REVIEW: Vs. #1


Vs. #1
Written by Ivan Brandon
Illustrated by Esad Ribic
Colored by Nic Klein
Design by Tom Muller
Published by Image Comics

It’s been a little while since I read a debut comic that got me really excited. A few years ago it felt like every week there was a mind-blowing new comic (most likely from Image Comics) but I haven’t felt that way recently. Could be the existential ennui. Regardless, I’m very happy to say that I’ve read the first great new comic of 2018, and it is Vs 

Vs. Is exactly what I want in a debut issue of a comic; it’s fast-paced, engaging, immersive, and it makes me want to know more about the world that I’m seeing. It's like The Truman Show meets Robot Jox meets Starship Troopers (the movie, not the book). Ivan Brandon is a skilled writer of intelligent and intriguingly weird science fiction (such as Drifter), and here he's telling a very "now" story about brutal, futuristic gladiatorial combat.  And the art (from illustrator Esad Ribic and colorist Nic Klein) is just stunning (much more about the art later).  More than stunning - there are panels that are positively breathtaking. This is a very strong debut.

Any discussion of Vs. really needs to start with the art (which is not any knock on Brandon, but the art is just striking).  I've been a big fan of Ribic's work since he and Jonathan Hickman rebooted The Ultimates in a terrific run 6-7 years ago. Ribic's muscular detail and gorgeously painted backgrounds (by Dean White) really drew me in. And my enjoyment of his work went up a whole other level when I read his God Butcher/Godbomb arc on Thor: God of Thunder (written by Jason Aaron). I can only describe it as one of the most "metal" books you'll ever read. Ribic has a highly detailed style that I'd call "exaggerated hyper-muscular realism". The level of detail he provides makes even the most improbable character seem plausible, and Ribic has a tremendous grasp of human anatomy and highly precise, detailed facial acting, all of which brings his work to life as fully existing in the gritty world he illustrates. Ribic also has a great sense of sequential storytelling and establishing a clear sense of place, and the spatial relationship between characters. Most of the issue takes place during a military siege and switches between multiple characters engaged in combat. The action is quick and kinetic but you never cease to have a sense of what's happening, as Ribic skillfully makes sure that the movements of the characters makes logical sense (something that's not always the case in comics I've read depicting battles).

Ribic has an incredible artistic partner in Klein who colors this issue. Honestly, saying that he colors the issue feels like an understatement of his work. Klein really brings Ribic's work to life, with lushly detailed backgrounds, intricate character work, and flawless color choices that create a word that you wouldn't necessarily want to step into, but can't help but get lost in it. Ribic's detailed, slightly larger-than-life characters combined with Klein's rich, full coloring, brings to life classic science fiction novel covers from decades ago.  The rich, soft, slightly fuzzy sheen that Klein adds to Ribic's art creates something of a timeless quality in this comic, where it feels like you could potentially be looking at a long-lost artifact. Klein really has a perfect grasp of the surroundings he's coloring, and you get the sense that he's really thought through where light is coming from and shadow would be, as seen in the page below on the top panel where the shadow of ruined structures falls partly over the warrior's face. A face, by the way, that feels like it was carved out of stone, and conveys power and strength and the sense of someone who has been through some $%&t. The fact that the sense of emotional depth comes across so clearly from one panel is a tribute to the teamwork of Ribic and Klein. 

Vs. does something at the outset that I really appreciate in a comic, which is that it frames the scene and context for the story.  Not with many words, but with absolutely spectacular visuals. Ribic and Klein begin with a shot of Earth (or a world that sure looks a lot like Earth) as seen from space. We next see a space station tethered to the world, along with massive floating cities/rocks, and then the art turns its focus on the world below, and at that point the reader are thrust into the action. This issue is mostly close-up point of view art, so this introductory choice is an interesting one. What I like about it is that the visual of starting with the world as seen from space, and showing us futuristic marvels, helps properly set the scene of this story as a futuristic science fiction tale. It also gives the story some epic grandeur at the outset. There are plenty of comics that start in media res, and this one begins the story proper that way as well, but I appreciate a little bit of context-setting through gorgeous art.

Once the story begins, we’re thrown into the middle of a battle between two opposing forces, the Praetorians and the Industrial Guard. The Industrial Guard is led by Satta Flynn, a blue-skinned, grizzled battlefield commander. He leads a team that is outfitted with all sorts of weapons and cybernetic equipment. Flynn himself has metal gear on his back that makes him look just a little like Doctor Octopus. We watch as the two opposing forces do battle, and throughout the course of the story we not only see this but we realize that what we (the reader) are seeing is actually what other people within the world of the story are seeing, as the events of the issue are broadcast as entertainment. I don’t want to give away much more of the story, but suffice it to say this battle doesn’t necessarily go the way that Flynn would have hoped.

This is a world where this gladiatorial combat is a highly popular form of entertainment and big business. Interspersed throughout the issue are little info-bubbles indicating some interesting fact about a character or some other relevant information for a viewer/reader. It’s a clever concept that we’ve seen elsewhere (Motor Crush comes to mind) but it's an element that could easily be overused. Thankfully the creative team handles that with restraint, and doesn’t overwhelm the reader to the point of the infographics becoming gimmicky. That's a theme I'd want to bring home in this issue; there are a number of ideas at work in this issue, such as the fact that the main characters are always on camera, always performing, but I really appreciate the way in which that's handled quite deftly and Brandon & Co. don't feel the need to hammer that point home.  Credit to those info-graphics and the other terrific design work in the issue (including a striking cover) goes in part to the peerless Tom Muller, whose work I first became aware of on Zero and have admired ever since. The points where you realize the characters are being recorded are actually quite funny, as you realize everyone has people to answer to, including sponsors (I'm reminded of one of my favorite scenes from Wayne's World). 

When I read a first issue of a comic, one of the things I'm looking for are ideas.  Not every comic needs to be an ambitious statement about the way we live today, but I want comics that both tell a great story, and also feel like they're about something. And that's how I felt reading Vs. There are some interesting ideas being explored in this comic. A lot of science fiction is actually stories about right now, regardless of any sort of futuristic setting. And that's true for Vs. as well.  While we don't watch gladiator-soldiers engage in combat for our enjoyment (I don't think contestants typically die on American Ninja Warrior), it doesn't feel all that removed from both ubiquitous reality television, and the way in which real life war is (for the vast majority of people) reduced to something that is distant and at most, something we see briefly in the news, or depicted with great jingoistic fervor in movies. Gladiatorial warriors becoming celebrities on constant broadcast feels like a relatively small step from professional athletes who constantly tweet or use other social media to document all aspects of their lives, in part to sell themselves and their "brand".  

But big concepts alone do not sell a story; I need a character that interests me. And Flynn feels like that character. Within the big, action-packed tale of this issue, there's a more personal story about Flynn thats going to unfold. He's someone who was at the top of his game, and he's going to have to get back to that position. It's an intriguing hook, among many other reasons to read this comic, so I highly recommend you pick up Vs.