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Catching Up with Image Comics

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Catching Up with Image Comics

THE BIG CATCH-UP OF OCTOBER

October is the month I will catch up on all the comics I’ve fallen behind on reading.

OK, maybe not all of them, but at least a lot of them.

Have you ever had one of those comics where you thought you were two issues behind, only to find out the reality was about six issues? It can be overwhelming to think about being that far behind. Who wants to stop reading everything else to read all of those “old” comics? Plus, that one series you’re looking at has a lot of words in it. It’s not a quick decompressed read. You need to commit some time you’re not sure you have.

Some days, I hate myself for thinking any of these thoughts.

The truth is, reading a number of issues of the same series can be quicker than reading a bunch of issues of different series. There’s something nice about getting into the feel of a comic and sticking with it for two or four or six issues in a row. There’s less context-switching there. Going from “Savage Dragon” to “Sex Criminals” or “Trees” to “Chew” can be a shock to the system.

The bigger problem is that the longer I go without reading, the more likely it is that the comics are in a disorganized chaotic mess that can’t be straightened out without a night’s worth of work sorting comics. From where I sit, I can see three different stacks of books where the latest issue of “Alex + Ada,” for example, might be. I think I’m three issues behind on that right now.

So here’s to organizing the chaos and devoting yourself to one book at a time. Live with a series for a full night’s reading, or a couple days worth of spare time. It’ll help you to engross yourself in a world and see things in a new way.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last week. This week, I’m looking at three series that I have some issues with. Two of the three of them are still recommended.

“WAYWARD” #1 – #2

The new series from Jim Zubkavich (I’m not afraid to spell his whole name out) and Steve Cummings puts a half-Irish/half-Japanese teenaged child of divorced parents deep into Tokyo for a change of life. Rather than merely having to navigate the ‘fun’ of high school in another country, though, Rori Lane is having odd supernatural moments, including seeing red escape paths, green lizards attacking, packs of cats following her, and the cute boy at school who has a supernatural secret of his own.

After two issues, we don’t know much of what’s going on, or why. That’s part of the frustration of the series for me, though it might be a bit too early to judge. The events that happen to Rori are almost random right now to the reader. They will likely all fit together at some point in a grand plan, but we can’t know that yet. It’s not even hinted at. It’s just Rori trying to get along with her life and being constantly interrupted by things out of her control that she can pick up on just fast enough to save her own bacon.

Until we know more about what the “rules” of this universe are, it all feels a bit too mysterious and vague. I’d like some things to start coming together soon so we have an idea of what the series is about.

Zubkavich does a very nice job on the more “Buffy”-esque parts of the series, where Rori has to deal with her own problems and social structure clashes. It feels like there’s a lot of first-hand knowledge of the Japanese culture at work here. (Text pages at the end of each issue help to explain it, too. The second issue’s explanation of the education system in Japan was particularly informative for me.) There’s a lot to like about Rori, including a dark non-supernatural secret in the second issue that I don’t think I’ve ever read touched seriously on in too many comics.

Steve Cummings’ art is the star here, particularly with the color treatments of John Rauch and Zubkavich. The book looks like it’s shot straight from the pencils, with a strong color palette that sets it aside from most other comics these days. It cuts hard edged shadows with monochrome backgrounds to help the characters stand out.

Cummings’ art is naturally realistic. His characters are grounded, with a look that could come straight from a photo shoot and not from exaggerated cartooning, but without looking stiff and posed. He could easily have gone for a more anime or manga-influence style here, but doesn’t. It’s constrained in that way, but the strong use of detail in the backgrounds gives the book a fantastic look. It’s not a limitation.

I’m a bit more hesitant towards the series than some of the more enthusiastic reviews and plaudits I’ve seen so far. I want to see more and I want to feel more like there’s a guiding force and a point to everything. I’m sure we’ll get there, and Cummings’ art will be a huge part of dragging me back every month to look for it.

The one knock on the art, though, comes with the covers. The first two feature busy dark foregrounds with a small spot of bright background. The eye is always drawn to the areas of greatest contrast, so I’m always drawn directly to that little bright spot in the background, instead of the character in the foreground. I don’t think the bright lights of the Tokyo streets are meant to be the subject here. Everything in the foreground is too uniform and too dark to be easy to read on the stands, or even in your hands.

Thankfully, previews for the next few issues show better results. I particularly like the cover for issue #4:

I’ll give this one a tentative recommendation, though waiting for the first trade might serve the story better.

“SHUTTER” #1 – #6

“Shutter” is the story of Kate Kristopher, a retired adventurer turned real estate photographer, who lives in a very strange world where the past is beginning to haunt her.

Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca have a unique and entertaining comic on their hands. It’s filled with imaginative storytelling, beautiful art, and mystery. Every issue brings up new things. It’s great to see a blast of creative energy showing up issue after issue. The anthropomorphic characters are well played, with strong designs and emotive acting. The supporting characters are weird and wacky in their own right. The situations Kristopher finds herself in are more outrageous and threatening with each passing issue.

The problem is, it sometimes relies on that a little too much. The story doesn’t kick into gear until the fifth issue, when lead character Kate becomes a pro-active participant in her story. Before that, it’s issue after issue of bad things happening to her, followed by her running away until another bad thing happens to her or her friends. We know she’s an adventurer of some kind, and we see in flashbacks some of her past, and brief glimpses in her present that she’s a tough woman who can handle herself. But she’s always reacting to something, scrambling to understand it, perhaps, but never taking control of the situation. That leads to a book that feels like it’s wandering a bit.

When Kate does jump into action and takes control of events in the fifth issue, the series suddenly supercharges itself. Maybe the first four issues were needed to set up all the background and the ensemble cast, but you can feel the energy multiply once Kate starts barking orders and leading the charge.

Del Duca’s art is a real find. Her Kate Kristopher looks like a real person. She’s a bit more cartoonish in the flashbacks as a kid, but the modern Kate looks withdrawn and pale, her eyes set deep in her skull, with a certain natural sadness. Her pointy nose and chiseled cheeks are neatly framed by the bangs and long dark hair. She looks lost and jumbled, but she also looks real — in proportion and not busting out all over. It’s a great relief to see a “natural” character in a comic book.

The finishing touches are put in by Owen Gieni, for whom a “colorist” credit hardly seems substantial enough. He’s more a co-artist who happens to work with hues rather than inks. The style of the book would be drastically different under anyone else, because nobody else in comics today does this style. I particularly love the way he draws the colors in with batches of straight lines to provide a highlight. The subtle textures used throughout are a model for other colorists today.

Credit also goes to Tim Leong’s cover design that helps tie the monthly package up with a bow. It’s a nice looking object as an individual issue. Including the credits, the story-so-far blurb, and an extra image on the back cover helps keep the interior pages clear for all the story the series wants to tell. As it so often wraps into the inside front cover or past the standard ending point, those design choices help tell the story better.

Ed Brisson’s lettering fits the book nicely. It’s a bit larger than you would think it should be, but it works on the book somehow. Keatinge resists any temptation to overwrite the book, so there’s plenty of space to put those word balloons in, and Brisson makes a style out of it. When characters yell, the balloons get bigger and the font goes up a few points. The “normal” balloons have just a bit of extra air in them, surrounding the letters around every border.

Brisson is off the book after the sixth issue as he focuses on his growing writing career. We’ll see if the next letterer maintains the style of the book so far, or adds something different.

While it might have gotten off to a slower start with a more passive protagonist, “Shutter” is still a success in the way it gives its creators a chance to show off their creative wares, resulting in a unique universe with plenty of strangeness and things worth looking out for. With the background now set and Kate Kristopher calling the shots, I look forward to what the next few issues will bring to the series.

“IMPERIAL” #1 – #3

You don’t see too many superhero romantic comedies these days, do you? The last one I enjoyed that I can think of off the top of my head was Scott Lobdell’s “Ball and Chain.”

That’s just what Steven Seagle is shooting for with “Imperial,” alongside artist Mark Dos Santos (with Brad Simpson on colors). The book has his moments, but there’s something missing at the core to sell me on it completely. And I think I know what it is.

The hook of this title is that Mark O’Donnell is getting married soon. In the midst of all the planning, he’s visited by Imperial, the most powerful superhero in the world. Imperial is there to tell Mark that he’ll be the next “designated protector of mankind” when Imperial’s run ends. As part of that, Imperial will start training Mark immediately. That training, of course, quickly gets in the way of Mark’s wedding plans, which threatens his relationship with his fiancee, Katie, who he’s chosen not to share this new experience with. In that training, we also find out that Mark is not very good at this superhero thing.

So it’s a natural set-up: Guy finds out he’s the Chosen One, but training for that interrupts something else that’s life-changing and real. How long can he hide this without losing the girl? It leads to some funny moments and situations, but I’m hung up on trying to figure out why Mark is going along with this. It feels like we’re not given a strong enough reason for Mark to accept this situation so quickly. Secondly, why wouldn’t he tell his fiancee about it to begin with? Seagle establishes in the first issue that Mark’s a comic geek and that Katie accepts that. It feels too much like his actions are dictated by what the plot needs, which would be backwards.

Mark knows that Imperial is the strongest there is, but doesn’t seem to be guided by fear of that. He never makes a stand against being The Chosen One. He just kinda sorta goes along with it, even as it threatens to destroy his life. His fatal flaw is in expecting he can go along with it alone.

The book is filled with cute character bits and nice moments between Mark and Imperial, but it still feels slightly hollow, more like everyone is going through the motions rather than believing in them. Maybe once Katie realizes what’s going on through whatever means — I’m guessing she sees something she’s not supposed to and the whole thing comes crashing down on Mark’s head — the momentum will pick up and the story will kick into gear. I’d like for that tension to be a little better show or explained up front, though.

But the covers are beautiful. The Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post look is awesome, even if the 3D lettering on the title clashes with it a bit. Other than that, they’re some of the best covers on the stands right now.

This mini-series is only four issues long, so it’s got some major ground to cover in its grand finale next. The end of the third issue has a shocking moment that will ramp things up, but I’m not sure there’s enough room left to save this series and make it something I’d recommend. We’ll see soon enough.

WRAPPING UP ON CATCHING UP

More to come next week! I might even catch up on a book that has a second word in its title. Also next week: I’ll look at what might just be the best “Art of” book I’ve ever seen.

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