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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: 2016 Top 5

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Hugh Likes Comics Top 5 of 2016

The year is finally over, so here is my top comics picks for this year, in no particular order.  Not all of these comics started their runs in 2016, but all of them were read and enjoyed by me in the last twelve months.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
W-Ryan North
A-Erika Henderson
P-Marvel Comics
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Ryan North and Erika Henderson continue to kill it with their solo series focused on Marvel’s favorite C-List powerhouse.  In addition to the stand alone “Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe,” they also continued to do outstanding work in her ongoing series.  Flouting Super-Hero comics conventions, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a rich blend of smarts, silliness, and action that casts a satyrical lens on The Marvel Universe.  Squirrel Girl beats her foes with a combination of empathy, inner strength, and even her computer science knowledge. Plus, they did a crossover with Howard The Duck that included Kraven the Hunter driving around in a panel van with a picture of himself on the side. So there’s that.

New Super-Man
W-Gene Luan Yang
A-Viktor Bogdanovic
P-DC Comics
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Set in Shanghai with an all-Chinese cast, this book is something truly new from DC. Yang is taking a risk and delving deep into the superhero genre. By taking traditionally American iconography and placing it in modern China, he brings a freshness to plot elements which can feel a bit stale elsewhere. Young Kong Kenan’s struggle with heroism and authority follows familiar beats, but has new life. Bogdanovic’s art and designs are likewise familiar and new in ways that invite the reader. The first arc just finished, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

The Wicked + The Divine
W-Kieren Gillen
A-Jamie McKelvie
P-Image Comics
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The Wicked + The Divine also didn’t begin its run in 2016, but that is the year I finally picked it up. I am a huge fan of Gillen and McKelvie, so this was a no-brainer.  The story of twelve teenagers elevated to godhood for two years, it explores the dynamics of youth, pop culture, and religion in intriguing ways that only these two could come up with. This book is an emotional roller-coaster; by turns shocking, funny, and heart-breaking. Gillen and McKelvie continue to work in perfect harmony as they discuss the dynamics of power, celebrity, and exploitation.

Power Man and Iron Fist
W-David Walker
A-Sanford Greene
P-Marvel Comics
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This is a truly great, modern street-level superhero comic. Power Man and Iron Fist threads that tiny needle of including years of backstory without getting bogged down in little details. It manages to include a cast of D-list bronze age gangsters and not only keeps modern readers interested, but evokes empathy. It examines what it would really be like to struggle at the bottom in a world like Marvel’s New York, where aliens and magic are commonplace. Walker’s exploration of the idea of street-level magic is both charming and chilling. Greene’s art is well-matched, and he even turns Luke Cage into a fashion plate.

Lake of Fire
W-Nathan Fairbairn
A-Matt Smith
P-Image Comics
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Something a bit different to close out this list, “Lake of Fire” is one of those pure, elegant speculative fiction stories that I love. Set during the Crusades, it focuses on how pre-enlightenment Europeans might react to an alien invasion. It is essential knights vs. zenomorphs, but the execution is well-thought out and historically detailed. Fairbairn and Smith take an action-movie concept and expand it into a living, breathing world.

Hugh Likes Comics: The Unstoppable Wasp

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The Unstoppable Wasp #1
Written by Jeremy Whitley
Drawn by Elsa Charretier
Colored by Megan Wilson
Published by Marvel Comics
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I have never been a fan of The Wasp. Originally created by Lee and Kirby as a sidekick/love interest for Ant-Man in the ’60’s, I always thought of her as emblematic of the problems that plagued female characters in that era. She was a hanger on, a love-struck fool always in need of rescue, whose powers were weaker and less awesome than her male peers.  As time when on, Marvel addressed these tropes and even turned fellow Marvel damsels Jean Grey and Sue Storm into powerful badasses in their own right. But Wasp always seemed trapped in her roots. Even when her role was expanded and she led the Avengers, she was still ‘the girl.’ A fashion designer and socialite, she never really escaped the gender expectations placed on her by male writers.
Which is exactly why The Unstoppable Wasp #1 is such a breath of fresh air. The book stars Nadia Pym, teenage genius, escapee from a Russian super-soldier program, and long-lost daughter of original Ant-Man Hank Pym, because comics. Having studied her father’s work, she has come to America to live the life she never could before. But the thing about Nadia, even more than her intelligence, is her joyfulness. This is the exact antithesis of a grim and gritty superhero punch-up. The Wasp sparkles with light and energy. Nadia, despite her terrible upbringing, isn’t a brooder. She wants to make friends with everyone she meets. She wants to have adventures. She wants to dance with giant robots. This comic is fun, and beautiful and smart. It fits in right along with titles like Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel. (Who guest stars in this issue.)
Written by “Princeless” creator Jeremy Whitley, The Unstoppable Wasp is a delight. It carries over the positive messaging from his creator-owned work and sets its sights on a very important goal: encouraging girls to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There is even an interview with paleontologist Rachel Silverstein and and PhD Chemistry student Marina Chanidou in the back in lieu of a letters column. The script never gets bogged down in its message, and remains fun and engaging throughout.
Elsa Charretier’s drawing is similarly great, with kinetic, detailed panels and clever layouts. One of the things I love in particular is how she draws Nadia. She’s always moving, practically bouncing from frame to frame, and she’s always, always smiling. She is assisted by Megan Wilson’s bright, sunny palette, which contrasts The Wasp’s black and red suit with light, vibrant colors. This is not a world of shadows, and the coloring does a lot of legwork establishing tone.
The Unstoppable Wasp #1 is a great start to another fun, engaging, and smart Marvel book. If you love comics, pick it up. And be sure to share it with any budding young lady adventure scientists in your life.
The Unstoppable Wasp #1 is available from Comixology or at your local comics shop.

Hugh Likes Comics: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Again!

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!
Written by Ryan North
Drawn by Erica Henderson
Published by Marvel Comics

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I frigging love Squirrel Girl.  North and Henderson’s irreverent take on the Marvel Universe is the highlight of my pull list, and when I heard they were doing a graphic novel, I had to get on-board immediately.
A parody of a classic but ultra-serious Punisher story, USGBUTMU! features all  of my favorite things about North’s writing, and my favorite things about the Marvel Universe.  Mad science, morally gray villains, and Tony Stark’s utter disregard for lab safety.
When a device confiscated from a mad scientist accidentally creates a duplicate of Squirrel Girl, she couldn’t be happier with the result.  But duplicate Squirrel Girl Allene soon decides to save the Earth for Squirrels, and banish humanity to the moon.  After getting the Squirrel Girl and her friends out of the way, she quickly and efficiently goes about beating up and capturing anyone who could stop her.
Essentially a long-form version of a Squirrel Girl issue, North and Henderson use the extra room to really shine.  With a story just as silly and smart as the Squirrel Girl ongoing series, this graphic novel is a delight for fans, and a wonderful introduction to readers new to the character.  North’s writing remains sharp and absurdist, and Henderson’s art and coloring more than keep pace.  With gems like a unit of squirrels attempting to operate an Ironman suit, and Squirrel Girl using sorting techniques to plot her enemies’ downfall, this is just the perfect mix of crazy comedy I enjoy.
Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe is available from Comixology, or your local comics shop, and makes a great gift.

Hugh Likes Comics: Doctor Aphra

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Doctor Aphra #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Kev Walker
Published by Marvel Comics
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How do you write a good anti-hero?  Put them up against forces larger, and worse than themselves and always, always make the bill come due for their evil deeds, in one way or another.  This is just what Kieron Gillen and Kev Walker’s Doctor Aphra sets out in its first issue.
The scheming anthropologist accomplice of Darth Vader is back in her own series, and I couldn’t be happier to see her again.  Accompanied by her droids 000 and BT, dark-mirror analogues of C3P0 and R2-D2, she’s still out looking for big scores and outsmarting the Galaxy’s ever-present underworld.  Clever, deep in debt, and out to save her own skin rather than the galaxy, she’s the perfect update of all of Han Solo’s tropes.  Just don’t call it a redemption arc.
Gillen’s story ditches the Campbellian melodrama and delivers a story full of double crosses, brawling, badass wookiees, and grimly comic murder droids.  Walker’s art is fun, and expressive, with action-oriented layouts.  Colorist Antonio Fabela proves you can tell a dark story in comics without over-shading the page.
Aphra was one of my favorite characters from Gillen’s Darth Vader run, and I can’t see what shenanigans she gets up to away from the sith lord’s watchful eye.  Doctor Aphra #1 is available digitally from Comixolgoy, or in print at your local comics shop.

Hugh Likes Comics: Lake of Fire

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Lake of Fire #1
Written by Nathan Fairbairn
Drawn by Matt Smith
Published by Image Comics
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“Lake of Fire” is Aliens with Crusaders instead off Space Marines, and it’s perfect.  Set in a remote village in the French Pyrenees in the 13th Century, a crashed space ship releases monstrous aliens that the people of the time can only conceptualize as demons.  When a team of errant crusaders come to the village to root out heresy, they come face to face with the terrifying creatures.
What I find most interesting about this concept is how asymmetrical the understanding of the characters is.  Fairbairn and Smith do an excellent job making clear the nature of the ‘demonic’ threat in the opening sequence, with a huge panel of the massive ship passing overhead before crashing in the mountains.  Conflict between highly advanced and pre-enlightenment societies isn’t a new concept.  ‘Star Trek’ made a lot of hay out of it over the years.  But this is an intriguing perspective.  The reader perspective follows the superstitious humans rather than the Xenomorph-like aliens, which really increases the tension.  They have absolutely no idea what they’re up against.
Fairbairn’s story is well researched and detailed without getting too bogged down in historical minutia.  The action is well paced and the characters are well developed.  The interplay between the greenhorn knight and his friend and the more seasoned knights and noblemen was interesting, and it kept the story moving.
Smith’s art is less realistic than I would have expected, but he has a great mastery of expressions.  The page layouts are a bit cramped, with lots of small panels.  This also helps keep the story compressed and tense.  Colors by Fairbairn are vibrant and atmospheric.
Lake of Fire is a heck of a good read to tide you over if you’re still waiting for the next George R. R. Martin book.  You can find it on Comixology, or on the shelves of your local comics shop.

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Hugh Likes Comics: The Wicked + The Divine

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The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 1: The Faust Act
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Jaime McKelvie
Published by Image Comics

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Gillen and McKelvie are my all-time favorite team of comics creators.  Yes.  Even above Stan and Jack.  Deal with it.  I was impressed with their urban fantasy indie-pop black and white opus “Phonogram,” and their run of “Young Avengers” was my favorite comic of 2013.  So when they announced “The Wicked + The Divine,” I knew right away that it was going to be right in my wheelhouse.  But I slept on it, knowing that it would be there when I wanted it the most, and that graphic novels would be a better choice than single issues, for me.  This week I finally took the plunge.  And I was entirely right.
Every ninety years, twelve gods return to earth, incarnated as teenaged pop stars.  They spend the next two years inspiring humanity, then they die.  And the cycle repeats.  It’s called The Recurrence, and it’s happening right now.
Laura is a fanatic.  She’s seen every god that has appeared so far.  And when Luci, this incarnation of the Prince of Lies as filtered through the Thin White Duke, takes a shine to her and invites her backstage, she becomes enmeshed in the affairs of beings that are equal parts divine being, celebrity, and terminally-ill teenager.
The Wicked + The Divine is another moonshot high concept of a comic from Gillen and McKelvie.  A strange mix of pop culture and religious iconography, it is constantly shocking, melancholic, and larger-than-life.  McKelvie’s clean, gorgeous line work is once again perfectly suited, with a whole class of post-modern deities to accompany his work on Marvel’s Young Avengers.  Matthew Wilson’s colors once again provide a rich partner to McKelvie’s art.
The Wicked + The Divine vol. 1 is available in trade from your local comics shop or digitally from Comixology.  It’s a hell of a good read.

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