Image Comics First Looks, Part 1

It’s been amazing to watch the resurgence in Image Comics in the past couple years. They’ve always been a well-regarded publisher, but Image went a long time with just a few hit series, and the rest of their catalog filled out with low-profile comics plagued by delays and cancellations. I suspect that a combination of factors helped them out: The contraction in the comics industry pushed most people out of the “independent” business, and Image is the only major publisher build around experimentation and creator rights. And despite that contraction, interest in comics as a medium beyond superheroes has been growing, with Image providing a safe, accessible gateway to that world. Whatever the reason, the number of small press titles I’m reading has dropped to an all-time low, while the Image ones keep increasing.

Also interestingly, many new Image titles are bucking the miniseries trend that has otherwise dominated comics outside of DC and Marvel. Plenty of Image series have become hits (Invincible, The Walking Dead, and even newer ones like Morning Glories), and it’s a path that other creators apparently want to follow.

In fact, I’ve started reading so many new Image series this year that I’ll need more than one First Look article to go through them all. Here is the first.


cover to Danger Club #3

Danger Club

Danger Club

(Based on issues #1-3)

Most modern superhero stories start slowly in order to seem serious, and sometimes it’s frustrating that an origin story that would have been one issue in past generations now takes six. But as Danger Club demonstrates, rushed starts can have problems of their own. It opens shortly after every adult superhero is killed in a disaster, leaving only their kid sidekicks and a frightened world. But as these child heroes start fighting, dying, and switching sides, we’re inundated right from the first issue with events that have no emotional resonance. In place of the character building that this plot needs, each issue starts with a single page of Silver Age-style art, contrasting the innocent sidekicks of the past with the desperate ones of the actual story.

The comic might have problems anyway. Landry Q. Walker, usually known for quality children’s stories (such as Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eight Grade) turns to hyperviolent youth here. Kids brutally murdering each other or committing suicide can work in a story, but the lack of a background story makes this seem hollow and pointless. It aims for horrifying, but manages icky instead. Eric Jones provides clean, average superhero art, but does little to make scene changes clear, which is a problem since Walker’s script often jumps back and forth after every panel.

There are some good ideas in Danger Club. This needs more issues like #2, in which Batman-like leader “Kid Victory” brings the child sidekick of his former arch-nemesis to his secret hideout. It demonstrates how their lives have fundamentally changed, especially since it needs to slow down enough for Kid Victory to explain everything around him to someone who’s never been in the hideout before. Unfortunately, even that is broken up by scenes of a giant mecha battle whose purpose I’m still not clear on.

Grade: C-


cover to Mudman #1

Mudman

Mudman

(Based on issues #1-4)

Another new take on superheroes, Mudman is the tale of Owen Craig, a kid whose sometimes well-meaning, and sometimes a bit of a hooligan. When an accident gives him “mud powers”, he ends up in a battle between forces he doesn’t yet understand.

Paul Grist has been making comics for years, but has never grown past a small fanbase. I can see why: His understated British characterizations are fun, and once or twice an issue, his panel breakdowns will give an action scene a beautiful flow. Otherwise, though, his art and writing feel very sparse. Not too much happens from issue to issue, and the comic looks like it’s designed for physical pages half the size that they are.

There’s a strange mix between humor and seriousness. The first bad guys that Owen meets are comically inept, to the point where they turn themselves in for no good reason, and the final page of each issue seems almost like it’s playing to a laugh track. (“Oh geez, Owen’s in trouble with the principal AGAIN? What a wacky misunderstanding!”) But the slow-building story about the warring people who accidentally gave Owen his powers seems violent, and the sides seem to be shades of gray rather than clearly good and evil. I’m intrigued by the contrast between fun stories, usually done in one issue, and an eventual gritty payoff. So while that could end up clashing horribly, and my take on this is mixed, I’m curious to see where it goes.

Grade: C+


cover to Prophet #21

Prophet

Prophet

(Based on issues #21-26)

Rob Liefeld is a joke now, but his older work did inspire a lot of people. As if to demonstrate this point, rising star Brandon Graham is resurrecting Liefeld’s obscure title Prophet. I don’t know anything about it beyond what I’ve learned from the new issues, so I can’t say if Graham is sticking to the source material is closely as the continued numbering implies. The first issue does open with enhanced human John Prophet awakening to an unrecognizable world after a long cryogenic sleep, so it seems to be a clean slate for the character.

Either way, this series is now a vehicle for Graham’s imagination. There is a larger plot being developed, but the real point of it is to see all the fascinating creatures and cultures. Graham’s comics are more about the journey than the destination, and if the plot is light, it’s because each issue is so dense with ideas.

These ideas are often R-rated. John Prophet has a sense of honor, but for the most part he quietly goes about his missions, even as his limbs fall off and weird creatures die around him. The art is mostly by Simon Roy, who gives it a muted, somber tone even as it stays flexible enough to keep up with Graham’s concepts.

It’s a surprise to see the fiercely independent Graham working on another person’s character, but this comes across as a celebration of the comics medium in much the same way as his King City did. Though Prophet is darker, it’s still driven by unrestricted ideas, and it even features guest stories in the back to bring attention to other artists. Though these backups are not always good, they obviously come out of a love for Graham’s community, so it’s much more fun to see than the space-fillers in the back of Marvel and DC comics. (Especially given the number of ad-free pages this comic squeezes in at the $2.99 price point.)

So far, Prophet is very enjoyable, but the characters feel too disposable to care about after I’m done reading. I’m not sure if it will build a lot on top of this, or remain light and forgettable. At its worst, though, it’s still unpredictable and fascinating.

Grade: B


cover to Saga #1

Saga

Saga

(Based on issues #1-5)

Saga is the sort of hybrid work that could only find commercial success in the niche market of comic books. Behind the swearing, nudity, and gore, it’s actually a tale of love for a newborn baby, and there’s an implicit promise that she’ll turn out ok. In fact, she is narrating the story as an adult, and from the opening we have an assurance that she will survive despite the odds against her. (She’s the love child of deserters from opposite sides of an intergalactic war, and both sides want to take the parents down. They’re ruthless, but there are already signs that the “bad guys” will be showing a softer side in their own dealings with children.)

Much like the child, Saga itself seems destined to succeed despite the factors arrayed against it. The much-lauded return of author Brian K. Vaughan to comics, it was probably Image’s highest-profile launch of the year, and it has lived up the the hype.

What are those factors? Well, for one thing this is the realization of an epic plot Vaughan started putting together as a child, and sometimes that is obvious. With an intergalactic war, a royal class with televisions for heads, and rumors of a forest where spaceships grow on trees, it throws in aell, for one thing this is the realization of an epic plot Vaughan started putting together as a child, and sometimes that is obvious. With an intergalactic war, a royal class with televisions for heads, and rumors of a forest where spaceships grow on trees, it throws in a few too many cool but crazy things. The child Vaughan’s ideas sometimes clash with the writing sensibility of the adult Vaughan, who loves drawing parallels to modern day concerns: Debates about insurgents and keeping guns in the home root this firmly in present-day America, despite the setting.

Vaughan has an excellent sense of character, though, and his strengths lie in long-term story pacing and a willingness to write surprising, difficult scenes. In this creator-owned title, that could really shine. The other strength of Saga is artist Fiona Staples. Her warm color palette and expressive faces mak few too many cool but crazy things. The child Vaughan’s ideas sometimes clash with the writing sensibility of the adult Vaughan, who loves drawing parallels to modern day concerns: Debates about insurgents and keeping guns in the home root this firmly in present-day America, despite the setting.

Vaughan has an excellent sense of character, though, and his strengths lie in long-term story pacing and a willingness to write surprising, difficult scenes. In this creator-owned title, that could really shine. The other strength of Saga is artist Fiona Staples. Her warm color palette and expressive faces make this one of the few painted comics that feels dynamic and believable to me. On top of that, her character designs are flawless. It takes a rare talent to turn a kid’s crazy ideas into actually cool images, much less into ones capable of supporting a weighty plot. This style would feel off in a series that already had an established look, but five issues in, she’s ensured that this is the established look of Saga. There’s no way anyone but Vaughan and Staples could work on this.

Grade: B

 
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