As I write this, I’m in Belgium. Yes, this is relevant. At Carrefour, which is sort of the Belgian equivalent of a Super Target store, I saw something that really surprised me. In the Books and Magazines section, there’s an entire aisle devoted to comics. They’re books, what we’d call graphic novels over here, with complete, stand-alone stories. In some cases, there are multiple books devoted to the same character but without any indication of a serial nature. There’s no “you have to read that one before you read this one” – it was just a big wall of choices appealing to casual readers and with production values that impressed even a lifelong comic reader. And people were lined up at that wall – people with carts full of groceries were stopping to pick up Blacksad and IR$. Nothing would make me happier than to see this same scene in America.
Well, it’s not going to happen overnight, but there’s progress. New publisher Kickstart Comics debuts this month with four original graphic novels that will be distributed both in comic book shops and in mainstream outlets like Best Buy and Wal-Mart. Kickstart Entertainment has been around for some time, with involvement in many TV projects (including the Amazing Screw-On Head, which you should definitely buy on DVD as soon as possible.), and now they’re getting into comic publishing. This is exactly what the market needs.
Managing Editor Samantha Shear told us, “We think that these books appeal to both comic fans and a more mainstream buyer.” It’s a smart strategy – it’s hard to get comics to the audience that’s not already buying then, and getting them into mass-market outlets is incredibly important. People want to be able to buy everything in one trip, and that’s an uphill battle that traditional comic publishers have to fight. They’re producing something that maybe one or two specialty stores in town is going to carry, which almost eliminates the possibility of casual readers. And by releasing books that the comic shop audience will enjoy, they’re building an invested audience. I’m going to tell people to pick up Hero Complex because I loved it, and hopefully they’ll listen because they can get it when they get their groceries or the new Call of Duty game. If the books are available and the quality is high, it’s the best possible thing for the comics industry.
Having received review copies of Kickstart’s first four releases, I can confirm, the quality is indeed high. They are putting their best foot forward with really strong, appealing work. The creative teams, both established talents and relative newcomers are impressive – I can’t remember ever seeing a new publisher with such a strong launch. And with folks like Jimmy Pamliotti and spunkybuddy Larry Young, both of whom are known for quality work and spotting new talent, on the editorial staff, it really bodes well for their future releases.
We’ll be bringing you interviews with some of the Kickstart creators soon, but today, we’re reviewing their first four releases. Thanks to Samantha Shear for the review copies and for taking the time to talk to us!
Mirror, Mirror – This book is probably the most “movie ready” of Kickstart’s initial offerings. I’m not a professional pitch guy, but I think if I could get a meeting with any big producer and told them “National Treasure only with fairy tales instead of American History”, brother, that’s a movie that would get made.
Mirror, Mirror is set in a world where fairy tales have a basis in fact, sometimes largely symbolic, sometimes quite literal. (One character is a direct descendant of Snow White’s wicked stepmother.) It deals with a plot to reconstruct the magic mirror (from “Snow White”), and the secret society, the Hunstmen, that’s spent centuries making sure that doesn’t happen. When a couple of adventurers are killed for one of the mirror shards, the responsibility to keep the world safe falls on their son, college dropout Owen Grimm. Owen and Sally Prince (the protégé of an injured Huntsman) decode a series of clues and travel the world to find the last few shards and avoid Mason, the rich nut who wants the power of the mirror for himself.
It’s a lot of fun, and I really like the approach the story takes to fairy tales. There’s a scene set at the grave of Little Red Riding Hood, and we get just enough backstory to make it seem plausible that the story was based on a real person – a wolf didn’t actually put on her grandmother’s clothes, but the broad strokes of the story are based on historical fact. It’s a cool approach that doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary detail.
The storytelling here is really wonderful – not only does it set up the rules of their world, but it introduces the characters and sends them on an adventure that spans the globe without ever losing control. A whole lot happens between the covers, and the pacing is just perfect. There are fight scenes, ancient traps, magic, and still somehow, there’s time to get to know Owen and Sally. Mirror, Mirror moves along at a fast pace, but it doesn’t feel busy. It’s great story structure, and it’s so much fun to read.
I was not familiar with writer Joshua Williamson, but the man really knows how to tell a story. (On the strength of Mirror, Mirror, I sought out some of his earlier work, and it’s also great.) He sells the premise wonderfully, and even succeeds in making us like Owen, who starts out as a privileged jerk. I do know artist Lee Moder’s work, though. He drew the much-missed Stars and STRIPE for DC a few years back. I liked his art then, and this looks even better. He’s amazing with facial expressions, and he does an excellent job choreographing the action scenes. Moder can draw a page of people talking and have it look as good as the scene where the magic mirror awakens and things get all crazy. Oh, and the cover by the great Darwyn Cooke is absolutely gorgeous. If I saw it on the rack with no information, the cover alone would have guaranteed that I’d take a look.
Mirror, Mirror is a fun book, and the execution lives up to the irresistible premise. It’s clever and satisfying, and I really enjoyed it. From a storytelling perspective, it’s incredibly impressive – in terms of the pacing and character work, it’s just amazing.
Bad Guys – I knew I was going to like this one by the end of the first page. It opens with that old fable about the rat and the scorpion. That may not seem promising, because that’s been overused in recent years – I think it was the second time that fable had been invoked this week in my entertainment choices. But then there’s a fresh twist and it makes a completely different point than the usual. So right away, I was sold.
As the title indicates, this is about villains. Our narrator is Femme Fatale, a woman with luck-based powers, but there’s a whole group of nasty SOB’s involved. (My favorite is the Executioner, an ax murderer with a split personality.) It’s set up like a standard superhero universe, with stand-ins for guys like Superman and Iron Man. But everything changes when alien invaders appear and promptly slaughter all of the heroes. That leaves the villains as Earth’s only hope. It’s like the Dirty Dozen, only Charles Bronson can blow things up by pointing at them. Which, again, makes for a pretty darn good pitch.
If you’ve read as many comics as I have, you’ll go into Bad Guys thinking you know where it’s going, but nothing plays out quite like you’d expect. The villains aren’t the sketchy but reasonable types – several of the characters don’t really care whether or not Earth survives. It takes some convincing to get them on board with the plan. And the invaders aren’t freakish horrors from another planet. They’re human beings from another dimension’s Earth. They’re callous businessmen, traversing reality to drain parallel Earths of their resources. Somehow, that’s creepier. Their leader has an excellent scene where he tells a delegation of Earth’s leaders just how insignificant they are. “You are not special. Not you, not your kids, not your country, not your planet. I can kill you, and there’s 800,000 more of you.”
I really loved this book – villain stories are always a favorite of mine, and the ones in here are just vicious. When your point-of-view character cheers to see her nemesis torn apart on live TV, despite what it means for the safety of the planet, you’re dealing with some real reprobates. I wish there were more stories about these guys – Zen especially could use more backstory. In his appearance here, he’s a really compelling villain and it’s kind of a shame that there aren’t more stories about him. That’s right, I liked the characters so much that after one book, I already want spinoffs.
This is writer Philip Eisner’s first comic work, but it doesn’t feel like a first-time effort. The storytelling is smooth, the characters are well-developed and some of the dialogue is fantastic. (I would buy a book that was nothing but the lead villain telling people how insignificant they are.) I’m going to be watching for anything else he writes in the future. The art from Augustin Padilla is perfect for the story – he’s excellent in his use of shadows and his depictions of carnage.
I really liked Bad Guys, and it put the two creators firmly on my radar. That’s two for two from Kickstart!
Hero Complex – Fun Fact – my favorite comic series ever is Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ run on Justice League. It was a near-perfect blend of comedy with action, bringing us superheroes who maybe weren’t ready for the big time, but tried pretty damn hard. That spirit is alive and well with Hero Complex.
Hero Complex brings us Captain Supreme, and immensely powerful and upright hero. Unfortunately, he’s also a bit of a dork. Unlike Eclipse, a darker and cooler hero, he doesn’t do product endorsements or make money off merchandising. And so poor Captain Supreme, a sweet-natured guy who warns citizens about the dangers of alcohol consumption after busting some criminals, can’t make ends meet and is in danger of having his hideout repossessed.
Geniac, his well-meaning sidekick, thinks that it’ll help for Warren Sherman (Captain Supreme’s secret identity) to go to his ten-year high school reunion. And that leads to some awkward parental conversations, unrequited crushes, mistaken sexuality, and long-simmering rivalries coming to a head. It’s hilarious, action-packed and well-observed.
What I love is the way there are so many different kinds of comedy in here. There’s super-hero satire, with Captain Supreme having to deal with villains like Dutch Oven (Yes, he’s planning to release poisonous gas.) and fending off a lawsuit from Superman for copyright infringement. I think my favorite joke in the whole book is about how Aquaman sold his international rights. But there’s also a very funny story about relationships here – Warren wants another chance with Veronica, his high school crush. So Warren’s in competition with her rich and perfect boyfriend while still trying to maintain his secret identity. I love the Clark Kent vibe here, because writers Adam Freeman and Marc Bernardin develop Warren so well – he’s a guy who has an easy solution in front of him, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. He can’t compromise his morals, but it’s hard for him to make that choice. There’s a real emotional resonance in this story.
There’s so much good stuff here. Warren’s parents are deranged versions of Ma and Pa Kent (“This tastes like horse piss. And yes, Rhoda, I know what horse piss tastes like. I was in the war.”). There’s a hilarious sequence where Warren tries working for his father as a party entertainer. It ends badly. And there’s a laugh-out-loud bit where Captain Supreme applies for a loan in the middle of a bank robbery. There are so many funny scenes here, but they don’t get in the way of a solid emotional arc. Warren’s a guy that you’ll care about, even as his situation gets worse and worse.
Bernardin and Freeman wrote a fantastic script, and artist Javi Fernandez executes it perfectly. He does an excellent job with facial expressions and subtle acting – you’ll see some great body language in here. Fernandez brings out the emotion in each scene incredibly well. And his pages are just fun to look at – it’s such nice work.
I absolutely adore Hero Complex – it’s the funniest superhero story I’ve read in a very long time, with instantly appealing characters and a giant heart.
Rift Raiders – I’m sure there’s a better, more professional way to say this, but Rift Raiders is a freaking hoot! It’s a time travel adventure with great action scenes, appealing characters, and a twisty, satisfying plot. It’s an absolute blast all the way through.
Dodger is a teenager who happens to be the world’s greatest thief. His parents are treasure hunters with a secret – they’re time travelers. An accident pulls his parents into the timestream while Dodger ends up at a home for wayward youths. From there, it quickly turns into an adventure when Dodger meets nerdy Miles and the sadistic Sikes and the time travel plot thickens. Toss in Layla, the greatest warrior of all time (She trained with Shaolin Monks in 1560, Mohammed Ali in 1975, and Wild Bill in 1876, among others.), and then everything gets awesome.
Our heroes meet up with a man known as “The Fence”, who can reunite the kids with their parents, if they retrieve artifacts strewn throughout history, and from there, the plot just takes off, and I’m going to avoid spoiling any further twists. There are alternate futures, betrayals, future selves meeting their present selves, and suspicious motives throughout. It’s crazy fun.
There are so many great ideas in this story. I love that the kids have to replace the artifacts with copies so as not to alter the past. Of course, you know that will go horribly wrong at some point, which just takes the story in another fun direction. Rift Raiders is a big, sprawling story that pinballs from one concept to another. It’s a crazy sprint through the timestream that doesn’t stop to take a breath. It jumps from Civil War-era steampunk exoskeletons to sentient dinosaurs to a stopover in Arthurian England. And the whole time, the characters are rock-solid and well-defined, keeping even the most insane scenes grounded.
I’ve got a soft spot for time travel stories, as long as they bring something new to the table. Season Five of Lost, Bender’s Big Score – I love those. And man, I love Rift Raiders. It’s got the severed head of Medusa, Excalibur, and “the war machine that time forgot” all in the same scene! Writer Mark Sable figured out where the top was, and then just went straight over it. And I mean that in a good way. Some of my favorite comics have this “how many awesome things can I get on a page” vibe to them, and that’s what’s happening here.
Rift Raiders reunites Sable with artist Julian Totino Tedesco, his collaborator on last year’s Unthinkable. I really liked that series, as well as the Two-Face miniseries that Sable wrote. Tedesco’s art is very cool – his faces have a caricature quality to them (just check out the Casimir, the lead villain), and he really knows how to stage an action scene. Anybody who can draw war-blimps and the Dino-Reich on the same page is a force to be reckoned with.
It’s a fun, crazy ride. And as I said, a freaking hoot!
Kickstart’s first four books, which are hitting stores this week, are solid hits all the way through. There’s not a weak one in the bunch, and I surprised myself with just how much I liked them. These people are doing good work, and it’s exactly what the comic industry needs right now.
In the next few days, we’re going to be presenting interviews with the writers of these four books – they’re a bunch of swell guys, so come back and check them out. And go buy their books!