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Review: Catalyst Comix #1, 47 Ronin #5

Catalyst Comix #1

Catalyst-Comix_1-420x646Dark Horse is well-known for its horror comics, for its original products like 47 Ronin, the Mignolaverse, and its franchise publications (ranging from Star Wars to Buffy to Conan). Today, at least, by most consumers, the company isn’t regarded as a top-notch superhero publisher—in fact many love Dark Horse, I’d wager, because it so often offers something fresher than what the rest of the market is trying to keep alive. But that hasn’t always been the case, and as the recent roster is showing, superheroes are making a comeback at Dark Horse. The House of Horse (Marvel gets a cool nickname, what’m I supposed to call Dark Horse?!) and heroes go way back to the company’s founding, and Catalyst Comix #1 brings back some of the best of Dark Horse’s line of heroes from Comics’ Greatest World and, later, Dark Horse Heroes. This issue features three unique perspectives on the near-end-of-the-world, serving as the jumping point for (re-)introducing today’s burgeoning comic market to Frank ‘Titan’ Wells, ‘Amazing’ Grace, and the Agents of Change.

Writer Joe Casey’s narrative reads like Bill Maher in a Michael Moore documentary about superheroes: feisty, sarcastic, enjoyable. Casey creates an interactive narrative that actively invites the reader to be afraid, to feel for the characters’ plights, but not too much, making sure we never ‘feel sorry’ for the superheroes’ troubles. Additionally, he blends great scientific mumbo jumbo with mythology, socio-political criticism, literary references, and wit, and he singularly and easily articulates one of the most pertinent questions for superheroes today: “When power is your identity—how do you cope?” In addition, Joe Casey’s two-page commentary in the back of the book gives a good history to these heroes at Dark Horse and where they plan to take the new Catalyst Comix.

People used to, and sometimes still do, talk about the “Marvel” style of drawing comics—Stan Lee wrote a whole book about it, for heaven’s sake! Lately I’ve started to realize that Dark Horse is (probably not actively, but by default of its creative licenses) creating a style that is uniquely its own, a vibrant, panel-packed style that defies the monotonous straight-edge lines of the mainstream superhero comic and creates something new and difficult to describe in words…it’s just Dark Horse! Just to be clear, there’s nothing exactly wrong with a ‘mainstream’ style; look what Invincible does with their art, and tell me it can’t be put to creative use. That three separate artists work on Catalyst Comix #1, and that this book falls under a single style is even more proof that an in-house style seems to be developing.

Catalyst Comix #1 is artistically jam-packed by Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury, and Ulises Farinas, not to the point of being overwhelming, but still filled with intricate detail, yet just under the bar of complex panel choreography and visual symbolism and juxtapositions set by Dave Gibbons in Watchmen. There is, however, a successful dance between panels showing individual by-standers’ fate during the apocalypse and the goings-on of Frank Wells (Titan), for example. McDaid, Maybury, and Farinas’ art are drawn together seamlessly by Brad Simpson’s coloring, with each of the three parts given its own color-driven tone and personal artistic flare, but obviously existing in the same general artistic vein. Really, this is impressive work to see such artistic co-collaborations between stories within one issue. I would highly recommend Maybury’s work in the second story, which is absolutely beautiful and at the same time innocent.

And if the above doesn’t get you interested, but you are turned on to anything with good advertising, you really have to love any comic that advertises itself with the tag line: “Catalyst Comix will steal your boyfriend.” It’s a $2.99 well spent, and that’s a better price than plenty of the inferior books that go for a dollar more.

Story: Joe Casey  Art: Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury, Ulises Farinas
Story: 8  Art: 8  Overall: 8  Recommendation: Read

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47 Ronin #5

47ronin5coverMy first introduction to the wonder that is Stan Sakai’s art was yesterday, as I innocently flipped the pages of Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard V.2 #1, and found myself staring at his exquisite, water-color-like, Japonic art. Absolutely. Beautiful. And now I’m looking at 47 Ronin #5, written by Mike Richardson and illustrated by Stan Sakai, and wondering how on earth I missed this book, how it skipped my pull-list until today!

When I was a kid, to be sure, I was a huge fan of anything Japanese…I attribute this to having spent the first 10 years of my life in small-town Louisiana, with almost no Asian influence other than a tad bit of Pokémon, and then, when I moved to Seattle at age 11, I was suddenly bombarded with Asian culture! I watched Chinese films, tried to teach myself Japanese, sought out Asian cuisine as often as I could, checked out Japanese mythology books from the library, and was so intensely interested in everything Asian that my Chinese friend Kau defriended me in real life because I was too obsessed with Asia. Yes, as a naïve little pre-teen I was subject to the overwhelming Westernized belief in Orientalism, so eloquently expressed by Edward Said in his book, Orientalism, and which I’ve come to understand more reflexively as an adult with a degree in anthropology. As an American, I felt myself too un-interesting, not exotic, not different, and I passively and unknowingly objectified the ‘finer’ and ‘exotic’ aspects of this quintessential pan-Asian culture into something tangible and consumable, as did and still does most of America.

“To know this story is to know Japan,” read the top of the first page of this book. This is the kind of Orientalist smut that I would have devoured as a kid, thinking to myself, “I really do know Japan!” No, I’m not dissing this book in the least, just offering a bit of a critical anthropological opinion on Orientalism and its existence today in American comic books. There is something that can be learned from this phenomenon, something about America’s racial relationship with what we conceive as ‘Asian’ and, especially, as ‘Japanese,’ but that doesn’t stop this book, and others like it—for example, Akaneiro—from being good pieces of art, and, to go beyond that, another must-have from the likes of Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo). As a third-generation Japanese American, Sakai’s comic legacy represents the unique blend of Japanese and American themes, qualities, and artistic traditions that captures what it means to be Japanese American, and what it might mean for American to find pleasure in something they see as ‘Japanese.’ Really, I couldn’t make up this perfect topic for a dissertation or critical scholarly analysis if I tried harder!

As always, Stan Sakai’s art in this issue is a thing to its own, a joy to look at, both simultaneously minimalist and intricate—who needs to bother with facial and figure details, when you’ve got 18th century Japan to illustrate and bring alive to an audience that can only imagine what this ‘world’ looks like? Stan Sakai makes Japan all the more exciting with this comic, and Richardson’s narrative builds an epic tale reminiscent of Kurosawa’s greatest films.

A lot of people have been reading this book, and there’s an obvious reason why; so there’s no reason to miss this extended-issue conclusion to the 5-part mini-series. I’m really looking forward to a trade paperback, because I think it’ll work better as a graphic novel than as a set of separate issues. 47 Ronin #5 does well on its own, but it definitely has its full power in context of the four previous comics.

Story: Mike Richardson  Art: Stan Sakai
Story: 8  Art: 9  Overall: 8.5  Recommendation: Buy

Dark Horse provided Graphic Policy with FREE copies for review