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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Saga Volume 8

Title: Saga Volume 8

ISBN: 9781534303492

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: Image, 2017

Artist: Fiona Staples

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Collects: Saga #43-48

Rating: 4/5

Saga is my favorite comic series, because it is always pushing the envelope in terms of content, themes, gorgeously assured and sometimes shocking artwork, and characters so charming, honest and flawed that you can’t help but cheer for them. If you like intelligent, snarky, sometimes profane space opera with a vast cast of star-crossed lovers, bounty-hunters, humanoid robots, tabloid reporters, terrifying monsters, and oddball creatures all caught up in a galactic war between the technology-based Wings and magic-wielding Horns of Wreath and Landfall, this series is guaranteed to captivate.

In Vol 8, Marko, Alana, Hazel, Prince Robot, and Petrichor find themselves on a remote Wild West planet. The traumatic events on planet Phang are still lingering, and they are in desperate need of an emergency medical procedure (any more details would be a spoiler). Once again writer Vaughan is unafraid to tackle a sensitive subject with the opening panel. And while I thought this time the story sometimes felt like it was purely a vehicle for political debate and hurt the story’s momentum, I applaud his willingness to put his characters in contentious moral situations. It’s a trademark of the entire series, love it or hate it.

While Petrichor encounters some Wild West outlaws, Alana, Marko, and Hazel hitch a ride on a train and meet up a very unexpected new character that quickly bonds with Hazel. In fact, Alana has discovered some surprising new powers that may be connected to this. Finally Alana and Marko reach their destination and the doctor they’ve been seeking. The dialogue sounds like something from a TV talk show debate, but then that’s what Vaughan wants to talk about, so that’s what we get. I thought this part of Vol 8 dragged, as the characters debate the merits of their actions. Likewise, Petrichor and Prince Robot are another odd partnership and have many arguments over gender, war, and politics.

I liked the story of Hazel and her new friend Kurti better. There were a number of poignant moments as they innocently discuss the world of adults, and this section will appeal to parents, siblings, and those aspiring to become one. Again, this part is very well-written and didn’t feel as forced as their earlier parts.

In the next chapter, we once again see what The Will has been up to, and he’s not in a good place. Seems that one of the many individuals he’s casually killed during his illustrious freelance bounty hunter career had a loved one who has tracked him down to exact revenge. This person has decided to really torture him by going through his old memories. We get to see some scenes from The Will’s childhood and early days as a bounty hunter with The Stalk. Artist Fiona Staples treats us to the ultra-violent action that the series generally features. I’m sometimes unsure if Vaughan & Staples show gruesome violence for the vicarious thrills, or as a technique to highlight that killing is not clean and anonymous like storm-troopers in Star Wars. Considering that his old sins are now catching up with The Will, I would hazard a guess its’ the latter. Eventually, his tormentor unearths a very valuable secret from his memories, though it’s no secret to readers.

In the final chapter, we rejoin Upsher, the gay tabloid journalist, Ghus the little prairie-dog warrior with a sense of justice, and the innocent young son of Prince Robot, Squire. They have an adventure in the forest, seeking the fearsome Dread Naught, and Ghus and the young robot have some interesting discussions about what situations justify fighting and killing to protect yourself.  Vol 8 ends on an upbeat note, quite the opposite of the dark final panels of Vol 7.

Now that the series has reached 48 episodes and eight volumes, it has settled down to a more thoughtful pace, and while I think it does lack the intensity of the first four volumes and over-indulges in overt political themes that didn’t really carry the story forward much, I think Vaughan feels that he’s earned the loyalty of readers enough to be able to explore such themes with less propulsive action and more discourse. Again, I really appreciate that SAGA is not about escapism, its about our messy world, war, injustice, intolerance, innocence and cruelty, and most importantly the decisions we must make each day to get to the next day. That’s what keeps the series relevant and fresh – it’s real and funny and heartbreaking, often in rapid succession. Give it a try if you haven’t yet.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Saga Volume 7

Title: Saga Volume 7

ISBN: 9781534300606

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: Image, 2017

Artist: Fiona Staples

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Collects: Saga #37-42

Rating: 4/5

In Saga Vol 7, the story resumes as Marko and Alana are finally back together and Hazel is growing up quickly. Being from opposite sides of the conflict, they are an affront to both and their mixed child is considered an abomination that could undermine the biases that keep the two sides hating each other. They remain on the run from both sides, allied with a former enemy and a former prisoner who harbors a secret. When their ship runs low on fuel, they find they need to make an emergency stop on a comet called Phang. Much of the action takes place on this giant rock, “an exotic land of boundless diversity, home to thousands of different tribes, sects, and species…almost all of whom despited each other.” Phang has long been a battleground mainly because of its rich fuel resources, and much of its local populace lives a precarious existence while civil conflict continues. The parallels to certain geopolitical regions in the real world are painfully obvious, down to the stream of refugees produced by the fighting. Saga has never held back from making strong statements about war, racial prejudice, sexual orientations, and uses its violent content in part to push a strong anti-war sentiment, a recurring theme of the series.

As always, the story is carried along with multiple narrative threads, including that of Alana, Marko, Prince Robot, Petrichor, and Izabel on Phang, where they encounter a group of refugees who look like harmless prairie dogs. They are surprisingly innocent but devoutly religious, living in the ruins, and the overlays with images of adults and children living in the rubble of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq are certainly deliberate. After all, most civilians just want to live a decent life and avoid getting killed by either side, right? So why do they always end up caught in the crossfire. Our protagonists end up forming familial bonds with them, and Hazel forms a particularly close friendship with a young prairie dog male named Kurti. They’re just two kids growing up in a hostile and cruel world, but like all children they retain an innocent and accepting view of the world around them.

A separate storyline follows bounty hunter Gwendolyn, a little girl named Sophie rescued from slavery, Lying Cat, and even The Will makes a cameo. They are seeking to make an alliance between elements of both sides, but this storyline is fairly underdeveloped and feels more like a placeholder for events likely to happen in future volumes.

Meanwhile, Marko and the gang have to deal with a ruthless new bounty-hunter named The March, who seems to getting more work since The Will has been on sick leave. And the comet is quickly approaching a very lethal celestial object that is certain to lead to doom unless they find a means of escape…

I flew through the chapters of Vol 7 just as quickly as previous volumes, but as I said in my reviews for Saga Vols 5 & 6, the pace of the story has slowed a bit and the new characters are not quite as fresh and the twists and shocks that were so effective in Vols 1-4 have also lost a bit of their impact. Once again, the series remains very intelligent and is not content just to provide escapism. Vaughan clearly cares very much about the often harsh cruelties of the real world and has found a way to explore them in a quirky and action-filled space opera format unlike any other, so I will continue to follow the fates of his characters, and will be moved when not all of them survive. The ending of this volume is quite tragic and fades to black in a way only possible in comics.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Saga Volume 6

Title: Saga Volume 6

ISBN: 9781632157119

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: Image, 2016

Artist: Fiona Staples

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Collects: Saga #31-36

Rating: 4/5

For all the bizarre worlds, colorful characters, and galaxy-traversing adventures that populate the pages of Saga, the driving force of its story has always been rather tame: this is a comic about family. Plain and simple. It doesn’t matter that the family of protagonists in Saga are filled with horned mages and winged warriors. Nor does it matter that the supporting characters are TV-faced royalty and super-human bounty hunters because just about every single character’s driving force is their family, as disjointed as they may seem at times. It’s a very human approach to such a fantastical story. Brian K. Vaughan (who is arguably one of the best writers currently working in the industry) knows how to homogenize a space opera into something that would be relatable to anyone.

Saga Vol. 6, which collects chapters 31 – 36 of Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ ever-expanding science fantasy epic, continues this approach by finally bringing our core family back together while also increasing its ranks (sometimes in very unexpected ways). We pick things up quite some time after the core events of the previous volume. Hazel is now four years old and seems to be pretty well adjusted to living in incarceration on Landfall. She’s going to school and even seems to have decent relationships with some of her detainees. Meanwhile, Alana and Marko are still trying to find the means to break Hazel out and reunite their family.

Honestly, this is an arc I felt could have been resolved either a lot quicker or with some more dire consequences. Saga has never had a problem with killing ancillary characters, but there is very little doubt as to who is actually on the titles “safe list.” Most serialized stories suffers from this (we all knew Jack was going to make it to the last episode of Lost, despite original plans for the character). I don’t fault Vaughn and Staples for this. I doubt there is a reader sick enough to actually want to see Hazel or Marko or Prince Robot IV die a horrible death, but knowing that these characters aren’t going anywhere anytime soon can knock the wind right out of the drama’s sails.

This might be a superficial complaint, but it does make me wonder if Saga will reclaim its break-neck pace from earlier volumes. Perhaps this is the mid-series sag some of Vaughan’s previous ongoing titles have suffered (I’m looking at you, Ex Machina & Y: The Last Man). There are times where this book seems to plod along, which is something it has never done in the past. Ironically, we don’t get to spend enough time with any new character introduced in this Saga Vol. 6. The pacing is just off.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed Saga Vol. 6, but it didn’t make want to thank the comic gods and pray for more than six issues a year like the trades before it. There is a lot that works really well: Upsher and Doff coming across as drug-addled and overweight; The Will was both hilarious and nerve-racking; Every time Ghüs graced a panel, a smile crept across my face; and a lot of the prison stuff was great. But even with all the things that worked well, I had a feeling that the creators were either treading water or they regretted splitting the band up so much, they had to reform it without giving a damn about collateral damage.

I will grant Vaughan and Staples their individual consistencies, however. Staples’ art is as great as ever. Every choice she makes with character designs and environments ebbs and flows with the story. It never makes you stop and realize how bizarre everything is; this is just the world she’s drawn, accept it. Her sheer bravery in her art should also be noted. There isn’t a damn thing this woman is afraid to drawn. She doesn’t pull any punches. Whether it’s a scene of horrific violence, or a sexual act, or a scene of pure emotional turmoil, Fiona Staples will convey them with a palatable frankness that many artists don’t have the huevos to do. Staples doesn’t get the credit she deserves for this.

Vaughan is a master of the surprise splash panel, and crafts great dialogue. There is a reason why this man is considered one of the contemporary greats. Despite some of the plot beats not hitting as hard as I’d like them to, there wasn’t a wasted word on the page. Vaughan’s decision to introduce new characters felt justified and it didn’t clutter the book, even if we never really got a chance to become familiar with them.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons

Title: Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons

ISBN: 9781620107102
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: IDW/Oni Press, 2019
Artist: Troy Little
Writer: Jim Zub, Patrick Rothfuss
Collects: Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons #1-4

Rating: 4/5

One of the biggest crossover events in comic books last year was seeing Rick and Morty take on the world of Dungeons & Dragons in a four-issue arc. Penned by Jim Zub and Patrick Rothfuss with art by Troy Little and colors by Leonardo Ito, it was the pop-culture peanut butter and chocolate combo you never knew you needed until IDW and Oni Press gave it to you. After the initial release and all of the various different cover versions came out, it was decided that a couple of different hardcover editions would be released to different sources and retailers. One of those versions is the red cover, which was only made available to GameStop. But the thing that makes this edition so special is that it comes with a playable D&D adventure. With a second series on the way and WotC releasing their own Rick and Morty adventure sometime before year’s end, it seems only fitting to crack open the pages of this book and give it all a proper review.

So let’s start with the main portion of this book, which is the four-issue run of the original Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons comic. If you thought R&M was meta before you picked up this comic, you have no idea how meta the meta can get. This is fourth-wall breaking through multiple dimensions as the story examines what happens when Morty sees that D&D is being played by students at his school and he thinks maybe jumping in on the adventure might get him laid. When Rick gets wind of the sudden interest, instead of calling it lame, he is overjoyed that his grandson has taken interest in something he once played and decides to show him the ropes as only Rick Sanchez can. Of course, nothing goes as planned and everything about their adventure through the realms both virtual and real become a twisted look at the various ways the game is played and the personalities who come to roll a few dice.

There are parts of this book that are intrinsic to the fabric of D&D as a game and a culture. It shows off some of the best parts of what the game can be to people through the eyes of writers who are super passionate about it and the impact it’s had on their lives. Oh, and did we mention there’s a lot of emotional baggage here, too? Rothfuss and Zub manage to run the gambit through pretty much every geeky personality that plays the game, and much like the fellow characters you play at the table with, not all are complementary to what’s going on. In fact, there’s some heavy shades of darkness in these pages that took me back throughout the years to games I had played, people I played with, and scenarios I had experienced for better and worse. Plus, it’s nice seeing people like the ghost of Gary Gygax appear along with people like Satine Phoenix, Matthew Mercer, and Mazz. The comic is definitely one you need to read.

The book also comes with a few additions that fans of both series will absolutely love. First, the book has these specific character sheets for all of the classes the Smith family play as, along with a blank character sheet for you to make your own character with. These are fun additions that were also used as alternate covers and shows off a lot of the humor thrown into making each of them. What’s more, you can actually use all of these characters because (aside from some joke items here and there), all of their stats appear to be accurate to Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. (Or at least as best we could tell comparing stats and bonuses in the Player’s Handbook.) Keep that in mind for what’s to come.

Speaking of alternate covers, every single one of them that were created for the series is here in their stunning glory for you to enjoy. Presented to you as fine works of art with the people responsible for their creation tagged at the bottom. Honestly, some of these should be prints for sale on IDW and Oni Press’ websites because the detail that went into a few of them are just amazing. Quality work from people who clearly have an appreciation for both franchises and their work should be featured much more prominently.

Finally, the last section of the book and the main reason we wanted to check it out for a review: the adventure! There is a full Rick and Morty themed adventure in the back of the book called The Temple of Glorb, which you can either use your own characters for or use the ones for the Smith family which we talked about earlier. (It’s fun either way, but it’s way too easy with the R&M people, so go with your own creations.) This one was put together by Adam Lee and is designed for 4-6 Level 1 characters. It is told and put together like a regular adventure you would find in D&D, complete with obstacles, a couple of maps, encounters, options for the DM, and enough references to make it feel like you’re also playing an episode of the show. I got to run through this with a couple of different groups who both knew the material and never watched the show, and everyone got some enjoyment out of it. It’s a short adventure, but you know what? It’s a good introduction place for Rick and Morty fans who are now interested in the game, and that makes it a winner to me.
credit//IDW Comics

Overall, this is basically the best version of the hardcover editions of Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons that you’ll want to get. And not just for the amazing cover drawn by Mike Vasquez on the front. This is an all-in-one book for anyone who enjoyed this run and wanted more out of it than just four issues. Sure, we’re getting more soon, but this is a great way to tide yourself over until it comes out. And it’s a hardcover, which by trade standards is a pretty awesome way to own a complete set for a special event. This is the complete package for this story in every planeshifting way possible.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

John Constantine: Hellblazer: Original Sins

Title: John Constantine: Hellblazer: Original Sins

ISBN: 1563890526
Price: $19.95
Publisher/Year: DC, 1992
Artist: John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala
Writer: Jamie Delano
Collects: Hellblazer #1-9

Rating: 3/5

In the first story, a childhood friend of Constantine, who dabbles in magic and illegal drugs, accidentally lets loose a demon, Mnemoth, who infects humans with an insatiable hunger. And it’s spreading, growing stronger. To stop it, Constantine will have to travel from Liverpool to Africa, and then to America. He’ll have to enlist the help of a Voodoo Doctor, and avoid the ghosts of his past who literally haunt him to this day. In the second story, Constantine finds himself caught up in the unusual deaths of yuppies in Spitalfields near the East End and Liverpool Street station, a place where he never thought to find yuppies living, let alone dying. It doesn’t take long for him to run afoul of a horde of demons living in the area.

The third story finds Constantine searching for his lost niece, Gemma, with the help of his new friend, Zed; a woman he meets when he turns a street corner, who appears to have some skill with magic, and whom Constantine desperately wants to sleep with. Here, he meets God’s Warriors and the Damnation Army, two opposing forces who will resurface later. The fourth story sees Constantine drawn to a small town in Iowa who lost many of its young men in Vietnam, but, through a strange twist and more than a little magic, they are about to return home for one, tragic night. The fifth story, Extreme Prejudice, touches on a lot of hot topics including racism, homophobia, AIDS and more, and sets Constantine against local street thugs and a demon. In the sixth story, Constantine learns who Zed really is, and what the Damnation Army and God’s Warriors both want with her.

Last, you have a story balance from the pages of Swamp Thing. Constantine has a plan, one he hopes the Swamp Thing will accept and support. The balance of everything is at stake should he fail.

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the stories in Hellblazer have an edge to them. Much more so than what you would see in the pages of a regular DC book—hence the Vertigo imprint. The art is dark and moody, setting the tone for the stories, which have just enough horror, just enough of a twist, to make you wonder. John Constantine drinks to excess, he smokes all the time, he sleeps around, he makes bad choices as often as he makes good ones. He is a complicated character. Not everyone will like him for the choices he makes, right or wrong. His world is bloody and violent.

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