February 5, 2015

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James' Single-Minded for 2/4/15: Telepaths and nightmares and jungles, oh my!


Imperium #1
Written by Joshua Dysart
Illustrated by Doug Braithwaite
Colored by Brian Reber & Dave McCaig
Lettered by Dave Sharpe
Valiant Entertainment

Who, or what, is a hero? Who gets to decide? And does the end justify the means if you know you're right? These are the questions that are at the core of Imperium, the new Valiant comics series about Toyo Harada, one of the most complex figures in that comics world. 

There are old cliches/truisms about (1) history being decided by the victors, (2) the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter depending on who's doing the describing, and (3) every villain being the hero of their own story. These are recurring themes in comics (and storytelling generally) so if you're going to cover them, you should be bringing something interesting to the table. I'm happy to say that Imperium does that, with a strong first issue that shows the reader why Harada believes what he does, and why he's willing to do great and terrible things to achieve his goals. 

Like any good hero or villain, Toyo Harada believes in what he's doing. He is one of the world's first and most powerful psiot (the term for superhuman in the Valiant universe), and he believes that he has the vision and ability to guide humanity to a brighter future, with himself and other psiots at the vanguard of that movement (his powers first manifested themselves when he was a boy during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which has very much influenced his thinking).  In the Valiant universe he's been a wealthy industrialist and benefactor, with academies training new psiots all around the world. Now, however, he's on the run for various crimes, but his commitment to his vision is undaunted. He's kind of like Charles Xavier and Magneto rolled into one.

This first issue picks up as his team is one the move for a mission. The story begins more than a century in the future, as we see what a paradise the world has become. It's a lovely, shiny, optimistic vision, and Dysart and Braithwaite show us an older psiot using his abilities to help comfort a woman in her dying moments. It's a quite moving scene, and you feel the impact even more of this moment when you realize that it's just a vision of the world that the psiots are fighting for; this is what Harada uses to compel his supporters. The reader feels the loss of this beautiful future world, just as the psiots feel it, and we understand just how powerful, committed and manipulative Harada is. Dysart has a strong handle on these characters, as he has been writing Harada and other psiots in the Valiant books for several years now. As the book transitions into a combat sequence, Dysart's familiarity and comfort with war in comics comes across as well. As the author of the Vertigo Unknown Soldier series, he brings a sense of intensity and verisimilitude to the proceedings.

It's a big challenge in this first issue: showing a future world that's so real and so great, that you'll do anything you can to make it a reality, and to contrast that world with the troubled present-day. Thankfully, Braithwaite and Brian Reber & Dave McCaig on colors, are up to the challenge.  The scenes of the future look bright and seamless; they look like what I hoped the future would look like when I was a kid.  The rest of the book is a rude awakening from these scenes, as the battle sequences feel legitimately brutal, and the art team illustrates them with great skill. The clearly show the menace on Harada's face; he is someone to be truly feared, and they don't shy away from showing the cost of battle. Color is used effectively to show the change in environment, as we go from a lot of sky blue and cooler colors used to show the future, to dust and dirt and fire to show the present.

This is a strong start to a new series. This should be a compelling read, to see how far Harada and his followers are willing to go to move humanity forward. Imperium looks to be a compelling, action-packed read that will wrestle with interesting questions.




King: Jungle Jim #1
Written by Paul Tobin
Illustrated and Colored by Sandy Jarrell
Lettered by Marshall Dillon
Dynamite Entertainment/King Features Syndicate

Dynamite Comics (as part of their King Features Syndicate initiative) is taking a fresh look at a number of different pulp-era characters. Last week I wrote about King: Flash Gordon #1 and King: The Phantom #1, and this week I'm taking a look at King: Jungle Jim #1 (full disclosure: Jungle Jim is a character with whom I was not familiar). If this first issue is any indication, readers can expect a delightfully engaging miniseries (all of the King books are 4-issue miniseries, leading into an event miniseries that brings the characters together), with a good sense of visual wit and playfulness in all aspects of storytelling.

On the world of Arboria, the people have suffered under the oppressive rule of Ming the Merciless (including having members of their population turned into fearsome animal-man hybrids to be used as Ming's warriors. However, with the recent strikes against Ming's empire by Flash Gordon and his allies, the people of Arboria are seeking freedom. There's a legend on Arboria of a person named Jungle Jim, who lives in the forest and can control the animals. An Arborian named Lille, along with two trackers (who have been turned into animal men) in the service of the planet's leader (Prince Barin), set out to find Jungle Jim, because she believes that Jungle Jim is the only one that can help rescue her brother on Mongo (Ming's homeworld), where he will surely be executed. Not surprisingly, there's lots of excitement, adventures and weirdness in the forest.

Jarrell's Black & White art
This is a great first issue, from a strong creative team*.  It's a quest into the unknown, and we don't get much of a sense for who or what Jungle Jim is until the very end of the issue. However, during that time the creators flesh out an interesting world and bring a lot of personality to the characters on their journey, particularly Lille (as a woman who drinks a lot in order to forget/numb some pain she has experienced), and Kugor (as a warrior who's also very much a romantic, which you don't usually expect in Rhino-men). There's real emotional depth here, along with fun action and humor that you'd expect.

Jarrell provides gorgeous artwork. He has a rough-lined style, which works quite well in the lush, forest setting of Arboria. His sense of pacing and sequential storytelling is first rate, as he moves nicely back and forth between participants in a discussion in a way to generate both drama and humor. Jarrell's colors work quite effectively in his illustration as well, such as in a dramatic sequence where Ming's soldiers are essentially swallowed up by leaves. It's both funny and intense. Jarrell is a skilled facial actor, and while the lines are rough than someone like Doc Shaner (who illustrated the prior Flash Gordon series, which contained scenes taking place on Arboria), Jarrell has a similar skill to Shaner in providing a lot of personality to facial expression in relatively few lines. 

King: Jungle Jim #1 is a strong, gorgeous debut issue full of adventure, humor and emotion, well worth picking up.

* Paul Tobin is the co-creator of the charming Monkeybrain digital series Bandette, and Sandy Jarrell collaborated with Jeff Parker on the original graphic novel Meteor Men, a 2014 favorite of Panel Patter.




Nameless #1

Written by Grant Morrison
Illustrated by Chris Burnham
Colored by Nathan Fairbairn
Lettered by Simon Bowland
Designed by Rian Hughes
Image Comics

Few writers are more skilled than Grant Morrison at creating a detailed, richly imagined world in a short amount of time. With detailed, vibrantly weird and unsettling art from Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn*, Nameless #1 creates a scary world where the apocalypse is coming soon, and the line between nightmares and reality is breaking down.

The issue follows a man known as "Nameless" who is skilled at navigating dreams and matters of the occult. He "surrendered" his name years ago, after an unspoken tragedy, as a way of preventing others from having power over him. The issue follows his efforts to retrieve an important object from the dream world, and navigates various horrors and threats. The story then turns outward; while the threats to our world may be sensed through dreams, they are most assuredly also external in nature.

A page from Nameless #1, without lettering.

There's a lot going on in Nameless #1, and this issue throws you right into the middle of the story. Throughout the first part of the issue everything is off-balance. There are terrible things going on in the world, there are weird frog-men, and Nameless is somehow connected to it. He's looking for an object that will somehow be important to fighting this threat, and he doesn't seem to be overly afraid or surprised at the threats he's facing. It's skillful storytelling from the entire creative team, as there are a number of parts of the issue where the reader moves through and might think "ah, here's where we get our bearings and return to the real world" and then things get even stranger and creepier. When the story finally moves to more of the ostensibly real world, we see that the threat is bigger and worse than we thought, and ties back into the gruesome scene that opens the book.

Burnham and Fairbairn provide some spectacular art in this issue. Burnham's style is dynamic, visceral and detailed; he does some really virtuoso work, particularly in a sequences where Nameless has been captured by the weird, existential threats.  The panel design echoes the structure of the weird, nightmarish box where the characters are located, framing them in a location that doesn't seem possible and could only exist in a dream (or in the mind of talented artists). Burnham's style - his skill with action, sequential storytelling, and with facial acting and expression, has some similarities with that of Frank Quitely**.  Nameless himself, and all of the other figures in the story, are highly detailed; you can see and almost feel the stubble on Nameless' face. This level of detail works as well in highlighting horrific or frightening sequences involving monsters or other weird occurrences.

Fairbairn colors this all with a great variety of styles, from the drab gray of an afternoon in England, to the sunny colors of of a lush jungle, to the weird, boxlike dreamworld full of a disorienting variety of colors. Burnham uses some really interesting panel layout choices, as in the first few pages there are symbols overlaid on the pages, that themselves serves as panels within the story. On one page there's a sequence as Nameless makes his way through a marshy area and as he advances, time passes, the sky gets darker, and the panels float one into another and the colors subtly bleed into one another.  This is also apparent in the sequences taking place in the ostensible "real" world, as those have a more muted, realistic quality to them.  It's highly detailed attention to storytelling through layout and colors; that level of care is reflected throughout the issue. A similar level of care has been provided to the lettering and design (from Hughes and Bowland) throughout the issue, which provides a sci-fi feel, and the careful placement of the lettering helps with the pace of the story. 

Nameless #1 is weird, superbly detailed, skillful horror/sci-fi storytelling, from some of the best in the business.    

* Morrison's creative collaborators on Batman Incorporated and Multiversity, respectively. 

** About as high praise as I can give.