Author Archives: Ricardo Denis

Workers of the world! Here’s a list of comics to celebrate your Labor Day

Ah, the pleasures of having Labor Day off to celebrate work. It’s a contradiction as old as time, where honoring work means taking a (well-deserved and utterly necessary) break from it. After all, most workers have jobs that go year-round and the daily grind does take a toll. A day off is the least that can be afforded to them.

Recognition is the other thing we should doling out in industrial quantities during this federal holiday. As such, comic books are filled with stories about the fruits of labor, both in a literal and a politically figurative sense. Be it by actually exploring the hardships of being a worker to acknowledging the monumental task that is organizing movements in support of them, labor is central to the motivations behind some of comic’s best stories.

Here’s a short list of comics that either directly or indirectly showcase the roles workers play in keeping life and society functional. These comics dive headfirst into the specifics of what ‘putting in the work’ means, recognizing that everything that’s done in the service of others usually rests on human struggles both painful and exhausting. The comics below give workers their time in the spotlight so we can appreciate just how much it takes to go out and keep the world turning.

Labor Day Comics

1. Trashed, written and illustrated by Derf Backderf

This book can best be described as a sobering love letter to one of the most underappreciated and openly repudiated jobs known to humankind: garbage collection. Following Backderf’s critically-acclaimed My Best Friend Dahmer, Trashed is based on the author’s time as a sanitation worker himself, surrounded by other workers just as enthused about collecting trash as he was (which wasn’t a whole lot). The inner workings of sanitation are presented through a combination of autobiographical anecdotes and well-researched facts and data that reveal just how complex, dangerous, and even clumsy picking up and storing trash can be. It’s a funny but scary look at how sanitation can save the world while also turn it into a ticking time bomb.

Damage Control

2. Damage Control, originally created by Dwayne McDuffie (W) and Ernie Colón (A)

A superhero’s job is to save the day, crumbling infrastructure be damned. With them, though, comes a unique concern for property damage, mostly focused on the inevitability of mass destruction. In comes a company solely dedicated to cleaning up after extinction-level battles and then putting the pieces back together called Damage Control. In essence, this Marvel comic is about unsung heroes. It’s about doing essential work knowing there’s no glory waiting at the end of it (much like Trashed, in some respects). McDuffie’s scripts are a masterclass on chaos and property politics, but it’s Colón’s attention to detail amidst the chaos that sets this story apart. The original series (there are a total of 4 series published) takes to a kind of MAD Magazine-style approach to comedy with visual gags and crude humor leading the charge, but it’s all well-orchestrated and it makes for reading that rewards those who scan comics pages whole multiple times.

Labor Day Comics

3. She-Hulk: Law and Disorder, written by Charles Soule and illustrated by Javier Pulido

At a glance, Soule and Pulido’s She-Hulk gives the impression of being a kind of ‘slice of life’ story about a superhero that chooses law as her preferred battleground. The book, however, is about so much more, and it might have more in common with Damage Control than an actual legal drama. She-Hulk takes the anger-filled superhero and turns her into a working-class woman that’s trying (and struggling) to make her own legal services business work. She puts it all together from the ground up but is immediately confronted with the hardships of balancing work, heroics, and the semblance of a personal life on an even keel. One of the greatest, and most entertaining, aspects of the comic lies in the formation of the character’s legal practice and how at odds it can be being both a superhero and a normal person with other interests. It dives deep into the complications of working multiple jobs, but it shows an appreciation for those who lead their lives under that predicament. Soule and Pulido create a story that supports and applauds those who undertake the task of holding several jobs at once, honoring the sacrifice it requires of one’s self to survive it.

Labor Day Comics
Ex Machina

4. Ex Machina, written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Tony Harris

While aggressively political and metaphorical, Ex Machina does something few other stories on governmental responsibility manage to achieve: make the role of an elected official look and feel like a real job. The story follows Mitchel Hundred, a man that renounces his superhero persona to become mayor of New York city. After only managing to save one of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hundred realizes he can do more good as an elected official rather than as a superhero. Vaughan and Harris take full advantage of this setup to go beyond political speeches and discourse to get Hundred’s hands dirty with the real act of running a government. Hundred has to address the legality of surveillance in times of crisis, protocols for public demonstrations, controversial content in city museums, infrastructure, and police freedoms all while controlling the urge to use his still functioning superpowers to speed the process up. As is the case in She-Hulk, Hundred also attempts (with few successes) to balance his personal life with the job. Problem is, the job demands too much of his time, hence the temptation to use his powers. Ex Machina is a stark reminder that being an elected official actually means holding down a job with real consequences attached to it, something many politicians seem to have lost sight of.

Gotham Central

5. Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty, written by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka and illustrated by Michael Lark

The profession of law enforcement is under serious scrutiny at the present moment, and rightfully so, but it’s still a job certain men and women take on despite the complexities of outdated and dysfunctional practices that are in desperate need of revision. And that’s on top of the racial problems that have shaped its many, many systems. However, there are those who do take the job seriously and work hard to ‘protect and serve’ with the best of intentions under the law. Gotham Central prioritizes this viewpoint, focusing the cops and detectives that work in Batman’s Gotham City. Without the resources or the exceptions afforded to the Dark Knight, the GCPD is still tasked with responding to criminal activity, regardless of whether it’s of the supervillain type or not. Main characters René Montoya, Crispus Allen, Marcus Driver, and “Josie Mac” MacDonald, among others, are divided into day and night shifts in a city that is in a constant flux of crime. The job takes its toll on a personal level and there’s an emphasis on how much one gives in the line of duty, but there’s also an appreciation of honest cops walking the line in the face of overwhelming police corruption and abuse. It’s a complicated and sometimes contradictory read, but it makes no excuses while confronting the damning inconsistencies of the job.

Labor Day comics
Wooblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World

6. Wooblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, edited by Peter Buhle & Nicole Schulman

The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, has a wild and exuberant history, to say the least, which makes it the ideal subject for comic book storytelling. The IWW was created in Chicago, Illinois in 1905 as a union for marginalized workers led by Marxist principles. Miners, lumber workers, immigrant workers, indigenous workers, non-white workers, severely underrepresented female workers, and workers all over that had no rights or protections saw in the IWW as the means to fight towards better working conditions. Wooblies! (alluding to the nickname given to the members of the union) enlists the talents of cartoonists such as Peter Kuper, Harvey Pekar, Trina Robbins, Sharon Rudahl, Sue Coe, Carlos Cortez, among others to tell the story of how forgotten and underrepresented workers rose up against the odds to gain the rights and respect owed to them. The anthology has a very underground ‘comix’ feel to it, but it’s allegorical and metaphorical inclinations do a better job of capturing labor struggles better than a traditional story ever could. This might be the quintessential Labor Day reading right here.

Workers, laborers, holders of jobs, these comics honor your contributions, your efforts, and the near impossible feats you pull off. Read and relax, but overall, enjoy your hard-earned Labor Day holiday.

Review: Blade Runner 2019 #9

Blade Runner 2019 #9
Blade Runner 2019 #9, Titan Comics

One of the most fascinating panels from this year’s San Diego Comic Con came from Titan ComicsBlade Runner 2019 creator roundtable. What made it so interesting, in a nutshell, is that the creators of the book agreed that what made writing Blade Runner 2019 so liberating was the fact there isn’t a long line of sequels, prequels, and trilogies to honor and reference. This isn’t Star Wars. It allowed for more creative freedom when populating the Blade Runner universe with new stories and further worldbuilding. Blade Runner 2019 #9 is a perfect example of this.

While the latest issue of the series is being presented as a new jumping on point for fans, there’s no doubt the book is aimed at readers that have been following the story since day one. I won’t spoil the story up to this point, but know that the kidnapping case that sets off the events of the entire series are still influencing the path the main character, Ash, is on.

Operating outside the legal confines of Blade Runners, Ash lands on a new problem that threatens to derail her search for answers involving old clusters of replicants hiding in old but familiar places and long lost projects coming up to the surface once more. Some of these parts of the story allow for accessibility but are still reliant on the previous developments. Not an easy jump in.

Blade Runner 2019 #9, Titan Comics

The creative team of Michael Green, Mike Johnson, and artist Andres Guinaldo do manage to keep the dark neon world of Blade Runner welcoming. In fact, Guinaldo’s work alone is enough to justify the buy. Issue #9 sees a return to the Los Angeles we’ve come to know and love from the movies and Guinaldo takes extra care to revisit classic locations with both nostalgia and new mysteries leading the way.

There’s a scene where Ash flies over the ruins of the Tyrell Corporation that’s particularly impressive due to how imposing it still manages to be regardless of its current state. Green and Johnson’s scripting put Guinaldo in a position to carry a lot of the storytelling on visuals alone. In fact, one of the things this comic does well is not overwhelm the pages with text. The comic genuinely plays to the idea that dystopic LA is its own character.

While the Phillip K. Dick sci-fi vibes are definitely present in this new story arc, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bit of horror thrown into the mix. Ash meets a group of zombie-like replicants that put their own spin on synthetic body horror, subtly but effectively. There’s the potential for even more disturbing replicant designs as the story moves forward.

The same pulp sensibilities of the previous entries and the movies is still present and it helps emphasize each small happening into a crucial and story-defining development. In a world where change comes at the cost of humanity, these things matter. Green, Johnson, and Guinaldo do a good job of capturing it all and giving it the time it deserves.

Blade Runner 2019 #9 is not as simple a jumping on point as it suggests it is, but if it inspires people to go back and read the first issues then it is hitting all the right notes. This series is a treasure trove of cyberpunk storytelling and any excuse it gives readers to explore it is a good one.

Script: Michael Green & Mike Johnson, Art: Andres Guinaldo
Story: 9.0 Art: 10 Overall: 9.5
Recommendation: Read or reread Blade Runner 2019 issues 1-8, then read #9

Titan Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Purchase: comiXologyKindleZeus Comics

Review: Bomb Queen: Trump Card #1

Bomb Queen: Trump Card Part One, Image

It’s not every day you see a comic book open with a quote from Hannah Arendt, the famous American-German political thinker and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism. That last tidbit of information about Arendt is important to understand the type of satire Jimmie Robinson goes for in Bomb Queen: Trump Card #1. It’s biting and completely uninterested in criticizing anything in a politically correct way. But criticism is the goal and it doesn’t lose sight of it. In a sense, it’s a kind of book we’re seeing less and less of today.

This new limited series follows the titular supervillain, Bomb Queen, as she joins the 2024 presidential campaign against Donald Trump. Taking a page from Nixon in Watchmen, Trump is flirting with the idea of making the presidency a life-long term and that quite simply does not fly with New Port City’s superhero community. Bomb Queen is forcefully recruited by one particular superhero to run against Trump and then, once she’s won, resign to the position so that the superhero that recruited her becomes president instead.

This first issue is quite accessible and easy enough to follow, but there are a ton of callbacks to the previous limited series and one-shots as well (the comic was first published in 2006). Bomb Queen was the leader of New Port City and basically acted as a dictator that was reckless but reliable. No one ever doubted she would continue being a super villain and so people trusted her to be just that all the time.

In other words, Bomb Queen was the Trump of New Port City, a point the comic literally argues in one sequence. The superhero community’s plan is to fight fire with fire and then course correct. It’s basically a look at Totalitarianism and how it works, albeit with a more fast-paced, bloody, and sexed up mindset.

The basis for the satire is clear and quite ‘in your face.’ What transpires is a smart but often crude way of broaching the idea people want to view their leaders as superheroes or super villains, expecting them to act accordingly. It can remind one of Garth Ennis’ The Boys, specifically in terms of how power creates irresponsible God-like beings that want nothing more than to flaunt their abilities publicly, shamelessly, and without restraint.

Bomb Queen: Trump Card #1, Image

What sets Bomb Queen apart from The Boys is that Jimmie Robinson’s satire is more down to Earth. While The Boys looks more closely at the nature of super people and plays around with comic tropes more intently, Bomb Queen takes it down to the streets without room for subtlety (much less than in Ennis’ book and even that one can’t be said to have much regard for it either).

As is the case in earlier Bomb Queen books, this new story features random New Port citizens sounding off on Bomb Queen’s candidacy. Opinions vary among them, with some saying things along the lines of “if Trump can insult people, then why can’t Bomb Queen do so as well?” or “we already have a villain in the White House. What’s wrong with having a super villain instead?”

Bomb Queen: Trump Card #1
Bomb Queen: Trump Card Part One

The exchanges are absurd, fun, rough, but smartly presented and come off as not so far fetched as those found in the real world. In Bomb Queen’s America, satire is the status quo, an inside joke everyone’s in on. That American society has taken such a turn for the ridiculous that we’ve managed to actually put a super villain in the White House is perhaps the bigger point Robinson wants to make here.

And yet, Bomb Queen isn’t for everyone. The character’s barely-there outfit is also part of the satire, but it alludes to other things explored previously in the series. Some may find the design exploitative and out of touch, but it’s not without its purpose. Again, political correctness is not a concern for Robinson, and sometimes it feels as if he actively attempts to get under the reader’s skin. Having said that, an update for the purposes of discourse could’ve made the comic even more accessible.

Robinson seems to like to turn his villainess into a mirror for our own inadequacies and inconsistencies. Expect 90’s era style jokes and visual gags that aren’t looked favorably upon today, but also expect them to be in response to something specific and not just for the sake of gratuity. What lands in Robinson’s crosshairs tends to be worthy of the criticism Bomb Queen provides.

Bomb Queen’s Trump-like behavior in past events makes her an interesting example of villainy to bounce off of. The idea of making a Trump-like villain run against the actual Trump is a fascinating one and merits discussion. Give it a read and if it’s not your thing, that’s okay. If you end up liking it, then you have a lot more satire to look forward to, along with the added sting of pure unpolitical correctness.

Story: Jimmie Robinson Art: Jimmie Robinson
Story: 8 .0Art: 9.0 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Read Bomb Queen and then register to vote

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Purchase: comiXologyKindleZeus Comics

Review: Yasmeen #2

Yasmeen #2
Yasmeen #2, Scout Comics

Saif Ahmed’s and Fabiana Mascolo’s Yasmeen is in many respects a story about the painful process behind coming of age. Focusing on a girl (the titular Yasmeen) living during the ISIS invasion of Mosul, Iraq first and then years later as a refugee in America, the comic is nothing short of a visceral exploration of how unfair and even profoundly violent change can be.

This is made clear in the first issue of the six-part series. The second entry of the story dives deeper into these ideas, but it takes the opportunity to say something different about coming-of-age stories: they’re not universal.

A staple of YA literature, the coming-of-age story deals in transformation, maturity, and acceptance, all brought upon by a particular set of internal and external challenges. It’s such a flexible narrative template that it’s easy to apply to different types of characters going through a variety of self-identity trials. The emphasis is on seeing how characters grow up and how they accept themselves for who they are, imperfections and all.

Yasmeen’s take on this puts the focus on context and the uniqueness of its circumstances. Growing up during an invasion only to migrate to another country and face the stereotypes and misconceptions of one’s own culture from other groups of people is quite simply on a level all of its own. It’s unique and hard to relate to if the reader does not share in the same experience, or has at very least experienced something similar to it. And yet, what makes this story special is that it wants to help readers understand it, regardless of difficulty.

Yasmeen #2 is where the series hits its stride with its simultaneous approach to storytelling. Yasmeen looks to settle into a normal in her new American life in the present timeline while trying to survive in her new role as wife to a man that acquired her after being separated from the family in the past timeline. The exchange between both timelines is relentless, but it is serves a purpose. In Yasmeen coming of age is a constant, never a phase one can conquer and then move on. It leaves scars.

Yasmeen #2, Scout Comics

For Yasmeen, the memories of the past compromise her ability to adapt to the present. But the present brings challenges of its own. She is surrounded by kids of her same age going through their own coming-of-age woes, but their experiences are worlds apart and reconciling those differences is proving quite the challenge. The book’s art captures this with uncomfortable clarity and inventiveness.

Fabiana Mascolo again does an excellent job of dealing with traumatic imagery without being explicit. The lead up to violence or images of abuse is tense and uncomfortable but knows precisely when to change gears into other sequences. It’s also worth mentioning that Mascolo’s facial expressions tell stories of their own. They invite close study to get the most out every character.

The script deftly raises the intensity between the two timelines in this issue, making for a harder-hitting issue than the first one. Things move faster and the terrors of the past face stronger competition from the struggles of student life in America. The change in environments are skillfully managed and always manage to keep each time period in conversation with one another. There’s a sequence in which Yasmeen is surrounded by ghostly images of the ISIS takeover while walking down her school’s cafeteria that is something to behold. It’s deeply haunting and it captures the spirit of the book perfectly.

The second issue of Yasmeen braves unsettling and rough terrains, full of terrible things. But as is the case with the first issue, hope still manages to carve out some space for itself. There’s a lot of darkness still, but the promise of light at the end of the tunnel is there. I don’t expect that light to be all-powerful or all-healing, but I’m intrigued as to what it offers to Yasmeen.

Story: Saif Ahmed Art: Fabiana Mascolo
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0
Recommendation: Buy and then read Graphic Policy’s interview with the writer.

Scout Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Purchase: Scout Comics Store

Interview: Saif Ahmed on how his comic YASMEEN explores living with the scars of extremist violence

Saif A. Ahmed
Saif Ahmed, writer of Yasmeen

Saif A. Ahmed is a writer that understands the human mind is more than capable of crafting its own horrors even when provided with as little information as possible. This is evident in his approach to violence and trauma in his comic Yasmeen, a story about an Iraqi family’s experience with violent extremism in Mosul, Iraq, and how its memory follows them when they relocate to the United States.

It’s a brutal comic, but the truly terrifying aspects of it lie in what Ahmed leaves up to the reader’s imagination. In this regard, it’s one of the most educational comics on recent Iraqi history available today and I can’t recommend it enough.

Horror is a powerful educational tool. It goes beyond fact to take a proper stab at understanding an event or an experience. In other words, it’s intimate. Yasmeen deeply subscribes to this idea, but it does so by largely concerning itself with the conflictive act of remembering that characterizes trauma.

Yasmeen centers on the titular character, a 16-year-old girl who is captured by ISIS and is then thrust into slavery at the hands of a man that takes complete control of her life, in all aspects of it. It is revealed that Yasmeen and her family manage to leave Iraq to become refugees in America years later. The comic alternates between the two time periods to capture the horrors of the past and the struggles of the present.

Ahmed’s scripts are unafraid to venture into the violence and abuse Yasmeen lived through in the past, but it rarely indulges in gratuity or graphic imagery. The reader is informed on the things that happen to her and the story moves on.

Yasmeen #1
From Yasmeen #1, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Artist Fabiana Mascolo perfectly captures the implicit nature of the storytelling and knows how much should or shouldn’t be shown for the narrative to work. It’s a strategy often employed in the best horror stories, the kind that prioritize dread and tension over explicit shots of gore and death to keep the audience’s attention.

Whatever human horrors Yasmeen conjures up in its story, however, are met with a refreshingly humble and realistic sense of hope. There’s something to be said about the will to survive as presented in this comic and it’s important readers experience it. It’s where the story gathers its teachings and invites true understanding.

Graphic Policy sat down with writer Saif Ahmed (via email) to discuss the comic and the various elements that went into the creation of such a harrowing but hopeful story about memory and survival.

Ricardo Serrano: Yasmeen is a book with a lot to say and a lot to teach. It’s curious that despite the recent history of Iraq and the Middle East we still seem to know very little about the actual dynamics behind the events that have taken place there. What are you hoping Yasmeen can bring to the conversation in terms of understanding the things that have happened in Mosul through an Iraqi family’s experience of them? 

Yasmeen #3, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Saif A. Ahmed: As a storyteller, my first concern was to tell the best engaging story possible. On top of that I aimed to draw attention to the victims who are still affected by the war. These are people who were living normal peaceful lives, then suddenly they were faced with a pure evil force that subjected them to unimaginable horrors. And while ISIS is almost defeated now and the world has moved on, the survivors still carry emotional and physical scars that will stay with them for rest of their lives. Now I am in no way trying to preach or make the reader feel bad, I myself avoid listening to the depressing news of the world but I do wish to help change how Arabs and immigrants are perceived by simply telling the story of a teenage Iraqi girl and her family from their own prospective. 

Serrano: One of the things I found interesting about the book as that it doesn’t hold the reader’s hand throughout the story. Not everything is explained in a clear cut manner, as is the case with the conflict’s factions and the ideas they uphold. Yet, it still gets its point across. What was the thought process behind this approach? 

Ahmed: Well, the first rule of storytelling is “show don’t tell!” I didn’t want to feed the readers a ton of information (this is the best way to lose them). I rather show glimpses of the long and deadly conflict through the characters’ interactions as if the readers are witnessing engaging high-stakes debates. The fake checkpoint (that’s what we call the infamous terrorist checkpoints in Iraq) sequence for instance was an important scene for me because I once was stopped by a terrorist group that were looking for people from my sect of Islam. I was lucky that I didn’t get caught but if I had, I wish to think that I would’ve been brave enough to say to them what Yasmeen‘s uncle says in the sequence. 

Serrano: Despite the horrors Yasmeen guides readers through, actual instances of violence are treated with restraint and inventiveness. It leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. What led to the decision to keep things implicit and not graphic? 

Ahmed: I wasn’t interested in the violence itself but rather its influence on the victims. The whole point of the story is that violent acts stay with us long after they take place. Violence is not glamorous in real life. It’s horrifying. The best artists in the world won’t be able to convey that as good as the human imagination. 

Serrano: I’m curious as to the books, movies, experiences, games, etc. that inspired you in the process of scripting Yasmeen. Was there anything you looked that you definitely wanted to be present in the story? Any other things you were consciously aware of that you didn’t want in the story?

Yasmeen #2
Yasmeen #2, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Ahmed: I based the story off my life in Iraq/US and the horrible real-life events that the people in Mosul lived through. But as a writer I learned a lot of storytelling techniques like the use of subtext and themes from great TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. As for the second part of your question, I definitely didn’t want my story to be told through the eyes of the usual western outsider protagonist. A lot of them like to turn Arab characters into clichés. I aimed to demonstrate that, even though we might have different traditions, most of us wish to live peacefully just like any other person in the world. 

Serrano: While the book deals with trauma head-on and without restraint, to its success, there’s something interesting in how the story alternates between past (Mosul, Iraq) and present (America). Why was it important to show Yasmeen’s experience and interactions in America via these time jumps? 

Ahmed: That’s how Yasmeen is living. She’s in two places at the same time. Her body is in the US but her mind is still living in the past. Telling the story within two time periods progressing alongside each other combined with Fabiana’s amazing art put the reader right in Yasmeen‘s mind without the need of thought bubbles or unnecessary exposition.

Serrano: What’s coming up after Yasmeen? You looking to expand on the story or are you moving on to different projects? 

Ahmed: It took me more than two years to make Yasmeen. I had the idea for it four years ago. These six issues will come to a satisfying end for Yasmeen‘s arc. And while I have few ideas to take the characters into a new arc, I will probably let it marinate for now and move on to one of the many other ideas that I have. I actually just shared my “vault of ideas” with Fabiana the other day in the hopes that we can work together again.

Review: Empyre: Captain America #2

Empyre: Captain America #2
Empyre: Captain America #2

Phillip Kennedy Johnson gave his Captain America Empyre tie-in one of the toughest parts of any global conflict to deal with: American military policy. Ol’ Cap had his hands full in issue one trying to convince high ranking officers of providing support to the other countries of the world also fighting the Cotati. America refused, even when told they could inspire international allyship. Empyre: Captain America #2 is an exploration of that decision’s consequences.

Illustrated by Ariel Olivetti, Empyre: Captain America #2 continues to keep the bar high as a tie-in comic. It’s a great example of what these types of comics should be: short incursions into the event that can result in some fun worldbuilding mechanics. To use a music metaphor, good tie-in books can be rip-roaring guitar solos to the hit song that is the event. Johnson and Olivetti’s Empyre book is precisely that.

What makes this comic an essential read within the larger event is that its discussion on the politics of war on Earth feel epic and high stakes. Should Captain America fail at bringing together the international community to fight the Cotati as a singular force, Earth will have its hands full with an enemy that will never fall to the efforts of an individual country.

Captain America makes this point throughout. He speaks to soldiers and world leaders on the dangers of putting too much weight on heroics and not enough on the soldiers and people that are involved in every aspect of war. In one particular instance, Captain America tells a story about a Nazi ambush during World War II that incapacitated him and forced his fellow brothers in arms to take lead and salvage what they could out of the situation. Half of those soldiers died so that Captain America could live.

Empyre: Captain America #2

These types of stories help explain the comic’s focus on military action and how it can be used for good. It also falls in line with Empyre’s main story, where we see the idea of heroism clashing with the idea of practicality. Should heroes put their lives on the line when a less dangerous approach exists? What does this say about war? What should we be asking of soldiers when faced with the extreme realities of combat?

Olivetti’s art does an amazing job of showing the Cotati as a lethal invading force that is undoubtedly alien but also eerily similar to Earth’s vegetation. If the story were about our own vegetation rising up and trying to eradicate humanity, it would still work. The Cotati can infect humans with living seeds that turn them into Cotati themselves. For these sequences, Olivetti takes a very gruesome body horror approach that adds to the lethality of the invaders.

Empyre: Captain America #2 is an impressive exploration of the Cotati invasion and its forays into military policy basically hold up a mirror to America’s Army and how it could be doing more than it usually does.

Story: Phillip Kennedy Johnson Art: Ariel Olivetti
Color: Rachelle Rosenberg Letterer: Ariana Maher
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0
Recommendation: It’s Captain America. Why wouldn’t you buy it?

Review: Horizon: Zero Dawn #1

Horizon: Zero Dawn #1
Titan Comics

When Horizon: Zero Dawn came out on the Playstation 4 back in 2017, I remember feeling a sense of wonder and relief. It was a post-apocalyptic game of sorts, but it wasn’t the dreary and bleak world we’d grown accustomed to as gamers post-Last of Us. Instead, Guerilla Games gave us a lush and living environment with impressive vistas and mechanical beasts that played with both prehistoric and high-tech notions of life. It made for an unforgettable gaming and storytelling experience.

Now, Titan Comics has brought the Horizon universe to the comics world and I’m happy to say the transition is not only successful but also comes off as an obvious next step for the franchise.

Written by Anne Toole, who worked on the game’s script and counts among her writing credits the Assassin’s Creed: Origins “Cursed of the Pharaohs” DLC, and illustrated by Ann Maulina (who has worked as a video game and environment artist), the new Horizon comic centers on Talanah Khane Padish and her hunt for a single machine as per a contract she accepted. Talanah gets injured, but she fights through the pain to continue in her quest even as she meets new characters that might hint at a coming conflict between tribes.

While previous knowledge of the game’s story isn’t a requirement, having at least one playthrough completed will enrich the reading experience considerably. In the game, Talanah is a potential ally for Aloy (Horizon’s main character) and is crucial to the Hunter’s Lodge missions in the story. She becomes Aloy’s sponsor in the Lodge and even helps out during the final battle of the main story.

Having that background helps readers jump straight into the comic. A familiar face is easy to get excited about and foregoes a lot of the trappings of heavy exposition commonly found in first issues. Toole does a phenomenal job in this front, keeping as much as possible up to the reader to figure out. Nothing is spelled out, but all the narrative elements are there for readers to piece together what the story’s world is about. Thankfully, new readers can also follow Talanah’s story with minimal understanding of the universe. This is where Maulina’s art comes in.

Horizon’s world is nothing short of breathtaking. The contrast between mechanical dinosaurs and human characters designed like they come from a high tech Stone Age is very unique to the PS4 game and Maulina has captured it faithfully in the comic book page. That same sense of wonder and danger that one gets while playing the game transfers over to the comic, with vibrant colors and deadly machines inhabiting a blossoming natural word. Having played the game, I felt as if the story’s energy mimicked that of the game’s. The thrill of the hunt and the adrenaline rush that comes with hunting robo-dinos is as present here as it is in the game.

Titan Comics

Toole’s scripting, on the other hand, also finds ways to incorporate video game winks into the overall design of the story with panels showing characters doing things player can do in-game. Whether it’s Talanah throwing a rock to distract the machines or walking on a tight-rope to cross a river, these instances bring players back to the game if only briefly to link up both experiences.

Whether the Horizon comic will continue to expand upon the game’s universe or simply follow within the lines of an extended side quest remains to be seen. Aloy is a part of the story, but it feels as if Talanah’s the lead. Fortunately, Talanah is well-crafted and can help fans bridge both comic and gaming experiences into a cohesive whole. In all honesty, any excuse to venture back into the world of Horizon is good enough for me–and with Horizon 2 already confirmed for the Playstation 5–this comic does a wonderful job of giving fans enough reasons to continue the journey.

Story: Anne Toole Art: Ann Maulina
Color: Bryan Valenza Letterer: Jim Campbell
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0
Recommendation: Replay Horizon and make sure to finish the Frozen Wilds DLC

Titan Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Purchase: comiXologyAmazonKindleZeus Comics

SDCC 2020: Comic Shops, Persevering Through Crisis

It’s established fact by now that comics were among the hardest hit businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot had to do Diamond Distributors deciding to shut down during the pandemic, halting product distribution across the board. This meant that comic shops had to get creative to stay alive, stepping way outside their comfort zones to fight against closing down for good.

The SDCC@Home panel “Comic Shops: Persevering Through Crisis” took a deep look at all of this, at how certain shops managed to keep their heads above water and how they plan to continue operations while still in a state of crisis.

The panel was moderated by Ed Catto in conversation with Joe Field (Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, Concord, CA), Marc Hammond (Aw Yeah Comics, Harrison, NY), Jeff Beck (East Side Mags Montclair, NJ), and Dr. Christina Blanche (Aw Yeah Comics, Muncie, IN). These are all comics shop owners and administrators that have adapted to the reality of the pandemic to continue selling comics.

So as not to spoil the panel discussion (which I highly recommend watching in its entirety), I will offer a few highlights and explain why I believe it deserves a watch.

“Persevering Through Crisis” takes its title to heart by diving straight into strategies and initiatives that proved successful to the comics shops represented during the shutdown. One thing seemed to be a common occurrence across the panelists’ experiences: customers stepped up to help keep their favorite stores open in a big way. Many of the stories shared on the panel emphasized the role dedicated customers played in keeping shops afloat by buying gift cards and back-issues.

Sales on the back-issues front gave some of these stores the idea of setting up live shows to sell books that were previously warehoused or stuck in the shelves. In the absence of traditional comic conventions, this allowed shops to make a profit otherwise made in these events by selling older product.

Other shops stuck to curbside pick-up in order to safeguard some of the community-building they had already done by turning their spaces into a meeting ground for a whole group of people sharing common interests. This was crucial for East Side Mags and Flying Colors Comics and they went lengths to get the point across throughout the panel.

One of the topics discussed in the “Comic Shops: Persevering Through Crisis” panel

There’s also an interesting discussion on the effects the DC/Diamond split had on the road to reopening. It was a controversial subject and it had no choice in being otherwise, but the panel discussed it professionally and put forward some good points. This segment was enticing enough to justify its own panel and the guests really opened the doors for further debate. I was glad no one succumbed to cryptic responses and lazy arguments.

The possibility of a second shutdown was also broached and the mood was one of caution but readiness. These shop owners truly came off as survivors with valuable information other stores would be wise to consider.

This is required viewing for comic shop owners. There was a lot said about the nuts and bolts of survival during a crisis. But the panel also provides a kind of behind the scenes look at comics retail that shows just how hard the men and women involved work to get us our comics. You’ll appreciate brick and mortar stores even more after watching this panel.

Click here to view the complete panel.

SDCC 2020: Comics as a Conduit panel, an essential watch

San Diego Comic Con 2020 has been forced down the road of remote programming due to current COVID-19 concerns, but it’s taken the opportunity to present some high quality, highly important pre-recorded panel discussions that people can access whenever they want after they’ve been made available via the SDCC at Home schedule website. One such panel took place on opening day (Wednesday, July 22 ,2020), called Comics as a Conduit, and it immediately set a high bar with an urgent tone and an infectious sense of excitement when it comes to dealing with History as a current and present problem that comics can and should address.

Moderated by Chloe Ramos, Comics as a Conduit centered on the specific uses and intentions of real world developments in comics to inform and engage with the problems currently on display in our streets today. Henry Barajas (author of La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo), Rodney Barnes (author of Killadelphia), Darcy Van Poelgeest (author of Little Bird: The Fight for Elder’s Hope), and David F. Walker (author of Bitter Root) participated in the panel as their comics are, essentially, great examples of the very conduits under question.

I’ll go through some of the highlights as the panel is up on YouTube in its entirety for anyone interested. I truly recommend taking the time to see it to get everything straight from the source. It was a powerful panel and a great conversation.

Chloe Ramos had an impressive set of incisive questions that didn’t settle for simple answers. In general, they homed in on the expectations that come with incorporating history into a comic and what type of reactions or expectations creators aim for when presenting their extensively researched stories to the public.

Barnes spoke to the necessity of making racism a more complicated type of discussion in media as a whole to really get to explore the actual ramifications of it. His Philadelphia vampire comic, Killadelphia, approaches this idea through the politics of poverty and how it shows apathy and displacement to be a product of a racist history. With such a dense point of view, Barnes also mentioned the importance of making history “not seem like medicine” in comics, so that everyone can get into it.

Van Poelgeest, creator of Little Bird, went a similar route. He emphasized the importance of making books that don’t keep readers out of the loop and, thus, unable to engage with these type of stories. Poelgeest said that accessibility keeps readership diverse and that the opposite “keeps a lot of people out of the world of reading.” This is perhaps one of the most important things mentioned in the panel and it really hits home when considering how certain works of non-fiction stay within the realm of academia without setting up different avenues for dialogue with the world outside of it.

Barajas’ interventions also expanded on this point as his book is a work of comics journalism whose intention is to shed light on a history that doesn’t make it into popular history books. The story of Tata Rambo deals with generational trauma and how it led to a movement that fought for better working and living conditions for the Pascua Yaqi Tribe in Toucson, Arizona. One of the things Barajas added to the conversation considered the inclusion of supplemental material in these type of books. Getting people in touch with actual documents and news clippings can only further the learning process, something La Voz de M.A.Y.O. does very well.

For Walker, a self-proclaimed research junkie (which wonderfully shows in his writing), looking at the Harlem Renaissance for his monster hunting book Bitter Root was an exercise in looking beyond the romantic version of history and into the aberrant racism of early 20th century America. The concept of entertainment as a conduit came to him when he watched George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and saw how a movie about zombies could say so much about race relations and war. He also mentioned that there’s an interesting discussion to be had with horror in terms of responsibility and who’s supposed to fight the monsters. This is a running theme in the genre, across all mediums, and one that Bitter Root explores well. If you haven’t read it yet, now’s a good time to do so.

Again, these blurbs are meant to offer a taste of the panel rather than a summary of it. I whole-heartedly recommend giving it a watch as it says a lot about how we as readers learn through comics and how we can be doing more of it.

For the full Comics as a Conduit panel, click here.

Star Wars descends into the unknown for new YA horror anthology DARK LEGENDS, but it’s not without precedent

Horror and Star Wars isn’t something one often hears uttered in the same sentence, although the pairing of the two isn’t entirely novel for the franchise. Disney Lucasfilm Press has announced its intentions to look beyond the dark side for a new YA horror anthology titled Star Wars: Dark Legends. The book is set for a July 28 release and will feature six terrifying tales written by George Mann with illustrations by Grant Griffin.

In an interview given to SYFY WIRE, Mann states that the six tales will read like campfire/bedtime cautionary tales complete with hauntings, transformations, and eerie Sith lords. The book’s scope covers the myths and legends of the Star Wars universe with details and ideas taken from the new Galaxy’s Edge attractions at Disneyland and Disney World.

Star Wars: Dark Legends.
Star Wars: Dark Legends, Disney Lucasfilm

It’s refreshing to see some much needed experimentation and playfulness afforded to the Star Wars brand. It’s only logical to the consider the possibility of horror lurking within such a rich expanded universe, especially when we’ve already had horror books set in it way before Disney acquired the franchise.

In the late 1990’s, publisher Bantam Spectra released twelve Star Wars horror books for young readers as part of a series called “Galaxy of Fear.” The books were written by John Whitman and they followed in the tradition of R.L. Stein’s iconic Goosebumps stories. These were short and fast reads set after the events of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Cameos from Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Thrawn, and Boba Fett were not uncommon, but the stories had their own characters embarking on these dark adventures. Book 3, for instance, called “Planet Plague,” follows Tash, Zak, and Uncle Hoole as they visit the planet Gobindi to explore its ancient ruins. Tash is suddenly afflicted by a big and strange bump that’s threatening to come out of her arm. And then the bump grows bigger and bigger.

Galaxy of Fear series

Book 6, titled “Ghost of the Jedi,” finds the trio on the planet Nespis 8. A haunted library is said to be found on the planet, one haunted by the ghost of a Jedi. Whether it’s as simple as that is a question the book answers in the only way a Star Wars horror book can.

The most impressive thing these books achieve lies in how organically they weave horror and Star Wars together. No book feels like it’s being force-fed elements of the supernatural or of gothic-style hauntings for the sake of a gimmick. They treat the license’s vast universe as fertile ground for scary things that feel like they belong there.

The next horror book to come out of the expanded universe came in 2009 and was called Star Wars: Death Troopers. Written by Joe Schreiber, the book deals in zombies and is set in a broken-down prison barge containing two very important prisoners that are synonymous with the franchise. It takes place before the events of A New Hope and it manages to propose a kind of framework for how horror can be integrated into the grander narrative. The book was well-received and paved the way for a prequel novel, by the same author, called Red Harvest (2010). The two books later came to be known as the “Virus Duology.”

Book 1 of the Virus Duology

The prequel explains the origin of the virus that turns the dead into the undead and looks at a Jedi that is particularly skilled with plant life. The book also features a Sith Master called Darth Scabrous that wants to harness the power of a special flower that can act as an ingredient for the deadly virus.

While Star Wars is no stranger to horror, its time with it has been relatively limited. The new “Dark Legends” anthology could be the catalyst that brings about a more robust offering of horror stories set in that galaxy far, far away. If the same pattern emerges, maybe we can hope for a new fully-fledged horror novel ready to bring fear into the hearts of readers and Jedi alike.

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