Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they are Flash Gordon #4 by writer Jeff Parker, artist Evan Shaner, and colorist Jordie Bellaire, and Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers #1 by writer Joe Casey, artists Nathan Fox, Jim Rugg, and Ulises Farinas, and colorist Brad Simpson. These two issues showcase the potential in reimagining past properties for modern audiences, and are indicative of a recent shift by Dynamite Comics to seek out a wider range of creative talent. This review reveals major plot points.
In his keynote speech for last month’s Image Expo, Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson once again took shots at the publishers of licensed comics, describing their work as “grave robbing the past in an attempt to pump new life into decades-old characters.” Like Stephenson’s last Image Expo keynote, which echoed those remarks, his opinions prompted a fair amount of backlash from the people that work on and read those licensed comics. His point of view is understandable in that he wants to see new creations rather than retreads of old material, but he forgets that the foundation of storytelling is based in building narratives around familiar characters.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to tell stories with characters and concepts that were created by someone else in the past. William Shakespeare did it all the time, and that work has influenced countless artists in turn. With comics, especially superhero comics, there’s some iffy ethical territory involving characters whose creators were never adequately compensated for their contributions, but that doesn’t apply to all licensed properties. If a company wants to make their name publishing comics based on characters that the world recognizes, they should be able to without being attacked, especially if the product is good.
Dynamite Comics loves licensed properties. Ash Williams, The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Green Hornet, John Carter, and Red Sonja are just a few of the many licensed characters in Dynamite’s stable, and the publisher is constantly gathering new properties. Dynamite has had middling success with this strategy over the last decade, but it has considerably upped its game for its 10th anniversary year, starting with an outstanding relaunch of the Gold Key line of superhero titles, which includes Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Magnus: Robot Fighter, Solar: Man Of The Atom, and Doctor Spektor.
Editor Nate Cosby is responsible for seeking out the exceptional talent that has made the Gold Key titles stand out, but his most inspired editorial decision is the relaunch of Flash Gordon under the team of writer Jeff Parker, artist Evan Shaner, and colorist Jordie Bellaire. Each of these creators has a talent for balancing retro charm with modern sophistication in their work, and collaborating together has brought out their best qualities.
Parker’s scripts are full of swashbuckling adventure, interplanetary intrigue, and character-based humor, a delightful juggling act that keeps the reader engaged and invested in the plot. Upholding the tradition of drafting masters like Al Williamson and Alex Toth, Evan Shaner delivers beautifully nuanced artwork that grounds the otherworldly events in emotional reality, making it easy to connect with the book’s central trio of Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, and Hans Zarkov. It’s always a bit disappointing to reach the end of an issue of Flash Gordon, because the world developed by this creative team is so welcoming it’s hard to leave.
An Eisner Award winner for her work on 11 different titles last year, Jordie Bellaire is one of the most sought-after colorists in the industry, and her work is an integral part of this book’s aesthetic. There’s a subtle graininess to her coloring that creates the illusion of newsprint, emphasizing the classic feel of Shaner’s linework. Bellaire’s colors don’t need to add much dimension thanks to the textured inks, so she focuses on conveying tone through an expressive color palette, embracing bold shades of orange, blue, green, and pink to heighten the mood of a scene while spicing up the art.
The visual highlight of Flash Gordon #4 is a gorgeous four-page sequence that takes an inventive approach to depicting a huge chunk of exposition, using circular layouts across a pair of two-page spreads catching the reader up on the events that led to the first issue of the series (also chronicled in last year’s Kings Watch miniseries). The first spread details the background of the Quantum Crystals and Gatestones that have allowed Ming The Merciless to conquer other planets, presenting the information via a series of connected circles that represent the interstellar locations Ming has jumped through. The following spread zooms in on one of those circles and uses a ripple effect to present flashbacks to events on Earth, and the combination of the graphic layout with Bellaire’s intensely orange coloring gives the rush of information a strong visual impact.
One gripe about this issue of Flash Gordon is the cover, which has nothing to do with the events within. Next month sees Flash and the gang making their way to Sky World, where there will likely be plenty of jetpack-enabled sword fighting, but why couldn’t Dynamite commission a cover showing something from this issue? And the 80th anniversary variant cover is far worse, showing two bikini-clad women in an anatomically questionable fight while Flash and Ming The Merciless watch in the background. (It does make you appreciate this creative team’s approach to Dale Arden, who has taken a strong role in this series while fully clothed.) Dynamite very often caters to the T&A crowd, and frankly it can do better than that with its female characters. In Flash Gordon and the Gold Key titles, creators are putting better representations of women on the page, and it would be refreshing to see some of that respect applied to the images on the covers.
Nate Cosby isn’t editing the revival of Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, but he’s clearly had an impact on the rest of the editorial staff based on the strength of the book’s creative team. Dynamite senior editor Joe Rybandt reunites the Haunt creative team of writer Joe Casey and artist Nathan Fox to reimagine Kirby’s sci-fi superhero, and it’s no surprise that a Jack Kirby concept offers more creative opportunities than a Todd McFarlane one.
Kirby was never short on ideas, and while he didn’t always execute them in the most refined manner, they provide an excellent foundation for future creators to build on. (Matt Kindt talked about this in his Comics Week Reading List last Thursday.) In the pages of Godland, Casey showed a firm understanding of Kirby philosophy, and that font of knowledge makes Captain Victory #1 an exemplary debut. Exploring the relationships between science and fantasy, myth and reality, and technology and humanity, Casey’s script is a dense, occasionally chaotic read, throwing readers into bombastic cosmic action from the beginning and never dipping the momentum from that point.
With an energetic, free-flowing style reminiscent of the work of Paul Pope, Nathan Fox is an artist who can easily transition from high-octane space action to more grounded character storytelling. This first issue primarily focuses on the former rather than the latter, delivering the kind of unbridled action that is expected from a Jack Kirby property.
The opening two-page sequence showing the Dreadnaught: Tiger under assault is a visual gut-punch, incorporating dramatic lettering as a vital part of the layout by yelling the words “FIRE,” “BOMB,” “KILL,” and “DEAD” while a space battle is depicted within the huge letters. The sequence of seven square panels next to the text further amplifies the impact with an assortment of cryptic images that the reader is left to interpret, taking an unconventional approach to staging cosmic action.
Brad Simpson has done fantastic work using a heavily saturated, high-contrast color palette on Joe Casey’s Sex, and he amplifies that aesthetic to align this series with the vivid coloring of Kirby’s time. Captain Victory #1 is an explosion of color, bombarding the eyes with vibrant shades that pull the story far away from reality. That is, until the story comes down to Earth, prompting a complete change in Simpson’s approach as he switches to more realistic earth tones.
To see what a difference coloring makes, compare pages 18 and 19, which are presented side by side. Page 18 takes place in late ’70s/early ’80s New York City—presumably 1981, when Captain Victory first debuted—and the primary hue is brown. Page 19 takes place inside the Dreadnaught: Tiger and the primary hues are all the primary colors, surrounding the characters in bright red, yellow, and blue because this is space and you can do whatever the hell you want in space.
Embracing the multi-artist approach of Casey’s Catalyst Comix for Dark Horse (now available in a swanky collection), each issue of Captain Victory features guest artists that enlighten a different aspect of the narrative, starting with Jim Rugg and Ulises Farinas in #1 with guest appearances by Michel Fiffe, Farel Dalrymple, Jim Mahfood, Benjamin Marra, and Connor Willumsen slated for future issues.
Jim Rugg’s Kirby influence was mentioned in this week’s Comics Panel in a review of his creator-owned Street Angel, and he gets to push that aspect of his art even further in a flashback to Captain Victory’s first death. The hero’s mind is too strategically valuable to the Ranger Corps to lose, so the Corps has created a cache of clones to absorb his consciousness if he falls in battle. In order to test the technology, Captain Victory has to die, leading to a chilling sequence that combines spectacularly psychedelic sci-fi visuals with existential horror. “I get it,” Captain Victory says after waking up in a clone body. “They’re sending me out there to die… again and again and again.”
Farinas’ talent is used to detail the hero’s latest rebirth after his death at the beginning of the issue, delivering a two-page sequence that contrasts the bright idealism of a newborn child soaring through the heavens with finely detailed terror when that baby burns up in the atmosphere and a giant robotic head-thing appears to deliver an ominous warning. If this all sounds really weird, that’s because it is, but Jack Kirby didn’t shy away from weird. Weird is where interesting things happen.
Eric Stephenson may say that licensed comics are akin to “grave robbing,” but the creators of Flash Gordon and Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers would probably be delighted to see their work inspiring new generations of artists to put their own stamp on these characters and concepts. There’s room in the comics industry for both licensed products and creator-owned ideas, and in both those areas, value comes down to the strength of the creative teams working on the titles. What the world needs more of is good comics, and if quality talents are given the opportunity to express themselves, that can only mean good things for the future, no matter the outlet of expression.