REVIEW: House Amok #1 by Christopher Sebela, Shawn McManus, Lee Loughridge, & Aditya Bidikar

House Amok #1 is available Aug. 29, 2018.

By Zack Quaintance — Simply put, writer Christopher Sebela is on fire, rolling out some of the most compelling creator-owned books in all of comics with a nigh-unparalleled range of themes, concepts, and genres. His summer started with the historic high seas/frontier revenge story Shanghai Red, continued with the satirical late-model-capitalist nightmare Crowded, and culminates now with the morbid reality-bending familial murder story, House Amok.

House Amok pulls the difficult double duty of orienting the reader with traces of recognizable tropes while mercilessly pushing into original circumstances as its story demands. Our leads are the Sandifers, a dysfunctional family the exact likes of which I’ve never seen, not in any medium, made unique not by the macabre violence they’re perpetrating—horrifying as it is, it has been done—but rather their justifications. That’s what makes this story so urgent and vital. Not only do the Sandifer parents utterly believe in some contorted and bloody logic, they’ve made it a matter of survival for themselves, their oldest son, and their younger fraternal twin girls, our protagonists.

It’s this decision that makes House Amok so compelling on essentially two separate fronts: first as a story of depravity and survival, and second as a tale of precocious innocents trying to parse the truth of their parents' dysfunctions. While there is little universality in the horror elements within House Amok, it’s this feeling of having to forge a world view from within the imperfect lens provided by one's parents that most (if not all) readers will relate to, hard. I could even see the story broadening into a look at shared delirium among certain segments of society. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing where Sebela and team take this narrative potential. 

From a craft perspective, House Amok is impeccable, as have been all the books from IDW's Black Crown imprint. Shawn McManus is a confident and veteran artist, and it shows in his linework, which conveys deep terrors from within a mundane childhood framework, and Lee Loughridge contributes much with a standout set of muted palettes and fitting color tones.

House Amok’s greatest strength, however, is the voice of its narration, which guides readers through the madcap reality-skewing imagery of this story with an orienting calm, poetic and assuring in a way that made my brain tingle. The twist at House Amok’s end is fittingly subdued, yet the unexpected nature of it is such that it ranks as one of the most chilling cliffhangers I’ve read in a #1 issue all year. Closing though: Egad, did I love this comic.

Overall — House Amok is a comic so rich and immersive that its ending will ambush you, leaving you demanding the second issue. It’s a childhood horror story that raises questions about fears, realities, innocence, and shared delusions. It is, quite simply, yet another must-read title from IDW’s Black Crown. 9.5/10

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

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

REVIEW: Leviathan #1 by John Layman, Nick Pitarra, & Michael Garland

Artist Nick Pitarra definitely draws one of the better Kaiju in recent memory.

By Zack Quaintance — Leviathan #1 is one of those ultra-polished books you can tell is the work of a veteran creative team, one that’s having a damn good time, too. This comic was written by John Layman (perhaps best known for Chew) and drawn by Nick Pitarra, a frequent collaborator of high-concept sci-fi writer Jonathan Hickman. This book is the first of a five-part series, and I’d describe its first issue as a well-executed madcap romp (albeit one that doesn’t come without a toll).

What’s most impressive about Leviathan #1 is how efficiently Layman, Pitarra, and colorist Michael Garland handle the storytelling basics. The book orients us with a confident, almost-stern narration, introducing us to our hero. They quickly make him relatable by showing us he’s a good host who threw a party in which some unsavory guests drank too much beer (we’ve all been there), and they let us know what he cares about most—his would-be fiance Vee. Then they put her in grave danger (a bit of a damsel in distress thing, but, not to worry, without spoiling anything I’ll just say she has some agency). This leaves us as an audience oriented, vested, and incredibly curious as to how our hero will respond.

Now, this is so far a pretty straightforward concept for a comic book, and so it’s also to the credit of its creators that story beats are made so entertaining. Layman’s voice here is smart and self-aware, funny in a meta way that also does work for the story. Our characters know what kaijus are (as any pop culture aficionado would), so much so that the creative team doesn’t need to explain where the titular Leviathan came from or why (not at the start, anyway). They can just write a few funny quips about how it found its way into a cooling tube of a nuclear power plant, or some sh*t, and we’re right back to the action.

Pitarra’s artwork and Garland’s colors are also quite impressive. There is an impressive level of detail lent to the backgrounds, cityscapes, and the monster, and he tweaks his style to be a bit cartoonish with the human form, one that sets an inherently looser tone that lets readers know crazy things can and will happens. Basically, the artwork in this book is rich to look at and also guided by some great choices.

This first issue (of five) seems to hint that there’s more to it than just being a monster story, and so we’ll have to wait until next month for a better idea of the scope.

Overall: In the end notes, the creative makes readers a promise...we guarantee every issue we’re gonna grab you by the throat and throttle you with insane nonstop action until your brains dribble out your ears. ...I’m not really up for all of that (ewwww), but I definitely liked this comic enough to come back for more. 8.5/10

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

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

ADVANCED REVIEW: Unnatural #1 by Mirka Andolfo

Look carefully and you may miss the pig features, likely a deliberate blurring of perception by artist/writer Mirka Andolfo.

Look carefully and you may miss the pig features, likely a deliberate blurring of perception by artist/writer Mirka Andolfo.

By Zack QuaintanceUnnatural #1 has intrigued me since it was announced. The first sentence of its summary reads: Leslie is a simple pig girl. She loves sushi, she's stuck with a job she hates, and she lives under a brutal totalitarian government—one that punishes transgressors for anything deemed "unnatural." Meanwhile, its cover features said pig girl in a state of undress. Look quickly, and you almost miss the pig, so faint are the animal touches. See what I mean? Intriguing.

That aside, I didn’t know what to expect from this, first of a 12-part story originally published in writer/artist Mirka Andolfo’s native Italy. It is, however, pretty straightforward. Unnatural #1 is essentially an exploration of government interfering with sex and freedom. Andolfo has cited George Orwell’s novels as inspiration, which certainly shows. Indeed, a simplistic and reductive pitch for this book could be: Animal Farm meets 1984 with a dose of 2018 sexual politics.

The result, though, is a comic of the highest order. I loved Unnatural #1, from the artwork to the capital B Big ideas beneath it. This first issue is a joy, both entertaining and filled with smart questions. There’s a central metaphor here conjures images of governmental decisions on birth control, abortion, same-sex marriage...all of which are recent or ongoing.

This is, perhaps, part of why Unnatural works so well on an intellectual level. There has been tension between government and its constituents in this area likely back to the dawn of civilization, and Unnatural extrapolates what could happen if that tension tipped too far toward one side (in this story it’s a prurient interest in further reproduction among the same species).

Unnatural #1  does a wonderful job using relatable character moments to deliver its complex questions and central metaphor.

Unnatural #1 does a wonderful job using relatable character moments to deliver its complex questions and central metaphor.

Past the Big ideas, however, the book is well-done and engaging, devoting time to relatable character moments—a love of sushi, a disdain for rain, banter between roommates—while checking standard first issue boxes: world-building, character names, cliffhanger ending, etc. As for the art, Andolfo’s work is sexy, reductive as that sounds. It isolates notions of beauty—steely blue eyes, voluptuousness, confident smirks—and telegraphs them onto anthropomorphic figures, giving the animals desirability, if only for a moment. Andolfo has said she doesn’t like drawing humans, and her choice to go anthropomorphic may be simple as that, but I suspect blurring lust lines between species was a deliberate means of depicting inherently fuzzy lines of sexual attraction.

I only took issue with one panel in this book. A lot of comics do a wonderful job of subtly building a central conceit without explicitly stating it—before going ahead and stating it anyway. One famous example is The Walking Dead, with a full-page early on wherein protagonist Rick Grimes yells something like, Don’t you see? WE are the walking dead? There’s a similar panel in Unnatural, though not as grievous. Really, it’s a small compliant in an otherwise stellar comic.

Overall: This is a captivating book, at once smart, poignant, and stylish. Andolfo clearly has strong thoughts about the intersection of sex and government, but she also knows well that those thoughts are best served by first and foremost telling an entertaining story. As a result, Unnatural #1 is not to be missed. 9.5/10

Unnatural #1 comes out July 4, 2018.

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

ADVANCED REVIEW: Euthanauts #1 by Tini Howard, Nick Robles, & Aditya Bidikar

Euthanauts #1  is an intriguing comic that lives up to its incredible cover art.

Euthanauts #1 is an intriguing comic that lives up to its incredible cover art.

Tini Howard and Nick Robles’ Euthanuats #1 first caught my attention weeks ago with its title and cover. In tandem, the two evoke thoughts of a woman journeying through death, body withered to bones as her head and mind are protected by a glass bauble, one that glows with life and attracts insects like a light bulb. My interest was bolstered further by the books presence on IDW’s imprint, Black Crown, from former long-time Vertigo editor Shelly Bond. I’ve enjoyed all Black Crown offerings (more here), but it was another book by Howard that really stood out to me: Assassinistas, a collaboration with the legendary Gilbert Hernandez that applies complex modern family dynamics to an archetypal femme fatale death squad.

Whereas Assassinistas is more of a character study, one laced with appropriate bits of humor and modest bouts of action, Euthanuats is better-described as an abstract and surreal walk through our fears, expectations and attitudes around death. Our protagonist is an alienated receptionist who works in a funeral home and is dissatisfied with her life and friendships. For the first two-thirds of the book, the story grounds us in this struggle, functioning well as a slice-of-life comic.

Howard’s characterization is strong, with effective interior monologue lines like, “I was thinking about how weird it is that I don’t like my friends and they don’t really like me—when I first saw her…”, as well as snappy character banter, such as, “It’s like, communism works just fine, you just have to really, really likeable.” Robles art is also wonderful, detailed and realistic, glazed over with a fitting color palette that manages to be forlorn without tipping into morbid or noir.

Nick Robles' art in  Euthanauts #1  depicts a non-conventional side of death.

Nick Robles' art in Euthanauts #1 depicts a non-conventional side of death.

It is, however, the plot point that catapults us into the third act that really establishes this book as something special. Not to give too much away, but reality blurs into a world of ethereal surrealism, seemingly a realm of death, or near death. It's unclear, and the book makes a wise decision to keep readers disoriented. I’ve been reading comics for two decades and change, and as such I’ve seen an excessive number of visual depictions of death, limbo, the afterlife, etc. I’ve rarely seen one as intriguing as in Euthanuats, which I take as a testament to both the imagination and research that went into this story.

This has already been a fantastic year for comics as unfettered explorations of nigh-universal fears, concerns, or hang ups (see Eternity Girl, Mister Miracle, and several inward-facing horror books), but Euthanauts charges headlong at the most towering concern of all—death—and emerges with a fascinating and beautifully-told story. I barely have a guess for where this book is headed next, and I love that.

Overall: Engrossing and complex, Euthanauts is the best book yet from former Vertigo editor Shelly Bond’s new IDW imprint, Black Crown. Howard’s script dives confidentiality into a universal concern—death—as Robles' ethereal visuals blur reality. An intriguing and gorgeous comic, this one is highly recommended. 9.0/10

Euthanauts #1 is out July 18. Learn more about it here!

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

REVIEW: Wasted Space #2 by Michael Moreci, Hayden Sherman, Jason Wordie, & Jim Campbell

Wasted Space #2 cover by Marguerite Sauvage

Wasted Space #2 cover by Marguerite Sauvage

Michael Moreci and Hayden Sherman’s Wasted Space #2 brings more of its central protagonists’ backstories into focus, putting the duo at a bar, getting them drunk, and having them share tales of mutual prescience. One of these characters—Billy Bane—acts as a stand-in for the audience, voicing a question inherent to the first issue, namely how legit are the future-predicting/God-seeing powers that are in play here? He then posits that his abilities may be a product of his own insanity.

As a result, I’m not sure whether we learn if Billy’s powers are legit, not just yet, but I think the structural choice is a solid one for this second issue, one that lets readers know Moreci is aware of what they’re wondering and also that they can trust him to deliver a satisfying payoff eventually. So, I’m very much with all of that. Another choice I enjoyed in this issue was Moreci continuing to pose capital B Big, sweeping questions about humanity, specifically asking whether the species is doomed to forever war and jockey for position because that’s what it took to get us to the top of the evolutionary chain.

Without giving anything specific away, one of the plot developments here also seems to make a statement about political extremism, specifically about the merits of having a predictable and intact system versus moving toward anarchy by forcing norms and structure to die and crumble. It’s the best kind of surprise twist, at once thrilling and meaningful.

Hayden Sherman is establishing himself as one of the best sci-fi artists in comics.

Hayden Sherman is establishing himself as one of the best sci-fi artists in comics.

And this is all heady stuff, especially considering the thematic and philosophical weight introduced in the first book, which basically opened with a drug dealer arguing that the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus—fated to forever push a boulder up a hill that just rolled back down again later—actually had a great life free of confusing distractions and filled with focus. Oh, and the first issue also took a David Foster Wallace-esque stance on escapism, painting it as the author did in his opus Infinite Jest as at once incredibly dangerous but also possibly mankind’s natural and necessary state.

There are a lot of massive ideas here, so many that this story falls a bit into a common trap of second issues, lacking action in parts as it dispenses exposition left out of the previous issue. Sherman and Wordie’s art, however, makes the flashbacks and contemplations visually engaging, so much so that Sherman again furthers his case as one of the premiere sci-fi artists in all of comics (shout out to his other ongoing book, Cold War), both in terms of his technology and cityscapes.

Overall: This issue sought to meet a huge bar set by its predecessor, which as I wrote in my Wasted Space #1 review did an incredible job balancing action and ideas. The second issue falls just short of the first, but it’s still fantastic, doing the difficult yet necessary work of familiarizing us with our leads. I will for sure get wasted again next month. 8.5/10

Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.