Review: Daredevil #8

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Daredevil started a new arc this week, as the fabulously smart caption box on the front of the latest issue informed me. Of anything that Marvel has implemented over the last few months, the caption box on the front page which says “all-new story starts now!” has been the most useful, and the one which I desperately hope more publishers take advantage of. I know Image like to have you read every issue of a comic, but it’s nice to have a definitive point where you can start reading a book with relatively little background info and give the whole thing a try.

I’ve not heard much talk about Charles Soule’s turn writing Daredevil, unusually, given that his time with She-Hulk was so memorable. For those unaware, Soule is also a practising lawyer himself, and he brought that knowledge into his run writing Jennifer Walters in a convincing and arguably star-making performance as writer. Here, with Marvel’s other big lawyer, I’d not heard anything, to be honest. All had gone quiet.

Soule’s run has started with the gambit “he’s hidden his identity again” and is running from there, with the big reveal of how the character managed it looking to be the big hook of the overall narrative. This current arc though, seems like a deliberate step away from the standard type of Daredevil story and an attempt to try something different and new with the character – hurling him into a crime caper in China, where he’s participating in a poker tournament. It’s all fairly simple to keep up with, although the narrative breaks from Matt Murdock across to Daredevil slowly introduce a more confusing thread, as we reveal that Matt’s activities are just a bluff for his alter-ego to investigate something else.

Which is quite neat, bluffing the reader into thinking this was Matt Murdock trying to make some extra money when actually there’s some kind of villain in the hotel he’s actually trying to get closer to. It draws from the Waid/Samnee characterisation of Daredevil before pulling away into something different, and perhaps more in-line with whatever the Charles Soule iteration of Daredevil will be. As someone jumping on the issue with this arc, it was a little disappointing to realise that the Matt Murdock I’m reading about is actually lying to me, so I don’t get to see what his actual character is – but then hey, I suppose that’s character as much as anything.

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So I was fine with the story, which takes a few interesting detours although does feature a slightly dour, less appealing version of Matt Murdock than the last few years have gotten us all attuned to. With Goran Sudzuka presenting him as basically a blank slate for the entire issue as well, the comic doesn’t make him a particularly compelling protagonist, which slows the issue down and draws things out in order to make the bluff stronger. We’re holding to the interest of the game itself to pull us through the pages, tension building up because we want to see if he’ll win the tournament or not.

Sudzuka is a ridiculous artist who draws a face on every background character, merges the background into the foreground during fight scenes as a way to break panels apart, and generally does incredibly impressive work throughout. His take on the Casino captures the mix of shine, sleeze and dirt which you feel whenever you walk past a gambling table. There’s glamour and elegance, but at the same time everybody looks slightly discomforted by the experience and holds a slight grimace – when you transfer gaze from Daredevil to the people stood around him, things feel sinister and claustrophobic in a completely natural way. It’s not that everybody is out to get him here, it’s just that this is what casinos feel like.

The most noticeable aspect of the comic, though, is the colouring, which I’m not sure I enjoyed. Daredevil is not meant to be a bright comic, but this issue seemed surprisingly grim and dour for what was meant to be a high-stakes poker tournament. Matt Milla uses reds and blacks for the scenes set in the casino, mirroring the look of a roulette wheel but muddying and hiding quite a lot of Sudzuka’s work. Scenes outside the casino drop the red for a dark blue and dark green respectively, which means the whole issue feels less flashy than perhaps it could.

The casino loses sheen, the location work from Sudzuka doesn’t have much pop, and the fight scenes look grimy and harsh (which is the part of the colouring choice that really works nicely). Partway through the issue is a fight scene set in the astral plane, with Daredevil taking on a mind-reader, and it looks drab. Sudzuka does some really nice work on one panel in particular which has a snowy mountain as the backdrop. Daredevil and his assailant have a fight scene laid over the top of the mountain, their movements and swipes of swords throwing up snowy paths down the face of the slope and providing downward momentum which speeds up as the page reads onwards.

However, the colouring mutes absolutely everything, reducing the impact of the sequence dramatically. Perhaps not every superhero comic should have a bright shine to it, but this issue of Daredevil absolutely feels like it needed a pick-up. With everything muted (even the whites don’t have the gleam you’d see in, say, Moon Knight) there’s nothing to grab your immediate attention, and it’s easy to lose tracking on which panel to read at what time. I don’t have any of those pages to show you, though, so uh, just take my word on that one I guess. The preview pages are slick.

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Letterer Clayton Cowles picks up for the reader and offers a route through some of the more dull pages, but it shouldn’t have to be presented like that – with a more dynamic colouring style, like as seen once Daredevil appears on the pages at the end of the issue, the artwork would fit the style of the script in a more convincing manner.

As things are, a reasonably solid comic trades in style for a moody atmosphere which doesn’t quite feel right for what we’re being shown. I found Daredevil #8 to be a mostly fine comic which just feels dull, slowed down, and less effective than it could have been. It’s certainly not Sudzuka holding the issue back, as he sets up the pages in sterling fashion, with a series of brilliantly constructed moments scattered liberally throughout the pages. And whilst Soule’s narrative gambit does hold back on Matt Murdock’s personality, he does offer an interesting story. But the colouring choice really feels like it holds things back, here. I still think the issue was decent, but it loses a lot of razzle-dazzle in an Boardwalk Empire-style palette of dour dullness.

 

Writer: Charles Soule

Artist: Goran Sudzuka

Colourist: Matt Milla

Letterer: Clayton Cowles

Publisher: Marvel Comics

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Review: Scooby-Doo Apocalypse #1

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Jim Lee

DC are launching fix or six Hannah-Barbera comics over the next few weeks, such as an update of Wacky Races which promises to invest the franchise with the post-apocalyptic latex bodysuits it clearly apparently needed. It’s a freakish mix of books, with what looks like a straight-laced version of The Flintstones being the only one of them which seems to be following the original spirit of the cartoons it’s based on. Perhaps.

The big one for me, though, is Scooby-Doo Apocalypse. This is one which retains the color-coding of the characters’ different clothing and not much else, it seems, with the “team of teens tackling a nefarious villain dressed as a monster” concept chucked away in favour of something really, really quite bizarre. Scooby Doo Apocalypse is a series in which the monsters are actually real: the creations of a nanotech virus unleashed on the world by Velma, amongst others.

In the world of the comic, each of the five characters has been updated somewhat. Fred now appears to be clearly coded as gay by the artist but straight by the script; Daphne is a self-invested brand in the Lois Lane fashion; Velma is a cynical scientist who triggers the events of the series as part of a sinister corporation; and Shaggy and Scooby are no longer cowards.

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Those two are the characters who hew closest to their original iterations, with Scooby basically the same he always way – with the addition of a heroic streak and a monocle which projects emoticons for Shaggy to read. That monocle is the strangest choice of the book, actually, because artist Howard Porter’s work is a huge step up from his work with Grant Morrison’s JLA (my only other point of reference for him: I’m not much of a DC reader) and he does a really quite impressive job of giving life and expression to the great dane. Scooby is arguably the most articulate of the entire team in this comic, rendering his emoticons largely irrelevant – I stopped reading them after the first two instances, to be honest, because his face told the story by itself.

What’s confusing to me about the book is where it’s meant to be aimed at. I think… me? I think my sort of age is the reference, because this certainly isn’t a book for kids. Not in the sense that it’s particularly violent or crude (although there was actually a suggestion on the last page that we might a get somewhat less moderate level of violence than you’d want on a Scooby Doo comic) but because the concepts are all just so high-level. Fred’s first few pages have him mention “granola-snorting weirdos”, for instance, before talking about, of all things, Esperanto. I’m in my twenties I have barely any memory of Esperanto! And even that was only because it got mentioned on Red Dwarf.

 

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It’s far too overwritten for younger readers, in other words. Not just because the references are ones only old readers are going to get, but because the wording of each concept is so unnecessarily convoluted and impossible. The basic idea of the comic is that a virus infects people and turns them into monsters, and the team have to stop it. But it’s not described in a simple way like that – instead, Velma strings off this hugely complicated spiel about the virus which uses big words and bigger concepts. Eight year old Steve, I can promise you, had absolutely no interest in googling to find out what a “biological template for a more abundant and peaceful world”is, nor looking up the meaning of words like “self-replicating”, “passivity”, “benevolent” and more. Why, each time, does the script use the most difficult and complex version of every word possible?

So yeah, I think I’m probably more the intended audience than the children who actually y’know, watch Scooby Doo cartoons now. On that level – I’m sort of interested in it? I mean, I’ve watched at least two Sharknado movies, and this brings out the same level of wide-eyed fascination for me. I can’t look away from the comic because I just don’t know what the plan is, how the series is looking to execute that plan, or if they even have a plan right now. The arch, knowing camp of the series when I watched it is replaced with a semi-serious tone that is possibly winking at the readers, or possibly just has something stuck in its eye.

I’m not really sure if the book is intentional or not, right now. I mean sure, you have Keith Giffen and Howard Porter as the central creative team for the series, which is a sign that DC want this to stand alongside all their DC Rebirth titles. At the same time, it’s a comic which sort-of posits that Fred is the nicest member of the team. Fred! In comparison to Velma, whose redesign makes her look like an alt-reality Dr Sivana; or Daphne, who spends the whole issue being furious about everything that happens, regardless of if its actually inconveniencing her or not; or Shaggy, who reads as a clueless and strangely earnest dude who over-explains every situation he’s in; Fred is the one who seems like the underdog here. Daphne even punches him for no reason near the end, just to make us really feel sorry for him, stuck with this nasty bunch.

Scooby comes off like a slightly toned-down version of himself. As I said earlier, that’s mainly because Porter gives him the best expressions and body language of any of them – he’s the most fun character to follow, even when not speaking or the focus of a panel. It’s also partly because he isn’t featured anywhere like as much as the others. He seems to be a supporting character at this point rather than the lead, but we’ll see how that changes over time.

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I do really like the colouring, provided by somebody at Hi-Fi. Porter gives things a Star Wars-esque sense of age and spectacle, with strange background characters passing by in every other panel. The colours could have followed that and used a muted palette, but instead they’re vibrant and bright -making the backgrounds pop and actually giving the book the grown-up effect it’s going for.

It’s such a weird direction for Scooby Doo, though. I don’t dislike it, but I can’t think of anybody I’d really recommend it to? It’s a fun comic at times, with something like a 40% hit rate for the jokes. I like Fred now, somehow. And over the course of an arc, we’ll be able to grasp what exactly the plan is for the book. How does it react to the original cartoons, what will it keep and what will it jettison? DC have taken the most predictable, formulaic comic they had (not criticisms! everybody likes the Scooby formula) and turned the book into the strangest, least predictable title on the shelf.

Scooby Doo Apocalypse #1

Writers: Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMattis

Artist: Howard Porter

Colourist: Hi-Fi

Letterer: Nick J. Nap

Publisher DC Comics

 

Review: The Fix #2

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A few years back, at I think the second-ever Image Expo, the main story afterwards was how Image had attracted so many of Marvel and DC’s top writers and artists, where they would be making new comics without mandates or restraint. Gillen, McKelvie and Wilson would take their pop-influenced contemporo-action into The Wicked and The Divine; Scott Snyder and Jock would indulge their passion for horror with Wytches, and so on and so on. We were seeing people do work that referenced their well-read and much-seen work at larger publishers, but on their own terms.

That’s what you can’t help but keep in mind throughout reading The Fix. From Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, this one draws an immediate parallel to The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, their series detailing the exploits and failed long-cons of some of Spidey’s D-List enemies. Here, again, we have people with no moral compass, who will betray everyone in order to get ahead – only this time at Image, rather than Marvel.

It’s another extension of an existing brand, but I found it to be a really different reading experience to some of the other franchise-to-Image transitions of the last couple of years. With the editor out the way and a group of new characters to play around with, the sense of danger immediately drops away from the comic – the formula which worked so well with a group of company-owned characters fizzles down when you take off the restraints. I enjoyed The Fix well enough, but it certainly feels like a weaker comic when you’d think it should be stronger.

It should probably be noted that, yeah, it’s not especially fair to draw comparisons between two different comics as the main note in a review – but that’s how the book’s been marketed, and it’s easily the most notable aspect of the series thus far. The two main characters in The Fix, whose names I don’t recall, are corrupt police officers who are looking to cover a debt they owe to an affable maniac who plays bluegrass covers of R. Kelly songs and then garottes people with his guitar strings. Their attempts to find a perfect score form the concept of the series, but the reality is a series of loosely connected vignettes building the characters and their reckless lack of morality.

But as it appears at the moment, there’s no fixed depth to that moral descent. Nobody follows a code, so there’s nobody pointing out that what the characters are doing is wrong. Everybody is implicit in the world of The Fix, which removes the feeling of danger from the comic. When reading, I found that a lot of the jokes were predictable because the structure of the comic only allows things to go in one direction. Each time the characters face a choice, I know they’ll pick the coward’s route. In this issue, for example, a long set-up is offered for one of their co-workers, who is the epitome of the hard-working hero.

He does charity work, is a devoted husband, brings doughnuts in for lunch. So the obvious route is for the protagonists to wreck his life and send him to jail. It’s obvious from the get-go that this is where they’re going, because there’s nothing to stop them doing so. But it’s also obvious that The Fix, with its highly cynical narration boxes, is also going to push further, and sure enough the character also proves ultimately to be hiding deeper secrets which make it fine for him to be arrested.

Everything turns for the worst, and it’s jarringly predictable. When combined with the fact that there are no characters who effectively act as condemnation for the actions of our leads? It makes for a surprisingly dull overall read. Likewise, the scene I mentioned above, with the man they owe a debt to? It almost reads as shorthand. He has already been characterised as somebody who is pleasant-acting and seems dull, almost, in his normalcy – but is actually a deranged murderer, and the second issue’s check-in only serves to re-tick the boxes we’re already seen.

He murders somebody for no real reason, he gets away with it, and it has no lasting effect. Compare that to the previous series, The Superior Foes of Spider-Man. In that book you have a similar looming presence over the heads of the team, in the form of well-known Spider-Man villains like Tombstone and Chameleon. They perform a similar role to the mob boss of The Fix, but in their case the editorial handcuffs surrounding them actually offers benefit to the comic. They can kill, and we know they can – but Marvel’s editorial guides mean we know they can’t overstep particular limits.

There’s a structure in that, a sense of discipline. It’s also set in a superhero universe, so we already know there’s a core of “good vs evil” in the coding of the comic. The characters like Boomerang, Beetle, Shocker etc who we’re following are low-level villains like the leads of The Fix, but they can’t just do whatever they want. They have a place in an established pecking order within the comic – and outside the comic too. Their decades-long history plays into everything we see them do, as these background characters attempt to worm their way past known murderers and mob bosses in order to make a living robbing banks.

We also know that they have to survive – so the basis of their book became “how do they get out of this?”. In The Fix, the characters are fresh and have only had forty pages of history, total, so far. And in their forty pages they’ve so far gotten away with everything, so there’s no sense of danger for their current situation. They don’t have the forces of the universe conspiring against them like, say, Shocker does. Shocker’s never going to win. He’s Shocker! Sucking is just what he does. The leads of The Fix aren’t underdogs – they’re just mean-spirited people who will drop all morale pretence if it’s to their benefit.

It’s not a story so much as it is a series of sketches, therefore, with the outcome pre-determined. At this point you feel you can tell exactly where each subsequent issue is going to go, and the only decision at the end is whether they get away with their score, or whether they get shot. Because unlike the Marvel characters, these two are completely disposable. Again, it removes the stakes somewhat. You can make a long-running Marvel character completely awful, because at the end of the day the creative team have to put all their toys back in the sandbox.

With The Fix, there’s no sense of that. We can’t connect to the leads because they’re definitively bad people. They don’t seem to be in particular trouble, as they spend all their time mucking around and elaborately ruining other people’s lives. And at the end of the day, Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber can always just kill them if they want. It makes for a fascinating series, where each new vignette tries to bring the characters to a new moral low – but the feeling I came away with was “okay, but why does it matter?” They could commit absolute atrocities by the time the series finishes, but it still doesn’t mean anything for me as a reader.

With The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, I knew that the characters had to be extricated from their situation, because a year down the line Dan Slott will probably need to use some of them in the main Spider-Man book, and he’ll want them relatively unharmed/unchanged from their ‘classic’ behaviour. That adds a level of difficulty to the series which The Fix doesn’t experience itself. It’s fine enough as a series; and I’m glad to see an Image book which isn’t just another one-word astronaut dystopia; but it’s certainly a case where the creative team’s attempts to one-up their past success actually detract from the comic they’re making.

And I still can’t remember the names of any of the characters.

 

The Fix #2

Writer: Nick Spencer

Artist: Steve Lieber

Colorist: Ryan Hill

Letterer/Designer: Nic J. Shaw

Publisher: Image Comics

Pirates Stealing Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs Eating Pirates: Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron’s ‘The Pirates of Pangaea’

A few weeks back The Phoenix very kindly sent me a copy of ‘The Pirates of Pangaea’, a series set in a world where dinosaurs and humans co-exist, on the lost continent of Pangaea. But when faced up with the existence of dinosaurs, what have the humans decided to do? That’s right: strap giant boats onto their backs and go pirating about.

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Written by Daniel Hartwell and drawn by Neill Cameron, the first few stories from The Phoenix are collected into this volume as part of the ‘Phoenix Presents’ collection, which has previously put out similar collections from people like Gary Northfield, Jamie Smart and Adam Murphy. Coming in at around 100 pages, this first volume of the series proves to be a surprisingly heady mix of swashbuckling, dinosaur discovery, and people getting eaten. Word of caution – I’m writing this review whilst enjoying a full-on head cold, which normally results in me over-writing my points. So, just bear that in mind as you read on.

The most striking thing about the first part of the story collected here is how brutal Hartwell’s story is at times. He doesn’t pull any punches (or, indeed, retract any sabres), setting a darker tone than I’ve seen in any of the other Phoenix Presents books so far. People die in this series, in unfair ways, and in ways which connect the book to the book it seems most inspired by (based on my limited knowledge, at least): Tintin.

The basic concept here is that Pangaea still exists, and can be travelled to by sea. This is a forgotten continent, where dinosaurs still roam around free – apart from some, which are rendered docile by a substance called ‘snuff’ and used as transport. Giant wooden boats are built on their backs, and civilians can thereby travel from port to port without having to walk through the wilderness, which is populated by rather more dangerous dinos. However, the threat to the civilians travelling Pangaea is that pirates roam the plains, themselves on the backs of dinosaurs, and are liable to appear from nowhere to raid travelling ships.

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It’s an old-fashioned story, where all the men try to act civilised, the women are expected to be docile, and pirates are mostly ruthless and ugly people. What elevates it above the stuff that they used to put in The Funday Times is the world-building, mostly established through Cameron’s artwork. We get scant glimpses of far away places, towns tucked into mountains and whole societies living undetected in the forests (which are played a little as ‘savages’, although this is ultimately negated), and it creates a continual sense of awe to the series.

In having a whole continent to set up their base, and then sending the characters all over the place to see the various wonders contained within it, the creative team set up a real sense of wonder and adventure. Just as Treasure Island – which obviously influences every aspect of this book – managed, the series sets up the premise that there is far more going on than first meets the eye, and this creates a feeling of vast expanse – but also of tight confinement. The first story gives the reader a fairly brutal treatment, as our hero Sophie comes up against some quite scary opponents and meets a stark defeat pretty quickly, and this then provides stakes for the rest of the series.

Not all of the story comes together – there’s a kid she meets, Timothy, who spends most of his time being an annoyance rapping round the story’s ankles rather than somebody the reader wants to spend time with – but there’s a surprisingly tight narrative in-place here. Hartwell’s dialogue is full-on enjoying the pirate theme throughout, creating high spirits which helps thrust the story along from issue-to-issue. Whilst the scripting has a B-Movie sensibility to it, letting the reader see a romanticised pirate story even as people swoop in on the backs of dinosaurs and eat their opponents, the narrative itself manages to walk the line away from self-parody.

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This is partly because Hartwell restrains the narrative whenever it seems like things might become blandly over-the-top, and partly because Cameron’s artistic style goes for realism over cartooning. The dinosaurs are drawn to careful proportion, whilst the humans and settings are both fantastical but identifiable. He doesn’t break anatomy or over-emote at any point, which makes the story feel more authentic and true to itself. Likewise, the colouring seems aimed at ensuring the Pangaea setting feels like a real location, with natural colours filtering through the landscapes.

It’s a fun comic to read through, starting off with a brutal setting-of-the-scene but then relaxing into a confident, enjoyable journey. I can’t stress enough how much I like the way the team create their world, and the story and characters they fit inside it are likeable and relatable. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but once I settled into the storytelling, I found myself really liking the style – and the energy – of this first collection.

A Hero Falls to Earth: Read and Cormack’s ‘Find’ [Review]

I was sent a PDF of this one by writer Sam Read, who wrapped up his miniseries Exit Generation last year and caught the attention of Comixtribe. A one-shot story drawn and coloured by Alex Cormack, this relates the story of a young boy, who meets a strange creature from outer space one night, in the woods. It was quite charming, actually, and I wanted to do a quick review of it as soon as I finished the last page.

All pages of art here are from an unlettered preview I found on Cormack’s website.

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The story is a simple one, really. A young boy called Teddy lives with his family, who don’t pay any attention to him, and lives a fairly introverted life. This is established quickly, pushing the necessary colour to the start of the book and allowing the series to go off in a more unpredictable direction sooner rather than later. Read, perhaps aware that this part of the book isn’t particularly important, puts in a disorientating dream sequence on the second page of the issue, which allows the reader to wash over the conventional home-life introduction.

Teddy wanders into the woods, is the important part, and meets a creature from outer space which seems to have the ability to emulate anything it is shown. Teddy, a comic-book fan, promptly shows it some pages of his favourite hero, and the creature starts to do some wondrous things. Set around this one night only, the book seems to draw a fairly obvious inspiration from The Iron Giant, with the young boy relating a surprising experience which went on to shape and improve his life. This leads to a really touching final page, which nicely clips the book together and gives it a strong and satisfying climax.

The first, most striking aspect of the book is Cormack’s work as colourist. He switches style two or three times throughout the story, but has to spend most of the issue on a single sequence set at night. That’s not an easy job to do, but the digital colouring works to brilliant effect throughout, concentrating a piercing, unnatural light around the Teddy’s torch, which blinds the reader and allows Cormack to hide parts of the story as fits the narrative best.

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When Teddy interacts with the creature, the colours distract tremendously from the story itself, creating an otherworldy effect which helps boost the sequence. At the core, this is a pretty simple story to tell – it’s the presentation which elevates it. Cormack’s sequencing is decent, if a little rough in places, and it’s hard to tell sometimes if his art is deliberately being difficult or he’s simply not quite established a scene. The nature of the story helps paper over that difference, to the point where I couldn’t tell, myself, and the optimist in me suggests he’s doing this on purpose.

The creature has a faintly creepy but also reassuring design, and the light radiating off it bounces around each panel and throw all kinds of textures on Teddy’s face. The colouring really helps the character feel more expressive, and the shadows cast across the pages set up a prolonged sense of atmosphere. When a third character enters the scene, things become a little more predictable and shallow, but the artwork looks past that and skips the reader past any sense of cliche.

One small disappointment was that Cormack sets up a conceit where each page has a tight white gutter around, which only the creature ever breaks through – this happens a few times at the start, but then falls away towards the end. The trick works so well when it is used, and it’s a bit of a shame that it isn’t kept up throughout.

Read’s script shows more confidence than on Exit Generation, and he paces the story very nicely indeed. His framing sequence doesn’t overrun at either end of the book – a common mistake made by writers – and he knows when to sit on a moment and when to race past one. Teddy at times feels a little like a cipher, as perhaps would be expected in the situation he finds himself within, but the structure of the comic means that the final few pages flesh him out properly and give more context back to the pages gone by.

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He cuts down the dialogue significantly during the sequence in the woods, not overdoing things too much. When the third character shows up and the plot goes in a more predictable direction, he does still manage to maintain the tone of the early pages, and gives the story consistency. Something about the book, when I finished it, stuck with me. There’s an element of sentimentality which is incredibly well-played into the issue, as it didn’t hit me until right at the end that Read was doing a take on the Spielberg mythos. There’s a moral at the end, which you don’t realise you’re playing along with until Read slips it in on the final page.

As someone who grew up with E.T. and all those other family-friendly movies of the 80s and 90s, I really connected with the comic and found it to be quite charming. It’s slight, certainly, but it’s got a real sense of heart to it and it has something to say. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the cover, and then each of the first few pages threw me for a different kind of loop. But, once everything settled in and the actual story started to unfold, I was really impressed by the way the creative team chose to tell the story.

It’s a fun issue.

Down From The Tower: Princesses on the Lam in Whitley, Higgins and Brandt’s ‘Princeless’ #1 [Review]

Colourist Ted Brandt sent me a review copy of the new volume of Princeless, previewed at Thought Bubble last year and out this month from Action Lab Entertainment. The popular series follows fairytale princesses as they move past the whole “getting captured a lot and having to be rescued” thing and onto a more productive “punching villains” phase. Written by Jeremy Whitley and drawn by Rosy Higgins, the second volume of the series launched recently, so I thought it best to have a look at the first issue.

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For this second volume, the book expands once more to add a new Princess into the mix. This is Princess Raven, who makes a particularly strong impact as the issue starts off with a cute opening sequence of her childhood and expands out into a decent take on the anti-princess concept. Whitley’s script plays into fairytales slightly, but seems aware of the current trend for blandly ‘strong’ female characters who don’t have anything else going on personality-wise. As such, he steers Raven away from the typical trappings of the fairytale princess and instead offers a hero who is an easily-distracted revenge-seeker, who has some hinted-at family issues and a highly-honed sense of sarcasm.

Her design is ace, with Higgins literally ripping up a dress to create something that seems more at home in Lord of the Rings. In fact, much of the book seems to owe a slight debt to Rat Queens, which Princeless both preceded and seems to be inspired by. The costume design leads the book even further away from the world of fairy tales and instead towards the fantasy genre, perhaps establishing a more grown-up tone for the series. Indeed, the three characters alone lend themselves to the world of computer gaming rather nicely, with one a knight, one an archer, and one a smith. Sort of.

The story takes a firm backseat in this issue, in favour of a character piece. Once the three leads hook up they head off and cause chaos and property damage wherever they go, bonding and establishing their personalities in fairly effortless fashion. Raven gets the most to do here, whilst the other two characters are largely a collection of quirks which only just start to mould themselves into full personalities by the end of the issue. I understand they were the stars of the previous Princeless books, but they do feel a little more thinly sketched here as a result, perhaps. Raven certainly steals the spotlight from them, at any rate.

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When I first read the comic, the colours were what drew me into the book. Brandt has to fill in a lot of background throughout the comic, as the fight sequences are typically drawn against a blank background, so his work is what propels the book along and gives it a sense of momentum. He tries all manner of different tricks in order to keep things pushing forward, and this ability to keep changing tactic is what gives the book a pulse. He establishes these huge, static, Disney-esque settings and then proceeds to fill them with energy and verve once the three main characters enter. The opening sequence, in particular, is very well done indeed, recounting a story from the past with a white fade around the edge of each panel as the myth falls out of time.

Probably because this is a second volume with the Princeless world, the comic feels incredibly confident. Higgins’ characters display only slight exaggerations, where most artists would probably go over the top. When they act with shock, their eyes expand slightly in size, their arms seize up, and their hair begins to stand on end – which gives the book a feeling of being a cartoon without ever betraying the characters. The world may be over the top and silly, but Higgins’ never displays that within the artwork.

That’s quite an important thing to note, as the main goal from the book is to give female readers characters to idolise. Quite clearly the book wants to create aspirational heroes and establish that girls can be heroes too. Taking the fairytale world and giving it a realism helps develop that agenda powerfully, and I would imagine young readers will love seeing these three girls – one black, one Asian, and one white – beat up people and have some fun. The action scenes, for their part, are nicely structured, if a little choppy at times.

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Higgins sets up the fight sequences panel-by-panel, with many movements taking two panels to complete. This slows the action down and lets it breathe, and readers can easily follow the heroes as they methodically take out their opponents one at a time.

Aimed at a younger audience than myself, Princeless seems like it does a fantastic job of giving us three fun, bouncy princesses who’re mugging their way through a new adventure. It’s PG-rated Rat Queens, basically, which seems like a thoroughly high compliment to pay the book.

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