Stick around the comics industry long enough and a lot of the discourse surrounding the idea of “representation” begins to seem hollow. On its face it’s an unremarkable idea: Every different type of person should be able to find media that reflects their own lives and stories. The problem begins with the opposing idea that representation is a zero-sum game: Representation can only be given to one group if it comes at the expense of another. Not only does this theory bear no relation to the way media consumption actually works, it also helps obscure the fact that certain groups are historically overrepresented to an absurd degree. The system “works,” such as it does, simply by virtue of the fact that there are so many cis white men in entertainment that they can be used as vehicles to tell almost any type of story. But the moment you produce a story without a white cis male as its center, you’ve entered a situation where a character can no longer just be a character. They become a symbol, a figure of hope and comfort for underrepresented constituencies, and that’s a terrible place from which to create dramatic tension.
A well-meaning creator can do a lot of good work by incorporating underrepresented demographics into their stories, but should never make the mistake of assuming they can speak for those demographics. People need to tell their own stories. Where the discourse fails is in thinking media conglomerates have any vested interest in helping to facilitate the process. They don’t. Their main audience will always be groups who are so accustomed to seeing and identifying with characters who look and act like they do that asking them to empathize with, say, a non-white or female lead evokes visceral discomfort—even though non-white hetero cis male readers have had no choice but to do that, forever.
When Roman forces left Britain in the fifth century A.D., they directed the natives to “see to their own defense”—so, too, the message from the mainstream comics industry to minority communities has consistently been “see to your own representation.” That is why a book like Kim & Kim #1 (Black Mask) is so important. Don’t pay any attention to cis white male creators who claim to represent the transgender community. Writer Mags Visaggio, a trans woman, is perfectly capable of speaking for herself. She is aided with art by Eva Cabrera, possibly unfamiliar to American audiences but whose pleasing work here holds the promise of a long career to come.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about Kim & Kim in terms of genre or execution: Kimiko and Kimber are a pair of financially challenged intergalactic bounty hunters—think Dirty Pair with just a touch of old-school Lobo. They spend their time hopping from planet to planet in an old Volkswagen van, and seem to spend more time screwing up than getting paid. Story-wise, you can probably fill in the dots here: A new contract comes with old family ties, and what appears on first blush to be a simple job tracking a rogue courier turns into something a bit more difficult with the introduction of a shape-shifting octopus from Dimension 12.
Where the book comes alive is in the simple interactions between the two main characters. This isn’t a “very special story” about the minority experience: this is “just” a good sci-fi book that happens to be told from a perspective not often found in comics. The best parts are when the two leads are left alone to talk about their lives and experiences. Kimiko’s status as a trans woman informs her character in much the same way her green eyes do. It’s simply a part of her, and influences her actions and outlook much as your gender influence yours: that is, quite a bit, the difference being that you probably don’t even notice it. After a few pages you forget that there’s anything “different” about either Kim. They’re people with interesting stories. You want to read more because diverse people and experiences are inherently interesting. There is great value in learning that the differences that separate us are nowhere near as important as the commonalities we share. [Tim O’Neil]
Dear artists of the world: If you haven’t read Kabuki: The Alchemy, remedy that immediately. While technically the final part (for now) of David Mack’s creator-owned Kabuki comic series, The Alchemy stands alone as a hugely rewarding source of creative inspiration, and it’s finally back in print in Kabuki Library Vol. 3 (Dark Horse). The latest of Dark Horse’s exquisitely designed oversized Kabuki hardcovers contains a plethora of material in addition to The Alchemy, but that alone is well worth the $40 price tag, telling a compelling story of personal growth and artistic enlightenment with a breathtaking combination of visual media.
Mack is a modern master of comic-book art, and The Alchemy is the pinnacle of his career thus far, showcasing the breadth of his talent and using those skills to foster creativity in others. Most of the pages are collages incorporating watercolor paintings, ink and pencil drawings, photographs, pieces of fabric, wood carvings, and a variety of unconventional materials, like dead insects and the tape in an audio cassette. He brings all these visual elements together in beautifully designed pages that demand a close look from the reader, and the most inspiring thing about The Alchemy is seeing all the different ways Mack uses the comic-book medium to bring multiple art forms together.
There are infinite storytelling possibilities when text and visuals are combined, and Mack isn’t content to stick to one style and one medium. Kabuki began as a black-and-white cyberpunk thriller, but Mack quickly started experimenting after he concluded that first story, creating full-color collages that allowed him to show off different aspects of his art training. The increased ambition in the art led to increased ambition in the writing, and Kabuki eventually grew to become a fascinating, comprehensive character study with a deeply personal focus thanks to the autobiographical elements that drove the story (specifically Mack’s relationship with his late mother). The course of Kabuki changed as Mack grew older, and with The Alchemy, he’s fixated on the act of creating art and how that ties in to identity.
“All you need to know is that there is a scar on my face, I’m starting a new life, and I have a friend who is helping me,” Kabuki says at the start of The Alchemy’s first chapter, and Kabuki’s fresh start makes the book very accessible for new readers while motivating Mack to continue reinventing himself as a creator. While the visuals are a natural evolution of the path Mack was already on, the story is a huge departure, shedding the fantastic elements of what came before to offer something more philosophical.
After all the suffering Kabuki has endured, how does she move forward? How can art help her heal, and how should she choose to express herself? Readers dealing with these same questions will find a lot to appreciate in these pages, and this hardcover highlights the impact of The Alchemy by including the letters that were included in the original single issues. These personal accounts reveal how Mack’s work has affected his fan base, and anyone who is artistically inclined should pick up Kabuki Library Vol. 3 for encouragement and inspiration. [Oliver Sava]
Sherlock Holmes has always been a popular character. Between movies, television, and the fact that he’s public domain in the U.S., Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation is enjoying a renewed place of importance in popular culture, rife for remixing and new takes. The idea of Watson And Holmes is a deceptively simple one: It’s classic Holmesian mysteries, but John Watson and Sherlock Holmes are both black men living in Harlem, which shifts the entire foundation of the story. Characters are lifted straight from canon into the world that Brandon Perlow and Paul Mendoza create in their comic, from Mrs. Hudson to Mycroft. Four individual issues are collected in Watson And Holmes: Volume 2 (New Paradigm Studios), which was printed thanks to a successful Kickstarter, like the first volume, A Study In Black. Volume 2 is much stronger than the first, in part because it is treated as individual issues with self contained, if related, plots. A Study In Black was significantly weakened by presenting a completely serialized story and the decision to forgo inking on Rick Leonardi’s dynamic, sketchy pencil work, so it’s gratifying to see Volume 2 correct some of those issues.
Brandon Easton’s first chapter is by far the most gripping. He tackles political intrigue, sex work, and love without flinching away from the horrors faced by people trapped in sex trafficking rings. The story is told with nuance and respect, and Easton’s notes at the end are worth reading. N. Steven Harris’ art and Jay David Ramos’ colors keep the story looking appropriately somber but without sacrificing action or readability. It’s an excellent comic that could very well stand on its own. That same art team tackles the lively fourth chapter together with a plot from Lyndsay Faye and script by Karl Bollers, who wrote A Study In Black. Chapter four is the story of Irene Adlero, the infamous Woman, which is brighter and sharper than the first chapter and has a strong sense of humor.
The second chapter feels more experimental, with Steven Grant and Hannibal Tabu plotting out a story about the psychological abuse of veterans. Tabu wrote the script, and Dennis Calero contributed both the line art and the colors. It’s a heavy story that’s a bit tough to follow at times, but the payoff is good and it fits well into the relationship that Holmes and Watson have built and the legacy they’re crafting. Chapter three has Faye and Easton working together with artist Eli Powell and colors from Watson And Holmes creator Mendoza; it repeats some of the same mistakes as A Study In Black, looking muddy, but sets up the Irene Adlero plot well and is a fun story about trying to commit the “perfect” crime.
If Watson And Holmes were to get the kind of support that Shaft has, with an experienced editorial team and a consistent group of contributors, it could easily be a breakout success. The characters are well crafted and the premise is familiar enough to be attractive but fresh enough to be interesting. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Arcadia (Boom!) is a book that lives in brief moments of engagement and clarity. The book, which is the debut work by authors Alex Paknadel and Eric Scott Pfeiffer, concerns the survival and/or evolution of a cyber space that houses several billion people. Their minds have been shunted into the eponymous digital realm following a viral outbreak that threatened their lives, and, to his credit, writer Paknadel does broach a number of interesting topics when explicating these lives. The social stratification of the physical space has been brought into the digital one, and Paknadel explores the implications this has—energy use, real estate, and who is allocated what. Some of the poorer citizens of Arcadia cannot even afford to render their facial features, hair, or clothes. They are instead gelatinous, bipedal figures. The book’s most interesting moments are these—the exploration and interrogation of legitimate and thoughtful questions regarding what storing billions of human psyches in a computer would actually require, and how the inhabitants’ extant notions, conceptions, and imaginative/intellectual limits would effect their new world.
Unfortunately, Arcadia features breaks and tangents and distractions galore that detracts from the presence of the interesting parts. The book becomes bogged down with inconsequential and unnecessary side quests, distractions, and inexplicable psychic connections between the physical world and the digital one. It feels bloated in a way that it shouldn’t, and you feel yourself waiting for those brief moments of intellectual acuity instead of remaining immersed in the work. The same is true of Pfeiffer’s art. There are moments of truly wonderful cartooning. One page features a character—a literal digital native—physically rooting Arcadia, and Pfeiffer represents the deeper and deeper dives into the layers of software by pulling back, stripping down the image. Thin, multitudinous lines give way to thick, heavy brush strokes; the color is blown out and replaced with muted ink washes. The page is actually quite striking and it demonstrates Pfeiffer’s facility with a number of different tools and aesthetics, but it also displays an interesting and smart formalism. But nearly every single page of Arcadia looks like it was drawn by a different artist. At times it invokes John Paul Leon, at others Garry Brown, Kristian Donaldson, and Danijel Žeželj. Pfeiffer’s ink work is inconsistent, and he apes a different influence on every page.
That inconsistency—both aesthetically and narratively—sinks Arcadia. Some pages demonstrate incredible promise, but there is no thread or through-line. Its plot goes off in several bizarre directions at once, all but abandoning the things that made it so interesting, and its art, while sometimes very good, never settles on a style or a look. The result is messy, which is unfortunate. The scenes and moments of Arcadia that are good are very good, and the fact that Paknadel and Pfeiffer all but abandon those threads or ideas by the book’s end is irksome and aggravating. [Shea Hennum]