A Champions: Change the World Review – Social Justice League

TITLE: Champions, Vol. 1: Change the World
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Humberto Ramos
COLLECTS: Champions #1-5
FORMAT: Softcover
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $15.99
RELEASE DATE: May 3, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Champions simultaneously is and is not a product of it’s time. Stories about the new generation rising up and righting the wrongs of the world have been around as long as storytelling itself. And of course, it’s a teenage superhero book. Not exactly a new concept.

At the same time, Mark Waid is going out of his way to be contemporary with Champions. You’ve got some standard teenage superhero stuff, sure. But the book also tackles Islamaphobia, Islamic Fundamentalism, feminism, and police brutality. This is very much a book for 21st century issues, as seen from one side of the political aisle.

In the aftermath of Civil War II, Ms. Marvel (Kamala Kham), Nova (Sam Alexander), and Spider-Man (Miles Morales) have left the Avengers. Determined to give the world heroes they can believe in again, they form a team of their own. A team that refuses to punch down or use unjust force, but instead win the day with wisdom and hope. With the addition of Hulk (Amadeus Cho), Viv Vision, and Cyclops, the Champions are born.

I feel like I owe Humberto Ramos an apology. HIs style is so exaggerated, cartoony even, that one can fall into the trap of underestimating just how good he is. I’ll admit it: That happened to me. But what makes Ramos so special is his versatility. Champions is a potpourri of what superhero comics can offer. It’s a teen dramedy. It’s a superhero action thriller. It’s a look at what it means to be a hero. It’s an inspiring look at what happens when seemingly ordinary people stand up for themselves. But Ramos’ work fits all of it, and ties everything together seamlessly. Visually, nothing feels awkward or out of place. I can only imagine the talent it takes to pull that off.

Mind you, there are some minor bumps in the road. Issue #2 give us a pretty pitiful case of panel duplication. There’s also a splash page where Hulk and Viv are making out that I still don’t get. Hulk is so much bigger than her. I just don’t get how their mouths would…match up? Nothing too intense. But it does briefly pluck you out of the story.

Both Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos have been outspoken regarding the Trump administration, and some of the moves they’ve made. Waid, along with other creators, has made efforts to create “safe spaces” at comic book conventions, and has generally been very public about his feelings toward bullies, hate-mongerers, etc. Ramos, on the other hand, has simply opted not to appear in states that voted for Trump.

Champions, issues #3 and #5 in particular, doesn’t hide that it’s a book written by people with those beliefs. The upside to that is we get some powerful material about standing up to hate, and not being afraid to put yourself at risk to do what’s right. The downside is that this isn’t what a lot of people want in their comics. Though I doubt Waid, Ramos, and the Champions team care who they piss off.

In this sense, the book can overplay it’s hand at times. Especially in issue #3, when we get to the Amal character. She’s a fierce young woman standing up against a militant extremist group committing gender apartheid. It’s pretty obvious how the reader is supposed to feel about her. But Waid makes a point of slipping in little lines about how she should be the leader of the Champions, and how she’s a bad ass. He’s coming from a good place, but that’s overkill.

Gwenpool pops up in issue #5 to join the team’s efforts against a crooked and racist sheriff turning a blind eye to hate crimes. Enraged when a mosque is set ablaze, Gwen and the Champions are tempted to respond with violence. They instead opt to take a more difficult, non-violent route. This has a little bit of a PSA feel to it, but it’s a good message, and an effective use of the Gwenpool character.

Champions has become arguably the most provocative and inviting book Marvel has on the stands right now. It’s not for everyone. But it doesn’t necessarily try to be. It’s also a tremendous example of how the superhero genre can be used for more than just popcorn fun. Change the World has that. But it’s clearly about much more.

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A Kingpin #1 Review – Mr. Nice Guy

Kingpin #1, 2017TITLE: Kingpin #1
AUTHOR: Matthew Rosenberg
PENCILLER: Ben Torres. Cover by Jeff Dekal.
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: February 8, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Considering Wilson Fisk used to be Marvel’s Kingpin of crime, he’s a pretty nice guy here. While you can use a lot of words to describe this character, “nice” has rarely been one of them.

But if you ask Wilson, he’s a man who has paid his debt to society, and is on a new path. Journalist Sarah Dewey is, to say the least, skeptical. Fisk nevertheless chooses her to write his biography, and spends most of the issue trying to win her over. But as one might suspect, things aren’t quite what they seem…

Take a moment and type “Kingpin, Marvel” into Google Image. What’s what thing he’s not doing in any of those pics? Smiling. The Kingpin doesn’t smile. At least not in a genuine, happy sort of way. But he does in Kingpin #1, and it catches you off guard. You’re expecting a grim and sadistic brute. Instead we get this warm and gentle teddy bear.

kingpin #1, 2017, Wayne DyerOur “gateway” character is Sarah, who Fisk seems to have an interest in based on her writing. There’s a purity to that which is almost heartbreaking. He’s also unwaveringly kind, even if that kindness is rather awkward at times. It’s a stark contrast to this cynical, down-on-her-luck journalist who, despite the quality of her work, is struggling to keep her head above water. You end up hoping this warmth he’s showing to her is sincere, and not some sort of ploy.

If your Google machine is still open, type in the name Wayne Dyer. He was a self-help author and motivational speaker who often appeared on PBS. At times, be Kingpin that Ben Torres gives us looks quite a bit like Dyer. Case in point, the bottom image on the page at right. Maybe that’s why he’s so happy. He read Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life.

Torres handles the pencils and inks for this issue. I’m not very familiar with his work. But he’s a tremendous fit for this part of the Marvel Universe. As he goes in heavy on the inks, you can see some Frank Miller on this pages, and a little bit of John Romita Jr. There’s even some Eduardo Risso. The mood is precisely what it should be: This is a place where hope is in short supply. We’re now finding hope in the most unlikely of individuals. And even that is likely smoke and mirrors.

I can’t say I have a tremendous desire to come back for more Kingpin. Let’s be honest: We know how this story ends. The only real question is whether Sarah Dewey makes it out okay. But as for Fisk, it’s only a matter of time before the Kingpin is back on his throne.

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A Star Wars #27 Review – This Looks Familiar…

star_wars_27TITLE: Star Wars #27
AUTHOR: Jason Aaron
PENCILLER: Salvador Larroca. Cover by Stuart Immonen.
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: January 25, 2017

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

We haven’t seen much of Yoda since Star Wars returned to Marvel. He’s been around, of course. But to my knowledge this is the first story we’ve seen that’s actually focused on him.

Framed, oddly enough, as an entry in the diary of Ob-Wan Kenobi, part two of “Yoda’s Secret War” sees Yoda travel to a planet of primitive warriors. Warriors that also happen to be children. The planet’s society revolves around it’s strange blue mountains. The ore from these mountains is somehow strong in the Force. The Jedi Master is quickly caught up in the feud between the tribe that controls the ore, and the young outsiders. As a Jedi, Yoda’s mission is to bring peace. But as he’ll soon find out, peace is not on the table.

The artist here is our old Darth Vader buddy Salvador Larroca, who I’ve criticized for making it blatantly obvious that he’s duplicating movie stills. I’ll repeat that critique here, as you can tell exactly where he hit the pause button during Attack of the Clones. You’re into what’s happening in the book, and then these familiar images of Yoda pluck you out. Larroca is a very talented artist. It’s such a shame he waters down his own work like this.

star-wars, Yoda, Salvador Larroca, 2017Putting Yoda in a story with kids is obviously fitting. Star Wars lore tells us he teaches a lot of the “younglings” (a la that scene in Clones) before they’re assigned to a master. There’s an opportunity here for insight into how Yoda relates to children, and what makes him an effective mentor for students that age. It doesn’t have to be anything big or monumental. A small moment would do. Maybe even something as short as a sentence. We don’t get anything like that in this issue. But the door is wide open for it next issue.

Jason Aaron’s handle on Yoda has impressed me. In neither this nor last issue did we see a lightsaber, or any sort of flippy moves from him. What we have here is wise Empire Strikes Back Yoda, as opposed to CGI dancing Yoda. For that, I’m thankful. What we’re getting here seems that much more authentic as a result.

Jason Aaron came across something really cool with these “Journal” stories, as it allows him to take a break for a month and tell some cool stories with Obi-Wan. This is the first time he’s gone a little more long form with it, while also journeying away from Obi-Wan’s life on Tatooine. I much prefer the single issue stories (see issues #7, #15, and #20), but what we’re getting here with Yoda is still pretty good. But with at least two more issues, most likely three, left in “Yoda’s Secret War,” I’m just hoping our little green friend doesn’t overstay his welcome.

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A Champions #3 Review – The Heroes We Need Right Now

Champions #3, 2016, Humberto Ramos coverTITLE: Champions #3
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Humberto Ramos
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: December 7, 2016

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

If you’re only picking up one Marvel book these days, make it Champions. It’s fun, diverse without trying too hard to be, and particularly poignant these days. This issue’s subject matter might make some readers uncomfortable. But I suspect that’s the idea. It’s a book about young people coming together to take on problems that are at least partially based in reality.

Champions #3 takes on Islamic fundamentalism. It brings our team to the middle east to face a militant group committing gender apartheid. In the issue’s own words: “They believe  women are to be shamed. TO be hidden away, given no access to medical care or education. To be stripped of their human rights. … Young girls have been murdered in the streets for the ‘crime’ of carrying a schoolbook or being seen without a burqa.” Our heroes stand up for the defenseless, all the while trying to figure out who their team leader is.

When you consider how reality-based a lot of this stuff is, it becomes pretty powerful, and rightfully uncomfortable. We open the book with a splash page of a textbook on the ground, splattered with blood (shown right). There are no captions or dialogue on the page, as none are necessary. We later get images of women gathered together, talking about not giving into extremism, standing up for themselves, being killed for reading books. We’ve also got groups of men carrying guns, saying things like “We are divine messengers! You will not make fools of us in the eyes of our lord!”

champions-3-opening-pageSome people don’t like this kind of thing in their superhero escapism. Case in point, Chelsea Cain getting harassed by Twitter trolls over her work on Mockingbird. But there’s also something to be said for what these characters stand for. Not just the Champions, but superheroes in general. Things like truth, justice, defending the defenseless, etc. So using superheroes to illuminate real world issues doesn’t usually bother me, so long as it’s done well. You can argue this issue lays it on thick at times (judge the how and where for yourself). But its heart is definitely in the right place. It gets you thinking. Ergo, it accomplishes its goal.

Waid also weaves in a little teen drama, following up on the Hulk/Viv kiss from last issue. It’s not much, as we get into the main story pretty quickly. But it’s something they can circle back to later. I’m still not sure how the physics of that kiss were supposed to work…

There’s also a question of who the team leader is supposed to be. For my money, the obvious choice is Ms. Marvel. But the issue also floats Hulk and (perhaps in jest) Cyclops as candidates. I’m hoping the conclusion we come to here is that the Champions don’t need a leader. But you never know.

Humberto Ramos continues to surprise with this series. His exaggerated, cartoony style doesn’t seem like a good fit for our super-serious main story. But in a way, he may be the key to why this issue works so well. Obviously, this is some heavy subject matter about things that happen to real people in the real world. But Ramos’ cartoony, exaggerated figures allow us to still see it through the lens of a superhero comic. This doesn’t feel like a contrived PSA comic, but rather something that actually occurs organically in the Marvel Universe we know. Perhaps more importantly, if you jump completely out of the fantasy realm with a story like this, you risk losing your audience by slapping them too hard with this brutal reality. Ramos’ art is a nice compromise.

champions-3-humberto-ramos-dialogue-sceneWhat’s more, Ramos hits the right notes to make us feel what the story needs us to feel. We’re frightened, sympathetic, and angry for these women who’ve been victimized for no good reason. The gravity of the situation is conveyed effectively, and we’re hopeful for them in the end. Of course, the superhero action stuff is done very well, and Ramos is always good at interactions between the teens. There are some awkward character placements and panel transitions early on during a scene on Hulk’s big stealthy jet thing. But that’s a con far outweighed by all the pros.

Champions feels like the comic we need right now, for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is because these feel like the heroes we need right now.

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A Champions #2 Review – Superhero Camping Trip!

Champions #2, 2016, Humberto RamosTITLE: Champions #2
AUTHOR: Mark Waid
PENCILLER: Humberto Ramos
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: November 2, 2016

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor Fanboy Wonder

A superhero camping trip. In Champions #2, Ms. Marvel gets the team together to bond with a superhero camping trip. Literally. With a campfire, weenie roast, and full costumes. It’s exactly the kind of gloriously hokey thing you’d expect a group of teenagers to do. It doesn’t make for an issue that’s big on thrills. But it’s a really internist way to play with the characters, and get basic information/exposition to the readers. It works!

Hear that Benjamin Percy? Get the Teen Titans a tent and some damn sleeping bags!

The most noteworthy aspect of this issue is the addition of young Cyclops of All New X-Men to the group. He crashes the trip, and we get some of the confrontational stuff you might expect when the younger version of a mutant controversy-magnet pops up at a gathering of hormonal teenage superheroes. Including a really funny moment with Hulk (shown below).

Champions #2, 2016, Humberto Ramos, Cyclops, HulkCyclops makes sense for this book, given the team’s aim to almost take the superhero concept back to its roots, and what’s happened to the older Cyclops in the past few years. At one point Hulk even has the line, “Isn’t this kind of like drafting teenage Hitler?”

Early in the issue, Ms. Marvel asks everyone to demonstrate their superpowers. This sequence fascinates me. It’s one of those things that’s so simple, you’d think every team book would have some version of it. Marvel and DC usually come into team books assuming readers know who everyone is. If that’s not the case, then the creative team opts to show us what everyone’s powers are, usually via a battle sequence. But Waid makes part of an issue out of it to lay everything out for new readers, and continue to develop the rapport between the characters. There’s a subtle brilliance to this for which I credit Waid immensely.

I had no idea how much I missed this Waid/Ramos team working on a teenage superhero book. They did it 20 years ago with Impulse, and now they’re back and better than ever in Champions. Ramos has a style that’s very cartoony, but also very expressive and conducive to explosive action. The Hulk/Cyclops bit is a good example, as is the cover shot with the big punch from Nova.

On the down side, panel duplication strikes again in this issue, as Ramos gives us the same image four times (shown below). I’m no artist, so perhaps I shouldn’t be the one to throw stones. But as a reader, this kind of thing always plucks me right out of the issue. Even a little change to one of the images would have helped, like lowering Spider-Man’s arm. It’s the only part of the issue I flat out dislike.

champions-2-panel-duplicationLet’s talk a little bit about the last page. (This is where the big spoilers are!!!) So you’ve got the surprise splash page of Hulk making out with Viv. In terms of teenage hormones running amok, I love it. But how does that shot work from, like, an engineering standpoint? Hulk is bigger than everyone else on this team, so his mouth is obviously bigger than Viv’s. So does she somehow dislodge her jaw to make out with him? These are the hard hitting questions you must answer, Mark Waid…

When I wrote about the last issue of The Vision, I mentioned having mixed feelings about Viv’s continued presence in other books despite Tom King no longer working for Marvel. I still feel that way. But if you’re going to give her to somebody else, there’s no one better than Mark Waid. Under Waid’s pen, Viv seems to be asking herself questions about her sexuality, as teenagers naturally do. Robot sexuality, huh? There’s a subject they don’t teach you in school…

it’s also interesting to me that Waid is writing both Champions and the not so all new or all different Avengers title. To an extant, he’s behind the Champions, and the establishment they’re broken away from. But considering that Spidey, Ms. Marvel, and Nova were a big part of what made All New, All Different Avengers so interesting, for my money Champions is now Marvel’s most compelling team book. At least for the time being. Not bad for only two issues.

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A Review of The Vision #12 – Having Your Cake and Eating it Too

Vision #12 cover, 2016, Mike Del MundoTITLE: The Vision #12
AUTHOR: Tom King
PENCILLER: Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Cover by Mike Del Mundo.
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: October 26, 2016

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Hey, Tom King? Gabriel Hernandez Walta? Jordie Bellaire? Everybody involved with The Vision? Meet me in the second ‘graph, please…

Well done. Seriously. This series is a masterpiece. A perfect masterpiece? Maybe. That depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is the reader’s personal taste. But you’d have to do a lot to convince me this isn’t a master class in comic book storytelling, and a high point in the Vision’s near 50 year history.

(And yes, I stole a Jon Stewart bit. He’s not on TV right now. I miss him. Sue me.)

This final issue of The Vision sees our titular character finally face the reality of what his wife Virginia has done, and what his dream of having a family has become. We also get a look at how these events shape Vision, and what remains of that family, going forward.

vision-12-silentWhat has fueled this whole story has been Vision’s motivation to be human. As he flat out said to Scarlet Witch last issue, “I want to be like everyone else.” Therein is the underlying tragedy of this whole thing. He wants it so badly, but he can never truly have it.

That’s why there’s such a a morbid irony what Vision does when he finds out his wife has, for all intents and purposes, poisoned herself. He tells Virginia to use her powers to phase the substance out of her, and that he’ll use his status as an Avenger to correct the murder confession she gave to the authorities. He wants to reap the benefits of his family’s super powers, and his status as an Avenger to save this illusion of normalcy he’s created for himself.

He’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. That’s what he’s been trying to do this whole time. And of course, life doesn’t allow for that. But Virginia sacrifices herself to save Vision out of love for their family. And as we see in the flashbacks, she modified his memories to protect him. As tragic as it all is, it illustrates that Vision was able to create a loving family for himself, only to have it taken away from him.

I imagine this is part of the reason why this series has resonated so well with readers. These characters aren’t looking for something so firmly planted in the realm of fantasy, or even overtly selfish. They’re looking for love and acceptance, as well all are.

We see/hear Virginia’s confession to the police over the course of three pages, which Jordie Bellaire colors in a blaze of yellows, oranges, and reds (shown below). It’s a cool effect, though I’m happy we only see it for a limited time. It’s tough on the eyes after awhile. Bellaire may be the unsung hero of this book. The muted palette she’s used for this series has worked wonders.

vision-12-neon-gabriel-hernandez-waltaI had seen Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s work prior to The Vision. He did some fine work on Magneto, and I have a miniseries he did for IDW called The Suicide Forest. But The Vision made him a star. At least in my book. His rendering of the family is very human and familiar, but at the same time distinctly and hauntingly different. In this final issue, he’s at his strongest during Vision and Virginia’s final scene together. Some of it’s in the very subtle nuances of a facial expression. At other points its more blatant, i.e. the panel where we see tears on Vision’s face. It’s a scene that grabs you and doesn’t let go, even after you’ve closed the issue.

The lone element in this series that left me unsatisfied was the role Scarlet Witch played. In issue #7, we see that she incited all of this. Not just by giving Vision her brainwave patterns, but her relationship to Vision as a whole. I had hoped to see a bigger emotional pay off between Wanda and Vision. She has a scene with Viv in this issue, where we see there’s something of a motherly bond between the two. That’s another ball of wax entirely.

I have mixed feelings about Viv’s survival, and her continued appearances in books like Champions. Especially with Tom King not at Marvel anymore. What he, Walta, and this team created is so unique, with a vibe and tone unlike anything else at Marvel right now. I almost wish we could let this remain a crystalized masterpiece for awhile before thrusting Viv into the Marvel Universe at large.

But of course, that’s not how mainstream superhero comics work.  In the end, everyone at The Vision has done something few creators at DC and Marvel get to do. They opened a new door for storytelling that other creators can now walk through and explore. In the process, they added a new dimension to a long-standing, yet often under appreciated piece of the Marvel lore.

So I’ll say it again: Well done, folks. You made great comics.

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A Darth Vader #25 Review – “Not like this. Please not like this.”

Star Wars: Darth Vader #25, 2016, coverTITLE: Star Wars: Darth Vader #25
AUTHOR: Kieron Gillen
PENCILLERS: Salvador Larroca, Max Fiumara. Cover by Juan Gimenez.
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $5.99
RELEASED: October 12, 2016

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead!***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

I maintain that this Darth Vader series doesn’t have to end simply because Kieron GIllen’s story is ending. It’s not like there’s a shortage of creators out there looking for a crack at the dark lord. Nor is there a shortage of fans that will read stories about him. Nevertheless, for now this is the end for Vader’s ongoing adventures. Thankfully, he goes out on a hell of a dramatic note.

As this series has progressed, we’ve learned it’s essentially a bridge story between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Vader goes from being in the doghouse after the destruction of the Death Star, to being in a more powerful position and obsessed with finding his son. But it’s also about Aphra, a crafty archaeologist Vader forms an uneasy alliance with. She knows Vader will kill her when she’s of no further use. In issue #4, she flat out asks him to give her a quick lightsaber through the neck when the time comes. She also asks him not to eject her into space. That scene has hung over the entire series. Like Aphra, we all knew it was coming.

I didn’t think we’d actually come back to the space ejection thing. But low and behold…

Darth Vader #25, 2016, airlock, Doctor AphraLarroca’s face work with Aphra isn’t the best here, and this isn’t the most natural looking thing in the world. But that top panel on the page at right makes the whole scene. Her body language is perfect. Then on the next page you have the simple line: “Not like this. Please, not like this.” It’s a fantastic pay off to what we saw in issue #4.

And then she lives, which was actually a disappointment. While I really dig Aphra, that’s a waste of an awesome death scene. But we’ve got a Gillen-penned Doctor Aphra book coming in December that needs its title character. That could be a great book, if for no other reason than Triple-Zero and BT-1 will be in it. Plus, after what he gave us in this series Gillen deserves to stay at the table as long as he’s hungry.

Someone I could use a break from is Salvador Larroca. He’s extremely talented, he draws an incredible Darth Vader, and he’s a very natural fit for the Star Wars universe. But it’s so obvious he draws off of stills from the movie that it pulls me out of the story. Case in point, he was obviously looking at Revenge of the Sith footage when drawing Palpatine for this issue. Perhaps the key is to put him on characters that don’t appear in the movies, a la Aphra or Sana Solo.

On the plus side, Larroca’s final two pages are very good. First, we see Vader and Luke Skywalker reaching out to each other in a dream-like scene (shown below). It’s somewhat reminiscent of the climax of the Empire duel, where Vader beckons his son to come with him. Then we cut back to reality, with a long shot of the bridge on the Super Star Destroyer. Again, much like Empire.

Darth Vader #25, 2016, Salvador Larroca, Luke SkywalkerWe get a bonus back-up story here, pencilled by Max Fiumara. It turns out the Tusken Raiders had a rather unique reaction to Vader’s slaughtering of one of their villages back in issue #1. The story is silent, which is a nice change. There are a pair of pages where Fiumara switches to a more storybookish style, which is a cool textural change.

One thing I found confusing: Someone who’s apparently meant to be an elder of sorts appears after the attack. The “storybook” part of the back-up recounts a village slaughter by a man with a lightsaber. Is this supposed to be Darth Vader’s attack, or Anakin Skywalker’s from Episode II? I’d like to think it’s the latter.

At one point, Darth Vader stood head and shoulders above every other Star Wars book Marvel was putting out. Over time it lost it’s must-read status, but remained supremely executed and mostly well drawn. I’m sad to see it end. Hopefully some of its momentum will carry over into Aphra’s series.

But seriously, what a waste of a death scene…

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