April 28, 2020

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Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers

Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers
Written by Joe Casey
Art by Nathan Fox, with contributions by Jim Rugg, Ulises Farinas, Michel Fiffe, Farel Dalrymple, Nick Dragotta, Jim Mahfood, Benjamin Marra, Dan McDaid, Grant Morrison, and Connor Willumsen
Colors by Brad Simpson
Letters by Simon Bowland 
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Having just revisited Zero, I was further in the mood for comics that deliberately involve lots of different, great artists. For that, I can't think of anything better and more fun than the Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers (Captain Victory for short) miniseries from 2014-2015. Captain Victory is the mind-blowing, crazy science fiction, creative reinterpretation of a late-era Jack Kirby comic that you didn't know you needed. Joe Casey and a spectacular (and huge) artistic team have crafted a weird, visually stunning, highly compelling story.  Without hewing too close to Kirby's style, this book is a great homage to Kirby's big, adventurous spirit. If you're looking for fantastic art and a comic that feels like it's constantly dialed up to at least 11, then you should read Captain Victory
The world of Captain Victory is set in a science-fiction universe sometime after the New Gods died (not actually DC's New Gods, but basically the same thing), and something new formed in their place. There's a corps of Galactic Rangers who keep the peace and law and order in the galaxy. The greatest of these is Captain Victory, who captains the Dreadnought: Tiger. As the story begins, the ship is under attack in space by the fearsome Mekkanos (who are themselves controlled by a figure called Blackmass, to which Captain Victory has a mysterious connection). Ranger captains are so important that their bodies are cloned so that if one of them should fall in battle, their consciousness can be immediately transferred to a new body. During the attack by the Mekkanos, Captain Victory is killed. The transfer is initiated to a new clone body. However, the healthy clone bodies that were available were also destroyed.

The only bodies that managed to survive were jettisoned in pods into space. One of those was still growing, and one of those was severely damaged. The majority of the series follows these quasi-Captain Victory clones.  The damaged clone makes its way to a run-down planet full of scavengers and junkers, and the younger clone makes its way to late-1970's New York City. Captain Victory chronicles the two very different sets of complications that these imperfect clones are facing as they try to figure out who they are, and to make their way back to wherever they're supposed to be. Simultaneously, we see the rest of the Dreadnought crew work hard on trying to find their beloved captain, along with flashbacks to earlier in Victory's illustrious career.


Jack Kirby casts such a huge shadow in superhero comics. As an initial matter, he created or co-created (for both Marvel and DC) some of the most memorable and popular characters in modern fiction. He was overflowing with creative ideas, and his incredible artistic style constantly looks like it's ready to burst off the page.  So everyone in superhero comics is reckoning with Kirby's influence and legacy. In some cases, there are creators who have not just shied away from Kirby but run headfirst into embracing Kirby's legacy. One of those people is accomplished writer Joe Casey. Casey co-created a comic called G0dland that I would honestly have to describe as being even more Kirby than Kirby. G0dland is basically "Cosmic Kirby" on steroids, and self-consciously feels like an incredible work literally in the genre of "Jack Kirby". It's brought to life by artist Tom Scioli, another devotee of Kirby's work, who's linework, crackle, and sense of cosmic over-the-top wonder is at maximum at all times in G0dland (in case it' isn't obvious, I love G0dland).

Captain Victory is different sort of homage. It's big and bombastic in the spirit of Kirby, but Nathan Fox's (Fox is the primary line artist throughout the series) artwork is not a direct homage to the work of Kirby in the same way that Scioli's is. The things that feels most "Kirby" about the book is, above even the pacing and frenetic action, is the sense that everyone involved in this book is operating at maximum creativity. From Casey's fun, entertaining and wild story, to the art (we'll get to), and to the big, bombastic lettering from the always-terrific Simon Bowland, which suits the story perfectly.

Captain Victory was my introduction to Fox’s work, and from the very first page his work completely blew me away. What I remember thinking the first time I saw Captain Victory was that Fox has a style that reminds me of nothing. Literally nothing. Now granted, maybe that speaks to the more limited scope of comics that I had read at the time? Maybe. But it was an absolute thrill for me, to find artwork that didn't remind me of anything else. Since then, I’ve seen the work of other artists that feel like they’re in a similar school of work (like Jim Mahfood), but Fox’s work is to me still instantly recognizable in the way that Tom Scioli’s or Tradd Moore's or Michel Fiffe’s is also instantly recognizable.

Having returned to Captain Victory for the first time in several years, I have to say I think I appreciate Fox’s work as being even more than the first few times I read this comic. This comic is an embarrassment of riches as far as contributions by talented artists, but it's still mostly Fox's show. This reminds me a little of the Moon Knight run I wrote about recently, where there were a number of great artists involved, but most of the work was done by Greg Smallwood (who similarly did some incredibly interesting and innovative work).
Fox has a distinctive line that is somehow both jagged and organic but also feels precise to me. It doesn’t feel like there’s any wasted motion or energy in any of his designs. All of his characters are extremely distinctive from one another and just feel remarkably brought to the page. I believe these characters are all based on the originals designed by Kirby, and some of the designs are so ridiculous, but Fox just makes them work. Particularly, one character somehow looks like an even more absurd version of marvel’s MODOK. And yet somehow, I feel like the character works and makes complete sense on the page. 

Secondly, when I really enjoy so much about Fox's work is the innovative, and constantly changing sense of layout and design that he brings to the page. I love innovative an interesting panel design as long as I feel like it is still in service of story. As opposed to being so complex and ornate that I feel like it serves more to show off the outrageous skills of the artist than it does in service of the sequential storytelling. The latter is great too, as it’s often very beautiful to look at, but ultimately I’m interested in panel design that provides intersting sequential storytelling. Fox very much does that. I feel like no two pages have the same two layouts (I have not done a rigorous check of this, to be clear). But these dynamic layouts always feel like they are in service of the story. That being said, Fox has a great sense of design generally. There are moments in the story where the space between panels is used effectively to convey information, and the covers (created by Fox) have a fantastic, minimalist-design quality to them.

This story has a completely frenetic and chaotic energy that is mostly dialed up to 11, as I said previously. However there are quiet interludes in the story capturing slightly more introspective and calm moments. All of Fox’s layout choices in these situations seem deliberate as far as controlling the pacing of the story. Fox seems to understand that even in a crazy cosmic comic, we, the reader, still need breaks from time to time. And to be clear, while the pacing can be chaotic and frenetic, it’s not confusing. Even when it feels like it is at maximum action-packed chaos, the sequential storytelling absolutely makes sense. 

I also want to focus something particular that Fox does, of which I have included two examples. He does one of my favorite things in all of comics, which is that he uses lettering to serve as the panels themselves of the story. In the first example above, we see "FIRE BOMB KILL DEAD" and the letters themselves contain the panels of the story. In the first example, It's the image of the Dreadnought: Tiger broken up in to the pieces of the separate letters. But the wording, along with the other images of violence, really convey the overwhelming sense of everything shaking, as the ship comes under attack. The words are so large as to be overwhelming. These are the words of their foe, Blackmass, and the size of the lettering (and the fact that the image itself is contained within the letters) really conveys the size and strength of the threat that Blackmass represents. In the example below (which is a spread from issue #6) the double-page spread tells us that we are in Lovaleen Space, and that these are huge, dramatic cosmos-shaking events that are taking place, as we see the effect these actions are having nboth locally (as the damaged Captain Victory attempts to reestablish a signal with the Rangers) and the impact that his efforts are having. 

I've gone on about Fox's work on the series (justifiably), but honestly as great as his work is, the MVP of the book might be Brad Simpson. I just recently sang the praises of Simpsons's color work (in The Warning) and I'm going to do so again. Simpson does some really extraordinary color work in this series. There are a number of different settings, and while there are a ton of artists doing great work in this series, it's Simpson's colors that realy make the art explode off of the page. In the pages above focusing on the Dreadnought: Tiger and its crew, Simpson uses some almost blindingly bright colors. such as in the sequence where Captain Victory is first "killed" in issue 1 of the story. In the top panel, we see the explosion from the perspective of the exterior of the ship, and then as we actually see it hit Captain Victory, the coloring choices really convey not just the heat and destructive nature of the explosion, but also the sense of movement. This is followed up the close-up of a skull (representing death generally, and Captain Victory in particular), and the color choices here are designed to be almost uncomfortably overwhelming.

In this and other pages showing combat, there's a lot of "hot" atmospheric coloring by Simpson that really brings to life the chaos and heat and violence that's taking place in the space battle. There are also a lot of fun coloring choices that are meant to illustrate futuristic panels being observed aboard the ship, along with the occasional examples of "Kirby Crackle".  But Simpson changes it up as needed. In the sequences taking place on Earth and on the weird junk-planet, Simpson uses more muted color choices. There' are still a lot of great atmospheric cloring choices, but the streets of 1970's New York have an appropriately grungy look to them thanks to the effective color choices.And Simpson provides consistency to all of the various artists in the series, as he colors the whole book, giving the book a consistently high-energy, engaging feel.
As I mentioned earlier, what's great about this series is that while Fox is doing fantastic work, there are lots of other artists that, in each issue of the series, are carrying firard some of the storytelling. This is done in a way that makes a lot of sense. For example, both Jim Rugg (in issue 1) and Michel Fiffe (in issue 2) illustrate sequences that take place in the past. The art change doesn't feel like a distraction (or look like a fill-in); instead it feels like a clear indicator to the reader that something has changed. In issue 1, Rugg dramatically illustrates the first time that Captain Victory dies, at the hands of Major Klavus himself. In issue 2, Fiffe shows a waking dream/memory of young Victor, as he remembers being a Ranger trainee and how he pretended to go along with a planned coup in order to learn of the treachery, and then led the charge to take down the attempted traitors. Each of Rugg and Fiffe bring a different feel to the past. Ulises Farinas brings his own style to a psychedelic two-page sequence, which is simultaneously dreamlike, upbeat and sinister.  Each issue of the series contains similarly great artistic contributions from various talented artists (and issue 6 is just PACKED with them).

As I said, Captain Victory is a super fun story, and as a visual experience, it's a embarrassment of riches. For fans of Kirby, Kirby homages, and just ridiculously good art generally, Captain Victory is a must-read.