First Looks At New Comics: Rachel Rising, Snarked!, and Thief of Thieves

I’ve been reviewing different comic series in different ways. In many cases, I post a single review after the conclusion of a long mini-series or one that had run for only a few years. For longer-running ones, I might check in with a review every 12-24 issues. With mini-series and most ongoings, I group several together for “capsule reviews”. I like this system, even if my choices are sometimes arbitrary. (Why did I review The Unwritten after 24 issues and Morning Glories after 12? Why has Amazing Spider-Man received its own reviews while other Marvel comics are grouped together? Just because, I guess.)

There is one problem, though. It’s a lot of fun to discuss new series when they first come out. It’s also probably more valuable to my readers to talk about new comics while there’s still a chance to jump on board. Therefore, I’ve decided to start writing first looks at new series that I otherwise wouldn’t review for another year or two. (Of course, if it’s not very good, this may also be my last look at it.)

This will still be somewhat arbitrary. A twelve issue miniseries would get reviewed after it finishes, and most ongoing superhero comics will still get lumped into capsule reviews. I don’t always know how long a comic will run, so I may make the wrong decision about whether it needs a first look a few months in. But I’ll do it where it seems useful.

Here are my initial impressions of three non-superhero comics. With a children’s book, a horror story, and a crime drama, there’s something for everyone.


cover to Rachel Rising #1

Rachel Rising

Rachel Rising

(Based on issues #1-7.)

Terry Moore is certainly willing to take risks. Immediately after completing Echo, his first science fiction story, he began exploring horror with Rachel Rising. It opens with the titular character waking up in a shallow grave, with no memory of how she got there. Dead but able to pass more or less as a normal human being, she begins looking for an explanation.

This is not exactly a zombie story. Rachel retains her intelligence, humanity, and normal impulses, except that all bodily functions have shut down. It appears that a subplot will offer a semi-scientific investigation into her state. It is, however, a horror story. A mysterious evil woman has some hold over a creepy little girl, and other people around town are beginning to die as well.

Moore jumps right into the story without taking any pains to introduce the characters. They just go about their lives normally (or as normally as possible, given the situation), and the reader is left to figure out who they are and how their personalities work. I found myself wondering at the beginning if I was expected to already know these characters from previous stories, and it left me feeling like an outside observer for the first few issues. I almost gave up on it there, but I’m glad I didn’t. Once the characters stop being strangers and the unsettling elements start to appear, this is really good.

It’s too early to tell where this series will go. It’s difficult to maintain a balance in horror stories, and there are signs that this could easily become either too ridiculous or too thoroughly explained to stay scary. From what I’ve seen so far, though, I’m enjoying it.

Grade: B


cover to Snarked! #0

Snarked!

Snarked!

(Based on issues #0-7.)

After years of writing dark humor informed by vaudeville styles and literary pastiches, Roger Langridge broke through with The Muppet Show. Far from being a sell-out move, he became better than ever after experimenting with accessible comics and mixing kid-friendly sentimentality into his cynicism. Snarked! is the spiritual successor to this work, and it promises to be even better.

The setting is a land composed of characters and themes from Lewis Carroll’s works, and some of the series’ pleasure comes from seeing humorous takes on classic characters and throwaway references in discarded newspapers. These references work because they come from a deep love of the characters, and Langridge takes pains to make everything enjoyable whether everyone is new to you or not. (It’s a good thing, because most of the audience is probably unfamiliar with more obscure Carroll works such as “The Hunting of the Snark”.)

The plot is led by a Walrus (Wilburforce J. Walrus, in fact, a smooth-talking con man) and a carpenter (Clyde McDunk, Langridge’s standard comic idiot) who end up taking in a prince and princess. Their father has been missing for months, and it is all young Princess Scarlett can do to keep their corrupt advisors from taking over the kingdom. Scarlett and her baby brother, Prince Rusty, run away to find the king, and recognize the competence and ingenuity behind the Walrus’ shifty exterior.

As great as the nonstop action and slapstick humor are, the heart of this comic is in its characters. The Walrus and the Carpenter have a chemistry that leaps off the page, and they are quickly so established that it means something to the reader when their lives are upended by desperate royalty. Even better, Princess Scarlett may be the best young girl character in the past several years’ worth of comics I’ve read. Bold, intelligent, and loyal, but also still a kid who knows she’s in over her head, she’s that rare child who manages to be plucky but still believable. Scarlett is a great role model for children, but even cynical adults like Wilburforce J. Walrus will care for her.

The first story arc of Snarked! was perfect, and easily deserved an A grade every month. The last few issues have been merely good, though. The heroes have escaped the sinister villains and gone abroad, where their unique personalities are eclipsed by more standard traveling stories. Even this “low point” is still a pleasure to read, and it’s difficult to believe that the series as a whole will be anything less than great.

Grade: A-

(Update: This did end up completing with issue #12, so I’ll let the A- stand for the whole series. If anything, though, the complete work might deserve to be rounded up. This ended up being a perfect length for the story, and despite my concerns above that the middle issues felt more generic, the overall story had a very satisfying plot and moving character arcs. Check this out.)


cover to Thief of Thieves #1

Thief of Thieves

Thief of Thieves

(Based on issues #1-3.)

Robert Kirkman’s output is uneven. He’s behind the indie success stories Invincible and The Walking Dead, but even with a devoted fanbase, most of his series still fail quickly. With Thief of Thieves, though, Kirkman merely provides the “story”, while the writing is done by the much more dependable Nick Spencer. Those two together should be a guaranteed success, right?

Wrong. There’s another factor in play here, as we learned the day that issue #3 was released. Thief of Thieves has already been announced as a new series for AMC. This explained why the comics had felt more like high concepts for characters and loosely-sketched plots: From the beginning, this was planned as Kirkman’s chance to cash in on the success of The Walking Dead TV show with another one that came from his “comics”. So his name is attached to the story, a good writer is brought in to flesh out the ideas, and since the art doesn’t need to survive the transition to television, they presumably chose the cheapest artist they could find. (That may sound cruel, but Shawn Martinbrough’s characters are stiff, and he has a habit of leaving the “camera” in place through multiple panels of boring dialog. He’s not the worst artist on Image, but his goal is obviously to get a script down on paper rather than making the story flow.)

The main character is Conrad Paulson, a master thief who decides to quit in hopes of reconciling with his family. Apparently, he will continue to steal from other thieves, but I only know that from the AMC press release. In the comic, he’s just had a few improbable (and unrealistically varied) heists to show his skill, and now he stands around talking about quitting. Each issue has spotlighted a different character, from the snarky-but-sexually-available female sidekick to the driven FBI agent whose eagerness to convict Conrad has resulted in nothing but lawsuits against her agency. They’re interesting, if exaggerated, characters, but there’s not much story or art to make use of them. In that respect, it’s a relief that a TV show will devote an entire writing team to fleshing out the potential here.

In all other ways, though, this comic is a waste. It’s not horrible, but I can’t just shrug it off as another mediocre indie comic when I know it’s an intentionally lazy cash-in. This series exists only to help with the marketing of a big-budget television show, and as such, the idea that people should pay to read it is insulting. Maybe the show will turn out to be good, maybe not. There’s so little here that AMC could easily take it in many directions. But if you want to know, wait until it appears on TV. There’s not enough in the comic to make it worthwhile.

Grade: D+


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