Welcome back to another edition of No Context Comics. A look at three new issues of comics this week that I do not read.
What will we learn this week? Anything? Is there a reason for doing this? Is there a reason for doing anything? I don’t know but I just had $10,000 of student loan debt forgiven which shaves about a week of payments off my very worthwhile loans that requires me to scramble for a way to make money with my writing to offset my low nonprofit salary (Which this website does not do. It’s a loss leader, baby. You can send me money here though if you like what I’m doing.) So I’m feeling pretty much the same as I did yesterday.
Let’s get to some COMICS.
GUNSLINGER SPAWN #11
By Todd McFarlane, Brett Booth, Adelso Corona, Ivan Nunes, Tom Orzechowski
Would you believe I’ve never read a Spawn before? Not any form of Spawn. I don’t know anyone who has ever read an issue of Spawn. And yet Spawn remains a comic book industry powerhouse. Jamie Foxx is going to make a new Spawn movie. I have only the vaguest understanding of the general conceit behind Spawn–He was a guy who died and is now possessed by a demon and maybe punishes evildoers? Am I close?
I’m going to tell you that right out the gate the cards were stacked against this book as soon as I saw the art credits. Booth is one of my least favorites in the industry right now. I find his scratchy linework and angular figures discordant. The excess of crosshatch rendering and stray lines gives his pages a dirty, cluttered look that often makes anything he draws hard to follow visually, with leading lines getting lost in excess detail.
If there was ever a time when McFarlane’s work was edgy or cutting edge that time has long since passed. McFarlane’s 90s-era artwork may remain electric but his writing in this issue is a stiff imitation of late-70s era Chris Claremont. Booth’s blotchy work is positively covered in word balloons and caption boxes that explain every panel. It might be intentional, what with Claremont stalwart Tom Orzechowski serving the letters in this issue. But as clean as that lettering is, it is incongruous with Booth’s scratchy style, made even more jagged by inker’s Adelso Corona’s scribbly inks. McFarlane seems not to trust Booth’s ability to convey what is going on, and, to be fair, he is kind of right. The fight scenes are weightless and cramped. It is hard to tell who is punching who.
There are moments in this book that are quite honestly laugh-out-loud funny but I’m not sure they are meant to be. The dialogue is hokey and riddled with attempts at grizzled Clint Eastwood one-liners. The book’s final image is rendered with such little drama as to completely undermine the supposed cliffhanger.
I am fine not knowing why this version of Spawn carries a gun or wears a big, giant hat. But so little happens here it is hard to imagine people invested in the story about the bloody angels or the time traveling (?) cowboy Spawn will be satisfied. What is the story about? A demon guy who shoots a gun and wears a big hat. What you see is what you get! That’s the McFarlane way, baby!
I do like Spawn’s big old hat, though. I’ll give them that.
WE LIVE – AGE OF THE PALLADIONS #5
By the Miranda Brothers (Inaki & Roy), Eva De La Cruz, Dave Sharpe
This issue had two things that drew me to it as a choice for this week’s No Context Comics. One: its completely unwieldy title, and Two: the slick cover. Whatever this book is about, its flaming Tron-inspired costumed, rendered here in a cel-shaded high contrast simplicity is striking. Like many Indie publishers these days, Aftershock does a great job on presentation and graphic design. The credits page and trade dress give their whole package a professional feel that Marvel and DC often do not feel compelled to provide given their market share. It is an appreciated attention to detail. There is also an effort to make the story experience go beyond the page with a QR code to listen to original music composed for the series. It’s quite good, a moody, stringy guitar lament.
The first few pages of this issue could have served as a compelling first-issue hook. An attack of strange monsters on a population of children seemingly fleeing their planet as crowds look on, children fleeing for their lives. The contextless terror and surprise are tense and heightened by the quick jumps in perspective and focus from panel-to-panel. It is immediately disorienting–but in an intentionally structured way.
The story appears to move back and forth across different time periods, telling the story of this desecrated world and its fallen heroes, hopelessly consumed by a horde of alien-insect-zombie type creatures called The Plague.
The Miranda Brothers do incredible work here, making the words and imagery meld together into a sweeping tragedy of quiet lament. There are bombastic moments of action but little catharsis. There is a sense that all that these people do to fight the evils before them are insurmountable. Inaki Miranda’s monster designs are grotesque while the slick, minimalistic rim-lit heroes known as the Palladions are almost angelic. Their corruption is accentuated by the gory, highly rendered visages they take on. You get the sense that this was once a utopian sci-fi of touch screen, neon slick design before the Plague came.
Unlike McFarlane, the Mirandas feel no need to drown a page in text or overexplain what is unfolding. The horizontal structure of the layouts gives the panels an extended sense of time, as if they are images slowly playing across memory, suspended in a timeless void of sorrow.
But the most striking part of this issue are the final few silent pages as a hero is mourned. Just as the epic battle elsewhere seems to see the tide turning, we are ripped away to a moment of grief. The sweeping imagery is stripped away. A woman dances across the page, and then is walked to a lone tree and burned in sorrow. The slow march of grief is accentuated by the limited shift between panels, where previous pages span days or months or years, or are heavy with battle and sharp cuts between characters. These final panels change only slightly between each image.
Without even knowing these characters or the extent of their relationship (although even that is conveyed with smart use of comic book time manipulation) I was moved nearly to tears by their fate.
I cannot let the colorist, Eva de la Cruz, or letterer Dave Sharpe to go unmentioned. What they bring to this story is immense. The colors are rich and unearthly, vibrant but unsettling. Sharpe is an excellent letterer who transforms word balloons and effects with subtle but extremely effective flourishes.
I don’t know what led to this dark and desolate world but I know that I want to go back to the previous issues and find out more about who these characters are and trace their journeys together.
The letter to readers at the end of this issue informs us that this is the end of the current volume and it was intentionally bleak, as if “Passing through a storm.” Even with just this single issue I feel as if I have weathered a hurricane.
I’ll be thinking about this issue for a while.
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG #52
By Evan Stanley, Rick Mack, Maria Keane, Reggie Graham, and Shawn Lee
I’m going to let you in on a secret. In my youth I was, maybe not a prominent, but certainly an active member of the Sonic the Hedgehog fan community. I have many important and emotional memories connected to this franchise and characters in a variety of ways. I’m not particularly attached to these characters now but I certainly have a strong nostalgia for them.
I was a big fan of the Archie series and the cartoon that spawned it. In fact, the Archie Sonic series was the first comic I collected regularly and I had a subscription to it at a time when (no joke) Ron Lim, or Infinity Gauntlet fame, was the artist. It was…not his best work.
Speaking of Claremont, as we were above, the Archie Sonic line became something of a Claremontian epic drama of intersecting plots and long running side stories. This was by virtue of it having a single writer and artist for a big chunk of its run. I was deeply invested in those histories. Of course, as the games became a bit more complex and started building up a cast and mythology of its own, having a decades long continuity of characters that are not in the actual video games became a licensing issue for Sega.
But I have to admit I miss Sally Acorn, Bunnie Rabbot and the rest of the Freedom Fighters.
This IDW series hews much more closely to the games and the intellectual property therein while also introducing its own batch of new characters. It’s been running for a few years now but I’ve not read any until today.
It’s always hard to approach writing about a book that is primarily targeted at kids. Do you look for the sophistication of its story? The effectiveness of its humor? Whether it has anything “to say?” I’m not really sure. This is a good enough issue but it feels extremely slight without much tension or action. Two things I feel like a young reader probably wants. I don’t expect high emotional stakes from a Sonic book necessarily but the story here doesn’t have much going on. Sonic and Tails seem like guests in a story about the series’ new original characters, Kit and Belle, and their journey of gaining self-confidence. And even that is fairly perfunctory.
But there are some genuine laughs here provided by fan artist-turned-pro-artist-turned-writer, Evan Stanley. She has the benefit of being her own artist and can pace the gags for maximum effect. But what I think holds this issue back is something we saw last week and that is a lack of clear set up of what the situation is. Apparently, Sonic is injured and they are trying to escape an evil city. But none of that is clear within the story, I got that from the solicits after the fact. This book even had a recap page and it wasn’t very helpful.
I am not after a full rundown or exposition dump but one thing that these serialized stories is attention paid to convey the situation either with some establishing imagery or, and this is the lazy way to do it, some captions. There’s a balance that needs to be struck and it can be tough to get right. Particularly when you consider that many people these days will be reading a full story of multiple issues in one sitting.
One thing that Stanley does well, though, is right away presenting Metal Sonic as an overpowering threat. He weaves in and out of the issue as a silent menace tirelessly tracking our heroes. The first thing we see is Metal in a full page splash looming over the heroes. Pretty effective! But without really understanding what they are after it doesn’t fully land. Where are they running to?
Story aside—the art in this issue is stunning. Stanley’s line work is lively and expressive and she is able to get a lot of expression out of fairly minimal designs. The big chunky inks from Rick Mack and Maria Keane are a perfect complement to the cartoony characters and give them a solid sense of weight and volume to ground their movement.
But the real standout are the colors from Reggie Graham. It is really out of this world. Graham gives the issue a grit and realism with a grainy effect that replicates film grain and the noise from a high ISO camera in the dark. That attention to detail gives this issue—set in the dark of night — a solid authenticity even as the sky turns various shades of unearthly pink. Graham plays with other subtle effects like chromatic aberrations and blurs that gives the art a real pop. It can be easy to go overboard with excess rendering in colors and distract from the art but Graham instead leverages digital tools to add to the linework and elevate it. Honestly, I would love to see more work like this in comics.
Got a book you’d like to see discussed here? If I’m not reading it maybe you’ll see me write about it on this very website!