January 6, 2015

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James' Single Minded - Intriguing Starts from Rumble and They're Not Like Us

This week I take a look at 2 first issues of new comic series from the past few weeks. These are both strong issues, but they take very different approaches on how to start a series and what a first issue should accomplish.

Rumble #1
Co-created by John Arcudi and James Harren
Written by John Arcudi
Illustrated by James Harren
Colored by Dave Stewart
Illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos
Image Comics

If you're looking for a weird, interesting, very atmospheric fantasy series in an unusual setting, Rumble is a good place to start. The first issue doesn't explain much about what's going on in this world, but it sets up a number of intriguing mysteries. The storytelling here is helped immensely by terrific art from James Harren and Dave Stewart. The entire creative team here has collaborated previously on a number of highly regarded stories set in the Mignola-verse (Hellboy, the B.P.R.D.), and so they are no strangers to a well thought out, complex world of mystery and magic.


The story begins with the site of a lone figure walking towards a desolate, imposing mountain, being observed by someone else on that mountain. The creative team spends several pages setting the scene of a sad-looking abandoned city, and then focuses in on a lonely bar where a bartender named Bobby talks up a lone patron, an older man. it's clear from the outset that we are in a world where strange things can happen and are happening. Mr. Cogan, the only patron at the bar, gives Bobby a sheet of unrecognizable markings in lieu of paying his bar tab and assures Bobby this will be more than satisfactory for the owner. Cogan is quickly chased into the bar by a figure looking remarkably like a scarecrow wielding a giant sword (who has chopped Cogan's arm off). Bobby musters up the courage to stop this scarecrow figure, but very quickly all evidence of the attack (including Cogan) disappears and this scary figure appears to be nothing but a scarecrow. 

The story moves around a bit as it spends some time showing an elderly woman apartment whose cat falls out the window, but somehow survives (and there's something weird about that cat). The creators also show us a few pages of two fishermen in a boat who encounter something strange and sinister in the water. After Bobby parts company with the police (who think Bobby's crazy given his description of events) still in possession of the sword, he tries to get the attention of a friend, and is confronted by two winged, hideous looking monsters who are after the sword. The monsters chase Bobby through the streets, and Bobby again musters some courage, but it may not be enough. 

This is a pretty jam-packed first issue. There are a lot of plot threads established here, and the issue feels a little all over the place, but for the most part it works in establishing the tone and feel of this world. As there are at least three different plot threads shown here, it's not clear whether these are simply general indications that there are dark forces afoot, or if they all tie together. You'll definitely have a lot of questions regarding what you've read, but if a first issue is supposed to create a mood and set a tone for what to expect from a series as a whole, then this is a very successful first issue. 

The creative team goes a long way towards establishing that tone.  From the outset, Harren and Stewart (with great lettering from Eliopoulos) do masterful work portraying a city, a world where life and vibrancy have "moved on."  There are still people, still civilization, but this is a world that has the feel of being abandoned and in a slow decline. Stewart's colors convey the sense of dusky twilight which suits the abandoned city perfectly. The characters here are portrayed in a slightly exaggerated, distorted style, but the figure work and facial acting are highly effective here. People's expressions and features are exaggerated, but it works well for the story. The other character design work here is nicely rendered, as the scarecrow is a genuinely scary figure, and the two demons that chase Bobby are hideously disgusting creatures (I'd be pretty scared if I encountered them on a street late at night). The artistic team does a lot of great visual storytelling in this issue, as a number of pages have little dialogue and a lot of action. Harren and Stewart combine to portray swift, dynamic fight sequences; these sequences feature terrific, hand-illustrated lettering on sound effects from Eliopoulos which really adds to the immediacy and pace of the action. The speed and fearsome skill of the scarecrow warrior is effectively captured in this book.

This first issue is an intriguing, weird, supernatural start to what should be a promising series. Given the creative team's strong track record with prior collaborations on supernatural stories, Rumble is a book worth paying attention to. 


They're Not Like Us #1
Story by Eric Stephenson
Art by Simon Gane
Colors by Jordie Bellaire
Letters by Fonografiks
Image Comics

Eric Stephenson is an ambitious writer*. I loved Nowhere Men, his previous entry into comics writing. That comic was an expansive look at what happens when you get a super-team together (in any context, not specifically superheroes) and felt like the history (and decline and fall) of the Beatles, meets the Fantastic Four (except, imagine it's a team of four Reed Richards types), meets Watchmen. It was noteworthy for not only its intricate, intelligent storytelling but also for its clean, high-tech artistic feel (thanks to stunning art from Nate Bellegarde and Jordie Bellaire). It's a comic that very much felt like the future.**

All of this is to say that by contrast They're Not Like Us feels completely different. It's selling the issue short to just say this is Stephenson's take on the X-Men, but there's a lovely house full of young people, all of whom have special abilities, and all of whom are people who've rejected their old lives and families. This is an ambitious first issue which puts a very different spin on what it means to be different and special, along with how society perceives young people (and vice versa). The creative team tells this story effectively with striking artwork from Gane and Bellaire which conveys a warm, naturalistic, "lived in" feeling. 


It starts off with an unusual approach, as the cover page of the comic contains the first panel of the story (I don't know if I've seen that done previously). We move immediately into the life of a woman contemplating suicide on top of a hospital in San Francisco. She hears voices, and has for her whole life. She's approached by a mysterious man who joins her at the top of the building to tell her that she needs to accept the truth. Before she can learn what truth this is, she's fallen off the building; somehow she survived the fall. As she awakens in a hospital bed, there's a voice directing her to get out of the bed and follow the man (known as The Voice) from the roof out of the hospital. He's communicating with this woman inside her mind. The two of them are joined by another man (known as Loog), who appears to have the ability to control technology. Through a little bit of violence, and some more subtle coercion, the two men get the woman out of the hospital. 

They bring the woman to a lovely house located elsewhere in San Francisco, and explain to her pretty matter-of-factly that she is a telepath, and both of them have abilities is at least somewhat similar to her (but Loog can control technology, not minds). She should be more freaked out than she is, but mostly she's elated and relieved to learn that she's not crazy, just different. The Voice introduces the woman to all of the other people living in the house, each of whom also have remarkable abilities. The Voice gives the woman a codename of Syd. They explain to her that they've all left their own lives behind and come together to build something new. The Voice finishes giving Syd a tour of the house and explains their strict rules, along with explaining that everything they have, they've taken. The Voice feels absolutely no sense of regret or embarrassment about this, and explains that is Syd is going to become part of this community, she's going to have to make a very dramatic choice. 


This is a great premise; a retelling of the X-Men story set in a modern setting, but with the entertaining twist that the leader isn't a kindly professor but instead is something of an amoral sociopath and unapologetic criminal.  This is also very much an introductory issue that straightforwardly establishes the stakes of the story and introduces the cast of characters. It's an interesting stylistic choice (and a clear contrast to the very different storytelling choices made in Rumble that also works well as a first issue but succeeds more by setting a tone). They're Not Like Us, by contrast, tells a single story in a linear manner, which is less "show-offy" than many modern comics but actually feels like a refreshing, non-obvious choice.  

The artwork from Gane and Bellaire is striking; they give this first issue an earth-toned, muted, naturalistic, "analog" feel. Gane's style feels very much his own, but his detailed, emotive, scratchy lines remind me in a general way of artists such as Paul Pope, Paul Maybury, Rafael Grampa and James Stokoe (so, some very good company). Gane's style nicely conveys exaggerated emotion and facial expression, which is quite helpful as the issue introduces a large cast of characters and in some cases we only see a few panels with each of these characters. So, Gane has a limited amount of time to portray something fundamental about each of the people, but he does so effectively. Bellaire, as always, does terrific work, tailoring her colors to the art (and not necessarily bringing "her" color scheme to a book). The colors of the sky, buildings, walls - they all exude a feeling of reality, of being grounded, and of representing a world that has some wear-and-tear on it. These slightly more muted colors make sense in a book like this, and complement the art perfectly.

Gane's art style (and choices as far as character design) also feel in some ways like an implicit critique of the idea of superheroes, and is pretty far from a "typical" superhero art style. Just because a person has superhuman abilities, there's no reason to think they'd want to use those for good, nor would they necessarily want to get dressed in ridiculous costumes. There's a discussion late in the issue where The Voice tells Syd that they have some rules such as no tattoos, piercings or strangely colored hair; this feels like something of a response to a typical superhero comic which involves a lot of flashy (sometimes matching) costumes, and often pretty outrageous hair.

This first issue does some world-building, but everything it builds is central to the main characters of the story (as opposed to telling us more broadly about who are the people that have these powers, where those powers come from, or many other more "global" questions). The Voice sets a clear tone in this story - Charles Xavier he is not. Interestingly, he also does not appear to be like Magneto (i.e., someone who approaches the struggle of human vs. mutant from the perspective of someone who endured the horrors of the Holocaust (or other traumatic event) and seeks more than anything the survival of his species as a matter of principle). Rather, The Voice is someone who is motivated by self-preservation and because he feels that given their special abilities, they should simply take what they want. No apologies, no questions asked. 

Similarly, instead of being a metaphor for race or class struggles, this feels much more like the struggle of the young against the old (and the language on the back cover reinforces this point), or possibly a critique of youth. The young come up, they see the old world they've been born into, and they feel like they're better, they can do it all better. They're simply going to change the world by rejecting the assumptions on which that world is built, and take what they want. In some ways it's both the beauty and arrogance of youth to ask questions and reject premises. Setting this story in San Francisco also brings to mind previous youth anti-establishment movements, though the political philosophy of this group seems quite different than that of almost 50 years ago (as I don't think that "take whatever you want because you can" was a hippie chant).

There's a lot of places this story can go, but the first issue solidly establishes the conflicts that Syd, our "point of view" character, will face as she considers joining this group of special people. They're Not Like Us is a great pickup for someone looking for a different take on super-powered people.

* In addition to his "other" job as publisher of Image Comics. 
** I need to write an overview of Nowhere Men.