic consistency while demonstrating his own style with aplomb.  Overall, this is still a good read if you’re looking for something different in a bat-book.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun vol. 1

This is another first volume from Yen Press that only costs $3 digitally on Amazon.  Unlike “Handa-kun,” I was left ready for more after reading it and was disappointed to find that the company is letting the release of the digital editions lag behind print.  That’s because “Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun” is a charming and funny four-panel manga with a winning ensemble.  It starts out when high school girl Sakura tries to confess her love to the tall and cool-looking Nozaki and bungles it by saying that she’s his fan.  He responds by giving the girl his autograph and then inviting her back to his place… to do beta work on his art.  It takes a while, but when the realization finally hits Sakura is simply shocked to learn that her crush is actually a mangaka who draws romantic shoujo manga under the pen name Sakaki Yumeno.

We also find out that while Nozaki may be the perfect catch on the surface, he’s more than a little clueless and lacking in tact as well.  Yet he still winds up being a likeable guy with his easygoing nature and honest dedication to his work.  Sakura also charms as she provides some clear-eyed perspective on the quirks of shoujo manga and is great at keeping other members of the cast in their place and from becoming too annoying.  This includes background assistant Mikoshiba, who fancies himself a playboy, but whose nature is so adorable that Nozaki based the heroine of his latest manga on him.  We also have Sakura’s “not mean, just completely oblivious” friend Suzuki, Kashima the female “prince” of the school who can’t stop being dashing even as she’s dragged away, and Hori the short member of the drama club who winds up being Kashima’s keeper more often than not.

They’re a fun bunch to observe and the humor springs up naturally from seeing how they interact with each other even in the simplest of situations.  Mangaka Izumi Tsubaki also makes the four-panel format of her manga feel more vibrant than other series done in that style with her “widescreen” panels and detailed character and background work.  The only thing that’s really working against the manga is that some of the humor can get a little “insider baseball.”  If you’re not well-versed on some of the conventions of shoujo manga, then the jokes at its expense will likely fall flat.  Most of the humor does just focus on the interactions of the cast, and that’s enough for me to recommend this to anyone who’s interested — especially at that digital price!

Sunstone vol. 4

The funny stuff is still funny and the sexy stuff is still sexy in this series.  So what’s left to talk about?  Well, there is the conflict that threatens to split apart Lisa and Ally’s relationship.  Though the volume begins with the former moving into the latter’s apartment with all sorts of romantic, sexual, and comedic hijinks ensuing.  While things are going great for a while, there’s the issue of friendship that keeps the two from taking things to the next level.  By that I mean Lisa keeps putting Ally in the friend zone whenever they’re together in public with or without friends.  Considering all that they’ve done for each other, it starts to eat at Ally after a while and the semi-platonic introduction of Annie, a tattoo artist who has a budding interest in S&M, to their circle doesn’t do a whole lot to alleviate her fears.  Things come to a head at a Halloween party where all this tension finally comes to the surface between Lisa and Ally, resulting in a lot of unwelcome emotional and physical pain for their relationship.

This should have resulted in a cliffhanger that makes the wait for vol. 5 feel agonizing beyond belief.  Except, as the present-day sequences throughout the series have made clear, everything works out all right for Lisa and Ally in the end.  So it becomes a question of “how” things are going to get better, rather than “if.”  Which is a little less dramatic.  I do have faith that creator Stjepan Sejic’s storytelling skills are up to the task of making that a compelling read as he skillfully develops the underlying issues that lead to the calamity at the end of the volume.  The whole “friend zone” issue encompasses a lot of little issues in Lisa and Ally’s relationship, and even when things seem to be getting better it’s still clear that some kind of reckoning is in the offing just from how the tone of certain scenes is pitched.  It might seem somewhat unbelievable that two women in a sexual S&M relationship who have just moved in together have trouble declaring their feelings for each other.  I get that, but it’s also clear that they’ve established this specialized, comfortable niche for themselves that they need to break out of if their relationship is going to continue.  I’m fully expecting to see that happen in vol. 5, along with all the resultant joy that’ll come along with it.  (And the lulz too, because it wouldn’t be “Sunstone” without that.)

Dark Horse Previews Picks: June 2016

At this point, Dark Horse has published more “Halo” comics for a longer time than when Marvel had the license to do so.  The one thing they haven’t done, however, is publish a hardcover anthology of short stories based in this videogame universe.  Well, that’s going to change this October when Dark Horse puts out the “Halo:  Tales From Slipspace” anthology.  Featuring work from the likes of John Jackson Miller, Jonathan Wayshak, Eric Nguyen, Kody Chamberlain, Dave Crosland and Simon Roy, as well as “Halo” comics writer Duffy Bordeau, and franchise staff Frank O’Connor and Tyler Jeffers, it should fit right in with the comics already being published by the company and its ongoing love of short stories.

Yet I remember when Marvel put out the “Halo Graphic Novel” and that was something of an event.  Not just because it was a full-on OGN from a company that had been staunchly averse to such things, but because it had an impressive and eclectic roster of talent for a licensed product.  The presence of artists like Simon Bisley, Moebius, and Tsutomu Nihei let you know that this wasn’t a project that was being handed off to whoever was in the Marvel offices that day and gave it a certain “must have” cachet in my mind.  Fortunately the end result turned out to be pretty good, given the talent involved.  That being said, this graphic novel also came out at a time when I had a vested interest in the “Halo” franchise and that time has long since passed.  “Tales From Slipspace” may wind up being good, but the (admittedly decent) lineup of talent Dark Horse has secured for it isn’t enough to rekindle my interest beyond typing this out.

The Art of Fire Emblem:  Awakening HC:  Now here’s a long-running game franchise that has made a remarkable comeback in recent years.  In case you hadn’t heard, declining sales for the franchise led to Nintendo telling “Fire Emblem” developers Intelligent Systems that “Awakening” would be the last one in the series.  So the developers put everything they wanted to in that game — including a revamped anime aesthetic and a support system that would allow most male and female characters to get married and have kids — and the end result finally broke through to earn a measure of mainstream success in the U.S. and increased sales in Japan.  Now, the latest game “Fates” and its three versions have become something of a minor phenomenon.  Enough to get Dark Horse to put out this artbook for the previous game.  They get points off for timeliness, but it’s also a good indication that an artbook for “Fates” will be in the offing if this sells well enough.

Call of Duty:  Black Ops III:  This trade paperback collects the six-issue prequel miniseries for the game written by longtime “G.I. Joe” writer Larry Hama.  I haven’t played a “CoD” game since “Modern Warfare 2” and I’m not sure if the straightlaced nature of the series is going to allow for Hama to infuse this comic with the kind of offbeat charm that makes his “G.I. Joe” comics from the 80’s still readable today.  Yes, they’re incredibly silly and filled with the kind of rah-rah military jingoism that thrived in the decade, but the cast is incredibly diverse and full of distinct personalities and it’s fun to see them interact and react with one another.  I’ll also admit that it’s fun seeing how neither side manages to gain the upper hand because of some dumb thing that one of their members winds up doing to tip the scales.  So no “Black Ops III” for me, but I’ll keep buying more of “Classic G.I. Joe” whenever it comes on sale.

The Complete Elfquest vol. 3:  FINALLY!  However, the fact that this is coming out over a year after vol. 2 suggests that these releases are going to be a (semi?) annual event.  It also suggests that vols. 1-2 didn’t sell as well as the company was expecting.  If they had, then we would’ve gotten this volume a lot sooner.  So if you don’t want vol. 4 to take even longer to come out, it’d be best to pick this up as soon as it arrives in August.

Dark Horse Comics/DC:  Superman:  Collecting most of the crossovers between Superman and Dark Horse’s stable of licensed and creator-owned characters.  You’ll be getting the two “Aliens” miniseries, one where he teamed up with “Tarzan,” and “The Superman/Madman Hullabaloo” by Mike Allred.  That last one is likely to provide a severe tonal and stylistic whiplash when read following the other miniseries, but coming from Mike Allred it’s also a solid bet for being the most entertaining one of the bunch.  Missing from this collection, for reasons unexplained, is “Superman vs. Predator,” so you’ll have to track that one down by itself if you want to read it.

Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.:  1953:  A collection of miniseries and (I think) at least one short story has the title character teaming up with his mentor, Prof. Bruttenholm, to confront some of the most horrible creatures in British folklore, and take on a monster ravaging a suburban community back in the States.  The previous volume of this title was notable for the fact that it had an artist, Alex Maleev, who had never drawn the character before (and hadn’t worked at Dark Horse in a while).  This time around we have Paolo Rivera and Michael Walsh stepping up for their first crack at “Hellboy” with Chris Roberson co-writing some of these issues.  They should provide some great visuals, but what I’m really looking forward to seeing is Ben Stenbeck’s contribution to this volume.  A seasoned veteran of the Mignolaverse, he hasn’t drawn any of Hellboy’s adventures himself yet.  Speaking of the boy himself…

Hellboy in Hell #10:  Billed as the finale for this series, it’s hard to work up much excitement for it at this point.  Even as the solicitation text tells us that Hellboy is going to transform into what he was always destined to be.  Why is that?  This series has been plagued by insane delays between issues that put it in the same league as “Powers” or the last run of “American Vampire.”  Mignola has also said that he was going to continue this series for as long as he was interested in drawing it, so it would appear that has come a lot sooner than expected.  For me, there’s just no momentum with the title right now, even as “B.P.R.D.” barrels along to its climax.  I’m sure the five issues collected here will make for a good read when they arrive in this collected form, but it’s hard to get excited for its arrival at this point.

Neon Genesis Evangelion:  The Shinji Ikari Raising Project Omnibus, Book One:  …In all fairness the first few volumes of this series were pretty fun and made for a nice alternative to the doom and gloom of the original anime and its official manga adaptation.  So if you want to see what I liked about this series before repetition and an utter lack of imagination drove it all into the ground, this is the only version of the manga you should consider picking up.

RG Veda Book One:  The first in a three-volume omnibus collection of CLAMP’s first professional work.  Based on a classic Indian saga, it follows the warrior-king of a people he couldn’t save as he protects the genderless Ashura and seeks the other “Six Stars” to defeat the usurper of Heaven’s Throne.  I’ve read enough manga over the years to the point where this premise sounds more than a little standard-issue to me.  That said, it is CLAMP’s first series and it’s from this that we got the likes of “Cardcaptor Sakura,” “Magic Knight Rayearth,” “Chobits,” “Angelic Layer,” “Tsubasa,” and “XXXholic.”  If nothing else, it sounds like fans of the manga collective will want to check this out for reasons of historical significance even if the storytelling hasn’t held up that well over the years.

American Vampire vol. 8

Remember when creators Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque put this series on hiatus for a year so that they’d be able to work on all of the issues together and have them come out on schedule?  Yeah, that worked out real well.  It took Snyder and Albuquerque over a year to put out the six issues collected in this volume and now they’re putting it on hiatus again while they work out their respective schedules and work on other projects.  It’s a tough time to be an “American Vampire” fan with all this going on is what I’m saying here.  At least the goings-on in this volume make for a decent read as always, except I’m firmly convinced that it’s never going to get back that special flair it had in the beginning to make me think that it was more than just a clever horrorshow.  Fortunately, the narrative manages to avoid most of the silliness I was expecting from its “VAMPIRES IN SPAAAAAAAAAAACE!” storyline.

That’s right, the events of this volume wind up taking Calvin Poole and Skinner into near-Earth orbit as they have to sabotage a Russian satellite to prevent WWIII from starting over the disappearance of an anti-vampire weapon.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though, as Pearl, Cal, and Skinner all wind up back in the employ of the Vassals of the Morning Star and under the supervision of someone we haven’t seen in the main series for a very long time:  Felicia Book.  She fills them in on the nature of the threat they face with the Grey Trader and about the one weapon that will hopefully put an end to his schemes.  While Cal and Skinner take a rocket to disrupt the Russian’s satellite surveillance of said weapon, Pearl and Felicia are headed to Area 51 to secure the weapon.

If you’re wondering if just one of these two groups is heading into a trap, or if they both are, I’ll spare you the trouble.  The answer is “both.”  That’s not a spoiler.  You shouldn’t be surprised by this development as things going bad like this has been a staple of the series since its beginning.  No points for guessing if there’s another traitor in the Vassals’ ranks this time out either.

Yet even if the nature of the conflicts in this volume play out pretty much as you’d expect, Snyder and Albuquerque still dig into them with gusto.  Once the action gets going, it keeps moving at a frantic pace until the end.  At which point we’re greeted with a couple of game-changing revelations for the series.  One of these involves some big-headed silliness, and the other I’ll discuss obliquely in a bit.  Albuquerque’s art, in particular, is on fine form here as we get to see some memorable new monster designs and some real momentum in the truck chase sequences towards the end of the volume.  It may have taken him longer than usual to serve up the art for this volume, but Albuquerque delivers once again.

I also have to give Snyder some credit for subverting my expectations after the last volume.  Where I was expecting some very silly creationist legends, the story of the Gray Trader and the dragon is scaled back quite a bit.  To the point where it becomes standard-issue fantasy fodder.  I’m not complaining here, as the conflict now feels within the title’s established scope.  However, it would’ve been nice if this could’ve been communicated without a large expository infodump from Book.

Then you have the business with Skinner, seen in the previous volume to have been infected by the Gray Trader.  While we’ve seen this kind of “turning” storyline in zombie fiction before, things didn’t play out as I was expecting here.  I won’t go into too much detail, save to say that Skinner’s “turned” look is truly fearsome, he continues to not be a fan of being told what to do in this state, and it all comes to an unexpected conclusion upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.  For a plot thread that I wasn’t expecting much from, Snyder actually managed to make it into one of the volume’s more memorable and entertaining parts.

Which also brings me to another complaint.  By the end of the volume, Skinner is left… diminished in a way that we haven’t seen before.  I’m sure the nature of this change has some part to play in the title’s climax, but it just feels depressing to see right now.  In fact, it also makes me think about how Skinner has been kept on some kind of leash after being left to run free over the course of the first two volumes.  He’s always been the series’ main source of fun with his anti-authoritarian ways and knack for turning a clever or cutting phrase.  Pearl may be “American Vampire’s” emotional heart, but there’s no denying that things pick up noticeably whenever Skinner is on the scene.

That’s why it bothers me to see Snyder keep trying to find new ways to keep a good vampire down.  Whether it’s having a bomb implanted in his chest to make him play nice with the Vassals, making him suffer through the Gray Trader’s infection, and then this final twist at the end of the volume, it’s like the writer is deliberately trying to sabotage the appeal of the most compelling character in this story.  Even in the subdued form that he’s in here, there are still enough moments — usually involving loss of blood or life — that make for a convincing “Let Skinner Be Skinner” argument.  Unfortunately, it would appear that there’s precious little time or opportunity left for that to happen in this series.

It hasn’t been stated when the “Third Cycle” of “American Vampire” will kick off and bring this series to a conclusion, but we can at least hope that it’ll happen later (much later, likely) this year.  Even if this series turned out to be a series of genre riffs with vampires instead of a tour down the dark side of this country’s history (with vampires), it’s still a decent enough read to keep me in for the long haul.  This volume is a good enough setup for its end, now it’s just a matter of waiting for its creators to get their act together and deliver it.