And the autumn just keeps gathering steam, which for those on the East Coast of the USA is beginning to feel like a build toward New York Comic Con where announcements are already being teased and big creators are shuffling around their portfolio in new configurations for the coming year. This week we have the debut of the much anticipated Sex Criminals, the return of Tom Strong, a shift in gears for The Wake, and debuts for Rat Queens and Super!. It's a challenge to keep up, especially if your mind's still buzzing with reactions to last night's premier of Agents of SHIELD. I'm here at Conquest Comics reviewing live on some of the books that have caught or maintained my attention this week before I turn my attention to the indie books stacking up from recent shows like Small Press Expo.
Sex Criminals from, Image Comics, has a back cover that reads "For Mature Readers DUH. Don't sell this to a kid. What are you, nutsy? Seriously". That's both funny and refreshing. I just hope people turn the book over at the register, but it is pretty fair warning. The livid pink cover is going to attract attention on the rack, and that's probably the goal, but it's also the whole pink year we've been having in cutting edge comics. Matt Fraction writes and Chip Zdarsky is on art in this book that definitely starts by making a strong impression. There's an interesting shift between crisp inking around colors on the first page in traditional panel grid and a full page spread of our narrator's liason washed in fuzzy lighting and pastels. That kind of contrast helps establish the pacing of the book which flips between perceptions for the female narrator in a similar way. The relative "seriousness" of the narrative, particularly the origin story give the reader something to build the story around, an anchor that works, and as even the narrator says, "the sex and the jokes are coming. Hang on".
The psychological angles in the book are another plus: this is strong writing and confirms what Fraction can do with a spare style. At times the "normal and shitty" world of the comic established by Zdarksky feels like a page out of a Hernandez brothers book both in style and in female characterization, and that's not a bad thing. There's a strong theme in the book about lack of communication about sex that argues, in a way, for the book itself's honesty. For the most part, it doesn't feel like an adventure story or a story about secret powers, but there's more on the horizon. Kudos to Fraction and Zdarksky for giving an opening issue room to breathe, establish its main concerns and visual language before trying to entertain on any other level. One thing is certain: this is a very different book and does stand out as much as its hot pink cover seems to indicate. Read it if you want an insider story about confusion, isolation, and, of course, sex.
Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril #3 (of 6),continuing at Vertigo, has a stellar cover this week in gold, bringing to mind some of the early Tom Strong issues with its ancient culture themes, and it's also an excellent pulp film poster in its own right. Tom and his team encounter a "null zone" while searching for the cause of Terra Obscura's current mayhem which enables the introduction of several "past" characters to add to the scope of the book including John Lone Eagle and George Chance. Since the last issue had an Edgar Allen Poe plague theme, this is quite a change up in keeping with the episodic homage typical of Tom Strong stories that make each issue a wild adventure all its own.
Pyramids, gods, and the ever-present science-hero theme of the connection between technology and magic take things at home in the Tom Strong universe and build on them, reminding readers that these are the Tom Strong stories that could be told, and should be, in such an expansive framework. Having said that, this is one of the most baroque Tom Strong stories ever told since wandering through a "null zone" containing seemingly endless cultural elements in mash-up and characters who are parallel beings to Tom Strong's own world feels like a trip inside Strong's own psyche. The mystery deepens on Terra Obscura, and keeps the pace rolling on the mini-series well. It's unpredictable, it's energetic, and as readers have come to expect from the team up of Peter Hogan writing, Chris Sprouse penciling, and Karl Story inking, and Jordie Bellaire on colors, it's lavishly rendered. It'll remind you why you like Tom Strong in the first place, which is a pretty solid argument for the existence of this series and the return of the do-good pulp hero.
Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy return with issue #4 of The Wake, one of Vertigo's strongest titles among several compelling series right now. Previously established are the dynamic combination of angular, active lines from Murphy and the unique, mood-creating colors of Matt Hollingsworth. We jump into the past context of the series again for more answers in issue #4, 100,000 years to be exact in a disturbing clash of ancient and modern. Presenting an unwritten history of the world in this way brings the fan-favorite series Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday to mind, and not without good cause. Like Planetary, The Wake allows you to follow key characters further into the "strange" and the view can be simply stunning. As cetologist Lee Archer and other survivors of the catastrophe on their underwater research platform attempt to make good their escape, they are confronted with an even bigger underwater nightmare than they could have previously imagined and information becomes the key to strategizing their own survival, and perhaps the survival of humanity.
Snyder and Murphy create some of the claustrophobia and a intensity more often expected from major feature sci-fi films, but the fact that they manage this atmosphere through careful, punchy layouts and nuanced psychological reactions from characters demonstrates that you don't have to be in a movie theatre for a fully immersive experience. Issue #4 has some big reveals from historical parallels to scientific principles at work, and doles out just enough information to add to the mythology that keeps the series on track in balance with its often driving pace. As the fourth of ten issues, this shows strong awareness of pace for a full arc delivered in single-issue format. This is turning into a story about personal apocalypses with big implications for humankind, and that's an epic scale suggested, and now gradually confirmed by the series. Keep reading because the final stature of this book is likely to be a sum even greater than its parts.
From Image this week, the new series Rat Queens, by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch drops you firmly into the realm of strange fantasy, politics, and of course semi-medieval violence. A female team in a city of rival gangs, amusing dialogue bordering on abusive banter, and a light touch on exposition are all attractive qualities that suggest this is a series that's going to find a fan-base. So far, the artwork by Roc Upchurch, including colors, is going to sell following the story further. It's a vivid issue, with an interesting choice to offset popping purples and turquoise tones with autumnal, earthy hues that set the story apart from other fantasy comics. We'll need further characterization, and a bigger delineation of rival groups before the bigger threats revealed in the issue take on a more sinister scope. But as a taster of things to come, a snapshot of what we can expect from further issues, it's got serious potential waiting to be fulfilled. Because the book establishes plenty of leeway in establishing the rules of its universe, future issues are likely to be a pleasant clash of fantasy traditions with what could be an edgy sense of humor. Stay tuned for more Rat Queens.
Unlikely Heroes Studio presents a thick 52-page entry into the world of new series Super!, with a team of writers and artists including Zachary Dolan, Everardo Orozco, Justin Piatt, Tara Kappel, and Estela Yanez. The book arises from a successful Kickstarter campaign, and features an off-beat dialogue with superhero traditions and hero team books. If you want your superheroes to be liberated from the kid-friendly censorial eye of the Big Two, this is the place to start. It's replete with plenty of foul language from female central character Blitz of the type that most of us use in daily life, so it is refreshing to hear a hero sounding off like a flesh-and-blood person under fire. There's plenty of hero tradition self-aware humor, particularly in the presentation of villains that admits the ways in which superheroes are their own kind of glam camp, but the basic frameworks that are necessary to make a hero story work are pragmatically kept in tact, like secret identity changeovers, a relative newbie hero in Blitz encountering a hero "superstar" and aspiring to team status to shake off some of the less glamorous aspects of her isolated struggle. The artwork has its own accent, which can be a challenge when taking up superhero traditions, and so far that accent seems to be a willingness to use heavy text more typical of indie tradition, tightly packed pages of essential content, a certain metallic sheen to its colors, and a combination of humor and rage in facial expressions and action that suits the dialogue well. Read a few pages of Super, not just the first couple, too see if what is really a mini graphic novel in issue #1 strikes a note with you. You'll pick up some new ideas for entertaining profanity in the venture.
That's all from me this week reporting Live From The Comic Shop. It's a week full of the new, fresh, and strange, but that is definitely "keeping it strange" in comics and introducing some fresh blood into the mainstream. One of the most recognizable things this week is the versatility in art styles that's making it onto the racks and that alone is an exciting thing leaving you with plenty to sample. That makes for happy reading.
Special thanks to Conquest Comics in New Jersey. You can find their Facebook page here. They are currently dominating POP vinyl collectibles with their White Phoenix exclusive and now have their Metallic Harley Quinn exclusive in stock.
Hannah Means-Shannon is senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.