The arrival of Monstress #1 (Image) from Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda emphasizes just how much Image Comics has been betting on more traditional fantasy and science fiction work in the past few years. Comics like 8House and the related From Under Mountains, many of the shorter works in Island, Southern Cross, and ODY-C, just to name a few, display Image’s willingness to delve into a genre that has long been the purview of literary magazines and novels.
The arduous world building required by all these books takes work and skill to pull off, particularly because readers will be waiting several weeks between installments. Thankfully Liu has years of experience world building with her novels. Even from just the first few pages, there are compelling unanswered questions drawing the plot forward and pushing the reader to keep moving, which is unfortunately necessary because the pacing feels a bit off. Perhaps it’s because of the length of the book, triple-sized at a whopping 66 pages with no ads. The first third could perhaps stand alone, but information and backstory are doled out slowly and it would be difficult to keep up in single issues.
Because this is a creator-owned book with a new original story, the rate at which the reader comes to understand the characters and the history of their world is particularly important. Liu’s excellent fiction prose has granted her quite a bit of experience when it comes to plot and world building, but her previous comics work has been writing other people’s intellectual property and there might be a learning curve there. That said, the characters are intriguing and complex, the women at the heart of the story deeply flawed and showing layers of nuanced characterization that you don’t often see in comic books. Liu has spoken frankly about her desire to write a book that flips many of the genre’s stereotypes and tropes on their heads, and she’s definitely done just that.
Takeda’s art adds an organic lushness to the real heft and import that Liu has given the characters. Takeda and Liu worked together previously on X-23 and they have hit a good stride here. The backgrounds and costumes in particular show off the extent to which the pair have worked to flesh out this world and its inhabitants. Some readers may initially struggle with Takeda’s depiction of faces. Here, her style is far more in line with manga and anime than Western comics, and as the vast majority of the cast thus far are women and children it’s a somewhat pronounced difference to what else is on the shelves right now. Her attention to detail and skill depicting action and movement really set the book apart.
This sense of in-between-ness—the book neither traditionally Western nor manga, paced like a novel but drawn like a comic—makes for an incredibly intriguing read. Web comics and independent creators have been pushing the boundaries of the medium for years, and it’s exciting to see something like that from a larger publisher. Liu and Takeda are both bringing something new and fascinating to the table, it will be interesting to watch the story unfold. [Caitlin Rosberg]
The best thing about Boulet’s comics is his ability to visually articulate emotions—rendering them with the melodramatic overtures they often deserve. The November 3rd installment of Bouletcorp (webcomic), the English translation of his quotidian comic blog, is a good example of that. The story, maybe a dozen pages long (if it were packaged like a print comic), is simply an anecdote about Boulet trying to sleep: His brain refuses to shut off, and when it finally does, it fills his dreams with reminisces that Boulet would rather not think about.
The narrative itself is resoundingly short and there’s nothing inherently interesting in it. But this kind of universal experience is the French cartoonist’s specialty, and he’s able to compel readers with visual wizardry. His greatest strength as a cartoonist is his ability to explicate the ultra-banal minutiae of his life in a way that is visually compelling. In this instance: The Boulet character doesn’t simply roll around in bed, his interiority left up to the intuition of the reader; he bickers and argues with a physically extant floating brain who cracks jokes and reads books. This conceit is little more than a high-concept joke, but it gives Boulet the space to make the incident more visually interesting. Boulet, the character, can react and act—readers aren’t left to guess at his anxiety. This acting and reacting is where Boulet shines, and the subtly and effectiveness of his acting is a master class in cartooning. He’s able to jump from a panel of carefully constructed discomfort, from meaning derived from nothing but clench lips and bunched up lines around the lies, to pupil-less eyes and Tex Avery-esque mouths. He always seems to know exactly which kind of expression is right for each panel, and he’s not content to let his work slip too far into either seriousness or anarchic playfulness. It gives his page a staccato range of emotions, which keeps the reading lively and energetic.
The clarity and expressive nature of his cartooning is heightened by a simplicity of page layout (though “page” is more utilitarian a word than a precise one in this instance). He composes on horizontal tiers, and each one functions almost like an autonomous unit, similar to a single newspaper strip. In this entry, each tier is composed of two panels, and Boulet optimizes the size of these tiers for easy reading on a computer. The comic is designed to be read online, and that attention allows the reader to focus more on the looseness and entropic frenzy of Boulet’s line—the little details that make his comics peerlessly fun to read.
The impressive thing is, this is actually one of Boulet’s less memorable entries—it’s less visually inventive and less conceptually innovative. It’s simply an example of an average installment on his blog, any of which could be used to identify the compelling facets of his cartooning. Though, the fact that this is the average speaks to Boulet’s capabilities as a cartoonist. [Shea Hennum]
Beginning on January 1st, 2014, and running for exactly one year, Leslie Stein set out to draw one comics page per day. While Bright-Eyed At Midnight (Fantagraphics) may not be a complete record of that year, it preserves the bulk of her work from the period. (She cut down the total pages from 365 to 224, mostly eliminating strips from earlier in the year before, as she puts it, she got the hang of the format.) The results of her productivity experiment are never less than delightful, and in some places downright great.
Anyone familiar with Stein’s work from her previous Eye Of The Majestic Creature collections will likely be surprised at the work here. For these pages she’s abandoned the painstaking pen-and-ink stippling from her earlier books for a far looser and more minimal style. Part of what makes the book so interesting is watching Stein’s technique evolve over the course of the year: the discipline of having to produce a page every day, working around an occasionally very busy schedule, forces her to simplify. She cuts everything inessential from the page until what she’s left with is the absolute minimum of linework necessary to communicate her ideas. The early pages are shaky and indecisive in this respect. She plays around with different tools—felt-tip pens, text collage—before settling on a successful formula: colored pencil with watercolor washes. Her evolution over the course of the book—continuing from her previous Majestic Creature collections—is very similar to the kind of progress Ivan Brunetti made over the course of Schizo’s four-issue run. Here the trajectory of her evolving illustrative style as observed over the course of her career to date takes a sharp left turn into minimalism, and suddenly a capable cartoonist has become something more, possibly a great deal more.
At first blush, it would make sense to expect a daily comic exercise to be a kind of diary, similar in function if not form to other similar exercises like James Kochalka’s American Elf, still the defining work in that genre. While there is some diary material here, it’s interspersed with longer autobiographical episodes. After the first awkward installments, the book settles into an organic rhythm, more or less telling the story of a year in Stein’s life but with assorted memories and anecdotes popping into the narrative at regular intervals. The result is a well-rounded story of Stein as both a burgeoning artist and a wayward thirtysomething—living her childhood dreams of being both a musician and artist but still fighting occasional bouts of disappointment and depression.
The title, Bright-Eyed At Midnight, alludes to the latter. Stein suffers from chronic insomnia, and parts of the book are given over to her constant war with her own sleep cycles, and the collateral damage the battles wreak on her mood, her productivity, and sometimes her basic ability to function. She alludes briefly to self-medicating through alcohol, one of many not necessarily flattering details that add immensely to her stories. An example of Stein’s ability to marshal specific detail for storytelling purposes: After being told there won’t be any band practice for two weeks, she (a guitarist) goes out and get a manicure. If you’ve ever played guitar, you’ll nod your head furiously in recognition. There’s a lot of that kind of recognition to be found here. [Tim O’Neil]
Ian Fleming famously referred to his signature creation James Bond as a “blunt instrument,” and the creative team of the new James Bond #1 (Dynamite) places extra emphasis on the character’s bluntness for a very straightforward debut. Warren Ellis’ past work on action-espionage comics like Global Frequency, Red, and Jack Cross make him a smart choice of writer for the world’s most famous secret agent, but he starts this series with a whimper. Thrilling opening action sequences have become standard practice for the character, but the chase at the top of this issue is a low-key fight that replaces style with brutalist detail.
Artist Jason Masters has a good eye for framing panels in a way that heightens suspense and reinforces the environment, but the movement of his characters can be very posed and stiff. That interrupts the flow of the action from panel to panel, and while there are some effective individual beats in the opening scene, they don’t come together in one smooth sequence. The cool color palette from Guy Major evokes the chilly Helsinki climate, but it’s the moments of contrast that really stand out, like the grisly panel after James Bond takes his target’s finger off with a shovel, showing the man’s blue fingertips and gun flying through the air against a bloody red background.
It would be nice to see this creative team take advantage of the grander action possibilities afforded by comics in later issues, but the direction of Ellis’ script doesn’t suggest any big upgrades in spectacle in the future. Once Bond gets back from Helsinki, he’s tasked to a new mission involving a dangerous new drug on the streets of Brixton, and he spends the rest of the issue dealing with bureaucratic bullshit and eating lunch with his pal Bill Tanner.
It’s not particularly exciting, but it does give Ellis plenty of opportunities for his signature sarcastic banter, which keeps the second half from becoming too much of a slog. Still, there are better comic alternatives for fans of the spy genre: DC’s Grayson and Image’s Codename: Baboushka, Velvet, and Zero all offer different takes that aren’t as dusty as the conventional, dull James Bond. [Oliver Sava]