Comic Capsule Reviews: Recent Indie Miniseries

It’s been a while since I looked at small press comic miniseries, but I only have three completed ones to talk about. Between the economic downturn and the sudden rise of Image as the go-to place for indie talent, the tiny publishers are slowly getting squeezed out. There are still comics worth paying attention to, though.

(Note that, in the American comics industry, “small press” generally refers to anything that isn’t from one of the five “big” companies that occupy the front of the Previews catalog. This is actually a fairly strict definition, as some people will actually use terms like “indie” and “small press” for anything that doesn’t feature a DC or Marvel hero on the cover.)


cover to Atomic Robo: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific #1

Atomic Robo: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific

Atomic Robo: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific

I’d enjoyed Atomic Robo more with each miniseries I read, and I was starting to wonder if I’d just keep liking it more each time. With The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific, I now know that this isn’t the case. Atomic Robo comics have plenty of good and bad aspects, but these particular ones bring out the weaknesses.

Brian Clevinger’s main strengths are in the intelligence and love of science that come through his writing. He does love war stories, though, and he tries his hand at one here with unimpressive results. This is also not ideal for Scott Wegener’s art. He’s great at comic timing and little character moments, but the action scenes he pencils feel confusing and unexciting. Both the first and last issues of this are dedicated largely to battles that I couldn’t follow and didn’t care about.

The story isn’t entirely without its Robo-style quirks, since it focuses on a secret group of female pilots from the Allied nations who banded together after World War II. Jetpacks and witty banter feature prominently. That’s not necessarily as original as it sounds, though. “Ass-kicking rocketeer chicks” is the sort of high concept that feels expected for indie comics fans who want an alternative to superheroes without any more realism. And while the characters are capable women who are treated respectfully, in some ways these spunky action heroes are just as unrealistic portrayals of femininity as what the mainstream offers.

When it slows down for banter and (infrequent) character-building, this has some of the charm that Atomic Robo does best. It feels forgettable afterwards, though, with nothing to make the plot or characters stand out.

Grade: C


cover to Atomic Robo: Real Science Adventures #1

Atomic Robo: Real Science Adventures

Atomic Robo Presents: Real Science Adventures

(Based on issues #1-6)

This new series of short stories ran concurrently with The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific. Each issue featured several stories, usually four pages each, featuring Atomic Robo or his supporting cast. A few of them were previously published, but at $2.75 per issue with no ads, it’s still a great deal by today’s print comics standards. I believe that this is intended to be a long-term series, but these six were obviously being presented as a group. Two twenty-four page stories ran four pages at a time through these issues.

One of those stories, “To Kill A Sparrow”, featured scenes from supporting character Sparrow’s past in Nazi-occupied France. It’s another glib action-girl story that expects us to ignore the clichés because its lead is a cute, gun-happy woman. And it did the story no favors to break it up into such small chunks. Fortunately, the other serialized story (“Leaping Metal Dragon”) was a lot more enjoyable. Showing Robo’s quest to train with Bruce Lee, it embraced the ridiculous contrast between a super-powerful robot and the human potential symbolized by kung fu.

The rest of the stories are a mixed bag, with far too many disappointments. Many of them seem intended to fill in tiny details from previous series, but I’ve now read over half of the Atomic Robo miniseries and I almost never knew where these stories fit in. I didn’t feel like I was missing much, though. They feel like light fluff, with no time for character development and a rushed resolution (if any). I don’t feel like I have a deeper understanding of the characters or situations presented, nor do I find myself wanting one. This attempt to flesh out the Atomic Robo universe makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t feel like it’s putting much effort into that goal.

Grade: C


cover to Stumptown: The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case #1

Stumptown: The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case

Stumptown: The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case

The second volume of Greg Rucka’s and Matthew Southworth’s Stumptown, The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case finds their private investigator working with rock stars. The “baby” is just a stolen guitar, but its disappearance soon gets Dex Parios mixed up with a DEA investigation and some skinhead thugs.

The mystery is fairly perfunctory. People hand over evidence when needed to move the story along, and Dex’s skills have more to do with keeping her cool and seeing through lies than with actual investigating. She’s a good character, though, and the story stays interesting. Southworth’s art is thin and often washed out by the coloring, but his people feel comfortable and natural. It’s the kind of story you could easily skip over, but it’s a satisfying genre tale. Also, hints of a bigger, slowly-simmering plot start to show through, and it will be fun to watch that develop.

Rucka also includes one page of an essay in each issue, explaining what draws him to PI stories and why he sees them as an essentially American art form. That may not sound too intriguing, but like the rest of the comic, I found it compelling and slick, rushing by before it overstayed its welcome. (I don’t know if this will be in the collected book, or if it’s a bonus for the monthly comics.) He makes a lot of good points, and Dex’s character becomes more interesting as a reflection of Rucka’s theories. A luckless woman with an autistic brother and an affinity for Portland’s unique culture, she doesn’t fit the classic PI checklist. She fills the same role in spirit, though, living by her own moral compass outside of society, but still inextricably bound to it. Like the rest of Rucka’s work here, Dex is a formulaic choice handled with such professional ease that she takes on a life of her own.

Grade: B

 
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