A Twisted Dark, Vol. 1 Review – The Horror in Your Head

TITLE: Twisted Dark, Vol. 1
AUTHOR: Neil Gibson
PENCILLERS: Atula Siriwardane, Caspar Wijngaard, Heru Prasetyo Djalal, Jan Wijngaard, Ant Mercer, Dan West
FORMAT:
Softcover
PUBLISHER:
TPub
PRICE: 
$14.99
RELEASED: August 2014

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Twisted Dark is a series that lives up to its name in more ways than one.

From the UK-based TPub and author/editor/founder Neil Gibson, Twisted Dark is a collection of short psychological horror and suspense tales. This is indeed the twisted and dark underbelly of the human psyche. We’ll meet Rajeev, who rises to power in Dubai through manipulation and deceit. There’s Soames, a patient in a psychiatric ward convinced everything around him is a twisted game. We also have Ashbjorn, whose fractured mind is trying to shield him from the unspeakable pain of his horrific reality. These stories and characters stand alone for now. But they all exist in the shared universe of Twisted Dark. They may not know it, but their paths have already started to cross…

What I really enjoy about Twisted Dark is that it showcases the versatility of the black and white comic book. You’ve got so many different methods and textures on display here, at times from the same artist. Caspar Wijngaard, for instance, does “Routine.” We see deep blacks, a lot of jagged lines, and a high black and white contrast. He also does the cover, so it’s the style you expect when you open the book. But then later, we get “Cocaina,” in which he lowers the contrast, and starts playing with grays. His brother Jan Wijngaard also gets to show off with two stories. I would classify his style as softer than Caspar’s, and bit sketchier. It’s one thing to do that between different titles. It’s another to do it within a single volume, and is a real credit to both men as artists.

I stumbled across this book at C2E2 this year. It’s got a three-page opening story that provides a hell of a hook, and an appetizer for the book’s brand of storytelling. I love that first page (shown right). There’s a haunting sense of foreboding in the art alone. And then you read that lone bit of text at the bottom. Now that‘s a hook.

Most of these stories have a narrator with a very storybook-ish voice. Everything’s very plainly spoken, and seemingly unbiased. There’s a haunting quality in that. Especially after we see all these awful and disturbing things happen. We have no indication that the narrator is part of the horror itself in any way. But he’s your messenger, so you develop a subtle fear of him (her?) as well.

Once you hit the second or third story, you inevitably recognize a pattern to the storytelling. It’s the classic twist take on horror. (Twisted Dark…get it?) At some point in the story, you learn that your main character isn’t who you thought they were, or that they were being deceived somehow. Evil and/or bloodshed commences. You learn not to get too invested in who you’re seeing, and you’re always on the look-out for the swerve. This has obvious pros and cons. When you have an anthology of twist stories, they almost aren’t even twists anymore. They’re stories that adhere to a format. “Windowpayne” comes at about the midpoint of the book, and is about an entrepreneur with a facial scar who creates windowpanes that double as a sort of television. The character is interesting, but the story has an ending you can see a mile away because of the story patterns.

In apparent recognition of that pattern, the majority of the book’s subsequent twists become a little less jarring, though often no less violent. “Munchausen’s Little Proxy,” which is about a woman addicted to surgery, is more of a character piece than a narrative with a twist. Ditto for “The Pushman,” about a train worker from Tokyo. As there are several more volumes of Twisted Dark, I’m curious to see how the stories are positioned going forward.

On that note, all these stories and characters apparently exist in the same universe, and there are connections to be found. Perhaps I’m simply not eagle-eyed enough to spot them, as none were apparent to me as I closed the book. But I don’t doubt they’re there.

I appreciate the psychological component of Twisted Dark. While there’s no shortage of violence, they aren’t stories about violence, or gore, or monsters, or any of that. Twisted Dark recognizes that the scariest place of all is the human mind…

There’s an argument to be made that “The Routine” is the book’s best tale. It’s got a very horror-ish look, and it’s the first major twist we see, so it’s the most intense. But the character that gets the most development is Rajeev, by virtue of being the only one who’s story gets a sequel. He starts off as a humble but average man from south India who becomes a slave laborer, but in time rises to power. I wouldn’t call Rajeev’s tale the best in the book, but it does get the most page time, and thus the most progression. The second story, “A Heavenly Note,” is somewhat unique. While Rajeev rises to power in the first tale, the second one is about maintaining that power. That’s not always something you see in stories about the rise of tyrants. Obtaining power is one thing. Keeping it is another.

Twisted Dark would still work as a series featuring self-contained short stories. What we get is fairly simplistic, at least at this point. But the book manages to make good on it’s name. Plus, the idea that all these stories will somehow bleed into one another adds another level of intrigue. If you like your horror a little less gory, and more psychological, Twisted Dark is up your ally.

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An All-Star Batman: My Own Worst Enemy Review – Road Trip!

TITLE: All-Star Batman, Vol. 1: My Own Worst Enemy
AUTHOR: Scott Snyder
PENCILLERS: John Romita Jr, Declan Shalvey
COLLECTS: All-Star Batman #15
FORMAT: Hardcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $24.99
RELEASED: April 19, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Let’s get the usual Scott Snyder spiel out of the way early. I like Snyder’s Batman stuff. He’s one of the best writers to pen the Dark Knight’s adventures in the last decade. But he does so many little things that are just infuriating. As such, otherwise brilliant stories become tainted so needlessly. Sadly, All-Star Batman, Vol. 1: My Own Worst Enemy is no  exception.

The dark side of Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face, is gradually taking over his twisted psyche. Harvey enlists Batman’s help to take him across the country and eliminate his dual identity once and for all. But Two-Face counters by blackmailing everyone in Gotham City. If Batman isn’t stopped, he’ll release every dirty secret he has. What’s more, the person that brings Batman down gets a fortune in untraceable cash. Batman, and his new apprentice Duke Thomas, are about to be hit from all sides.

Snyder’s premise is tremendous. The great thing about doing this kind of chase story with Batman is the near limitless amount of enemies you can bring in. In My Own Worst Enemy we see Killer Moth, Firefly, Black Spider, and Gentlemen Ghost. And that’s just the first issue. Of course, we also go higher up on the food chain with baddies like Killer Croc and the Court of Owls.

Snyder, John Romita Jr., and the team are clearly having fun with these action sequences. The opening scene with Batman, Firefly, and Killer Moth in the diner has some blaring flaws (more on those later). But the two-page spread on the left packs a hell of a punch.  The book as a whole has some of the most intense and energetic work Romita has done in quite some time. Certainly since he’s come to DC. We later get a sequence on top of a train, which leads to a gorgeous fight in a river between Batman and Two-Face. I also loved the fight with KGBeast in issue #3, which is so bloody it’s actually reminiscent Romita’s work in Kick-Ass.

As such, it makes sense that All-Star Batman and Kick-Ass had the same colorist: Dean White. As the blood continues to spill, the panels start to take on rusty colors, similar to what we see in the climax of the original Kick-Ass. What’s more, White’s touch makes some of the outdoor sequences really pop. That’s especially the case in issue #2, with the greens, browns, and blues. Though if I may say, Killer Croc might be a bit too bright. He’s Killer Croc, not Kermit the Frog.

What Snyder really nails in this book is the twisted psychology of Two-Face. The emphasis on secrets hammers home the point that everyone has a certain duality and dark side to their personality. A side which, if you believe Two-Face represents who they truly are. Snyder even takes us into the mechanics of Harvey and Two-Face. The two personalities can keep secrets from one another, influence each other’s behavior, etc. You get the sense these are aspects of the Two-Face character that Snyder has wanted to explore for awhile, but hasn’t had the chance. Details like this help to make My Own Worst Enemy one of the more compelling Two-Face stories in recent memory.

That’s why it’s all the more frustrating when Snyder sprinkles in moments that seem tremendously out of character for Batman. The most notable ones occur during fight sequences in the first two issues. In the aforementioned diner scene, Batman says: “Hey. All of you in this diner. Look at me. Not them. Look at my face. No one is dying today.” He then winks at them (shown right). On the next page, he makes a crack about the life cycle of a moth before stabbing Killer Moth through the hand.

Later, during he train sequence in issue #2, Batman says to Killer Croc: “Hey Waylon. Appaloosa called…they want their fool back.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. Batman is a silly character. Silly, and versatile enough to be both dark and brooding, yet somehow funny in the same issue. That being said, lines like this are just bad. And they’re so out of character for the Dark Knight that they leave a bad taste in your mouth for the rest of the story. As good as Snyder is, and as fun as these action sequences are otherwise, this is a Batman story, not a Lethal Weapon movie.

As our story continues, we see that even Batman isn’t immune to Two-Face’s little secrets scheme, as Jim Gordon and the GCPD are about to walk into the Batcave. Snyder somewhat blurs the lines as far as what Gordon does or doesn’t know about Bruce Wayne and Batman. In the middle of issue #5, as the cops are about to break into the cave, Gordon pulls Alfred aside. He tells him to “I don’t know what’s true, you hear me? I never have. … Call him and get him to do whatever he has to do to turn this back. You tell him he has one chance.”

This is somewhat reminiscent of what we got toward the end of “No Man’s Land” almost 20 years ago. Only in that story, we had a little hint of doubt that maybe Gordon did know the truth. In this story, it’s the reverse. We’re literally standing in Wayne Manor as everything is about to be revealed, and we get a hint that maybe Gordon doesn’t know. Frankly, that’s not nearly as effective as what happened in “No Man’s Land.” Here, it’s fairly obvious that Gordon knows. And if he doesn’t, then he’s a complete moron.

Snyder did something similar with the Joker back in “Zero Year.” He and Greg Capullo made it pretty clear that the Red Hood One character was the guy that becomes the Joker. But then he threw in a twist that cast doubt over the whole thing. With both the Joker and Jim Gordon, it’s pretty obvious what Snyder wants to do. But for some reason, he doesn’t fully pull the trigger on it.

This first volume of All-Star Batman also collects “The Cursed Wheel,” which is comprised of back-up stories from the first four issues by Snyder, penciller/inker Declan Shalvey, and colorist Jordie Bellaire. The story is fine for the most part. It centers around Batman training Duke Thomas to be…whatever he’s going to be. There’s an argument to be made that Shalvey’s art is actually superior to Romita’s. It’s crisp, it’s clean, and it’s beautifully complimented by Bellaire.

Snyder sprinkles a little Joker dust on things by showing us Duke’s parents, who’ve been driven insane and in effect “Jokerized” after the events of “Endgame.” In issue #4, Duke poses the theory that the Joker is not pure evil. He simply attacks what he loves, and his serum prompts it’s victims to do the same. The idea isn’t explored much, but it’s a tremendous character insight.

On the flip side, you have the concept of the Cursed Wheel. It’s meant to be a condensed version of all the training Bruce did to become Batman. Each portion/color represents a different part of the human psyche. This could have been really interesting. But they got a little too cute with it. What spoiled it for me was this…

“Look at the colors. You see hints of them in the colors of your allies. Dick leans blue. Damian, green. Barbara, purple. It’s a secret history that unites them, connects them and differentiates them.”

So the colors that Nightwing, Batgirl, Robin, and other characters wear isn’t a simple color choice? Rather, it has some kind of deep-rooted psychological attachment to this wheel? So what about when Nightwing was wearing red? Or when Batgirl’s costume wasn’t purple? Hell, what about the other colors Robin wears? Furthermore, what traits to these different colors represent, exactly? Simply put, I don’t get it. The idea isn’t fleshed out enough, and the color coding is a little too silly for me. Sometimes a blue shirt is just a blue shirt.

The one word I would use to describe My Own Worst Enemy is “consistent.” Like Snyder’s work on Batman, we’ve got some really big and creative ideas here. It’s just that the bad ideas tend to flop as spectacularly as the good ones soar.

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A Wonder Woman: The Lies Review – Wonder Woman Reloaded

TITLE: Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: The Lies
AUTHOR: Greg Rucka
PENCILLERS: Liam Sharp, Matthew Clark
COLLECTS: Wonder Woman: Rebirth #1Wonder Woman #1, #3, #5, #7, #9, #11
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $16.99
RELEASED: February 22, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

You don’t have to be a regular on the review sites to know fans have hit the jackpot with a lot of these DC Rebirth titles. I said this about The Flash. I said this about Green Arrow. But it rings true even more so in this case: We need a good Wonder Woman book now more than ever. Not just because of the movie coming out, but because of what America looks like right now. This character and what she stands for are as important now as they’ve ever been. You’ll find many magazine covers, t-shirts, dolls, and action figures, online games featuring her. There are even online casino sites that offer DC themed inspired slot games with her and other DC character. But it’s not always easy to find, say, a good Wonder Woman graphic novel.

With that in mind, giving Wonder Woman back to Greg Rucka was a good move. He’s done right by the women of DC Comics. He wrote the famous “Half a Life” story about Renee Montoya in the pages of Gotham Central. He co-created the current iteration of Batwoman, and had a damn good run with her in Detective Comics. He’s done some really good, though perhaps lesser known work with Huntress. He’s also one of the most heralded Wonder Woman writers of the past two decades. If anyone was qualified to give Diana a fresh start, it was him. His Wonder Woman is regal, yet grounded. Tough, sometimes even violent. But also nurturing and kind.

Diana’s memories have become muddled. The lines between fantasy and reality are blurred beyond distinction. Was she sculpted from clay by her mother and granted life by the gods? Or is she the child of Queen Hippolyta and Zeus? Why did she journey to the world of man? What is her truth? To find the answers, Wonder Woman seeks help from dear friend turned mortal enemy: Barbara Ann Minerva, the Cheetah. Meanwhile, Steve Trevor is on the hunt for a brutal terrorist who just happens to be in league with Urzkartaga, the monstrous deity in control of the Cheetah. Once again, Diana and Steve’s paths will cross. But is there any sort of future between them?

For clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that Wonder Woman took a different approach to the company’s new bi-weekly scheduling. Simply put, the odd-numbered issues contained the story collected in The Lies and the even-numbered ones told a “Year One” story penciled by Nicola Scott. A cute little trick to give the artists more breathing room.

In the Rebirth issue, Rucka puts all the cards on the table regarding the character’s conflicting origin stories, then wipes the slate clean. A bold move, to be certain. But a welcome one. Diana’s origin and the mythological elements involved have always been tougher to grasp. At least for yours truly. The Lies is more about a personal quest than an epic battle of gods and monsters. She’s quite literally asking, “Who am I?” That’s very grounded and relatable.

That’s not to say that Diana’s memories suddenly changing makes a lot of sense from a story perspective. The Rebirth initiative restored a lot of great continuity. But to do that you often have to jump through a lot of storytelling hoops. Look no further than the Superman books for your examples. Rucka keeps things pretty vague in that sense. Ultimately, that’s for the better, I suppose.

But we’re not just learning about Diana. We also get a tremendously valuable look at the Cheetah. She’s arguably Wonder Woman’s greatest rival. But I’d wager that even more devoted comic book readers (myself included) struggle with her, even down to basic details. It’s easy to write her off when you put her next to villains like the Joker and Lex Luthor. You can almost mistake her for a Catwoman knock-off. But Rucka and Liam Sharp spend a good chunk of issues #1 and #3 laying her groundwork. Hell, a large portion of our plot revolves around her. Their partnership doesn’t necessarily end the way you think it will, either. Also, Barbara in human form is a dead ringer for Kate Winslet.

We also re-establish our supporting cast, most notably Steve Trevor and Etta Candy. The New 52 did Steve Trevor a lot of good. The earlier stories, at least. We get more of that here. As he’s done many times before, Steve plays the gentleman-in-jeopardy here. But he’s obviously more than that. Like Diana, Steve has to strike a delicate balance between toughness and sensitivity. Yet again, Rucka is able to walk that tightrope. Especially when we get to issue #9. In many ways, Steve Trevor is the embodiment of an enlightened male for the 21st century.

Liam Sharp is a tremendous pick for Wonder Woman. It goes back to balance. Sharp’s Wonder Woman looks like a gladiator, every bit at home in a fight. But then you also have the quieter, more emotional sequences like the one with Cheetah in issue #3, the reunion with Steve in issue #9, etc. Wonder Woman is more multi-faceted than most people realize, and Sharp illustrates that beautifully here.

Sharp’s take on Cheetah is also tremendous. She’s animalistic, but not beastly. She’s got those big, expressive, and very human eyes. Sharp’s line-work and shading also give her a texture we don’t often see. Yet another reason this book is one of the character’s finest hours.

Depending on when you were picking it up, Wonder Woman was hit or miss during the New 52 era. Thankfully, the Amazon Princess is once again in good hands. It’s a damn good time to be a Wonder Woman fan.

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A One Trick Pony Review – Nathan Hale’s Apocalypse Tale

TITLE: One Trick Pony
AUTHOR: Nathan Hale
PUBLISHER: Amulet Books
PRICE: $14.95
RELEASED: March 14, 2017

***WARNING: Minor spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

You know how I can tell I’m becoming a crotchety old man? I’m getting angry at teenagers for being on their smartphones too much. The other day I actually coined the term, “screen-craving mouth-breathers.”

So yeah, Nathan Hale’s One Trick Pony was up my alley.

My first exposure to Nathan Hale came at this year’s annual Children’s Literature Breakfast held by Anderson’s Bookshop in suburban Chicago. He did a very funny presentation about the power that pictures and visual content can have in the learning process. Using an overhead projector and a marker, he told us all his animated version of the Lewis and Clark story. It was very much in the vein of his Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series of graphic novels for kids, which take the same sort of look at history. If you get the chance to see him, I highly recommend it.

One Trick Pony is something different. It’s an original, post-apocalyptic graphic novel about a world where electronics are scarce. An alien race, which humans call “Pipers,” have stripped the Earth of its machines. As such, the world has reverted back to horses and spears. Our main character, a young girl named Strata, lives with a mobile caravan collecting and preserving technology. One day, on a routine hunt for tech, Strata and her brothers find a golden mechanical Pony called Kleidi. But the Pipers are always lurking, and Kleidi is literally a giant golden target.

I can’t find a lot of bad things to say about this book. It’s sort of like War of the Worlds meets The Hunger Games meets…whatever you’d consider a modern popular cartoon to be. I’ll say The Simpsons for lack of a better example. It’s witty and plainly spoken. It also has a nice moral in there about paying the piper for the luxuries we have, ergo the creatures (shown right) being called “Pipers.” I like the idea of these alien invaders having a moralistic agenda. In the end, we find out that’s not entirely the case. But I appreciate this story being given to youngsters.

Hale’s style is very simple, with a “sketchy” feel to it. But he’s more than capable of being a rock star on the pencil, especially when he gets to draw the caravan that’s carrying all the hidden tech. All the little details are awesome. It’s almost a contrast to the way he draws the human characters.

The story is presented mostly in grayscale. The exceptions are shades of yellow, a tiny bit of brown for skin tones, and deep gold, the latter we see on the Pipers and Kleidi. The sky is almost always a faded yellow, which with the gray gives us a very desolate feel.

Oddly enough, the element in this story that seems the most forced is Kleidi, the titular robotic horse. Kleidi and Strata have a boy-and-his-dog sort of bond, which I guess I can buy. But Kleidi being a robot thins out that premise, especially since we never find out exactly what this robot is or where it comes from. So our ending, which directly involves Kleidi, loses some of its edge because she’s almost more of a vessel than a character.

To use a Star Wars analogy, it’s like Han Solo’s relationship with the Millennium Falcon. He cares about it. But not in the same way he cares about, say…Chewbacca. Kleidi feels like Han and the Falcon, and I think it wants to feel like Han and Chewie.

What’s more, the world Hale creates is so much more interesting than the Strata/Kleidi dynamic. So interesting that I was actually disappointed when the story ended with the loose ends tied up, and a nice little bow on it. I was hoping we’d get a sequel to Kleidi. Especially considering things end rather abruptly. I’m not an advocate of every story being stretched into an epic trilogy. But there could have been more to explore here.

But perhaps I’m being too critical. Kleidi is a very good read, and hopefully the start of a new path for Nathan Hale. He’s a great history teacher. But he’s also got a knack for writing some history of his own.

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A Mae, Vol. 1 Review – Beautifully Frustrating

Mae, Vol. 1TITLE: Mae, Vol. 1:
AUTHORS: Gene Ha, Danny Busiek, 
PENCILLERS: 
Ha, Paulina Ganucheau, Sally Jane Thompson
PUBLISHER: Dark Horse Comics
PRICE: $17.99
RELEASED: January 25, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

I would call Mae a blend of Doctor Who and The Wizard of Oz, with a little Harry Potter sprinkled on top. Our creator/writer/artist Gene Ha makes a point to name drop all three in the pages of Mae, Vol. 1. So I imagine he’d be okay with that statement.

What’s more, Mae has a lot in common with those stories. It takes a seemingly average young person and thrusts them into a world of fantasy and adventure. Nine years after Mae’s sister Abbie mysteriously vanishes, she abruptly reappears telling stories about another world. Monsters, talking cats, and a price on her head from the House Zemetrasi. To Mae, it’s all beyond belief. But Abbie has been followed, and their father is soon kidnapped. Now Mae must follow her sister into a place unlike any she’s ever known, and become the hero she never knew she could be.

It’s always fun whenever an artist, much less one the caliber of Gene Ha, gets to just cut loose and create. The most appealing aspect of Mae, for my money, is seeing all the eccentric fantasy elements and characters Ha designs. The robotic, and very tall Rytir Kazisvet, who kidnaps Mae and Abbie’s father, is tremendous. I’m also rather fond of the fuzzy little creature in a hoodie that comes after Abbie early in the story (shown below). And then you’ve got the Dukes, four human heads which all share the same robotic body. It all feels like we’re just scratching the surface, and future issues could bring us anything.

There’s something to be said for the way Abbie and Mae are dressed. Both outfits are very distinct, and in a broad sense allow you to get their characters almost instantly. Abbie’s outfit consists of a fez and a Napoleonic War style outfit. It feels very adventurous, and the fez seems very much like a nod to Matt Smith’s time on Doctor Who. Mae, on the other hand, is wearing a scarf (a nod to the Fourth Doctor?), glasses, hat, and coat. It’s a look for a modern woman who’s well-read, and isn’t afraid to flaunt her geekiness.

It’s refreshing that Mae is our title character and main hero here. She’s a fangirl, but she’s not depicted as social awkward or an oddball. In essence, she’s just an average girl who happens to love her some Doctor Who and Harry Potter. While her lines about such things usually come off contrived, she feels like the most genuine and real character in the book.

Initially, I couldn’t figure out why this book reminded me so much of Toy Story. You can argue it evokes memories of the human-centric Pixar movies in general, a la The Incredibles. But Toy Story was what came to mind for me. Then when you look closer, you realize Ha’s pencilling, shading, and inking make the figures pop to the point that they look three-dimensional. This effect also does wonders for the creatures Ha designs. Under someone else’s pencil, that little fuzzy guy with the sunglasses might look like fairly generic fantasy character. But drawn by Ha, he almost looks lively enough to be one of the Muppets. Albeit, a fairly violent Muppet.

On the downside, there are a few points where characters look static, and the image feels artificial as a result. The best example in the book can be seen in the lower lefthand portion of the image at right. Abbie, as she’s laughing, looks detached and unnatural. Though I will say the adjacent panels look lovely.

Mae marks one of Gene Ha’s only stints as a writer. To say the least, it’s ambitious. These are his characters and his vision, which he actually raised the funds for on Kickstarter. The world he’s created has a lot of depth, and has a sort of Oz quality to it. But a times it’s a struggle to figure out exactly how it works. It’s clearly influenced by bits and pieces of our world, or “old Earth” as they call it.

Ha starts small, first setting the story in the girls’ home in small-town Indiana. We then spend an issue in a city in our fantasy world, before we expand and find out what sort of politics drive it. In issue #4, Mae and Abbie sneak into the castle of the House Zemetrasi, searching for  Rytir Kazisvet and their father. There’s talk of a war with someone called the “Obruoni,” and a quest for the “technology of the ancients.” It’s all very vague. Who are these people? And what do they want? And why? It’s not that there’s a lack of interest, just a lack of comprehension. Heck, does this fantasyland even have a name?

In the bonus material included for this book, Ha says he avoided exploring the setting and the alternate history because it got in the way of the larger adventure. But there’s always something to be said for context. There’s some quality adventuring on these pages, but it feels like a piece of this story is missing.

Mae also presents a challenge I’ve never come across before: The names of certain people and places are hard to pronounce. It’s tough to even sound them out mentally. The Dukes are collectively called “Nehynouci Vojvodove.” And the city they visit is called “Krunyrves.” I get the idea that another world is going to have a different sort of dialect. But at least words like Oz, Gallifrey, and Hogwarts are easy to wrap your mind around.

Paulina Ganucheau tags in for issue #6, giving us a standalone Abbie story. Our supplemental material also includes a nice little tale from Mae’s school days by Danny Busiek and Sally Jane Thompson. Neither advance the primary narrative, but they offer an intriguing look at the world of Mae through an alternate lens. The same can be said for the series of pin-ups we get from the likes of Amanda Conner, Philip Tan, and Yanick Paquette. Gene Ha obviously has plenty of friends on the comic book A-list.

In the end, I’d call this first volume of Mae as “beautifully frustrating.” Gene Ha’s art is gorgeous, and it’s fascinating to see what he creates here. We’ve also got two delightfully strong female leads. But it feels like our story is incomplete. Still, perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Ha is that despite my frustrations, I’m still interested to see what’s next for our young heroines. I’m hopeful they have many more adventures to come.

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A Suicide Squad: The Black Vault Review – Squad vs. Zod

suicide-squad_-the-black-vaut-jim-lee-coverTITLE: Suicide Squad, Vol. 1: The Black Vault
AUTHOR: Rob Williams
PENCILLERS: Jim Lee, Philip Tan, Jason Fabok, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis
COLLECTS: Suicide Squad: Rebirth #1Suicide Squad #1-6
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $16.99
RELEASED: February 28, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

If The Black Vault isn’t the most important and most notable Suicide Squad book DC has ever published, then it’s absolutely in the top two. This is the biggest that Suicide Squad has ever felt, and may be the best its ever looked.

Thanks to the movie, the Suicide Squad “brand” has never had more eyes on it. The Black Vault features almost all of the characters from the movie, including a few pages of the Joker. So it’s bursting with crossover appeal for casual moviegoers. With this in mind, DC loaded the book up with A-list artists, most notably Jim Lee. Indeed, the master of the modern superhero epic is drawing characters like Rick Flag, Captain Boomerang, and the Enchantress. Talk about something you don’t see every day…

Task Force X, a.k.a. the Suicide Squad, is a black ops group assembled by government agent Amanda Waller. Comprised primarily of imprisoned supervillains, the team is sent on covert missions. They serve as both soldiers, and built-in patsies. Should they refuse an order or become compromised, Waller detonates a nanite bomb in their skulls. Like the movie, in The Black Vault our team consists of Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Killer Croc, and the Enchantress. They’re accompanied by Colonel Rick Flagg and Katana.

suicide-squad_-the-black-vault-harley-quinn-jim-leeTheir latest mission sees our heroes sent to a secret Russian prison to neutralize a secret doorway to the Phantom Zone. In the process, the team meets none other than General Zod.

People can say what they want about Jim Lee’s influence, for better or worse, on DC’s “house style” right now. But when he’s in his element, he’s one of the all-time greats. Lee is at home with the dynamic and the awe-inspiring. As such, it seems like Lee’s work on the book starts out rather slow. He starts on issue #1 and has to re-tread some of the ground covered in the Rebirth issue, specifically Waller’s motivations. He takes us from the team’s home base at Belle Reve Penitentiary to the Russian facility, giving us a few cool shots in the process. He and Rob Williams also have a really fun take on Belle Reve, where the prison cells are plucked and moved by a giant claw arm.

But once Zod enters the story at the end of issue #2, Lee gets to flex his muscles. He makes Zod surprisingly large, literally twice the size of the other characters (save for Croc). But the ultra powerful Kryptonian against these mostly street-level characters makes for a fun fight, particularly when the big guy goes against Katana. At the end of issue #3, we bring in a few other characters to oppose the Squad. But the good stuff is with the general himself. Issue #4 gives us a cool interaction between Zod and Croc, and a nice climactic moment involving Rick Flagg. It’s not Lee’s best work. But it’s still pretty damn awesome.

suicide-squad, Joker, Harley Quinn, Gary FrankThe notoriously deadline-challenged Lee was massaged into Suicide Squad‘s a bi-weekly format with a reduced workload. He only had to produce 12 pages per issue, with the rest going to an oversized back-up story spotlighting a particular team member. I suspect most fans will find Gary Frank’s look at Harley Quinn the most enjoyable. While on a mission with Flag, she struggles with some of her more villainous impulses. These are personified, of course, by the Joker. I’m not in love with Frank’s rendering of Mr. J. But his Harley is delightfully expressive in a way that’s exaggerated, but not quite cartoony. Naturally, this compliments both her character and Williams’ script.

But artistically, Philip Tan gets “Best in Show” as far as these back-ups are concerned. In addition to the Rebirth issue, he does the Katana story for issue #3. Tan shows off his versatility with an anime-inspired look at her origin. The script isn’t the strongest, but Tan and colorist Elmer Santos provide visuals that range from haunting to downright heart-breaking.

Rick Flag gets a lot of quality page time here. The Rebirth issue is essentially about him. Williams writes him as unwaveringly loyal, even to his own detriment. He’s the conscience of the team. A good guy tasked with leading all these bad guys. Flag is easy to root for and empathize with. Considering he’s the least flamboyant and colorful character in this book, that’s a good thing.

General Zod, Suicide Squad #2, Jim LeeOn the other end of the spectrum, Zod is an oversized caricature of himself, spouting lines like…

– “Prostrate yourself before your general, sub-creatures!”
– “I will boil and eat your magic!”
– “I have incinerated your human flesh and reveled in it’s pungent stench!”

I understand humor is a valuable component here. But c’mon, really? You’ve got Harley for that. You’ve got Boomerang for that. We don’t need Zod for that.

On the subject of weird comedy, this book has a recurring bit about Killer Croc throwing up. Oddly enough, it works. Can’t say I ever imagined Jim Lee drawing that.

The Black Vault represents the first time Suicide Squad has been elevated to a top-tier title with A-list talent. That alone makes it one of the most noteworthy stories in the team’s history. And while this isn’t the best scripting I’ve ever seen, Rob Williams knows how to put together a good Suicide Squad story. One can argue the book has never been in better hands.

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A Green Arrow, Vol. 1 Review – Ollie’s Greatest Hits

Green Arrow, Vol. 1: The Life and Death of Oliver QueenTITLE: Green Arrow, Vol. 1: The Life and Death of Oliver Queen
AUTHOR: Benjamin Percy
PENCILLER: Otto Schmidt, Juan Ferreyra. Cover by Ferreyra.
COLLECTS: Green Arrow: Rebirth #1Green Arrow #15.
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $17.99
RELEASED: January 4, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The Life and Death of Oliver Queen gives us a lot we’ve seen before. But it’s wrapped in a fresh package, and frankly some of this stuff was sorely missed. So it works out, and makes for a fun book.

A human trafficking case in Seattle brings Green Arrow and Black Canary together, in more ways than one. But what they end up fighting is something much larger, and closer to Queen Industries than Oliver could ever imagine. As such, new alliances will be forged, and older ones will be tested. Our heroes are about to meet the Ninth Circle.

To an extent, this book feels like “Ollie’s Greatest Hits.” Green Arrow and Black Canary are one of the classic couples in DC Comics lore, and they’re back together here. We’ve got him losing his fortune, which famously happened during the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams run of the ’70s. Percy also plays up the more political, social justice elements of Green Arrow, which is another hallmark of the O’Neil era. And then you’ve got the return of John Diggle, a character that originated on the Arrow TV show.

green-arrow rebirth #1, title pageWhen you put it all in a list like that, this book looks vderivative and unoriginal. But for a longtime fan like yours truly, it feel like a homecoming. I enjoyed much of what was done with the New 52 Green Arrow book. But this feels like the return of the genuine article. Of course, that’s what they were going for.

This book establishes that Ollie and Dinah are acquainted with one another, but don’t know each other very well. Obviously that changes here as they become romantically involved. But here’s my question: From cover to cover, how much time is supposed to have passed here? When we get to the end of Life and Death, the implication is that Ollie cares about Dinah as much as anything in his life. But the two haven’t been together long enough to justify such a connection, have they? Obviously they like each other. But there’s nothing in this book that justifies such a deep-rooted love from either of them. It might have been more advisable to use the events of this book to plant the foundation for their relationship. That way readers feel like they’ve been in the loop from the start.

That being said, the chemistry is there between the two. They have that familiar volatile affection for one another. Dinah challenges Ollie, pointing out the inconsistencies in his approach as Green Arrow. Ollie accepts her challenges and returns in kind. But in the end their fondness for one another is undeniable. They’re fun to read.

The Ninth Circle are a group of villains using a weapon that’s truly timeless: Money. Our heroes come across them while taking down a human trafficking ring, and as Ollie painfully finds out, they have their claws deep into Queen Industries. They’re perfect villains for Green Arrow, exemplifying the kind of corruption the character has fought against for decades, and should absolutely be fighting today.

green-arrow-black-canary-otto-schmidtOllie’s relationship with his half-sister Emiko is of particular importance here. We learn who her mother is, and we get an apparent heel turn from her. I was concerned about her development as the book went on. But without spoiling things, I’ll say Percy leaves things in a satisfying place by the time we close the book.

Artistically, the star of this Life and Death is Otto Schmidt. Sadly, he’s only around for about half the book. But his style is a terrific fit for Green Arrow, and superhero comics in general. It’s expressive, it’s animated, the line work is beautiful, and it’s got a tremendous energy to it.  It’s also very conducive to action, the Canary Cry in particular (shown right). Schmidt, who serves as penciller, inker, and colorist on his issues, renders them simply, but colorfully. Like most of Schmidt’s work on this book, it’s very charming.

The second half of the book is drawn and colored by Juan Ferreyra, who is also the cover artist. His work has an almost airbrush-like texture to it that’s interesting, and he’s very good at drawing the disfigured members of the Ninth Circle. His colors are wonderfully rich, and at times intense. But with all due respect to Ferreyra, it’s just not quite as fun as what Schmidt gives us.

DC needs a good Green Arrow book right now. Just like they need a good Wonder Woman book, a good Flash book, a good Supergirl book, etc. With the emergence of the DC Extended Universe, as well as the “CWverse,” there’s so much potential for new fans to crossover into comics. I would argue that for a long time, DC failed to capitalize on that. With the DC Rebirth line, they’ve given themselves a valuable chance for a fresh start. And that’s what they have here with Green Arrow. While it’s not perfect, it’s something for fans old and new to latch on to.

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