11.13.13 [Weekly Reviews]

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Manifest Destiny #1 (Image): So, this is my new favorite thing. Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, and Owen Gieni pull off a perfect blend of fiction and non-fiction with their inventive take on the Lewis & Clark “Corps of Discovery” Expedition. I often joke that I’ve been reviewing comics so long that I can actually judge a book by its cover now. I know with about 97% accuracy if I’m going to like a book or not just by looking at it, as awful as that might sound. I knew I’d like Manifest Destiny with a casual glance, and cracking open that first page only confirmed the feeling. There’s an enveloping sense of openness to the wild frontier that’s laid out before them in that shot of a group of diminutive boats navigating a river. I’ll be “that guy” for one small second and say that while Captain Merriwether Lewis was indeed commanding the mission, “Captain Clark” was technically a Second Lieutenant who was denied promotion. However, I think that for the sake of expediency, the creators probably just chose to call him Captain Clark since Lewis was pretty insistent in real life that his friend share equal billing and co-command, despite official rank. We’ll see if they get into the controversy surrounding Lewis’ death by series end, but I’m getting way ahead of myself and digressing. Needless to say, I really enjoy this period of history. Dingess and Roberts make a key decision up front that starts to showcase how they’ll marry fact and fiction so seamlessly. Lewis is chronicling their journey, but essentially keeping a set of shadow journals. One is the official record of their congressional mission, while one is an unofficial classified document, seeking to investigate President Jefferson’s claims, based on maybe French whispers, that there’s something… more… out in the frontier besides Indians. Dingess writes intelligently, whether it’s the prose Lewis uses to describe the mission, the assured swagger of Clark and his adherence to the military traditions his family excelled at, or all of the different motivations the men have for taking part, from promotions to pardons to promises of land. This allows the creators to quickly lay seeds for both internal and external threats to the mission, as some start to suss out the expendable nature of their presence, and the discord in the ranks that brews. I was not familiar with the art of Matthew Roberts before, but holy shit, it’s really grand. There’s a gorgeous consistency to it. He’s able to nail all of the historical details with the gear and weapons. There’s a bit with two flintlock pistols blazing that actually made me cry out a satisfied “YES!” as I was reading. I loved the burst of energy, followed by seeing them still smoking. That slowly descends into the unknown and fictitious. There’s an arch, looking conspicuously like the one in St. Louis, that’s made out of natural materials. I loved the way that Roberts and colorist Owen Gieni show the sun lighting the men’s faces as they look up, how the shadows are so expertly cast down. It’s evidence that this creative team is taking the time to put in the extra effort, the extra details, all the small elements that make a story sing both narratively and visually. The washed out flashbacks, the overhead shots, and the speed lines are all there, suggesting what a labor of love this series may represent for them. This all gives way to a scene where one of the officers is taken down by something, by a blur, by what looks to be a centaur(?!). It is glorious. It’s a full page magnificent reveal that further punctuates just what this book aims to do. Manifest Destiny taps into the mystery of what was only scantly mentioned in history books for almost 100 years. It’s the faux real story of what happened on Lewis & Clark’s Expedition. It’s historical speculative fiction in the grandest tradition. It’s historical and inventive and fun and adventurous and gorgeous and well-written. It’s like it was made just for me. I loved every second of it. Grade A+.

Unity #1 (Valiant): I so love these infographics that are all over the Valiant line. Matt Kindt and Doug Braithwaite join the Valiant creative stable to chronicle Aric of Dacia’s “invasion” of Romania in the X-O Manowar armor. Needless to say, the world’s reaction isn’t very positive, especially with the noted ferocity of the Russians. Braithwaite is a better artist than most of the Valiant crew, so he helps depict the war and Russian threat of nuclear attack, “like ozone and gunpowder mixed with sweat, dirt, and blood.” It’s great. This prompts Toyo Harada’s involvement, as a man who deeply abhors nuclear weapons. He quickly calls on Gilad, The Eternal Warrior, and covert operative Ninjak. Harada is one of those “make the world a better place” guys, and you should always be leery of anyone wielding that kind of power, especially when it’s under the guise of autonomous benevolence. I really liked the inclusion of Gilad, displaying his multi-generational knowledge of military tactics. His experience is visually backed up by Braithwaite’s rendition of his tattered face. Braithwaite’s art is full of lush background work, with striking figures in the foreground. I enjoyed the balance between things like the gleam of the Manowar armor and Ninjak skulking around in the shadows. It’s interesting to discover that the titular “Unity” is the name of yet another team of Harada’s Harbinger Foundation psiots. Aric is always one step ahead though, and in a ballsy writing move, Matt Kindt absolutely demolishes this team like two pages after introducing them. I mean, Aric blasts The Captain with an incredible gleam of color, so harshly and so decisively, that the dude’s flaming head punctures another guy’s torso(!). The way Kindt is writing this, it feels very organic and not contrived. It’s a logical sequence of events and inclusion of players given what we know about the Valiant Universe. I’m not one for event books, but this was really quite strong, quite daring, and quite enjoyable. Grade A.

Three #2 (Image): Well, the small scale Helot uprising is dealt with by the visiting Spartans, and this sets some disturbing events into motion, as slaves who fought back are now on the run. Ryan Kelly’s off-kilter panels emphasize the jarring nature of the violence occurring in this early sequence. There are still times when Kelly’s faces feel a little “off” and flat, especially at the 3/4 angle, which is something I noted on his Star Wars arc. But, with Jordie Bellaire on colors, they do a great job depicting the shadows and rain, and all of writer Kieron Gillen’s thematic issues around the fight or flight instinct, the nature vs. nurture proposition, and lots of hard action. I think the first issue was criticized a bit for sacrificing entertainment in favor of historical accuracy, which sometimes felt too didactic. While this issue does get very talky by the end, and I’m not certain where the series is going beyond that point of accuracy in the face of other pop media incarnations, but that said, I’m enjoying the close quarters examination of the culture, of sexuality, military socialization, the gender politics, and the internal politics around the class system. As is becoming increasingly the case, I was very pleased to see another book with backmatter, this time a conversation with the consulting professor, especially considering that it’s an interview, which is basically what I’m working on for Vertigo at the moment as a freelancer. Grade A-.

Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 (IDW): Joe Hill’s latest entry into the world of comic books has some very intriguing art by CP Wilson III, but that’s basically the extent of the positive things I can say. Wilson’s layouts are sometimes inventive, like the way the credits box hangs down like an old sign from a building, and I liked the visuals of some of the creepy snowmen clad in Civil War era kippy hats or Native American headdress, as well as the creepy moon guy. The problem is that there’s an inordinate amount of thick dense un-engaging text to slog through. At times, it’s literally framed as a one-sided conversation staged to actually optimize exposition. It’s awful. There was one quarter-page panel that had 3 big text boxes with 95 words. I thought that was bad until I encountered another quarter-page panel that had 5 text boxes with 175 words! I think I read somewhere that the average comic book panel has something like 27 or 28 words of text or dialogue in it(?). The fact that I was so distracted and pushed out that I felt compelled to even stop and count the words isn’t a very good sign. It’s like 90% tell and 10% show, which puts that equation way lopsided. I have no sense of what was occurring or why. I didn’t read Hill’s NOS4A2 novel that this ties into, but this felt like a novel got crammed into a comic. I like Locke & Key, but I did not like this. Grade C+.


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