Review time! with <i>The Adventures of the 19XX Book Three: Shining Skull 1936</i>

"Did you make it to the Milky Way to see the lights all faded and that heaven is overrated?"

Paul Roman Martinez was nice enough to send me the third volume of his serial, The Adventures of the 19XX, even though I would have bought it from him the next time I saw him (possibly in Portland in September; he was at Rose City last year). I reviewed the first volume back in the day, but I never got around to the second one, because I suck. But now there's a third one, as Martinez continues with his pulp steampunk 1930s adventure story!

I enjoy these comics, mainly because I enjoy the kind of comics they are - Martinez doesn't do too much with twisting the tropes of the genre, but that's okay, because he's so committed to telling entertaining stories.

He knows the clichés of this kind of story and doesn't really care about them, as he's just interested in moving his pieces around so that evil is thwarted. There's a charming, old-fashioned vibe to the stories - yes, they're set in the 1930s, but I mean that there's an evil presence in the world, and good people band together to punch it in the face. Yay, Good Guys!

The 19XX is said organization (it collects weapons and artifacts for safekeeping so the bad guys don't use them), and Martinez has done a nice job over the course of three volumes of giving us interesting characters who might not show up for long, but are clearly established and leave good impressions. Our point-of-view character remains the Kid, whose father was an adventurer and who joined the 19XX in Volume 1 and has been the focal point of the storytelling. There are plenty of other colorful characters, though, on both sides, as the evil organization (which are so not the Nazis!!!), the Order of the Black Faun, has its own tremendous villains doing villainous things.

The dastardly ringleader this time is the Shining Skull, who looks like a Junker with a skull-shaped mask and is trying to find a magical army deep in the Tibetan Himalayas, which army will help the Black Faun destroy the world and remake it in their image. You know, like you do. Needless to say, the Skull is thwarted, but as with any of these kinds of adventures, the journey is more important than the destination, because we can be pretty sure the bad guys aren't going to win. So Martinez gets us there in fun fashion, as one character can call up spirits of the dead to assist them and in this volume she brings forth George Mallory, because you need someone like him when you're heading into the mountains! Meanwhile, the Kid is still learning the ropes, so he doesn't go with the main group directly to Tibet, but makes a side trip to Tunis for some research, which naturally turns deadly. The Black Faun has its army marching through Tibet, and one of its members wants to open some mysterious crates, but the Shining Skull keeps telling him the time isn't right. Of course, at one point the time is right, so we get to see what they can unleash on the world. The Order has, of course, clanky war robots (so does the 19XX, in fact, but they don't look as cool), because you can't have this kind of adventure without them, and all the good guys have Yankee pluck and moxie, even if not all of them are Americans. Martinez does have some plot points carry over - the Captain of the 19XX's zeppelin, for instance, has a subplot about what he knows of the future, while the head of the Black Faun is engaged in a power struggle within the organization and within Hitler's Germany itself (Martinez doesn't ignore the Nazis, he just doesn't use them as antagonists) - but for the most part, each volume tells a separate story.

Eventually, I imagine, everything has to come to a head - the 19XX knows that war is looming, and Martinez keeps moving closer to 1939 in time, as the first volume took place in 1933, and now we're in 1936. But for now, you can dive right in without necessarily reading the first two volumes.

Martinez's art remains serviceable, although his figure work is still too stiff during action scenes. He creates a lot of interesting-looking characters - unsurprisingly, the bad guys look far cooler than the heroes - and he manages to give them all enough personality that we can tell them apart, but the art just doesn't flow well in the fighting. That's too bad, but it doesn't ruin the book at all. Martinez can still lay out a fight well, so it's easy to tell what's going on in the battles, which makes the stiffness of the figures less important. He does very good work with the setting - too often the backgrounds are somewhat dull, but the details of the buildings and the statues the Kid encounters as he makes his way through the mountains are very nice. When he does concentrate on backgrounds, he makes sure to make Tibet look rustic, for instance. He's also quite good with designing the weapons the organizations use - the planes and war robots look very neat. The period fashion is well done, too. Martinez uses a nice Zip-A-Tone effect on most of the pages, which adds some nice roughness to the work and gives it an old-fashioned veneer - I imagine at least some of this, if not all, is done digitally, which can look too "new," so Martinez's use of Zip-A-Tone - or the digital equivalent - is an interesting trick.

He crams a lot onto each page, but his storytelling is very clear, which is always a good thing.

This is a difficult book to review, because it's a very specific genre and while Martinez doesn't really do anything to subvert the genre or elevate it, he does write entertaining stories. They're not terribly deep, but they do have nice relationships in them that continue to play out over the course of the series (even though, as I noted, you don't really need to read the other volumes before this one) and they have good, evil villains and fascinating heroes. Martinez does some research about the places the 19XX visit, so we get some interesting stuff about Tibet in this volume, which is appreciated. People do die in these comics, but for the most part, they're fun adventures, and that's why they're hard to review. If you like adventurous, pulpy stuff like this, you'll enjoy this. And who doesn't like adventurous, pulpy stuff? Commies, that's who.

You can read the first two volumes of The Adventures of the 19XX on-line for free, or you can throw some money Martinez's way if you want to. Give it a look!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

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