There’s a lot riding on Doctor Aphra #1 (Marvel). Launching a new series for a character native to the comics seems significant. Given widespread criticism from long-time fans over the wholesale erasure of two decades’ worth of characters native to the old Expanded Universe (Mara Jade, we hardly knew ye), it makes sense that the powers that be would now want to create as many new characters as possible. Alongside the release of the latest Star Wars film, Aphra represents a similar proposition in the comics themselves, a new type of story with a new type of character front and center.
The first stories in the line’s history, two years ago now, were stylistically conservative and even dull in places. The first arc of the main Star Wars book was so familiar it bordered on pastiche, placing all the expected elements of a Star Wars story front and center. That was necessary after years of criticism that the Dark Horse books had languished by telling so many stories that did not actually feature the main characters from the films. Now that Marvel’s line has proven itself a success, it has more freedom. Whether or not material originating in the Marvel books could ever filter its way back into the films or TV shows is an open question, but Marvel would certainly relish the relevancy.
The question facing Doctor Aphra is whether or not the character has it in her to be more than a supporting player. The jury is still out. In the context of a resolutely dour book like Darth Vader, where the supporting cast has to do a lot of heavy lifting to compensate for a taciturn protagonist, Aphra was a capable foil for the lethal Vader. She also provided the series’ comic relief, the lethal Triple-Zero and BT-1. Over the course of her appearances in Darth Vader Aphra represented part of the title character’s twisted reflection of his son’s own team: a wookiee, two bickering droids, and a roguish career criminal. Aphra was intended as the mirror image of Han Solo in more ways than one: Her profession was the same as Harrison Ford’s other iconic role—archaeologist.
Appropriately, Doctor Aphra #1 begins with an homage to the opening sequence of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with a lone figure caught in the act of despoiling an ancient tomb, only to meet dire consequences. Kieron Gillen accompanies his creation to their new home, met by Kev Walker in his first Star Wars work. Aphra is a fun character but whether or not she can support her own book will depend largely on the creators’ ingenuity in giving her something interesting to do, a unique direction as befitting her unique status as the first great character find of the Marvel Age of Star Wars. The first issue seems to be primarily set-up, with a last-page reveal that promises to provide more of an actual origin for Aphra. So far so good, but let’s see something new here before long. [Tim O’Neil]
A crime caper with a fantastical twist, Heartthrob (Oni Press) imagines a scenario in which someone’s consciousness comes along for the ride when their heart is transplanted into another’s body. This puts the recipient somewhere between possessed and seeing ghosts—or maybe they’re just losing their mind—and here authors Christopher Sebela and Robert Wilson IV find their book’s dramatic engine. Callie Boudreau, suffering a congenital heart defect, receives a transplant and a new lease on life. Her new heart and the sense of stability it provides begins to change the way people act toward her, and she finds herself having one seriously bad day—her boyfriend dumps her (he was cheating anyway) and her insurance refuses to cover her transplant. All that, however, pales in comparison to her encounter with Mercer, the former owner of her new heart.
The two quickly fall in love, and the book turns on this intense romantic relationship. Unfortunately, it never effectively sells that connection. From the moment they first meet, both of them have—or at least claim to have—the deepest of feelings for one another, “I love you” being the most common utterance in the comic. And yet, both seem immature, stunted, and deluded. In fact, they both seem incapable of genuinely feeling what they claim to be feeling. Things happen much too quickly, strung together by copious amounts of expository text, and the reader isn’t given the opportunity to really see these characters bond, connect, or grow together.
So when Mercer betrays Callie, an event briefly flash-forwarded to at the end of each chapter, the heel turn does not have the effect the book tells readers that it should, and this unconvincing relationship leaves the story bereft of drama. Ultimately this failure is one of pacing, because the actual narrative feels truncated. It stands to reason that the book may have benefited from more space, more pages to actually depict the central relationship. As it is, however, Heartthrob feels like a series of empty plot maneuvers—gears spinning for their own sake.
While the book’s actual story feels gaunt, lacking in emotional meat, its pages feel overstuffed. Callie is the only real character in the story, and everything Sebela reveals about her he reveals through monologue and captions. Wilson occasionally does noteworthy work (for example, the way he draws Callie gradually changes over the course of the book to reflect her more confident and assertive personality), but he so rarely gets the opportunity to do any meaningful or revelatory acting.
By the book’s end, it’s still unclear whether Mercer is actually real or not, and Sebela and Wilson have introduced a clever premise and felicitous vehicle to explore ideas of mortality, chronic illness, and the way those things affect a person’s identity. But due to a number of executional failings, that conceit is underused, and the result is a routine crime thriller that can’t break free of its more rote and commonplace features. [Shea Hennum]
It’s been three years since Isabel Greenberg released her remarkably imaginative debut graphic novel The Encyclopedia Of Early Earth (one of The A.V. Club’s Best Comics Of 2013), and while the style and tone of The One Hundred Nights Of Hero (Little, Brown And Company) are very much in the same vein as her previous project, her creative voice has significantly matured. There’s still an element of childlike wonder in Greenberg’s storytelling, but it’s in service of a powerful message about the importance of stories (written, illustrated, or spoken) in providing hope and strength for oppressed people.
Greenberg focuses specifically on oppressed women living in a misogynist culture, which forbids them from learning how to read and write and always assigns women blame when men commit injustices against them. Heavily influenced by One Thousand And One Nights, The One Hundred Nights Of Hero begins with a young wife, Cherry, thrown in the middle of a bet between her husband and his friend, who has 100 days to bed her and win her husband’s castle if successful. Knowing that she’ll be raped if she resists and then killed by a husband that doesn’t believe her unwillingness in the act, Cherry hatches a plot with her maid/lover, Hero, to distract her unrelenting pursuer, and Hero enchants him with mythical tales that keep him occupied until daylight.
Like Early Earth, this is a book of fables rooted in love, but it has a sharper bite as it presents “stories about brave women who won’t take shit from anyone.” The entire concept is delightfully subversive, with two lesbian lovers using feminist myths to trick a deranged man who refuses to acknowledge female autonomy and agency. Their enemy is a product of his social climate, though, and by sharing these tales over 100 nights, Hero makes the storytelling a city-wide event, helping to change public views regarding the unfair treatment of women. Greenberg gracefully balances light and dark elements throughout, and her sense of humor is largely responsible for making Hero’s stories so engaging.
Greenberg purposely evokes the imagery of primitive cave paintings during the prologue detailing the history of Early Earth, and while the rest of the book’s visuals aren’t quite as crude, that strong element of spontaneity is maintained in Greenberg’s composition and rendering. Feeling is more important than precision, and the rawness of the inks and the minimalist intensity of the coloring heightens the emotions of the script.
At the start of Hero’s story about “The Dancing Stones,” Greenberg presents three close-ups of the stones’ surfaces, rendered with wild strokes of watery ink that evoke that dancing movement even though the rocks are completely still. There’s a particularly brilliant page layout at the end of the book that has two giant hands reaching out from two panels to grab characters underneath, and Greenberg uses scale, perspective, negative space, and panel gutters in clever ways to give a fairly simple page a huge impact on the narrative. That visual ingenuity enriches the stories in The One Hundred Nights Of Hero, and it ties into a major theme of the novel that images are extremely important storytelling tools when reading words isn’t an option. [Oliver Sava]
Compared to print comics, webcomics are a relatively new medium. There are few creators who have been at it for more than a decade, and fewer still who were producing work for the web 15 years ago. And virtually none still have that work online. This isn’t the only thing that makes Tatsuya Ishida’s Sinfest (webcomic) remarkable, but it’s worth mentioning to show the many ways in which this comic stands out from the pack.
Like a lot of webcomics, Sinfest started out formatted like a daily news strip: four panels per page; each page cogent enough on its own to read alone; some of them pushing a loose story arc forward all the same. Sinfest has posted daily since the very beginning, with few if any exceptions. For the most part it’s revolved around Slick and his friends: Monique, Criminy, and Squigley. It was a simple and straightforward slice-of-life comic with commercial breaks for jokes about pop culture.
While Ishida’s artistic skills evolved and grew, adding dimension and texture, so did his ambition as a writer, and the scope of what he wanted Sinfest to do. In the past five years in particular, Sinfest has made a turn toward social commentary that’s been gradual enough that longtime fans didn’t really realize it was happening. Slick’s stories gave way to Monique’s as she began recognizing and confronting sexism. Then female robots rebelled, demanding emancipation and free will. In the latest story arc, Uncle Sam has been seduced by the Devil with money and women and power, and his long-time friend and lover Lady Liberty has joined the Sisterhood and the rebelling robots in taking a stand against Sam’s actions.
Strung all together like that, the story sounds overblown and ridiculous. But Sinfest has been running for 17 years, and Ishida has imbued all these characters with so much heart and personality that it feels more like a long-term, epic hero’s journey than a ridiculous premise. There’s no way of knowing if Ishida intended all along to shift his comic this way, but the way he folds in immediately timely material feels effortless and important. Slick struggles with his own character growth, and more than one character has debated going back to the way things were, just because it was easier before they opened their eyes. The extra-long, full-color Sunday updates are always particularly worth checking out.
Garry Trudeau has rightly been held up as the political conscience of comics for a long time, and Ishida is walking a very similar path with Sinfest. As dialogue gets more sparse, it becomes more poignant and weighty. This isn’t to say that Sinfest is all angst and sorrow all the time: Between pages of Matrix-as-metaphor for patriarchy there’s real humor and joy to be found, and it makes the entire comic feel that much closer to the reality we’re living in. Reading the entire backlog isn’t necessary, and jumping in now, after this election season, is cathartic. [Caitlin Rosberg]