I’m usually on the lookout for interesting new comics and this past spring seemed especially promising with a number of new projects by familiar creative teams. Indeed, some series exceeded my expectations and are quickly becoming new favorites. However, others didn’t click right. They’re not horrible comics; they’re even well crafted to some extent but, for one reason or another, they weren’t what I was looking for.
The first and probably biggest disappointment is Fairest. I’m a huge fan of Fables and I loved the idea of a spin-off that would focus on that series’ rich mix of female characters. But that’s not exactly what we got from Bill Willingham and Phil Jimenez.
I was surprised that the preview issue didn’t include any female characters. It told the story of the young thief Ali Baba and his genie guide as they broke into a goblin camp to free a princess from a deep slumber. It was a well-crafted tale but I thought it was a poor story-telling choice. It may have worked as an installment of Fables but it didn’t fit with the mission statement of Fairest. I was further disappointed when that preview turned out to be an accurate reflection of the first issue. Yet I was still willing to give the series a chance based on my prior appreciation for Fables.
The second issue, however, confirmed my poor impression. In this issue, Briar Rose is at least fully awake and on the run with Ali Baba. The scenario has potential and the arguments between the two characters have a nice Moonlighting element to them. However, that characterization is undercut by Jonah the genie’s diatribe about wo
en. Briar had argued that she could keep up with Ali, an argument that is patently false based on their relative fitness. B
ut rather than noting that a pampered princess can’t outrun a trained thief, Jonah
launches into a rant about how
women aren’t as good as men. As he says, “That’s why marathons give out two awards, one to the real champion and another to the first female finisher.” I was dumbfounded. I thought Billie Jean King had settled this issue in 1973 when she defeated Bobby Riggs. Ali Baba is faster and has more endurance because he’s in good physical shape and Briar Rose is not.
One might defend Fairest by noting that a character makes this statement and not necessarily the writer. However, I’m not sure that defense holds in this case. The genie is generally deferred to as a knowledgeable, almost omniscient character. Plus, Bill Willingham didn’t have to include the diatribe at all. It speaks poorly of him that he chose to write it when it has little to do with either the story or the main characters. Instead, it reads like an anti-feminist statement in a series that’s supposed to appeal to those who are interested in rich female characters.
The other unexpected disappointment was Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra. Hickman and Pitarra were responsible for last year’s excellent mini-series The Red Wing and this new series was specifically promoted as coming from the same creative team.
Manhattan Projects does provide some of the same crazy science based adventure as The Red Wing. There are parallel dimensions and teleportation tubes and all kinds of interesting objects. Unfortunately, The Red Wing had one thing that Manhattan Projects does not: characters that we can care about.
The premise is that Manhattan Projects takes place in an alternate dimension where Robert Oppenheimer’s team of scientists invented a lot more than an atomic bomb. However, in this dimension, Oppenheimer has been replaced by his evil twin. We’re not talking about your garden variety bad seed here; we’re talking about a Jeffrey-Dahmer type of sociopath. This is also a different version of Albert Einstein. It’s not the lovable, slightly wacky version we’re used to from most depictions. This Einstein is surly and cruel. There’s also a German scientist who is recruited into the project after the defeat of the Nazis. I don’t think he has an exact historical counterpart but he’s presented as a version of Joseph Mengele, willing to experiment on live humans in the name of science. As I said, there aren’t a lot of likable characters to care about.
There are a few nice moments. In the second issue, I enjoyed a humorous scene in which a young scientist sent to Germany surrenders before he realizes with relief that he actually arrived at an American military camp. Yet those joyful moments don’t outweigh the ugly ones. Other readers may enjoy Manhattan Projects more than I did. But for me, the balance between the ugly and the beautiful was off-kilter and it’s not something I want to read on a regular basis.
That’s not to say that everything new has been disappointing or underwhelming. A few new series have turned out to be quite excellent. The first is Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Vaughan is the creative mind behind earlier hits like Ex Machine and Y: The Last Man. Staples demonstrated her artistic flair on the recent mini-series The Mystery Society. So I was definitely looking forward to their new sci-fi epic. My biggest concern was that it wouldn’t be able to live up to my anticipation.
I needn’t have worried. Though it’s very early, Saga has been everything I could have hoped for. A galaxy at war. A central romance. A parade of bounty hunters. Interesting new species, including one that’s a television/human hybrid.
Saga was promoted as Brian K. Vaughan meets Star Wars. That’s a pretty hefty billing to live up to. But Saga is no Star Wars rip-off. There are superficial similarities but Saga draws from classic literature like Romeo & Juliet and modern communication theory as much as it does from popular science fiction.
Perhaps the best thing about Saga is the way in which it keeps the focus on its central couple while using the entire galaxy as a backdrop. This isn’t the story of a galaxy at war. Rather, it’s the story of two young people who are trying to survive and start a family. The galactic conflict provides an epic feel and numerous moments of awe. Yet the personal element is what draws us into the story.
The other pleasant surprise has been X-O Manowar. X-O Manowar is not a new concept. It’s one of the characters from the original Valiant line and it debuted 20 years ago. This version is brought to us by Robert Venditti, who I didn’t know before this, and Cary Nord, an artist who impressed me years ago with his work on Conan.
X-O Manowar is Aric, a barbarian who fought against the Romans before being abducted by aliens. He eventually gained control of one of their exo-suits, escaped and returned to Earth. In the original series, Aric was a fish out of water. As a barbarian who had survived to the present day, he was occasionally disgusted by modern conventions. But he also had control of a technologically superior suit and a major corporation.
In the new series, Venditti and Nord have decided to explore Aric’s origins in much greater depth. The origin isn’t simply a backstory for a modern superhero. Instead, it’s the central narrative of the comic book. The comic provides historical background and reference for the battles between the Romans and the “barbarian” Visigoths. The Romans have superior wealth, arms and tactics but the Visigoths are indefatigable foes. Aric is part of this ancient conflict, the underdog fighting against the superior enemy.
This becomes the setting for an alien incursion. Venditti does a great job of getting into Aric’s head. He isn’t a modern comic book fan who has watched X-Files and read War of the Worlds. He has no concept of aliens from another world. He originally mistakes the aliens for Romans and then for magical creatures. The series explores concepts like technology and military strength. It also deals with human themes like captivity and freedom. It has a rich texture and a unique setting. I can’t wait to see what happens next.