Rock Candy Mountain #8
Written & Artist: Kyle Starks
They say a hobo’s life is measured by his friends. That makes you wonder what a comic book’s life is measured by. If it’s the ability to entertain and provide impactful emotional moments Rock Candy Mountain has lived a long life in its eight issues. Kyle Starks crafted a silly story with great heart and memorable characters that is sadly coming to its end. One that operates as a modern fable rooted in a past American culture that is fascinating in its own right.
With this final issue, all the pieces that have been building are now hitting their conclusion. As a writer, Starks has a sharp sense of humor that reminds me of classic comedies like Naked Gun before the series was in on its own joke. The absurdity of moment is allowed to sit in the air without major attention being called to it. By not overtly calling attention to itself it can maintain a genuine tone to avoid feeling like a slapstick comedy. When you have a character literally fist fighting with the Devil you would not expect there to be any type of emotional stakes. Here there were tons as a man was fighting to see his family one last time.
Inside this fantastic story has been this tale about the importance of friends of family. Why it works is the complete lack of cynicism. Considering the state of the world comics need a creator like Kyle Starks. He can create stories unlike anyone else that have a clear vision and that vision is executed with a high level of creativity. Seeing this series end is somewhat bittersweet. This story has been fully told, but cannot help but what to see more from these characters. Although if you are going to end the final panel of this issue is how you do it. It was the one image this entire book was leading up to and it was worth the enjoyable wait.
The Gravediggers Union #4
Writer: Wes Craig
Artist: Toby Cypress
The Gravediggers Union is a book that still has a lot of questions yet to be explained or in some cases even asked. Taking place in a world full of monsters, ghosts, witches, and other creatures a band of a lucky few that try to keep the peace. Despite the full clarity, there is a lot of intrigues over where exactly the story is headed. With issue number four things are beginning to fully take shape.
The supposed prophet Morgan wishes to test her ability by facing off against a dangerous ghost storm. In most comics a storm made up of ghosts would be the entire focus. Here it has been a side piece of an overall larger story. This actual faceoff goes in unexpected directions as these ghosts are not scary in the traditional sense. Many look like what would happen if the worlds most annoying YouTube celebrities became the undead.
As Morgan is going full Ghostbuster the Gravediggers are trying to uncover more secrets of past profits and as well as trying to find a way to get to Morgan. The Gravediggers are becoming one of my favorite group of heroes in comics. They are the type of characters that are forgotten in stories like this. Usually killed right away to showcase the power of whatever creature will be haunting are real heroes. With this story they are the heroes. Blue collar guys who have worked hard for a living and have little to show for it. In this world where the supernatural is real, they still have to deal with life issues like how to pay for all these adventures they are going on. Nothing has been easy for them and apparently, nothing will be going forward.
We have seen Wes Craig demonstrate his creative mind before with his artistic hand and now with this series, he has shown his ability to craft a tight script full of life. Toby Cypress’s art also has a great deal of style. His aesthetic designs are similar to Craig’s without duplicating too much of his look. There is a messiness to it which is fitting to the insanity of what is occurring. All of this is coming together to make this series on of Images best comics currently on the shelves.
No. 1 With a Bullet #4
Writer: Jacob Semahn
Artist: Jorge Corona
Considering the timely story of No. 1 With a Bullet it is surprising, not more attention has been paid towards it. It is this story about a woman facing off against a culture that is so eager to demonize her even though she is, in fact, the victim. Existing in a near future that is a slight exaggeration of the world we currently live. Where video taping someone without their knowledge is even easier than it is now. So much so her boss recording them having sex without her knowledge. As is often the case that tape leaked out and now they are both dealing with the consequences.
So far it has taken that concept and given a perspective that is vital to understand. Great intentions do not always lead to great results. This was the first issue of the series that majorly stumbled, but part of that fall has been bubbling for some time now. It opens with a strong promise. Jad Davies appears to be ready to reveal the truth of what happened despite the damage it will do to him.
Where things actually end up are rather unexpected and go against much of what it was building towards. There are obvious major hints there are pieces of this story that have yet to be revealed. The sudden change in attitude can be explained in further issues and most likely will be. However, shifting everything so much undercuts the impact and makes you question the reasoning rather than empathizes for the personal damage it does.
Since everything unfolded there has been this hint that there is something secret pulling all these strings. Shadowy figures have lurked in the background of Nash Huang’s life for some time. Much is still unknown but I cannot help but wonder if that part of the story is doing more harm than good. There is such an important and poignant message to take from this comic without that piece. To take it to another extreme it would be like doing a story about the abuse of the police and hinting there is a secret Illuminati force behind it all. Your social commentary gets lost inside this supposed conspiracy.
On the positive artist Jorge Corona’s pencils and Jen Hickman’s colors have remained a huge positive of this series. Corona’s cartooning works even when some of the narrative choices don’t. The contrasting depictions of Jad Davies’s speeches give so much character to those moments. It opens with a phenomenal page of him sitting at his desk with the television stage looming over him like this immovable weight. Davies’s emotional toll is showing in his tired unshaved face and beaten posture, yet he is positioned in such a way that his pain looks insignificant in the darkened fame surrounding him. Visually the storytelling has been and continues to be a highlight. The overall script and narrative choices are the problems.
To be fair many of this complaints could be resolved with further issues. One of the inherent problems of reviewing weekly comics is that something that at first seems problematic works at for the best by the end. Comics are designed to be consumed on an issue by issue basis, but at times you do have those series that work so much better in the trade format. The best writers are able to find a middle ground. Jacob Semahn and Jorge Corona are not quite there yet. They both have shown major promise with this book that makes me believe one day they could be, and it is that fact that makes me continue reading this series.
Writer: Ivan Brandon
Art: Esad Ribic’
Vs is a good example of how great art and a good premise can only take you so far. Opening up we see these striking images of the vastness of space immediately causing the stage of this story to feel large. As the story progresses it becomes more and more apparent that vastness is missing many key components causing this first issue to feel hollow and waisted.
The story centers on Lieutenant Flyn who leads a squadron in a futurist version of the Gladiator arena. It is like what if all those Call of Duty multiplayer matchups became real. Similar to the days of the Gladiator these men and women battle to the death for the apparent amusement of others. Victors are treated as celebrities of the highest order. What is unclear though is the true purpose behind all of this and what exactly is at stake.
A first issue not giving you all the answers is not uncommon. You want there to be room for exploration and questions that remain unanswered. What is also needed is a reason to want to go on that exploration and see the answers to those question. With this issue, not much outside of the concept is presented. A lot of these pieces have already been explored in many areas already. The idea of using real-life combat as entertainment has been a staple of dystopian future stories. So far there is no indication this will take those ideas in any new directions.
Character-wise Lieutenant Flyn leaves a lot to be desired as the main protagonist. Similar to the overall narrative his motivations are absent and personality wise there is not much there.He is clearly a skilled warrior with an inhuman level of drive. Where that drive comes from or anything regarding his moral fiber is not even hinted at. So far he is just a classic soldier stereotype and not much more. A strong character can make up for a lacking story. That has not yet happened here.
It is a shame because Esad Ribic’s art is next level as his style fits perfectly with this concept. His character designs look like they were etched in granite so everything has a natural gladiator feel to it. Characters wearing Centurion armor fighting next to blue aliens with future tech could easily look silly. Here due to Ribic’s art and the muted colors a more mature tone is captured.
Structurally there were some issues. It is bookended by this battle sequence with an apparent flash forward taking up the bulk of the issue. The transition from one story to the next was rapid to the point of confusion. In addition, that story choice negatively impacted this issue’s conclusion. By the end, we finally catch up to that flash forward causing a moment of that should be shocking to come off as a piece of the story we accidentally skipped over, like back when movie theaters still used reels and projectionists would accidentally put them in the wrong order.
We now know how Flyn’s story got to its current state, but that current state is lacking any conflict or question that begs to be resolved. By the end of this issue, the one question that I kept asking was why should I care about anything that is going on in this story? No answers came rushing to the service. This feels like an extended prologue stretched out to fill an entire issue. Perhaps the larger story will do more with this concept and give us something worthy of the art that fills the pages. If not it is a major opportunity wasted.
Scales and Scoundrels #6
Written: Sebastian Girner
With the rise of the popularity of shows like Game of Thrones the mood of fantasy stories has begun to change. We are seeing much more realistic takes that are heavily melodramatic and leaning towards darker sensibilities. Enter Scales and Scoundrels to show it is okay to have fun with fantasy once again.
Fun does not mean it is absent of emotion and this issue is easily the most emotional of the series so far. This is the classic point in the story where characters who have been a minor focus of the narrative thus far get some major time to shine. Opening with a bittersweet moment where Koro learns about the true fate of her brother and Dorma must now face off against the creature that caused the demise of her trusted master. As good fantasy action often does this set up leads to some great character moments that reveal layers to our characters that only been hinted at prior.
A big reason for that is the creature they are facing off against as the ability to learn the secret desires you possess. Sure it may be a cheap conceit that allows for more direct and fast-forward storytelling, but if you are going to have a story full of magic and mystical creatures it’s better to have a reason for all of it. Also allows for a much more satisfying conclusion than a character suddenly learning to punch harder.
As a series Scales and Scoundrels has basically been what would happen if a group of good intentioned fantasy nerds lived out their most epic Dungeon and Dragons quest. Taking you on an adventure of faraway lands with people you genuinely enjoy being around. This issue steps things up to another emotional layer that was a legitimate pleasant surprise. What I thought was a series that was not much more than a fun lark has in fact turned into something more.
Twisted Romance #1
Writer: Alex de Campi
Artist: Katie Skelly
Twisted Romance #1 suffers from a problem you often see with first issues. In an attempt to do too much you end up having an issue that does not do much at all. It opens up with a plotline that is often seen in classic noir and crime stories. A desperate woman seeks the help of a man who is known to get rid of problems. In this case, her husband has been overly enjoying time with another woman so she wants him gone.Enter Heartbreak Incorporated to help her with her problem.
Mackie who runs the Heartbreak Incorporated would never be confused with Humphrey Bogart or other Private Eye detectives. With his tight jeans, flashy shades, and lanky figure he looks the ideal design of the modern-day hipster. To complicate matters further his skills appear to come from a supernatural place. A man of mystery who ends up running into a piece of his past he is not ready yet to confront.
Where the problems lie is how quickly the focus of this issue shifts without ever giving a real reason to invest. Before the concept can even establish itself the story is flipped on its head and we are confronted with a flashback for a character we do not really know yet. At first it makes sense as it gives us some pieces of his past and provides context for what appears to be an important relationship. By the end though that piece is eliminated and we are left wondering what exactly was the point of all this.
I am not one who feels you need to have a character to root for in order to a story to be enjoyable. Bad people can just be as interesting, but outside Mackie’s knack for being promiscuous, there is not much else that is compelling. There are so many supernatural books with so many supernatural characters you need to do something to separate yourself from the pack. Taking something like a noir trope or classic story device and simply adding a supernatural element to it does not provoke excitement. Some books have been able to do this. Series like Kill or Be Killed or most recently Abbot by Boom. They work well enough on their own without the additional magical piece making it feel like a bonus instead of a hindrance.
Artwise it is rather lifeless. Character designs are basic and lacking personality. Despite the fact this story takes place in the seventies the aesthetic is dull and does not add much to the story. Backgrounds are too often flat or nonexistent, which makes everything feel rather small and insignificant.
As a first issue Twisted Romance does little to convince you to come back for the next installment. Never does it separate itself from comics of a similar ilk that provide the same ideas in more tighter packages.
Mech Cadet U #6
Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Takeshi Miyazawa
The world of young adult comics has really exploded over the last few years. Recently Mech Cadet U has made its presence known as one of the best all-ages comics on the shelves. Calling it an all ages book may be doing it a disservice. At times that label can have the connotation that a book is written primarily for kids but adults can also find enjoyment if they look hard enough and dull their senses. Mech Cadet U though is written like a great Pixar movie. When you experience it you simply assume it was written for you and the age you currently find yourself. Like many, I grew up with like Voltron and Power Rangers so the idea of a group of kids who fight alien monsters with giant robots immediately appeals to me. What this book has been able to do is take those influences and make the idea its own.
Part of that is because Greg Pak writes some great characters. Writing kids in comics is an underrated skill. You can easily make them too wise for their age or too overly juvenile. Over these six issues Pak has developed all of these cadets in interesting ways. At first many fell into specific archetypes. You had the underprivileged kid that no one believed in, the spoiled brat who was handed everything, and your comic relief characters designed to add flavor. As the story has progressed those tropes have become messy and less exact. Doing so has led to more complete characters.
One of my concerns with this series was how it would avoid being repetitive. Serial storytelling does not necessarily work as well for comics as it does for cartoons and television programs. In order to avoid that problem for these last few issues the mech robots have been left on the sideline as the cadets were suspended due to their heroic actions saving the city. Despite the outcome, they disobeyed orders and were promptly punished. With the robots gone the cadets took center stage and we are able to see who they are. It’s an important piece to know these characters are heroes because of their qualities as people and not just because their best friends are robots. In this issue we saw a great call back to that training to showcase how what they learned is already being paid off.
The world of comics is better having Mech Cadet U in it. It is this consistent light and enjoyable read that never feels empty or disposable. Sure giant robots fighting giant aliens is pretty much automatically fun. Where Mech Cadet U excels is adding a lot of heart to that idea to make all the large than life action mean something. If you know anyone at any age that is looking for a new series to get into this is the ideal comic to point them towards.
Armstrong and the Vault of Spirits #1
Writer: Fred Van Lente
Valiant does a lot of things right as a comic company. On the top of that ever-growing list is finding ways give new readers a starting point to get into their classic characters without retconning everything that came before. Armstrong and the Vault of Spirits #1 is a fun one shot that can work for new time readers but probably works best for those who have a deeper understanding of the Valiant universe. When you have a character like Armstrong that is an immortal it opens the doors for a lot of different stories and here the story gets biblical.
As a character, Armstrong is that friend many of us have that tends to leave a path of destruction in his wake. Despite that, you cannot help but cheer for the guy due to his big heart and massive huggability. Armstrong’s past does catch up with him as this story showcases. It’s a special day as the world’s most complex wine cellar is about to open. This cellar can only be open once a year by Armstrong’s brother Ivar and inside is an endless amount of alcoholic beverages for each year Armstrong has been alive. When you consider he has been around longer than Noah it makes you realize how much booze that is.
In a way this operates like a classic annual where members of the universe converge for this one story. Archer, Ivar the Timewalker, Faith, Quantum and Woody and other notable Valiant characters are all apart of this tale. One negative is outside of Ivar none of the character make much more than a cameo appearance. If you go into this really looking forward to some unique banter between these characters you do not really get it.
Ultimately though this is Armstrong’s story or as some call him Arm the Strong. It is split up between to main pieces as we see the present day as well as a flashback with Armstrong interacting with Noah after the great flood. Opening your superhero comic with images of Noah and excerpts of actual scripture is a bold move. Hold off your sacrilegious protest as is does have a story purpose outside of simple shock value. As someone who spent many Sunday mornings in Sunday school, I did appreciate the use of the more questionable parts of Noah’s personality.
One-shots succeed and fail with their ability to have a complete arc that is fulfilling with no major loose ends. How we deal with the loss of loved ones is a major theme throughout. Never does the story become sanctimonious or press too hard on those moments as they just add that right pinch of drama in an otherwise comedic story. There are some major comedic bits that do not work nearly as well. An encounter with a connection to Armstrong’s past has an outcome that felt somewhat cheap. Seeing a person so drastically change his opinion of Armstrong based on so little information came off as a long way to go for a quick gag.
Armstrong and the Vault of Spirits #1 may be a one-shot but I could see this being a type of story they return to each year. One where they can find new ways to connect to Armstrong’s lengthy past to further his future development. Despite some minor quibbles, it was an enjoyable tale that wets the appetite for future Archer and Armstrong stories.