REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy #3, balancing character with the grandiose

Guardians of the Galaxy #3 is out 3/20/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — With the third issue in their run of Guardians of the Galaxy, writer Donny Cates, artist Geoff Shaw, colorist Marte Garcia, and letterer Cory Petit have come pretty close to cementing this as my second favorite comic at Marvel (Immortal Hulk being first, and Thor being the main contender for second). As I noted in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy #1, this comic felt like an extension of two recent comics I’d enjoyed quite a bit, both of which were by Cates and Shaw. The first was their absolutely fantastic Thanos Wins story, and the second was their earlier creator-owned collaboration, God Country.

That first issue of Guardians of the Galaxy had all the outsized cosmic moralizing that had built such a rewarding emotional foundation for God Country, along with the same bombastic pacing and unflinching overturning of the status quo from Thanos. I loved it. I also liked Guardians of the Galaxy #2 quite a bit, albeit for different reasons. The second chapter of this book felt like a stepback, a quieter issue aimed at fostering relationships between the members of the all new all different Guardians team. It came as a surprise to me following the tone set by the debut, but it was a great read nonetheless.

In Guardians of the Galaxy #3, the creative team seems to have struck an absolutely perfect balance between those two tones and approaches. The epic plotting and rapid pace of revelation is there, especially as it applies to the larger galactical happenings not taking place on Peter Quill’s ship, The Ryder. We see Thanos scarred brother StarFox grappling with his own new status quo (and some familial baggage) in the wake of his more famous and more feared brothers death, and we see Hela sowing death and discord among Annihilus and his minions, in a segment that gives Shaw and Garcia a chance to really impress with their linework and colors, respectively. Most interestingly, though, we see the newly-dubbed Dark Guardians (see the end of last issue) on the hunt for the whereabouts of Gamora, chasing Richard Rider Nova at a breakneck speed across the cosmos.

Then when we snap back to the ship, Cates picks up right where he left off last issue building team dynamics and giving our protagonists and authentic and believable sense of urgency for their mission. They are the good guys and—while obviously imperfect and in some cases (Peter) massively reluctant—they are going to spend this run guarding the damned galaxy. That’s all just good comic book-ing, generally speaking. What really makes this run feel compelling to me is the idea of a new Thanos rising. In the hands of a lesser writer, I’d be relatively ambivalent to this development, withholding judgement to see what they do with what’s mostly a solid idea. Cates, however, has proven himself to be a master of surprise twists during his short-time at Marvel, generally landing bits of misdirection that feel organic, earned, and impossible to predict. There’s every reason to believe he’ll do the same, which in addition to the stellar storytelling is all the reason I need to have this book near the top of my stack every month.  

Overall: This third chapter of our story blends the grandiosity from the debut issue with the character-driven storytelling of the second to elevate this run to absolute must-read status. One of the best books at Marvel this side of Immortal Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy is a must-read. 9.5/10

Guardians of the Galaxy #3
Writer:
Donny Cates
Artist: Geoff Shaw
Colorist: Marte Gracia
Letterer: VC’s Cory Petit
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $3.99

Read our reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy #1 and Guardians of the Galaxy #2!

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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: Monstress #21 is the best issue yet of one of comics’ top series

Monstress #21 is out 3/20/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — Since it first launched in the fall of 2015, Monstress has established itself as one of the best and most interesting things happening in American monthly comics. The book’s debut issue—Monstress #1—was a fully-realized and extended affair that seemed to promise complex thematic interests and vast storytelling potential. It delivered to us an angry and compelling protagonist, a world in which nearly everything works against her, and a hybrid of science-fiction/fantasy/mythological potpourri rendered in exquisite detail by Sana Takeda.

Monstress #1 played like an action movie, a revenge story in which the oppressed discovers a deep and violent power within her and wields it in the service of violent and angry survival. It could have maybe been a one-shot and still left a major impression. It, of course, wasn’t, and the story went on to plunge protagonist Maika Halfwolf into a traditional fantasy journey, replete with challenges, new friends that might also be enemies, triumphs, setbacks, revelations, and more.

The book has been a powerhouse ever since, going on to win industry-wide recognition at this past year’s Eisner Awards held at San Diego Comic Con. What I, for one, didn’t realize when I watched it finally get part of its due was that this comic was yet to peak, that the narrative was, perhaps, just then preparing to ramp up into its endgame and take readers to a more dramatic, entertaining and immersive place than any of its nearly 20 issues had in the past. What we get in Monstress #21, essentially, is a clear statement that we as an audience—to be a bit crass—haven’t seen shit yet.

Simply put, this most recent issue of Monstress is absolutely packed with graphic sequential storytelling goodness. It starts on the first page with a steamy dream-like sequence in a decadent bed chamber that segues into a frenemy’s machinations against our hero. It’s a tantalizing scene in more ways than one that seems to promise future interesting complications. From there I could single out any number of other scenes to praise and describe, but instead I’ll focus on some of the broader strokes that make this issue feel so packed and consequential.

From the start of this story Maika’s relationship to her deceased mother has loomed large, influencing her actions as well as the world around her. What we get in this chapter now is the arrival of her other parent, her father, whom she doubts and questions from the start. The man is steeped in shades of gray, which serves the plot and the character’s feelings toward him quite well. He works to exert control over her while acting crass and a bit removed throughout. Writer Marjorie Liu absolutely nails this sequence, writing some of the best dialogue in comics all year, dialogue that hints at a well of complexity behind all that’s happening.

The comic then bounces to the grandiose, giving Takeda the chance to render a vast force making preparations for way, as well as a host of new characters that show up fully-formed, at once giving Maika an opportunity to learn more about her father and his forces, while also laying down a swaggering display of her own knowledge and power. I am absolutely in awe of the narrative structure of this comic, the way it packs so many high quality and disparate beats into these 20 or so pages. It’s really stunning stuff, a nice reminder of why we read monthly comics.   

Overall: One of the best issues of Monstress yet, this is the type of comic that at once reminds why you fell in love with this series while also stoking excitement for events that are to come. Just fantastic work all around. 9.8/10

Monstress #21
Writer:
Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics asBatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: Criminal #3, a comic for people really into comics

Criminal #3 is out 3/20/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — This new run of Criminal is, without question, a comics fan’s comic. The book’s writer, Ed Brubaker, was recently on John Siuntres Word Balloon podcast discussing how part of his goal with it is to create a series that begs to be read monthly. Through three issues, Brubaker and long-time collaborator artist Sean Phillips have certainly done that. Criminal #1 was a tour de force in graphic serial storytelling, with an extended length that enabled the team to tell a rewarding and complete story, while at the same time seeding ideas for subsequent issues to follow up.

Criminal #2 subsequently saw an abrupt shift to a different time and a different set of characters than the first issue (though the protagonist should be well familiar to readers of previous volumes of this anthology comic). Criminal #3 is now the second part of an arc started in the preceding issue. This structure for the trio of opening issues firmly bucks the recent trend throughout comics of writing distinct four-five-six-issue arcs that are perfectly suited to be compiled in a trade paperback. Bucking that trend does exactly what Brubaker discussed on that podcast: it gives comics buyers a pressing reason to pick up the book each month. I know I have been.

The second reason that Criminal #3 firmly entrenches this book as a comics fan’s comic is that it occupies the same thematic ground as Criminal #2. In this two-part arc, a surly and deeply unpleasant veteran/semi-legendary comicbook artist is bent on recovering some artwork he tells his apprentice has wrongly been taken from him. There are twists, to be sure, and I won’t go into them here, but I will say that there are a plentiful number of nods to industry insiders, long-time fans, and comicbook historians. It all adds up to an immersive and quisi meta reading experience.

This issue is also a bold one. Brubaker and Phillips have an all-time great writer-artist alchemy, and they’ve had it for years. They don’t rock that boat here by trying anything structurally experimental or thematically edgy. What they do, however, is take a read of the current comics landscape and come back with somewhat of a defiant statement within the context of an expertly-told and very organic story. What I mean is that like all of us who way way waaaay into the world of comics, they’ve been hearing the gloom and doom of mercurial sales numbers and voices predicting the end of everything from paper comics to the direct market to superhero stories that span eight continuous decades.

They’ve clearly heard it all, and rather than writing an opinion column or going on a podcast—things we’ve seen and heard veteran creators, retailers and industry watchers do ad nauseum—they have an actual story stand as a refutation. Hell, at one point the curmudgeonly artist who’s seen it all even comes out and says Comics have been dying since 1954, kid...don’t let that stop you...  

Hearing that reassurance related to the medium I love in the context of a story that shows what it’s capable of had a different and much more poignant impact on me. It seemed to be encouraging, not only for me as a review/aspiring creator, but for the continuing existence of stories of any type in the face of a changing economic reality. It seemed to say that the security in exchange for stories has never been a given, has never been an easy thing to achieve, and yet art has been made anway. If you want to do this, do it. The rest will figure itself out, for better or worse.

Overall: Criminal #3, like the rest of Brubaker and Phillips’ latest series, is a real comics fan’s comic, filled with insider touches and meta commentary, all encased within the duo’s all-time great creative chemistry. This book is a must-read, every damn month. 9.6/10

Criminal #3
Writer:
Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

Get a refresher on the other volumes of Criminal!

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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.  

REVIEW: Lazarus Risen #1, same fantastic comic, new deeper format

Lazarus Risen #1 is out 3/20/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — I really don’t think it’s possible to heap enough praise atop writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark’s immersive dystopian near-future comic epic, Lazarus. I recently re-read the entire series, and once I got about mid-way through the second volume, I almost literally could not put it down. The world is so well-built, the characters compelling and complex, the dilemmas they face suspenseful. All in all, this is one of the smartest and most compulsively readable comics on the market, a must-read for any fan of the medium.

To date, there have been 28 issues of Lazarus in the main series, plus a six-issue auxiliary series titled Lazarus: X+66, which fills in the gaps of side characters and the story’s broader world over the course of a 12-month period. All told, that’s about 34 incredible issues of content, plus some other supplemental material with more information that help support a Lazarus RPG. This is all a means of saying that even though Lazarus: Risen #1 is a a new #1 issue, it’s set in a thoroughly explored world during what seems like not-quite the midway point of a long story.

The reason this issue gets the new #1 treatment is that the book is back with a new format: quarterly releases that clock in at an extended length. Let me start this review (three paragraphs in, streamlined I am not) by noting that the story, artwork, plot, and characters are just as strong as ever. The quality in Lazarus never wavers, not even a little bit. Rucka and Lark are a skilled and veteran team that have worked together for years, and it shows. This is the most fully-formed comic on the market—bar none—and as a result it often feels like the creative team is a conduit for the truth of this plot. Nothing is ever contrived, not even a bit, and Lazarus Risen #1 is no exception. It’s as compulsive readable and utterly immersive as all that’s come before it.

So, what then of the new format? Surely, it must have changed something. I suppose it did. Rucka and Lark being such a veteran creative team means each issue of Lazarus to date has tread that rarefied ground in which the individual chapters feel both episodic and part of a larger narrative. Each issue has story beats and damn near close to a three-act structure. Extending the length allows the team to pace the story just a tiny bit differently, opening up a few pages for quieter and more subtle character work and plotting. Rucka points this out in publication, but in this issue that means we get a very telling moment between Bethany Carlyle and and her husband. It’s the type of scene that maybe didn’t fit into any of the tighter issues of the past.

This issue hums along, and Lazarus remains the type of comic you start, blink, and realize you’ve devoured...before going back to pour over every page again. Few comics feel as real as this one, and Lazarus Risen #1 does a number of interesting things with the ongoing plot and characters, moving pieces into place that speak of a larger coming battle, at home and with the forces abroad. It’s not really a jumping on point for new readers—indeed, the previous five volumes at minimum are necessary here—before for those who have followed this journey in recent time or come to it lately, this comic is everything they could hope for from a return.   

Overall: Lazarus Risen #1 with its new extended format feels like a natural evolution of one of the best comics on the market today. At this point, the world is so well-realized and the plot so compelling, nothing is lost with a longer wait and much is gained with more space for additional complexity. 9.8/10

Lazarus Risen #1
Writer:
Greg Rucka
Artist: Michael Lark w/Tyler Boss
Colorist: Santi Arcas
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $7.99

Get caught up on the book with our Lazarus Retrospective!

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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: Ascender #1 is a fascinating realignment of the world from Descender

Ascender #1 is slated for release 4/24/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — Ascender #1 is an odd comic, in that it feels like both a vague continuation of a previous story (Descender, to be exact), and a wholly new beginning that’s not beholden to anything that’s come before. I don’t mean any of that as a criticism. To the contrary, I think it’s all to the book’s credit. Allow me to explain...in the current market, it’s not at all uncommon for books to cease for a few months, giving the trade time to come out and the artist a time buffer with which to get ahead. Sometimes, these books come back following time jumps or new status quos or major cliffhangers.

What we get in Ascender, however, is a total aesthetic realignment. Whereas Descender (which wrapped up with Descender #32 in July) was a hard sci-fi book with a focus on robotics and an almost-believable bend, Ascender is a foray into dragons and magic and all things fantasy. It’s still firmly within the genre fiction category, but in many ways its gone to the complete other side of the spectrum, trading its science for whimsy.

And the effect is a freeing one! At least as it applies to series artist Dustin Nguyen, who in this book is drawing his 33rd issue within the Descender/Ascender world. Nguyen’s artwork in Descender was forlorn and moody set of visuals, using its dull watercolor palette to often blur the lines between where reality ended and the existential fever dream began. His visuals—as much as Jeff Lemire’s plotting—often begged the question about where the robotic intelligence stopped and where the human soul began. It was a highly philosophical story stowed within the trappings of a space opera, one as likely to ask what makes an individual distinct as it was to throw a robot with drills for hands into a coliseum fight for its survival.   

Ascender #1 doesn’t really pick up on the question of humanity versus simulated humanity that so thoroughly drove the previous volume of this story, at least it doesn’t seem to yet. That’s not to say it will never return to that issue. There are certainly hints of it. First and foremost though, what’s happening in this new world (10 years past the events of the previous story) is a technological purge driven by monsters and magic. There are new powers, new villains, new status quos. I won’t go into them—this is an advanced review and we’re nothing here if not wary of spoilers—but I will again return to the idea of freedom. Both Lemire’s script and Nguyen’s visual execution feel liberated, and that’s a very good thing for our story.

If I had to guess, I’d wager this ends up being a story of extremes and balance. With Descender, a case was maybe made against extreme reliance upon robots and AI and the trappings of technology. It’s still very early—in the interest of symmetry, I’m guessing Ascender may also run for #32 issues)—but I could see this book as a warning against turning entirely away from tech to embrace folklore, mythology, and ideas rooted in the sensational. I’m just guessing, but there’s maybe a larger point there—shifting the genre within this story has opened a wide range of new possibilities.  

Overall: As Descender was to hard sci-fi, Ascender is to high fantasy, although traces of the past story remain. Most importantly, though, this realignment seems to have instilled writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen with a new sense of creative freedom, and I’m excited to see what they do with it. 8.5/10

Ascender #1
Writer:
Jeff Lemire
Artist:
Dustin Nguyen
Letterer: Steve Wands
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99
Release Date: April 24, 2019

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: Age of Conan - Belit, Queen of the Black Coast #1

Belit, Queen of the Black Coast #1 is due out 3/13/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — I was into this book from the moment Marvel unveiled the creative team. I’ve written a lot on here about how much I enjoy Tini Howard’s work, be it in creator-owned series like Euthanauts or work-for-hire gigs like the recent Captain America Annual. So, having Howard’s name on a book—even for a franchise like Conan that, to be perfectly frank, I have a baseline of disinterest in—makes me pay attention. With this new Age of Conan: Belit, Queen of the Black Coast miniseries, however, it was artist Kate Niemcyzk’s name that pushed my interest to the next level.

Niemczyk, to my mind, is a really underrated visual storyteller, bringing clean linework, a pleasant density of visual gags and other touches, and ability to handle complex concepts as they apply to page composition. I’ve enjoyed her style quite a bit on past work, especially Marvel’s Mockingbird comic from a few years back (talk about underrated). With this Belit book, I was curious to see how artwork so clean and energetic would apply to the inherent savagery of the Conan the Barbarian world.

Indeed, of the three titles to launch in this line so far, this comic is the least photorealistic and most cartoony, which is not a bad thing. It really serves the main character well: a young girl whose father’s past sins cause him to be beaten and marooned on a sandbar right in front of her. There is an innocence and idealism at the start of this tale that both the writer and artist (colored here by the absolutely essential Jason Keith) convey perfectly...right up to the point where the plot forces Belit to take action in a way that loses a bit of her innocence with sacrificing any of her determination or power.

Following this action (you’ll have to read to learn the exact nature), the artwork seems to shift ever so slightly, especially the colors, taking our story to a bit darker place as the action on the page accelerates to accompany the journey. This is not a dark comic though, even with some of the early travails the protagonist goes through. It’s actually probably the ray of light in the new Conan line.

What emerges through the course of this debut issue is a picture of a series that aspires to be a pure high seas adventure in bygone times, one with a strong (and young) female protagonist. This is a fun read for season comics fans, but, more importantly, I think it’s a comic that once collected has a real potential to extend the Conan line to younger readers. It strikes a balance between immersive realism and out-sized fantasy that I think the best comics of the All New, All Different Marvel relaunch also found a few years back. It’s tricky ground to tread, and I’m excited to follow this series from start to finish as the creators pull it off.

Overall: The most vibrant and kinetic book of the new Conan the Barbarian line, Belit, Queen of the Black Coast #1 does a great job creating high stakes that feel serious while also building a tone perfect for pirate adventure. 8.5/10

Age of Conan: Belit, Queen of the Black Coast #1 (of 5)
Writer:
Tini Howard
Artist: Kate Niemczyk
Colorist: Jason Keith
Letterer: VC’s Travis Lanham
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics asBatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1 hints at new mythos for Kamala Khan’s story

The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1 is out 3/13/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — For the first time in the character’s young life, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel has a new writer. Indeed, since the new Ms. Marvel’s solo series launched back in February 14, writer G. Willow Wilson has been a constant in her adventures. Under Wilson’s creative guidance, Ms. Marvel has run for nearly five years and many issues, earning critical acclaim and racking up tons of sales, especially in the bookstore and book fair market with young readers.

I’ve been there all the way, because to my mind Kamala Khan is the purest update on the concept of the teen superhero first pioneered by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Amazing Fantasy #15 with the creation of Peter Parker, essentially the first kid superhero that wasn’t a sidekick, or at least the first that captivated fans and became successful (the Billy Batson Captain Marvel/Shazam! aside). Kamala Khan’s adventures as Ms. Marvel to me in the Wilson era always felt like the first millennial superhero, essentially written for us and by us with a nuanced understanding of the world we lived in and the challenges we faced.

In his first issue as Ms. Marvel’s new writer, Saladin Ahmed essentially commits to maintaining that status for Kamala while at the same time building in an evolved sense of scale, mythos and grandiosity. This issue has an interesting framing structure, in which a pair of alien beings—identified only as being from another world somewhere in the far future—are discussing Kamala, with a little girl in bed listening as a father tells her stories of the Destined One. What Ahmed does right from the start of this new book—facilitated with detailed and vibrant artwork from the team of artist Minkyu Jung, inker Juan Vlasco, and colorist Ian Herring—is give Kamala and increased sense of relevance, not just to the folks near her in Jersey City but to the entire world, potentially even the entire galaxy.

As millennials begin to inherit the world in the wake of mass baby boomer retirement, it’s a fitting development for this now five-year-old arc. Kamala will, of course, remain young in the comics (these heroes always should and do) even as her position within the broader zeitgeist ages, and Ahmed understands this as well. Even as she becomes the Destined One to some folks far away and well in the future, her exploits at home remain mostly driven by her interpersonal relationships with her parents and best friends.   

In the end, what we get from The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1 is a new run that feels both familiar and novel. The interactions between Kamala and her parents feel as if they’ve been culled directly from Wilson’s now-ended run, while the framing device is Ahmed signaling an intent to also try something wholly new. It is, as far as I’m concerned, exactly what this character needed as she ages a little and presumably takes another step toward her inevitable destiny as a character in big budget Marvel Studios filmed. It’s no coincidence this book is coming out now, just days after Carol Danvers and Captain Marvel stormed the box office.

Overall: The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1 is a new run that feels both familiar and novel. The interactions between Kamala and her parents feel as if they’ve been culled directly from Wilson’s now-ended run, while the framing device is Ahmed signaling an intent to also try something wholly new. 9.0/10

The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1
Writer:
Saladin Ahmed
Artist: Minkyu Jung
Inker: Juan Vlasco
Colorist: Ian Herring
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: Calamity Kate #1 is one smooth debut

Calamity Kate #1 is out 3/13/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — Calamity Kate #1—from Magdalene Visaggio, Corin Howell, Valentina Pinto, and Zakk Saam—has a fantastic first page. You’ll see it should you decide to read this comic (which, I think you should), and you may have already seen it in previews, but I still want to take a moment to talk about how much I liked it here. The creative team does an excellent job pulling the audience’s gaze down through a set of five page-spanning horizontal panels, each one of which unveils a new detail about the titular heroine, Calamity Kate.

It gets the always tricky business of info dumping out of the way in a quick burst, in a way that doesn’t bog down its narrative once it gets going while still telling us most everything we need to know about our character, where she’s at now, and what she seems to want out of life. We learn she’s leaving alone, she’s been eating takeout, her dark apartment is covered in posters of monsters, she was married, she’s been divorced, she has swords, she has a leather jacket. Then at the very bottom, we get her mind state: I’m not dead, far from it.

By page three she’s jumping, teeth gritted and sword drawn at a giant monster, we know pretty much everything we need to be oriented as an audience, and the only reasonable reaction becomes, hell yes, let’s do this!

The intro was perhaps what stood out to me most, but the rest of the comic goes on to be great too. Between this book and Morning in America, writer Magdalene Visaggio continues to make a strong case that she’s one of the best (and most complex) dialogue writers in comics right now. When her characters talk to each other, there’s always a sense that what’s being communicated is a great deal more than what’s being literally said. You can feel strains in friendships, complex histories, and tiny agendas. It makes for well-realized characters and tons of additive interactions.

And it’s not always about the interactions. Sometimes the lines crackle with interesting juxtapositions (this one jumped out at me, I packed up, left my job, left my apartment, and drove west in an old continental and started hunting monsters). Another bit of very solid writing here is how the emphasis of the plot stays on Kate’s emotions. The opening was about her loneliness, first and foremost, with the book (wisely) waiting a bit longer to establish that she’s a famous monster hunter in a world where monsters have become a too-common disaster, not unlike wild fires or mass shootings. It’s a bold move, and it pays off excellently, grounding a genre story in the feelings of real people (my favorite).

Corin Howell, the artist for the series, is also having an ascendent year as a creator, having drawn other notable books like Girl in the Bay and Dark Red. On Calamity Kate, Howell is joined by colorist Valentina Pinto, and the result is what in my opinion is her best artwork yet. The lines are clean and sharp as all get out, and the visuals oscillate seamlessly from anguished quiet moments of honesty to a woman combating scaly drooling creatures with a katana. It all slows super well, and the flourishes really pop, driving the action and big emotional beats in equal parts.

Overall: A really well-done first issue, Calamity Kate is a tight and well-told story with a solid concept and great characters. Come for the famous monster-hunter living in Encino premise, but stay for the quiet look at honesty, friendship, and feeling alone. 9.0/10

Calamity Kate #1
Writer:
Magdalene Visaggio
Artist:
Corin Howell
Colorist: Valentina Pinto
Letterer: Zakk Saam
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: Assassin Nation #1 has a character named F*ck Tarkington

Assassin Nation #1 is due out 3/13/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — If you skipped the headline of this piece for some reason, please read it now and report back, because I think it tells you a lot. Assassin Nation #1 is a new comic by writer Kyle Starks, artist Erica Henderson, and letterer Deron Bennett. And, yes, it stars a character named F*ck Tarkington.

It’s a simple bit (and diving into here is definitely not going to win me any awards as a critic of high art, which whatever), but it really sums up the tone of this book. Assassin Nation is clever and self-aware and willing to pretty much anything to entertain. Like the characters in its pages working as hit men, it’s locked in on its target: creating a great experience for the reader. And it certainly does that. This is one of those comics you start reading and then come out on the other end however many minutes later surprised that such a fun, immersive story has a last page.  

So yes, I really liked it, which is maybe not that big of a surprise, given that I’ve been a fan of most all of Kyle Starks’ earlier work, from Sex Castle to Rock Candy Mountain to his recent collaboration with Chris Schweizer, Mars Attacks. And when this book was first announced as having artist Erica Henderson (award-winning illustrator of Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl), I clonked myself on the head for not noticing how well their sensibilities might fit together earlier (that’s right, clonked).

The premise of this book is excellently simple: the head of the second biggest crime family around and a former assassin known as Chekhov’s Gun (because when you see him you know someone’s going to get shot) is now being targeted for assassination. So what does he do? Hires a whole bunch of other assassins to protect him. Hi-jinx (and chingos of gun battles) ensue. The whole affair is handle with such a deft and entertaining sensibility. One of the first pages in this comic, for example, is a reference of all the assassins (including Tarkington, F*ck) and a power ranking, I guess of their deadliness. I like that kind of stuff, and find it to be a wonderful example of something that works best in the graphic sequential medium.

The whole book is just loaded with great one-liners, terrific visual gags, and kinetic action. I’m hesitant to go into specifics any further, because there are surprises and I’d hate to let the air out of any more specific jokes. Basically, this comic gets a strong recommendation from me, and you should all check it out.

Overall: Like the characters in its pages working as hit men, Assassin Nation #1 is locked in on its target: showing its audience a great time. This is one of those comics you start reading before suddenly finding yourself surprised that it had to end. 9.5/10

Assassin Nation #1
Writer:
Kyle Starks
Artist: Erica Henderson
Letterer: Deron Bennett
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

ADVANCED REVIEW: Could the vampire comic Dark Red #1 have the smartest things to say about a divided America?

Dark Red #1 is out 3/20/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — Dark Red—perhaps because of its name—is somewhat being billed as a political comic, a vampire thrown into the middle of rural Trump America, and to some extent, it’s definitely that. It starts off with the hero of this story working the all-night shift in a gas station. Chip is getting close to quitting time, which is high stakes for him seeing as he has to get home by sun up. This is (of course) complicated by a couple of drunks, rowdy truck drivers, one who rants like a right wing troll on Twitter and another who wets himself and forces Chip to clean it up.

Our story is off to the races from there, focusing heavily on Chip, his lifestyle, and the misery of living in a dying small town. The worst case scenario for a comic like this is that it becomes an exercise in one-sided, look how dumb and small and hateful and problematic these people are, a narrative that makes a good number of its characters part of some us vs. them cultural conflict. Dark Red gets close at times but doesn’t entirely do that.

Aside from the one truck driver at the start, the handful of characters we do see in this first issue are well-realized people motivated by simple things: the manager who wants the job done, the other truck driver who is embarrassed he couldn’t get to the bathroom in time, the woman who has a rare disease that makes her generate too much blood, thereby putting her at risk for clots and making her a great friend for a vampire. As a result, the central conflict of this comic is not so much us vs. them (a narrative you can find plenty of places these days, often well-executed and poignant), as it is man vs. the place he’s stuck living. That’s a really important distinction.

There’s a lot of setup that has to be done in this first issue, and so we only get a hint of it. It is, however, tantalizing. It occurred to me while reading this comic that we haven’t really had a defining story of what it feels like to be a good person from small town America, at least not since things like the changing economy, globalization, and the opioid crisis rendered those places thoroughly desolate and hardscrabble. Most great books, films, comics, songs...you name it...that take on the big city vs. small town divide are from other eras, casting it as a question of excitement vs. boredom, a matter of mostly deliberate choice. Sometimes it has to do with opportunity, but these days that whole conflict has perhaps evolved into something more severe, becoming a question of survival.

And what better hero to have for a story about survival than a schlubby vampire who works in a convenience store, lives in a trailer, and needs human blood to get by? Okay, maybe there is a better character than that, but this is comics, a medium built upon genre extremes, and in that context, I can’t really think of one better. Chip the truck stop vampire is a guy who lives in rural America because the city is too much for him, too intimidating, and he has a passable thing figured out here. There’s some real potential in that. Writer Tim Seely, artist Corin Howell, and letterer Marshall Dillon have hit on a concept that might just use vampires to deliver thought-provoking nuance (I know how that sounds but stick with me…).

In Dark Red #1, they work hard to set that up amid the normal debut issue trappings, the interesting opening and enticing cliffhanger. The real success of the book, obviously, will hinge on what they do later on via the execution. I don’t envy the inherent challenge this concept invites. It’s audacious, to be sure, but fortune favors the bold, in creativity as in many things in life, and from the start, a comic about a vampire in deep red America has been a pretty bold undertaking.

Overall: Dark Red #1 delivers a bold concept and a promising setup. It’s not as political of a comic as its title or cover suggests, with a subtlety of concern likely to be welcome to some readers. I’ll stick with it, because if a vampire comic ends up having the smartest things to say about American in 2019, there’s no way I’m missing that. 8.0/10

Dark Red #1
Writer:
Tim Seely
Artist: Corin Howell
Letterer: Marshall Dillon
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Price: $3.99
Release Date: March 20, 2019

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.