Review time! with <i>The Utopian</i> and <i>Omega Comics Presents</i> #3

Yes, it's time to fire up the reviewing machine again, and while I'm not doing one a day, I'll try to be a bit more current than I was in 2010. We'll see how that works out. First out of the gate: More Fun Comics from Pj Perez!

Pj Perez, who publishes his comics through his publishing company Pop! Goes the Icon, recently sent me two of his comics - a webcomic and longer story, The Utopian, and the third issue of his anthology series, Omega Comics Presents. I enjoyed both (Omega Comics Presents a bit more) but loved neither, so I can only mildly recommend them.

But they do have things to recommend, so let's check them out!

The Utopian tells a story of a high-schooler who decides to stand up for himself and what happens afterward. The hero of the story, James Douglas, interrupts his school's homecoming game to announce his presence to the world as the Utopian, a person who encourages the kids to stand up for themselves and change the world. Obviously, the Man can't have that, and the principal and other authorities try to find out who he is. James is much smarter than he lets on - he's a typical disaffected student who can't be bothered to get good grades - so he stays a bit ahead of the fuzz. He has odd dreams that seem to foretell the future, but he just can't figure out what they mean. But he continues on, standing up to the football players who bully people, setting an example ... until a kid dies accidentally and James blames himself. That's when the book gets a little weird.

Perez doesn't want to simply show James as a teenaged vigilante leading a revolution. He adds a very odd mystical aspect to the book, as James seems to die and be reborn, now with a spiritual guide who explains that he needs to focus a bit more in his mission, plus weird powers that only work when he needs them.

He starts tracking corruption at the school and exposes quite a sordid scandal. He becomes closer with a student reporter who figures out early on that he's the Utopian but doesn't reveal his secret, and it's kind of neat that Perez doesn't force them into a romantic relationship. James's occasional adversarial relationship with Michelle is the best part of the book, because it's quite good at capturing the awkwardness of becoming friends when you're not sure if you can trust the other person. Michelle is someone who can be of use to James (as she's a reporter) but could also ruin him, so the tension between them is nice and handled fairly well.

The writing on the book is the best part, because Perez still has some trouble with the art. I'm always a bit put out when an adult writes about high school, because I honestly don't know how well they capture the mood of it. I always point out that even back when I graduated, in 1989, the cliqueishness of what the stereotypical version of high school is didn't really apply to mine. I graduated in a class of over 600 in a school of around 2000 (in three grades), and while two of my very good friends have spoken about how much they hated high school, I also know that in many cases, the "geeks" crossed over to the "jock" side and vice versa, with not a lot of repercussions. My friends and I, who were pretty much geeks, also had no problem talking to the stoners, because in many cases we had grown up with them, so the history was there. I'm just pointing this out because while we did have cliques, it wasn't as rigid a caste system as almost all fiction makes it out to be, and Perez's portrayal of high school - especially high school in the 2000s - seems a bit antiquated. In his initial appearance as the Utopian, James talks about people who don't dress the right way or who don't have the right body type or who don't listen to the right music. I certainly get that, but I don't know if in today's fractured cultural landscape, the "right" way to do anything is all that prevalent.

Maybe in the 1970s the people who listened to punk were the weirdos. Maybe in the 1980s the people who loved The Cure were the weirdos. But even back when I went to school, there were plenty of other "weirdos" for them to hang out with. Anyway, I've gone way off on a tangent, haven't I? My point is that Perez's version of high school doesn't really ring true to me, but he does a nice job making James self-deprecating and while the situation he finds himself in after his "resurrection" is a bit silly, Perez does a decent job showing that everything is not necessarily what it seems and the Man might not always be evil. The book becomes more complex as it moves along, and it's keen that Perez doesn't just play to all the stereotypes.

As I wrote, Perez is still working out issues with the art. His faces are drawn well to express the emotions the characters are feeling, but his posed characters are still a bit stiff, which is more noticeable when the script calls for some action. I've only seen Perez's art in black and white, so the coloring on the book was a pleasant surprise. The Utopian basically takes place in Las Vegas (although it's never named), and Perez's colors highlight the starkness of the desert and the brightness of the sky. Perez often doesn't have a lot of background details in his panels, so the coloring is important at placing the characters in context. Despite my issues with the art, the book, overall, has a good sense of place and time to it - the kids look like they're in high school, the place has a desert feel to it.

Perez's other book is the third issue of his anthology series, Omega Comics Presents, the first issue of which I reviewed here. Perez's story, "Omega," is the only continuing story, so it's not that hard to jump right in. "Omega" is about terrorists taking over Hoover Dam and "Strike Force Omega," an elite team of superpowered government agents, who are trying to stop them from blowing it up. The terrorists took some kids hostage, but apparently those kids escaped, because in this chapter they're on the run (I didn't read issue #2).

Perez keeps everything moving along nicely, and his art is a bit better than it is in The Utopian (even without the benefit of color) - except for the fact that he draws the terrorists' keffiyeh as if they're bandages on mummies. It looks a bit ridiculous. Otherwise, he's getting better at action scenes, which is nice.

The other two stories are short, standalone stories. The first, "One of Us," is about the police looking for a cop-killer. It's only 12 pages long, so Russell Lissau, the writer, doesn't have a lot of room, meaning the crime gets solved a bit neatly, but it zips along nicely. John Bivens, the artist, is very good, with a nice gritty style that matches the tone of the story well. Bivens has a nice eye for detail and his people, who are real-looking, also have some quirky characteristics that make them more comic-booky. It's a very cool-looking story. The final story, "The Hero's Journey," is written by Alex De-Gruchy, pencilled by Michael Montenat, inked by Juan Agustin Grassi, gray toned by John Ercek, and lettered by Stephen Lindsay. It's an 8-page story that's rather interesting - a dude picks up a hitchhiker and starts talking about "the California incident," which was apparently a battle royale between superheroes and supervillains. The driver doesn't have a very high opinion of superheroes, but then he's held up at a rest stop and discovers, unsurprisingly, that his hitcher is a survivor of the "incident."

It's a pretty neat premise - we've seen the aftermath of superhero/villain battles before, but De-Gruchy puts a nice twist on it - the hitcher is trying to find the one other survivor (a villain), but now that the public feels the same way as the driver, he has to go incognito. It's a cool little superhero story that we probably wouldn't see from one of the Big Two.

I appreciate Perez sending these to me, because I always dig checking out wildly independent comics. I would probably tell you to track down all three issues of Omega Comics Presents before I would The Utopian, because there's a wider variety of stuff to read in those issues. The Utopian isn't bad, but it's clear that Perez has gotten better since he began it (he gets better over the course of the actual comic, in fact), so there's that. It's a neat story, though. If you're interested, go to the web site and check some stuff out!

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