Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

PrettyDeadly_Vol2-1What is the point of the “natural order” if the world appears to operate in chaos? Can we change our role, our destiny, or are we servants to a greater calling? What is courage in war? What is fear? Is there a difference between the two or are they companions of a sort?

These are only some of the questions the second arc of Pretty Deadly poses.

None of them have clear answers. Well, most of them.

What I admire about Pretty Deadly and its creative team of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, artist Emma Rios, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Clayton Cowles is the ambiguity, deliberate or otherwise. We ask big questions all the time, drilling our own psyche on ideas too vast and nuanced to have an ultimate, or, at the very least, satisfying conclusion. Art is one of many platforms we use to tackle those questions; making sense of what seems impossible to understand and still we only scratch the surface. Pretty Deadly‘s sophomore tale doesn’t worry itself with definitive answers. Instead it lives and breathes in a realm where equilibrium is constantly in flux, allowing for even the smallest action by the smallest of creatures to alter the course of events.

Before diving in, however, it’s important to acknowledge the craftsmanship of Rios, Bellaire, and Cowles on the unique and devastatingly powerful images in this book. In case you didn’t know, it’s gorgeous! Rios is a master of implied motion, which make for some amazing fight sequences, but it’s in her two-page layouts and splash pages where the enormity of her talent is on full display. Her repetition of patterns is stunning, specifically the gnarled rivulets of blood that feed the faceless Reaper of War contrasted with the intertwining branches and brambles of Sissy’s pastoral realm. It’s life and death performing the same dance. Equally strong and unique is the color palette, which Bellaire turns into its own form of storytelling. The heavy blues of the WWI trenches hauntingly contrasts with 640the bright green of oncoming mustard gas and the heightened red of the War Reaper so well that when they all come together the clash of color amplifies the intensity of the wartime setting. And Cowles’s skill as a letterer remains a constant and vital component of the storytelling process; one bubble out-of-place and the flow stops, the mood dies, the story falls flat. These three artists, combined with DeConnick’s prose, make Pretty Deadly what it is, a piece of art.

That being said, the plot goeth thusly: It’s been about twenty years since the events of the first arc and Sarah Fields is on her deathbed. Fox, now a Reaper, arrives to bring her to the flourishing World Garden but Sarah’s daughter pleads for more time to give her baby brother Cyrus a chance to return home and see Sarah before she dies. Unfortunately, Cyrus is fighting in the trenches of France and the errant Reaper of War has him and his fellow soldiers in his sights. Devastated by the flood of deaths, Sissy sends her Reapers to protect Cyrus and end the war.

 

Man on the Run

The themes of change and adaptation are mapped out from the very beginning. Still engaging in their stories in the Soul Garden, Deathbones Bunny and Butterfly happen upon a bee. Bunny just barely recognizes her noting that she was once a nurse but is now a forager for her hive. When Butterfly asks why Bunny didn’t recognize her old friend, Bunny replies, “Her changing role has changed her.” When Butterfly asks how, Bunny remarks, “It’s changed her body. We are all shaped by what we do.” Fittingly, the words hover below the approaching Sissy, Death Incarnate, whose body changed when she embraced her role in the natural order and who, in turn, changed the Soul of the World.

Her story finds its parallel in Cyrus as the young man contemplates the chaotic world around him. Like Sissy before him, Cyrus is hesitant to embrace his future. He may not be a supernatural Ascendant, but the unknown of a war-torn world inspires just as much fear and anxiety. And with that anxiety comes a crisis of identity. Throughout the story, but more specifically under the gentle razzing of his fellow soldiers, Cyrus is identified by several nicknames and personality traits. His home in the American West and affinity with horses make him a “Cowboy” while his mile-long, dreamy gaze into the moon dubs him “Moon-Man.” In his protest of the Cowboy moniker, a 9French soldier teases that he’s a knight searching for adventure and nobility, noting that his kindly treatment of a mouse in the trenches indicates he has a soft heart. Though he protests being called soft, Cyrus self-identifies with the horse that knocked him in the head. He’s a runner, willing to go halfway around the world to escape whatever it is that spooked him.

What becomes apparent by the story’s end is that Cyrus is the sum of his disparate identities and, like Sissy, it’s only when he understands how they work in tandem that he is able to make the greatest impact. As the Knight with a soft heart the mouse he kept alive goes on to spook the corrupted Reaper of Fear, a ghostly horse mounted by the Reaper of War, causing Fear to buck War from his back, severing his heightened power. And as the Cowboy and the Runner, he forms a bond with the equine reaper, easing his anger and calming him enough to send him into the fray once again. This time on the side of the better angels, so to speak. These facets of Cyrus culminate in his true calling, a final identity, the Reaper of Courage. Like the bee, like Sissy, Cyrus is given cause to adapt in the wake of change. It makes good on the Moon-Man name as well – an apparition of bravery in battle riding a mount made of eerie moonlight.

 

Always Two There Are

Duality plays a significant role in the world of Pretty Deadly. In the first arc, Fox and Death’s parallel treatment of Beauty led to one’s downfall and the other’s redemption. Their shared story served as a window into the state of the supernatural world and how the previous Death had subverted the natural order. The second arc offers a similar window, this time into the machinations of the Reapers. They ride in pairs, though their partnerships fall somewhere between the complimentary and the combative. Molly Raven and Johnny Coyote are the Reapers of Good and Bad Luck, though it’s never quite clear which is which. Deathface Ginny is the Reaper of Vengeance and Big Alice is the Reaper of Cruelty, which doesn’t sound like a good fit until one considers that vengeance can easily turn to cruelty and cruelty can be conducted in the name of vengeance given the right circumstances. If anything, Ginny and Alice keep each other in check. The creation of these dynamic duos, however, is essential to understanding how they operate and how they influence each other and the mortals around them.

The setup leads to the big reveal that the Reaper of War’s gas-mask toting horse is actually the Reaper of Fear and it’s their spurious partnership that keeps blood spilling on the battlefield. A veiled metaphor for the incomprehensible death and destruction surrounding WWI, War’s success lies in his corruption of Fear, taking away the flight instinct of otherwise sane men and leaving only the push to fight. It fuels his blood lust and the fervor of war experienced by soldiers, without a healthy sense of fear, ensures that Sissy’s garden of souls remains unnervingly full. When War is thrown from his mount, thanks to Cyrus’s mouse with an assist from Molly Raven, Fear is free of his control. It’s when Cyrus calms the spectral stallion, though, that he becomes the Reaper of Courage. Yes, he masters Fear, but he also respects it with an understanding that Fear is necessary, if not vital, to survival. Through the symbiotic partnership of Courage and Fear, sanity appears to have returned. For a while, at least. Duality, however, goes beyond the Reapers and is constantly reinforced through the discussion and presence of more relatable and “observable” concepts like luck and fear.

 

God Bless the Cowards

Thematically, fear presents an intriguing obstacle within Pretty Deadly. Its manifestation as a horse rings true considering the quiet, almost calm, exterior of such a majestic beast can easily swing towards panicked outbursts in a split second. How we interpret fear and our response to that interpretation makes all the difference, which DeConnick and Rios capture beautifully as Ginny struggles to overcome her potentially mortal wound delivered by War. She’s hindered, however, by the suffocating spiral that fear creates in dire situations. Beautifully rendered by Rios, we see Ginny fold into herself, naked and afraid, falling into an abyss of her own mind. The focus on her hands gives her struggle a visceral quality as she tries to claw her way out despite the weight of fears dragging her down. She manages to snap out of her fugue, but only because Molly Raven’s warning is so sudden and startling. It’s the power of fear, which makes our ability to surmount it all the more courageous. But is courage only found in overcoming fear or is there  just as much, if not more, courage in acting on fear?rios-pretty-deadly-10-cowards

There’s a fascinating moment, probably my favorite of the series, between two nurses discussing cowardice. The two are clearing the battlefield of bodies but one, Claudia, can’t stop crying over the thought that the soldiers – brave, young men – died alone and afraid. The other nurse, let’s call her Kelly (wink, wink), rebukes the idea that fear is something to be pitied. Instead, Kelly praises fear, commenting that there’d be more living men if they’d had the good sense to be afraid sooner. She drives her point home with the example of German soldiers opting for mutiny instead of drowning in a sinking ship. Not only did they save their own lives out of fear of death, but their actions turned the tide of the war by sending the Kaiser on the run. It’s also worth mentioning that this nurse sports one of my favorite expressions in the whole book.

Like Inside Out‘s conclusion that Sadness is a necessary and healthy part of growing up, Pretty Deadly turns Fear into a facet of heroism, subverting the typically conditioned response of patriotism in wartime. Courage and cowardice are two sides of the same coin. They exist simultaneously, but we make the conscious choice to interpret them one way or the other. Claudia calls Kelly’s notion that cowardice should be praised “disgusting” because her idea of heroism and courage can’t accommodate a positive place for fear. We claim to support our troops, but it’s amazing how fast that support turns to opposition over any perceived cowardice. The very thought that someone wouldn’t want to sacrifice themselves becomes offensive when it’s really more disheartening that we measure bravery based on that willingness. The conversation between Claudia and Kelly could easily be shifted from the trenches of France in 1918 to the blast walls of Afghanistan in 2015 and remain relevant.

 

Chaos, Luck, and the Like

One of the many reasons I admire Kelly Sue DeConnick is her fearlessness when it comes to storytelling. She’s willing to kill her darlings, but there’s always purpose behind the loss. The events of this book, however, have the feeling of a preemptive strike, a means of preparation and reassurance from DeConnick that something else is in the works. For the time being, though, this is the story that needs to be told.

Once again, the opening pages set the tone for the second act of this four-part story. The perceived chaotic madness of the bee hive troubles Butterfly, but Bunny is quick to remind her that order isn’t so easily seen except in hindsight. As the story progresses, the nature of luck is explored through the parable of the Lucky Farmer. Roughly told by Molly Raven to Johnny Coyote, then retold by Bunny to Butterfly, the story within a story posits that luck is neither good nor bad until the story ends. In fact, it’s both at thetumblr_o23dsquo1g1qeeerco4_500 same time; a construct used to make sense of what cannot be explained but only takes on meaning after the fact.

As the story of the farmer unfolds, the ups and downs of war play out. Cyrus and his fellow soldiers fight the enemy and the Reaper of War’s influence with each moment punctuated by a similar occurrence of good or bad luck within the parable. As readers we believe we have a certain amount of savvy when it comes to storytelling and the rules of drama, which makes Cyrus’s death that much more excruciating despite DeConnick’s early warning of his impending demise. There’s a cinematic quality to the writing and the art that gives us hope Cyrus will survive. It’s a war movie, right? Surely the hero survives since so much effort was made by Sissy and all of her Reapers to get him home?

The salve on the wound, however, is the nebulous duality of this world as seen in the spiritual hymn recited at the beginning and the end of the arc. With Sarah close to death, the wording and imagery takes on a menacing, fearful tone as flames engulf the people sitting vigil outside her home. But by the end of the story, when Cyrus arrives to help usher his mother into the afterlife, the hymn becomes a joyful eulogy as a ghostly mist fills the panels. Like the Farmer’s luck, like our perceptions of fear, Sarah’s passing is both a time for mourning and a time for celebration of a life long-lived. How we frame it alters the tone. Cyrus is dead, but he “lives” on as the Reaper of Courage. Will more come of his new role? Or does his story end here? It remains unknown until the next event and, like the Lucky Farmer, Pretty Deadly has yet to have its ending.

One has to wonder, though, if the world, or Ginny, could possibly survive without Big Alice? And does Alice’s absence mean Fox, the Reaper of Grace, and Ginny are destined for a dynamic duo of their own? Would there be any survivors of such a pairing? We’ll have to wait to find out.

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I’m certain those of you who grew up watching Animaniacs will recall the lovely short “I’m Mad” wherein Dot Warner expresses her frustration with oldest brother Yakko via the very succinctly stated, “I’m mad. I’m mad. I’m really, really, really mad!” Well, let me just say that Dot has become my spirit animal in the wake of reading Rat Queens #15 and a subsequent re-reading of the entire arc written by Kurtis J. Wiebe with art by Tess Fowler and colors by Tamra Bonvillain. Issues #11-15 mark a turning point in the Rat Queens story, but one of the Queens won’t be following the same path.RatQueens_15-1

Obviously there are spoilers here, so beware and all that jazz.

A while back the cover for Rat Queens #16 started circulating and unless you’d gone blind in the last few weeks, it wasn’t hard to figure out that Hannah, the group’s profanely hilarious mage, was noticeably absent. In my review for issue #14, I expressed my concern for where the story was headed and what it would mean for the girls as a whole. Unfortunately, my fears came true as Hannah and the Queens parted ways in a manner that still makes me want to hurl bricks at buildings while simultaneously setting fire to and salting the earth.

This is by no means a condemnation of the story. Far from it. It’s well done with wonderful, gut-punching dialogue with a few pacing issues, but there’s never a moment where it didn’t feel like Rat Queens or the characters didn’t ring true. If anything they rang too true, so think of this as proof of how invested I am in Hannah, Violet, Dee, and Betty’s friendship and the supposedly safe space Wiebe built for them within the walls of Palisade. But like Jericho, the walls came a’tumbling down. Gods helps me, though, I’ll find some way to blame this on Gary because fuck that guy!

In case you need a refresher: the Queens traveled to Mage University, Hannah’s old stomping grounds, to help free her father Gerard after he and several students attacked the university’s governing body, the Council of Nine. During their time on campus, Dee reunited with her brother Senoa and began making plans to destroy N’Rygoth, Betty’s past began to catch up with her, Violet got a new sword from a dragon’s (sorry – Daniel’s) hoard, and Hannah learned the truth about her father and his involvement with the Council of Nine after her mother was killed.

That’s all to say that things go steadily downhill from moment one in the final issue. While I love the symmetry of past-Hannah facing the Council of Nine in a similar manner to how Gerard faced them at the beginning of issue #11, the scene and the attack that follows set up an important thematic moment about truth, trust, and the bonds of friendship. Since before their arrival at the university, Hannah hasn’t been completely honest with her friends about her intentions in regards to freeing her father or the actual circumstances behind her expulsion banishment from campus. Unfortunately, the Queens hear Senoa’s version of how things went down first: Hannah was under the influence of a demon and used its power to attack the Council of Nine after they’d kicked her out of school. Hannah refutes most of Senoa’s story except for one particular detail, she was under no one’s influence. She was fully in control of herself when she attacked the Council and she’s ready to replay her greatest hits in order to save her father. The Queens, Dee especially, don’t exactly see her plan as a sound one but the words they use to convey those sentiments are chosen poorly. Hannah walks away believing her friends have abandoned her and by issue’s end it seems as though they have.

ratqueens 15The final pages are frustrating to read. As someone who’s been an avid fan of Rat Queens from the beginning it’s upsetting to watch the friendship of these four women crumble. The sad truth, though, is this is sometimes how friendships in the real world come to an end. Granted it usually doesn’t involve demons, mages, and Smidgens, but that’s also not what ultimately separates Hannah from the others. It’s them; all four of the Queens share responsibility. Their words and their choices send Hannah into the arms of her former power-enhancing demon and the others to resignedly sail back to Palisade. This is an important point where the story is concerned because Wiebe could have easily fallen back on the trope of body possession or demonic influence to explain Hannah’s actions then and now. It’s a tried and true way of letting a character do horrible things without taking responsibility since it “wasn’t really them.” Not with the Rat Queens, oh no! Wiebe goes for the hard truth and it’s heartbreaking to see unfold thanks to the beautifully emotive artwork of Tess Fowler and Tamra Bonvillain. Hannah’s face as she’s being dragged away, bloodied and bruised, by the guards is devastating as well as the real pain exuded by Betty and Violet. These women have been through the shit together and to watch them fall apart is, not gonna lie, rough.

The frustration lingers because it feels like the entire mess could’ve been avoided. If they hadn’t been at Mage U, or if Hannah had been given more time to calm down, or if Dee hadn’t implied that Hannah was still conspiring with the demon, or the guards hadn’t shown up when Betty was holding tightly to Hannah’s leg in desperation, then things might have happened differently.

But they didn’t. It’s a bummer ending that purposefully lacks closure like in real life where nothing ends as cleanly as we’d like. The silver lining, though, is I’m fairly certain this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Hannah. She’s too good of a character for Wiebe to completely sideline and should the “vision” Violet experienced come to pass, then the reunion is going to be epic.

 

RatQueens_14-1

This is going to be a shorter review than you’re probably used to from me, dear reader, but that’s only because I’m pretty sure the next issue of Rat Queens is going to put the preamble of the latest issue into context. It’s the final push before shit starts to go down and, if I’m honest, I’m worried. I’m stressed out because it isn’t just a shoe, but a whole wardrobe’s worth of clothing and accessories, is about to drop on our girls. Something’s about to go down and I don’t know if I can handle the idea of a possible splintering in the girl-power-force-of-badassery that is the Rat Queens.

Quick Recap: The Queens have traveled to Mage University, ostensibly to help Hannah free her father after his revolt against the University’s Council of Nine goes south. While there, Dee reunites with her brother, Senoa, and reveals her plans to destroy N’Rygoth, Violet and Betty get into some shenanigans involving a sled and a dragon, and Hannah has a touching reunion with her deceased mother.

Throughout the latest issue, it’s clear that a confrontation is inevitable, but it’s not just between the Queens and the university. From the moment they arrived, the Queens have been less active in their pursuit of who they need to fight and stab with more time placed on layering their back-to-school-special with heaps of secrets about to be uncovered. Kurtis J. Wiebe has been dropping hints about Hannah’s story since the beginning – a necromancer’s “cell phone”, the black-eyed rage attack, horns, her broken friendship with Tizzie – and now it appears to be coming to a head. Between her reunions with actual demons, her mother, and her father’s heartfelt message, Hannah’s time at Mage U, and what she did to get expelled, are being set up as the emotional center of what could be a devastating blow to the Rat Queens as a team. She’s been lying to them for a long time and lies like that have consequences.

Still, part of the appeal and the strength of the team comes from their misfit ways bringing them together. None of them are innocent of keeping secrets from one another because, let’s be honest, none of us are one hundred percent telling the truth all the time. We hide even from the people we feel closest to because of a number of reasons and we guard ourselves in case those lies are revealed. Hannah is the poster child for deflection, but her feelings of love and loyalty for Dee, Violet, and Betty are soft spots waiting to be exploited from within or outside the group. Thanks to Senoa, Dee knows something Hannah didn’t want her to know, but will that be enough for Hannah to confess or are the girls headed towards a far more epic battle like the one glimpsed briefly by Violet? Come to think of it, was the sword possessing Violet? Did she have a vision of the future? What’s up with that sword?!RatQueens

The art, as always, is fantastic. Tess Fowler’s depiction of the inter-dimensional space is so trippy and cool I want to vacation there. Whales, everyone! There are flying whales! Pretty much every time Fowler gets to stretch her style is pure joy. From candy-hoarding dragons to netherworld realms, it’s every Lisa Frank meets 1970s van art enthusiast’s dream! Tamra Bonvillain’s colors are, again, on point and vibrant as fuck! You wish you lived in a world as colorful as the one she paints! But then you’d probably have a seizure or something. Maybe not. Fifty-fifty at best.

Like I said, this one’s a bit short and sweet – not unlike myself – so I can dive into the next issue with reckless abandon. So go pick up Rat Queens #14 and get with the program!

star-wars-the-force-awakens-posterWhile I plan on doing at the very least a podcast episode about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I thought I’d just you all in on how I reacted on a more visceral level to the latest installment in the Star Wars Saga. The short answer is I thought it was great and I recommend everyone go see it. The movie is a fantastic opening chapter to a three-arc story and I can’t wait for Episode VIII! I definitely want to do a more traditional review, but I really want to see the movie again – or a few more times – before getting into the nitty gritty of it.

With that said…

Before going into the movie I was:

fanboys

 

When the opening crawl started I was:

giphy

 

When I saw Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) I was:

ex machina

 

When I saw BB-8 I was:

chopper

 

When I saw Finn (John Boyega) I was:

boyega

 

When I saw Rey (Daisy Ridley) I was:

daisy

 

And the trio are all:

trio

 

And when I saw Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) I was all:

wtf

 

Watching the action I was all:

actionneesom

 

And when they fought with lightsabers I was:

anigif_enhanced-23802-1429736159-21

 

And when some dude tried to get in the way of my viewing I was:

sit down

 

And when that thing happens (you know what I’m talking about), I was:

leiamoved

And when [REDACTED] showed up I was:

mistake

 

But overall, after the movie, I was:

troopers

 

And anyone who starts talking to me about Rey being a “Mary Sue”, I’m gonna be:

korrasami

Han Great

The way I figure it, Kurtis J. Wiebe could write a whole issue of Rat Queens where the eponymous team reads from the phone book and it’d hilarious and heart-breaking. Tess Fowler, in turn, would find a way to make those actions dynamic and entertaining while Tamra Bonvillain would make it a colorful treat for the eyes. That’s my way of saying hannahthat even the most seemingly boring tasks become poignant and epic when performed by these fantastically foul-mouthed women.

With Rat Queens #13, the slow march towards some kind of confrontation becomes clear. Picking up where we left off: the Queens appeared to be done for in the snowy mountains outside Hannah’s old stomping grounds of Mage University, but it turns out they’re alive and well. Saved by the University, the Queens are given permission to explore the grounds and facilities while Hannah meets with one of her old professors to talk magic and academic upheaval. I’m an especially big fan of this aspect of Mage U because it continues to show just how versatile and inclusive the world of Rat Queens can be when its creative team seamlessly incorporates sci-fi elements like inter-dimensional travel into a mostly high fantasy setting. Plus the professor reminds me of Dr. Manhattan only with more snark. Anyway, Dee spends her time in the massive library looking for a way to bring down N’Rygoth while Violet looks after Betty. Of course, any time with Betty ultimately results in questionable decision-making, but one can’t deny the buddy comedy stylings that emerge when the free-spirited Smidgen goes up against any other personality.

The bulk of the issue, however, is devoted to the building tension surrounding Hannah’s father, Gerard’s, revolt against the University’s Council of Nine and his imprisonment in an unreachable dimension. Once again, the foundations for familial tension in the Vizari household were laid down from the beginning of Rat Queens but now it seems that Hannah, her parents, and the University may be part of something far more nefarious. The demon-baby chide takes on a very different meaning when Mage U’s faculty repeatedly refer to Hannah as Gerard’s Mage U“stepdaughter”, though the two are quick to correct them that he is her father and nothing else. Hannah’s mother, Mina, reaffirms this as well during a tearful reunion with her daughter.

Like Dee, Violet, and Braga, Kurtis Wiebe is taking us on another journey with Hannah to explore how her home life and background led her to the Rat Queens. Her questionable parentage and subsequent ostracization from other magic users is very much inline with the misfits and misunderstood finding their place, their community, outside of the traditional model. Hannah, it seems, left either to escape the stigma of her birth or because of some as-of-yet unknown actions that left an unforgettable impression. Either way, she left because the culture of Mage U has little sympathy or empathy for someone they deem an abomination. Given Hannah’s vision under the influence of N’Rygoth it’s safe to assume she’s been experiencing this her entire life. It’s why she hides her horns beneath a mountain of hair and keeps her feelings heavily fortified behind a prickly personality. Her ability to trust is about nil so, aside from her parents and Sawyer, the Rat Queens may be the only people she’s felt remotely comfortable around, but even then she still keeps her guard up.

I’d also like to give some massive kudos to Tess Fowler and Tamra Bonvillain for bringing it hardcore on the art and colors. The entire Betty and Violet sledding sequence alone had me out of breath from laughter, but this issue featured a lot of wide shots and crowd scenes, which means details are key. And my God do Fowler and Bonvillainbettyvioletsled infuse these panels with personality. The library and Artisan Quarter are definitely worth looking over a few times just to hunt for easter eggs and cameos – my favorite little piece of nonsense being the students riding in a walking, or flying, bathtub. And I honestly can’t stress enough how much I want Violet and Betty to have a sitcom of their own. They are comedy gold! I’m pretty sure (but don’t quote me) that Bonvillain has used just about every color in the visible spectrum. I wonder when she can start using super-colors?

Oh, you don’t know what super-colors are?

Huh – awkward…

Anyway, Rat Queens #13 is amazing and you should all go read it because something’s about to happen. Something huge. I just know it.

Warning: Contains spoilers!

Second Warning: You will cry.

Third Warning: I’m not messin’ around! For realsies, you’re going to cry like a baby and the unstoppable river flowing from your eyes will create a pristine lake of tears. Children will water ski in your tears while their mom watches from the shore and dad drinks a beer as he drives the boat!heartbox

Sure, I’m having a bit of fun with the emotional outpour that will result in reading Heart in a Box, but it comes from a place of truth. I tend to put a lot of distance between myself and the media I consume. I’ve been that way since I was a kid and it’s never really gone away. Don’t get me wrong, I connect with a lot of books, movies, television, etc. but the impact never feels as strong as that of others when they react to the same thing. Heart in a Box, written by Kelly Thompson (Jem and the Holograms, Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps) with art by Meredith McClaren (Hinges), did its best to pierce my comfort bubble and succeeded with flying colors. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to throw things – basically this book ran me through the emotional gamut and I’m all the happier for it. Thompson and McClaren never shy away from the heightened intensity that comes from affairs of the heart. Instead, they use a fantastical premise to facilitate an honest and, at times, brutal look at a young woman’s journey towards emotional maturity.

The plot goeth thusly: After an extremely harsh breakup, Emma, embittered and frustrated with the lingering feelings she has for her ex, wishes her heart away with the “help” of a mysterious stranger she calls Bob. Realizing she can’t live without her heart, Emma embarks upon a cross-country quest to regain the seven pieces needed to make her heart whole again.
hiab-page-3-panel-excerptAs lead characters go, Emma is a refreshingly honest look at the flawed female protagonist. It’s been coming up a lot more as new writers and artists inject comic books with characters devoid of decades worth of continuity but heavy on presence and personality. And thanks to Thompson’s superb grasp of voice and McClaren’s expressive art, Emma feels real. She’s by no means a terrible person, just emotionally immature, but as the story unfolds we learn the reasons behind Emma’s actions and we gain new insight about the wide spectrum of love through her journey. Emma’s struggle and eventual redemption act as metaphorical explorations of the many ways in which love is given and taken. Each interaction she has produces a different display of love, but those interactions also come with the added baggage of rage, regret, loneliness, and hope tied up in a knot of confusion and occasional clarity. Nothing is simply done or explained in Heart in a Box because the book’s greatest strength is in its complex and nuanced portrayal of people.

Whether it was intended or not, Heart in a Box has shades of the hero’s journey in its plot and structure. Emma’s call to adventure starts with her desire to put her heart back together. Bob, acting as mentor and helper, gives her the box that will mend her heart physically and each person or animal in possession of a piece presents a challenge or temptation. Emma’s turning point comes when she ends up as caretaker to a crotchety old man and, upon his death, digs up his grave to get her piece back (trust me, it makes sense in context). Her need to complete the quest drives her forward but it’s only after she receives her final gift from an unexpected source that she feels whole and healed again. It doesn’t match entirely, but the elements are definitely there.HIABOX_WM-108

As I said before, Kelly Thompson has an amazing gift for voice and character. Her sense of humor comes through repeatedly but it never steals the book away from the dramatic moments. Instead, Thompson finds a lovely balance between comedy and drama in just about every part of the book. Characters like Bob and Mr. Jamison, who would typically be used as comic foils for Emma in other works, do just as much heavy lifting within the narrative. Bob may be totally evil (possibly) but he’s often the only person she can talk to and he respects her emotional needs even if Emma isn’t aware of what she wants. Mr. Jamison, a bitter old man, isn’t just reduced to flinging insults at Emma. He has his own story to tell and how it reflects on Emma is brilliant storytelling on Thompson’s part. Seriously, from a character and narrative perspective, Emma and Mr. Jamison’s time together is the cornerstone of Heart in a Box.

Which brings us to Meredith McClaren and her beautiful illustrative work. Like Thompson, McClaren brings personality to the art, which is a necessity given the range of emotions Emma goes through. There’s an open quality to the art that deftly draws you in and holds your attention. The line work is simple, and by that I mean it isn’t busy or unnecessarily detailed. She knows exactly 20150915_202243how much to show so that we keep our focus on the characters and she really knows how to throw a punch to the gut when it comes to Emma’s state of mind. McClaren also handles coloring duty and it goes without saying that there is some fantastic color work happening in this book. Once Emma wishes her heart away, she becomes grey and flat but with each piece returned her coloring brightens a little more as she’s infused with more memories and feelings. When I talked with Kelly on the podcast, she was very open about how crucial the coloring was in conveying Emma’s emotional status in the story. She and McClaren went back and forth on the desaturation and their hard work shows. I’m an especially big fan of Emma’s fusion moments with the pieces of her heart. It’s so raw and I love how McClaren turns the memories into different forms depending on what she gets back. Also, I’m a sucker for a sweet tattoo on a character and Emma has one awesome octopus tat!

So, if you’re looking for a good cry or just a nuanced and honest look at human emotion, go pick up Heart in a Box at your local comic book store or go online through Amazon, comixology, or Dark Horse. It’s definitely worth your time.

The road back home never runs smooth and for the Rat Queens there are a lot of unresolved issues hanging over the heads of our fearless women warriors. Still in the town of Dunlas outside of Hannah’s alma mater, Mage University, the Queens’ night of revelry turns bittersweet. Violet thwarts an assassination attempt on Betty by another Smidgen RatQueens_12-1but the group’s resident thief and Mistress of Good Times isn’t surprised by the attack, only disheartened that part of her past might be revealed to her friends. And unbeknownst to the party, Dee takes a brief walk between dimensional portals to check in on the family she left behind. Pressing further towards Mage U, the girls are caught in a freak snowstorm and are forced to seek shelter in the aptly named Dank Cave where Hannah’s past and present collide, putting her friends in danger.

Though we’re only two issues into the new arc, the recent changes that surround Rat Queens feel more pronounced both in the book and behind-the-scenes. In the previous review I praised the new art team of Tess Fowler and Tamra Bonvillain and I’m happy to report that they’re keeping the momentum strong on their second issue. I’m particularly tickled by the amount of joy Fowler adds to the art. Unless they’re given a specific emotion in the script, Fowler easily brings the happy to characters with an overall cynical bent. I’m talking about you, Hannah! Once the Queens are holed up in the Dank Cave, Hannah proceeds to regale her friends with more stories while bragging about her fairly memorable legacy as a student. It’s not hard for the others to believe her since the writing is literally on the wall. Hannah’s face is priceless throughout the whole sequence and the cartoonish way she stares doe-eyed at a skull she once used in a prank demonstrates Fowler’s ability to alter her style to fit the emotions of the character.

Bonvillain’s colors are, of course, a beautiful display of just how vibrant the Rat Queens’ world is regardless of the setting. The greens and purples of Dee’s home-commune evoke a pastoral serenity that seems antithetical to the chthonic god they serve considering the most recent world-shattering encounter. Later, when Hannah runs into, let’s say, an “old friend” in the cave, the darkness surrounding the two has more shades of purple and grey contrasting RatQueensCavewith the brighter reds that Hannah wears and her not-so-boon companion emits.

One of the highlights of getting into stories spun by Kurtis J. Wiebe is the setup. Taking the girls beyond the walls of Palisade is already doing half the job. Without the supporting cast of familiar faces (Sawyer, Braga, Tizzie, even fucking Gary), Wiebe puts the reader in the position of relying solely on the Rat Queens to carry us through the new terrain despite the fact that he’s already laying the foundation for a number of revelations that threaten the strength of the Queens’ friendship. As our leads, we’re accustomed to a certain amount of infighting and bickering that’s ultimately resolved by story’s end, but I’m curious to see how far Wiebe wants to go, especially with Hannah. Given the amount of backstory that been carefully strewn about we could be looking at an even greater world-shattering event on the horizon. Plus, maybe the end of the world. However things go down, I’m intrigued and excited to follow the Rat Queens team down the rabbit hole.

 

P.S. That tunic Violet’s wearing had better end up in the Rat Queens store, or so help me Bilford Bogin…

 

Violet tunic

How does a team of misfit lady-warriors regroup after saving the world from mind-altering tentacled demons? They go back to school.

Duh.RatQueens_11_cvr

Rat Queens is back and writer Kurtis J. Wiebe is joined by Tess Fowler, artist for the Braga solo issue, and colorist Tamra Bonvillain (Wayward, Pisces) as the new permanent team after Stjepan Šejić had to step down due to health issues (feel better Stjepan!) Anyway, with the new team in place, it’s time for these warrior women to start a new chapter of their own as they venture to Hannah’s old stomping grounds at Mage University to find out what happened to Hannah’s father after his row with the university’s Council of Nine. And by row I mean huge freaking battle of epically magical proportions!

Seriously, the first five pages show exactly what Fowler and Bonvillain bring to the table. They come out of the gate with a battle among the student mages that would put Hogwarts to shame. I want to meet all of the students and see all of the magic because some of these people had to survive, right? Right? It’s also a pretty diverse student body, Fowler’s designed, and Bonvillain’s colors always pop, her use of lighting is top notch as well.

The meat of the story, however, concerns Hannah and her relationship with her father and her alma matter. At the conclusion of the second arc we learned that Hannah’s rockabilly hairdo was more utilitarian than stylistic, hiding a pair of horns that have something to do with her necromancer parents. It seems the “demon baby” label may be further connected to her time as a student, which I can’t wait to discover. Wiebe continues to thematically tie his leading ladies with similar stories of absent or failing fathers. From the first arc we’ve known Hannah has a stronger relationship with her mother, not unlike Violet or Dee (Betty’s background…still a mystery), but unlike the traditional rigidity of Daddy Dwarf, Papa Vizari comes across as a man who knows he failed his child and could possibly have a relationship with her if they talked things out. Or magiked them. I don’t know how it works in the Vizari family. At least that’d be my guess as to where the proceedings go. Keep in mind, it’s only based on a few lines of dialogue, but what impresses me most about Wiebe’s writing is his ability to pepper just enough background in his exposition to justify future plot points. Case in point: only a few lines of dialogue spoken by or about Braga made her one-shot feel genuine instead of forced.

RatQueens11_1As always, the humor is a delight from Hannah’s crude yet nonchalant announcements to Betty’s bag of special candy (just don’t eat the green ones). Comic timing is an art I greatly admire in comic books, but Wiebe and Fowler are pros so the girls come off as natural in dialogue and movement. One of the little details I love is Betty’s hair going from braided while she’s “at work” to loose during her down time. It’s small, I know, but it adds to the character. And it’s really in the downtime where Wiebe shines in his writing. Rat Queens, if you’ll recall in a previous interview, is about a family of misfits. Emphasis on the family. When they’re not fighting orc hordes or having wild post-battle parties, the Queens are a rambunctious and raunchy group of friends who would go to hell and back for each other. Their concern and love for one another isn’t just because of their prowess as fighters, mages, or clerics, but from a place of real friendship and love.

Oh and Violet grew her beard again. Yes, she looks hot.

Rat Queens #11 will be out August 19th at your Local Comic Shop and Comixology. Buy it!

One year ago today Cara Reads Books premiered on Facebook with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt! Now with the next Teddy Roosevelt related review …

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The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

An exciting account of the jolly journey of Teddy Roosevelt and friends going down a tributary of the Amazon called the River of Doubt. You will be shocked when things go wrong for the under prepared party on the unexplored river.

Spoiler Alert: The river was actually less doubty and more deathy.

I give this 4 out of 5 Teddy Roosevelts Cheating Death

Cara Reads Books returns after a short … Holy crap, has it been 4 months!? Um, yeah … anyway …

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 by Antony BeevorStalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943

A riveting account of the battle of Stalingrad from 1942-1943, which will leave you wondering that between logistical issues, lack of common sense, lack of supplies, poor military tactics, and the crippling Russian winter, how the Germans and the Russians even managed to fight each other.

Spoiler Alert: The Soviets won! USA! USA!

I give this 4 out of 5 Russian Winters

Next review, one of the million books Cara read in the last 4 months instead of writing reviews.