Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mask of the Red Panda

Written by Greg Taylor 
Illustrated by Dean Kotz
Pubished by Monkeybrain (digital)/IDW (print)

A masked adventurer with a thing about magic teams with his driver to investigate a series of supernatural attacks in a story that’s a homage to the age of pulps but comes up a bit short in execution.

I’m a big fan of the classic characters like the Phantom or the Spirit and so I figured this one would work well for me, given the premise. Greg Taylor not only writes this story, he also created an entire line of pulp-style podcasts, of which The Red Panda is one of them. He’s clearly a fan, but the problem here is that he’s hewing just a bit too close to what already exists, leading to problematic storytelling and dialogue that feels really tin-eared on a modern reader.

The first and biggest issue I couldn’t get over was that the visual design for the Red Panda is basically “Here’s the Spirit, only Red.” (See the cover.) I don’t know if that was intentional by Kotz or Taylor or both, but from the very first time we see the character, it screams Eisner to me, and not in a good way. His gloves, tie, and domino mask are all crimson red, just as Danny Colt’s are bright blue. He wears the same fedora and trenchcoat, too. So whenever he’s in action, no matter how well Kotz illustrates the scene, I found myself comparing it at every moment to the iconic character. It felt more like it was fan fiction about a licensed character instead of its own thing to me.

That’s probably unfair, and I tried hard to get past that, but it was impossible for me. While the menace that the pair face is different from the more pedestrian crimes of Eisner’s world, there just wasn’t enough going on to move the needle for me. It didn’t help that Kit, the Panda’s partner, has some of the worst dialogue I’ve read in a comic recently. Her constant refrain of “boss” every time she talks to Panda is annoying and her slang, while well-intentioned, just grates over time. Not every line from the comic relief has to be an attempt at humor. A little colloquial reference goes a long way, even when reading or listening to classic creations. In a modern book, it’s frankly annoying.

A lot of the panels are structured like this.
The other issue was the overall plot. While it takes the pair awhile to get to the solution of the caper, they really face no adversity along the way. Every time this mortal pair encounters magic, they have a solution for it, whether it’s special clothing, goggles, or devices. They win just about every fight, except for one in which Kit is “hurt” but shows no signs of injury. I never got a sense that there was any danger for the protagonists at all, just a lot of capering and showing off. When we get to the big reveal, Red Panda tells Kit to be ready in case his plan doesn’t work, but by that point, I was pretty sure it would: Everything else had, so why not that, too?

The visuals from Kotz do a pretty good job with the material, telling the story as its plotted out by Taylor, but there’s a lot less life here than in, say, Krampus, which I read a little bit after this one. We get some good close-up facial work and the same kind of angular appearances, and he does keep the characters and panels off-kilter to indicate movement. But there’s a lot less variety in the style of the pages and the characters seem to be captured just after they did something, rather than in the moment of action. Most of the pages feature static, four or five panel pages, and it just fails to interest me visually over time, especially by the third act of the story.

An example of the changing colors.
The one notable thing about the art here, though is the use of color. Despite being generally unimpressed with the linework, I did stand up and take notice of the way Kotz varies the color palette from page to page and even panel to panel. He’s not afraid to use bright and dull shades of green, yellow, red, and blue, regardless of what the realistic shading might normally be. Because of this, objects and characters do stand out in ways you hardly see in a comic these days. I appreciated that Kotz took the idea of golden age comics coloring and updated it like this. It’s a nice touch, one that I’ve been seeing more of lately, and I hope that it continues. Anything that move us out of Drabville in terms of comics coloring is a good thing.

No disrespect to colorists everywhere, but when the coloring of the comic is the only part of a story you can recommend, it’s a problem. Despite my shared love of the time period and characters Taylor is looking to re-create, his efforts here just don’t match up to those he wants to emulate. The characters aren’t distinctive, the plot is too facile, and the art (coloring aside) isn’t notable enough to make this one I’d recommend. Hopefully, in a future effort, the adventures of the Red Panda will come to life in a way that’s more original. For now, this one is a rare miss from the folks at Monkeybrain.

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