Weekly Round-Up: Comics Released 9/28/16

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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 Captain Kid 2, Star Trek Waypoint 1, Outcast 21, Snotgirl 3, and Surgeon X 1. Also, we discussed Josie and the Pussycats 1 on Monday and will be discussing Descender 15 on Tuesday and Star Wars 23 on Wednesday, so come back for those! As always, this article contains SPOILERS.

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Captain Kid 2

captain-kid-2Drew: There was a time when superhero comics were mostly read by kids, and as such were catered to the fantasies of children. There’s no better example of this than Billy Batson, a regular kid who, with the utterance of a magic word, could transform into what was basically Superman (indeed, Captain Marvel so resembled Superman, publisher Fawcett Comics lost a copyright suit levelled by DC). It’s difficult to parse whether the superpowers or the adulthood are the most alluring part of the fantasy, but it’s safe to say that they’re tied up with one another — being a superpowered kid could be fun, but you might still have someone telling you when to go to bed. Of course, the demographics of comics readers has changed significantly over the 76 years since Captain Marvel’s debut, skewing ever older, making room for a different kind of fantasy. Captain Kid is the manifestation of that fantasy — a near inversion of Captain Marvel — where the escapism isn’t in the autonomy of adulthood, but the vitality of youth.

Or, at least, that’s the pitch for the character. It turns out the themes of the series are going to be much more complicated. First, there’s the villain, who represents a nightmare of political cronyism, where insider information isn’t just helping private companies win contract bids or scoop up land before development deals are announced, but is actively scheming to create business by destroying infrastructure. It’s a mustache-twirling spin on the kinds of corruption we see in government today, but it feels frighteningly plausible.

And then there’s the hints at Captain Kid’s origin, which it turns out has something to do with Hela, who we learn is a bit of a confused time-traveler. Her confusion becomes more understandable as we learn that she has at least a few of herself — from a few different eras of her life — constantly telling her what to do. The dicta “obey your older self” is repeated in this issue, suggesting a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to the issue of age; sure, younger people might have more spring in their step, but it’s the elders who we should be respecting. Or perhaps the mantra is meant as a guide of sorts for the creative team, who are clearly looking back for inspiration.

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That kind of retro aesthetic is very much in the DNA of this creative team. Writers Tom Peyer and Mark Waid have built careers on their takes on gold and silver-age sensibilities, respectively, and the same can be said artist Wilfredo Torres, whose clean lines and dynamic compositions recall some of the seminal superhero comics. As with any of this creative team’s respective projects, this series promises to put a significant twist on its inspirations, but those twists are built on a solid understanding of the fundamentals of superhero comics. Younger creators may be able to do it flashier, but this issue seems to argue that they couldn’t do it right.

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Star Trek Waypoint 1

star-trek-waypoint-1Taylor: One of the things I’ve always liked best about Star Trek is that you never what you’re going to get each week. Unlike modern TV shows, Star Trek episodes are singular in nature. What happens one week doesn’t necessarily factor into what happens the next — it is not one long narrative but several small ones stitched together.

Star Trek Waypoint keeps this idea of stand alone episodes and revives it in two short stories presented in this first issue. In one story, Geordi La Forge, now the captain of the Enterprise, stumbles upon a federation ship from the future. His bridge crew is made up of several holographic Datas, the projection of the ship’s computer which is constructed from Data’s positronic brain. Together, they save the day. In the second story Uhura gets stranded alone on a strange alien planet thanks to a transporter mishap and finds a strange, alien friend.

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Both of these stories have a tone and feel that remind me of TNG and TOS respectively, and this works to their advantage. Indeed, while reading this issue I couldn’t help but smile because they just felt like old episodes of the series I know and love. They are both fun, a little weird, and most importantly, in the spirit of exploratory science fiction that makes these TV series worth watching.

The only knock against this issue is that each story seems unresolved by the time it finishes. I’m not sure if these stories are going to be continued in the next issue or not but it seems like they are lacking a definite ending. In some ways that is kind of enticing and makes these stories interesting because it lets you fill in your own ending. But at some point that could become a little old. On the flip side, I’m not sure I want a drawn out narrative about either of the stories presented here. That being said, I think fans of Star Trek will enjoy this issue if for no other other reason than it’s like watching a rerun from one of your favorite TV shows, warts and all.

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Outcast 21

outcast-21Patrick: For a series that deals so much with literal demonic possession, it’s amazing how much Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta’s Outcast dances around the existence of God. After all, if infernal intervention is a constant source of conflict, why shouldn’t divine intervention be a solution? Issue 21 finds Reverend Anderson tied to a chair, and about to be tortured to death, with nothing but his faith to save him. He escapes, of course, but it’s a series of tiny victories that ultimately reveal a much bigger threat.

And actually, I want to focus on the size and scope these things. In the world of Outcast, evil is big. It’s not just a wicked force we see violently asserting itself over and over again, but it’s so wide-spread that “half the town” serves that darker power. Sidney has them all collected in one deepwoods commune. But the powers for good are so much smaller — and much more poorly organized. We can count the issue’s heroes on one hand, and we really only need that second finger if we’re feeling generous about Kyle’s role in this one. Whatever goodness, light, or divinity asserts itself in this issue has to do so solely through Reverend Anderson. One guy.

Appropriately, Azaceta likes to hint at these tiny godly moments with itty-bitty insert panels. We get a full seven (seven!) insert panels showing the incremental damage to the chair Anderson is tied to over the course of two pages. The forces of good are slow, small and intensely local.

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Snotgirl 3

snotgirl-3Spencer: Lottie Person, the eponymous star of Bryan Lee O’Malley and Leslie Hung’s Snotgirl, may just be the most self-centered protagonist I’ve ever seen. Notice I don’t call her selfish — being selfish implies  that one is purposely putting themselves ahead of others, and Lottie simply isn’t self-aware enough to do that. To Lottie, other people only exist as an extension of herself, either there to adore her, annoy her, judge her, support her, or be her enemy.

I’d call it narcissism, if not for the fact that Lottie appears to simply be wildly emotionally stunted. Her fear of showing her real self (snotty or otherwise) has led her to prioritizing her appearance and persona above all else; it’s impossible to think of others when you’re obsessed with how you appear and how others view you. Lottie’s pathologically incapable of being genuine.

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(It also explains why Lottie is this angry at Charlene for “copying her life” — it’s all she has.)

To be fair, Lottie’s real feelings here are completely paranoid and bonkers, but the fact that she still can’t admit them to Sunny, someone who she admits “knows [her] better than anyone,” is telling. Instead, she makes up a ridiculously petty excuse, but one which reinforces the glamourous celebrity persona she’s trying to create for herself. Lottie may be completely self-centered, but I feel more sorry for her than annoyed — she’s one messed-up girl.

Complicating matters is the fact that there may be some truth to Lottie’s delusions of grandeur. Charlene plays innocent, but has dirt on Lottie and seems to be taking pleasure in holding it over her. Hung even obscures Charlene’s eyes behind her glasses, hiding Charlene’s real emotions, in every panel except the ones where she’s taunting Lottie — that’s when her mask drops and we see the “real” Charlene. Then there’s the cop who appears to be obsessed with Lottie; between these two and the somehow-alive “Cool Girl,” there’s some strange happenings going on in the background of Snotgirl. As callous and obliviously-destructive as Lottie can be, this still manages to paint her as a bit of a victim: a victim of a society that values appearance above all (especially for women), and a victim of a society that goes on to villainize the very women they’ve sexualized in the first place.

Lottie’s still astonishingly self-centered though.

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Surgeon X 1

surgeon-xDrew: Comics editors never get their due; a fact that’s especially true of Karen Berger. I understand why this is the case — it’s not always clear what influence an editor had over a given issue, and there’s a lot more marketing cachet wrapped up in the appeal of writers and artists — but the more I learn about comics history, the more I think editors were the ones steering the ship. Berger has a special place in the direction of comics over the last 30 years, not only recruiting writers like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, but giving them an incubator to experiment and develop. Moreover, Vertigo is responsible for some of the best comics over the last 25 years, such that it’s difficult to imagine the modern comics landscape without its influence. Suffice it to say: any project with Berger’s name on it is going to get my attention.

Of course, it may also set my expectations unreasonably high. Surgeon X 1 has a lot of exposition to get through — so much so that I couldn’t have anticipated its cliffhanger ending for being so overwhelmed by the rest of the information this issue delivers. In the year 2036, London’s mayoral race seems to be down to one issue: the rationing of antibiotics. The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has reduced the effectivity of antibiotics, and driven the world to fear overusing them, such that infections are once again the leading cause of death. These are decidedly abstract ideas, so are delivered mostly via text. It’s a credit to writer Sara Kenney that she comes up with so many ways for characters to explain their world to the audience; in addition to the voiceover narration, we see a couple political speeches and a college lecture addressing this very subject. Unfortunately, it’s still not enough information for me to feel particularly informed on the subject — when the protagonist decides to fight the rationing of antibiotics, I don’t know if she’s being heroic or needlessly reckless.

Oddly, in spite of its centrality, this doesn’t seem to be the question that the series is most interested in. Those mayoral candidates seem to be important figures until they’re both killed in a sequence so unceremonious (and unremarked upon) that they apparently never mattered to anyone. It may have been designed to shock us out of assuming anyone was safe, but it mostly makes the issue feel as if there are no stakes whatsoever. Rosa seems to care about Dominic, but his death has so little consequence, I have to wonder why he was even included. That feeling was exacerbated when the hook for issue 2 is revealed to be the mysterious circumstances surrounding Rose’s mother’s death. It has the effect of making all of that antibiotic exposition feel unnecessary — it’s not that I doubt it will come up later, just that it got in the way of establishing what the emotional stakes were for this issue. If Rose’s mother mattered, perhaps we should have zeroed in on her, rather than a mayoral race nobody seems to have any investment in.

I have a number of problems with this issue, but Berger’s name on the cover is a strong enough vote of confidence to get me to come back for issue 2. I hope it finds its footing before that goodwill runs out.

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

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2 comments on “Weekly Round-Up: Comics Released 9/28/16

  1. Lake of Fire #2 was really good. The characters slightly started to blur together as I had a hard time remembering exactly who was who, but this thing is moving forward fast. It’s exciting, the alien villains are effectively scary, the human villains are excitingly gross and evil, and the heroes are a wonderful mix of gruff and grumpy mixed with youthful exuberance and innocence.

    This is fun.

  2. Order of the Stick: With the third arc of Order of the Stick, War and XPs, the scope dramatically scales. Which is amazing.

    Order of the Stick uses a very simple art style. It is literally Stick Figures. Really high quality stick figures, but stick figures. And yet, it doesn’t matter when you can use it correctly. And Burlew shows that he can. I mean, he draws truly extraordinary scenes where there are armies of little orange heads. And, more importantly, he does scenes of such joyous action. Roy leaping in the air to fight Xykon on his zombie dragon. Vaarsuvius defending the breach in the wall with 12 men and Mass Enlarge Person. Belkar’s cry of ‘I AM A SEXY SHOWLESS GOD OF WAR!’. All of these moments and more are truly fantastic action beats as we face the major battle. In a stick figure comic, the spectacle is amazing.

    But of course, there is more to this than just a big battle at Azure City. There is, of course, always more going under the hood. And this arc, Order of the Stick is now paying attention to the side characters. Before the war begins, there is still much to do. Firstly, the Order goes to the Oracle to learn which Gate Xykon will go to next. Alongside some foreshadowing of future stories, Roy makes a grievous mistake because he refuses to listen to the Oracle.
    The Order teleport to Cliffport to save Roy’s sister from Nale and the Linear Guild. And even the act of teleportation is full of theme, thanks to drawing attention to the fact that the wizard has an inner life and sick of being treated as nothing because he isn’t a main character. But more importantly, the Order of the Stick’s actions are disastrous, thanks to Nale actually considering the actions of everyone else around him. Nale’s traps are built around taking advantage of the Order of the Stick’s focus only on major characters, and hide among hostages. But more importantly, they succeed in Nale’s evil plan – to have Elan arrested for Nale’s plans while Nale infiltrates the Order – largely by exploiting Cliffport’s laws. Something that the Order of the Stick would ignore.

    Meanwhile, Haley’s story arc, built around her loss of the ability to speak last arc, is all about having to connect to others. While the entire Order needs to learn to communicate with those of ‘lesser importance’, Haley is so trapped by secrets and lies that she takes this flaw to the extreme. And so, Haley’s development helps truly build her into the Order of the Stick’s Second in Command.
    And this combines with Elan’s arc. Trapped in jail for crime he didn’t commit and with the complete wrong set of class abilities, he must instead manipulate/befriend Thog to escape (and I just have to quote the greatest line in the history of comics, by Thog explaining Nale’s evil plan: “not nale, not-nale. thog help nale nail not-nale, not nale. and thog knot not-nale while nale nail not-nale. nale, not not-nale, now nail not-nale by leaving not-nale, not nale, in jail.”). From there, Elan gains competency by learning a Prestige Class, the Dashing Swordsman that is a wonderful parody of cliche swashbucklers, by developing a supporting cast around himself.
    By looking outside themselves, they manage to defeat the Linear Guild, and are at their best selves when Xykon attacks. It isn’t just that Haley can talk again and Elan is competent. It is that by learning to be open, they have a greater empathy and ability to work with others.

    Meanwhile, there is Miko. Last arc, Miko’s fatal flaw was how she used her alignment as an excuse for tyranny. Here, her flaw is that she doesn’t listen. She still suffers her flaw from the first arc, but it is compounded by a refusal to listen and to instead focus entirely on her view of the universe. Which is fatally flawed, and filled with bias. When she learns of Shojo’s corruption, she lets those biases go wild, refusing to listen and understand that Shojo’s actions were ultimately for the preservation of the universe because she refuses to listen to any view that doesn’t include her biases. When she kills Shojo in cold blood, she is forced to listen for the very first time. The Twelve Gods are very clear in expressing their displeasure, stripping Miko of her Paladin powers (on great lines, Shojo’s nephew Hinjo gets a fantastic line fighting Miko in the aftermath. ‘You stand in front of this murderer?’ ‘I’ll stand between any two murderers I wish!’)

    By the time the battle begins, the pieces are in play. As Xykon attacks, Hinjo quickly establishes himself as a character worth paying attention to simply because the Order of the Stick make a point to listen and realise he is worth listening to. While the Order, as high level characters, are treated with the respect they deserve as powerhouses, Hinjo is treated as the centre of the battle, and quite rightly.

    Thanks to Hinjo, they almost win. Hinjo plans for everything properly, and even as Xykon builds a plan that explicitly takes advantage of Paladin’s Lawful natures, he is outplayed. When the Order try and deal with Xykon, it goes horribly. Roy tries to fight Xykon one on one, and fails miserably against an epic level Sorcerer. He instead falls, and update 443 shows the result of Roy’s failure. Falling from the sky, he is helpless as he tries literally everything to find some way to survive. Instead, Roy crashes to the ground, dead.

    Hinjo, meanwhile, creates a plan that actually stops Xykon. Xykon and Redcloak reach the gate, but fail miserably. They find themselves lying on the ground, battered and defeated and about to be executed, thinking it is all over. And the only reason they succeed is that Miko, free from prison and still refusing to learn her lesson, is completely lost in her own world. Obsessed with the idea that she is the Hero, she destroys the Gate, changing everything and letting the Paladins snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. She dies, and her eternal reward? The simple statement that ‘Redemption isn’t for everyone’.

    Meanwhile, Hinjo and the Order have nothing to do except retreat to sea. Everything goes wrong, leaving the Order scattered and broken. A doom, simply because unlike the Order, Miko refused to listen.

    Order of the Stick is set in a world where there is a very clear delineation between PCs and NPCs. The world actually does revolve around the PCs. But the hidden truth is that such superiority is wrong. The NPCs deserve as much of a life, as important a treatment, as the PCs. The NPCs have just as much ability to save the day, are just as valuable, as the PCs. In some ways, this idea reminds me a lot of HBO’s new Westworld show (the first episode was amazing). That same critique of how we, as players, interact with the world around us. Order of the Stick looks at all issues through the lens of how we interact with those issues in the context of a game/narrative, and that’s what makes it so good.

    Damn, there is a lot to say. I keep missing large chunks of the arcs to try and create a general review. Didn’t mention Redcloak’s arc, or Daigo and Kazumi, or some of the other great content built around exploring this idea of treating NPCs with respect. Or the other great stuff, like how both game mechanics and narrative mechanics (and their subversions) are used to characterise, especially with Xykon. But that’s the thing. The webcomic is amazingly deep. The fact that a comic that begun as a gag a day thing turned into something as layered and deep is amazing

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