Graphic Novel Review: Radiant Black Vol. 1 from Image Comics

I had to snap a picture of my copy of “Radiant Black,” published by Image Comics, because this cover art is exactly what I love about comics. For this comic exclusive variant covers were created for local comic book shops. This was the cover created for my local comic book shop, Things From Another World.

“Radiant Black” was written by Kyle Higgins, with artist Marcelo Costa, and guest writers and artists for various chapters. Fans of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers will love this but even if you don’t know a thing about them like me, you’ll appreciate the story.

Radiant Black follows failed novelist Nathan Burnett, who just turned thirty and moves back home from LA, saddled with impossible credit card debt and no published books to propel him to the fame and fortune of his dreams. Instead he’s back home with his parents, who tell him to be practical, to get a real job, like driving for a rideshare service.

He hangs out with his best friend from high school, Marshall; the two of them used to dream up story ideas together and plan for the future. One night after an evening at a bar, the buddies encounter a strange black orb floating around in the sky that suddenly envelopes around Nathan and encases him in a strange suit with superpowers.

In one of his first acts as a reluctant superhero, Nathan learns there are others with suits like his – only one’s a bank robber. He encounters them and they get in a fight. The bank robber leaves behind a bag of cash. Instead of taking it to pay off his debts, Nathan turns it into the police. Moments like that define a person’s character, and that’s just the kind of person Nathan is.

This was a wonderful, classic superhero tale, fresh and briskly paced. Nathan is the type of protagonist to whom everyone who’s ever had creative dreams can relate. The story isn’t predictable though, and through some dead ends and twists and turns, it takes you on a ride you won’t soon forget.

I really enjoyed the art as well, and its use of light and dark tones to set the atmosphere and mood. All in all, a lovely story and engaging book.

Graphic Novel Review: Crimson Flower by Dark Horse Comics

A girl seeking revenge for her father’s death finds refuge in Russian folk tales in “Crimson Flower,” a graphic novel published by Dark Horse Press, written by Matt Kindt, with Matt Lesniewski on art and letters. This was a great premise that ultimately fell short in execution in a few parts for me, but I still enjoyed the story overall. I just wanted more consistency from it.

The book opens following Rodion, a red-haired woman living in Russia who has a single-minded obsession – finding her father’s killer. First we meet her in her father’s study as a child, where she reads Russian folk tales to escape her dreary existence. Then she witnesses her father’s brutal murder. The story then jumps to her life as a pharmaceutical sales rep, a job that conveniently allows her to extort information along the way in search of her father’s murderer. Rodion finally finds the information she is looking for and she embarks on a mad, violent adventure pursuing a disparate crew of retired Russian assassins. 

It is implied that Rodion has some sort of mental illness in which the people she meets are physically manifested as fairy tale creatures, but this is never really fully explained; the fairy tale element was so subtle, and not explored all that much. I wanted it to be linked more prominently to more of the plot. All we get is Rodion telling her Russian folk stories from time to time; when she meets her father’s killer, he too has the same fascination with storytelling. Her enemies and targets sometimes turn into folk tale creatures but mostly just look scary or intense. As it was, the revenge story and its implausible elements took center stage, and the folk tales were kind of an after thought. 

The art for me was a bit of an acquired taste as well. I found the depiction of Rodion to be quite interesting; there was a focus on her wild, free-flowing hair and her teeth were often featured prominently in a somewhat distracting way when she was upset. But the art grew on me and suited the vicious bombastic-ness of the dark, relentless revenge tale. 

Despite these negative comments, I was still entertained in the end. It was different, an interesting premise, a character that had potential. I just wanted the plot to be held together by a bit more than blood and sinew.

Graphic Novel Review: The Black Ghost

“The Black Ghost” Hard Revolution, published by Dark Ghost Comics. Photo by Denise Ruttan.

I immediately had a soft spot for the main character of “The Black Ghost: Hard Revolution” because she was a cops reporter for the Creighton Courier, and as a former small town newspaper reporter, I always have to root for journalists, especially in this era of fake news and widespread disrespect toward the media. 

You can argue with me all you want about sensationalism, incompetence, ratings and media’s part in influencing politics for the worse, but we need the fourth estate – who else do you think will hold government accountable, Facebook? – and most reporters are there because they want to help people with the power of their words, underneath the usual ambition and self interest and all the rest of the legitimate criticisms. This graphic novel is written by Alex Segura and Monica Gallagher, with art by George Kambadais, and is published by Dark Horse Comics. 

The story follows Lara Dominguez, an alcoholic still recovering from the trauma of her brother’s murder. Dominguez is a talented reporter who has become washed up and obsessed with the Black Ghost, a vigilante masked superhero who fights Creighton’s shady network of crime bosses and corrupt city officials. Her coworkers tease her that she has a crush on him. She abandons all her other assignments to pursue the vigilante in the night. 

Somehow, she also finds time to teach night GED classes, where she meets Ernesto, who becomes her unlikely partner after she saves him from a violent lesson meant for his father who won’t deal with dirty money. But then one day The Black Ghost is killed while Lara is watching, and she has some choices to make to prevent the city from falling to shambles. 

Lara is a superhero in the vein of Jessica Jones or Deadpool, someone who’s a real fuck-up, basically, and you wonder how they still function, but you keep wanting her to get her shit together and fight the bad guys, anyway. This is because the world around her is far more corrupt and evil than she and even hungover or heady with the adrenaline rush of beating a bad guy in a fight, she still knows right from wrong and she sticks with her moral code. 

I found some parts of the writing inconsistent but maybe that’s because it was written as a team; for example, Lara gets blackout drunk every night but still survives another day to fight crime at night, teach GED classes and work her day job. Drunks can certainly be high-functioning and quite often they’re people you don’t suspect, although if she was that much of an alcoholic she would not be getting hangovers anymore. In some ways it felt as if the plot was being developed comic by comic (this book collects comics 1-5) rather than one cohesive arc so maybe that is why I stumbled over some parts. I will give the writing credit for having her job fire her, however, and she is definitely a bumbling, bleary-eyed “hero.” And everyone around her wants Lara to get help except Lara herself, which is definitely realistic.

For a superhero Lara is most decidedly an anti-hero; as she says, “I’m just a reporter, after all. Not a hero.” But she’s not particularly good at either. Further, I sometimes had to re-read parts to figure out which bad guy was still running the show. I liked the setting of Creighton, though; it reminded me of Gotham, filled with colorful crime bosses all vying for power and city officials who roll over for them, until you are left wondering if there are any good guys left, and indeed whom we’ve got is Lara. 

The art was deceptively simple, like pencil sketches; I wanted to see more shadowy tones to depict shifts in mood and time of day, but it was a consistent tone, mood and lighting scheme throughout. But I still liked the art and it suited the story; it put the focus on the characters and all Lara’s many wonderful facial expressions. 

All in all, despite some rough edges, I enjoyed this book because I am partial to dark and gritty stories with flawed people who don’t have any particularly special powers but do the right thing anyway. This really delivered if you like reporters fighting crime, dark themes and unlikely anti-heroes.

Graphic Novel Review: Home Sick Pilots Volume 1

Lately I have found myself devouring Gothic literature and haunted house stories, out of a love for the genre and the atmosphere, but also consistently finding myself disappointed. This particular genre is filled with so many tired tropes and common motifs, that eventually, all stories start to seem redundant, like an endless cookie cutter copying the plot from Jane Eyre and The Haunting at Hill House and other mainstays. A young woman with a traumatic past moves into a spooky old house and there are ghosts and sometimes they are evil and sometimes they help heal and sometimes there are unresolved tensions with the supernatural, you’re never sure if it’s the ghost or the trauma. There’s a mysterious brooding man about, there’s fog, there’s a downtrodden countryside in the middle of nowhere. Blah blah blah.

“Home Sick Pilots” breaks that mold in a surprising, refreshing way, splattered with ectoplasm and teenage angst. This graphic novel published by Image Comics is brought to us by writer Dan Watters and artist Caspar Wijngaard. It tells the story of the Home Sick Pilots, which was the brainchild of foster child Ami, a troubled kid who wound up in the foster system after her mother died. She feels lost, unwanted, unmoored, until she meets disaffected stoners Rip and Buzz, who have a begrudging appreciation for her love of the Ramones and bring her in their orbit. With her in the picture, their band becomes something special, the three of them against the world.

One night they go to see a lame band called the Nuclear Bastards. Then Ami gets it in her head to host a gig at the infamous Old James House, said to be so haunted that it trapped the last person who visited it and they were never seen since. That leads them down a dark and twisted path that is part redemption arc with a flavor of Stockholm Syndrome, taking the haunted house trope and morphing it into a superhero thriller with X-Files spice. 

I am so tempted to give spoilers, but man, that ending is something else. It just keeps taking you down corridors you don’t expect. The lost, traumatized girl becomes a badass piloting her own destiny, but she still wants the band back together, the thread that binds her back to a reality that she thought she wanted to leave behind forever, despite reality turning its back on her.

The art was really well done, complete with an interesting technique when the scenes segued into new chapters; taking a completely black background, interspersing the absolute negative space with black-on-white thought bubbles exploring Ami’s successive psychological transformations. It had a wonderful dark, moody vibe throughout. 

Loved this book so much that I already pre-ordered Volume 2, and I hardly ever continue on in a series – too many good books out there to stick with one author or creative team. But I wanted more of this universe; it sunk its spectral teeth into me and pulled me along for the ride.

Graphic Novel Review: Dreaming Eagles, published by AfterShock Comics

“Dreaming Eagles,” written by Gareth Ennis, art by Simon Coleby, published by AfterShock Comics, is historical fiction that tells of the drama, trials and adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Corps – men who fought both the Nazis in World War II, and discrimination at home. It tells their stories through the eyes of one of their own, veteran Reggie Atkinson, who opens up to his son Lee after a father worries for his son fighting his own battles in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. 

Overcoming his initial reluctance to talk about his wartime experiences, Reggie soon sees it as a chance to connect with his son about shared pain and hope for a better future. Over beers, Reggie spills it all, telling the tale chronologically of his time in the squadron through several years of war. The story is slow paced without a traditional narrative arc, but that suits the meandering thrust of the story, a father talking to his son on a warm evening on their porch. And at times the writing gets too caught up in the technical engineering specifications of the aircraft; sometimes this brings history to life, and sometimes it gets a bit dry. Those were my only criticisms, however; overall I really enjoyed this book. 

The writing was good, the art was strong, and the story did a great job of personalizing a pivotal historical time that needs more intimate attention than history textbooks can give. The graphic novel is the perfect medium for this. The book is at its best when it gets into character development and the captivating cast of characters that made up the squadron. I really got a feel for the time period and both the casual and overt bigotry that these men faced daily.

Even after they proved themselves, flew more missions and made more kills than their white commanders predicted, and came home decorated soldiers, they still had to keep proving themselves. But something changed after the war, after they saw how their courage and dedication kept them alive. They had fought, despite the hate, for an America that they believed was better than what Nazi Germany had to offer; but they also believed America could be better than what it gave them, if only it let herself, if only it acknowledged it could be better.

This is a beautiful book, and I felt like I was having a conversation with Reggie right there on the porch with him – the joy and the pain felt so warm and so real. Published in 2016, this story is just as prescient now as ever, and just as important to be heard. 

Graphic Novel Review: Lonely Receiver by AfterShock Comics

“Lonely Receiver,” written by Zac Thompson and illustrated by Jen Hickman, published by AfterShock Comics, simply blew me away. It’s exactly the perfect horror breakup story for our times, a modern, edgy sparkplug of bizarro in a storytelling format uniquely suited to comics. 

The story follows Catrin Vander, a lonely video producer whose job is to scour social media feeds for mentions of fossil fuels and other unmentionables and flag them for censorship. After a devastating breakup, Catrin can’t face being single again, so she buys an Artificial Intelligence partner instead; think a combination of your smart fitness watch and your phone, with haptic nerves, melded to your brain. Her new wife, Rhion, is made to order, a life partner who meets Catrin’s every needs and desires. But Catrin is broken, using her partners to fill gaps within herself, and Rhion isn’t the image of perfection that Catrin had fashioned her to be. Rhion inexplicably leaves one day, but the bio-engineered interface that connects her to Catrin is forever linked with her way of interfacing with the outside world, plunging her into darkness and desperation.

Thus, Catrin is finally, truly alone, and begins a steady, haunting spiral into madness, escapism and obsession, chasing after haptic ghosts until she loses herself. Catrin descends into the recesses of her trauma until she inherits the visage of the one that she lost, a receiver, a machine with a human costume.

The writing in this story is wonderful, a mix of code, erotic verse, stanza and literary powerhouse. The mixed-media storytelling weaves in the profound, tactile experience of mental illness and confronting one’s past trauma amid loud, bold colors and fragmented dialogue. Throughout much of the story, Catrin is shown naked, vulnerable, as she loses her flesh to the lust that she feared, the inherent loneliness and jealousy that separated her from her love. 

This is beautiful, evocative, psychological horror, with a flush of sexiness, a whispered scream of abuse and the continuous thread of twisted romance. The cast is small, almost a character study into the mind and obsessions of Catrin, so that the reader is in turn immersed in her horror, her mental illness, her trauma, as she is turned inside out and devoured by the machine world, made more her and less her, until she, too, is forgotten, hardly recognizable. 

Highly recommend. 

“Modern life has forced us to exist in pieces. Our society is predicated on pretending to be okay. We’re terrified of telling people how we actually feel. And if someone asks you how you feel, you’re only supposed to respond with ‘great.’

“Well, what you’re about to read, is an account of all the times when I wasn’t okay. Where I was pretty fucking far from great.

“But I’m here. Alive and better for it. Terrified to share Catrin’s story.” —Lonely Receiver

Graphic Novel Review: Adler by Titan Comics

“Adler” by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Paul McCaffrey, published by Titan Comics, promised a League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen from science and history, and on that front, it delivered. It had me at that premise, so I can’t fault it for expecting any less. 

But this book belongs to a new genre that I would call historical fiction, but reimagining history as if sexism and racism were not barriers. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see more representation and badass women doing badass things, as a woman comics fan in an industry dominated by badass men who get to have all the fun. On the other hand, I think rewriting history to be more inclusive can have an adverse effect on women – people can then weaponize it to argue that sexism never existed.

However, since this is a comic book, and thus prone to bombastic retellings because that’s expected of the genre, I am willing to give it license to go there, and just call it historical fantasy. As Adler says, “To be a woman is to be at war, Jane.” Best line of the whole book.

The protagonist of this story is Irene Adler, a minor character in the Sherlock Holmes universe who now gets top billing. Jane Eyre, who was an ambulance driver in the Boer Wars in South Africa, comes to London looking for work and a place to live. She’s introduced to the irrepressible Irene Adler and her London, a city at war with brutal crime gangs. First it’s Moriarty, who is easily dispatched, followed by, naturally, Ayesha, a barbarian queen come to take her revenge on the British Empire. 

The art was decent, some interesting plays with light and shadow to follow the arc of the narrative drama, but I found the plot somewhat scattered. For example, orphan Annie’s mission at the beginning of the book is to deliver special papers to Irene Adler; for starting off strong, this plot bunny falls by the wayside, and we never really hear about the papers. I suppose that’s coming in Book Two. Also, the villains meet with far too easy ends; the stakes just didn’t seem high enough.

Bottom line was, I think this story was just trying to do too much with too many famous people from history. It was the point, but it didn’t quite work for me; it felt like a gimmick. I would have liked it better if it was just Irene and Jane teaming up to fight crime and then having a little romance. They were the strongest characters in the book for me and I wanted more of them together. But, I suppose that is just not bombastic enough. 

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Graphic Novel Review: The Vain

I was drawn in by the drop-dead gorgeous cover art and the rest of the book did not disappoint. “The Vain,” published by Oni Press, is a wonderful noir thriller about a gang of vampires and the FBI agent who spends a lifetime chasing ghosts. 

The gang calls themselves “The Vain,” a crew of incredibly stylish, of course, vampires whom we first meet in a bank robbery in Chicago in 1941. But it’s not just any bank – it’s a blood bank. FBI Agent Felix Franklin, a fresh recruit desperate to prove himself, thinks this is his big break. The coincidences are too many to overlook.

Through the years, the gang of four works undercover for the FBI in the fight against the Nazis, surfaces again in Communist Cuba, and turns into a cult of spiritualists in the 60s cheating drug addicts out of their blood with promises of an endless life without pain. They steal blood, lay low for awhile, and manage another heist. A beautiful vampire called Lost is their ringleader. 

From his first run-in with them, Felix becomes obsessed. But of course, no one believes him. He loses his family, he’s institutionalized, he’s reinstated again at the FBI, but he becomes a laughingstock. That part is something that’s often missing from vampire stories; what happens to the people who see them, in a world that thinks they are a fairy tale? 

I am not usually a vampire fan; I am not an easy sell for these kinds of stories. You have to bring something original and different in order to entice me. I enjoyed the historical arc of the narrative, the focus on the 1940s. The art was vivid, realistic and quite wonderful throughout the book. The storyline was fun and fast-paced. The Vain became sympathetic villains, in the end, and I wanted this story to be a series instead of just a five-issue book. This was Bonnie and Clyde if Bonnie and Clyde were a badass, hot lesbian vampire couple robbing blood banks throughout history.

I also appreciated the foil with Felix, a do-gooder type driven to the brink of madness in his hunt for revenge.

All in all, a fun story, and a work of art. I will be keeping this one on my shelf for a long time. 

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Graphic Novel Review: Pirouette by Black Mask Studios, LLC

“Pirouette,” published by Black Mask Studios, LLC, is an understated little gem of a book about a girl named Pirouette and the two-faced clowns who raise her in a shabby old-timey circus. Clowns and circuses are fertile ground for fright, as well as beautiful art. 

This was a lovely book, light on story and heavy on art. The art was done in very dark tones, with some simply gorgeous character work by artist Carlos Granda. This kind of horror is not the kind of in-your-face body horror with cheap scare tactics. In fact, most of the violence happens “off-screen,” as it were, leaving the darkest scenes to the reader’s imagination. 

This is, instead, slow-burn psychological horror; I wasn’t exactly scared per se, but it did a good job of building a sinister whiff of desperation. Pirouette always thought she was abandoned at the circus as a baby and the circus life, with the abusive clowns who look after her, was her own personal hell that she’d be trapped in forever. Until one day, when the traveling circus arrives in the town of Lima, Ohio, a clown tells her a tale about her parents, and she goes on a wild goose chase, chasing after a strand of hope for some reason from clowns who have lied to her all her life. 

But in a twist, Pirouette’s dreams of a better life, a comfortable suburban life with a family who cares for her, are a fragile veneer; she knows the circus life is hers, and she has to make it work for her in the end. 

I liked this book because sometimes the scariest moments aren’t when the monsters attack you, but living with the monsters inside our head, instead. This is quiet horror, my favorite kind; a comforting kind of creep factor. This was an enjoyable little ride down the dark side of the circus. 

Graphic Novel Review: Odessa by Jonathan Hill

I haven’t blogged in so long! I haven’t been writing much so I don’t have much to report on my writing process. I plan to change up my reviews to only review graphic novels and indie books on this blog, and quick recaps of all books on my Goodreads. I am trying to read more comics so get ready for more comic book reviews! Without further ado…

“Odessa,” written and drawn by Jonathan Hill, published by Oni Press, is a lovely book. An epic, but understated; a heartwarming family story, except in a dark, dystopian setting. Comic books are usually produced by teams and this is a remarkable achievement by just one writer/artist. 

But, I almost DNF’ed it at first, so I am glad I stuck it through. This is not the kind of story that is packed with action and high stakes at the beginning. It is quite slow paced to start and then it is a slow burn mystery quest story as it unfolds. Eight years ago an earthquake, the Big One, hit the Cascadia fault line, wreaking disaster. Now America is a land pocked by bloodthirsty street gangs and strange new plants and animals, like jinx root, which heals injuries but also turns humans into cannibalistic creatures. 

With the backdrop of this landscape comes Ginny and her family – her two bratty younger brothers, Wes and Harry, and their distant but loving father. They’ve lived without their mother for years, so Ginny becomes the mother figure for the boys, whether she likes it or not. But one day on her seventeenth birthday, a mysterious package arrives from her mother, and Ginny is consumed by an obsession that she is alive. Driven by this urge, she embarks on a journey across the hellscape of the dystopian frontier on an impossible journey to find her mother. 

But Wes and Harry, unknown to her, tag along, and soon they are one family on a strange trip, full of adventure and bonding moments. This is book one of a series, and it certainly doesn’t end where you think it might, but I won’t give any spoilers. 

The art is interesting, it’s done in a two-tone style with a predominantly pink theme. It’s charmingly simple. The storytelling is stronger than the art, but the art drives the story, too. I liked the pink element because it was symbolic of the heart of the story being a family tale, and it was a nice contrast to the dark, dystopian wasteland. Even as violent gangs kidnapped and murdered people, the pink tones were a soothing contrast and made the reader focus on the family story, instead.

All in all, this is a lovely book. It’s quite long, so get ready to dig in, but it’s worth the journey.