Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Brian K. Vaughan is back. Let me say that again. Brian K. Genius-Comic-Book-#$%*’in-Laureate Vaughan is back writing a comic book. And it is so very good. It’s been a long year and a half since the man behind such contemporary gems as Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina left his native trade to work on not-as-cool shows like Lost, leaving an immense void of intellectual genre fare on the stands. He’s since enlisted artist Fiona Staples for his return on Saga, a big, smart, flowing epic packed with endearing dialogue and careening plot twists. Which is to say, it is a comic book written by Brian K. Vaughan. The specifics concern star-crossed lovers Marko and Alana, a horned magician and a winged brunette who both leave their intergalactic warring armies to get married and raise a child. Similar to the Genesis concept in Preacher, the baby stands as a controversial statement as a biological creature born of two different species and an idea split between two extreme ideologies. The underpinning metaphysics lend a poetic anchor to the swift action above. And while the action is great, the characterization is absolutely engrossing. The opening panels illustrate Alana giving birth and offering lines to her partner like “Seriously, you’ll never have sex with me again if I defecate all over you. Unless you’re secretly into that. Please don’t be into that.” It’s funny, humanizing and beautiful in a way that austere science fiction rarely is. Every character, including albino men with television heads, comes with a three dimensional personality that begs to be explored. Staples’ pencils, inks and colors are gorgeous, propped against warm, washed-out backgrounds that emit a surreal fantasy glow. Her storytelling and perspective are also incredibly strong, echoing artists like Dave McKean and Michael Gaydos. If it’s not apparent, I loved this issue. And I honestly don’t know what sucks more: having waited years for Vaughan to come back, or waiting a month for issue 2 of Saga. (SE)
Dark Horse, 2012
Containing three of the seven volumes of Empowered previously published in paperback, you can consider this the superdeluxe hardcover edition, not only containing 712 pages and weighing in at a smidge over 4 pounds, but including early sketches, layouts, notes from creator Adam Warren and a bit more in the way of extras. The premise, if you’re not familiar with it, is that the book originated as a vehicle in which our eponymous heroine was regularly disrobed and rendered helpless through the use of restraints. It’s quite a nice treatment for what could easily be dismissed as just exploitainment, but then, Empowered is mere dumb fun the way that something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer was: dismissable only by those who lack a sense of humor and an ability to see beyond the premise. That’s not to say the book is as smart or varied as any of Whedon’s creations, but its well-rounded (in many ways… ba-dum-bum) female character remains interesting throughout, its constant commentary on the tropes of the genre is reliably amusing, and its supporting cast seems to be becoming ever more nuanced and 3D themselves. (HB)
In a small-scale repeat of DC’s market saturating New 52 project, Vertigo’s launching a new series every week this month. The line-up sounds extremely (almost regressively) Vertiginous, with a focus on magic and fantasy, including a Fables spin-off, a New Orleans voodoo princess, and a turn-of-the-century London where everybody’s either a vampire or a zombie. Saucer Country might be the least typical. Cornell’s script plays on both meanings of the second word in “illegal alien”, introducing us to Arcadia Alvarado, the first serious “female, divorced, Hispanic” candidate for president and the victim of an alien abduction. Alvarado’s campaign takes on a new urgency as she slowly remembers her abduction and the alien invasion that is covertly underway. And no, not the type of aliens that gives Fox News the vapors, but the little green men who visit Alvarado in her sleep. I cringed a little bit whenever Cornell overplayed the simplistic word game at the heart of the story, but if the book needed a high concept hook to get the green light, I suppose that’s better than another True Blood twist. This could be the first chapter of a good book, but as a single issue Cornell’s story doesn’t offer much to get excited about. Hopefully the political aspect will provide a somewhat novel foundation for the abduction business. The best thing here is Ryan Kelly’s art, which is largely realistic but occasionally flashes the grotesque visages and shadowy atmosphere of an EC horror comic. Saucer Country hasn’t locked its tractor beam on me yet, but Kelly’s art will bring me back next month. (GM)
Dark Horse, 2012
Originally published in Hermann’s native Belgium in 2007 and newly translated into English, Afrika packs a lot into its 64 pages: poaching, corruption, government-sanctioned murder, conspiracy, desperation, survival in the jungle, and probably more. It may, in fact, pack a little too much in, as the end swoops down with little warning. Hermann’s watercolor art is nicely colored and some panels are well rendered, but on the whole it feels a little over-reliant on references. The story starts similarly, feeling a bit clichéd with the whole “white man with a dark past trying to appease his conscience in Africa” thing, but it improves as events speed up. You may not ever love what you’re reading, especially when characters talk to one another in stilted fashion or when we’re expected to care about ones we barely know, but you do want to find out what happens next. (HB)