After writing 52 reviews last month, I thought I was out of the game for a while. But then, our good friends at Kickstart Comics sent over a copy of this week’s new release, Book Smart. Written by the team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (All-Star Western, and about a hundred other series) with art by Juan Santacruz (Kickstart’s Endangered), Book Smart is an absolute blast. Mystery, adventure, and a surprising amount of comedy all come together in this story of an amnesiac woman and the large number of people who want her dead.
Book Smart’s protagonist may or may not be named Samantha Rayne, and she’s a great addition to Kickstart’s line of strong female lead characters. She wakes up in Kathmandu with amnesia after being injured in an expedition. Samantha doesn’t get much time to reflect on her situation, because henchmen start trying to rough her up almost immediately. And that’s when she finds out that even if she doesn’t know her name, she’s got fighting skills that point to some sort of training and a possible dark past.
This is one of my favorites of the Kickstart line, which if you’ll recall, is made up of books that I like a whole lot. The story is relentlessly clever and well-conceived. Throughout the action, Palmiotti and Gray never lose sight of the fact that the main character doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t completely give herself over to the fun of finding out that she kicks all sorts of ass, which I appreciated. They really have a strong take on the amnesia concept (which is a hard thing to make work), where they don’t lose sight of the information that Samantha doesn’t have. She can’t let herself be attracted to Sean, the teacher who ends up dragged along on the adventure. After all, she doesn’t know if she’s actually married or engaged. And in a nice inversion of the usual formula, Sean is the one who’s immediately lovestruck and Samantha is the badass. (Which is not to say that Sean doesn’t have his moments – after all, he’s a guy who helps move the plot along with the line “I picked the guy’s pocket while we were on fire”. You can’t tell me that isn’t awesome.)
The character work is really good here, always a strong suit for the team of Palmiotti and Gray. Amnesia is usually a shortcut to avoid defining characters and circumvent sketchy motivations, but this is the best use of the plot device I’ve seen in a long time. Samantha’s attempts to deal with her lack of identity while insane things happen all around her lifts Book Smart beyond just being a fun action thriller.
I have to say, Book Smart made me actually laugh out loud twice. Once with the reveal of Samantha’s true identity, which was truly surprising but also made perfect sense with everything that had been established. The second time came near the end when the intelligence agencies of two different countries get into a gunfight over who gets to kill the heroes. As character-focused as the story is, the action scenes are deeply satisfying.
The action scenes are suitably over-the-top, yet grounded in the real world. The fight scenes are executed so well – there’s a momentum to the fight scenes where every action is clear and choreographed. Scenes of regular people fighting often fail in comics, because it’s a visual language that lends itself more to guys getting punched through buildings or blasted to atoms. Juan Santacruz does a fantastic job with the storytelling and just drawing regular people. His previous Kickstart book, Endangered, was an insane sci-fi epic with crazy aliens and technology and it looked gorgeous. And somehow his style translates to normal human people with normal clothing. It’s great work, and if you look at both of Santacruz’ Kickstart books, you’ll be amazed at his versatility.
And to get slightly off-topic here, I’ve been reviewing a lot of comics lately – all 52 first issues in the DC Relaunch. One thing that really had me down by the end of that stretch was the treatment of women. (Not in all of the titles, by any means. But the ones that were bad were so bad.) I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but Kickstart, from Day One, has really been excellent at portraying female characters. Strong, capable, but distinct – they’re not just pulling from a “Female Character” spreadsheet, and while attractive, they’re not hyper-sexualized. Here, Samantha is drawn as an attractive woman, but she also dresses like an adult with good judgment – she’s not going to Nepal in something skintight and low-cut. Her neckline remains distinctly neck-adjacent throughout the book. It’s just really heartening to see something like Book Smart right now. And heck, it really makes me happy that I can recommend any book in Kickstart’s line without having to be a little embarrassed by boob shots or weird sexual politics. Books like Witch, Book of Lilah, Headache, Bad Guys and many others have well-written and tastefully portrayed female leads, which is exactly what the industry needs right now.
Book Smart is available today – it’s a great read and really helped turn around some of my misgivings about the state of comics today. Thanks again to the folks at Kickstart!