Monthly Archives: May 2016

I Am A Hero Omnibus vol. 1

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the most important Dark Horse manga release of the year.  Why is that?  Well, let me ask you something:  When was the last time you saw Dark Horse release a new manga that wasn’t a) from an established creator, b) a spinoff from a popular anime or videogame, or c) a license rescue?  It’s been a while and other companies are even encroaching on “a)” with Hiroaki Samura and Kosuke Fujishima’s latest titles being released by Kodansha USA.  So the bottom line is that if you want to see the company get back to releasing new, weird, and interesting original manga then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this.

The good news is that “I Am A Hero” would be worth reading even if I wasn’t trying to spark a movement behind it.  It’s a slow-burn approach to a zombie story that takes its sweet time setting things up before unleashing a gushing river of terror and chaos.  Yes, it feels a bit slow in parts, but that’s less of an issue with this two-in-one edition as we get to see more of mangaka Kengo Hanazawa’s ambition on display here.  There’s no doubt about it, whoever at Dark Horse decided to package the series in this fashion deserves a goddamn medal because I don’t think it would’ve read as well in a single-volume format.

Though zombie stories are a dime-a-dozen these days, “I Am A Hero’s” protagonist helps set it apart almost from the get-go.  Hideo Suzuki is a somewhat failed mangaka.  By that I mean he had a series, “Uncut Penis,” that ran for two volumes before it was cancelled.  Now he’s working as an assistant for another mangaka while he prepares his next series.  Hideo has a girlfriend, Tekko, who’s adorably quirky when she’s sober and unbelievably mean when she’s drunk.  That might not seem like the greatest lot in life to have, but our protagonist also has something more troubling to deal with.  Mental illness.

It’s never specified what he suffers from.  However, the hallucinations, manic mood swings, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and responding to internal stimuli makes it look like Hideo suffers from paranoid schizophrenia with psychotic symptoms (this is a rare instance where my work experience helps inform my hobby).  Hideo’s illness is not presented in a quirky, funny Hollywood-type way where he says something hilariously inappropriate or utilizes his symptoms to be hyper-capable in some way.  No, he’s presented as a genuinely disturbed individual.  The kind who, if the story had gone in another direction, would likely use the gun he owns to take out his co-workers, girlfriend, and then himself.

That’s another thing which sets Hideo apart:  He’s one of the very few people in Japan to own a gun.  Japan has probably the most strict gun control laws of any nation, to the point where enduring the paperwork and regulations necessary to own one isn’t worth the hassle for most of the population.  That Hideo owns a dual-barreled hunting rifle is kind of a big deal considering where he lives and helps further distinguish his character.

Now, before you go, “That must be handy, being a guy in Japan who owns a gun on the eve of the zombie apocalypse,” the story doesn’t hit the z-button right away.  In fact, the threat really doesn’t become real for our protagonist until the end of the first volume.  If you went into this series knowing nothing about it — which would be rather hard since it has “The greatest zombie manga ever,” as a pull quote from Jason Thompson on the back cover — then you’d be inclined to think that this is a slice-of-life series about a mangaka slowly going insane as the pressures of work and life start to mount on him.

This is what the first volume is like and it actually works pretty well on those terms.  We get to know Hideo intimately as he struggles through the quiet times when paranoia grips him, deals with the people he doesn’t like (and don’t like him) at work, suffer through patronizing support from his editor and fellow mangaka, and enjoy the few moments of bliss he has with Tekko.  Yet Hanazawa keeps piling on the tension as the volume progresses as work and personal stresses mount on the character.  Even when the telltale signs that the zombie onslaught is about to begin start showing up, one may be tempted to write them off as products of Hideo’s mental instability.  It’s a very effective approach and if Hanazawa had chosen to keep the story grounded in the real it’d probably still be worth reading.

That’s not the case and things really start going to hell once the second volume begins.  All of the effort that was put into establishing Hideo’s life and all that surrounds it is put to very good use here as everything is steadily stripped away from him.  Our hero finds himself in unreal situations forced to make unthinkable choices just to survive as the stakes keep escalating throughout the volume.  Hanazawa turns out to be really very good with the action here, first embroiling his protagonist in an intensely small-scale and very personal struggle before sending him out to the city where all sorts of random craziness awaits him beyond every corner.  You really do get the feeling that society is coming undone in these scenes of people falling off buildings, chasing and eating each other through the streets, and fleeing their attackers with all the strength they have.  This is absorbing, kinetically entertaining stuff.

Even so, some may find that the pace of this series leaves something to be desired.  While I appreciated the slow-burn approach of the first half as it eventually catches fire, Hanazawa really does take his time setting everything up.  Also, as action-packed as the second half is, remarkably little actually happens during it.  It’s really a very well-executed chase scene.  Some may also find the fact that Hideo has yet to break out his gun somewhat ridiculous given the current circumstances.  I feel it’s worth pointing out that the world of “I Am A Hero” appears to be like “The Walking Dead” in the sense that this is a world that never got “Night of the Living Dead,” “28 Days Later,” or “Shaun of the Dead.”  Unless people’s knowledge of zombies is being hidden really well, then we’re dealing with a population that has no idea how to deal with them.  The sooner you can accept that, the better shape you’ll be in to enjoy this series.

It’s also worth mentioning that the zombies of this series appear to be of the “fast” variety as seen in “28 Days Later.”  They’ve also got a kind of crazed strength and, as Hideo finds out firsthand, are also pretty limber as well.  One thing that Hanazawa does to set apart his zombies from others is that while they can’t actually communicate, they will gurgle out a few words based on their last thoughts while alive.  It’s effectively creepy (and quite Japanese to boot) and makes Hideo’s first real encounter with them all the more tragic.

Had this series been released in a single volume format, the review you just read would be less enthusiastic.  While my praise of Hanazawa’s approach in setting things up would still apply, I’d also express frustration that the first volume ends just as the zombie outbreak starts.  All setup, no payoff.  With this two-in-one volume release, we get the setup and the payoff all in one go.  That makes enduring the six-month wait for the next omnibus (currently solicited for October) a lot easier.  So yeah, the pace might be a little sluggish, but “I Am A Hero” is still a very entertaining read that approaches your usual zombie story from an interesting perspective.  I want to see it succeed so that Dark Horse will bring us more titles like it in the future, yet it also deserves success on its own merits as well.

A Few New Titles From Image

Yeah, it’s been an Image-centric weekend over here.  My backlog of their titles just keeps piling up for some reason.  I still have the third volume of “The Fuse” to tackle at some point, and I swear I’ll get around to doing either a podcast or a review of the third volume of “The Fade Out.”  In the meantime, here are my thoughts on three recent first volumes of series with varying degrees of promise.

Skottie Young’s “I Hate Fairyland vol. 1:  Madly Ever After” is about an awful woman named Gert who has been stuck in a fairytale wonderland for the past 27 years because she can’t find the key to take her home.  So she takes out her frustration on all of its inhabitants in endlessly violent and gory fashion.  It’s clear that Young wanted to do a series where the cutest of cute suffers the bloodiest of bloody fates and you can see that drive in every single panel.  Whether Gert is firing a cannon at the face of a narrating moon, suffering the indignity of turning into a Type-19 diabetic tumor, or just plain butchering anyone who gets in her way, the art radiates the kind of maniacally crazed energy you only see when a creator is fully invested in what they’re doing.  Really, Young’s art is utterly phenomenal and it’s worth checking out the series for that reason alone.  (Also, a note to Adam Warren:  If you don’t want to actually have your characters swear in your comic, then this is how you MUFFIN’ HUGGIN’ do it.)

However, this first volume of “I Hate Fairyland” is also about a little girl who was sucked into a fairytale wonderland against her will and became a monster in order to cope with the fact that she was never going to be able to find her way home.  That’s the kind of synopsis that creeps into your head after reading the opening pages that show you how Gert wound up in Fairyland in the first place.  Beyond that, there’s no real acknowledgement of the underlying problems regarding our protagonist’s mental state because it’s clear that Young wanted to do a series about a woman trapped in a little girl’s body who goes around and murders all these cute little creatures.  I’ve got no problems with that, but it’s clear that the writer/artist didn’t have the guts to make his main character completely unsympathetic and made a halfhearted attempt to soften her just a bit.  It doesn’t work and ultimately renders his series readable so long as you don’t give any thoughts to what makes Gert tick.  So just focus on the pretty, pretty pictures here…

There should be little doubt that after “Whiteout,” “Queen & Country,” runs on “Detective Comics” and “Punisher,” and co-creating “Gotham Central,” Greg Rucka knows how to write a good procedural story.  He applies all of that experience here to police work and witchcraft in “Black Magick vol. 1:  Awakening.”  Rowan Black is a detective with the Portsmouth P.D. and also a witch.  In fact, we’re introduced to her during a ceremony for the Fall Equinox when she’s called away for a hostage situation at a local diner.  The hostage taker has asked for Rowan by name and when she goes in to speak with him, he reveals that he knows about her other life as well.  Old and familiar forces are gathering against Rowan and her coven, and now they have to prepare themselves for war.

On one level, this is a satisfyingly professional piece of work.  While Rowan faces personal and professional conflicts because of her status as a witch and a detective, having these two worlds collide doesn’t feel out of place in Rucka’s hands.  He understands that both of her professions are bound by rules and those are made clear as we go along.  All of this is rendered in lush black and white art from Nicola Scott (with well-placed color assists from Chiara Arena) that expertly blends the mundane with the spooky.  It’s good work from both creators, so I’m wondering why I wasn’t more involved with this volume than I was.  Maybe it’s because in embracing such a professional approach Rucka has also given us something that feels a bit formulaic in spite of its subject matter.  Even the comedy relief involving the cell phone interrupting the wiccan ritual in the beginning feels stale.  Had I encountered this a decade ago when such genre hybrids were less common, it’s possible I would’ve enjoyed it more.  I’m not about to write it off as the creators do good work here, and maybe that last-page reveal could take it into more bizarre and interesting territory.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the first volume of Linda Sejic’s “Blood Stain” was about a down-on-her luck college graduate who winds up going to work for a mad scientist.  After all, that’s how the story is described on the back and reinforced by the amusingly sinister front cover.  Is that what happens here?  Well, eventually.  Sejic takes the long (LONG) way around to that point as we said graduate, Elliot Torres, spends most of the volume hashing out her personal situation with her sister, taking on a variety of other jobs for comic relief, actually getting good at one of them before she loses it, and doing two phone interviews with Dr. Vlad Stein before accepting the assistant position he offers, and then flying and driving out to his place.

All of this means that if you came in expecting to see the wacky hijinks that ensue when Elliot starts working for Dr. Stein, then you’d better be prepared to wait until vol. 2 rolls around.  What we get here isn’t bad as Sejic (wife of “Sunstone’s” Stjepan) can craft funny dialogue like her husband and serves up some nice art as well.  Unfortunately she tends to press things a bit too far in the direction of wacky at the expense of her protagonist’s credibility.  Witness all of those failed jobs as an example.  I’m honestly on the fence about whether or not I’ll be picking up vol. 2 to see what happens when this series actually starts to dig into its premise.

That being said, come back tomorrow for when I write about a manga that has a similar problem and how its publisher dealt with it in a very smart way.

Paper Girls vol. 1

Brian K. Vaughan has said that he tries to work out all of his issues with the world through his comics.  So if “Y:  The Last Man” represents his thoughts on gender politics, “Ex Machina” is general politics, “Pride of Baghdad” is the Second Iraq War, and “Saga” is parenthood, then what is he dealing with in “Paper Girls?”  Even after reading this volume, the answer isn’t clear yet.  I do have an opinion about that (or else I wouldn’t be writing this review).  With its ensemble cast and puzzle-box nature, “Paper Girls” is Vaughan’s attempt to put his own spin on two such TV shows he worked on — “Lost” and “Under the Dome.”

Vaughan came onboard the writing staff of “Lost” in its fourth season and left after season five.  I assume the experience went well enough for him because he went on to develop “Under the Dome” for TV and served as its showrunner for its first season.  While the split appears to have been on amicable terms, I did hear Vaughan say at his Comic-Con panel two years ago that one of the reasons he left was because he liked how he had complete control over the characters in his comics.  Hearing something like that, you get the impression that his experience on the show didn’t turn out the way he expected.  So what better way to deal with the experience than by creating a new comic featuring its own sci-fi mystery.

To prepare the reader for the strangeness of what’s to come, “Paper Girls” starts out with an incredibly bizarre dream sequence involving deceased Challenger astronaut Christa McAuliffe and the Devil.  The dream is being had by Erin, a young paper girl getting ready to head out for deliveries early morning on November 1st.  She meets up with three other paper girls, hardass MacKenzie, know-it-all Tiffany, and level-headed KJ, after being threatened by some lingering trick-or-treaters and that turns out to be the beginning of their early morning trouble.

After splitting up, Tiffany and KJ are jumped by some guys in strange costumes who steal their walkie-talkie.  All four girls track the attackers to a house that has a strange human-sized capsule in its basement.  Then there’s a flash of light, the sky turns pink and reveals lots of new stars, and the attackers turn out to be misshapen humans with circuitry in their heads.  Later, adults riding pterodactyls in shiny armor turn up.  The girls try their best to cope with all of this, but it’s clear that the universe has other plans for them.

As for what these plans are, I’m really not sure.  It’s not that the story isn’t coherent or fails to set up a conflict that will drive the series, but the point of it all is still elusive at the end of the first volume.  I got the feeling while reading this that the introduction of so many disparate elements into this story — anachronistic technology, the warped teenagers, time travel, pterodactyls — were meant to capture my attention more than they did.  The expected response being, “How are all these things meant to fit together?  Please tell me more!”  My response can be summed up as, “Okay Mr. Vaughan just where are you going with all this?”

It’s a question of trust and after the likes of “Y”, “Ex Machina,” and “Saga,” Vaughan has built up a lot with me.  I wasn’t blown away by what I read here, but I trust that the writer has a plan for all of it that will be revealed in due time.  This also helped carry me over the fact that unlike the first issues of his previous creator-owned series, the first issue wasn’t all that compelling.  Vaughan has a well-deserved rep for writing really good first issues that set out the main ideas of his series in a compelling fashion.  That wasn’t the case here, likely because the nature of the story he’s telling demands that he hold key information about it back from the reader.  Based on his previous series, I have faith that Vaughan will eventually deliver on the setup here.  If you can’t manage that then this first volume is likely to leave you cold.

There are still things to take note about this series when you’re not grappling with how the main story is going to play out.  The four protagonists are appealing characters that know how to come together and solve the many problems before them.  They could do with some more distinctive personality traits to distinguish them from each other, but that will likely come in time.  Being a child of the 80’s myself, I was also amused by how Vaughan captured the feel of the era with his penchant for factoid-dropping.  Some might find it to be a bit too on the nose, however.  Most importantly he also manages to keep the narrative humming along at a brisk pace so that you’re never bored by what’s going on.  It’s also fun to see what new bit of strangeness pops up on each page.  Whether it’s pterodactyls (yes, I do like them), a dream sequence featuring Ronald Reagan, or an orb full of extending eyes that induces flashbacks in someone to wasting their life playing Arkanoid, something new always comes along to pique your interest.

This is all illustrated expertly by artist Cliff Chiang.  He showed that he could do top-flight superhero action and drama with Brian Azzarello on “Wonder Woman” and Chiang wonderfully realizes Vaughan’s strange vision of the 80’s here.  While the artist nails the look and feel of the era, he also has no problem bringing all the weirdness he can into it and still making it all look like it belongs in the story.  Also great is how Chiang manages the constantly exasperated/incredulous looks of the cast as they react just as you’d expect to all of this craziness.

Vol. 1 of “Paper Girls” does have the strength of its creators to recommend it, yet I’m not fully onboard with where the story is right now.  There’s a lot we don’t know about the generational and time-traveling conflict at the heart of it and it’ll depend on how future volumes play out before the real value of this one becomes apparent.  As I said above, I’ve got faith that Vaughn will deliver something worthwhile in the end.  Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until the end for it to become worthwhile.  Chiang, if no one else, deserves better than that.

The Manhattan Projects vol. 6: The Sun Beyond the Stars

Savor this volume because it might be a while before we see the next one.  I’d like to think that Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra have invested enough into “The Manhattan Projects” to let things end here.  Though it does little to advance the overall story of the many scientists wrapped up in this saga, “The Sun Beyond the Stars” still manages to entertain and provide another welcome example of its creators fearsome imaginations.  Depending on how you look at it, the fittingly downbeat conclusion it brings to the stories of two of its characters is a bonus.

One of the (many) threads left hanging in the previous volume involved Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s interstellar quest to find his beloved Cosmodog Laika.  What he didn’t know was that Laika had been mutated into a humanoid form and was now running around with a robot that can’t tell the truth and an alien with two faces stacked on top of each other that can only say, “Blarg!”  That they eventually find each other should surprise no one.  However, the circumstances of their reunion involve a mentally unbalanced night court judge from a galactic backwater and one of the oppressed second-class citizens of the Sionnu Science Union (read:  Empire) with a bounty on his head and some planet-destroying spores in his possession.

It would seem that Earthers are nothing more than trouble magnets when tossed into greater galactic society.  After all, their first encounter with such resulted in mass murder.  Bad for the galaxy, but good for us.  From the idea of an empire who thirst for knowledge above all else (and whose leader has a uniquely disgusting way of disseminating it), to the bizarro galactic night court where genocide isn’t as frowned upon as you might think, and the final battle against a group of SpecOps librarians, this volume continues the series’ trademark of entertaining weirdness in great fashion.

Hickman also drops enough worldbuilding here to make me wish he did more of it.  The conversation between Yuri and Garru in jail is one example, and we get to know enough about the Sionnu to understand why the rebel our protagonists have aligned with wants to destroy them.  Yet we don’t get a bigger sense of the Sionnu’s place in galactic society for their fate to be genuinely involving.  The brief glimpse we get of the galactic judicial system is also enough for me to want to know how the higher courts function.  Basically I’m left wanting more here, in ways both good and bad.

As I mentioned above, the story focuses on Yuri and Laika without a single mention of the other members of “The Manhattan Projects.”  That gives the narrative its “side story” feel, but at least the two characters are up for the task of acting as protagonists here.  Yuri’s heroic and generally optimistic nature contrasts quite well with the escalating sense of doom in the story, while Laika’s depressive can-do nature is a perfect counter to that.

Normally, an ending like the one we get here would be the kind that would ruin anyone’s day.  That it doesn’t is a testament to how well Hickman sets it up throughout the story.  The story starts out in a place of chaos and reaches virtually apocalyptic proportions by the end.  You never get the sense that things are going to get better, so the ending doesn’t come as a complete surprise.  It actually feels quite in line with what has come before.  I also appreciated how Yuri and Laika’s relationship mirrors this as well.  While the cosmonaut may be all happiness and smiles about what he encounters, the cosmodog knows better.  These mindsets generate friction to the point where it becomes clear that their reunion was never meant to be a happy one.  It makes the final words spoken in the volume quite fitting as a result.

Even though this story takes place to the side of the main plot threads in “The Manhattan Projects,” I can’t help but wonder if it foreshadows the titles ultimate end in its own way.  We see how the involvement of these Earthers brings great chaos and destruction to this corner of the galaxy.  This was only two of them, with Von Braun, Feynman, and the Einsteins loose elsewhere pursuing their own agendas.  Though the main objective of this series is retelling and re-incorporating history by way of its warped “anything goes in the name of science” agenda, I wonder if Hickman’s goal for when the series catches up to the present day is to show how all of these unchecked agendas will bring about the collapse of the universe.  In short, “The Sun Beyond the Stars” is simply the warm up for the main course.

That’ll all depend on when the writer and artist get back together for vol. 7.  Before I wrap up, I also want to point out that Pitarra excels with the outer space setting and all of the alien designs he’s called upon to display here.  Not only are they uniquely bizarre, but they’re incredibly emotive as well.  Much as I praise Hickman here, Pitarra’s work is equally integral to the series — I can’t imagine it being drawn by anyone else.  Not even if it means we’d get the next volume sooner.  After “The Sun Beyond the Stars” I’m willing to give them a while to get their act together and deliver the continuation this series deserves.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride vol. 4

The relationship at the core of this series gets bit deeper with this volume as we find out about Elias’ history.  It’s related to Chise by the mage Lindel who talks about the fearsome entity he encountered one evening that collapsed out of hunger in front of him.  Elias’ exact origins are mostly shrouded in mystery here, save for some sinister hints… that are expertly defused with humor by Lindel.  It’s clear that mangaka Kore Yamazaki wants to keep some things secret from us, but the information we get here paints a clearer picture of the ancient magus.  For all of his fearsome power, he’s still a child when it comes to his emotional knowledge.  That gives the scenes where he confesses that he doesn’t like the “cold” that occurs when Chise is away genuine resonance.  In short, Elias’ efforts to learn what makes humans tick makes him a more human and interesting character.

Much the same can be said of Chise here as she continues to work through her own emotional baggage and acclimate herself to the fact that she has once again become part of a family.  This is interesting to note because we also learn for the first time that she wasn’t just alone with her mother, but that she had a father and younger brother as well.  While I’m ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN this will never be mentioned again, Chise’s growth is accompanied by a sense of awe and wonder as she learns more about the world of magic.  Aside from the tale Lindel spins for her, Chise starts crafting her own wand which leads to a reunion with an old friend, summons a firebird for entirely personal reasons, shaves the woolybugs and has a close encounter with their snow variants, and gets a were-experience in the volume’s final story.  All of these instances tell us a little bit more about the world of “The Ancient Magus’ Bride” and show that Yamazaki has an impressive imagination when it comes to worldbuilding.  This series continues to be an utterly enchanting and immersive read and is again recommended to all fans of good fantasy.  At this point, I’d even say people who don’t normally like the genre should give it a shot as well.

Star Wars: Vader Down

In all the years that Dark Horse published “Star Wars” comics, they only ever did one crossover.  That was “Vector,” during the time that they were publishing four ongoing titles.  It’s actually one of the better crossovers I’ve read if only for the fact that it prompted major advancements to the plots of “Knights of the Old Republic” and “Legacy.”  I’m assuming that “Vader Down” will only be the first crossover of many from Marvel if the way they manage their superhero universe is any indication of that.  At least the resounding sales success of “Star Wars” and “Darth Vader” means that they’re coming at it from a position of strength rather than something that needed to be done in order to shore up sagging sales.  (I’m looking in the direction of “Standoff” and the upcoming “Civil War II” here.)  Then again, given the talent involved — Gillen!  Aaron!  Larroca!  Deodato! — you’d think that the end result would be better than what we got.

The set-up for this event is simple but effective:  Vader has tracked Luke Skywalker to the planet of Vrogas Vas, home to an old Jedi temple.  While the Dark Lord of the Sith is determined to capture his son, his plans are confounded by the fact that the planet is home to a Rebel base and a squadron of X-Wings.  After holding his own in space, Luke brings Vader (and himself) down through some unconventional means.  Now one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy is stranded on a planet with people who want nothing more than to see him dead, and even more arriving via hyperspace.  For lesser men, this would be a death sentence.  For Darth Vader, they’re nothing more than examples to be made about the power of the Dark Side of the Force.

Things start out really well with the space battle above Vrogas Vas as Vader demonstrates his superior, and Force-aided, starfighting skills.  Mike Deodato Jr. illustrates this part along with the “Star Wars” issues of the crossover and delivers some exceptional work all around.  He’s able to keep the action clear without sacrificing spectacle.  The double-page spreads of the carnage he leaves in orbit, as well as his “All I am surrounded by is fear and dead men” admonition to the Rebels surrounding him, further reinforce the Dark Lord’s badass credentials.  Even though he’s still unequivocally an antagonist here.  With a start like that, and the promise of the casts of both titles interacting together, you’d have every right to be optimistic that this crossover will deliver on its hype.

If that last sentence didn’t give you an indication that this turns out not to be the case, then let me say that “Vader Down” ultimately leaves something to be desired.  What gives these early scenes their power is that we know the Rebellion’s efforts to stop Vader will ultimately be unsuccessful.  They don’t know that, however, so the story has a tragic feel to it as these characters struggle against the impossible.  Constantly raising the stakes against Vader until the Rebellion realizes that he simply can’t be killed would’ve made for an interesting story.  That’s not what we get here as he’s part of an ensemble piece that includes Luke, Han, Leia, Threepio, R2-D2, Dr. Aphra, Triple Zero, BT, and Black Krrsantan running all over the planet.

That’s not to say that there isn’t enjoyment to be had from seeing these characters team up or fight each other.  I liked seeing Aphra’s assessment of Han, which plays into their confrontation where the latter is well aware of the former’s reputation.  Triple Zero also has some good scenes revolving around Threepio, and the Chewbacca/Black Krrsantan fight scenes are as intense as you’d expect when two Wookies are involved.

The problem is that after a while it starts to feel like writers Kieron Gillen and Jason Aaron are simply shuffling the deck here.  They’ve got all of these interesting characters to play with, so why not have them all get to know each other.  All of these meetings ultimately distract from what should be the focus of the story — the Rebellion’s efforts to stop Vader — and pretty much kill any interest or momentum it could have as a proper example of such.  There’s a subplot about Luke investigating the Jedi Temple on the planet, but that never amounts to anything in the end.

What keeps this event from being utterly pointless is the fate of a certain Mon Calamari General and the transition of one of the supporting cast from “Darth Vader” over to “Star Wars.”  I hope that last bit isn’t a permanent one, though.  So if you’ve been reading both titles so far, then it’s still worth your time to check this out.  Even if the core story disappoints, what’s here demonstrates that both Aaron and Gillen not only continue to have a great handle on what makes their characters tick, but those in the other guy’s title as well.  It’s beautiful to look at as well, as Salvador Larroca turns in work that is merely just “quite good” in comparison to Deodato’s stellar effort here.  Yet for all these quality parts, the whole is less than their sum.  We got something that was just “okay” when the result should’ve been “excellent.”

Rat Queens vol. 3: Demons

I can see what writer Kurtis Wiebe is trying to do here and it doesn’t work nearly as well as he seems to think it does.  After the previous volume left off with necromancer Hannah finding out some distressing news about her father, she and the rest of the Rat Queens head off to Mage U in order to help him out.  This leads Hannah to a reckoning with her past and her friends after the secret behind the incredible magical power she wields is revealed.  Why is this a problem?  Well, I’ll just say that the subtitle for this volume is kind of a hint in that regard.

This is some fairly serious stuff that has been injected into what has been an amusingly irreverent fantasy romp so far.  While I wanted more substance after the hijinks of the second volume, the way in which the writer tries to do this are at odds with the comedy.  I’m not saying that Wiebe has completely forsaken the funny bits here, as the opening scenes with the Queens being held hostage by the goblins and Petunia’s interactions with the dragon are comedic high points.  The problem is that the pivot towards drama comes too soon for this title.  “Demons” feels like the kind of story you tell right before the end of a series, when things start going bad for the good guys, relationships once thought unbreakable start to falter, and the bad guys finally get the upper hand.  After only two volumes, “Rat Queens” hasn’t accumulated the kind of history or characterization that’s needed to really sell the drama here.  The end result is that most of the storytelling here feels forced and generally unsatisfying.

Tess Fowler is the new artist for this volume and she does her best to sell what Wiebe is peddling here.  I’ll definitely admit that she’s got a great handle on the fantasy and comedy aspects of this series, and I even like her “Even More Demonic” design for Hannah.  The biggest problem here is that former artist Stjepan Sejic is still on hand to provide the covers.  Which means that the start of every issue here provides a reminder of what we’re missing out on after health problems forced him off this title.  Even if Sejic had done this entire volume, I’m not convinced his art would’ve turned it into a completely satisfying experience.  If this story does represent the beginning of the end for “Rat Queens,” then it’s probably for the best.

The Nameless City vol. 1

When it was announced a few years back that Faith Erin Hicks would be writing and illustrating a series of martial arts fantasy graphic novels, my first reaction was something along the lines of, “But I don’t want to wait a few years for this!”  Well, the waiting is over and it was worth it.  This first volume of “The Nameless City” series introduces us to young Kaidu.  He’s one of the Dao, the people that are currently ruling the title city, and has traveled here to meet his father for the first time in years.  On a trip into the city, Kaidu crosses paths with Rat, an orphan girl who is quick on her feet and has a healthy distrust of all Dao.  After a stroke of luck allows Kaidu to catch Rat after she steals his dagger, the two strike up an initially contentious but eventually warm friendship as he brings her food and she teaches him to be as fast as she is along with the ways of the city.

For a book that’s aimed at a young adult audience, I was surprised at how small-scale and grounded its narrative was.  There’s no fate-of-the-world conflict here or magical techniques that need to be mastered by either of our protagonists.  It’s a straightforward story of friendship, tolerance, and understanding with an assassination plot to provide intrigue and a thrilling climax.  Even if this all seems like it’s been done before, Hicks shows that this kind of story can still be pretty involving when everything’s done right.  She has an interesting setting in this city that has been conquered so often that there’s no proper name for it anymore and draws from feudal China for its aesthetic.  Kaidu and Rat are also very likeable protagonists who have great (platonic, so far) chemistry together with their respective innocent and street-smart mindsets.

Aside from the general look of the city, Hicks also impresses with her command of action here.  While there aren’t really any epic kung-fu fights to be seen here, the energy and momentum she invests in Kaidu and Rat’s scenes of parkour throughout the city makes them utterly captivating.  Hicks builds a solid foundation for this series with the characters and worldbuilding she demonstrates here and I’m left with the feeling that things will get even better with the second volume.  Great all-ages fun for everyone.

The Walking Dead vol. 25: No Turning Back

This brings us up to issue #150 of the ongoing series and it’s a much happier milestone than the previous major one.  You know, where Negan beat Glenn to death (which is still what I’m expecting to see happen on the TV show, but that’s another story).  After the stealth pre-emptive strike against Alexandrea by Alpha, the leader of the Whispers, that left a lot of people with their heads on pikes as a warning, Rick now has to preserve order in a very frightened and angry community.  The panic manifests in ways both subtle — a distraught Eugene noting that they have Alpha’s daughter to use as leverage — and violent as Rick is beaten nearly to death one by some citizens who want to send a message.  It’s a very credible look at mob violence and even as you hope for Rick to find a way to get things under control, the feelings and (to a certain extent) actions of these people ring true.

That Rick does find a way to unite everyone and set forth a plan to take out the Whispers should not surprise anyone.  What should give readers some pause is how Negan figures into it.  Kirkman has sworn that the former leader of the Saviors will never leave the cell he’s currently in.  However, we’ve already seen that’s not going to stop him from messing with the minds of anyone who decides to pay him a visit.  Or, in this case, offering Rick counsel on the crisis at hand with possibly a side order of manipulation.  What Negan has to say about the threat of the Whispers is really on point and delivered with the same kind of entertainingly foul-mouthed magnetism that has always made his appearances memorable.  I’d say “fun,” but you also have to consider the times he shows up to murder characters I like.

Even if it is mostly just setup for the next major phase of the series, this volume shows that you can still deliver worthwhile and compelling material in the process of doing so.  There’s a lot in this volume that speaks to the current state of our own world, and as ugly as things are with “The Walking Dead” it’s still reassuring to see that Rick Grimes is around to lead the good guys.  At least, until Kirkman finally decides to kill him — because that’s what happens to reassuring things in this world.