writing, comics criticism, dc comics

No Context Comics – A Look at 3 New Comics I Don’t Read

Welcome to what I hope is a new regular feature at Urbane Turtle! In this column, I’ll be diving into 3 books already in progress. There are very few rules here—they just have to be a comic I am not currently reading, not a number one, and if I can help it, not an anthology series.

There’s an old saying “every issue is somebody’s first” but that rarely applies in today’s insular comics market. Comics are for an existing audience of comics readers. Most coverage for comic series is around premiere issues without much discussion beyond that. I want to keep talking about books beyond their first issue. So that’s what I’m doing here.

I am curious how my impression of a work can change without the full runup of first-issue exposition, and what makes a good single-issue of an ongoing serialized narrative work. What does it need to be a successful chapter on its own?

I have no idea what to expect here. Will I discover something strange and unexpected about comics storytelling in the contemporary market? Or will I just be confused? Does it matter if I’m confused jumping into the third issue of a series? Will I go mad??

I don’t know! That’s part of the fun. Or I hope it will be. 

Anyway, today we’re talking about 3 new books. Black Adam #3 from DC, Fire Power from Skybound, and Where Starships Go To Die from Aftershock.

Black Adam #3

Christopher Priest, Rafa Sandoval, Matt Herms, Troy Peteri

Is it fair to call an issue disjointed if you’re coming in with no pre-existing knowledge? This book does not hold together narratively—the jumping back and forth between Black Adam’s inner turmoil and the hospital scene is jarring. Black Adam himself jumps between illusions and worlds without clear differentiation between shifts. Characters speak in constantly interrupted or incomplete dialogue. It is fragmented and confounding. We have no context for where these characters physically are in either the story or the art. Is it a hospital? A jail? Kahndaq? Egypt? The US? No clue. 

I imagine Priest chose this structure to capture Adam’s own disorientation with his deadly predicament. But instead, it makes the thing difficult to get pulled into. I am all for nonlinear storytelling but this doesn’t make me want to read and find out what is going on, it just annoyed me.

The story is titled “Theogony” which is a reference to the Greek epic that traces the origin of the Greek gods starting from before the birth of the universe. It translates literally to “generation of the gods” or history of the gods. But if there’s any thematic relevance to the title it is absent from vthese pages and seems more like an attempt to add a fancy-sounding word to elevate the middling story. An old superhero comics trick.

The story gives us no information on Black Adam’s history or what his internal struggle is. There is a flood of words on every page but none of them are particularly engaging. Characters speechify to one another without saying anything that moves either the story or the characters forward. What is Black Adam fighting for? There’s a passing reference to a quest for absolution and a debate over whether someone with such a villainous past is worth saving but both of these things feel more like set dressing than the core of the story and come quite near the end of the issue.

I can’t say I feel compelled to go back and find out what befell Black Adam. Something to do with a tea cup. 

There is merit to experimenting with fragmented narrative but it requires a clear perspective and purpose. That perspective or purpose is absent. 

Then there are just simple storytelling failures. At one point Malik (and it took me multiple rereads to catch his name) used Black Adam’s magic to call down some thunder to act as a defibrillator, but then is shocked later to find he is flying and says in amazement “the magic is real.” You didn’t figure that out when you called down lightning??

The art is fine but unremarkable. Sandoval shines during the action scenes which are quite visceral but his dialogue scenes (and there is soooooo much dialogue) are stagnant. Characters lack emotion or any sense of characterization. The shift between illusions (at least I think that’s what is going on with Adam) are unclear and muddied. 

I don’t mind being confused and not knowing what is going on in a story. Often it inspires me to go back and find out how things got to the way they are. Here I get the distinct sense that the previous two issues offer very little to make Priest’s Black Adam compelling. 

FIRE POWER #23

Robert Kirkman, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson, Russ Wooton

I am not the biggest Robert Kirkman fan. I find Walking Dead dreadfully boring and after 3 volumes of Invincible did not quite understand what everyone was so worked up about with this series. 


I am, however, an enormous fan of Chris Samnee. And perhaps that’s why I enjoyed this issue so much. 

Opening with an epic battle between an ancient dragon and a clan of bat-winged ninja certainly doesn’t hurt, either. 

Like the best of his collaboration with Mark Waid on their excellent Black Widow  series, Kirkman sits back and lets Samnee do the heavy lifting. There is no dialogue for first 8 pages, just some killer mid-air  kung-fu action. It’s thrillingly put together with dynamic layouts and dramatic scale. Samnee effectively emphasizes the dragon’s scale with careful staging. The first image is wide, the dragon taking up half of the panel, while dozens of ninja, tiny black specs, rain down from a blimp. The enxt image is another angle with the ninja in heavy perspective as they fall toward the dragon’s open maw. Even the largest and closest ninja to the viewer is smaller than the dragon. 

The hopelessness of their fight is emphasized on the page turn, where the dragon snaps its jaw shut, no doubt eating a host of the bat-ninjas, as it barrels through the rest, knocking them out of the sky.

Later in the issue, there is a grounded fight between shadowy figures. I do not know what was going on here, and I found it hard to follow who was the good guy or bad guy, but it cleared itself up by the end when the villain stood victorious. I am not sure of the thematic or storytelling purpose of the shadows–are these the ancient unknown masters whose identity are shrouded in generations of secrecy?

Matt Wilson’s colors give the villainous Master Shaw (I think that’s his name, given the summary at the front–so helpful!) a bright green visual motif to make the villain stand out. His eyes glow in the silhouette battle, and his actions are punctuated with green impact lines that help make the shadowy combat more legible. 

Rus Wooton’s letters have a handmade, imperfect feel. It gives it a sense of retro shonen manga styling or the feel of a classic underground comic. It really works well with Samnee’s cartooning to feel of a piece.

This issue of Firepower crackles with a kinetic life. I’m not sure it has convinced me to go back and read from the beginning just because of my past experience with Kirkman’s stuff but if he lets Samnee drive the storytelling like he does here, I might just need to dive in and see what other fun is in store.

WHERE STARSHIPS GO TO DIE #3

Mark Sable, Alberto Locatelli, Juancho!, Rob Steen

The place starships go to die must be the bottom of the ocean, but when I see a title with the word “starship” in it,  I kind of expect to see ships in the stars. This is, uh, not that. It feels like a Hardy Boys mystery or Scooby-Doo. That’s not, exactly, a bad thing. There is a ghostly apparition haunting an abandoned boat who is picking off crew. 

What I was able to pick up of the plot here is that this is a crew trying to reignite a dying Earth’s space race long after the world governments have abandoned the stars or the idea of doing anything to heal the Earth. A reluctant ragtag crew is plumbing the depths of the sea for a ship that works that can get them back into the air. 

That is actually pretty intriguing once I got over the initial shock of not getting to see spaceships go zoom.

I don’t know how effective this issue is as a whole. It jumps across scenes without clear transition, at one point the characters are in different parts of the ship, lightning strikes, and the they are in the water on the next page. Why or how they got there is not clear. It’s especially surprising because earlier, write Mark Sable and artist Alberto Locatelli do some clever flipping back and forth between scenes, with visuals and dialogue offering both natural and funny transitions. 

The mystery that is unfolding here is fairly by the numbers and, frankly, I think I watched this basic outline in an episode of Doctor Who. There’s an alien robot ghost and it sank the Russian spaceship. Now it’s going to kill the people trying to get it working again. There’s even a convenient recording where the crew discovers a secret nuclear warhead the Russian government tried to smuggle to Mars. 

This one isn’t a terrible issue but I don’t know that it is particularly good, either. I feel like what has been attempted here has been done often and many times better. The art is not bad, but the colors are muddy and a mostly monochrome blue that makes sense given it takes place mostly underwater, but is not visually exciting.

With Black Adam, which I read first, I thought maybe I was being unfair calling it disorienting. But this book tries to do some similar storytelling tricks and I could get a clear sense of what was going on and what the conflict was. But after reading Firepower which managed to be immediately engaging and had some impressive set pieces with a joyful kinetic artstyle, this feels particularly lackluster in comparison. That might be an unfair comparison given how good Chris Samnee is and that issue was an action-heavy climax where this is more act 2 set-up, there is just something missing in the visuals to give this story the oomph it needs to be more than a Doctor Who or X-Files homage.

I think that’s 4 other properties I’ve used as a reference point for this book…Well, I think that emphasizes how derivative it feels.

– – – – – 

What did we learn this week? 

  1. You can throw people into a story and make them want to read it if you trust your artist to set the stage clearly.
  2. You need to set your scene in any given issue. Even if it’s an initial establishing shot or a caption box. Either of those would have helped with Black Adam. Both Where Starships Go to Die and Firepower give us a clear sense of where this is taking place, in different ways, and what the main conflict is. 

I think point 2 is what I wasn’t sure of coming into this project. What does a comic book writer owe a reader in every issue? If I’m reading month-to-month or in a trade  I don’t need a full recap at the start of every issue. But there needs to be a grounding. And that is true for any change in scene within an issue. Where Black Adam and Starship fail is in that lack of staging. And if I’m reading month-to-month, chances are I need a little bit of a reminder.

Got a book coming out in the next couple weeks you want me to dive into? Happy to hear your suggestions. If I’m not reading it, you might find it featured here!

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