Zodiac Starforce has returned for a second volume subtitled Cries of the Fire Prince, with the creative team of Kevin Panetta, Paulina Ganuchaeu and Sarah Stern showing consummate ease as they head straight back to the fantastical world they created so compellingly in 2015. On the basis of this first issue, the series retains a fully established sense of what it wants to be -- and that's a slight yet fun comic hiding a surprising amount of depth and intent behind the magic powers. The high concept really doesn’t matter so much as the friendships between the lead characters, making this a comic which happily disengages from the chest-puffing and preening of superhero action, and in doing so finds a fulfilling sense of heart and charm.
The strength of the creative team lies in their ability to hold back the urge to go over the top and ridiculous, with even the fight scenes being somewhat slowly composed. The characters are more likely to talk tactics for a few panels than they are to kick off some giant kinetic firework display. It’s surprising how toned-down the coloring palette is, in fact: rather than being a flamboyantly vivid take on superpowered women, the series is far more interested in being a book where a group of like-minded women just hang out and enjoy themselves.
Although it has Paulina Ganucheau and Sarah Stern working a strong artistic partnership, the book is able to nail particular moments more than others. The fight scenes, for example, are simple and non-chaotic, with characters waiting their turn to attack and with many standing around and watching rather than bringing any kinetic energy into the pages -- which makes for a more coherent story for younger readers, although perhaps makes the sequences feel a little clinical. At times -- there's a moment of physical comedy which features a character inexplicably running straight into an apparently parked, stationary car -- the art isn’t able to convey what’s going on, which in particular dulls the comedy. Instead, it’s with the conversational scenes where the best and most engaging panel sequences come together: Ganuchaeu is able to convey these low-action scenes effectively through centering her focus through the well-designed lead characters.
The lightness of touch and restraint will likely work best for those who read the previous series. Although easy and accessible, the series doesn’t drive home who each of the charac
ters are in comparison to each other, content instead to sketch some of their aspects out in understated ways. That can in some ways be a little frustrating, but it create a sense of authenticity within the characters themselves and their individual voices. Rather than trading in stock stereotypes and exaggeration, Zodiac Starforce carefully draws out the mannerisms of the cast. Ostensible team leader Emma, for example, doesn’t actually have much time speaking here -- but whenever she is given dialogue, it’s interesting to note how on-point her observations are when she’s in "fight" mode against how she struggles to articulate herself when in "civilian" mode.
It’s these moments which actually bring personality to the characters and help round them out, but the series works very hard to ensure that it isn’t hitting readers with these sorts of ideas. They exist without being glaringly pointed-out. As a whole, this first issue of Zodiac Starforce: Cries of the Fire Prince proves an interesting read for its understatement: not many superhero-esque comics choose calm authenticity over madcap exaggeration, and that’s what makes this series stand out.