{comics} atypical

“a sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the universe.”

Saga : Volumes One & Two by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Image Comics 2012 & 2013 respectively.

from Volume 1

This waiting for the next volume to come off hold at the Library is excruciating. It isn’t that I do not have other things to read, it’s just that Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga is that entertaining. Also, they leave you with these cliff-hangers. I just checked and I am 1 of 14 on the request list for Volume 3. Volume 4 is not even out yet; not until DECEMBER! I would like to now curse those rave reviews and that striking cover on Volume 1.

cropped from cover of Volume One

Volume One: “When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe” (publisher’s comments). This “fragile new life” is both their relationship/family and Hazel. And it is some future Hazel who is our narrator, telling her parent’s story, telling a story, shifting through past tenses. We get other story-lines as well, with rarely any of Hazel’s commentary: the unionized assassins, the prince whose head is a screen.

I immediately fell in love with Staples’ artwork. Visually, Alana brought to mind Pink!, which can only be a good thing. The creatures are kick-ass. The placement of panel on page, compositions, color-work, all crafty-goodness. The lettering for Hazel’s voice says young, but not childish; her sarcasm perfectly applied. The, ah, language is profane and if you played a drinking game for every penis making an appearance you’ll get a nice buzz. Saga will keep your fellow public transit commuters reading over your shoulder and/or blushing and gasping. Yeah, now I know why nearly every introduction to Saga uses “adult” in its marketing. I think the humor and relationship foibles make for an unexpected romantic comedy that will appeal to the older audiences as well. Then there is just flat-out smart, subversive craftiness of the comic. The out-sourcing of the war between Wreath and Landfall? Whatever would inspire such a notion?

from Volume 1

Honestly, this is one of those comics to experience to really believe just how excellent it is. The timing of the wit, the dead-pan delivery, the provocative and absolute irreverence… I was sitting alone in a quiet house with a dog staring at me as I laughed like a maniac–especially during Volume 2 and the reading of Alana’s bodice-ripper.

cropped from Volume Two cover

Volume Two: “Thanks to her star-crossed parents Marko and Alana, newborn baby Hazel has already survived lethal assassins, rampaging armies, and horrific monsters, but in the cold vastness of outer space, the little girl encounters her strangest adventure yet… grandparents” (publisher’s comments). We meet Marko’s parents, when he is both a child and now an adult. It is amusingly awkward, of course, and necessarily intense. We also get Marko and Alana’s “meet-cute” and Hazel’s conception. Neither does Volume 2 abandon other lines from the first volume, with an exciting introduction to a troubling twist. You’ll know with the first volume whether you want to read the next, but the second could be the clincher if you weren’t entirely sold on the series.

from Volume 2

The family drama set against the action/adventure in space is brilliantly balanced. I mean, anyone who’s had a babysitter like theirs understands why Marko has to hurry off to rescue her after his mother over-zealously banishes her to the nearest planet whereupon horrors compound.

Bibliophiles, certainly Lit Majors, will completely dig this volume. Saga could make for a good Book Club read. Saga might look like a farce to break up the monotony of high-minded literary works, but I wouldn’t underestimate its effectiveness in drawing out the deadly serious.

Volume Three: promises that “the couple’s multiple pursuers [will] finally close in on their targets.” What could possibly happen next? The way Vaughan cross-cuts action, splices the narrative together, his play is diabolical in that it is tricky to anticipate. Some techniques are classic to earthbound tales, but the situating it in sci-fi fantasy makes his storytelling more interesting. The cleverness of couching the family drama in SFF is in the opportunities it provides to play with expectation (as well as rescuing it from Lifetime). Saga‘s realm of imaginative play makes it all the more important that Vaughan and Staples are so strong in their characterizations and in reinforcing the core.

The core: the family: an affectionate narrator, a soldier who has sworn-off killing, and a security guard who reads bodice-rippers that are “boring.” Just my kind of awesome.

from Volume 2

recommendations: For those ADULTS who like or dislike rom-coms, action-adventure stories, SFF, comics, the obscene…you’ll find Saga gloriously atypical.

of note: Volume One won the 2013 Hugo award for Best Graphic Story; Volumes Two and Three won an Eisner for Best Continuing Series, Best Writer (for Brian K. Vaughan) & Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (interior art) (for Fiona Staples) 2014.

{images are Fiona Staples’)

{comics} many happy returns

Zita-Cover-300rgbThe Return of Zita the Spacegirl

By Ben Hatke

First Second 2014.

Zita-Interior-FULL-91That the entirety of Ben Hatke’s The Return of Zita the Spacegirl is an epic jailbreak comes as no surprise. From the very first book in the series, Zita has been held against her will—or has she? We know her slip through the portal and into Space was an accident. We know she wants to return home. In the course of the first book, she discovers herself lost more than once and the second risks dangerous compromise. But since then, Zita has become the Spacegirl, how could she possibly go back?

The series has been packed with difficult choices for Zita. I consider such turmoil a favorite one of the adventures’ many charms. Too, that at the center of her conflicts are friendships and her desire to the right thing and do something meaningful. She rejects the accusation that she is “Zita the Crimegirl,” a “danger to society,” but Hatke throws that perspective out there. I mean, she did steal a spaceship and consort with known criminals. Then we come to learn that this particular adjudicator is corrupt. Heart matters, and it prevails; what it isn’t is painless.

Zita the Spacegirl has always been an entertaining adrenaline jolt of adventure with inventive creatures and awesome characters. Zita is sassy, earnest and resourceful. She is caring and yet heartless in the way children can be. Zita has also proven to be intelligently written by a storyteller willing to explore challenging situations that will resonate with his young audience. I love how Zita struggles to maintain courage in the face of difficult circumstances, and where she finds the friends and resources to help her along the way.* I love the persistent themes of identity and loneliness. Love how the forms of imprisonment vary.

Zita-Interior-FULL-141

I was reading through my reviews of books one and two and appreciate the consistency in this series. And Hatke’s stories do not wane, but rather quietly ups the ante. We reach a conclusion that leaves us reeling, literally. The fast-paced and heightened suspense of a spacegirl’s adventure pops and we are left with a wake.

The Return of Zita the Spacegirl was always going to be bittersweet, and Hatke does not disappoint. He writes in many returns and it is completely satisfying. He also writes a gorgeous twist or two. That ending is fantastic. I may have called Hatke a naughty name, but it was with the utmost affection as I laughed out loud and closed the book.

Must own. Add it to the back-to-school list. Shop for the Holidays already. But make sure your library (personal and/or private) has this series.

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*Notice how Hatke builds his heroes by trial rather than prophetic gifting. Notice how much the stories value imagination, grit, and daring.

{images are Ben Hatke’s}

{comics} 15 & Fated

cleo01_frontcoverCleopatra in Space: Target Practice by Mike Maihack

Graphix (Scholastic) 2014

Comics you should already have read (and hopefully own) before the middle-grade years hit: Jellaby (Kean Soo), Zita the Spacegirl (Ben Hatke), Amelia Rules! (Jimmy Gownley) and Kazu Kibuishi’s Explorer and Amulet series (still incomplete). I’m obviously only naming a few. And I am being quite specific because Mike Maihack’s Cleopatra in Space is nice addition to this bookshelf for late middle grade into early High School readers.

Space saga geeks and Indiana Jones adventure fans will dig the familiar rush Cleopatra will provide, but that does not mean Maihack makes this series a predictable one.

Cleo in space
Newly-turned-15 and sucked through space and time, Cleopatra offers a lot of kick-ass action and snark. She also sulks. I mentioned she’s 15. As for Target Practice (book one), it is not as predictable as I’d anticipated plot-wise, which is nice. Really what Maihack is doing is developing consistent characters with a lot of potential for growth and adventure, which is excellent. I’m really looking forward to The Thief and the Sword (Book 2) due to be out in Spring 2015.

cleo in space 2

The artwork is damn likable and easy to follow. The panels follow contemporary trends of being as mobile as the characters themselves. The panels participate in controlling the movement and the action, contributing to mood and energy. I’m not suggesting it is completely nonsensical, but I was troubled by all the white space on the page. Is it more incidental than artful? I began to question whether the visual story could have been tighter, but its target audience will appreciate the expenditures. Maihack allots the action room to give chase and Cleo is a marvelous action star. She can be appropriately dramatic. And Maihack is savvy with the comedic timing as well.

Cleo13

Despite concerns on design-compositional scores, Cleopatra hits the targets of what makes for an entertaining comic: great artwork, characters, action, gadgets, humor, and story. Maihack is launching a series for this reluctant heroine that suggests the sinister and the exhilarating. He writes a satisfying start to a really promising new series. Be sure to check it out.

{images are Mike Maihack’s}

{comic} brand spanking new, except not.

battlingboycoverBattling Boy by Paul Pope

First Second 2013.

One of the things I like about superhero comics is their ability to both maintain continuity and prove regenerative. Need to reboot a character or story? Will do. Has the essence of the hero and their story really changed? No. Even so, it is still hard to break into the superhero realm of comics. Someone is always there to remind you that you didn’t start reading that particular comic early enough, never mind that you have to be born in order to have done so. Comparing storylines and/or creators is a competitive sport and that in itself can be entertaining. I get it. It is also exhausting. It is exciting to have the opportunity to start at the actual beginning with the character for once.

Battling Boy is familiar to the tradition of old school superhero comics with the paneling, line work, and a pleasing color palette just this side of garish.

battling-boy-paul-pope

We begin with Battling Boy’s origin story. Yet to be referred to as any name other than Boy, our reluctant hero hails from the Hidden Gilded Realm. He is set up to perform heroic deeds for the Acropolis as his rite of passage (a rambling).

battling boy westsAnother hero is introduced in the figure of Aurora West, the daughter of the recently departed Acropolis hero Haggard West. Her apprenticeship under her father was cut tragically short, but she has nerve and weaponry. Her “Alfred” is the impressive womanly amputee Ms. Grately—the only family Aurora has left.

battling boy T RexThe villains are creepy, and the scale of some of the monsters ups the ante for our action heroes. Battling Boy’s arsenal is clever. I love the t-shirt idea (and not just for its merchandising potential). Pope evidences a well-thought out narrative. He amusingly considers the angles, like where Battling Boy is going to reside and cover expenses. The relationship between parents and child is pretty sweet, too. I am trying desperately not to anticipate some looming tragic circumstance, Aurora’s loss is sobering enough.battling-boy-paul-pope-first-second-2013

battling boy

I feel a bit late to the Battling Boy party, but only a little. And now I won’t have to wait so long for The Rise of Aurora West. Battling Boy’s second(ish) installment hits store shelves late September. Yes, already with a prequel and Miss West’s backstory told from her point of view (which we do get portions of in Battling Boy). As for the first prequel published (October 2013), not sure how dedicated I am to getting a hold of the one-shot copy of Haggard West’s story—I wouldn’t say no if you could get my hands on a copy of the limited release…

Paul Pope has hit the ground running with an Eisner for Battling Boy. Battling Boy and Aurora West promise and fantastic series of adventures to grow up with. Too, the series returns us to the warm fuzzy of old school superhero aesthetics, while being all shiny and new and clever with it.

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from Michael Cavna’s piece “Paul Pope: With Escapo and Battling Boy, 2014 Eisner Winner Deftly Blends the Old with the New” in the Washington Post

“There are all these classic superheroes we know, but [Battling Boy] is not another Spider-Man or Batman,” Pope says. It’s a new character — we don’t even know his name — and I think [that's] appealing to kids.”

“With ‘Battling Boy,’ I’m trying to use the rhetoric of the classic Silver Age hero’s story, and tell a genuine story about this kind of coming-of-age — through the metaphor of a superhero being a young person moving into their own,[...] “But I’m doing it through the [comics] language of Jack Kirby, John Romita and Steve Ditko.”

“But kids are getting it for the first time,” he continues. “They’re not aware of Kirby or Romita or Ditko. They might know the Red Skull from the movie, but they’re not going to know him from the comic.

“I’m trying to make a new story using these old tools, I guess.”

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{images belong to Paul Pope, & remember to check out his site for more enticing fare}

{book} imagine Beekle

beekle coverThe Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend

by Dan Santat (Little, Brown & Co. 2014)

On a magical island, a creature is born and left to imagine the friend made especially for them. Nameless, the creature waits in increasing despair while the others meet their matches.

The creature in Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle is from the point-of-view of a yet-named Beekle, but the reader can easily imagine the perspective of the child awaiting Beekle’s realization. Beekle’s perspective is easily understood to be felt and experienced not only by itself, but the the human child as well.

Beekle_Int_HiRes2Santat dreams up the origins of unimaginary friends, and sends one of them on an adventure. Beekle dares to not be forgotten or left unimagined, braving the enormity of nature and adulthood to find where childhood resides. Though smaller in scale, the vibrantly imagined stands out against cold, dark hues of a contemporary urban landscape, walking among renderings of industry and isolation. The shift back to the warmth rendered in that magical island occurs when Beekle enters a playground. Even so, Beekle is alone, everyone else occupied with their unimaginary companion. Santat draws out the tension, the hopefulness that our new friend will find a pairing, and that the adventures will be less lonely. Either kind, alone or in the company of a child, Beekle’s adventures are familiar and moving.

BEEKLE_10

Prepare to be utterly charmed by the creatures Santat renders for the story. Fans of Santat will have already anticipated excellence in color and texture. And the pencilled text is hand-lettered reminding the reader yet again that the author/illustrator is invested in a story about friendship and imagination. After all, the book sitting on its shelf is waiting for a reader to join it in an adventure. I certainly hope that audiences will be inspired to illustrate their own imaginable creatures and adventures; or perhaps play them out. It would be a heartening way to portray the world with childhood portraits (think school pictures) with an equalled attempt to represent an unimaginary friend.

b/w image of the endpages

b/w image of the endpages

Santat is known for his humor and imagination, but this one is less silly than I had come to expect. It brushes close to Shaun Tan’s work. Santat renders the overlap of the rich inner & outer life beautifully. The sweet hopefulness resides just this side of the melancholic, not yet ready to surrender to the disillusionment of childhood in modern life. Fears of being left out, last-to-be-picked, loneliness are buoyed with the optimism of youth and the experienced voice of a wiser and practiced storyteller.

The Adventures of Beekle is sure to be classic, and one to stay on the shelves well beyond childhood and its unimaginary friendships.

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santatCheck out this Interview by Minh Le for Book Riot in which Santat answers the book’s dedication is Alek: “Alek is my oldest son who is eight years old. Years before he was born, the idea of an imaginary friend who couldn’t be imagined was something I was tinkering with for years. [...] When Alek was born, and when he could finally speak, his first word was Beekle, which was his word for bicycle. At the time, my wife mentioned that it would be a great name for a children’s book character and I immediately realized that I had a name for my new character. Once I named the character the rest of the story flowed right out of me naturally and because of that the scene where Beekle learns his name is especially precious to me.”

Dan Santat is the author/illustrator of Sidekicks and the winner of the Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrators for Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett. He is also the creator of the Disney animated hit, The Replacements. Dan lives in Southern California with his wife, two kids, and various pets.

{images belong to Dan Santat}

Beekle is my 5th Santat-illustrated book reviewed here (thus far): Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds; Crankenstein by Samantha Berger; Kel Gilligan’s Daredevil Stunt Show by Michael Buckley; & The Guild of Geniuses by Dan Santat. I can easily recommend them all.

 

{film} Guardians of the Galaxy, 5 Reasons.

I’m sure someone will decide their means for being relevant will require them to pan James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). They’ll claim some disconnect with the director’s work in general as their opening disclaimer or some such entry wound into their “review.” I am fine–relieved, actually–to be absorbed into the clamoring for an encore. Was the film perfect? no. Was it AWESOME? yes. Look for the early-bird special if you need to, and take a friend.

5 Reasons to see Guardians of the Galaxy (in no particular order).

gotg crew

Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (voice Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Groot (voice Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista)

# : You are a fan of mischievous heroes in space and the silliness that is sure to prevail aka Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Gamora and Nebula have siblings, can one future casting call be Gina Torres (Zoe in Firefly)? But, really, the comedy, much of which was unanticipated and then subjected to the long-joke, was fantastic. Its a film that doesn’t rely on the energy of the audience to keep you laughing. Too, that the film is based on an under-read, lower-tier-developed comic has some appeal. While this may frustrate those who like to debate which characters get cast and how terrible the reboot was, I liked going into the film with the notion that we were not wading through a lot of backstory and bickering. It is fun feeling like you are discovering a hero for the first time with a theater geeked on the SFF genre alone.

gotg pratt

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star Lord

# : Chris Pratt, and not only to witness the musculature. The comparisons of Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly) and Han Solo (Star Wars) to Peter Quill are accurate and appealing.He is hilarious and charming, and you never once doubt his abilities to play an action star. When he plays the goofball, it isn’t because he lacks intellect or strategy. Pratt has range, and bless it, but they do not push the romancing Gamora line too far. Pratt’s comedic timing is golden. Natalya cites Quill’s dancing (near the beginning) as her favorite scene: she always thought heroes should carry their soundtracks with them. I actually like his troubled looks, like when he is subdued in the prison (just after the shirt went back on). Pratt does not suffer from the lackluster nor the over-the-top. I’m not sure the casting could have more perfect.

gotg gamora

Zoe Saldana as Gamora

# : Gamora (Zoe Saldana) as kick-ass, smart-ass, and vulnerable. Saldana finds and uses complexity in a character that could be just one idea of a female in comics or another. Yes, we were still subjected to the “male gaze.” I’m thinking of the opportunities for her to show she is not unaffected by the world around her. She isn’t a strong character because she is invulnerable, in fact, her circumstances make her courage and capability all the more impressive. The fight choreography is spectacular, though the quick cutting and cross-cutting during her fight with Nebula was frustrating in it’s lack of spectacle. Love how smart yet charmed Gamora is by Quill–and we are still laughing about the “Kevin Bacon” scenes.

gotg groot

Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)

#: Groot. Yes, all the fuss is warranted. A bit of humor is floating around about how the production staff really only needed Vin Diesel to read a few variations on his one line. Digital manipulation would manage the actual reading for the film. Vin Diesel insisted, in what is taken as a lug-headed fashion, on reading the scripted lines as they would sound in the scene. I am having a hard time imagining what the results would have been with the original plan, but between the effects and Diesel’s reading, Groot was a flawless presence on screen.

gillan nebula

via David White interview; Karen Gillan as Nebula

# : The Make-Up and Special Effects. David White is the special effects makeup designer on the film, “he created the tangible, high-concept looks for Gamora, Drax, Nebula, Yondu, Korath, and the film’s numerous aliens.” You can read Scott Pierce’s interview with him on Co.Create (there are images of the process), “‘I’ve been fortunate to have been around the Marvel world for a little while,’ White says. ‘I like to think my own artwork and style has worked well within the universe’.” Indeed it does. The Kree architecture/design produced in the film is noteworthy. The ships are amazing as well. Sean favored the Black Aster, but we agreed that the ships, tech and the battle scenes were frankly marvelous.

{film} the game

Even though David Fincher’s The Game (1997) was a rewatch, it was almost like watching it for the first time. I remembered a few elements, but Sean wasn’t confirming the details. I was at the mercy of a slow and twisted mystery.

thegame-01If you haven’t seen The Game, you should stop at after the second paragraph (—) and go watch it.  At his troubled younger brother Conrad’s (Sean Penn) invitation, the game Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) finds himself embroiled in will have you wondering at it up to the very end. The question of whether Nicholas will follow in all the footsteps of his father is tied up in his survival of the game. Of course, another relevant question is: just where and when did the game begin?

It is fun to go back and watch an early film of a director you admire. The Game has the blue wash; the waist-high shot that zooms or cuts, but never pans; and Fincher’s meditative patience. Douglas and Penn are brilliant—Penn, so very young there! Tech is just a little outdated, and the soundtrack’s piano may become tiresome, but the film holds its thrilling edge just fine these 17 years later.

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the game

If you have seen it… The ending caught me off-guard and I was trying to remember if I’d felt the same way back when. I have a hard time understanding why Nicholas was not pissed by what his brother did, the lengths he went. I get the liberation from that haunting terror that interweaves the game-playing narrative—and I don’t. The extended display of gratitude was baffling. The romantic twist rang false.

Sean read that the original scripted ended with Nicholas landing, helped to his feet, and then walking out. Yes. If you’ve seen it, could you help me out here? Do you agree the better ending was the original one? How is the current one better and/or informed by the film?