Comic Capsule Reviews: Ongoing Indie Series

My recent comic reviews have focused mainly on “First Look” reviews of new series, and I’ve fallen behind on reviewing some existing ones. Here are my looks at the latest chapters of several independent (or at least non-superhero) ongoing series. Most of these are actually miniseries that pick up where earlier miniseries left off. That has become the trend for independent comics lately. Most people are unlikely to start reading unless they have a “#1” to reassure them on the cover of an issue, and the delay between miniseries also gives creators a chance to take a break for a few months, either to take on other work or to build a buffer on the next series.

cover to Atomic Robo: The Ghost of Station X #1

Atomic Robo: The Ghost of Station X

Atomic Robo: The Ghost of Station X

As much as I like ongoing comics, I can see the logic of the miniseries strategy. I’m one of those people who are unlikely to try out a series if I can’t start with issue #1. I probably never would have given Atomic Robo a chance if it weren’t released in that series-of-miniseries format. Fortunately, Atomic Robo takes this approach seriously, with each story standing alone and building on the previous ones in ways that new readers won’t need to worry about.

I described my reaction to my first two miniseries as “mixed“. I’m happy to say that, whether it’s an improvement in the storytelling or just me getting used to it, I’m finally enjoying it without reservations. The Ghost of Station X is a clever story that mixes everything from NASA to old spy houses. Robo and his team are being set up by somebody, but it takes most of the story to figure out what is going on.

Brian Clevinger’s writing is fun, mixing the absurd with some real science and geeky interests. Scott Wegener’s art is simple but effective, failing only in action-heavy scenes. That’s my one remaining complaint about the comic: There are regular action scenes here, and they feel light in both the writing and art. At the worst (such as the half-issue-long scene in which Robo falls from space), it feels like padding. As long as it stays focused on the plot, characters, or ideas, though, this is a lot of fun.

Grade: B

cover to Casanova: Avaritia #2

Casanova: Avaritia

Casanova: Avaritia

Casanova has been one of this century’s comic masterpieces, with Matt Fraction’s ridiculous sci-fi ideas and playboy secret agent turning out to have real purpose. The art is excellent, too, with Gabriel Bá back this time (he’s been alternating with brother Fábio Moon). In fact, I’ve been seriously tempted to write an essay proclaiming the second volume, Gula, as the Watchmen of our time. Not that it has much in common with Watchmen on the surface, but it deconstructed one of the predominant tropes of superhero comics today to consider what it would really mean to people.

Avaritia is the third volume, and it suffers a bit from the weight of the preceding series. At this point, dimension-hopping Casanova Quinn has been found out by his alternate-timeline father, who mourns that his “real” son is long dead due to Casanova’s adventures. When your father runs a top-secret espionage agency, you don’t want to make him mad. This new story opens with Casanova still jumping between timelines, but now under orders to destroy entire universes before the villainous Newman Xeno can appear in them. The unfettered imagination of Fraction and beautiful visuals from Bá could be one of the most fun comics around, but are actually portraying a soul-crushing horror. Casanova hates himself for doing this job.

The darkness is effective, as it comes from characters that we first learned to love when this was a crazy adventure. The moments of insanity that pop up now are still fun; Witness the Matt Fraction stand-in character, waving a gun at a book signing and telling people to stop looking for meaning in his violent scene of panda slaughter.

This is a dense series, though, and it doesn’t keep the stories as self-contained as Atomic Robo. Once old characters and plot threads became involved, I had trouble following it all. That isn’t surprising, as I didn’t fully appreciate the last series until I re-read it in preparation for this one. It’s difficult to review this when I have to admit I won’t understand the ending for another six months, though. Really, there’s so much going on in this story, with a burgeoning romance between arch-enemies Casanova and Xeno, the hero looking for a new direction, and time itself breaking down, that callbacks to the past ones are just too much. The conclusion wraps up a lot of loose ends, though, and makes me hope for a more comprehensible fourth storyline.

Regardless, my recommendation for the Casanova remains unchanged: You must read the first story. If you like its blend of high and low art, keep reading. (Of course, in this case the “low” art is high-octane SF ideas mixed with nearly X-rated visuals, and the “high” art is dense enough comic plotting to drive away anyone unfamiliar with the genre.) This third story is the weakest of the series, but that’s still good enough to make it one of the year’s standout stories.

Grade: B+

cover to The Goon #35

The Goon

The Goon

(Based on issues #33-39)

Unlike the other reviews here, this is an actual ongoing comic instead of a series of miniseries. However, there have been definite eras for The Goon, and the recent issues seem to be one of them. This comic used to be a series of madcap single-issue stories that slowly advanced a plot, but focused mainly on macabre humor. After publishing a very somber twelve-issue story a couple years ago, writer/artist Eric Powell has turned to other stories, some related to this comic and others not. When The Goon finally reappeared with issue #33, it was back to being its old anything-goes self, with even more variety than the old days.

These issues have ranged from the experimental (one had no dialog, just pictures in word and thought balloons) to the commercial (one features real-life burlesque star Roxi Dlite, and presumably sold plenty of copies to her fans). Another comic parodied ridiculous superhero tropes, while one of the standouts fleshed out the backstory of Goon’s aunt, last seen in the Chinatown graphic novel. It struggled sometimes with the mix between the grotesque and the serious: Guest author Evan Dorkin’s story about cannibalistic carnies was hilarious, but felt like a one-dimensional interpretation of a richer character. On the other hand, the serious story about striking factory workers was too open-hearted for this series. It was well-done, but felt out of place in a comic where the mobster “hero” could have easily been hired to protect the factory’s interests.

Powell’s art is a joy as always, though, and even the worst stories were still good. These seven issues seemed devoted to showing everything that The Goon can be, and it’s great to be reminded. The series is best, though, when it mixes these aspects together instead of listing them separately. With the recent announcement that Powell is ready to focus again on monthly releases for The Goon, I’m hoping that it lives up to its potential once more.

Grade: B

cover to Mice Templar: A Midwinter Night's Dream #1

Mice Templar: A Midwinter Night’s Dream

Mice Templar: A Midwinter Night’s Dream

Mice Templar was a surprise hit. I didn’t expect to stay interested in this story of mouse heroes living in a tyrannical rat empire, but Bryan J.L. Glass’ unexpected story twists and serious look behind the clichés of destiny and prophecy kept it interesting. This third series is a disappointment, though.

The last storyline ended with youthful idealist Karic winning a major victory, but also being knocked into a coma. He remains in that state for the entirety of this new series, which started in late 2010 and finished in early 2012. That’s a long time for the hero to stay in bed. Yes, plenty of events unfold in the meantime. Various powers in the castle and in the mouse underworld adapt to the changes that Karic has brought, while his name becomes a symbol for possible resistance movement. “Karic Lives!” begins appearing in graffiti around the capital city, even as Karic himself may be dying.

There is a lot of potential there, but the difficult-to-distinguish side characters and political plots were always the weakest part of this series. I’ve appreciated it to the extent that it stayed focused on Karic’s adventures, with Victor Santos’ surprisingly kinetic artwork and the personal interactions providing the foundation for the story. This in-between story had none of that.

Grade: C-

cover to The Stuff of Legend: The Jester's Tale #2

The Stuff of Legend: The Jester’s Tale

The Stuff of Legend: The Jester’s Tale

Apparently the theme of this article is that third chapters are boring. The Stuff of Legend, a dark take on Toy Story-type characters whose owner has been kidnapped by the Boogeyman, meets with the same curse. The heroes have started to split apart, and the plot loses most of its forward momentum. It focuses on The Jester, a clowning warrior who discovers he has a twin long since corrupted by the Boogeyman’s kingdom.

The main flaw of this miniseries may be the typical mid-series plotting issues. Authors Mike Raicht and Brian Smith seem to have been caught off-guard by the first series’ success, and may be looking for ways to extend it now. But the other problem is that any story about The Jester will be full of fight scenes. Charles Wilson III’s distinctive art, monochromatic with the texture of classic woodcarvings, is the main reason for that success, but he really can’t handle action sequences. The panel transitions are unclear, and The Jester’s scenes really suffer for that reason.

I’m pinning a lot of my hopes for this series on the twists in the final scene, which recast some of the earlier plot and implies that things are about to become very interesting. I hope so, because the series can’t handle another disappointment like this.

Grade: C-

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