Can a person really change? It’s a common question in fiction, and Kyle Starks’ graphic novel Sexcastle (Image) explores it with a thrilling action plot about one assassin’s struggle to escape a life of violence. Shane Sexcastle is the “world’s greatest assassin,” but he decides to create a new identity for himself as a small-town florist after being released from prison for killing the vice president. Sexcastle quickly learns that it’s hard to escape his violent impulses, and when he makes an enemy of the local crime boss, the wrath of the Assassins Union comes down on him. How far will Sexcastle go to protect his new life? And is there any hope for salvation if he gives in to the beast within?
These may sound like serious questions, but there’s a definite element of absurdity to Starks’ story, which embraces and amplifies ’80s action movie tropes. He doesn’t shy away from the humor in his script, punctuating action sequences with hilarious one-liners and the occasional bit of slapstick physical comedy, and those moments of levity create a refreshing contrast with the grisly black-and-white violence and Sexcastle’s intense internal conflict. Starks’ sense of humor also shines through in his sound effects: A kick to groin is paired with “Fucked!” and a knee to the face with “Ong-Bak’d!” He’s constantly aware of the value of comedy in a high-stakes narrative, and rather than drawing attention away from the dramatic material, the humor enlightens it.
With a cover featuring the title character holding a pair of nunchucks under a waterfall of blood, it should come as no surprise that the main appeal of Sexcastle is the action, and Starks delivers page after page of kinetic fights with incredible power. He makes outstanding use of speed lines to accelerate the sense of motion between panels, and there’s a simple strength to his inking that makes each hit land with intense force. Starks has clearly spent a lot of time dissecting fight choreography, and he segues seamlessly from gritty hand-to-hand combat to flashier weapons-based action, showcasing Shane’s skill in any type of situation.
Come for the action, stay for the laughs and the surprisingly poignant character work. That central question of “Can a person really change?” doesn’t get ignored in all the violence and jokes, and the resolution of Sexcastle’s personal crisis gives this story a lot of heart. Here is a man that is so mean he smacked the doctor after exiting the womb, who was thrown in a pit of snakes as a baby and killed them all. Can a man like that break free from his violent nature? Sexcastle eventually discovers the answer to that question, and all he has to do is kill a bunch of people to get there. [Oliver Sava]
Imaginary Drugs (IDW) is an anthology of sci-fi and fantasy stories by, as the back cover describes, “today’s top emerging talent.” As such, the volume reads like nothing so much as a group demo reel. It’s about as consistent as the description implies.
Nothing in the book falls below the realm of basic competence, but little here deserves to be seen by a wider audience. The best stories are short and sweet, usually one-or-two pagers with shock endings or strange gimmicks that don’t have the chance to wear out their welcome. The worst stories are almost always the longer stories, the ones where untested creators given the chance to showcase their storytelling chops fall short. It bears repeating: Just about everything here is readable, but so very little of it is memorable. Given the opportunity to put their best feet forward, the creators involved seem to have settled for producing weak pastiches of readily recognizable pop culture properties.
The first feature in the book is an eight-page Harry Dresden story with all the trademarks filed off. The second feature is Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. There are stories with gorilla sidekicks and lucha libre, a team-up with a hard-boiled mercenary and a whimsical yeti, and a dead-on Galaxy Quest rip. There are lots of freelance badasses searching through Blade Runner cityscapes for techno MacGuffins or nasty monsters the system can’t handle. All the creators appear to have put a lot of work into their entries, but instead of the fantastic teaser they probably imagined, the results are more like a quick flip through young Dan Pussey’s sketchbook circa 2015.
If that sounds harsh, this is a 208-page demo reel by a mob of almost indistinguishable young creators. Maybe some of these features will resurface at some point in the future. A lot of these stories read like pitches for Image (or Oni or Boom!) series—the urge to become the next Saga through sheer force of will is palpable on many pages. But the bar has been set too low: Saga is itself a pile of shopworn plot devices assembled together with better-than-average art. Young creators left to their own devices will more often than not produce derivative work that pays slavish obeisance to influences without offering much in the way of novel development. It’s perfectly natural. Some of the creators involved—no names, please—might very well produce good work down the line. But in almost every case that will involve moving through their imitation phase and into some generally new ideas.
So Imaginary Drugs might well be a necessary evil, a stepping-stone for up-and-comers stretching their muscles through the process of trial and error, seeing what works and what doesn’t. As it stands, there are only a handful of names that stand out immediately as producing material that might bear future scrutiny. Jeff McClelland and Paul Tucker produce a pair of odd EC-influenced fantasy shorts that were genuinely unpredictable. Michael McDermott and Alexis Ziritt deliver a fun, if familiar, take on Paul Pope and The Bulletproof Coffin aesthetic. You might find some gems of your own if you go looking, but then again, you might not. [Tim O’Neil]
When we talk about something “being human” or a “universal experience,” what we hope to mean is that there are things—emotions and feelings, regardless of how they’re gotten to, that bind us through basic empathy: shared recognition and understanding of a thing lived or felt. The fundamental achievement of Jason Little’s Borb (Uncivilized Books) is the manner in which he harnesses that attention, underpinning the trials and tribulations of his main character with equal amounts of mirth and despair.
Little treats the character of Borb—a man who has been living on the streets for quite some time, if you judge the state of his teeth and how many he has remaining—with respect and and an affection of sorts. A drug addiction has left Borb homeless, suffering from brittle, easily broken bones, gangrene, and susceptible to all manner of infections and diseases caught from dirty water and moldy food. Losing everything can often mean giving up and losing yourself too, and Borb certainly appears diminished to some extent. But he’s still a person, still human, with hopes and fears, and he carries on living—almost out of sheer instinct, because it’s the thing to do. There are two instances in which Little illustrates this to devastating effect: Borb has a dream (so utterly childlike in nature) in which a rich lady whisks him away, providing him with food, shelter, and companionship. Another strip shows him lying a in hospital after having broken his leg, hearing the man next to him cough and splutter his last breath. Borb curls up in the fetal position, hands over his ears, scared. In each episode reality hooks in once the emotion subsides: being woken up on a park bench after the dream, and getting up to eat the food left on the dead man’s tray.
Little’s use of a classic, four-panel newspaper strip format breaks the harrowing tale into installments that pile upon each other, lending his narrative pace and momentum. Instead of a series of comedic mishaps that builds into a ridiculous crescendo, matters escalate horribly and unbearably, the fine, spiky, black-and-white lines unwaveringly rendering all that befalls Borb.
So while this is the story of a life documented, it is equally a viewing experiment and a challenge. There’s no respite for Borb, and none for the reader. Nobody stops to talk to Borb—he’s stripped even of his name, repeatedly labelled the “homeless guy.” He’s a condition, a problem, no longer a person, but a thing that doesn’t really matter. What we want as people is a spectrum of acknowledgement, to be seen, to be known, to be understood, to be accepted. And that’s what Little demands from the reader: that you pay witness to this person’s life, that you acknowledge a collective social failure, that you see—now—for all the times you’ve walked past someone in the street, head down, ignoring, blanking out. As much as we’d like to think we’d be different and do the decent thing, too often our best finds us simply ordinary. [Zainab Akhtar]
The best thing to happen to the comic book industry writ large in the past few years has been the willingness to expand what kind of stories can be told with mostly pictures and a few words. As big publishers have taken even small risks on new content, all sorts of talent has bubbled up in the undomesticated morass of the internet, with new creators jumping from art to writing and back again, using what they know of one side of the medium to improve their technique on the other. Southern Cross #1 (Image) proves that Becky Cloonan is definitely among the ranks of those who can parlay a keen eye for art into one for storytelling without sacrificing the kind of visuals she wants. Since Channel Zero: Jennie One and Demo with Brian Wood, she’s built a reputation for great art, as well as a loyal and growing group of fans. She might be best known as the first woman to draw the main Batman title, but her work on Harper Row with James Tynion IV and Scott Snyder in Batman #12 helped make what could have easily been a one-shot character into something grounding and nuanced, and the success of Gotham Academy speaks volumes about just how ready readers are for something new in Bruce Wayne’s hometown. Cloonan is helping to change the face of modern comic books on both sides of the aisle.
Southern Cross lives up to the high standards she’s set herself elsewhere. The world is immediately immersive without feeling tired or stale. There are glimpses of something familiar, shots that might be in Titan A.E. or Battlestar Galactica, but even as the faces and places look recognizable, the pacing is such that there’s little temptation to slow down or let attention wander. The main character, Alex Braith, is not alone in her hunt for more information about what exactly happened to someone she loved: this is a theme that threads through Gotham Academy, too. But the tone is very different here, thanks in no small part to a flat, futuristic palate from Lee Loughridge’s colors that looks both washed out and grimy, leaving the sense that touching any surface on the titular tanker vessel would leave something gross and unidentifiable on your hand. Given his stellar work on Greg Rucka’s Stumptown, it’s no surprise that he does a great job here conveying the kind of world where people have to pay for water even as they fly giant spaceships to distant moons.
Working with a writer who is also an artist can be daunting to say the least, but Andy Belanger does it well. His expression work is neat, though there can be a little bit of same face syndrome. What’s really great is how he conveys movement through the bowels of the Southern Cross. It’s a sort of Aaron Sorkin style walk-and-talk, but set in a massive version of the Millennium Falcon, all cramped corridors and nonsensical connections. There are moments when Southern Cross feels a bit like the heir to Rucka’s Whiteout, isolation and mystery keeping the story going. This is the kind of dystopian comic that the medium’s been waiting for, just to show off what it can do, and Cloonan’s crafted an intensely plausible future to explore. [Caitlin Rosberg]