James' Single-Minded for 3/4/15: Descender 1 and Blackcross 1

Descender #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Illustrated and Colored by Dustin Nguyen
Lettered and Designed by Steve Wands
Image Comics

There's something I fundamentally love about Jeff Lemire's creator-owned work, including Sweet Tooth, Trillium, and The Underwater Welder. Even in very dark, scary situations (sometimes involving the end of humanity), his stories convey sweetness, genuineness, and something fundamentally heartfelt and hopeful. The concepts may be out there, but the emotions all feel very genuine. In Descender, working together with Dustin Nguyen (who provides stunning painted artwork), Lemire is off to a strong start in achieving those same qualities. This is an excellent first issue that's telling a story that both very big and very small.

The story begins with a gleaming city of the future.*  Humanity has spread throughout the stars, and nine main worlds make up the United Galactic Council. It's a highly advanced society, and robots seem to be commonplace as servants and workers. There's a tragic attack by giant robots against the nine main worlds; not surprisingly, society turns against those ubiquitous robots. The story moves ahead ten years, and focuses in on a young robot boy awakening on a moon/colony, completely alone. He's looking for his family. Unfortunately for him, there are people looking for him, as he's more important than he knows.

This was a highly effective first issue. Lemire and Nguyen quickly establish the status quo of a powerful galactic empire and then completely upend that status quo. This feels as ambitious of a story as Lemire has told; as big stories as they were, Trillium and Sweet Tooth were at heart highly personal stories of loss and growth. This feels like it's going to have some of those same elements, but the scope feels more vast, and not just because of the futuristic, outer space setting. Lemire's own artwork conveys a more idiosyncratic feels that gels with the sorts of personal stories he's told.  Nguyen has an emotionally astute, lovely watercolor style that he brings to the book, but it feels bigger. His level of detail varies from somewhat impressionistic to highly intricate. The moment right when the attack against humanity begins to happen, Nguyen has given us a vast scene in space.  The tensions are high, and the unknown robot is improbably big and feels genuinely threatening.  The story cuts to the title credits, and it's a big, cinematic moment. Lemire has done some great work but I don't know that I'd describe any of it's having an epic, cinematic feel. 

The big, cosmic feel of the book is at least in part due to the design work from Steve Wands, who also does excellent work on lettering. In one panel Wands uses completely different (and entirely appropriate) lettering styles to show an adult human, a robot nanny, the voice of a person on the other end of a call, and a crying baby; while that variety of styles could be a distraction, it isn't, it enhances and helps the storytelling. 

But vast scope notwithstanding, this is the story of a boy looking for his family. Through Lemire's work in the independent comics mentioned above, he's explored themes of lonely people looking for connection, whether that's a family or the love of their life. These searchers are on a quest, frequently set against improbably bleak circumstances. Even in his DC Comics work on Green Arrow, Lemire completely upended Oliver Queen's status quo by killing off most of his supporting cast and destroying his infrastructure, to send him into the proverbial wilderness so he could be tested and hopefully come out stronger. Despite the different setting, Descender feels thematically consistent with those earlier works.

This is ambitious work, but also feels like it will be telling a strong personal story. Descender is definitely worth a look.

* It looks like what I hoped the future would look like when I was a kid.

Blackcross #1
Written by Warren Ellis
Illustrated by Colton Worley
Colored by Morgan Hickman
Lettered by Simon Bowland
Dynamite Entertainment

Dynamite really loves their old superhero and pulpy characters. We (at Panel Patter) have been looking at their King books recently; another one of Dynamite's initiatives (in the past 5 or so years) was Project Superpowers. Dynamite (more specifically, creators Alex Ross and Jim Krueger) took a number of old public domain superhero characters like the Black Terror, Daredevil (no, not that Daredevil), the Green Lama, and Lady Satan, among others, and introduced them into a modern world. I think it's fair to say that the results were mixed. It was an intriguing series, but I don't know that it was quite the what they (or fans) had hoped it would be. 

Dynamite has decided to take another look at these characters, in a very different (and less straightforward) way, and have reached out to Warren Ellis for this.  If you want to get a new, interesting, and weird take on an existing property, there are few writers who can immediately make a book more compelling than Warren Ellis. Together with some fantastic art teams, in 2014 Ellis helped reinvigorate both Moon Knight (at Marvel) and Supreme (at Image).  Blackcross is, like those books, intriguing and weird, and has some genuinely unsettling imagery thanks to skilled, moody art from Colton Worley and Morgan Hickman. It didn't instantly hook me the way Moon Knight and Supreme: Blue Rose did, but it shows promise. 

The first issue of Blackcross focuses on the town of Blackcross, as we see the possibly intersecting lives of three different people, and a big, yet-to-be-revealed mystery. The story begins with the scene of a man (apparently not entirely of his own volition) bring himself to the edge of a lake and self-immolating. It's a powerful, unsettling scene. The story then moves to two other people in the town of Blackcross who've been experiencing some pretty frightening things. What's the connection between these people? What's the connection to the town of Blackcross, and the secrets that seem to be buried there? And what does it have to do with a series of murders taking place, that seem to be pointing their way towards Blackcross? Tune in next time to find out.

It doesn't feel like a lot happens in this first issue, but the book does enough to clearly establish a moody, mysterious tone, and to set up the mystery of the story. What is Blackcross, really, and what happened there?  One thing done quite successfully in this issue is the establishment of a dark, lonely world thanks to the strong, ominous visuals of Worley and Hickman; the issue immediately distinguishes itself from the previous Project Superpowers comics. If this is a superhero book, it gets there in only the most tangential of ways; you get very few scenes of what may be the Project Superpowers heroes you (might) remember. There's not a ton of character work here, but Ellis and the art team do give us a pretty good sense for several people in the story as individuals troubled both by the current state of their lives, and by dark forces. There's not too much dialogue in the story and there isn't any narration, so the art is doing the heavy lifting here, story-wise (hence an issue heavy on atmosphere, light on details). 

At least after only one issue, I'm not sure I know where this is going yet. There are hints though, and in some ways the story feels a little bit familiar if you've read Supreme: Blue Rose (a series with stunning art from Tula Lotay). As in that story, it seems like we are in a world where superheroes may have existed at some point, but now someone (or something) is obscuring them from our vision. The theme of the search for truth (and dark forces that may be obscuring it from us) is one that seems important to Ellis, going back to his work on Planetary.  If you don't have a prior connection to the Project Superpowers characters, this issue might be less immediately compelling, but Ellis and team seem to be building an interesting, dark mystery that's worth exploring regardless of your connection to the earlier work. Much like in Supreme: Blue Rose, what Ellis is doing is so different than what came before, prior knowledge of the series is not needed (and frankly, not that helpful).

In addition to the search for hidden truths, Ellis is also a fan of long, slow-burn mysteries (such as in Trees). This feels like the start to another one of those "deliberately paced" stories.  Regardless of whether you're already a fan of Ellis' work (as you should be) or interested in Project Superpowers, this issue presents an intriguing start, and the opportunity to take a fresh look at some characters that didn't necessarily get their due last time around.