Tuesday, May 3, 2016

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Ultraman Volumes 1 & 2 by Tomohiro Shimoguchi and Eiichi Shimizu

Ultraman Volumes 1 & 2
Written by Tomohiro Shimoguchi
Illustrated by Eiichi Shimizu
Published by Viz

I know we're all being sold a billion different "new" or reimagined versions of every single thing we ever loved, as well as everything we slightly remember due to those early morning sleep deprivation experiments that were Saturday Morning Cartoons.  And because they know we loved that stuff so much there are now unintelligible live-action Transformers movies, semi-animated Scooby-Doo films, and The Real Housewives of Gilligan's Island.  It's a minefield.

I get it. I understand.  I'm one of you too.  Someone who craves all the new things I didn't even know I was missing out on, someone who despises the very idea of new ideas coming in second place.

But not everything is aiming to suckerpunch you right in the nostalgia.  There are few things that are simply amazing and deserving of our attention.  Naoki Urasawa's retelling of Astroboy in his Pluto manga immediately jumps out to me as a great example of why it's a good idea to make that initial leap sometimes.  Knowing that kind of work is possible and out there under the guise of a reworked older property made it all the easier to pick up Ultraman Volume 1 by Shimoguchi and Shimizu.

I have lots of fond memories of watching the old Ultraman television show when I was a kid, but I honestly don't remember much about the whole mythos.  I remember he got big, fought kaiju, and had some sweet kung fu laser beam action.  And with that, I've already told you more than you need to know to enjoy this first volume, which will take those foggy memories (if you have them) and pull you right back in to a world where giant robot dudes fight surprisingly sneaky giant reptile kaiju. I don't believe this will disappoint anyone who might be on the fence.

Shimizu's line work is incredible, dynamic, and it lends itself really well to black and white. There are scenes in these first two volumes reminiscent of some of the biggest action-oriented science fiction manga series I've ever read. This isn't on the same level with Domu or even Blame!, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. Shimoguchi also has a nice mystery going so far in regards to the origins of Ultraman, the main character's origin, and the previous adventures of the earlier Ultraman which makes the decision to keep coming back a no brainier for me.

In lesser hands this book could be a silly Power Rangers nonsensical mess, but that is not what this is. This is the good stuff.

So if Saturday morning serials have a fond place in your heart, if "your" Godzilla is a guy in a rubber suit, or if you're just in the mood for some giant monster Kung fu action, this is worth picking up and diving in to.

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All-Ages or Small-Ages #5 (Princeless by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin)

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the  Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

Princeless is a series that has been in my peripheral vision for quite some time. It’s sold as an alternate, inverted take on the classic “Princess in a Castle” narrative, taking all of the classic archetypes and locking them away in the towers that they love so much. Adrienne has grown up questioning everything that she sees, but has taken particular issue with the need for her to spend years of her life waiting for a prince to come and rescue her. From the offset, this is an unconventional story that deconstructs those famous negative tropes with the aim of creating a protagonist that everyone, not only young girls, can relate to.

There’s a certain self-referential nature from the very first page that sells the astuteness of this series to an older audience. Princess Adrienne casually, but emphatically, points out all of the plot holes and inherent issues with locking someone away in a tall tower that everyone can easily see. However, it’s important to note that it’s not done in an over-the-top and derisive manner, but is instead presented in the way that it should be: nobody should be forced into gender and class roles that they don’t wish to be in.

Adrienne is gutsy and outspoken, but doesn’t cross that line into grating in the way that so many characters aimed at a younger audience can. Back in All-Ages or Small-Ages #2, I said that I couldn’t form a significant connection with a point-of-view character so much younger than me; after reading this volume, I've realised that could not be further from the truth. At times, we all wish we could decide to throw away our expectations and live the life that we truly wish we could. Not only does our protagonist decide to take the initiative in her own life, she does so in a way that allows the greatest amount of empathetic catharsis. It’s wish fulfillment in its purest form and everybody can get on board.

For the most part, Adrienne exists in vacuum. We get flashes around to parallel pieces of narrative, but they only tangentially tie in. Eventually though, characters start to appear more regularly and she develops a supporting cast; what a supporting cast it is. While she has members of her family to both antagonise and ally with, the person that I want to talk about is the blacksmith’s daughter, Bedelia. Her energy comes from a similar source of breaking from the mould, but there’s a contagious enthusiasm to her that you can’t help but catch, even as an adult. Helped in part by the luminescence of the art, she’s sure to be a fan-favourite going forward.

Goodwin has a style that could be classified as cartoon-adjacent due to its dynamic positioning and exaggeration of facial expressions. However, there’s also a certain realism to it that helps connect to these otherwise fantastical characters. The attention to detail on the design of all of the armour and backdrops is laudable and it allows you to pinpoint specific components of a character that you adore. One particular favourite of mine is the design of the dragon, Sparky; there’s a dichotomous practicality and silliness to the design of the armour that works extraordinarily well. Bringing it all together with bright and colourful clothing, Goodwin has created a world that feels not only lived-in, but well-worn.

Part of the styling of the work that allows it to feel so kinetic is the dramatic positioning of the panel camera. Goodwin skews perspective to support the narrative in a shrewd way that drives certain members of the cast into certain roles in the reader’s mind. The younger portion of the audience can fear the apperances of the king and applaud when the dragon flies in, but the way that the layouts are used to drive this home is something that everyone can appreciate. Whenever the king is demonstrating his power, the camera tilts upwards and places his magnificent stature into full view. He’s unquestionably both the antagonist and the villain of this series and I appreciate that the art presents this to you in a way other than shrowding him in mysterious shadow.

With all of the fantastic things that I’ve heard about this series, I had very little doubt that it wasn’t going to come up as a overall positive. Breaking down all of those old stories that young girls love, telling them that they don’t need to fall into those defined roles, is both admirable and downright clever. However, that’s definitely not where the appeal ends. These are stories that can serve as hyperbolic representations of events that everyone faces in their everyday lives and I, for one, couldn’t label this series as anything other than “All-Ages”. I may be late to the party with this one, but I can’t wait to discover what else Action Lab have in this repertoire.

Let me know if there's a comic that you think I should be checking out. I'm always on the look-out for some more hidden All-Ages gold. Contact me at mark@thegreengorcrow.com!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

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The Hero: Book One by David Rubin.

The Hero: Book One
Written and Illustrated by David Rubin. 
Translated into English and reprinted by Dark Horse Comics 

David Rubin has crafted something so fresh and unique out of such an incredibly old tale that it just shouldn't be possible--not to mention as much fun as it is to experience.  The Hero: Book One is here nonetheless, and it deserves to be recognized as the fantastic work that it is.

Rubin's art stands out to me from just about everything else on the shelf, with bold lines, bright colors, and boundless energy. Honestly, the cartooning in this book is some of my personal favorite of all time. When I sit around the house procrastinating/daydreaming about being an artist, even my daydreamed art isn't as wonderful as the work Rubin is putting down. 

I know he was tapped by Paul Pope to be a contributor for the continuation of his Battling Boy world of books, and a lot of comic readers are already familiar with his work, but unfortunately I haven't gotten around to reading those yet and so I was sort of unprepared for the artistic assault that this book contained. His lines are clean but brushed boldly giving it a sense of awe and depth in those lines.  If forced,  I simply couldn't find a page in this particular work that wasn't gorgeous. The book is also immaculately designed and begins the story of our protagonist on the very first endpaper with an illustration of Heracles still in utero, his destiny still in flux, and gives you the feeling that Rubin just cannot wait to get the story started. 

Book one opens with the destiny of Heracles and Eurystheus being foretold. One of them is destined to be a sadistic tyrant, and while the other will be destined to be a hero of great renown, he will also be forced to be the servant of the tyrant. The consequences of Heracles not obeying Eurystheus are shown early on as he's hit from on high with a lightning bolt for seemingly only contemplating disobedience. 

Just as Rubin's art style rides the line between dark and light, the story he is reimagining and his portrayal of the characters does the same.  Eurystheus is portrayed as a murderous and demented sociopath but one who is himself being manipulated by the gods, maybe so much that he is incapable of being any other way. Heracles is shown as a natural hero, thinking of the problems of others before himself, but unable to be as effective as he could be due to his bond to Eurystheus. 

Rubin doesn't hit you over the head with the themes he's exploring, but they are there: What it means to be a hero, free will vs. destiny, faith in higher powers, and how being fated to be a hero is a lot like being cursed in how the Heracles story pans out. 

The setting for the story is classical and modern in the same breath, a retro punk retelling of Greek Gods in modern day clothing advertisements. A world where Cell phones, airplanes, computers, and motorcycles all exist in the same world as the Greek pantheon. Whether we are being told a story of ancient Greece with modern technologies or some strange modern era that is home to an actual pantheon of gods is left up to our interpretation. 

There's also a risqué cameo from a certain Amazon that is NSFW and graphic depictions of violence but given the source material I don't think anyone should be shocked. 

The only thing that struck me as a little bit odd was Rubin's portrayal of Poseidon, who looks like a muppet Cthulhu via Futurama instead of the way he's been illustrated every other time I've ever seen. But it's a fun scene and still manages to match the overall style of the book.  You can tell the creator has a deep appreciation of the classic myths but he isn't letting those old tales tie his hands. He's still able to weave beats of humor and surprise into what could easily be referred to as a tired tale. 

This book was so much fun to read it seemed to fly by in seconds  and I honestly can't wait to read it again or to dive into Book Two. So the only warning any reader really needs is to try not to cut your fingers on those pages while you're racing to the back cover.  

Stay calm. 
Don't panic. 
Heracles is the hero you need to read. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

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All-Ages or Small-Ages #4 (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic by Katie Cook, Andy Price and Heather Breckel)

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the  Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

My Little Pony is a franchise that has gathered quite a reputation in most online communities. You hear that consuming it as an adult is a sign of mental immaturity, but you also hear that it contains a bunch of surprisingly astute cultural references. A Comixology sale on all-ages comics last month included the first volume of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and I decided that it was time I took the plunge into the world of luminescent colours. This first volume contains four issues that connect together to make a continuous arc: the troupe of ponies head on an adventure through the deep forest, into the dark and doom-filled valley, to rescue a few of the younger members of their herd from the villainous Queen Chrysalis.

While that plot may sound relatively straightforward and mundane, it grows into so much more than that. This is one of the most relentlessly insane series that I think I’ve ever read. Once the main plot gets going at the end of the first issue, it’s a non-stop express train right into the heart of madness. If you try to resist it, it’ll grate on you so quickly; it’s best to turn into the skid and just enjoy it. If the TV series is at all similar, this is the core quality that will make you decide if this is something for you. Katie Cook does not hold back with the speed and quantity of her jokes and it makes the book unrepentant in its silliness and attempts to make you laugh.

During the introductory chapter, the exposition needed to set up the world for people unfamiliar with it creates a very dry beginning. Each member of the cast has a brief moment where their name is revealed and they demonstrate their abilities or defining characteristics; it draws direct parallels to those classic Danger Room openings to Claremont’s X-Men. When the story eventually gets going, it’s not the most complex of plots, but, honestly, it’s not trying to be. There’s an inherent innocence to this franchise, making it follow cartoon logic in the most expected way; there’s never any doubt that all of the characters are going to be alright in the end.

There’s such a large cast of core characters that there’s guaranteed to be one that you latch onto. As much as I can’t believe I’m about to write this sentence, Pinkie Pie is definitely my favourite of the bunch. She epitomises the enthusiasm and unrivaled ability to make leaps in logic that makes this series what it is. There’s a definite element of repetition in the humour that Cook relies on; once you’ve seen a character’s shtick, that’s what it’s always going to be and you have to put up with it. That’s not a component of Cook’s writing but of the franchise itself. There’s never any true change in children’s cartoons and that’s part of what makes them work so well.

When you look at a piece of My Little Pony art, there’s no doubt as to what you’re looking at. Andy Price has captured the essence of what the franchise has always looked like and is definitively working within that house style. He maintains a level of animation in the faces of each cast member that makes you forget for a second that you’re looking at a static image. His use of layouts plays up those quick zooms and cuts that you get in television cartoons, mirroring the continuous push of more madness and more quirkiness in the dialogue. There isn’t really anything about the art that could possibly turn you off; if you don’t appreciate the style of the story, then the art isn’t going to do anything to assuage you.

It would be impossible to talk about this franchise without mentioning its vibrant colours provided by the talented Heather Breckel. Beyond the unquestionable dollop of deep pink on the opening pages, I appreciate that each pony is given their own unique colour theme. While I understand that this has not been created specifically for this series, it allows the reader to easily identify each member of the cast from a distance, even if you don’t actually know their name. One component that worked really well at elevating the depth of the series was the colouring of the backgrounds; they added a certain sense of movement to the closer zooms that kept the blank backdrops from feeling superfluous to the overall story.

A lot of media that has been created for a younger audience often finds a viewership in an older section of the populace. Although I don’t need my narratives to be hard-hitting and consequential, it’s far easier to appreciate something that approaches storytelling in a new and creative way. However, this is something that this volume of My Little Pony lacks. This might be a statement that you look at with blatant disregard that it was ever in doubt, but it’s difficult to truly judge something until you’ve read it for yourself. A series that is as fundamentally weird as this one loses that ability to become something more substantial; that’s not an inherently bad characteristic, but it stops this series from growing.

There’s a strong chance that you’re going to read through this series and think that it falls into the category of throwing a bunch of random things at the reader and hoping something sticks. Honestly, you wouldn’t be too far from the mark. Humour is a very subjective thing and there’s a really high chance that this kind of thing isn’t going to work for you. If you’re looking for something to read through incredulously that doesn’t take itself too seriously, this is unquestionably the book for you. However, if you need some substance in your fiction, then that is honestly something that this hasn’t really got much of. Personally, I found this to be a volume that was charming and humourous in spades, but isn’t really something that I’m going to want to read again. Your mileage may vary, but this is something that only young fans are going to appreciate at the level that it was intended.

Let me know if there's a comic that you think I should be checking out. I'm always on the look-out for some more hidden All-Ages gold. Contact me at mark@thegreengorcrow.com!

Monday, April 25, 2016

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Support the Art of Inking and Vote in the Inkwell Awards

It's once again time to vote in the Inkwell Awards, which are given out each year to promote and support the art of inking. Run by Bob Almond and a host of volunteers, the Inkwell Awards keep the idea of inking in the public eye, both by hosting the award, appearing at conventions (with a spokesmodel, Ms. Inkwell), and posting about inking and inkers throughout the year on their site and via social media.

One of the things I really like about the Inkwell Awards is that it's open to anyone. From their FAQ listing:
Anyone can vote.  You can be a professional in the industry (creator, distributor, retailer, editor, publisher, etc.) or simply a fan.  You are only allowed one vote as the ballot rejects duplicated IP addresses. The ballot is set up to require a vote in every category. If you need reference for ink artists because you are not familiar with a nominee you can refer to our inker database for assistance. If there are any ink artists on the Inkwell Core Committee or the NomCom they are not eligible for nomination. Hall of Fame winners can only receive one trophy ever. 
Each year, they use a committee to place people into their Hall of Fame. That part is done by a committee, to ensure it's not a popularity contest. This year's finalists are:

            Dan Adkins
            John Beatty
            Ernie (Chua) Chan
            Frank Giacoia
            Bob McLeod
            Jerry Ordway
            Josef Rubinstein

I'm probably a bit biased, but if I were in one of the chairs, I'd be going for Ordway, whose ink lines make anyone look amazing.

The ballot itself is small, with only a few awards given. My only issue is that there is definitely a bias towards Marvel/DC work. Certainly, that's where we do see a lot of pencil/ink combos, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of inkers working at Image, to say nothing of those doing ink work on webcomics or self-published projects. I'd like to see the categories open up a bit more in the future, and I'm sure, with time and support, that Mr. Almond and the rest of those who work at the Inkwell Awards would, too.

Why does inking matter? Well, that's a planned post for me that I'd like to do, but here's a sample of how much difference an inker makes. These are from this year's "Joe Sinnott Inking Challenge" in which inkers from all over do their work over breakdowns by Sinnott, of the greats of the Bronze Age of Comics.

Inks by Ian Chase Nichols

Inks by Mark McKenna

Look at the differences, based on the same image! It's a very stark contrast. The Inkwell folks posted a bunch of these over this past year, and I've loved seeing how varied they were.

If you agree that inking is important, then head over to the Inkwell Awards and vote now. Voting ends April 30th, so you need to act fast. As an aside, the first page lists the HoF noms, then has the link to the actual ballot at the bottom. And definitely check out the Inkwell Awards site and all of its rich information relating to the art of inking!
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4 Kids Walk Into a Bank #1 [Advance Review]

4 Kids Walk Into a Bank #1
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art and Design by Tyler Boss
Color Flatting from Claire Dezutti
Wallpaper Design by Courtney Menard
Lettered by Thomas Mauer
Published by Black Mask Studios

4 Kids Walk Into a Bank (let's go with 4 kids, for short) is the kind of debut that I want from a series. It's an issue that grabs you from the very beginning and doesn't let go. It's a book full of ideas and fun and personality, and it's a book that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve while creating something visually hilarious and compelling.  It's setting up to be a teen coming-of-age crime caper with an assortment of memorable characters, along with other elements that are a clear homage to the films of Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese. Writer Matthew Rosenberg, illustrator/designer Tyler Boss and the whole art and design team have crafted something that feels instantly cinematic, memorable, and timeless. I loved this first issue.

4 Kids not surprisingly concerns four (distinctive, memorable) kids who over the course of the first issue, go from playing Dungeons and Dragons to getting involved with some unsavory characters, and becoming aware of some sort of criminal activity.  I don't want to spoil any more of the plot points--it's worth experiencing for yourself. Rosenberg does great work here on story; he's clearly very good at writing funny comics. He previously cowrote We Can Never Go Home which was a story of super powered teens on the run set in the 80's (I loved it, review here).

In some ways, this book feels like something of a spiritual successor to that book. The kids here are younger than the teens at the center of We Can Never Go Home, but this story has the same sort of irreverent, witty, low-rent, lived-in ethos as that earlier series.  There's a lot of great dialogue in this issue, and Rosenberg captures a broad range of emotions in this comic, from fear and anger to hostility to love and compassion.

I've previously seen work by Tyler Boss but this might be the first comic I've seen him wholly illustrate, and I'm here to tell you that he's a serious talent. This is funny, confident, skilled art. Boss does lines and colors (with flatting assistance from Claire Dezutti). He has his own distinctive style, but his work reminded me of Wes Craig (something in the facial expressions of the characters that are comic and exaggerated but not overly "cartoony"), David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth on Hawkeye (in the clean but sophisticated panel layout, the relatively low-rent setting and the terrifically worn-in color look of the book which I'll discuss more below), and even a little bit of Chris Ware (in the character design and the almost diagrammatic look of some of the panels).

Boss captures human expression really well here, and although the character designs are somewhat exaggerated they never feel anything other than like real people, as the art captures each character's personality. Boss does terrific panel design layout in this issue, with each page having a completely different panel layout, and panels that shift in focus from widescreen to overhead to close-up on particular objects that have (or will have) importance in the story. As shown in the above and below panels, he finds a way to incorporate Hokusai's The Great Wave into the story itself as part f the action, and then part of the background; that's thoughtful illustration. This work shows a great partnership between writing and illustration, such as in several different many-paneled pages showing nothing but sharp, sometimes mean, quick witted dialogue between different characters.  I'm a big fan of sequences of panels that repeat the same images with different dialogue (this was done well in Alex + Ada, one of my favorite series of recent years); this can be often used to great comedic (or other) effect, as it is here, particularly on a 2-page sequences with 24 panels on each page.    

4 Kids isn't specific about the time in which its set, but everything about the book, from the cars, to the physical locations, to the lack of things like cell phones, to (importantly) the slightly faded character of the coloring, gives this book a distinctly "analog" feel. That it's not totally specific gives the book a great, timeless quality. That worn, lived-in sense (like you're just discovering a universe that's always been there) that the coloring provides is only one example on this book of the ways in which thoughtful, inviting design can really help sell a comic and put the reader in a great frame of mind for enjoying the issue.

To be clear, this is a fun, terrific book and I was going to enjoy it regardless. However, the design and layout here did a lot to raise my enjoyment to another level. First, the cover looks like a stylish, vintage movie poster. The book then opens with a title and credits page, and the chosen font bears a distinct resemblance to the one used by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, and the wallpaper background from Courtney Menard (which cleverly shows up later in the comic) calls to mind a Wes Anderson movie. This is a comic that proudly wears its influences on its sleeves. The next page of the book also begins with a quote that's another homage, this time to Goodfellas. Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas? The creative team here knows its audience demographics, as they've already won me over before the story has even started.

Continuing the point that great design makes a great comic, this issue features clever lettering from Thomas Mauer. In particular there are a few places where the lettering accompanying a particular action is a description of the action as opposed to a sound effect such as when a kid throws up soda at a tense moment, the sound effect is "Fanta". Additionally, as shown in the below page, the listing of skills and abilities (and point levels) for the real characters on the story is something that takes the humor of the earlier pages and brings it forward. Those boxes are cleverly done in the same way as the earlier pages, which described each persons' D&D character. Clever lettering like that adds richness to the story.

4 Kids #1 is one of my favorite issues of 2016 so far. It's full of dark humor, heart, and creative energy, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

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Graphic Nonfiction: Keith Knight Talks About Prince's 1999

We here at Panel Patter are saddened by the death of Prince, a simply amazing creator of music, but also one of the best cosplayers of all time:

While Prince's obvious comics connection is splitting music duties with Denny Elfman for the first Michael Keaton Batman film, he obviously influenced so many people with his music. Keith Knight is just one of the many people talking about their feelings regarding Prince.

Knight, who we featured last year talking about Stevie Wonder, once again looks at one particular album from a musical icon. Here's his discussion of Prince's 1999 album.

A sample from the feature shows Knight's style when talking nonfiction in his comics. He likes to center an image, and put the boxes around it, guiding the reader across the page. There's a bit more reliance on words than images, but the advantage is keeping things from getting cramped:

You can read the entire post here.

Rest in peace, Prince, and thanks for all the music.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

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Divinity II #1 (of 4)

Divinity II #1 (of 4)
Written by Matt Kindt
Pencils by Trevor Hairsine
Inks by Ryan Winn
Colors by David Baron
Letters by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Entertainment

Since the creation of the modern Valiant entertainment, one of my favorite Valiant series has been the Divinity miniseries last year (my review of Divinity issue 1 here). Valiant (in its modern incarnation) has been telling solid, entertaining superhero stories for around 4 years now. However, Divinity (to me) represented a leap forward. This was a brand new character (and not an update of one of their classic 90's heroes). What struck me about Divinity was a willingness on the part of the creative team to be a little more ambitious, a little cosmic, and get a little weirder.  I enjoyed the first miniseries, and I'm happy to say that Divinity II is off to a strong start, with the same impressive, ambitious scope as the first Divinity series.

The original Divinity miniseries told the story of Abram Adams, who was born and raised in the Soviet Union and trained from a young age to serve the state in a secret, long-range mission to space. In the Divinity series, Adams ventured into deep space, found something incredibly powerful and strange, and returned to Earth as something removed from humanity. However, as shown briefly in Divinity, Adams was not alone in his mission. Two fellow cosmonaut comrades traveled with him to the far reaches of the universe, but their fate was left unknown. However, as we learn in this first issue of Divinity II, one of the crew members (Valentina Volkov) did survive; this first issue covers both her experiences in a weird distant part of the universe, and her childhood and life leading up to the mission.

As with the first Divinity series, the creative team in Divinity II has taken on an interesting and ambitious challenge.  While I don't think you absolutely have to read Divinity to understand what's going on in Divinity II, it definitely helps as it is, in part, a different look at some of the same events.  Abrams was the hero of Divinity but this story provides a different perspective. In Volkov's view, Abrams was no hero, he was someone who abandoned the mission and stranded her and their fellow cosmonaut Kazmir at the other end of the universe.  We hear Volkov's voice (and understand her point of view) but we also hear something different, as Kindt once again captures something ineffable and cold in the narration. It really feels like someone speaking about their own humanity from a distance.  There is effective work in this issue, through art, dialogue and narration.

The art here really sells the story.  Hairsine, Winn and Baron combine to create a gorgeous comic.  Hairsine and Winn's linework is highly detailed, and generally realistic in its depiction of anatomy and objects. There's interesting work in depiction of faces in this story, as the facial acting is expressive and emotive, but the faces themselves are slightly exaggerated. It's very much its own work, but there's something in the facial work that reminds me a little of Frank Quitely. In addition to strong character depiction, there's also thorough work on the locations. The unknown location in deep space here feels like something distinctly alien.  In the above page, for example, the top panel creates the perspective of looking down. While it ultimately shows this to be the surface of the world on which the cosmonauts have landed, as an initial matter it could be a rush of stars or other heavenly bodies moving towards the person's feet, or a school of strange, alien fish. It's quickly (and intentionally) disorienting, and as followed up by the rest of the page (and the subsequent pages) that depicts a vast alien landscape, these pages convey the strangeness of what the cosmonauts (and we) are experiencing.  The panel series below, depicting Volkov's contact with some sort of alien animal/plant life, is one that I found genuinely unsettling for the exact same reasons that Volkov does. That the art team has sent me into the head of the character is one of the best possible compliments I can give for art.

That sense of strangeness is driven in significant part by the coloring work by Baron. Baron does terrific work with colors and shading through the issue. His alien colors are glowing and distinct and memorable.  His choice of colors feel foreign, and not in a neon day-glo and obvious way, but in  way that one might imagine a genuinely strange place to be. By contrast, scenes in the comic depicting life on Earth have a more realistic, less bright color palate. Again, Baron makes non-obvious choices. While it might have been expected to depict all of the scenes in Soviet Russia with a drab gray, Baron doesn't do this. There's a grimness to those scenes to some extent, but there are also splashes of brighter color, and the warmth of home and other locations comes through clearly as well.  What this warmth does is convey that the Soviet Russia of Volkov's youth is a place worthy of saving, a place to be missed.

It's clear throughout Divinity II that Volkov has an incredibly strong, unwavering sense of duty and belief in the Soviet mission. To her, the other cosmonauts were weak and soft, which is why her own government tasked her with making sure the mission stayed on course. She came from abject poverty, and it was the Soviet mission that gave her a home and food and purpose; she's also self-aware enough to know that when she was taken in by the space mission leader as a child, it was not the pure goodness of his heart. She knows that she is his "little mouse", trained since childhood to fulfill this mission. Even after undergoing a startling transformation in deep space, her faith in her mission never wavers. It is the belief in this mission that drives her to transform herself into something more than human, so that she might fulfill her true purpose.

This level of belief and determination, combined with the incredible power that comes as a result of the transformation in Divinity II, should make Volkov a presence to be feared and reckoned with in the Valiant universe.  That threat makes for an intriguing premise, and for a strong first issue.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

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All-Ages or Small-Ages? #3 (Sonic Universe: Spark of Life by Ian Flynn, Aleah Baker, Tracy Yardley and Matt Herms)

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

Let’s get this out in the open immediately: I have an admitted bias in favour of these characters. It’s one of the main franchises that I developed an unhealthy attachment to when I was younger, specifically Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, so all of this commentary needs to be read through those lenses. Sonic Universe is an ongoing title that serves as an anthology title that exists in parallel to the main stories being told over the title aptly named Sonic the Hedgehog. The primary architects of this work are writer Ian Flynn, penciller Tracy Yardley and colourist Matt Herms. Each arc of Sonic Universe is a self-contained little story that explores what a certain grouping of characters is currently up to; you therefore don’t need to worry about the ongoing continuity and simply enjoy it for what it is.

This particular story, named Spark of Life, follows characters as they adventure deep into the digital world after identifying an ominous presence. Before you roll your eyes and click away, hear me out; it gets better than that, I swear. Using this as a framing for the real story, Flynn, along with guest scripter Aleah Baker, explores the various manifestations of grief and how, in a world as futuristic as this one, people can survive through that final destination. Now that I’ve over-corrected and made this arc seem immensely morbid and depressing, I can tell you that the actual story falls shrewdly in between these two extremes; it’s humourous and silly, but it also has a lot of depth to it.

Nowhere is the inherent absurdness more clear than in the character of Big the Cat. He began life in the 1998 game Sonic Adventure and quickly fell into the role of comedic relief for the heroic team of Freedom Fighters. The large majority of his humour comes from a place of immaturity and lack of understanding of the world outside of his forest home; his silliness will either instantly charm or repel you. I personally adore his childish nature as it comes with an unrivaled and contagious enthusiasm. He is going to be a dividing point around which everyone's classification of All-Ages or Small-Ages will fall.

An original, terrifying villain isn’t something that you would expect for a Sonic the Hedgehog antagonist. While Dr Eggman (Robotnik) is still the ongoing challenge, a new middle-level manager steps out of the read-only memory to tower over our heroes. Phage is drawn by Yardley with this lifeless and yet all-encompassing quality, giving her an omnipotence that makes her genuinely unnerving. Although her appearance will draw inevitable parallels to Spirited Away’s No-Face, she comes off as very unique and also surprisingly powerful. One way to demonstrate the abilities and danger that a new threat possesses is to put them up against the strongest member of team and have them immediately discarded. Flynn understands this concept by having the character Nicole throw herself into the battle and get immediately rebuffed.

Nicole is, for me, the unquestionable star of this arc. She is an artificially based lifeform that has created her own physical body to be able to interact with the world; putting her at such a youthful age makes this story all the more tragic and engaging. The way that she strives for individuality and how deeply she connects with her teammates, especially Princess Sally, adds a layer of depth to an already fascinating character. Such a strong relationship between two female characters, specifically one that doesn’t revolve around their competition over a man, is a rare thing in most media. Observing the degree of trust between them and their willingness to fight to the death for each other is one of the most inspiring moments and is one of the core reasons why this arc is so compelling.

All of these adventures into the digitial world (I can literally hear you rolling your eyes) are, as previously mentioned, the framing for the exploration of a father dealing with the loss of his daughter. Such a heartbreaking subject wouldn’t be something that I would immediately associate with a group of characters that are famous for running fast, but it’s handled so magnificently in this story. It’s introduced gradually at first, but eventually ties into the end of the arc to create an extraordinarily cathartic finale. Without spoiling the entire plot, you get a chance to explore how far, if it were possible, people would go to save the lives of the people most important to them. On top of that, it deals with the definition of life which, in a time where the singularity has become a genuine concern, could not be more topical.

This arc is an admittedly brief journey into, for some, an oversimplification of how technology actually works. If you’re unable to see how a fight against a digital consciousness with a virtual sword and shield is exciting and, at its very core, fun, then we’re on entirely different wavelengths. The plotting is surprisingly tight for a comic about video game characters and sells you on this brand new cast very quickly. With the pitch perfect pencils from Tracy Yardley and the bright and rich colours from Matt Herms, this a world that I never wanted to leave. This book was unfortunately drawn into a crossover immediately after this arc, but there’s still an enormous library for you to delve into. This is a series that I expected to be all show and no substance so, even bearing in mind my predisposition to this series, it is undeniably an all-ages book.
Let me know if there's a comic that you think I should be checking out. I'm always on the look-out for some more hidden All-Ages gold. Contact me at mark@thegreengorcrow.com!