Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it is Twisted Romance #3. Written by Alex De Campi, Jess Bradley, and Margaret Trauth with art by Carla Speed McNeil and Trauth, the latest installment of Image Comics’ weekly romance anthology is a high point of a forward-thinking creative endeavor. This review reveals major plot points.
It’s time to redefine the comic book event. It typically describes a superhero crossover or reboot or relaunch, but those have become so commonplace that they don’t feel eventful anymore. DC’s Dark Knights: Metal is very fun and very popular, but the “New Age Of Heroes” titles coming out of it read like retreads of other concepts, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but also not very fresh. Marvel Legacy was a total disaster, and this week’s announcement of Marvel’s “Fresh Start” of relaunched titles starting in May comes across as desperate, foolish, and disrespectful to readers and retailers. A comic book event should get people excited and invite newcomers to join in the fun. Ideally it tries something new and taps into the unexplored potential of the medium. Twisted Romance is that kind of an event, a weekly anthology series that breaks from the norm to achieve greatness.
Romance comics don’t sell. Anthology comics don’t sell. Weekly comics don’t sell, and they’re such a risk that some stores choose not to order them. Issue orders drop considerably between #1 and #2, and when an entire series is dropping in one month, retailers have to be very careful about their supply when the demand is largely unknown. This is why preordering is so important to a book’s success, but the success of the monthly comics industry can’t rely on readers making purchasing commitments three months ahead of time, if not longer. Twisted Romance asks retailers to take a lot of risks, but Image Comics puts support behind it with a strong publicity push, setting up exclusive previews of each issue before the series was solicited and mentioning those media outlets—including The A.V. Club—in the announcement.
If the single-issue periodical format is going to survive and thrive, publishers need to make changes to improve value and accessibility. These comics are competing with streaming services that give people hours of entertainment for a much lower price; 20 pages for $3.99 is a tough sell for new readers. Those 20 pages might be packed with content, but pick up an issue and it feels thin. At 44 pages for $3.99, Twisted Romance has more heft than the majority of single issues at the same cost, and it’s all content with no ads. One of the most clever ways Twisted Romance sets itself apart is by being a flipbook. It’s a format that doesn’t translate digitally or in a collection, adding an extra element of interaction with the physical product. It also allows retailers to shelve two different covers, providing two opportunities to grab a reader’s attention.
Spearheaded by writer Alex De Campi, Twisted Romance is an inclusive showcase of comics talent, featuring a lineup that is predominantly non-male with multiple queer creators and people of color. Each issue features a 28-page main story by De Campi and a different artist, an eight-page prose short by a single writer, and an eight-page backup by a single cartoonist. Each issue can be read on its own, and it’s an attractive impulse buy that offers three complete works with their own distinct perspectives. There are thematic and genre ties between the stories in each issue, and De Campi has organized them to deliver variety and cohesion.
Twisted Romance begins with a horror-influenced issue, and while the stories share a genre, they each have a very different tone. De Campi’s retro tale with Katie Skelly blends grisly violence with a cheeky, animated art style, a severe contrast to Sarah Horrocks’ unsettling, surreal short that takes a much more abstract approach. The story by Magen Cubed incorporates queer love into the conflict between supernatural creatures. Many of the entries in Twisted Romance highlight how different sexual orientations enrich the romance genre. The main story in the second issue has De Campi and Alejandra Gutiérrez looking at the sweet relationship between a fashion photographer’s assistant and an asexual celebrity heartthrob; Vita Ayala’s short story introduces a polyamorous dynamic between three women; and Meredith McClaren explores a cute courtship between a girl and her laptop’s AI in her backup.
This week’s Twisted Romance #3 is the strongest of the four, beginning with De Campi working with frequent collaborator Carla Speed McNeil for “Invincible Heart,” a politically charged sci-fi narrative coupling an uptight spaceship captain with a sexy pirate who fights for disenfranchised colonies abandoned by the government. De Campi and McNeil have a long-standing creative relationship, having worked together on the graphic novel Ashes and Image’s ongoing No Mercy. De Campi understands that McNeil’s greatest strength is her emotional storytelling, and she writes stories that take advantage of her subtle and rich character work.
Body language is essential to the dynamic between Captain Justin Rao and the privateer Black Domnhall: While Justin is stiff and guarded, Domnhall is always open and exposed. He’s introduced with his arms above his head as he’s arrested, and he’ll stay in that position when he’s cuffed to the bar above him, exposing his chest and bare armpits. Costuming intensifies the contrast between the men, with Justin fully covered in his military garb and Domnhall losing his shirt once he’s thrown in the brig. Justin is frustrated by Domnhall’s come-hither stares, but also intrigued, and when Domnhall saves the captain’s life during a mission gone wrong, they start to open up to each other and create a more intimate emotional bond.
Specificity meets spontaneity in McNeil’s black-and-white penciled artwork, which adds a delicate quality to a story dominated by militaristic rigidity for most of its page count. McNeil mixes traditional layouts with more expressive page and panel designs. There are instances when she eliminates borders and bleeds moments into each other to change the rhythm and atmosphere. Borders disappear, for example, when Justin and his squad are ambushed on a planet’s surface, heightening the chaos of the attack. They also disappear for Domnhall’s execution in the clouds, but instead of chaos, McNeil delivers sensuality and grace for a turning point in this romance. Afterward, Justin decides to take his first trip planetside, removing his captain’s uniform and throwing on a T-shirt that reflects a deeper shift in the character’s demeanor and point of view.
The best short story of the series comes from Jess Bradley, an illustrator and character designer, who packs a complex, mournful tale about unrequited love in a post-apocalyptic future. “The Last Minute” follows two human survivors making a last-ditch effort to stop the interdimensional creatures who have devastated the Earth, but in the moments before they bomb a portal, one of the survivors confesses his love for his companion. Her response is a mix of irritation at the timing, regret over her past behavior, and comfort that she was able to give another person something to care for in a hopeless situation. Bradley is primarily known for her artwork, but her powerful, compassionate prose reveals the range of her ability and leaves the reader wanting more.
The issue ends with Margaret Trauth going in a kid-friendly direction with the cartoony “Olivia Lies, Pierced,” which shows how two friends’ flirtation manifests as petty squabbling with destructive consequences. Visually and narratively, it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum as “Invincible Heart,” but they both are driven by confident, fully realized visions of fantastic worlds. Trauth’s story can be a bit hard to follow because it’s stuffed full of ideas, but there’s so much imagination in these pages that the overflow is more rewarding than off-putting.
Trauth’s concept could easily be expanded into a larger project, which can be said for many of the stories in Twisted Romance. They end at a satisfying place, but there’s the opportunity to do more with these characters and relationships in the future. If this first miniseries is a success, it would be wonderful to see a sequel that features new stories and creators while also bringing back past favorites. We won’t know sales numbers until next month, but even with the publicity push, it’s unlikely that the series will be a huge hit in the direct market. The institutional obstacles might be too big for Twisted Romance to overcome, but ambitious, intelligent endeavors like this need recognition and support if the industry is going to evolve.