Comic Book Reviews (March)

I’m currently following three comics. Seeing as they land the same week, I’ve decided to cross post all three reviews at once. I could devote a whole week to comics every month, but I’m always reading other stuff I want to talk about and I’ve been writing a lot as well, which limits posting time. I might make this a monthly feature instead.

Because I always remember to post monthly features.

(I am going to post a Reading Challenge Update this week.)

On with the reviews!

MEFND9CoverMass Effect: Foundation #9 by Mac Walters and Tony Parker

Mass Effect: Foundation is a series of comics exploring the back stories of the companions available to the player character Shepard in the trilogy of video games, ‘Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3’. With issue nine, we return to the formula established early on, which is both good and bad.

After a brief check in with Agent Rasa where we learn she is recovering from the poison, we dive off the deep end into another seemingly disconnected story. I can only assume what follows is a ‘re-enactment’ of events, much like the episode where we explored Kaidan Alenko’s past. This time, we’re looking in on Dr. Mordin Solus, famed Salarian biologist…and more. Mordin is a fascinating character and I looked forward to learning more about him. None of the issues thus far has really told us anything we didn’t already know however or could not have surmised from the clues hidden in every companion conversation throughout the three games. The point of these comics seems to be to illustrate moments rather than add to canon.

mefnd9p3Mordin is tasked with developing a new strain of the genophage, a bio-engineered plague that was used to sterilize the war-like Krogan in an effort to stop them from breeding destruction. A month or so later, Mordin travels to Tuchanka to conduct tests. This is where we get a glimpse of the beginnings of the remorse Mordin so obliquely expresses in-game. He makes note of the architecture and ruins and comments that he was not aware the Krogan were capable of such feats. He also ponders the purpose of his work. Both are observations we encounter later, in ‘Mass Effect 3’.

Mordin and his team encounter a Krogan female and a fight ensues. We get to see our favourite salarian kicking ass and taking names, which is both gratifying and somewhat uncomfortable, given the nature of his work.

Mordin’s voice is captured perfectly in this comic. I could hear him in my head, which is exactly how it should be when reading characters you’ve heard/seen elsewhere. The salarians, in general, acted as salarians do, bickering and fighting. The time frame confused me. From the game, I got the impression the salarians were on Tuchanka for a lot longer than the comic indicated. Maybe this episode recalls a different visit?

No particular comments on the artwork this time ‘round. It did what it was supposed to do. I can’t say as Mordin was completely recognisable, but his distinct ‘voice’ separated him from the other salarians well enough.

P3CoverPariah #2 by Aron Warner, Philip Gelatt and Brett Weldele.

The cover of issue two of ‘Pariah’ makes me giggle. It’s so very teen-age. Inside, we have skipped forward forty-three days since the Vitros (genetically modified humans – intelligent and precocious) have been launched into orbit on a derelict space station. Between looking for more booby traps, the Vitros are scavenging local space junk. Brandon, our narrator for this issue calls his group ‘orbital dumpster divers’, which he thinks makes a great band name. I agree.

Samantha has become the lead ‘science person’ or as Brandon prefers, their science officer. I love this observation. It feels very human and age appropriate, though I’d likely make the same comment and I’m a lot older than the Vitros. Also, he has a crush on her, which is adorable. His girlfriend, Lila, probably wouldn’t agree. His observations regarding Lila are bittersweet. She’s obsessed with returning to Earth and has been spending a lot of time with Hyde. The pair are, quote: Thick as thieves.

Marks discovers a data feed coming from the station. The content seems like an attempt to unsettle Earth. Lila blames Brandon for not keeping tabs on such things. They have the sort of fight that plagues degrading relationships. Regardless, Brandon sets out to find the source of the data feed.

pariah2p4Sam suggests he poke around the underdecks. She also suggests next time they visit they talk about something more interesting. She’s obviously flirting and it’s obviously geeky. The rest of his search confirms only one thing, Lila is probably right about the group needing strong leadership.

Along with Robert Maudsley, Brandon tracks down the culprit and one of Samantha’s ‘fixes’ helps disable the kid. The problem is solved, but Brandon and Lila’s relationship is not resolved. She has a secret she won’t share and even youngsters in love know that’s just not a good thing.

I really enjoyed Brandon’s headspace. His point of view is so young male and the perfect tone for this chapter. He feels despondent, which matches the passage of time and the undercurrent of the entire group. They’re alive, but they’re not going anywhere. The group is fracturing into small cliques, some of which are doing useful things, some of which are not, unless you call a working still useful. I would.

The reveal at the end of the issue feels somewhat hopeful and sinister at the same time. I also think that catching up with Maudsley is about more than the authors remembering he’s there. I’ve been wondering what he’s up to and hoping for another issue from his creepy point of view.

As always, the art continues to compliment the tale of stranded teenagers perfectly. The washed-out colours in this issue also reflected Brandon’s despondency. I really like the way each issue encapsulates a slice of time for these kids while advancing the overall story. The comic feels truly episodic, rather than a book that’s been broken up into parts.

As always, I’m looking forward to the next issue.

SerenityLTWCoverSerenity: Leaves on the Wind #3 by Zach Whedon and Georges Jeanty (Dos Santos cover)

I waited until after release day for this review so I could say more than ‘hey, this is a great comic, go buy it’. Still, I prefer not to give away spoilers in my reviews, so what I have here is the briefest outline and another recommendation that you go out and buy these comics.

Issue three of ‘Leaves on the Wind’ picks up the story right where we left off. River is dreaming. She is holding the position of observer in her own dream, which is a really neat effect. Works well in this format. When she gets overly restless, Simon tries to wake her up but is interrupted by an unexpected visitor. Jubal.

Meanwhile, Mal and Inara are talking about practical matters, like how Mal is trying to worry for everyone. No amount of worry will fill their bellies, though, it’s time to break into the emergency rations he has hidden away in Inara’s shuttle. Jubal meets him there.

Jayne attempts to commiserate with Bea, but he’s just not the touchy-feely type. Chastising himself, he leaves her for a bit. When Bea next looks up, she has another guest in the kitchen. Not realising Jubal is not part of the crew, she introduces herself and offers him coffee.

So, Jubal has trussed up half the ship. Inara and Jayne are locked in their rooms. Now it’s time to interrogate his prisoners. He asks after the rest of the crew – Shephard, Wash and Zoe – and Mal delivers news of their various fates in as few words as possible.

“It’s been a tough couple of years for you guys, hasn’t it?”

“It’s had it’s ups and downs.”

serenlw3p3Understatements of the century, and typical of the dialogue I’d expect from this series. Jubal certainly finds it amusing. Just as he realises he’s forgotten someone, Kaylee makes her appearance. It’s a pretty sweet moment.

With Jubal chained to a chair and quaking from Kaylee’s threats, the crew reconvene to see if River remembers anything. She does. You’ll need to read the comic to see what she has to say. Her revelation alters the course of Zoe’s rescue, however, and inspires Mal to look up another old friend.

This is another great issue of the comic. The story is tight. There is plenty of fan service on top of a strong plot delivery. The art continues to capture action and emotional nuance, even if the faces sometimes take a moment to process. I think this would be less of a problem in the collected editions where the reader can skip from one chapter to the next. The dialogue is firming up and as I’ve already mentioned, the story needs no work whatsoever. I’m hooked.


All reviews written for SFCrowsnest.


Review: Mass Effect: Foundation (#7)

MEFndtn7CoverFinally, it’s the of ‘Mass Effect: Foundation‘ comic I have been waiting for. Number seven, or Jack’s issue. Jack is a companion and possible love interest for the main character, Commander Shepard, in the game Mass Effect 2. She also appears in Mass Effect 3.

Jack, formerly known as Subject Zero, is a powerful biotic with a tortured past. She was ‘acquired’ as a child by Cerberus and subjected to terrible experiments aimed at producing a human biotic with exceptional power. A biotic has an element in their bloodstream that allows them to move matter with a gesture and a thought.

In the comic, Jack breaks into a Cerberus training facility. After dealing with the administrator, she attempts to liberate the students, most of whom believe they are orphans. Given Cerberus’ tactics, they probably are. Jack shares a snippet of her past in order to motivate the students to move.

Kai Leng and Agent Rasa are dispatched by the Illusive Man to pick her up. Rasa notes the Blue Suns have been sent in as backup, which seems unusual, until she discovers exactly what she is up against with Subject Zero. In Mass Effect 2, Kai Leng proves a difficult (and annoying) foe. In this comic, Jack tosses him around like a toy and there’s a certain sense of satisfaction to be gained from seeing it.

I’m not sure how this snippet of Jack’s past ties in with the over all story arc of the series. Perhaps there will be some mention in a later issue.

On to the art. I like the cover, but the first image of Jack inside makes me cringe. She looks too baby-faced and unless you know her torso is covered in tattoos, you’d think she’s wearing a chaotically patterned jumpsuit. Granted, her tattoos are hard to draw and quite often throughout the comic, artist Garry Brown suggests rather than paints. That seems indicative of his style, in fact. A lot of the panels lack details such as faces and attitude engraved with thicker lines. I don’t mind the style; it suits the busier panels and with the features of so many characters being less distinct, there is less fault to find.

Over all, this is one of the least satisfying issues in the series, thus far. I learned nothing new about my favourite companion, Jack, and the adventure did not advance the greater story arc. Still, I will doggedly continue with issue number eight in the hopes my persistence will pay off.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Pariah: Volume 1

PariahV1CoverVitros are children born of an experiment designed to cure rare and fatal diseases in-vitro. They’re essentially human, but highly intelligent. Like all sub-sets of the population, they’re regarded with distrust, however. Some attempt to blend with society, others are hidden away and yet others are invited to put their exemplary minds to use.

When an explosion at Marinus Labs releases a deadly toxin, the Vitros are blamed. As a group, they are labelled terrorists and are rounded up and imprisoned. They believe they’re going to an island where they can live in relative peace, segregated and secluded. One of their number believes he bought that for his fellows, his price something he hopes never to reveal. Yet another probably believes he’ll be the only man to leave the island. Unfortunately, none of them are likely to leave, as they’re not going where they think.

Pariah: Volume 1‘ consists of four chapters that serve as a perfect introduction to the series. Each chapter is luxuriously long for a comic, at over forty pages each. This gives writers Aron Warner and Philip Gelatt plenty of room to tell their story. There is also room for pages of mesmerising blue that separate one chapter from the next. I love the colours used throughout, but the blue pages are really nice.

I like blue, okay?

Over all, the art is outstanding. I really like the style. The inside pages, flyleaves and cover pages feature gorgeous shades of blue that offset the yellow lettering perfectly. I also really like the typography and chapter covers.Yay for clear lettering in both the notes and speech bubbles! Makes this graphic novel a joy to read for us older folk. Thank you, Brett Weldele.

The kissable moment.
The kissable moment.

Each of the first four chapters concentrate on the story of a particular character. First up, we have Brent Marks who introduces himself by explaining he is not a freak. He doesn’t seem so. He seems like your average geek as he can perform complex calculations in his head, but finds it difficult to anticipate the thoughts of a girl. (I don’t think he’s the only guy with that problem.) The scene where he tries to figure out if he’s in the middle of a kissable moment is just adorable.

I quickly warmed to Brent’s character. Yes, his intelligence is daunting and probably scary, but he thinks like a kid. He feels left out. He wants to be normal. Unfortunately, he’s not. He’s also not obviously not a terrorist, but you know how it goes. Fear doesn’t discriminate.

Chapter Two gives the inside scoop on the explosion of Marinus Labs. Lila Ellerman’s is/was an employee of Marinus Labs and was in Building 28 when it exploded. She and her fellow Vitros were hired by Marinus to do complicated stuff and that’s just what they did, for a year, until the accident that branded them a terrorist cell. Lila then finds her name on a manifest for a biological weapon project. Obviously, she has been framed.

I liked Brent’s introduction, but Lila’s story really highlights the deft characterisation. The Vitros are highly intelligent, but they’re not super-smart. They over-estimate, under-estimate and miss clues. They lack the worldly experience that will broaden their horizons. They’re kids. Lila is smart enough to convince the majority of the Vitros to stay together, however, and to loosely organise them.

In Chapter Three, we meet Robert Maudsley. He’s one of the first Vitros or the first to be identified and he’s a sociopath. He’s scary. His name cropped up earlier in the comic and I had wondered if he was involved with the Marinus Labs’ incident. Chapter Three answers that question while giving us a good insight to his character.

After coming to the conclusion his parents don’t understand him – really? – Robert strikes out on his own. Before he can sow the seeds of chaos, Franklin Hyde catches up with him. Robert decides to let Franklin persuade him to join his project.

Who is Franklin Hyde? He’s the principle of Chapter Four. Franklin is the son of the United States Secretary of Defense and he’s been kept hidden all his life. It’s his parents who devise the strategy to brand the Vitros as ‘terrorists’. Franklin outs himself after the explosion, however, and makes a call for reason. To save face, his father agrees to his plan. To save his fellow Vitros, Franklin will have to betray them. Will he go through with it?

I really enjoyed this comic. I like the varied personalities of the kids and the fact they were written like kids, for the most part. They’re highly intelligent, but not invincible. There are some good elements here, a great set-up. It’s carefully conceived. Then there is the art, which is just gorgeous. I love the loose lines and colouring. I think it really suits the subject material. It’s inexact, which is a great interpretation of the way the Vitros see themselves. I’m really looking forward to read on.

Pariah #1 is a single issue comic which continues the story, will be available February 24 (2014).

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Mass Effect: Foundation (#6)

MEFND6Cover Mass Effect: Foundation by Mac Walters (Writer) and Matthew Clarke (Artist).

Mass Effect: Foundation is a series of thirteen comics that explore the back stories of the companions encountered by Commander Shepard, the hero of the video game series Mass Effect.

In the previous issue, Miranda and Jacob set out to collect intel regarding the whereabouts of Commander Shepard’s body. Issue 6 picks up that story. Miranda is captured and Jacob is wounded. The plucky street kid from the last issue comes to the rescue, providing Jacob with a place to rest up, information on the whereabouts of his partner and the weapons to pull off a rescue. Her assistance costs a little more than cash. The Batarian thugs are holding her aunt as well.

Jacob gets to play the hero in this issue. Miranda, the damsel in distress. She doesn’t do distress well. In this particular instance, however, there are too many names to take, so she has to sit back and wait for rescue.

The story is all action and reasonably satisfying for it, especially as it’s a matter of all’s well that ends well. If you’ve played the Mass Effect games, that is not a spoiler. I did get the sense Mac Walters wanted to give Jacob a chance to shine. Might be too little, too late, though. The game is done and no amount of back story and previous heroics is going to make him more interesting. Then again, with the more details of his recruitment to Cerberus, he might flesh out a bit more in game.

What really lets this comic down is the art. It’s not bad art. The proportions are great, anatomy is spot on. The Batarians are really well-drawn, the panels convey action well enough. What’s missing is emotion. The faces are a bit simplified at times. The most disappointing aspect, however, is that Jacob still just doesn’t look like Jacob and Miranda doesn’t look like Miranda.

Mass Effect has an almost, no, a verifiably rabid fan base. There is a tonne of fan art out there. Comics, too. A good number of them have better depictions of all the companions. Still, as a dedicated fan of the non-rabid variety, I will continue to read these comics. Jack’s ‘Foundation’ story is coming up and that is one I do not want to miss.

Written for and originally posted at SFCrowsnest.

Review: Signal to Noise


Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman (writer) and Dave McKean (artist).

Originally released in 1999, Signal To Noise tells the story of a dying film-maker who is writing a script for a film he will never make. The script tells the story of a village facing the previous millennium. As his thoughts become more erratic and his need to finish the story more urgent, the two events begin to merge inside his imagination, so that by the end of the comic, the film-maker is on the hill behind the village and the people around him, the villagers, represent his successes, his failures and his fears. That’s my interpretation, anyway.

It’s a concept comic. There is a story, but in the words of the writers, it’s up to the reader to separate the signal from the noise and there is plenty of noise. There are introductions, forewords and prologues, many of which feel a bit like performance art or a poetry reading. I’m not a fan of either; so I’m sitting in a smoke-filled room, listening to words that don’t seem to fit together. I don’t dare leave my seat, though, because I’m trying to impress my date. I pretend to understand, I pretend I am gleaning something from the words floating through the smoke and maybe I do, but when I get outside and take my first draught of fresh air, the spell dissipates and I re-enter reality.

I’m simple folk. I like my stories simple, too. Thankfully, after pages and pages of noisy graphics, the story does take hold and the pages of chaotic images begin to make sense when taken as part of the whole; they really do help illustrate the mindset of the film-maker. The story wavers, too, the thread of it thinning and thickening.

I did like the story. I liked it very much. The film-maker’s vision of the end is so bleak. For him, death is a lonely exercise. He’s also angry and jaded, which is understandable, given that he’s dedicated his life to making films that attempt to peel back the skin of the world. So, his last story becomes much more personal than he intended. One does have to wonder if it was always going to be such a personal project, though. Perhaps we are all walking around making movies in our head. Composing stories, constructing scenes. Wishing it could be like that, until the movie becomes a reflection of what we are actually trying to create our way out of.

This edition of Signal To Noise is sure to please fans of both Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. It’s a good collaboration, not one of convenience. The graphic novel has a seamless feel and really fits together and well illustrates the style of both.

I haven’t talked about the art. It’s amazing. The first page features a distorted image, as if the signal is noisy. That feel continues throughout, with messy drips of signal dotting the pages and spilling across margins. It also pervades each panel of the comic. Faces are twisted, every scene has a murky shadow and the shading is stippled and hatched. But the images are completely clear and precise. Expressions are perfectly nuanced and with a few pen strokes, an entire scene conveyed. It’s clever art. Some of my favourite panels didn’t feature people at all, but photo-realistic scenes from the present. A car, a room, a tyre-clamp.

Signal To Noise has a long and varied publishing history, which is detailed in the introductions. This particular volume has the feel of a collectors’ edition. It’s one for the fans, definitely, but it also makes a great stand-alone introduction to both Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. If I hadn’t already explored a lot of their other work, I’d be out there looking for it now.

Written for and originally published at SFCrowsnest.