Book Of The Week – SAGA #1
For once this review column is part of a trend instead of bucking it; it is a forgivable sin as this trend is one rewarding quality. SAGA is Brian K. Vaughan’s first major return to writing monthly comic books since EX MACHINA ended at WildStorm years ago, published by Image Comics. Fiona Staples is the co-creator and artist for this creator owned series and this debut issue offers a lesson for the “big two” publishers – 40 pages of story with zero ads for $2.99 cover price. Surely, if a small “third party” company like Image and non-millionaire creators like Vaughan and Staples can afford to offer this sort of debut issue without someone or some corporation going bankrupt, it isn’t impossible for it to happen more often at Marvel or DC, right? At any rate, Ifanboy has summed up this premise as “Romeo & Juliet meets STAR WARS”, and that is as simple a way to describe this pitch as any. A more accurate way is that it is a space opera, which means there are a myriad of other planets and alien species introduced within these pages. Many debut issues suffer from feeling like “part one of six” because there isn’t enough story to properly flesh out the characters and dynamics being introduced, but this one doesn’t because of the high page count.
The set up is simple, but is executed beautifully. Marko and Alana are two members of two warring species within the same solar system, who have run off to have a daughter on a backwater planet named Cleave. Alana is a member of a winged aristocratic and militaristic people on the massive world of Landfall; Marko hails from a more mystically inclined horned people on the moon of Wreath. There also seem to be a robotic race of people with monitors for heads who appear to take orders from the Landfallian elite. Both of them are considered fugitives, and the fact that both of them have bred constitutes a crime for both planets’ social elite. Thus, the two of them have lived a life on the run, which has become more complicated that they’ve given birth to a mixed species daughter named Hazel – who serves as the narrator for the series. Alana is the more aggressive one on the surface, even if she washed out of the military for “cowardice”, while Marko is more passive and reflective, who has promised to never use his sword again – which means he will when it is dramatic enough. They’re natural outcasts of both of their people who have found harmony with each other – a message which is neither rare or blunt in comic books these days, but one which is as old as fiction. The characters also gain a map and must go on a quest, which are fantasy plot staples which are just as old.
Staples’ artwork is exceptional; she does her own inks and colors as well. The narration by Hazel is done in shorthand versus in a typed “narration box”, which makes it feel more organic – much as Charles Schultz used to do with written letters in his PEANUTS script. Within this issue alone there are no end of interesting character designs as well as quite a few different sets to allow Staples to draw different environments for the characters. The reason for why this series is best as a creator owned jam at Image is evident from the dialogue and the panels – Vaughan isn’t shy about occasional non-censored curses, and there is no shyness about a bare breast to breast-feed or even a sex scene at one point. None of it feels obligatory or shameless, because it isn’t embellished or drawn in such a way that it seems exploitative.
I’ve long been a fan of Brian K. Vaughan’s work at Marvel Comics, although I have often been late to the party on his other works. I didn’t catch Y: THE LAST MAN or EX MACHINA when they started at WildStorm, nor even I even catch RUNAWAYS when it originally started – I caught up via digests when the second volume started. The only works by Vaughan I caught when they were fresh were the LOGAN mini series and his run on ULTIMATE X-MEN after Mark Millar left (the last “good” run on ULTIMATE X-MEN). When SAGA hit the stands, I decided this time I wouldn’t be the last to try it out, and I was well rewarded. As a writer from “LOST”, Vaughan doesn’t have to write comics to earn a living; he chooses to because he enjoys the medium. Much like his prior creator owned series, SAGA will likely be a finite series, although it could still run strong for five years or so. While this series lacks the innovative “hooks” which were more common in the premises for Y: THE LAST MAN (the literal last man on earth) or EX MACHINA (an ex-superhero turned mayor), the execution of the concept in the first issue alone encourages the reader to return for more. The value for the price in pages alone is worth notice, and the quality of the debut issue itself should suffice for most to return for more. Expect this to be reprinted at least one by Image Comics based on buzz alone, and hopefully it continues to forge an example of exceptional sci-fi comics.
FANTASTIC FOUR #604 – It was announced a week ago that Jonathan Hickman would be leaving both FANTASTIC FOUR and FF at some point later this year, and this issue makes that seem readily apparent. Subplots that Hickman has set up for the franchise since the DARK REIGN: FANTASTIC FOUR mini series from 2009 come to a proper conclusion here. The Cliff’s Notes version is that Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic created “The Bridge” which allowed him to explore alternate realities to find solutions to all the problems of the world. The gadget proved dangerous to the rest of the Four, but Reed utilized it against the wishes of Sue to meet a council of counterparts who saved (or controlled) entire universes. This ultimately sparked a war across various species and even galaxies within the pages of FF and FANTASTIC FOUR which came to a head when a group of rogue Celestials – Jack Kirby created “space gods” – got in the middle of a fight between the Kree, Inhumans, and Johnny Storm’s Annihilation Wave (he rules the Negative Zone now) and wanted to blast everyone. Reed’s time traveling father Nathanial Richards has returned to try to starve off this attack, but he has always failed across various time-lines. Most of this issue has the cast of the series as well as other superheroes watching a future version of Reed’s reality altering son Franklin take on the Celestials himself. In the end, “our” Reed ultimately chose to turn away from the council to be with his family – choosing them over “solving everything” – and this issue showcases why that was the best choice of all. The moral is that choosing to focus on one’s loved ones above ambition is a good one, and the closing pages tie into the first pages of Hickman’s run on this series back in 2010. Steve Epting continues to produce some exceptional artwork, even if it does become hard to tell the difference between Val, Future Val, and Sue Richards without relying on height and costume design; Paul Mounts also continues with his exceptional color work. In a way it feels as if Hickman’s narrative has ended here, but he will continue on the book to tie up loose ends until his successor is chosen. While his run has been marred by decompression as well as too much focus on certain characters over others, he has expanded the franchise and developed dozens of high concept ideas, characters, and dynamics that the subsequent writer will gain a book stronger than it was before.
SCARLET SPIDER #3 – Writer Chris Yost and artist Ryan Stegman (with two inkers and colorists in tow) continue to steer this second spin-off title to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN within twelve months into exceptional waters. In fact, the only hiccup seems to be that the villain from the previous issue is named in the recap page this month and not in the prior story itself (http://nextooze.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-2-8-12-is-aqua-romita-better-than-coors-lite-review). He is officially named Salamander, by the way – but not naming certain characters on panel is an error Robert Kirkman often makes in INVINCIBLE, so it in itself isn’t a major problem. At any rate, original Spider-Man clone Kaine has moved to Houston, Texas, and stumbled into being their first local superhero. He’s taken in Aracely, an illegal immigrant who was the soul survivor of a human trafficking enterprise which Salamander was involved. Kaine’s currently living in a high end hotel using cash he stole from the criminals behind the aforementioned trafficking crime, and has quickly stumbled into more supporting cast members such as Annabelle the hotel bartender and Donald, Aracely’s doctor (and husband to a policeman). It seems a skeleton from Donald’s past has come to roost, and now Kaine has to protect him and everyone around him from the Assassin’s Guild. Most people know them best as side characters from Gambit’s back story – a rival guild from his youth which include Remy’s estranged wife as their leader. The often paranoid Kaine has often been fearful of enemies from his past tracking him, and the Assassin’s Guild are one of them who now threaten his new home before it has even begun. Yost has quickly excelled in setting up a new change of venue for Kaine as well as a supporting cast in fewer issues than other writers, and the angle in which Kaine attempts to go through the motions of being a superhero while everyone else thinks he’s a genuine one is fascinating. Stegman’s artwork is crisp and breathes life into the action scenes, with dynamic color work as well. Above all, it is great that Houston is established as a different city from the ever present Manhattan without relying on outdated stereotypes revolving around cowboys or Indians. In terms of sales, SCARLET SPIDER #1 at the start of the year debuted selling 53,410 copies, which doesn’t include two reprints which the letter column bragged about. Last month, the second issue sold 33,749 copies and will reportedly see a reprint as well. This is a drop of over 25%, which isn’t terrific but also similar to the second issue of DEFENDERS. With Marvel being willing to cancel titles that still sell within the Top 100 comic list such as X-23, the audience will need to get stable quickly for this series to last a year in this rough market. Hopefully it does, as much like VENOM, SCARLET SPIDER has risen above many spin-offs and offered readers something new, rather than the same character in a different title (such as AVENGING SPIDER-MAN). While this series may not please fans who desire the return of Ben Reilly, it is far better than those who dismissed it as a 90’s rehash believed.
Also Good Reads: Battle Scars #5, Captain America #9 & X-Men Legacy #263 (Marvel Comics)
Last Week’s Comic Book Reviews – http://nextooze.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-3-7-12-never-borrow-a-book-from-dr-strange-review