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Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/12/23

Comic Books

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/12/23

New comics reviews from Image Comics, Dark Horse, IDW, and more!

Welcome to another edition of Last Call Comics. Here, as we continually bolster AIPT’s weekly comics coverage, we catch any titles that might’ve fallen through the cracks. Or, those books that we might not cover but still deserve a little spotlight. Either way, it’s a chance to explore more comics, generate some novel insights, and maybe add to everyone’s to-be-read pile.

Once more, happy New Comic Book Day to everyone.

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Ghostlore #3

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/12/23

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

Let’s say that Ghostlore has been not unlike an exorcism but with storytelling and not actual demons. Issue #1 was a shocking start as if someone tripped the breakers and threw fine China across the house. Issue #2 was a solid continuation, albeit with a bit more spooky razzle-dazzle over much-needed substance.

And as we arrive at issue #3, things feel like they’re finally starting to take shape as the story at last claws its way into our hearts and minds.

It’s come to a point where the story’s entire premise — what ghost stories do ghosts tell?! — has taken a backseat, and the creative team clearly recognized the need for that “move.” This issue, though, does still feature a gnarly ghost-story-within-a-story, but it’s muted to feel more like a plot device and not the be-all, end-all of the issue, and that works wonders for our level of engagement in general.

The real focus, then, is the father-daughter relationship at the book’s core; they’re not only coming to terms with their new supernatural calling but seeing how this defines their ongoing relationship amid the grief surrounding the death of the mother and brother. It finally feels like the first bit of extended humanity in what’s meant to be a deeply human book; a simple bit of connection that has big ramifications for the larger plot and the core themes (people have stories to tell, and that often defines our lives). As an extension of that, the rest of the plot builds from that, and we get to see what all of this means as some sort of spooky organization (complete with a charmingly creepy leader) emerges to potentially explain the reasons behind these ghosts and why so many have “been created.”

It’s a slightly silly turn, but it works given writer Cullen Bunn’s penchant for cheesy gimmicks (that are often well executed), and it may be this sudden rush of authority and purpose to keep the story moving in a way beyond, “Hey, let’s just tell a bunch of gross, mostly effective ghost stories.”

I think the only place where things didn’t really pick up is the visuals. That by no means is a critique; the continued emphasis on body horror isn’t just compelling, but it feels like an increasingly strategic attempt to overwhelm readers and coalesce around some of the bigger plot points. Rather, it’s that there weren’t quite as many over-the-top kills and other moments this time, and without that, everything feels a little muted (compared to the first two issues) at a time when things should be even more grandiose and horrific from a visual perspective.

I think that as we’re building to a story with a big bad, more could’ve been done to make him a threat, and it just wasn’t really there in this issue. Even with that mostly “flat” intro, our villain could be a proper threat, and someone to help motivate our heroes and give them something to work toward in sussing out some of the big ideas and happenings of their new world. It would be more of the depth and humanity this book needs, and having that visual identity stand out more would be an easy way to show (and not tell) the way things are taking shape and what it all really means.

Because that’s the biggest question that remains after three issues: what’s happening and why should we care?All the parts are in place, and the whole premise is evolving accordingly. But what remains to be seen is what value these stories have beyond their mere existence and what meaning they can speak to us beyond their mere telling. If they can achieve that, then the spirit of this book should overtake just about anyone with its storytelling might.

Final Thought: The real ghosts are the sentiments we try to bury under the surface.

Score: 7.5/10

Sirens of The City #1

Comics

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

Sirens of the City is certainly a case study.

The whole premise — about a young orphan girl in the ‘80s grappling with her own magical origins as an analogy for “bodily autonomy” — is hugely interesting. And writer Joanne Starer certainly has the pedigree to deliver (just see her massively human tale in The Gimmick). The issue, then, is that perhaps the narrative itself is a little uncertain of it all, and it reads as such rather early on into issue #1.

This isn’t to say that things aren’t also working in this book. Our hero, Layla, seems almost fully formed even as she struggles to find her way in a dark, multifaceted world that she doesn’t entirely understand. And having her as this strong and interesting presence does a lot to help the reader — be it balancing the grit and fantasy of this world or keeping us grounded when things may get too playful. Layla is amazing from word one.

But then that’s sort of it and the world around her proves equally compelling if not outright flawed. A lot of that is about motivations and perspectives — it’s hard to tell who’s who (good or bad, magical or not, etc.), and the reader, but not Layla, feels hugely distracted and unsure. It’s us — again, pretty quickly into #1 — that will often struggle with taking stock of everyone and trying to decide our feelings in a way that doesn’t take us (even partially) out of the story’s proceedings. It’s an issue of not enough basic facts being broadcast to allow us to make informed decisions and to feel as if we understand this world enough to really grasp it in a meaningful way.

It’s an issue that is complicated because of the book’s art. Khary Randolph deserves ample praise for his efforts here. He understood the scope of this world and executed it perfectly. The world itself is super approachable and real, and we feel like we’re firmly in the mid-80s with every decrepit street and massive punk hairdo. It’s not just grit and darkness for the sake of it but an encapsulation of the era to help support and uplift the core themes and larger premise. And Randolph treats things like its own little fantasy world, one that remains realistic enough but has that certain abstract charm that transforms New York City into something else entirely. Even the little touches — like, accents of blue and red for various characters — help us better define the standings of everyone and the connections and interplay between these characters (again, even as the story itself might falter in some regards).

There’s so much life and subtext to what’s mostly black and white, and Randolph’s character designs and approach to the world feel all the more powerful for operating under this framework while finding ways to be as lush and expressive as if there were a million colors involved. It’s the mark of a true artist who can not only build the world but fill it with bits to inform the story, offer perspective, and enhance key interactions.

So let’s call issue #1 a case study in the art landing before the story and what that means for a still-developing narrative. I have every faith that with more story still to come, we’ll get our bearings and be able to make certain decisions. But in the meantime, working it all out has rarely ever felt this beguiling and entertaining from a visual standpoint.

Final Thought: The magic here is real, but time will tell if this book breaks its own spell.

Score: 6.5/10

Cat Fight #2

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/12/23

Courtesy of IDW.

To love a cat is to commit. Not just to the playful moments or when they have the zoomies, but to watching this kitty grow into a cat. And already I feel like Cat Fight is growing into a beloved family pet (that just so happens to be a comics caper a la John Wick meets Kill Bill).

A huge part of that is the continued dynamic between writer Andrew Wheeler and artist Ilias Kyriazis — their continually impressive rapport this early on does wonders for the story’s development. As our “hero,” Felix, tries to make his way to Paris to uncover the true killer of his beloved grandmother (a kind of kingpin of international thievery), we get story and visual magic married in true effortlessness. They’re huge moments of excitement — a car chase, fights on a moving train, etc. — that aren’t just thrilling but emphasize the visual prowess and charm of the book’s core identity.

And from that, we get lots of big developmental moments — like Felix’s connection to his grandmother and where he may exist in the grander scheme of this universe — that isn’t just happening alongside the action scenes but exist as if to match or build from that intensity in moments of profound symbiosis. That ability lends the narrative a lot of power — to feel just as grand and alluring but also to never bog things down and to always keep us moving and guessing right alongside our extra-charismatic protagonist. It’s an issue that treats character development and worldbuilding as fun things in and of themselves and not just “homework” to be done before we can get to the cool stuff. And in that way, it keeps everything synchronized as things swell ever upward in this grand, super exciting mystery.

If there were any downsides to this issue, it’s that sometimes the characters don’t feel as fully fleshed out as Felix, even as they all present with heaps of history and, even more importantly, so much dang potential. That sometimes makes this book feel like the “Felix Show,” which is fine enough, even given that he’s a really effective lead with both effervescence and some solid layers of intrigue. But I want more of an already rich universe and for it to apply its dynamic, people-centric approach to more characters to both reveal everything and perhaps land Felix even more nuance and context.

But as it stands, this issue was an accomplishment in pushing the story forward while giving us plenty to gawk at. If it can keep up the pace, then maybe this little book can sleep at the foot of our bed forever and ever.

Final Thought: This cat wastes no time in occupying the most primo spots in pet daycare.

Score: 8.5/10

Antarctica #1

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/12/23

Courtesy of Image Comics/Top Cow.

I wanted to like Antarctica. When you describe a book as Stargate meets His Dark Materials, it speaks to me in a really interesting way.

So I held onto that compelling little descriptor as I made my way through the book. And despite that effort, my commitment wasn’t exactly rewarded.

Visually speaking, artist Will Roberts certainly delivered on his end. Maybe it wasn’t as robust as either of those beloved franchises, but Roberts nailed the near-future vibes with grace and playfulness — fostering an atmosphere of grit without forgoing some sense of warmth and familiarity. From character designs to even the look of the eventual research station in Antarctica, it struck that novel distance between the fantastic and the ordinary, and that sweet spot keeps eyes where they ought to be. Even if there weren’t any hugely compelling moments in this debut, Roberts’ work was thoughtful and fluidic enough to keep us focused as the narrative tried to find its footing.

The only issue, then, is that it never really could find said footing in a way that felt effective. Writer Simon Birks seems to struggle with pacing and getting us to where we need to be in issue #1. He shows us the struggles and triumphs of our hero, Hannah, as she goes from homeless orphan to star engineer — only it felt so forced and muddled that there wasn’t enough reason to truly care. Even as he tried to extend her world — like through a tragic friendship that pushes her toward her fate — it’s really hard to feel connected to Hannah beyond some mostly abstract character. All that pacing and development could have been done in a couple of panels or extended to a full issue, but the way it is here, it’s mostly just a waste of time before the story proper.

And yet even once we establish Hannah and we finally get to the proper premise by the end of the last page, it’s still hard for this specific outcome to resonate given our existing disconnect. More than that, it ends up being a slightly hokey bit of cliched sci-fi storytelling that feels divorced from the story thus far. Great, here’s the dazzling twist, but we’ve forgotten to build a meaningful world around it — ta-da! I get that the twist may help show us something about the book’s central question (how different would we be under other circumstances?) But this bit of multiversal madness is both totally un-novel and, in this specific iteration, mostly underwhelming. There are reasons to care about this, Hannah if things were done differently here.

Do I think the book could recover from a rather flawed start? Sure, almost anything is possible. But what I fear may happen is more solid visuals trying to make up for a hurried story that runs when it should saunter and fumbles when the landing is just right there to stick. I really wanted to like Antarctica, but so far it’s made that a mostly impossible task.

Final Thought: The research station isn’t the only thing that’ll leave you feeling cold.

Score: 4.5/10

Something Epic #3

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/12/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

The third issue of Something Epic is, like a lot of other titles that make it this far, a tiebreaker. Because where issue #1 had problems — over-explaining certain ideas and premises, a disconnected young hero — issue #2 tried to recover (with some decent worldbuilding and more to connect with regarding our aforementioned protagonist). So does issue #3 maintain the forward momentum, or am I back to thinking this fantasy’s mostly unattainable?

For the most part, I think we’ve taken even more sizable steps forward. Despite a start to this issue that had me fearing for even more extended exposition, writer-artist Szymon Kudrański quickly pivoted into a proper balance between showing and telling. He told us about how Danny saw the world and how he could use that as a final goodbye of sorts with his mother — it was a moment that landed with the right amount of gravitas, given its direct approach. From there, he was able to show us what that meant — spinning in his robust fantasy world in such a way that all of that joy and imagination and pure magic felt grounded to the story itself.

It was an achievement that finally made this title feel generally cohesive — an expression of ideas both fantastical and gut-wrenching because it was aligned and unified around Danny and how he uses his art and imagination to actually explain and engage the world. We get moments of profound-ness — the depth and layers of Danny’s world are compelling in their sheer whimsy— and also moments of silliness (more of Kudrański’s unique takes on existing franchises that add a Ready Player One quality, for better and worse). And in their interactions, as it were, we can see the depths of Danny’s fantasy and how essential it is in building the story and the larger emotional stakes within. It felt like the first time everything meshed in the best way, and we began to see the role Danny occupies and also the story that’s unfolding in front of his very eyes.

A huge chunk of that happens when the book takes a leap forward in time, following an older Danny whose relationship with art has changed drastically. He still creates, in a way, and that profound change will have a lot to say about his development and if he can once more find the magic that defined his early life. I’m not exactly in love with the sharp turn toward the realm of horror — complete with a new antagonist of sorts that already feels a tad cheesy — but it certainly is a bit of momentum, and that’s what matters most here. Because it took a second for this book to sort itself out and give us anything beyond fun pictures to gawk at alongside thought experiments and minor worldbuilding, and when it did, the premise clicked, and everything seemed to take on a sense of life beyond just pretty pictures.

Time will tell what will be made of this new focus, but it so far has managed to push this book’s many moving parts forward in something resembling an organized manner. That, and we see the way the fantastical and reality have begun their interplay, and that’s going to be important if this book is going to make good on its hero’s journey. I just hope issue #4 can keep it going, or it’s going to take a lot more work and some real magic to achieve anywhere near this book’s titular potential.

Final Thought: When fantasy and reality collide, there’s true magic to be found.

Score: 7.5/10

Starsigns #3

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/12/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

With issue #2, I noted how much Starsigns reminded me of Heroes. Not, say, the awful fourth season or the subsequent relaunch, but the robust humanity that defined the core of this series (until it lost its way, of course). It was my hope that the creative team (Saladin Ahmed, Kelly Fitzpatrick, and Megan Levens) might be able to avoid those pitfalls and maintain a really human story that also happened to feature fallen stars and superpowers.

And, to an extent, there’s a lot on issue #3 to make me think everything’s hunky-dory.

The art from Fitzpatrick and Levens, for instance, remains both hugely grounding (keeping things tight and consistent to serve as a proper baseline) while offering something novel (like the fiery powers of the newly-emerged Mr. Duke/Ares) to thrill readers. And Ahmed’s narrative efforts do a lot of the same — we get lots of great moments and developmental tidbits that remind us of the evocative core of this book. Whether it’s the costs of Clarence’s power (it’s subtle, but it makes for some proper stakes) or Rana’s own development (she remains an effective lens or perspective into this world), the humanity at play here never seems to take a backseat. It’s a story about what might actually happen to people as they get superpowers, and its imperfections and flaws seem to be a feature and not some bug.

At the same time, though, this book’s turn toward other, more problematic Heroes-ian tendencies is somewhat unnerving. Focusing on new characters, for one, gives us less time for others, and the young Alejandro (who can control emotions) still hasn’t had a chance to really step into the spotlight. And as we likely see more and more of the superhero Zodiac, there exists a real fear that a similar fate may befall others. Beyond that, the issue ended on something of a flat cliffhanger — there’s a real sense of danger, for sure, but nothing that I’d associate as a proper ending whatsoever.

Perhaps that best speaks to a larger issue of this book: a problem with pacing and timing that strips too much of the action-oriented approach and leaves us with stakes that aren’t quite up to snuff. It’s all heart and some action, and that’s mostly a solid formula — until things don’t really know how to stand or present themselves in a more significant light. And it may seem like a small thing in the story’s grand run, but having that uneven feeling at the end of every issue just doesn’t feel as effective in the long term.

I don’t feel like this “bad” ending harms the rest of the story whatsoever — it does, though. color what’s next and also how that might connect back to everything happening here. It’s a decision that stymies the momentum this book’s worked to generate, and that’s hugely important as we focus more and more on an ever-growing cast’s various interactions. I still think this book has some Sylar-level cunning as things build, but it wouldn’t take much for this book to become Matt Parkman in no time.

Final Thought: There’s heart and charm galore but the pacing just feels annoyingly off.

Score: 7/10

Savage Squad 6 #1

Comics

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

Given the state of digital media, it’s often hard to discern hype. I could have made it all up, but it does seem like Savage Squad 6 — from writers Robert Venditti and Brockton McKinney alongside artist Dalts Dalton, letterer Micah Myers, and colorist Geraldo Filho — had some fairly solid hype pre-arrival. And, for the most part, I can totally see why. Unless this is still a fever dream?

Take a group of edgy teens (I’m assuming it’s an all-female squad, but it’s never implicitly said, and that’s a damn good move) and position them as the heroes of a post-dystopian hellscape. The premise alone doesn’t exactly scream novel but then that’s not the point — it’s about these teens working together in this world and not any grander bells or whistles. (So much so, in fact, that it’s not exactly clear what The Scourge is, and that kind of nebulous approach thus far would be annoying if it it didn’t keep the emphasis firmly on the still-developing team.)

From there, we then get ample time to explore how the six operate, entering the team through the lens of a new member called Doc. That bit of unease and uncertainty that we get to see in the team’s dynamic come alive in some interesting ways. Sure, that can sometimes feel a little cliched and mirrors similar premises in a dozen other media franchises, but it’s never not entertaining. It’s about taking familiar ideas and tropes and finding the innate humanity as you delve in and repurpose accordingly.

If anything, it’s here where the art team really makes the most noticeable difference. When things seem like they may lean a little too heavily into Band of Brothers territory, there’s some frenetic moment of action or some other bit of visual intensity that firmly reminds us where we are and the tension and chaos that defines the 6’s unique enough universe. And that whole stylistic approach isn’t just good for setting the series apart from some of its “predecessors,” but also fostering a lot of the nihilism and attitude of this book. You may have seen a story like this before, but nothing actually quite like it at all.

By maintaining a bare-bones, only-the-essentials approach, we feel how scarce this world is and just how rare the team’s connection truly is amid the endless fighting. From there, there are moments in the story — a brutal attack on a squad member, for instance — that extends the story and visuals in just such a way that we feel the impact and reverberations of this moment in a truly heady way. There are moments where the humanity feels stripped out entirely, but the story reminds us, with heart and chutzpah galore, that this is just the cost of endless bloody war.

It’s my hope that the book can maintain its gnarly pace for the rest of its run — if it can, then we can see just how big and bloody things might get for the squad. And if not, we might miss out on something that’s not entirely novel but doesn’t let us obsess over it too much by presenting great character interactions, an unflinching eye for violence, and genuine stakes galore. How’s that for hype?!

Final Thought: The kids are alright — even if they’re a tad derivative at times.

Score: 7/10

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