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The Top 60 Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes

With Star Trek: Discovery debuting to rave reviews and a level of quality that justifies paying for CBS All Access, the Star Trek universe is back in the fannish consciousness. If you’re suffering from Trek withdrawal in the week-long breaks between new episodes – and you just shelled out for the streaming service – the classic series from the 1990s Trek renaissance could be your methadone. There’s just one problem: those ’90s Treks are wildly uneven. Whether you’re a new fan looking to catch up, or you watched years ago but can’t remember which were the good ones, here is a thumbnail guide to the top 60 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Season 1

The consensus is Skip with Extreme Prejudice, and most of it is indeed terrible. There’s no reason to watch the interminable pilot episode. You can get by on the following three:

  1. “Datalore” (S1 E13): Brent Spiner acts his shiny metal ass off in the first of many episodes where he gets to play Data and Data’s evil twin. This is exciting and darkly funny in exactly the way that the rest of the season fails to be.
  2. “Skin of Evil” (S1 E23): The effects are tacky and some of the dialogue is ho-hum, but it features one of the most brutal character deaths in TV history. It’s also one of those stories that looms over the whole rest of the series.
  3. “Conspiracy” (S1 E25): A tight, paranoid thriller that plays with Cold War fears in a satisfying sci-fi way. One of Badass Picard’s shining moments.

Season 2

Most of season 2 is not actually better than season 1, but its handful of high points are among the best of the entire series.

  1. “A Matter of Honor” (S2 E8): Riker goes to a Klingon ship in an officer exchange program, resulting in character development for him and worldbuilding for Klingon-kind.
  2. “The Measure of a Man” (S2 E9): Data’s humanity goes on trial, Picard and Riker show off some lawyering moves straight off of Law & Order, and we wind up with one of the uncontested classics of the series, a meditation on the boundaries of personhood.
  3. “Q Who” (S2 E16): There were two Q episodes before this, but this is the first where the character and his role in the show come into focus. Also, a creepy rough draft version of the Borg, and some of the series’ most lyrical dialogue.
  4. “The Emissary” (S2 E20): Come for the hot Klingon holodeck sex, stay for the well-paced political intrigue and set-up for a series-long Klingon arc.

Season 3

Arguably the best season of the entire show, despite some mega-turds that we will be skipping. Everyone got new uniforms, and this show finally figured out what it wanted to be. Even the comedy episodes are solid.

  1. “Who Watches the Watchers” (S3 E4): An underrated gem, in which Picard has to convince a colony of early modern Vulcans that he is not God.
  2. “The Enemy” (S3 E7): Geordi gets stranded on a hostile planet with a Romulan. This manages to say smart things about disability as well as raising a big middle finger to Cold War prejudice.
  3. “The Defector” (S3 E10): A taut, quiet character piece masquerading as big Romulan political drama, with satisfying twists at each act break. Also, bonus Shakespeare.
  4. “Deja Q” (S3 E13): Q gets in trouble with the Continuum and is dropped, naked and terrified, on the Enterprise John de Lancie’s comic timing is so perfect that it’s infectious, but the concept is played for empathy as well as humor.
  5. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (S3 E15): The Enterprise time travels into an AU dystopia, and the only way out is painful sacrifice. Saying more will ruin a near-perfect hour of Trek.
  6. “The Offspring” (S3 E16): Data builds an android child, and if you are not weeping at the end, you have no soul.
  7. “Sins of the Father” (S3 E17): Worf gets wrapped up in other Klingons’ political drama, and we get a glimpse of the underappreciated bond between Worf and Picard.
  8. “Captain’s Holiday” (S3 E19): This features a Ferengi in a Hawaiian shirt, a running bit with an alien sex totem, and a love interest for Picard. In spite of the above, it is a delight.
  9. “Hollow Pursuits” (S3 E21): There are a few off-putting moments here, and the message about addiction and gaming is an artifact of the late ’80s. But it’s key as an introduction to Barclay, and as a prescient exploration of geek culture at its exploitative and objectifying worst.
  10. “The Most Toys” (S3 E22): Data gets kidnapped by a rich creep who wants to “collect” him as a priceless artifact. This covers a huge amount of ethical ground in an hour and features Data at his most human.
  11. “Sarek” (S3 E23): A meditation on aging and dignity, with Vulcans. Once you stop crying, you will seethe with rage that Patrick Stewart was never nominated for an Emmy for this role.
  12. “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” (S3 E26): Imagine a pre-internet era when nobody was spoiled for the season finale, and cliffhangers were rare. Then imagine the impact of this brilliant hour of sci-fi horror.

 

Season 4

Still peak TNG, with a greater focus on character arcs and emotional development. There’s even a good Lwaxana Troi episode.

  1. “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” (S4 E1): The stunning conclusion is a minor affront to principles of computer science, but it’s so tense and emotionally affecting that the Federation’s victory feels plausible and earned.
  2. “Family” (S4 E2): Rather than bounding along as if the events of BoBW were a distant memory, the show stops to acknowledge the lasting psychological effects of Picard’s experiences. Also, bonus unsexy mud wrestling.
  3. “Brothers” (S4 E3): Everyone in this episode is played by Brent Spiner. It’s another quiet, character-focused hour, and a companion piece to “Family.”
  4. “Remember Me” (S4 E5): Four seasons in, and one of the female leads finally gets to sink her teeth into a strong episode. Gates McFadden navigates smartly through a twist on a classic nightmare tale.
  5. “Reunion” (S4 E7): More Klingon intrigue, the second most brutal character death of the series, and Michael Dorn acting through his prosthetics like a true professional.
  6. “Future Imperfect” (S4 E8): Riker wakes up in the future with retrograde amnesia, and of course nothing is as it seems. The twists are more predictable than in some other, similar episodes, but it’s a popular one and a clever sci-fi concept.
  7. “The Wounded” (S4 E12): My hipster pick for best episode of the series, perhaps because it’s an O’Brien episode. Or actually because it’s a brilliant meditation on racism and the psychological toll of war.
  8. “First Contact” (S4 E13): Come to watch Riker get sexually assaulted by Lilith from Cheers, stay for one of the smartest “day the aliens came” narratives in TV history.
  9. “The Nth Degree” (S4 E19): Flowers for Algernon on the holodeck, but more than the sum of those parts.
  10. “The Drumhead” (S4 E21): I’m including this one because the fan consensus is that it’s a classic, which I guess is true if you like slow courtroom dramas with an extra helping of didacticism. Eh, you’ll probably enjoy it more than I do.
  11. “Half a Life” (S4 E22): Lwaxana Troi finally gets an awesome boyfriend, and she has to fight to keep him alive. Who knew this show had so many great episodes about aging?
  12. “Redemption, Part I” (S4 E26): Big, knotty, compelling Klingon drama, with cliffhanger.

Season 5

This season was really uneven, but you’ll never tell from my picks, which include many of TNG’s finest moments.

  1. “Redemption, Part II” (S5 E1): The Klingon drama gets knottier when the Romulans show up.
  2. “Darmok” (S5 E2): If you ever doubt that science fiction inspires, note that this is my non-hipster favorite episode, I have a Ph.D. in Shakespeare, and I currently work in English Learner education.
  3. “Disaster” (S5 E5): One of TNG’s best moments of trashy fun, as the ship breaks down and everyone is thrown out of their element. As with all the best trashy fun, there’s genuine character development, especially for Picard and Troi.
  4. “Unification, Parts I and II” (S5 E7-8): Fun stunt makeup, bonus Spock, and a depiction of reform and revolution that both celebrates the fall of the Iron Curtain and presages Arab Spring.
  5. “The Outcast” (S5 E17): Some aspects of Riker’s romance with a rebel from a repressively mono-gendered species have 1992 stamped all over them, but overall, this is a remarkably sensitive exploration of transgender experience.
  6. “Cause and Effect” (S5 E18): Crusher gets trapped in a Groundhog Day loop, in what remains one of the most effective examples of my favorite standard genre fiction plot.
  7. “The Perfect Mate” (S5 E21): What could have been a self-undermining bro-feminist lament about the objectification of women is instead a complex and tender Jean Grey/Professor X AU romance.
  8. “I, Borg” (S5 E23): Geordi finds an orphaned teenage Borg and attempts to raise him as his own, in a very special episode of Different Strokes that never takes the easy way out of its ethical questions.
  9. “The Inner Light” (S5 E25): Picard experiences the life of a man from a planet destroyed in a long-ago natural disaster, in one of the simplest and most touching episodes of the series. One of TV’s great format-breaker episodes, too.
  10. “Time’s Arrow, Part I” (S5 E26): Data travels back to 19th-century San Francisco in search of his own severed head, and then Mark Twain shows up.

Season 6

The show started showing its age at this point, but it also got deliciously weird and dark.

  1. “Time’s Arrow, Part II” (S6 E1): The rest of the crew goes back in time to retrieve Data, meet Guinan, improvise Shakespeare, and practically break the fourth wall begging you not to think too hard about this.
  2. “Schisms” (S6 E5): This eerie body horror mystery is an underrated gem with twists that swerve just as you see them coming.
  3. “The Quality of Life” (S6 E9): Adorable Roombas achieve sentience, and Data’s impassioned defense of their right to life is a lovely extension of his series-long character arc.
  4. “Chain of Command, Parts I and II” (S6 E10-11): My other other favorite episode splits its time between a harrowing torture and interrogation plot and a more mundane depiction of a dangerously horrible boss.
  5. “Face of the Enemy” (S6 E14): It took TNG 6.5 seasons to give us a decent Troi episode, but when they finally did, it was one of the best of the series. Troi goes undercover as a Romulan, and Marina Sirtis’ acting skills get let out of their corset, too.
  6. “Tapestry” (S6 E15): Q rescues Picard from the brink of death and gives him the It’s a Wonderful Life treatment, only with more stabbing and homoeroticism.
  7. “Starship Mine” (S6 E18): What, you’re going to skip Die Hard in space with Picard as McClane? Didn’t think so.
  8. “Frame of Mind” (S6 E21): Riker is trapped in an alien mental institution! Except he’s not crazy! And except this avoids most of the cliches and is maybe the scariest episode of the series!
  9. Second Chances (S6 E24): Because there were not enough evil twins on this show already, it turns out a transporter accident created a duplicate Riker. It’s played for angst, which surprisingly is the right move.
  10. Timescape (S6 E25): A trippy mind-screw of a temporal mechanics episode in which the nerds save the day.
  11. Descent, Part I (S6 E26): OH CRAP THE BORG ARE BACK.

Season 7

This was the planned last season, and you can smell the producers scrambling to wrap up most storylines and punt the rest to DS9 and Voyager. Nonetheless, TNG finished strong.

  1. Descent, Part II (S7 E1): OH CRAP THE BORG BROUGHT LORE WITH THEM.
  2. Phantasms (S7 E6): When androids dream of electric sheep, they figure out how to save the Or, the one where Troi is a cake. (The episode itself makes approximately this much sense.)
  3. Attached (S7 E8): Shameless fan service for the Picard/Crusher shippers, which is fine, because you’re one of them by now. Resistance is futile.
  4. Inheritance (S7 E10): Data meets his mother, and the acting is terrific.
  5. Parallels (S7 E11): You make an episode about a character drifting from one parallel universe to another, and it’s a Worf episode? No, actually, that’s a brilliant idea, carry on.
  6. Lower Decks (S7 E15): As if to prove that the show still had a few format-breaking tricks up its sleeve, this episode features a quartet of young, low-ranked crew members and turns our perceptions of the main cast on their heads.
  7. Eye of the Beholder (S7 E18): Troi unravels a psychic murder mystery in a well-paced, emotionally intimate take on a classic ghost story plot.
  8. All Good Things… (S7 E25-26): A series finale so perfect that it improves everything that came before.

What’s Next?

Watch the first two TNG feature films, Generations and First Contact; skip the others. Then, move on to Deep Space Nine (Abridged) and Voyager (Abridged).

Indie Comics Creators Show Their Stuff at Chicago’s CAKE

cakebanner One of my favorite things about being a comics fan in Chicago is the annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, abbreviated whimsically as CAKE. It’s only been going on since 2012 but feels like an institution already, a way for independent creators to gain recognition and for fans to celebrate their favorites and discover new artists. Several of the participants I talked to mentioned that it was difficult to make the cut as a an exhibitor this year, and many talented comics creators were turned down. As it was, each creator only had half a table in the Center on Halsted’s sizable convention room, and so many people attended that it was tough to maneuver. If CAKE wants to continue its mission of celebrating the diversity of emerging talent in the Chicago area and beyond, it might need to seek out a bigger space in the future.

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A number of the artists I met at CAKE shared a retro-timeless vibe, with images recalling illustration styles of the past but adopting more modern themes. M. Dean has mastered this balance in her ongoing webcomic, The Girl Who Flew Away, and in luminous short stories. She incorporates both the cartoonish whimsy and the intricacy of mid-20th-century comics but shifts them toward a female perspective, often turning simple coming-of-age stories and family dramas into adventures. She’s especially excited about her latest project, Regents Walk, which follows the lives of 24 kids in a small town in the 1990s, with each chapter focusing on a different character. When I asked M. Dean about her influences, she talked more about music than comics, mentioning The Carpenters and Patti Smith as two favorites. If you can imagine an aesthetic that perfectly marries those two, you understand why M. Dean’s work is so magical and original.

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Dean described Z Akhmetova as her “partner in crime.” They’ve been friends since high school, and they share the goal of telling stories about girls and women that aren’t often told in comics. Akhmetova’s art style is very different, though, drawing on the spookier side of mid-century children’s illustration to tell imaginative, grown-up stories. Akhmetova has focused on one-shot graphic stories in the past, but she’s now working on an ongoing webcomic, Gods Can’t Die, about a girl who becomes a god.

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Marnie Galloway takes a different approach to exploring creation myths through comics. She told me that she started out as a more traditional artist, making relief prints, before realizing that she was really making sequential art that appealed to comics readers. Her intricate images, full of swirling animal and nature shapes, form a trilogy of fanciful creation myths in In the Sounds and Seas. Galloway says that she’s more influenced by literature than by comics, citing William Blake and “rad lady poets” as her jumping off points, as well as ancient epics like The Iliad and Icelandic Eddas. She’s turned inward for her latest work, “Particle/Wave,” soon to be released by So What? Press.

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Landis Blair’s table caught my eye because it featured a book called The Trial: A Choose Your Own Kafka Adventure. Blair, whose work recalls early 20th century engraving and Edward Gorey, wrote Trial as part of an anthology of graphic adaptations of literature. He told me that he needed a gimmick because it’s impossible to distill Kafka’s meandering, unfinished novel into 15 pages, and because there’s something Kafka-esque about Choose Your Own Adventure stories. He advises fans of odd cat stories (and heartbreaking political allegories) begin with The Progressive Problem and its sequel. These and other short graphic stories are available at Landis Blair Illustration.

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LGBTQ artists made up a smaller proportion of the exhibitors than I recall from previous years, but I did speak to three creators who focus on queer themes and representation. Megan Rose Gedris, who also tours as burlesque performer Florence of Alabia, Gedris’s comics are cheerfully dirty, depicting edgy sexual subject matter with a playful art style. She says she tries to balance out her “weird porn” with adventure and fantasy – and plenty of lesbian mermaids. When I asked Gedris where people should start when reading her work for the first time, she laughed, because it’s not every artist who thinks their vore porn is their best entry point. However, Gedris noted that Eat Me has a great plot to go with its queasy-sexy subject matter, and that it resonates with readers like nothing else she’s done. That, along with Gedris’s other finished comics and ongoing webcomic Meaty Yogurt, can be found on her website, Rosalarian.

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Chad Sell has become an internet sensation as well as a unique fixture of Chicago’s drag community for his stylized portraits of the drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Sell’s drag images, which can be purchased in book form or as poster prints, are both fan art and documentary images of a subculture on the edge of the mainstream. Sell shared with me the unnerving experiences he’s had talking with drag queens whose performances he admires, only to find that they’re starstruck when he draws them and interviews them. He started out with edgier queens like Raja and says he still finds it easiest and most fun to portray stylized performers with avant garde looks. While his drag queen portraits sometimes overshadow his sequential art, Sell is a terrific storyteller as well, and is particularly proud of his new kid-friendly comic, Sorceress Next Door, about a little boy who wants to be a supervillain. His work, along with archive of interviews with Chicago drag queens, is at The Sellout.

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Continuing a long tradition of LGBTQ slice-of-life comics is Tony Breed. After eight years developing a cult following for his webcomic, Finn and Charlie Are Hitched, Breed spun off his universe and characters into the ensemble-driven Muddlers Beat. Breed’s depiction of contemporary gay culture is both celebratory and critical, featuring body types and emotional bonds that we don’t see enough of in media representations of gay men. His comics are also bitingly funny. Breed said that his combination of wicked humor and positive representation do come from a desire for change: “People who are satisfied with their lives don’t make comics.” It’s both surprising and refreshing to hear that kind of statement from such a lighthearted creator.

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Using comics to draw readers into underrepresented cultures and experiences was a common theme among many of the works at CAKE, and that goal drives two artists who approach that goal from the same angle: food. Sarah Becan’s webcomic, I Think You’re Sauceome, began as a food therapy diary but soon evolved into a celebration of diverse body types, delicious recipes, and Chicago food culture. She said the shift arrived with her realization that “loving food isn’t a fat girl trait.” Becan’s success at drawing food – and the emotions that surround it – has earned her the opportunity to illustrate menus and other commissions for local restaurants throughout Chicago. Her website features a portfolio of images that will be familiar to local foodies, as well as her travelogue, Stockholm Is Sauceome.

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Robin Ha started creating her whimsical food comics when she learned to cook, in the hopes of recording the recipes she tried and sharing Korean cuisine with the world. What began on Tumblr is now a published collection, Ban-Chan in 2 Pages, and an acclaimed cookbook, Cook Korean! Ha also creates narrative comics and Tarot card designs, but she’s found real inspiration in melding cookbooks and sequential art. Recently, she’s gone beyond her family’s culture to learn about other cuisines. A trip to Nicaragua, in which she observed and illustrated locals as they cooked, has provided a wealth of material for an upcoming project on Latin American cuisine.

 

Chicago is lucky to have such a vibrant showcase for independent artists, and CAKE proves that a free, volunteer-run event can draw crowds. Much more than at the large conventions I’ve attended recently, most of the visitors to CAKE were there primarily for the exhibitors, and most were buying comics and prints, not just window shopping. It’s exciting to see such enthusiasm for independent comics and to see CAKE grow from year to year.

Valiant Summit Reveals More Diversity and Divinity

FUTURE-OF-VALIANT_001_FAITHFollowing the Valiant Summit presentation, I got to talk with Tom Brennan, one of Valiant’s associate editors, about the newly announced titles. Our conversation focused on diversity and representation. Valiant’s new line-up features female characters more prominently than ever before, and the summit also drew attention to several characters of color, a same-sex romance that serves as an emotional linchpin, and of course the body positivity for which Faith has been widely praised.

Brennan is particularly proud of Generation Zero, one of Valiant’s first team-driven titles, because it centers around female characters. In general, the ensemble-oriented titles that Valiant announced seem aware of avoiding the Smurfette Principle, making sure there are multiple distinct women whose emotions and growth are important in their own right. He pointed out that several female characters are responses to character types that we normally associate with male heroes. For example, he sees Faith as a Peter Parker figure – witty and upbeat, taking her powers as a blessing and trying to make the most of them.

FUTURE-OF-VALIANT_002_GEN-ZEROI also chatted with Matt Kindt, the writer of the Divinity series, whose Divinity III will premiere this fall as part of Valiant’s new slate. The premise of Divinity III builds on the previous installments, which center around Soviet cosmonauts who return from a secret deep-space mission with godlike powers. Divinity III will be set in a reality constructed by one of those cosmonauts, in which an oppressive Russian regime reigns supreme over the world. During the panel presentation, Kindt stressed that this “Stalinverse” was not an alternate universe or an illusion, but a real episode within Valiant continuity.

In our conversation, Kindt gave me more insight about how that will work. The Stalinverse will, of course, not be permanent. Ninjak, one of the core Valiant superheroes, will remember what the world is supposed to be like and will lead an effort to restore life as he knows it. But Ninjak and the other characters will remember the Stalinverse, and Kindt hopes that it will have repercussions on the greater continuity for a long time to come.

We don’t see a lot of comics influenced by Russian culture, so I asked Kindt how he’d become so captivated with it. He said he was inspired by the looming threat of the Cold War when he was growing up in the 1980s, going through nuclear bomb drills and being urged by adults to fear Russia as a looming enemy. Thirty years later, that threat has looped around, and people now ask him whether Putin is a real-life supervillain. He says he avoids direct comparisons like that one, or specific statements about Russian politics, but it’s always present in Divinity.

FUTURE-OF-VALIANT_007_DIVINITY-III-STALINVERSEOne of the strengths of Divinity is Kindt’s research into Russian culture and his avoidance of romanticized or exoticized representations. It sounds like this refreshing approach will continue in Divinity III, although with more opportunities for sci-fi in-jokes and playfulness as Kindt reinvents places and characters for the series.

Another element present in this chapter of Divinity is the influence of Philip K. Dick. Kindt says that Dick’s genes contribute not only to the political alternate reality of Divinity III but also to the pattern of altered minds and wills. He says Ninjak’s role in Divinity III will be reminiscent of many of Dick’s heroes, who have to prove they aren’t crazy in order to restore reality.

Talking with Kindt made me eager to dive into Divinity III, and not just because it’s easy to lure me in with a high-concept alternate universe. It sounds like this is a low-key way to develop an event that resonates across Valiant’s entire superhero universe without demanding lots of crossover reading. Throughout the Valiant Summit presentation, the editors and creators described the new titles as “entry points” for new readers to get excited about Valiant’s characters and mythos. While I’m uncertain of how effective some of the new titles will be in that respect, I’m optimistic that Divinity III will have enough standalone potential to attract new fans, not only to the Divinity series but to Valiant’s approach to superhero comics in general.

Valiant Announces Lots During Their 2016 Valiant Summit

From the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York City, Valiant Entertainment had a slew of announcements during their 2016 Valiant Summit!

After a description of Valiant’s history they company revealed the “future of Valiant” which takes place in 2016 with seven new series.

First up Jody Houser to discuss the Faith new ongoing series. The series spins out of the limited series which saw five reprintings for the first issue and received global recognition for the break through character. The series is the lead book in the initiative and that’s not a coincidence. The Valiant team feels the comic defines what the company and their line of comics is about, entertainment that you can’t get anywhere else. The first issue arrives in July!

Fred Van Lente was up next to discuss an ongoing Generation Zero series beginning in August. Francis Portella will provide art for the series. The team has been raised as weapons, so this series focuses on their figuring out what to do now they’re on their own.

The series is a new one for Valiant as it’s a team book with teen characters, led by a teen girl of color.

Writer Peter Milligan and artist Juan Jose Ryp tackle a brand new series and character in Britannia which is about “the worlds first detective.” He’s the first psychologist and detective in ancient times.

The series will take place in a world that existed by with a supernatural spin. It comes out in September.

britanniaIn October, the “biggest, brashest” series, Bloodshot USA is by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Doug Braithwaite. They see it as a treatise on violence and why we’re so obsessed with violence as a culture. The story has Project Rising Spirit dispersing nanites on the street of New York City. It features Bloodshot teaming up with a team to stop the virus from spreading and stop Project Rising Spirit who are war profiteers.

It’s a stand alone event similar to last year’s The Valiant where new readers can jump in and not need to know what has come before.

B. Clay Moore and Clayton Henry and Lewis Larosa bring a new character Savage to the Valiant Universe in November. The series starts 15 years ago as a Football player and his model wife’s airplane crashes. Now, it’s the present, and is this character their child? The series sounds like a new spin on Tarzan.

Savage Savage_1The series is about a teenager living on his own on an island.

Harbinger Renegades was announced, written by Rafer Roberts with art by Darick Robertson. It’s two years after the end of the previous series. Chris, who was sent to jail, is out and trying to put her past behind her. Peter is off to who knows where and is trying to get his mind right after the last conflict. Torque is part of the establishment and on a reality tv show. Faith is doing her thing. They come back together realizing the world is in a worse place due to their actions and now they’re trying to right things and help people.

The series will feature the four main characters from the previous team, but also a new member, Jay, who they didn’t say much about. “Mind” was mentioned as a villain they will face.

They described the main character Pete Stanchek as “Jack Kirby’s Trainspotting.” Harbinger Renegades is out in November.

In December Valiant will be releasing a new series from Matt Kindt, Divinity III: Stalinverse. The series features art by Trevor Hairsine and features the Valiant Universe if the Russians had won the Cold War. It will include “Russian” versions of the characters of the Valiant world. What longer impact will the Stalinverse have on the Valiant Universe? We’ll find out, but Kindt says there’ll be a “real impact.”

divinity_III_#3_artThe Future of Valiant begins in July.

Review: The Unbelievable Gwenpool #1

gwenpool 2016 cover After so many years of sarcastic self-awareness, how can Marvel out-meta itself? First, create the visual joke of Gwen Stacy in a pink Deadpool costume. Then, start treating her as an actual character, with a lead role in a holiday special issue and a supporting arc in Howard the Duck. In the course of that character development, give her the worst traits of both of the figures she’s based on: Deadpool’s crass sense of humor and conscience-free recklessness, and Gwen’s lack of superpowers. Establish that she’s neither a clone of Wade Wilson nor an alternate-universe Gwen Stacy, but a girl who happens to be named Gwen Poole. Throw it all in a blender, glue a heavy rock to the puree button, and let the gory, sparkly mess splash all over Gwenpool #1.

As it turns out, Gwenpool is a delicious experiment.The title character is a terrible superhero by design, but she’s a great vehicle for the kinds of narrative reflection that both Deadpool and Gwen do best. Deadpool’s brand of fourth-wall busting is now so far from innovative that it’s looped back into retro charm, so Gwenpool goes a step further. Our antiheroine is a comics fan who’s been swept into the world of Marvel Comics – method and backstory unknown – and who retells her adventures in the hopes of communicating with the folks back home. Since she comes from our mundane world, her only special abilities are her bottomless genre savviness and her even more inexhaustible self-confidence.

The catch, of course, is that Gwenpool might be crazy, after all. The fourth wall might be just another wall, and she might be one of the “extras” in the superhero pageant that she derides. Maybe everyone she encounters is right, and no matter how many times she reasserts that she’s a hero, she’s nothing more than a normal girl who’s going to get herself killed.

Throughout the issue, we encounter normal people who, unlike Gwenpool, acknowledge that they’re normal – the many Gwen Stacys of the Marvel universe. We meet a cop haunted by memories of invaders from another dimension, a teen hacker who can only hack into things that a regular person could actually hack into, and the beleaguered assistant to the guy who hands out jobs to heroes. We, as readers, are continually faced with the conflict between other people’s resigned realism and Gwenpool’s insistence that all she needs to save the world are a cool outfit and a bag of guns. Realism should win out, shouldn’t it?

Except that, despite constant warnings, Gwenpool persists in not dying. And that, in the end, is why Gwenpool #1 works, and why I suspect that this entire series – for however long Marvel lets it continue – will continue to eloquently answer questions way above its pay grade. That’s a testament to Christopher Hastings‘ script, which does a masterful job of building fully realized personalities in a few short panels. It also stems from the brilliant editorial decision to split this issue between two artists: Danilo Beyruth‘s conventional comics style in the prologue, and Gurihiru’s manga-influenced art for what I assume will be the majority of the series.

This is a comic that really knows what it’s doing, so much that it wants you to feel bad about yourself if you take it at face value. If you’re laughing at Gwenpool’s tired and mean-spirited jokes, you’re as self-deluded as she is. (For the truly funny lines, look to the shopkeeper at Big Ronnie’s Custom Battle Spandex, whom I hope we’ll get to see more of in future issues.) Whether you’re fetishizing her in her pink-and-white leotard or self-righteously criticizing its impracticality, there’s a scene to take you to task for that – and it takes place while Gwenpool lies in the bathtub, implicitly referencing the violent sexualization of certain DC characters whom she might or might not resemble. And if you think you know where all this is headed, the last two pages of the issue will tear your heart out of your chest, then send you running to put this title on your pull list.

Gwenpool isn’t perfect, and it’s not for everybody. I’m still not sure whether it’s a step forward for female-led comics, or if it’s wryly undermining its own feminism. Gwenpool herself is a grating character, a little too anti-heroic for readers who prefer to relate or aspire to their heroes. But it’s cool and clever, and it manages to take self-referentiality in a different direction than Marvel titles usually do. Even if you doubt Gwenpool is your cup of tea, you owe it to yourself to get your hands on this first issue.

Story: Christopher Hastings Art: Gurihiru (main story), Danilo Beyruth (prologue), Tamra Bonvillain (prologue colorist)
Story: 10 Art: 10 Overall: 10 Recommendation: Buy

Marvel provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Review: All-New Wolverine #1

All New Wolverine cover 2I miss James Logan Howlett.

Wolverine was my first love in Marvel Comics. I was about ten years old when I first met him, in a random X-Men issue that I’d won playing skee ball at Six Flags. Like Wolvie, I was short and introverted. I was also way stronger than I looked. I figure skated and rode horses – two sports that involve falling down a lot, and hard – but never broke a bone. The X-Men of the late ’80s and early ’90s offered me plenty of powerful women to identify with, but none of them were more like me than Wolverine was.

I thought I’d always have him around. His healing factor made him immortal, after all. Until the Marvel gods took away that healing factor, and then killed him off in a drawn-out arc that, despite generating a giant pile of issues in a short time, felt like an insufficient swan song for my hero.

This past week, a new comic with his name on it has hit the stands. “All New!” it cheers. It seems really proud to have replaced Logan with his female clone, Laura Kinney. Throughout the first issue, it reminds us insistently that Laura is just like Logan, only younger and a girl. Just like you imagined yourself when you were a kid, it whispers.

Only not, because Laura is Logan with the rough edges sanded off. In a vision while her brain heals from a gunshot to the head, she chats with a conjured memory of Logan, and he says admiringly, “Everything they did to you. Everything they took from you. And you’re still not as mean as me.” But Logan’s gruffness, his anger, were part of his appeal. He channeled those negative emotions into heroism. As often as he reminded us that he was the clean-up guy of the Marvel universe, the one who took the dirty jobs no one else would touch, Logan’s ability to rise above his resentment and vengefulness to fight for good made him one of the purest Marvel heroes.

Laura doesn’t have to work as hard to justify her moral choices, and she’s not as ruthless as the man she was cloned from. Logan always had to walk away from the women he loved because his duties came first, but Laura has a nice boyfriend – a surprisingly game and cheerful Warren Worthington, a.k.a. Angel – who appears content to serve as her sidekick. All of these characteristics make her a pretty cool hero, one I’m looking forward to reading about, but I’m not sure they make her Wolverine.All New Wolverine art 2

The premiere issue itself is fun, if flawed. A lot of Tom Taylor‘s dialogue is irritatingly on-the-nose; in addition to the overly earnest Logan moment quoted above, a masked villain spouts boilerplate threats like, “You will never stop us. You will never hurt us.” That villain turns out to be another Wolverine clone, and she sets off a promising plot arc: Laura makes it her mission to find and protect all of the clones. It sounds more like a premise for a TV series or an indie long-runner than a Marvel title, and that’s not a bad thing.

Thomas is more in his element when writing Laura and Warren’s affectionate banter. Trading witticisms with him as he swoops in to whisk her away from danger, Laura comes into her own. She’s inherited Logan’s dry humor but feels more comfortable around others than he ever did. In the issue’s loveliest moment, Laura tells Warren that he can’t hold her because her broken ribs are healing. Longing to touch her and unsure of what to do, he pats her head. It’s a sweet and original gesture, and I’m willing to ship them now. I’m cautious, however, of a writer who can only seem to bring out his female protagonist’s personality by reflecting it off a love interest.

David Lopez and David Navarrot‘s art sticks mostly to the house style but does so well. The visuals aren’t flashy or memorable, but they show motion beautifully. Lopez and Navarrot also do a commendable job of keeping Laura’s anatomy plausible, and of depicting her as a pretty girl without leering at her body. In the dream sequence with Logan, they’re meticulous about showing the similarities between the two Wolverines’ appearances. One pair of side-by-side panels compares the crinkle of their brows, and one page later, a funny dialogue-free rectangle shows them staring defiantly at each other with perfectly matched jawlines. They don’t maintain the visual similarity to Logan as strongly elsewhere in the issue, which is too bad.

There’s a lot to like about All-New Wolverine, and it promises an exciting and coherent ongoing story. Laura is not yet as sharply drawn or as iconic as her predecessor, though. I’d love for the current generation of geeky ten-year-old spitfires to see themselves in her the way I saw myself in Logan. But Laura – and the writer and artists creating her – are not as certain of her identity as Logan always was of his own, and that makes her a hard character to latch onto.

Story: Tom Taylor Art: David Lopez and David Navarrot
Story: 7 Art: 8 Overall: 7.5 Recommendation: Read

Warshiner’s Rebecca Rothschild and Kate Rodriguez Share Their Unique Sci-Fi World

20150821_180428If you’re hungering for comics that feature offbeat female protagonists, writer Rebecca Rothschild and artist Kate Rodriguez have you covered. The Chicago-based team collaborate on Warshiner, the tale of a middle-aged woman who descends into the underworld of an interstellar black-market booze trade. It’s Breaking Bad meets Farscape – psychological crime drama in a fantastical intergalactic setting. Last month at Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con, Rebecca and Kate talked with me about their diverse inspirations, using science fiction to comment on history and politics, and bringing Warshiner‘s colorful creatures to life.

Kate Rodriguez: Well, this was really Becca’s project.

Rebecca Rothschild: It’s a brainchild of mine. I wanted to take the concept of Prohibition and put it on a hyper-futuristic, intergalactic scale. I wanted to do space chases and sexy aliens. Our protagonist, Evelyn, is really cool. She’s a botanist from Earth. She’s about fifty years old, so she’s not a spring chicken. I think she had other plans than starting to make alcohol on a planet far away from her home, but she got in a little legal trouble, to put it lightly, and she ended up running away from Earth. She had to make kind of a new home since. She ended up making alcohol at a time when a large empire has banned alcohol. It’s very much Dukes of Hazzard, Hitchhiker’s Guide, a little Breaking Bad in there. I’ve enjoyed writing it. Issue two is already on the way. Katie did this gorgeous art for it.

Graphic Policy: Talk a little bit about the art, and about how you translated that vision into what you’re drawing.

KR: One of the things that really drew me to this concept was the fact that it’s an older protagonist – not just a female protagonist, but an older female protagonist who had her whole life set, and then all of a sudden, everything had to change. I really liked this recurring theme of, there is no end. Your life doesn’t just happen, and then it’s done. You’re always in flux like that. So I did want to portray some of that with the colors. There are a lot of colors going on, there are a lot of gradients, and it’s not just two colors. It’s from purple to pink to orange, and then back to rose color, especially with the cover. On top of it all, Evelyn is the only human character in the entire series. So this left me open to do so many critters and aliens, which I just love doing. Being able to manipulate the features of so many different animals and combine them, and see which shapes still work as a person, except not. Also, I like the fact that Becca was like, “I want her to be cute, but I don’t want her to be just an older version of the same Ms. Marvel-y scene over and over again.” So I really liked being able to design somebody who has her own face. Evelyn’s got this very square head, she’s got this cute long nose. She’s really wacky looking, but she’s still really cute. And all of her friends – the people she becomes friends with – have their own unique faces. For example, Scoso is one of the characters I really like, because he’s, like, eight feet tall, his limbs are all over the joint, and he has this weird hooked nose. I have worked with other writers before, and a lot of them are like, “Well, yeah, but could you make them prettier?” I got really sick of hearing the word “prettier.” And thank God, Becca has never once told me, “Make them prettier.”

WarshinerGP: I love hearing that. I love that you’ve got a character who’s obviously older than you guys are, but is in a position that a lot of our parents find themselves in.

RR: There’s a big reinvention. Evelyn is a combination of all my favorite women in my life, all my role models. Evelyn is the name of my grandmother. It’s such a comforting name, at least to me. It’s just about reinvention, and the fact that she was ready for retirement, she was ready to take it easy. But especially in the future, we’re living longer and longer, and women are not condemned to boring lives because they’re older and no longer wearing makeup. She can be a space crime lord. So there you go. It’s never really over.

GP: It’s the kind of thing where, if you got to make the movie of it, you’d have actresses lining up.

RR: We’ve already said Helen Mirren.

KR: Helen Mirren!

RR: We want her real bad. But she’s surrounded by young, hot aliens – all this fun stuff – and it doesn’t even faze her. I love the fact that she’s not immortal. She’s human, very human, and she has to adapt to this very different atmosphere. She’s going to have to develop a little bit of a naughty streak.

GP: One of the other things I noticed when you were describing the concept was, you were mentioning a lot of influences that aren’t comic books, and aren’t sci-fi, and aren’t genre. How does that fit in to this very sci-fi, aliens and creatures, type of premise?

RR: I realized early on, you’ll notice a very tropical theme on this planet. I realized when I was watching Contact the other day, “Oh, that’s why I’m so obsessed with space travel!” I loved when she got there – spoiler alert – she gets there, and there’s the beach, and I’m like, this is so weird and alien, I would love to be on a planet like that. So I do pull references, but I don’t like copying people. I think that’s rude. I’ve tried not to. I obviously do some themes that can come from different places. Watching Boardwalk Empire really helped me write through it. But I took a lot more of the references from history. Prohibition was such a ridiculous thing, and it propelled history into a ridiculous place of crime and nonsense and car chases, and all this crazy stuff going on. So to have it on an intergalactic scale would just be ridiculous. So I really wanted it. I wanted to do it.

GP: Of course, there are still prohibitions of different kinds now.

KR: That’s true!

RR: Which is interesting. So it could still be topical.

KR: And I think it is still topical, because even, some of the stuff later on is, how much power should a government have? At what point is it keeping the people safe, and when is it just self-serving? And having to learn the difference between the two. Yet another reason why I really like this concept and this script, as she presented it to me, was that I don’t feel like it slaps you in the face with the answer. It really just asks the question, and follows it through to its progression. I feel like especially a lot of comics when they try to tackle this stuff, they really ham-fist you in the face with the answer.

RR: Yeah, I’m never going to tell you why everyone can understand each other. All the good excuses are taken.

KR: Maybe they all have the ear worms from Hitchhiker’s Guide.

RR: I’m sure they do. Maybe there’s an Apple device in your ear. But whatever it is, you guys will get it.

GP: That’s actually gotten plausible at this point. We have Google Translate. Imagine what it’ll be like.

RR: It shouldn’t be too hard to communicate. So I’ve just kind of left that to the readers.

KR: Not to mention, I feel like that, in particular, is one of those questions that a lot of people ask, but is it super important?

RR: I feel like, if someone asks me, “Why does everyone speak English?” I’d be like, “So you can understand it.”

KR: So I don’t have to come up with a whole other language, and do a whole ridiculous storyline about them learning each other’s language that’s going to take forever, and take away from the main story of what we’re actually talking about.

GP: Because Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that novel so nobody else has to. So we’re just going to skip that novel and go on to the thing that’s new. So because it’s on my mind general, and we had this adorable little girl that just walked by and was like –

KR: [Imitating girl] Ohhhh.

GP: If you guys could talk a little bit about being young women writing comics, and how you got into that.

KR: Well, you wrote it.

RR: I write, she draws.

GP: Writing and drawing.

RR: I’ll tell you, I was a journalist for a long time in gaming and geek culture. I’ve been where you are, with my phone, doing this exact thing. So I feel you. I specialized in the female demographic, and it has changed so dramatically from the time I started, which was, like, 2009, to now. Even, I also play a lot of video games, I used to be told to make a sandwich, like, nightly. All the time. And everything has changed since. It’s very accepting. And yet there’s still some ways to go. Why Wonder Woman doesn’t have her own movie, like, now is beyond me, but whatever, I can hang with it. It’s getting better, and faster. It’s getting better faster, which is a wonderful thing to see.

KR: And exponentially.

GP: How did you get into drawing comics?

KR: I’ve always been able to draw. That’s, like, the only thing I’ve ever been good at. Like, I never did math or anything.

RR: She’s good at having really cool colored hair.

KR: Yes, but that’s still not me. I hire someone to do that, you know. But I’ve always been into drawing, and I’ve always liked telling stories, on top of it all. But I’ve never been much of a writer. I can do little vignettes, and most of the time they’re funny, because I’m f***ing ridiculous that way. But I like being part of the storytelling process, and if this is what I have to contribute, then this is what I have to contribute. And I love to. I love telling a good story, and I think that’s a really good way that we can all connect with each other, is through telling stories. Because that’s how we understand each other. For example, a lot of people our age don’t understand the older generation. And they will think, “You’re sixty. Just sit down, don’t break your hip.” But maybe if people our age pick up Evelyn’s story they can [realize] she doesn’t necessarily need protection. She doesn’t need to go back home and cover herself up with a blanket. She can actually be the protagonist. She can actually do s**t still. Even just sitting here, I’ve seen so many middle-aged women, here, buying comics. The demographic is there, and they’re not being catered to at all.

GP: And they grew up reading comics.

KR: Yeah! So it’s not like they’re just getting into it. It’s not like they haven’t always loved this. So why on earth are they not being represented right now? It’s completely unfair, so if this is just a pebble in the pond, so be it. At least it’s one more pebble that they have.

GP: Awesome. I’m going to ask you a few wrap-up questions, and I want you both to answer. If you could write or draw any character or comics series in the world, what would it be?

RR: Like, that already existed? Punisher. No doubt.

GP: Why?

RR: Well, I didn’t really have a big appreciation for Punisher until I was married. My husband is a retired Marine. And I didn’t really understand. But the thing I love about Punisher is, first of all, he always cleans up his mess. There’s a villain, shoot him in the head, goodbye. Next. Second of all, who else can really pull off a gelmet like Frank Castle? Nobody. So those are my two big things. I just love him. I love how dark and gritty – he lives in a dump. He’s so unlike anyone else. You know, a lot of times, villains come back – no. You tussle with Big Pun, there’s a good chance you don’t come back. I love that. I want him.

GP: So what about you? What would you love to draw?

KR: My two favorite comics right now are Rat Queens, illustrated by – I love him but I can never say his name right – Stjepan Šejić. It’s beautiful, but I will never, ever be able to live up to his art. So that’s out. But ooh! Saga. If I could contribute in any way to Saga, my life might be complete forever, because it’s so wacky! It’s so wacky, but so good at the same time. It really brings the drama, and the comedy, and this irreverence that’s so great and so inventive all at the same time. I don’t think I could ever beat it, and I’ve accepted that. I’ve accepted that I will never be better than Saga. But I can live with that fact.

GP: You get your creatures, right?

KR: Oh, creatures.

RR: She is so good at creatures.

KR: Oh, you hush now.

RR: The critters in here, I mean, he’s a hot little piece of man-cat. I mean, she has so much fun.

KR: And I love the fact that she lets me – like, whatever’s in the script has to be there, but she’s also like, whatever you want to go on in the background, let it go. So, little tidbit for all of you to be watching in the next couple of [issues], there is a character that is not in the script, that I made, named Madame Centipede, and she is going on quite the adventure of her own. We’ll see if you can figure out what she’s doing.

GP: And then two years on, she gets her own book, right?

RR: Oh my God, we’re doing it.

GP: One last question. Pirates, aliens, ninjas, or cowboys? You get to pick one. Each of you can pick different ones.

KR: In what setting?

GP: However you want to answer.

KR: You go first. I’ve got to think about this.

RR: I want to do aliens, after I’ve already launched my corpse into space, and they wake me up. Those aliens. They’d better be friendly, too.

KR: They better be the friendly kind. They wake me up and enslave me, I’m going to be pissed.

RR: Yeah. That’s not cool. Friendly aliens.

KR: I do love cowboys.

RR: So hot.

KR: Mmm, cowboys. I’m going to have to say cowboys.

GP: All righty. I feel like you don’t need to add to that. You said it all.

KR: Mmm, cowboys.

Victor Dandridge: The Hardest Working Man in Comics Tells All

20150821_172619I caught up with Victor Dandridge after a panel on independent comics and diversity that was a bit of a disaster. All of the other panelists were white men, and while they acknowledged the absurdity of their situation, they ended up sidestepping most of the issues that the panel intended to engage with. But Victor clearly had plenty to say about representing diversity: as an African-American writer, as the creator of black gay superhero The Samaritanand as the owner of Vantage: Inhouse Productions. We discussed his many projects, marketing to different age groups, and identifying with comics characters who don’t look like us. I started off asking Victor to talk about his work in general.

Victor Dandridge: Basically, with my work I try to – and this is one of the things I wanted to get into [on the How Independent Creators Can Help Solve the Industry’s Diversity Issues panel] but we didn’t get into, is I actually delegate my books based on age range. So I have all-ages with Wonder Care Presents: The Kinder Guardians, teen-friendly with Origins Unknown, young adult with The Trouble w/ Love, and adult with The Samaritan. So I’m actually one who aims to speak to age groups more than anything. That’s what’s important for me.

Graphic Policy: You’re trying to get a wide audience by segmenting and having them cross over.

VD: Exactly. I don’t want to be one of those guys that presumes the universal product. I know a lot of people that are like, “Oh, anybody can read my book.” Yeah, that might be true, but it’s made for somebody in mind. Like, there’s a certain audience that it speaks best to. I’m not one to openly say, I make black comics, but The Samaritan does speak as a black comic. That one is one. Is The Trouble w/ Love? Maybe not. Does that mean black people can’t get into it? Far from it. But that’s not necessarily who it seems to be marketed to, so that’s not necessarily who I would market it to directly. Same thing with Wonder Care. I know plenty of adults who love Wonder Care. It is kid friendly though. It aims to market itself to children. That’s the goal. So it’s one that says, yes, I acknowledge that this is who it’s for. Can other people get into it? Absolutely. But I definitely take into consideration that I am making things for certain groups of people that might not transcend to everybody. That’s legit, you know?

WC Issue 3 CoverGP: And there’s a place for that. I think you do run into that trap of, do you write for “everybody,” or do you market to a specific segment, or do you just write what you feel and just figure out who’s going to respond to it?

VD: As an indie guy, one of the things that I think gets me away from that is having multiple titles. I know a lot of people who only have one title, so they’re stuck in this place of saying, “This is my book, and it has to speak to everybody, because I only have this one thing.” I’ve been fortunate enough to have a diverse range and so I am effectively able to say, no. This is more for you. This is more for you. And people can say, “Okay, cool.” And I can accept that, and I can run with it. So it works out well.

GP: It’s fun to hear somebody say that when you do have most people who are very, very invested in one project. But I do want to hear more about some of the specific titles that you write. I’m really curious about The Trouble w/ Love, especially because of the anecdote you told [on the panel] about people not wanting to look at it.

VD: Okay, so The Trouble w/ Love is a young adult title, and it features a Superman analogue named Apex Prime. And he has a wife and a family, but then he falls in love with someone else, and years later his son comes to him and says, “Dad, what happened?” And he’s basically explaining how human he is despite all of his myriad superpowers and things like that. And it’s more of a true story. It is actually about my life, a little bit more than not. I had to actively decide not to portray the characters as African-American, because I didn’t want it to necessarily be this thing that is used as a stipulation against black people. I had to think that way. I felt like it would actually speak more universally if it had more roots toward the Superman archetype that it’s built off of. So that’s what I wanted. I already had an African-American Superman-level character in The Samaritan. No need to overpopulate, try to fill in quotas. Let’s switch it up! I don’t have to make him look like me even though this is my story. This could be anybody. Let that play out on the page. So he is definitely Caucasian. The woman that he falls in love with is Hispanic. We’re playing around with things. Not trying to hit quotas, but it’s just how the story worked. It worked for me that way. So that’s why I wanted to tell it. It just is ironic that I was at a show, standing behind a table for black creators, and this woman’s like, “No. I don’t want to read it because it doesn’t have black people.” And I’m like –

GP: It’s autobiographical!

VD: It’s about me! “Yeah, but it doesn’t look like you.” And I’m like, so? There’s lots of people that don’t look like me that speak to me. It is what it is. But people sometimes have trouble looking beyond themselves, which is sad. Forest for the trees.

GP: Are there characters who, growing up as a comics fan, you identified with despite the fact that they didn’t look like you?

VD: Absolutely. So I gave the “Great power, great responsibility” thing. My uncle was violently killed. He was one of the guys who was so behind my getting into comics, and I was eleven years old. Batman! I can get behind that! So the idea of me saying, at eleven, I want to make comics for a living in honor of my uncle, that is essentially my vow by candlelight a la Batman. I didn’t have to have Bruce Wayne look like me in order to have that understanding. Gun violence is something that is very typical in the black community. I can understand that. I don’t have to [descend] into being a gang member, I don’t have to run the streets. I can say, okay, this bad thing happened. I don’t want it to happen to me. I want to do something different. And this is something that we both had an affinity for. I’m going to do something in this vein for him. That’s what I got from Batman. Same with the X-Men as an entire concept. The idea of being hated and feared because you’re different! Yeah, that speaks! It wasn’t until 1975 that we actually had an African-American character in the X-Men, and she was female. I’m not female, so all the more reason to find something akin to who I am, or something about what I think, that is alike with these characters, and it not have to be this cookie-cutter flat-out mirror image of myself.

GP: I’m very much with you on that. People always ask me who my favorite member of the X-Men is, and I’m like, Beast, obviously, and then they look at me for a minute.

VD: I love Gambit. I wanted to be a charming guy, and I wasn’t that cool. I was kind of nerdy. So there was something majestic about how suave he was. I loved Gambit, and that was it. He wasn’t Wolverine, he wasn’t Cyclops. I didn’t need to be the leader. I didn’t need to be the most popular dude. I wanted to be the cool guy.

The SamaritanGP: And I wanted to be the one in the basement who was secretly solving everybody’s problems. Which is Beast. But I did want to talk to you about The Samaritan, which is the one of yours that I know, and didn’t realize was yours. So I’m putting a face to it, which is really cool. But what I love about it – I don’t know if you realize that whenever people talk about queer comics, this is one of the first ones that comes up as an interesting one because of the intersectionality of it being a comic about a black character and a comic about a gay character. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that intersection and how you’re twisting the Superman tropes?

VD: With that one, the main character, Smith, is actually homosexual. It’s not something that is widely talked about, because it’s not necessarily pertinent to what he’s doing right now. But it is something that I’ve built into this character, something that’s not going to be for a shock and awe reveal or anything like that. It’s something that I feel is pertinent to him. In fact, there’s a part in the fifth issue where Nita, who is – we’ll call her the prostitute, she throws an option at him, and he declines. That’s one of the first clues that you get, it’s like, he’s not interested in her because he doesn’t like girls. The figure [of Smith] himself is a strong, resolute figure. The idea that he’s homosexual does not make him weak, it doesn’t make him a pansy, sissy, any of the stupid, degrading adjectives that are thrown into anybody who is homosexual. Especially in the black community, it’s not something that is regarded as highly, or even respected as it should be. A person’s preferences, they’re preferences, leave it be. But that’s not the way the community as a whole operates. So that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to look at him that way, to showcase him as that type of figure. I think there’s nothing wrong with that, and that’s the point. I want kids to be like, “Yeah, I want to be Smith!” and have him be so cool, that even with the reveal that he’s gay, they’re like, “So? He’s still awesome. Yeah! I still want to be Smith.” That’s what I’m looking for.

GP: So he’s transcending, and also the idea that he’s still gay even when he doesn’t have a love interest.

VD: Exactly. I recently saw something where they were talking about the notions of how bisexual individuals are portrayed in film, and how it always shows that they are either scandalous, or cheating, or things like that. And I was thinking, well, here’s the truth. The idea of you saying that you’re bisexual can only seem like it’s legit on paper unless you interject both sexes as an option. The only way that you’re really going to do that is to show somebody either being polyamorous, or they’re cheating, or whatever. It’s an unfortunate thing, but the truth is, you would be bisexual even if you’re with a guy and only a guy. If you still have an attraction to women, you’re bisexual. No one should have to prove it in order to claim who they are. And that’s what the point is with Smith. He doesn’t have to be actively seeking a male counterpart right now in order for him to truly be gay. Gay men can be single, too. I feel like that’s a crazy thing to have to say, but apparently we do.

GP: And I think you can get at that perspective by having him be an outsider in more than one way, and having his race something that’s not always commented on but is always present. And making the analogy between the two.

VD: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things that we ended up playing around with very decisively. We have him without a costume. The idea is that he’s wearing a simple hoodie. His aim is to fit into the neighborhoods that he’s walking around in. To just be who he is, and look like as many people as possible, function like anybody else that’s there, but actively be saving as many people as he can.

GP: Awesome!

VD: Thank you.

Ori Unk PromoGP: You are really proud of being an independent writer [and artist].

VD: Absolutely. I love it.

GP: What do you see as the advantages of going that route?

VD: I am free to do whatever style of storytelling that pops into my head. I don’t have to ask permission, I don’t have to see if it’s okay, if it’s going to fit somebody else’s demographic analysis, go through their marketing programs or anything like that. I can just tell stories. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I do have a story that fell short. It’s called The Villain. I’ve only recently started talking about it again because I was disappointed in it. But at the same time, I kind of revel in the sense that I was able to produce a multitude of titles, and only one hasn’t quite found the market that I was looking for. But in that sense, I can still say, hey, I did it! Nobody can take that away from me. I still put forth more work into this world. I put forth effort, and I learned stuff from it. As an indie guy, I am so free to do as many things as possible. It’s just really up to my whim, what I feel I want to do at any given time. And that’s the beauty part. I’m constantly creating. And I love it.

GP: Do you have any future projects, or anything you’re planning on?

VD: Oh, God, yes! The Trouble w/ Love actually has a follow-up. This is a one-shot, and we have a follow-up called Never Too Late. It’s going to be a four-part series that deals with some of the ramifications or repercussions of this story. That’s going to be coming out. We do have a secret thing with The Samaritan in celebration of the five-year anniversary of its first issue coming out. I don’t want to say too much about it. It’s going to be a surprise. We’re still continuing Wonder Care Presents: The Kinder Guardians. Issue four, ideally speaking, will be out somewhere around October or November. There’s lots and lots of things that are coming out that are all just about pushing ideas. We’re returning with Origins Unknown, volume two of that one. I’m very excited. Lots of cool stuff.

GP: You are so excited when you talk about your work! Don’t apologize – I love that.

VD: I love my stuff, yes, but I love comics as a whole. So it’s always going to be something I get excited about.

GP: If you were to go to the dark side and write for someone else, what character or series would you love to write or draw for?

VD: In the weirdest way possible, I openly state that I would love to write Youngblood for Rob Liefeld. I know! No one thinks that I’m serious when I say this, but I am 100% serious! I think it has such a unique cast of characters, and I would love to get my hands on them.

GP: I love the most left-field answers, because then I’m picturing it.

VD: Yes, you’re like, “So what would you do with it?” And I’m like, yes. Exactly.

GP: Everything! That’s what you would do with it.

VD: Everything. That’s exactly what I would do. I’d have so much fun with that.

GP: Pirates, aliens, cowboys, or ninjas?

VD: Aliens. All day.

GP: Why aliens?

VD: Aliens have the most promise. Like, we know ninjas, we know what they’re capable of. We know what pirates are capable of. There’s something about aliens that’s so far reaching and open. Yes. Give me aliens all day, every day. That’s what I want.

Kiki Jenkins on Idolon, the Lesbian Crime Romance Webcomic You Should Be Reading

20150820_192532Of all the independent comics I previewed before heading to Chicago Comic-Con, Kiki Jenkins‘ Idolon is the one that made me binge read until I lost track of time. The two chapters of the webcomic posted so far are sweet schoolgirl romance – Azumanga Daioh meets Mean Girls with a sapphic twist – but Jenkins revealed in our interview that Idolon is about to take a sharp left turn, as we learn about several characters’ entanglement in a criminal underworld. In under a year, Jenkins’ memorable characters have brought her a passionate fan base, whose financial support has allowed her to produce a print version of Idolon.

Graphic Policy: Tell me a little bit about Idolon in general.

Kiki Jenkins: It’s about a girl named Cassandra. She’s been homeschooled for her entire life, very sheltered, by a very eccentric father. Her senior year of school, she gets a scholarship to attend a school with actual real live people. She meets Sam, who is sort of a girl like her except she’s very shunned by the entire school. [Cassandra] finds out later that the reason no one likes Sam is because no one likes her sister, Deanna. Deanna and her girlfriend Benny are part of this crime ring. So they’re hardened criminals, but they’re hilarious at the same time. So they’re not, like, horrible people. And [Cassandra] basically gets thrust into this life that’s completely foreign to her. But both of them learn from each other. Deanna learns to tone it back a little bit, and Cassandra learns how to come out of her shell – by living with criminals! And it’s also a love story, at the heart of that, as well.

GP: The high school and schoolgirl influences are really obvious, but also the crime story – what gave you the idea to bring those two genres together?

KJ: I just thought that would hit people really hard, that they would be reading this, like, you read the first chapter, and you’re like, “Oh, it’s a cute little schoolgirl story!” and then bam, you’re hit with these criminals, and I thought that would be a really fun juxtaposition. To explore Cassandra’s side, where she’s this schoolgirl, and also Deanna’s side, because they happen to be friends, and live in the same space, but they’re two completely different people. I didn’t get any inspiration from the criminal side from my life, but a little bit of the things they do from experiences that I’ve had. I just thought it would be really fun and really different.

test-3GP: You’re making the transition from web comic to print. How did you get that opportunity?

KJ: I got everything from my readers. I was really excited to find that I had more readers than I thought. I’m really blessed by having tons of loyal fans, readers who would be willing to buy a copy. So I did a crowdfunding for it – everything is crowdfunded. But even when it becomes published, everything will still be free, available online, because I think it’s really important that people get to read the story, and the story that I will present to people, for free. But having those loyal fans who have helped me print it, like, all of the preorders that they did, is what funded it, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

GP: That’s amazing, to get the fans so involved.

KJ: Absolutely, and being sort of new – the comic is only in chapter two, and to have that already is just incredible. My fans are everything. I owe everything to my readers.

GP: Are there things that the fans have suggested that you’ve put in?

KJ: Sort of. I think it’s more that they’ve guessed what will happen. People will say that they want to see Benny doing this, when that’s already planned for her. I think they’re reading, and they get a sense of who she is, and they’re like, “Oh, I hope this happens.” And it will. And lots of crazy things that people are going to expect are going to happen to all of the characters. The story is already completely planned out, but I still have room open for little suggestions, like for new characters, and things like that.

GP: One of the things that really spoke to me is this experience of young women coming out to themselves and falling in love for the first time. What is it you’re trying to put forth, especially to young female readers who might be coming out as lesbian or bisexual? What do you hope they get out of that in particular?

KJ: I hope that they see both sides of the coin. Cassandra, who hasn’t even come out to herself yet, and then Deanna, who’s just totally out there. She’s the most out person, and really blatant about it, same with Benny. I want readers to be able to see that no matter what their experiences, whether they’re a Cassandra or a Deanna, or somewhere in between, they’re not alone, and there’s always going to be someone there who has gone through it and will be able to help them through it, even if their family doesn’t approve of it. Because Deanna, her family has absolutely disowned her for it. I really want them to see that there’s different levels of being out. There’s being really out and there’s being not at all out. But whatever people are experiencing, they’re not alone. One of the characters is probably experiencing it too.

page-48GP: Since you’re self-published, you do all the writing and the art yourself. The positive side of that is, you get to do whatever you want, but the negative side is self-editing. Is there anything you thought of for the characters that you decided not to do?

KJ: So much. [Laughs] There’s so many parts when I think, oh, I’m going to do this storyline, and then I’m like, Kiki, you need to pull it back. I’ve already gone out on a limb with some of the things that Benny and Deanna will be doing that are very violent. Even then, I’ve had to have myself reel it in and self-censor myself a lot. But then when I take it to other people, like close friends that I share it with, they’re like, “No, man, you’ve got to go for it!” That’s the great thing about being self-published, and about being your own writer and artist, is that if you’re going to do it, you’d better, like, full-out, pull no punches when you do it. There’s going to be a lot of things that are really out there, but I hope it will be something that people haven’t really seen before because you can’t get away with nearly as much when you’re published by a publishing house or with someone else’s writing. It’s going to get really crazy really fast.

GP: If you could draw or write for any existing comic character or series, what would it be?

KJ: Ms. Marvel. Absolutely. I love Ms. Marvel. I love her relationship with Captain Marvel, and the fact that she’s so different from the superheroes that we see right now. She’s Muslim, she’s a woman of color, and that’s super important to me. And not only that, but she’s just like me! She writes fan fiction, and she’s super geeky, and she totally has no idea what she’s doing with her life, and she’s awesome. I’d really love to explore that. Plus, her character design is really cool. I love Ms. Marvel.

GP: I love it when somebody brings up one of my favorites. I’m like, “Yes!”

KJ: That or Spider Gwen. I love Spider Gwen too.

GP: Pirates, aliens, ninjas, or cowboys?

KJ: Ninja aliens.

GP: You only get one. Everybody wants to pick two! You get one.

KJ: Aliens. Aliens are way more fun. You’re not constricted by human experiences. You can make the craziest crap up and people will be like, “They’re aliens. It makes sense.” And that’s totally what I’m here for.

Staying “Awake” with Susan Beneville and Brian Hess

Susan and Brian

In their new ongoing series for Action Lab Entertainment, Awake, writer Susan Beneville and artist Brian Hess imagine a future where young people travel through space, saving planets in crisis – by talking to the planets directly. Susan and Brian told me all about the process of turning Brian’s fantastical vision into words and images, and how they collaborate to bring the world of Awake to life. They aim to make Awake accessible to a young adult audience but appealing to all ages, and they take pride in telling a story where compassion and cleverness are more effective than violence in solving the problems their characters face.

Graphic Policy: Just tell me a little bit about Awake.

Susan Beneville: Awake is a story about a young girl and her brother who are part of an intergalactic race of people who have the ability to communicate with planets and to wake up planets. So when a planet’s in trouble, when a planet is about to go through a natural transition, it’s the job of these children to go down to the planet and wake up the planet’s consciousness and help it through these transitions. So in our story, Regn, the young girl, has to go to this planet, and she finds out that this planet is already in complete chaos – fires, earthquakes, and tornadoes – and so she has to figure out why there’s so much chaos on this one particular planet. It’s one of the things that I was really trying to do with the comic, writing it, was to really think about the idea that a planet has a consciousness, and so one of our main characters in the series is Gremon, which is the consciousness of the planet. The planet itself is a character.

issue_1_cover copyGP: That’s really neat because we’re used to seeing spaceships as characters, but a planet as a character is taking it in a new direction. What kinds of comics or novels that came earlier influenced you in this, if anything?

SB: I don’t think I, personally, had any reference. The original idea was Brian’s.

Brian Hess: I came up with this idea. I wanted to do something for kids, and I was reading a lot of young adult graphic novels like Doug TenNapel’s Rat Fist or [Kazu Kibuishi’s] Amulet. I was also watching [Avatar: The Last Airbender] and [Legend of Korra]. This started back in 2008, so Korra wasn’t even out. And the funny thing is, one of the characters in [Awake], Operi, is this big polar bear dog. And after Korra came out, I was like, “Oh no! What did I just do? Darn it!” A lot of people were referencing that, “Oh, you just copied Korra,” and I’m like, “No, this came out quite a while ago.” We spent a lot of time – way too much time – nurturing it, getting it where it’s at today. We started this, what, two years ago now?

SB: In earnest, yeah.

BH: Really got into it two years ago, and we’re really happy with where it’s at. I really had to get over the I just need to make this kind of feeling and stop reworking it. I did the first seven pages over, what, four times?

SB: Yes.

BH: Seven times? I stopped counting after the second one. But I wanted it to look like an animated film. That was my goal. Animation, Treasure Planet was a big influence on this, stylistically, along with all of those young adult books.

GP: How did you two start working together?

SB: My cousin and I, several years ago, were hired to do a custom comic book for a big hotel chain in the Bahamas. I was writing it, and my cousin was the creative director. We hired Brian to do the artwork after some really bad experiences with other artists. We landed on Brian and he was amazing.

BH: Thank God.

SB: Seriously. Then, in 2009 or 2010, he came to me because he had this idea for Awake. At that point, I would say it was more like a vision than a full-on plot.

BH: I had some basic text in there. Literally, the first seven pages are still in the book in some form. That she did that is kind of fun for me.

SB: To honor him. But then he said, “I need to bring in a writer,” and asked me if I would write it. We sat and we talked for three or four hours, and that’s when we really started to talk about, what is the story really about? What’s the theme going to be? Who are the key characters going to be? What is it that we want them to achieve? And then I went home and wrote a treatment that was, like, twenty pages long. He looked at it, thumbs up on both sides. I started scripting, and we initially self-published last year.

BH: September 2014. So it’s been a year now, almost a year to the day since we originally launched it. We’re relaunching it with Action Lab September 16.

Page 04GP: So you’re relaunching from the beginning?

BH: Yeah, but if you did pick up the original 700-piece run that we had, we split it up in two, so that’s the first and the second issue, and we added ten new pages to each, so if you did get [the self-published version] – if you were lucky enough to get it – you do get something new.

GP: Are you hoping to have this be an ongoing, with an open run?

BH: It’s an ongoing bi-monthly series. I’ve already finished the first arc, and I’m working on the second arc.

SB: He’s doing the arc right now on issue number 5, and I’m already scripting issues 6 through 8. We are fully intending this to be an ongoing. Action Lab is absolutely committed to it and has been super supportive. I’m never quite sure if we’re allowed to say this, but we’re actually the Action Lab free comic book.

BH: We are the submission for Action Lab. We are their Free Comic Book Day submission. I’ve already finished that.

SB: It’s so cool!

BH: We literally just finished it a week ago. And if we do get in there, it’s going to be really fun. It’s my favorite issue so far. But every issue that I’ve just finished is my favorite one. I become obsessed with every page until I’m done with it.

GP: I think that’s almost a typical artistic progression. You get that, “I love what I’m doing,” and then the “I hate what I’m doing.”

SB: I feel like that’s my personal challenge, to put something in each book that’s going to be new and exciting for him to draw. And then it’s also my personal challenge to throw in a couple pages that will make him tear what’s left of his hair out.

BH: No, but the fun thing is, the way we work is, like here [points to Awake art on display in the booth], we have these two characters in a buggy, and that was just something I came up with, and she’s like, “All right, I’ve got to find a way to put this in.” And so in the second arc, the buggy turned into an ice buggy. And I love it. I love that the first arc had the hover bikes, and the second one is going to have a lot more vehicles like the snow buggy. (That isn’t spoiling anything.) I have other ideas for crazy vehicles. There’s something for everybody, you know? The little girl who’s kind of learning and growing up, and finding out where her place is, and her powers, and how to take care of herself. You have her brother Picar, who’s learning, or relearning how to use his powers, and how to take on the role that he was meant to have. And then we have all this kind of fun stuff happening on the side. It’s so much fun to have kids come up, and they’ll pick it up on a Friday and come back on a Saturday and be like, “What happens next issue?” and I’m like, “You have to wait! I’m sorry! It’s on a schedule!” And we’ll have adults who will do the same thing. It’s really fun, it’s really rewarding to go to the shows and have that instant gratification of them reading it and giving feedback.

Page 02GP: You guys lit up when I mentioned the political angle of Graphic Policy. Are there messages or ideas that you’re hoping to get across, even under the radar?

SB: I don’t feel like it’s political.

BH: It’s not environmental, either.

SB: To me, it’s more like a spiritual thing, or an emotional thing. For me personally, my politics, I’m from the Bay Area, I’m progressive. But it really is this concept that things are connected, particularly within a planet, that it manifests what we put into it. So it’s this broader idea of taking responsibility for your world. Sure, the bad guys here definitely abuse the planet and take advantage of the chaos that happens. And some of my politics is there in terms of pollution and things like that. But it’s really focused on feelings, and extremely positive in that respect. One of the things we tried to stay away from – and it’s a hard thing to do in comics – is the real easy violence. I really struggle to make sure that the way that they resolve conflict is clever, and not just, how do I use my powers to punch that guy in the face? And it’s also the idea that if you have power, it’s not that easy to use it. You have to know how to use it. You have to have the confidence to use it. Particularly because our main character is a girl. I really wanted to show that she’s struggling with it. She’s fighting her comfort level with it. And she’s the only one who can do it for herself. She has a guide who helps her, but the first two arcs are really going to be about her getting that maturity level where she becomes completely confident in her powers. And that, to me, I’m really looking forward to that. That’s going to be a beautiful thing, when she actually has the ability to say, “You know what, I’m good. I’m really good, and I have this self-esteem and this confidence.” And not everybody in the book, like her brother, they don’t all have it.

BH: It’s a good balance, too. I mean, there are fistfights in the comic. You’ll see in the second issue that comes out in November. There are straight-up fistfights. There’s a bar brawl. But it’s to show how demeaning that can be to your character, and how immature it is. And then the only other time they really get rough is at the end of the first arc, when they are literally fighting for their lives. One of them is going to be kidnapped. And I really like that it’s not violent to be violent. There’s no bad language in it. It’s really clean, and every piece of dialogue is really thoughtful. That’s one thing I like about how Susan writes – everything has a meaning. It’s not just dialogue for dialogue’s sake. And everything is building an emotion and building on character.

SB: And one of the other things that we were really trying to do was to create a book that we felt was truly an all-ages book. Because there are a lot of books that I love that are really kids’ books, and the language is a lot more simple, the story is a lot more simple. For me, I really respect every one of our readers, and I think that a book that appeals to a ten-year-old can be just as appealing to a forty-year-old. They can all have that same connection to it. We really have focused on that in terms of the level of the art, the style of the art, and the language that we use.

GP: I’m a big proponent of getting things out of the “YA ghetto,” of saying things aren’t “less than” because they’re accessible to a younger audience, and they’re not limited to that kind of audience.

BH: Yes, like, the color palette, it’s super saturated. I did that on purpose, because most comics are so monotone or duotone. I’m not knocking them, it’s just that it wouldn’t fit our story. But every colorist I talked to – that’s why I ended up coloring it by myself. I did the penciling, inking, and coloring. Now we have a wonderful colorist, her name is Darné Lang, and she’s doing a fantastic job. She did clean-ups on issues one through four, and then she started doing the full-on color on issue zero, and she’s going to be with us from now on.

GP: I know you’re putting on paper your dream idea, but if you could draw or write any existing comics character or series, what would it be?

SB: Oh, for me, it would be Batwoman.

GP: Is there a reason for that?

SB: Number one, she’s a lesbian character, and I really identify with that. I like that so far, the book has done a really nice job of crossing over the supernatural and superhero/supervillain type of thing. And I just like that her persona is, to me, sort of scratchy and edgy, and she’s not very warm. And yet when I imagine her fighting, it’s just beautiful and graceful.

GP: Brian, what would you draw?

BH: I would love to draw Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s just right up my alley. Even before the movie came out, I was really into it. That would be my dream, to draw that: a cover, or an issue, or anything. A sketch card.

GP: Last and silliest question: pirates, aliens, ninjas, or cowboys?

SB: Pirates.

BH: Not pirates. Listen, it’s cowboys and aliens.

GP: Pick one!

BH: Cowboys.

SB: Pirates all the way.

GP: There are going to be, like, pirates and cowboys fighting in the third arc.

BH: [Laughing] That’s our next comic.

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