Weekly Round-Up: Comics Released 9/21/16


Look, there are a lot of comics out there. Too many. We can never hope to have in-depth conversations about all of them. But, we sure can round up some of the more noteworthy titles we didn’t get around to from the week. Today, we discuss Britannia 1, Empress 6, and Jem and the Holograms 19. Also, we’ll be discussing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 62 on Tuesday and The Wicked + the Divine 1831 1 on Wednesday, so come back for those! As always, this article contains SPOILERS.


Britannia 1

britannia-1Drew: One of the basic techniques in magic (that is, the genre of performing acts, not the card game or type of charlatanism) is to give every action a motivation. In the absence of an apparent reason for the magician to reach into their own pocket, the audience would be suspicious of such an action, so the magician needs to come up with a reason (pulling out a pen for a volunteer to sign a card [or putting it away afterwards] is a classic example). I’m inclined to think of narratives in a similar way. That is, in the absence of an apparent reason for something to be included in the narrative, the audience is forced to conclude that this event will become significant later on. At best, it’s telling, introducing a Chekhov’s gun for no other reason than that a gun must be required later in the narrative; at worst, it’s distracting, like the totally unnecessary camera move in this clip from The Dark Knight Rises, where so much attention is drawn to Gordon’s written speech that it supercedes whatever meager “motive” might have been offered for its introduction.

An example that falls somewhere in between is the opening scene of The Sixth Sense. On the one hand, it introduces the motivation of Bruce Willis’ character (a motivation that turns out to be his “unfinished business” when the films twist is revealed), but it also introduces the notion that Willis could be dead. What’s remarkable about that opening is that, up until the very end of the movie, we might actually understand the film to be about Haley Joel Osment’s character — in which case, that opening scene is superfluous information. The very existence of that opening scene emphasizes the centrality of Willis’ character, revealing that, however much he helps this little boy, the story is really about what helping others does for him. The opening is central to the structure of that film, even though we can’t appreciate how central until the very end.

I suspect something similar is going on in Britannia 1, which opens with a similarly disconnected “origin” for its protagonist, introducing his connections to a mysterious monster, the equally mysterious witchcraft of Rome’s Vestal Virgins, and a son born under strange circumstances. There’s no doubt that these will all play a key role in the series going forward — the monster returns by the end of the issue — but I’ll certainly be on high alert until I understand how that role plays out. However central those elements are in the origin story, they’re obscured in the “six years later” action, which takes on a much more familiar detective-story structure (albeit with an unusual period setting and a supernatural twist). Both aspects are handled with aplomb from writer Peter Milligan, who charmed me particularly with the Romans’ endless deprecating remarks towards Britannia.


But the real stars of this first issue is the art team. Juan José Ryp’s meticulous hatching manages to add depth and definition to his characters without making them feel stiff, and Jordie Bellaire’s dazzling colors add unique definition and atmosphere to every scene. The premise and writing are solid, but this art team is more than enough to bring me back next month.


Empress 6

empress-6Ryan D: If you have been following video games lately, you probably heard of No Man’s Sky, a game which promised a lot of things: an almost infinite universe which one could travel, sporting fully procedurally generated planets with unique flora and fauna, capitol ship battles and dogfights, and the ability to explore this universe with other players. Much to the chagrin of many who purchased this game based upon the promises of the developers, No Man’s Sky ended up being more likened to a very pretty interstellar walking simulator. This is the same kind of disappointment I feel when I read Empress.

I have harped upon this before, but the team of Millar and Immonen given free reign in a sci-fi universe of their own machinations could have been something really spectacular. In the penultimate issue of this series, Immonen’s pencils are on point as always, but Millar, who has made a career out of taking tried and true comic or dramatic conventions and giving them an insightful twist (i.e. Wanted or Superman: Red Son), ends up taking us on a walk with several pedestrian characters through several uninspired worlds, each seeming to be an outlet for some form of bias. In this issue, it is bankers who get the stigma attached to them ,


and while I, personally, dislike big banking as much as anyone up to their scalps in student loans, I also don’t really need characters to tell me about their prejudices as a weak for of expository world-building, but I need to be shown through action, decision, and characterization how people work.

In this issue, Emporia and her family finally make it to her sister, as was Emporia ‘s goal since issue one. Almost every issue thus far has finished with a “Tune in next time!” cliffhanger which, in six issues, has yet to significantly impact any of the characters — thanks much in part to the teleporting machine which is used as a haphazard plot device or through the stalwart Marty Stu of the family, Dane — and the lack of actual danger I feel when reading the title, keeping the stakes terribly low for me.

This issue introduces a bit of romance between Dane and Emporia, which seemed an inevitability since the start of this title, and sets up the finale, finally bringing King Morax  into the picture. My hopes have always rested on the iron-fisted emperor given time and space to show that for all of his crushing, oppressive ways, he is a loving father who will do anything for his children, and is perhaps the only character left with any narrative potential. I suppose the final issue will give readers a better perspective on what the creative team has been trying to accomplish here, but I, for one, do not have extremely high hopes for the conclusion of Empress, which is fine — summer has wound down and I am all out of popcorn to munch for a story like this.


Jem and the Holograms 19

jem-and-the-holograms-19Ryan M: The start of a new arc brings challenges. Conflict must emerge that feels deep-seated in the ongoing story. If the hand of the writer is made too clear, a reader can feel manipulated and immediately the stakes are cheaper. Ideally, the set-up in the first issue feels both like a fresh look and a continuation of the narrative established in the series. Kelly Thompson does an admirable job balancing the needs of a fresh arc as the Holograms meet The Stingers.

There is a lot going on in the issue, all of it based on the world established in previous stories but exploring new territory. Jerrica discovered Synergy when she needed a mask to help her transcend her stage fright. Now, after several successful singles and an aborted tour, Jem is less a costume and more an identity that Jerrica chooses to embody. Growing up is about trying on personas, but Thompson posts some warning signs about the potential consequences of Jerrica indulging herself with playing Jem. Her sisters are concerned, and she is utterly charmed by Riot who doesn’t know that the object of his affection is actually a shy girl with a boyfriend. Themes of identity and the performance of self have been woven throughout the series run, so the introduction of this storyline is perfectly in sync. At the same time, this angle on Jerrica and her time as Jem is fresh territory.

The Misfits plot in the issue also reflects the duality of a new concept in a familiar dynamic. Pizzazz and her anger problems have been a catalyst to many of Jem and the Hologram’s plot points. We met her as the Mean Girl leader of the most popular band in town and now she is struggling to maker her art and to keep her contract. Pizazz’ quick temper and instinct to blame others for her troubles are hallmarks of her character.


This story is saved from being a re-tread by both her band’s lowered stature and the way Meredith McClaren depicts the ever-present flaming skull of rage that Pizzazz keeps at her side. It’s a fun and fantastical touch that amps up the cartoonishness of her wrath and rings true to that feeling that one wrong move will bring out an anger monster. This arc begins seamlessly. It both honors the story that came before and offers the first few steps down a fresh path.


The conversation doesn’t stop there, because you certainly read something that we didn’t. What do you wanna talk about from this week?

5 comments on “Weekly Round-Up: Comics Released 9/21/16

  1. Order of the Stick: I’ve been continuing my read through of Order of the Stick (found on giantitp.com), and finished the second arc, No Cure for Paladin Blues

    The first page of the arc begins with a small village receiving news that adventures are coming. Hearing the news, they enter a panic as they reorganise the entire town to best exploit the adventurers – apples go from one copper to one platinum, and the old man is suddenly selling cryptic musing for 200gp. This represents a major change in what Order of the Stick is. No longer is it merely self aware about the tropes of fantasy. The characters – even anonymous villagers – now exploit that nature for their own goals. The world of Order of the Stick, like Discworld, is now explicitly a world where the mechanics of narrative are literally part of the physics, and this nature is something testable and exploitable. This is a major change to the story. Because now, it can do something interesting with its self aware nature. By exploring how characters interact with the narrative rules, Burlew has the ability to use such rules for dramatic purposes, as well as critique.

    But this isn’t the only change. No Cure for Paladin Blues is a meaningful name in the other change. The first story arc is a simple ‘Good v Evil’ story, but here, the antagonist of the arc isn’t an evil lich, but a… Paladin. In a world where Paladins are the definition of Lawful Good – they literally can’t be anything else, the choice to make the antagonist a paladin is an important choice.

    That is not to say that Order of the Stick still doesn’t have some growing to do. While this arc does start creating actual characters out of the cast, the start of the arc still has some of the very basic jokes of the last cast. And the fact that Xykon was defeated last arc, thought to be dead and rebuilding his strength means that this arc is also a little side questy. But those side quests are full of thematic importance.

    Because the primary question of this arc is ‘What should Lawful Good mean?’. The entire arc is about comparing Roy Greenhilt, the Lawful Good leader of the Order of the Stick, with Miko Miyazaki, the Lawful Good Paladin whose mission is to arrest the Order for its crimes against reality when they blew up the magical gate last arc. Roy is not the best exemplar of his alignment. He tricks his friends, he abandons Elan to bandits because of his frustrations and happily takes advantage of a misunderstanding. Miko would never make any of these mistakes – if she was in those situations, her mistakes would be because she is too honourable. Not lacking in honour.

    And yet, Order of the Stick argues that Roy is a better exemplar of Lawful Good than Miko, because of two things. Firstly, Roy has the capacity to learn. Roy constantly realises when he is wrong, and makes efforts to redeem himself. Roy is not perfect, but is always willing to take a step towards being a better person. And that is what is truly important – Roy is willing to learn. Miko isn’t.
    But that is not the only reason why Roy is better than Miko. Miko uses her alignment as an excuse to be superior. She sees herself, by right of being a Lawful Good Paladin, as being the perfect moral being, and treats anything that diverts from her morals has an act of evil. The problem is multifaceted. Miko uses her alignment to justify being horrible (leading to the reveal that the reason that the Sapphire Guard sent her to capture the Order of the Stick is not because she is the best Paladin of the Order, but because she is such a jerk that everyone finds any excuse they can to send her as far away from Azure City as possible). But Miko’s position makes her both immune to nuance and growth. Ultimately, she is a tyrant.

    All of this leads to the climax of the story. The captured Order of the Stick are on trial for weakening the fabric of reality, while Miko hunts down the escaped Belkar. The trial turns into a debate of morality itself, and honest discussion that Lawful Good needs to be more than tyranny, and needs space for nuance and growth. That Lawful Good should be like Roy, not Miko. Meanwhile, Miko’s chase on Belkar leads her into a dark place. She nearly kills a defenceless man, out of sheer hatred, all because her path was always going to lead to that. Belkar is evil. That is beyond doubt. But he still deserves to be treated with basic human dignity. He deserves a trial, and not an execution. But in Miko’s tyrannical viewpoint of Lawful Good, there is no space for dignity. In fact, the only reason she did not do the unforgivable was that Vaarsuvius intervened.
    The obvious commentary about bad Paladin players is obvious, but it stretches beyond that to providing insightful discussions about morality itself. Hell, the lessons about the importance of nuance and growth are honestly truly important in our social media age. And that is part of what makes Order of the Stick special. The choice to build the climax around a moral debate. I love how, when Roy discovers Xykon is still around and is a threat to reality itself, Roy rejects the idea that he must fight Xykon because of an inherited Blood Oath. Roy chooses to fight Xykon not because he has to, but because’s it is right. And Roy then follows that up by ripping the Order of the Stick’s contracts, instead of manipulating the contracts to force the Order of the Stick. Because again, it is right.

    But it goes further than that. In a fantastic example of what I said about how the comic now takes advantage of the self aware nature and uses it with purpose, the big reveal is that Lord Shoko, the head of the Sapphire Guard, an order of Paladins dedicated to the ideals of Lawful Good, is actually a Chaotic Good aristocrat that has secretly manipulated everyone’s perceptions of him out of a desire to do the best job he can he save the world, screw the rules (including the rules saying that he isn’t allowed to interfere with any of the Gates except the one in Azure City). A fantastic twist that introduces even more nuance to the moral proceedings. Chaotic Good can often get a bad rapt, with people treating Lawful as naturally superior, but Burlew then presents a great argument for a more nuanced, broader view of morality. Lord SHojo’s criticisms of the Order is runs is true, and the fact that he went above and beyond what he was allowed to has a great benefit.

    But that’s the thing. Things get more complex here. A big part of Burlew’s goals is to critique stagnancy. To show the faults in the way things go, and to suggest things should be much more diverse than they appear. That we need a diversity of ideas, a diversity of opinions. In fact, a big part of the self awareness is the idea that beneath the cliches that the universe seems to mandate are people with depth, doing what they can to subvert the narrative structures that contain them.

    And that is ignoring so much of what is done to develop characters, often in major ways, especially Haley and Redcoat. With the ending of this arc, the comic turns into what makes it great. And having done the evolution, we can go into the third arc full of everything that makes the comic so great. Looking forward to reading War and XPs

  2. Drew, what is it about the camera move in Dark Knight Rises that feels so unnecessary? A Chekov’s Gun is being cocked, but I think the scene is also using the speech itself to emphasise Gordon’s character. The entire scene is about Gordon’s struggle with the truth, so is it a surprise that the camera focuses on the visual representation of the truth?

    • It’s just so on-the-nose. Nolan could have captured the pocketing of the speech without a camera move with a slightly wider shot, and it would have drawn WAY less attention to itself. Maybe it’s just a matter of taste, but I much prefer it when the cocking of a Chekhov’s gun is subtler, such that we may not even realize that the element that was introduced might come up later.

      I absolutely agree that the scene should be about Gordon’s struggle with the truth in that moment — it’s a perfectly justified beat that he would not give the speech he prepared — I just think the camera move makes it obvious that the scene is really about that speech being in his pocket. It pushes me right out of the moment, making me anticipate something that could be a surprise, all while distracting me from the emotions the scene is ostensibly about.

      • But also, what better visual is there for Gordon’s struggle than Gordon literally hiding the truth in his pocket? Just because clever people who consume lots of media can identify it as a Chekov’s Gun doesn’t also mean that the shot isn’t serving a second purpose on Gordon’s arc. And great writing is, in part, about making every element have purposes to maximise meaning.
        Using a close up to emphasise a symbolic representation of the scene’s drama is the right use of visual language, even if it is also helps cock the Chekov’s Gun.

        Here’s a question. Considering the scene is about Gordon’s struggle, why isn’t a close up on the speech being pocketed the right choice?

        • It’s not just that it’s a closeup of that action, it’s that the camera moves away from Gordon’s face to that action and then back, which is such an unusual choice, I’m distracted by it every time. In my opinion, that choice makes the sequence less about Gordon (who might have expressed what he was feeling in is face) and more about the physical object that’s in his pocket. Writing isn’t just about clarity — it’s also about sustaining the illusion of the narrative for the audience. I appreciate that mileage may vary on how distracting that choice is, but I honestly don’t think any clarity would have been lost if Nolan had simply used a slightly wider shot to capture the action AND Gordon’s face without a camera move

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