Two much-loved but low-selling Marvel titles cross over in Exiled #1 (Marvel), bringing the New Mutants and the Asgardian gods together for epic fantasy on the streets of San Francisco. Since taking over writing chores on New Mutants, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have turned the book into one of the most pleasant, grounded X-titles on the stands, and Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery has made Kid Loki one of the breakout heroes of the past year. Their Exiled story plays into the strengths of both titles, as a wise-cracking Loki continues to deal with the actions of his evil former self while the New Mutants stumble into a conflict they are grossly unprepared for.
The New Mutants’ Asgard connection has always been one of the more random but fascinating aspects of the team, and Exiled expands on that relationship as Dani, Doug, and company find themselves in the middle of a spell that rewrites reality and turns the Asgardians into ordinary humans. When the New Mutants’ spying neighbor reveals himself to be ancient warrior Sigurd, the vengeful Disir, a sisterhood of bloodthirsty immortal warriors, escape their shackles in hell to feast on his soul and finally sate their hunger. It sounds daunting, but all three writers excel at incorporating humor and a sense of fun into fantastic drama, adjusting the ratio to change the intensity of the story. It’s also surprisingly accessible, with an opening splash page detailing the history of the Disir for any newcomers.
Carmine Di Giandomenico has become one of Marvel’s most reliable artists over the past five years, with a distinct, malleable style that easily shifts from street-level to celestial-level. That becomes quite useful when all the Asgardians are transformed into humans: Loki becomes Luke, a boy obsessed with Fantasy RPGs, Thor becomes Arthur, a mechanic, and Volstagg becomes a baker. As in the Thor film, much of the comedy comes from the characters dealing with the absurdity of finding themselves in the middle of this situation, and the animation-influenced artwork helps the humorous bits land. Emphasizing the light makes the dark stand out all the more, and that’s been the driving philosophy for both New Mutants and Journey Into Mystery. Exiled is a perfect introduction to both titles for readers looking for more fun in their superhero comics.
Around this time 10 years ago, ’80s nostalgia was beginning to bubble up with the revival of Transformers and G.I. Joe comics, and now the 20-year mark has sparked interest in a slew of ’90s properties. The first title in the rebirth of the Valiant universe, X-O Manowar #1 (Valiant) is a stunning debut from Robert Venditti and Cary Nord that makes the title character accessible to a new audience. The combination of war, sci-fi, horror, and superhero genres leads to a constantly twisting narrative, and the creative team’s dedication to each genre gives the first issue a fullness that most books don’t accomplish in their first year.
There’s a strong Jonathan Hickman influence to the title, from the genre-jumping to the opening full-page infographic detailing the history of the Roman/Visigoth conflict and the differences between the two cultures. Venditti jumps into the story late in the war, as Visigoth Aric leads his brothers-in-arms in a futile last stand against the Romans, a move that costs his father his life. When Aric leads a group of men to attack the Romans that have raided their village and taken their families, he finds a race of aliens that take him and his comrades hostage, enslaving them aboard their mothership and leaving Earth behind. When Aric discovers the living X-O Manowar, he finds a means for his escape; he just needs to find a way to get his hands on it. It’s a great start for a hero: sacrifice, discovery, vengeance.
Nord is a strong fit for this world after his work on Conan, turning in some of his most impressive work yet, a mix of Michael Lark’s gritty realism and the epic fantasy visuals of Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster. The opening splash conveys the stark contrast between the warring factions perfectly, depicting a battlefield where the disorganized Visigoths can’t compete with the precision and power of the Roman troops. The realistic environment Venditti and Nord establish at the beginning of the book makes the sci-fi twist even more chilling, and shows how an established property can be revitalized when creators are allowed to take their time and dig into the world of the story. It’s similar to what Brandon Graham and Simon Roy are doing with Prophet at Image, another ’90s revival book that came out of nowhere to become one of the year’s most exciting titles.
Since the success of The Walking Dead, more new comics are beginning to read like pitches for future television series. A cross between Dead Like Me and Gossip Girl, Mind The Gap #1 (Image) is a soapy supernatural mystery about a young socialite trying to discover the truth behind the subway attack that left her comatose. The book is filled with attractive young adults illustrated with cinematic realism by Rodin Esquejo and Sonia Oback, but while it’s a pretty package, Jim McCann’s story has the same problems that plague many pilots.
McCann tries to assemble an ensemble cast of potential suspects in Elle Peterssen’s attack, and his attempt to introduce everyone leads to lots of forced exposition. The characters don’t have distinctive voices yet, and their relationships with Elle need more definition. Since the issue starts off with the attack, readers never get to see Elle interact with the people in her life, and are instead told about each of the relationships. It leads to some clunky dialogue and a weak central mystery, although it establishes enough groundwork that Mind The Gap could evolve into a strong series.
Considering Esquejo’s stylistic similarities to Mike Choi, it makes sense to pair him with Choi’s previous colorist Oback, who adds lush depth to the sometimes-too-pristine linework. The scenes are well-staged and the character designs are meticulously detailed, but the figures can often look posed. This is Esquejo’s first foray into an ongoing monthly series, and it will be interesting to see how his artwork holds up as it progresses. He’s a young artist that has been steadily improving with each new gig, and Mind The Gap is a book that plays on his main strength: drawing really gorgeous people. If McCann can find a compelling reason for all those pretty faces to be together, this could shape up to be another solid series to come out of the Year of Image.
Eric Powell is sick of superheroes. Costumes and crossovers dominate the sales charts, and Powell believes that it’s time for readers to begin exploring the massive landscape of comic books outside Marvel and DC. The Goon #39 (Dark Horse) takes aim at nearly all the frustrating gimmicks and trends of contemporary superhero comics, and it’s a brutally critical, hilariously brash read. The pointless cosmetic changes to boost sales, the forced diversity to bait the mainstream media, the multicolor hero/variant cover connection—these are all legitimate complaints. But Powell’s criticisms are aimed in one particular direction: the adult superhero-comic reader.
Powell’s attacks on the bright costumes and silly plots of superhero stories are a bit flimsy; those characters are still trying to appeal to children, and simplicity and bold colors are a plus for young readers. But the detail of The Goon’s origin changing from panel to panel to include more ethnic diversity seems squarely aimed at the man who introduced a black Spider-Man and co-created a comic about a multiracial adoptive family, Brian Michael Bendis. Powell’s reaction is a bit mean-spirited—he doesn’t allow for the possibility that Bendis is trying to get comic books into the hands of more young readers by giving them heroes that look like them—but he also gives himself an out by stating early on that he’s largely ignorant of post-’90s superhero comics.
As funny as the commentary is, there’s a serious topic under discussion here, and the issue’s strongest point is Powell’s essay in the back. Without the lowest-common-denominator satire, he outlines his stance that comic-book fans need to branch out and support non-superhero titles to create an industry that isn’t defined by one limiting genre. The comic-book industries in Europe and Asia don’t have those restrictions, and by supporting titles like The Goon or Saga or Courtney Crumrin, readers are helping the industry grow into something could potentially resemble those markets.
Speaking of “multiracial adoptive family,” Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s superhero sisters return in Takio #1 (Icon), a new ongoing series that continues the story that began in last year’s original graphic novel of the same name. Bendis outlines the decision to switch to the single-issue format after the success of the OGN in the issue’s back-matter, and his argument that kids need to develop a habit of reading monthly single issues is a sound one. It would be even stronger if the series weren’t $3.95, because much of the appeal of graphic novels over single issues is the price point and durability of the product. (It’s also funny to see “Collector’s Item!” stamped across the front of the issue after seeing one on the cover of The Goon #39, but that’s where any similarities between that book and Takio end.)
With all the exposition of the first book out of the way, Bendis and Oeming are finally able to delve into the world of their story and establish the relationships within it, and the contrast between Taki and Olivia provides the book’s driving force. A scene with Taki stopping her little sister from using her powers on the playground reveals how Bendis plans to use the girls’ powers to force them together, and shows how the sisters are beginning to form a bond out of costume they never previously had. Oeming’s artwork is at its most Saturday-morning-cartoon-like on this title, and it’s an ideal match for the lighthearted script. Even though these girls are pre-teens, they still kick some major ass courtesy of Oeming, who draws a jaw-dropping double-page spread of the girls psychically karate-chopping a van. This is a book about two girls dealing with being sisters and superheroes and trying to be awesome at both, the kind of the high-quality all-ages title the industry needs.
Nathan Edmondson is growing into one of the industry’s top writers for smart, action-packed thrillers, and Dancer #1 (Image) follows a formula similar to his fantastic Who Is Jake Ellis? miniseries from last year. A hard-boiled assassin story with a sci-fi twist, Dancer is actually a romance at its core, grounded in the relationship between hitman Alan and his ballerina girlfriend Quinn. When Alan’s past catches up with him, he makes a mad dash through the streets of Milan with Quinn at his side, forcing him to come clean about his profession and make a serious sacrifice for his relationship. Edmondson is paired with artist Nic Klein, who is exceptionally skilled at capturing the foreign locale, creating a sense of reality within the title that adds impact to the moments of violence. The story begins with a beautifully staged boat shootout that never shows a gun until all the bullets have been fired. The first page is a series of establishing widescreen panels, a pattern that is broken by a series of six vertical panels on the next two pages, one for each shot fired from Alan’s gun. As the blood from the dining room pours down the side of the boat and mixes with the sea, it creates the shape of a ballet slipper under the water, an image that Klein uses to transition to Quinn rehearsing for a new piece. It’s a graceful, poignant piece of visual storytelling that reveals how for Alan, the massacre is the dance…
E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre is a major influence on Roger Langridge’s humor comics, making Langridge a perfect fit for a new Popeye ongoing series. Popeye #1 (IDW) teams Langridge with artist Bruce Ozella, a flawless Segar mimic, for a tale that takes the verbally challenged title character, his girlfriend Olive Oyl, and the ever-starving J. Wellington Wimpy to the Land Of The Jeeps. As the trio sails the sea to find a companion for their pet Jeep Eugene, Langridge and Ozella engage in a frantic marathon of wordplay and physical comedy that captures the heart and humor of Segar’s legendary strip. The artwork alone is worth the price: Ozella is a remarkable cartoonist who understands how to use a page layout to set up a joke and deliver a punchline. Combined with Langridge’s characteristically goofy but heartwarming writing, the visuals in this book are a proper tribute to a comic-strip visionary…
“Using the Skeleton Key to open doors to different worlds and times, fox spirit Kitsune and school-girl Tamsin are trying to find their way home.” Thus begins each of the adorable stories in Andi Watson’s Skeleton Key Color Special (Dark Horse), which collects the three installments of Watson’s long-running all-ages series that appeared in Dark Horse Presents last year. As the duo makes its way through an undead dance party, a haunted hotel, and a museum for lost things, they help suffering locals with their supernatural problems. Watson’s figures are simple yet expressive, and he tells charming, stylish stories that read like a new-wave Adventure Time. He uses color sparingly, and when he does, it serves a storytelling purpose, like depicting music through color during the zombie dance. Skeleton Key is a perfect companion piece to Takio #1 for young readers, especially female readers, offering an all-ages gateway into the world of creator-owned comics. And if they like it, there’s a whole library of Skeleton Key graphic novels to continue their comic-book education.
For reviews of DC’s “Second Wave” of New 52 titles, keep an eye out for Keith Phipps and Oliver Sava’s upcoming Crosstalk in which they discuss the success of DC’s experiment and which new books are worth checking out.