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Hugh Likes Comics: Top 5 of 2019

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Die

Die
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Stephanie Hans
Published by Image Comics

Gillen’s story of a group of adults returning to the magical world they escaped as teenagers is a mix of It and the ’80’s Dungeons and Dragons Saturday morning cartoon. Hans brings a unique, painterly style that makes the world feel as strange for us on the readers. The comic itself is a deep, emotional examination of trauma and the rules we live and play by. But as the characters move across the fantasy world, Gillen repeatedly pulls off the trick of exposing the bleeding heart of what Fantasy is and why we make it.

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Fairlady
Written by Brian Schirmer
Drawn by Claudia Balboni, Shari Chankhamma, and Marissa Louise
Published by Image Comics

An intriguing mix of mystery and fantasy, Fairlady mixes a modern sensibility with pulp stylings to great effect. A sort of fantasy private eye, Jenner Faulds solves mysteries, bickers with her co-worker at her day job protecting an absent wizard’s tower, and gets bailed out of trouble by her seven-foot tall cat-man bestie. Each issue is a single mystery, and they’re all clever and interesting. Unfortunately, the book was canceled after issue 5, but the trade is available, and this isn’t a book to let pass you by.

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House of X / Powers of X
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Drawn by Pepe Larraz and R. B. Silva
Published by Marvel Comics

House of X and Powers of X were a big gamble, and it’s safe to say at this point that it’s paid off. After years of protecting a world that hates and fears them, the X-Men are trying something new, and approaching their enemies as a new force. The idea of a mutant nation has been tried and failed in the Marvel Universe, but this one has a lot of new, big ideas going for it. I can’t wait to see what Hickman and crew get up to next.

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Invisible Kingdom
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Drawn by Christian Ward
Published by Berger Books

The incisive writing of G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel, Air) and the art of Christian Ward (Black Bolt, ODY-C)is a heady mix. And the intertwined story of a cargo ship captain working for a monopolistic space corporation and an acolyte in a religious order with dark secrets is a little bit Alien and a little bit Star Wars in all the best ways.

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Lois Lane / Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (Tie)

Lois Lane
Written by Greg Rucka
Drawn by Mike Perkins
Published by DC Comics

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by Steve Lieber and Nathan Fairbairn
Published by DC Comics

I couldn’t pick between these two standout books, both of which came out around the same time, but are only slightly connected. Both are deep studies of neglected characters that are very different in tone and style from D.C.’s usual fare.
Lois Lane is a hard-boiled story about the world’s greatest investigative reporter as she delves into a conspiracy that cost one of her colleagues her life, with help from Renee Montoya, AKA The Question. It plays the Journalist as superhero part to the hilt, and it is something worth cheering for.
Jimmy Olsen is a more comical and surreal update of the silver age teen sidekick, as he goes into hiding after thinking Lex Luthor put out a hit on him. But this is also the comic where Jimmy Olsen finds himself in a prank war with Batman. Fraction is writing at the height of his Hawkguy powers here, and it’s strange, fascinating, and hilarious.

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Hugh Likes Comics: Invisible Kingdom

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Invisible Kingdom #1
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by Christian Ward
Lettered by Sal Cipriano
Published by Dark Horse Comics

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The Skinny: The captain of a space freighter and a religious initiate each make a startling discovery in the first installment of this gorgeous space opera.

Invisible Kingdom follows to seemingly unconnected space opera stories. The first follows freighter captain Grix as she and her crew are forced to make a crash landing on a desolate moon. The second follows Vess, a novice member of a religious order called ‘the Siblings of Severity.’ The book switches from one point of view to the other, seemingly at random, but using visually rhyming panels to transition from Grix to Vess and back again, and the reader doesn’t really understand the relationship until the end of the first issue, but when it all comes together, it works beautifully.
Wilson’s story is, for lack of a better word, very human. Confined to the point of view of the two protagonists, we only get teasing hints of the world building. Grix is trying to hold her ship together after Lux, the monopolistic shipping company she and her crew work for, fails to do her ship’s necessary maintenance. Vess faces ridicule both inside and outside the order she joins due to her heritage. Both parts of the story feel lived in and real as a result.
Ward’s talents are on full display here as we are treated to a world of floating monasteries and neon alien cityscapes. His design work is impeccable, and does so much heavy lifting for the story, as the arch of the inside of a ship’s hold echoes the dome of a floating monastery.
Wilson and Ward are both superstars of the current comics generation. Wilson co-created the groundbreaking Ms. Marvel, and Ward illustrated 2017’s critical smash Black Bolt. Invisible Kingdom has the potential to be truly great, and this first issue doesn’t disappoint. You can find it in print from your local comics shop, or digitally from Comixology.
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Hugh Likes Comics: Calamity Kate

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Calamity Kate #1
Written by Magdalene Visaggio
Drawn by Corin Howell
Colored by Valenitna Pinto
Published by Dark Horse Comics

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The Skinny: A recent divorcee moves to California to start over in the high-stakes world of professional monster hunting.

Kate Strand’s life just fell apart. After going through a messy divorce and withdrawing into her shell, she’s ready to reinvent herself. And she’s going to do it by becoming the world’s greatest monster hunter, much to the chagrin of her former best friend and single-parent Vera, whose couch she’s going to be surfing on while she does it.
Visaggio has stated that this is an almost biographical story, dealing with her own divorce and the self-destructive urges that came with it. While the monsters may be metaphorical, who hasn’t been tempted to leave their messy lives behind and start again rather than face a scarier reality, even knowing that you’re carrying your problems with you?
The thing I love about this issue is the manic sense of tension that pervades every panel. The focus is less on the cool monsters than it is the consequences Kate is running from. This is best expressed in an early sequence where Kate asks Vera if she can stay with her until she gets back on her feet, and they are interrupted by a bunch of monster skulls toppling out of her duffel bag.
Howell’s art and Pinto’s colors sing. Howell does both great expressions and pleasantly scary monster designs. Pinto’s dark colors are a perfect tonal match. Even on a bright, sunny, morning, there is the pervading sense of impending catastrophe.
Calamity Kate #1 is a bold new first issue to another deeply personal story from a rising star in comics writing. You can find it digitally through Comixology, or grab a physical copy at your local comics shop!
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Hugh Likes Comics: The Once and Future Queen

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The Once and Future Queen #1
Written by Adam P. Knave and D. J.  Kirkbride
Drawn by Nick Brokenshire
Published by Dark Horse Comics
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The Legend of King Arthur evokes  a particular place in the imagination of Western Literature. It’s a foundational document of Chivalry, Knights and Ladies, and the pacification of Pagan Britain by more ‘civilized’ Christian forces. And like all canon literary myths, it has been shaped and reshaped over the centuries to fit that era’s taste. From Malory’s Le Mort Darthur to Disney’s kid-friendly adaptation of “The Sword in the Stone,” to “Monty Python And the Holy Grail.”
“The Once and Future Queen,” from the creative team behind the “Amelia Cole” Urban Fantasy series leaves yet another modern stamp on the legend. The story centers on 19-year old Portland chess champ Rani Arturus. In Cornwall for a tournament, she quickly catches the eye of a local girl, loses the tournament, and pulls The Sword from The Stone. The story proceeds from there, spilling from slice-of-life drama to full on fantasy epic. It comes complete with some decidedly un-cute fey planning an invasion and visions of Merlin speaking in riddles on the nature of time while wearing a spacesuit.
Knave and Kirkbride are having fun with the source material, and Brokenshire’s art has a sketchy quality that likewise feels relaxed and quickly draws the eye across the page. But like the chess metaphors that litter the comic, they’re still setting up their pieces. We get a glimpse of Morgan, a YA author who is clued in to the magical goings on, and a hint of tragic past and Merlin maybe exceeding moral boundaries in setting up his new/old Queen.
The game is just starting, but I’m onboard for this super-heroic, speed-chess take on the classic legend. You can pick up a copy at your local comics shop, or in digital at Comixology.com.

Hugh Likes Comics: Usagi Yojimbo

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Usagi

Usagi Yojimbo Omnibus Volume 1
Script and Art by Stan Sakai
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Usagi Yojimbo is kind of a difficult comic to classify in terms of age appropriateness.  As a samurai pulp, it is certainly the most accessible to a western audience of the comics I’ve discussed so far.  It lacks the gore and explicit content of “Lone Wolf and Cub,” and its setting is simpler than “Rurouni Kenshin’s” historical period.  At first glance, the cartoonish talking animal characters make it seem perfect for younger kids.  The first story in this collection even features a guest appearance by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  But there is something nonetheless unflinching in Sakai’s tales of the long-eared wandering swordsman that resonates with the stark realities of Japan’s Shogunate period.
Although this collection is labeled as “volume one,” this collection actually contains parts  eight through ten of the series, which is the point where Dark Horse began to publish the collected volumes.  Although a great deal of backstory is referenced at times, Sakai is very good at bringing the reader up to speed quickly, and I never felt lost.
Following Miyamoto Usagi as he wanders the countryside, the stories in his collection are picaresque adventures that flow organically, and build slowly upon one another.  They don’t reach a climax in this volume, but I am quite curious about where Usagi ends up.  These stories are by turns exciting, heartwarming, and sad, and they are filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for Japanese culture and traditions.  Even though he is of the Samurai class, Usagi’s humility and genuine desire to connect with other people allow him to enter a variety of stories, from a widow struggling to avenge her husband’s death on the gambler responsible to an exploration of traditional seaweed farming.
The varied nature of the stories is delightful, but parents might want to read through first, or read with their children to be able to answer some of the difficult issues sometimes raised by this comic.  One of the most moving, but also difficult to read stories in this collection is entitled “Noodles.”  The story of a mute soba seller and his performer/pickpocket companion, it deals with some very heavy subjects, including justice, or the lack thereof, the rights of the disabled, and capital punishment.  While the conclusion to that story is satisfying, it is the darkest point in the book, and it was hard for me to get through as an adult.
Sakai’s art is superlative.  His style is at once a blend of  Carl Barks and Goseki Kojima and something entirely his own, and it is breathtaking.  His attention to detail, and his deft depiction of samurai fighting that doesn’t dip into gory self-indulgence is wonderful, and keeps  the stories moving while lending them a timeless atmosphere.
Usagi Yojimbo is an excellent comic for readers new to the genre, or for anyone with an interest in Japanese culture.  You can find the first volume on Amazon, or at your local comics shop.