Welcome to this month’s “Graphic Novel Picks of the Month!” If you are looking to fill your reading list for January with some excellent graphic fiction, look no further. This time around, we will be looking at Konungar: War of Crowns, Outpost Zero, Volume 1: The Smallest Town in the Universe, Transformers: Unicron, Killer Instinct, Skybourne, Bill Sienkiewicz’s Mutants and Moon Knights… and Assassins…: Artifact Edition, Death or Glory, Volume 1: She’s Got You, The Fade Out, and Breaking Up is Hard to Do, But You Could’ve Done Better. Get ready to spend those holiday gift cards on filling up your bookshelves!
Konungar: War of Crowns
Titan Comics has been doing some really interesting work with their Statix Press imprint, bringing European comics into North America. This trend continues with an English translation of the French comic Konungar, given the new subtitle for this release. Runberg is known for his adaption of the Millennium Trilogy into comics, and here he turns his focus onto a high fantasy Norse epic. And it is so badass.
Now, I’ll be honest. Konungar: War of Crowns isn’t perfect. Especially early on, the story was a little confusing, with characters and flashbacks coming at the reader rapidly, without quite distinct enough art to tell who is who. But if you give Konungar time, it will blow you away.
The saga of a kingdom ruled by a tyrant king whose brother is going to lead a rebellion to try to overthrow rule isn’t stunningly novel. But throw in more factions with their own agendas and a brutally lived-in setting, and this suddenly feels like George R.R. Martin and Robert E. Howard had a child who was then raised by wolves. The characters have enough depth to move the story forward, but all extra space is devoted to an intricate plot and epic fight scenes.
The art is brilliant in this, too. Juzhen seems to find his sweet spot when it comes to vicious battles between enormous monsters and raging warriors. The vistas are brilliant, and the colors are spot on. Runberg seems to have found the right balance for plot and action, giving the fighting room when it needs it without letting it run away from him.
Konungar: War of Crowns is a sword and sorcery lover’s dream. If you haven’t yet, check it out.
Trigger warning: Konungar: War of Crowns does have an explicit rape scene. It plays into a number of characters’ personal stories and is relevant to the plot, and is also disturbing. Consider this before making your final decision.
Outpost Zero, Volume 1: The Smallest Town in the Universe
All of the creators attached to Outpost Zero, Volume 1: The Smallest Town in the Universe were new to me, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. That said, I’m a huge proponent of more planetary science fiction and pseudo-space opera in comics, so I figured why not give Outpost Zero a try.
Outpost Zero begins on the edge of human civilization. People are living under a dome on an inhospitable planet, fighting to survive rather than thrive. Of course, even on the edge of the universe, teenagers will be teenagers, and angst about relationships and the future mix with getting in way over their heads, right as a natural disaster strikes the domed city.
I loved this first collection of Outpost Zero. It was engaging, it was fun, there was suspense and action and human drama. The story was written cleanly and without riffraff, while the art was magnificent in depicting the familiar within the alien. I am not sure if this title was intended to be a young adult comic, but given the ages of the protagonists and the content, it very much felt like it. And I mean that in the best way. Outpost Zero isn’t young adult as in for kids or watered down or derivative. It’s young adult in the way Heinlein’s juveniles are young adult, full of science and excitement and respect for its readers. This is a comic I will hand to my step-daughter in a couple years, as a representation of young women doing awesome things despite what society tells them to do. I cannot wait for more Outpost Zero.
Writer: John Barber
Artist: Alex Milne, Sara Pitre-Durocher, Andrew Griffith, Kei Zama
Colorist: Sebastian Cheng, David Garcia Cruz, Joana Lafuente
Back-Up Story Writers: Chris Ryall (ROM), David Rodriguez (G.I. Joe), Brandon Easton (M.A.S.K.), Christos Gage (Micronauts), Magdalene Visaggio (Visionaries)
Back-Up Story Artists: David Messina (ROM), Nelson Dániel (G.I. Joe), Juan Samu (M.A.S.K.), Paolo Villanelli (Micronauts), Fico Ossio (Visionaries)
Back-Up Colorists: Alessandra Alexakis (ROM), Nelson Dániel (G.I. Joe), David Garcia Cruz (M.A.S.K., Visionaries), Mattia Iacono (Micronauts)
I’ve been interested in checking out IDW’s Transformers universe for a while now, so, of course, I decided to jump in with the final story before they end their universe and start a new one. So how does the end of everything for the Transformers universe hold up? Let’s find out!
Hints of a great destroyer have been growing over the last few years, and finally, the people of Cybertron come face-to-face with the world-consuming Unicron. The Transformers find themselves divided, but must all come together to try to stop a being with the power to consume stars. Characters from across IDW’s entire Hasbro universe make appearances, with G.I. Joe playing a particularly consistent role. But at the end of it all, it is up to the greatest heroes and villains in Transformers history to stand against Unicron.
The first thing that hit me as I read Transformers: Unicron was how rich the universe depicted in the comics felt. IDW has clearly put a lot of work into their Transformers line. The characters were distinct individuals, and the relationships between them felt truly lived in. Reading this made me want to go back to the beginning and read everything IDW had released as part of their Transformers universe.
The writing was brilliant. The scope of the story was enormous, yet the characters never seemed to get lost. And the art was gorgeous. The colors were so vivid, the scale so huge, at times I felt giddy reading through this.
I am hard-pressed to think of another space opera war comic I have enjoyed more recently. Perhaps Annihilation. But truly, few comics can match the emotion and action of Transformers: Unicron. This was a wonderful read.
Comic book adaptions of video games have a tumultuous history, to say the least. Generally, they have a tendency to turn out pretty bad. That said, Ian Edginton is a solid writer, and I have enjoyed his previous works, so I came to this with hope.
Unfortunately, that hope was rapidly dashed.
Killer Instinct begins after the end of a great battle against a demon bent on terrible things. The forces of good won the battle, but Earth is left devastated. People in cities are scavenging for food, communes are trying to go back to living off the land, and roaming groups of people bent on stealing from others to fulfill their own needs are a very real problem. People with great powers still roam the land, as do vampires, sentient robots, aliens, spirit beasts, mummies, etc.
The art on Killer Instinct isn’t bad. It fulfills the needs of the story and generally is effective at progressing the plot. Where Killer Instinct really flops is in the storyline. There are a number of disparate elements that will not be clear to those who haven’t played Killer Instinct on Xbox One. Mostly these can be muddled through, but it does leave a certain amount of ambivalence when it comes to certain bonds and hatreds. Beyond that, the characters do not feel particularly fleshed out, and the plot meanders without passing along any sense of urgency or suspense.
There are lots of fight scenes. This obviously makes sense, given that Killer Instinct is based on a fighting game. But there is not enough meat to tie the fights together. If you are a big fan of the game, then give Killer Instinct a shot, but go in with low expectations. Everyone else should avoid this.
I imagine many of you are familiar with Frank Cho’s work, at least his art if not his writing. Skybourne is perhaps the most Frank Cho a comic can get. I’ll explain more after the recap.
The descendants of Lazarus find themselves in a bind as their immortality is tested by a man who wants to destroy the world and may have stepped out of myth.
If that seems like a shorter recap than any of the other titles this month, it’s because it is. Skybourne isn’t here to give you lots of plot. I wouldn’t even have known who the protagonists were descended from if there hadn’t been a recap page at the start of the book. What Skybourne does have in spades is action. It is an action title through-and-through, and it does action gloriously. Cho lets loose with massive set pieces involving mythical monsters dueling it out with soldiers and immortals.
Now, if you are familiar with Cho’s work, you know he does three things in all his comics: exotic locations, action, and women. We’ve discussed exotic locations and action, but what about the last? Cho is surprisingly reigned in on this front in Skybourne. Which might also be because there is only one female character that gets any significant screen time, and she doesn’t make it very far into the story. Not to say that Cho doesn’t still draw all the women as gorgeous, curvy supermodels with boobs bigger than their heads, because he does. But this didn’t feel quite as exploitative or problematic as his art can sometimes come across. Other than the final chapter’s gratuitous boob discussing while a woman’s shirt is half on, which basically swept away my hopes for a more balanced gender economy in Skybourne.
Long story short, Skybourne is a great action comic that fills the summer blockbuster void, although it doesn’t stand out for its intelligence.
Bill Sienkiewicz’s Mutants and Moon Knights… and Assassins…: Artifact Edition
IDW has been releasing their series of art books for a while now, and they are typically magnificent. Bill Sienkiewicz’s Mutants and Moon Knights… and Assassins…: Artifact Edition fits in that mold perfectly. Obviously, if you aren’t a fan of Sienkiewicz’s art, you won’t find a whole lot to love here. But if you are, this is a treasure trove.
I only have limited experience with Sienkiewicz’s work. I read his run on New Mutants, and while initially jarred by the huge change in artistic direction he represented for that series, I found myself really appreciating his work more and more as the series progressed. When he dropped back to just inking New Mutants, the difference was stark, and I missed his work. Sienkiewicz has also done a number of gripping covers, and his work would look great on a wall.
The volume presents a smattering of his work, covering his progression from his early career with Moon Knight, where his work didn’t have the same flare, to New Mutants, and beyond that to Elektra, where he took his style to new extremes and new heights.
A certain element is lost when Sienkiewicz’s work is presented outside of the story he was telling, as his work does do a great job of storytelling that is interrupted here. But as a standalone sampler of a great artist’s work, this is hard to beat.
Death or Glory, Volume 1: She’s Got You
My reading of Rick Remender has been up and down. I went from the high of Uncanny X-Force to the low of Avengers & X-Men: AXIS, back to the high of Black Science. So now I approach his work with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Fortunately, no concern need be had about approaching Death or Glory, Volume 1: She’s Got You.
Death or Glory follows the conveniently-named Glory as she fights to find a way to get her father the organ transplant he needs. Things get a little out of control, though, when she stumbles into the middle of a human trafficking operation and has to fight it out with some rather creepy assailants.
Death or Glory feels like it plays to Remender’s strengths. The character interactions are spot on, and the characters feel like they are both three-dimensional and have room to grow. Remender also does also does just-off-normal very well, with the bizarre never feeling too out of touch from reality. Bengal’s art masterfully matches Remender’s story beats, although anyone familiar with Bengal’s artwork won’t doubt that he brings solid work to the table.
Death or Glory, Volume 1: She’s Got You is solid fun and a gripping read. This is a series worth following.
Trigger warning: There is a fair bit of gruesome imagery here. It involves human trafficking, which isn’t exactly humane. Consider yourself warned.
The Fade Out
Remember that time Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips made a crappy noir comic? You don’t? Yeah, that’s probably because it’s never happened.
The Fade Out is Brubaker and Phillips’ most recent noir epic. When an up-and-coming actress is murdered, the screenwriter who wakes up in her bedroom begins an odyssey through the underbelly of Hollywood during the heights of the Red Scare. Undercover FBI Communist hunters brush shoulders with pulp crime writers as the seemingly straightforward murder becomes more and more complicated.
The Fade Out is brilliant. I was completely sucked into the story and loved every dark turn it took. Brubaker’s writing is crisp and feels like it would fit in nicely with the noir writing of the genre, while Phillips does a brilliant job of telling the story and adding gravitas through his art.
If you don’t read any other title this month, read this one. And then go read all of the other books Brubaker and Phillips have put out. It will get your year off to a bleak but beautiful start.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do, But You Could’ve Done Better
I am new to Fitzgerald Campbell’s cartoon work, with Breaking Up is Hard to Do, But You Could’ve Done Better being my introduction. This is a bit of a tricky book to review, as the majority of the content is stories of break-ups submitted to Fitzgerald Campbell via Twitter and presented here without authors listed. Each of these stories then has an accompanying cartoon. Based on the cartoons included in the book, Fitzgerald Campbell’s work occasionally struck my funny bone, but mostly felt a little flat to me. The stories themselves were sometimes engaging, sometimes bland but mercifully short, yet all felt like pretty standard sponsored link content from Facebook. I wanted to like this book, and I had hoped for more depth out of both the stories and the cartoons. Instead, this was a very quick read that did not leave me feeling much of anything.
Luke Forney/GeekDad received copies of each of the graphic novels included in this list for review purposes.