“Stronghold” presents yet another “chosen one” story, yet rises slightly above convention

By Graig Kent

 There was a period of time where Phil Hester was considered a “hot” artist, back when the hype for Kevin Smith’s mediocre Green Arrow re-launch was all abuzz.  But it didn’t stick, because Hester’s art isn’t just dynamic or innovative enough to develop the same kind of following that a Jim Lee or John Cassaday or George Perez might have.  Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons Hester has been in the art game for well over a decade now – he’s a solid, dependable storyteller, getting all the action and angles and drama right in telling a story – it’s just that he’s so much of a better writer than artist. 

His mini-series’ the Coffin, Deep Sleeper, the Wretch, and Firebreather have all been really unique, clever, and highly enjoyable projects, each avoiding trappings of potential absurdness, instead just making exciting, fluid comics.  His voluminous artistic work over the years has given his writing a natural sense of pacing and an easy ear for dialogue, plus it’s pretty obvious he’s learned how to convey the right information to the artists he works with.

Stronghold, his new three-issue mini-series from Devil’s Due Publishing, is another of Hester’s written works that rises above the median line of comics.  It’s the tale of Michael Grey, a man lost in the drudgery of his insurance office job, feeling that he has to have more of a purpose than observing other people’s tragedies.  On his way to work one day, he gets involved in an accident scene where he rescues a little girl from a submerged vehicle, ripping its door off with ease and confronting the currents that would wash any normal man away.  There’s something not right in Michael Grey’s life.  He can’t remember his own birthday, he has no friends, and he feels out of step with the rest of the world. We find out through Claire that Michael is in fact “the Primacy”, as the secret society dubbed “the Stronghold” calls him.  Michael, as the Primacy, has been kept in the dark of his fate, because, should his true nature be revealed, “the Adversary” will instigate full scale Armageddon to ensure his destruction.

Yes, the story is full of familiar genre clichés, but Hester presents the story in a manner that elevates it beyond groan-inducing, seen-it-before reactions.  His characters are strong even though his scenarios are weak, and since every story has been done before, it’s up to the characters to make it new.  The black and white art by Tyler Walpole is intriguing, as he seems to be using strictly pencil for line work and shading, or at least he’s using computer technology to give that appearance.  Walpole’s figures are occasionally too rigid and once scene (with the Adversary holding a baby) is simply bizarre, however he has a good eye for detail and surroundings and serves the story well. 

Since I’ve read most of Hester’s written work in collected format, I’ve got a good sense that Stronghold, in its completed form, will move beyond it’s conventions as set up in the first issue.  I, for one, am interested to see where he goes with this.

THREE AND A HALF OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

3 and a half

"Franklin Richards: Son Of A Genius"? More Like "Son Of Bill Watterson"

By Rob Glenn

 Nestled inside each of the four issues of the limited miniseries for Power Pack was a short story starring Franklin Richards.  They were just five pages each, a trifle really.  The idea behind it couldn’t be cuter.  You have the son of two of the most famous and popular superheroes of all time as a child.  Mister Fantastic and The Invisible Woman from The Fantastic Four.  His father is a kind of random invention generator who is as likely to create a machine that rips open a portal into other dimensions as he is a machine that makes exact change.  His mother is the original MILF.  This is a kiddie Saturday morning cartoon waiting to happen.  At the very least you could make it into a morality play with dangerous superhero equipment standing in for daddy’s loaded .45 from the nightstand.

Much like the tobacco industry, the best way to keep our beloved products financially viable is to hook them while they’re young.  This collection of the four short inserts (and one original for this issue) is custom-made for the recently literate.  And, honestly, those under ten years old might not be familiar with Calvin and Hobbes as Bill Watterson hung up the pen in 1995.  The comparison is unavoidable.  Little Franklin has a stubby body with an overly large toe-head perched atop it.  The similarities are at times uncanny, especially when Franklin screws his face up in disgust.  Creator/artists Marc Sumerak and Chris Eliopoulos admit there is a resemblance although they deny a direct homage.  In short five page doses, these stories are okay.  However, a whole comic full of this Calvin doppleganger only outlines how pale it is in comparison.  See, the fun thing about when Calvin imagined he was Spaceman Spiff was that when he was shocked out of his imaginary world we as the audience would get to see what real world environment he was projecting his fantasy onto.  In Franklin Richards, the fantastical world he lives in is perpetual.  No imagination necessary.

If you’re looking to recruit your little brother to comics, this is a fine book.  Eventually he’ll want to know who the grown-ups are that are telling Calvin… er, Franklin what to do.  Then you can feed him your old copies of Ultimate Fantastic Four.  For those old enough to remember Watterson’s famous work, these comics may remind them of those decals idiots put on the backs of their trucks that have Calvin peeing on a motor company’s symbol.

TWO OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

2 Vikings


Scott Pilgrim vs The World
(Oni Press) BUY IT HERE!

By Graig Kent

 When last we left Scott Pilgrim, our 23-year-old jobless wanna-be rock star, he was dating high school student Knives Chau, however he had just met Amazon delivery girl Ramona Flowers whom he fell in love with at first sight.  In order to date Ramona though, Scott must do battle with Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends.  Last issue Scott battled her 7th grade boyfriend.  This issue, Scott must contest with her first high school, who has since become a famous skateboarder turned actor (Jason Lee anybody?).  Meanwhile, there’s still Knives to deal with, as Scott has yet to break it off with her, oh, and Scott’s ex-girlfriend, the one who haunts his dreams, is coming to town and wants his band to open for hers.

Scott Pilgrim carefully balances on a line between sincere, post-University, 20-something angst (about love, life and livelihood), and pop-culture anime-style absurd unreality.  It’s a clever mix of real-life, relatable emotions and an offbeat fantasy world where exes become mortal enemies with superhuman martial arts skills. 

Creator/writer/artist Bryan Lee O’Malley infuses his digest-sized volumes with highly engaging, complex characters and a sense of whimsy with that hipster pastiche of cool.  While his artwork is cartoony, and, his characters are at times overly simplistic even for a manga inspired book, O’Malley still has a great handle on emotion, movement, pacing and setting.  Reading these is effortless, going down smooth like an ice cold Colt 45, as Billy Dee would say.  The second volume is even more entertaining than the first, with a lot of character and story development, and it goes over the back story enough that if you missed the first one, you can catch up to speed with ease.  This volume, like its predecessor, is fresh-scented entertainment, like if Kung-Fu Hustle crossed paths with Degrassi Junior High.  Plus, I just think it’s pretty cool that it’s set in Toronto.

FOUR OUT OF FIVE VIKINGS

 Of Bitter Souls #2 (Speakeasy Comics) –  The world has changed since this book’s debut last month,  and now Of Bitter Souls’ setting of New Orleans is in turmoil in real life, giving the actual events of the second issue a rather frivolous feel.  If there’s a saving grace, it’s that a large portion of the story is told in flashback, giving a sense of detachment from current events.  Writer Chuck Satterlee fleshes out one of the primary characters and establishes the team dynamic to some degree, but hokey dialogue and a cliché camera-crew-in-trouble set-up diminish the personal struggle that is the crux of the story.  Oddly enough, though, it is the cornball elements that give the book a sense of fun, and it is Norm Breyfogle’s steady, dynamic line that makes it highly enjoyable overall.  Satterlee’s still an inexperienced comics writer but Breyfogle shields a lot of his weaknesses with his superb visual storytelling. -Graig

RAID RATING:

 Ant #2 (Image) – Any self-respecting comic book fan flinches a little when they hear that the medium is a boys’ club. Because it’s true. We don’t want to admit it, we don’t want it to be true, but there you have it. Predominately, stories on the graphic page are centered on white guys. Image Comic’s Ant is the exception that proves the rule: issue #2 is on shelves now with no buzz whatever. She’s a hot black chick who can turn into a hot ant chick complete with weird antennae. There’s potential here, but creator/artist/writers Mario Gully and Marc Hammond have no faith in their own work. Instead of letting their character explore and establish herself, they bring out the guest stars. Come on, guys. Let her breathe first. Let her have her day in the sun before overshadowing her ass. Her perfectly drawn bubble butt. Also, tone down the sexiness when you draw her in costume. I feel a tad creepy lusting after a creature that doesn’t seem to have a mouth. – Rob

RAID RATING:

 JLA #118 (DC) – Part four of the five-part “Crisis of Conscience” as written by Geoff Johns and Allan Heinberg (The OC, Young Avengers) bears witness to Aquaman and Martian Manhunter taking on Despero… well, sort of.  The action’s kind of bypassed so that the rest of the JLA can debate over whether to wipe the Secret Society’s memories of the heroes’ alter egos, and Zatanna can have a chat with Supergirl and Wonder Woman.  It’s actually been a pretty disappointing story, leading up to, essentially, whether the JLA’s going repeat history with the whole Identity Crisis mind wipe thing, and ultimately the team’s dissolution (like that’s going to stick).  I would have rather 22 pages of Aquaman and Martian Manhunter slugging it out with the three-eyed, fin-head red dude.  Chris Batista and Mark Farmer are on art chores, drawing powerful superhero bodies, but there’s an obvious lack of diversity in Batista’s range of facial expressions, which makes the melodramatic elements fall apart. -Graig

RAID RATING:

 Batman: Legends of the Dark Night #195 (DC) – A few months back, our man Russell dished out some mega-love in the form of 5/5 Vikings for the first part of “Snow” (read it HERE), a five-part story arc crafted by JH Williams and Dan Curtis Johnson.  While the story has been tweaking the origin of Mr. Freeze, the focus has actually been more on Batman relationship with the rag-tag pseudo-A*Team he assembled to help out with his crusade.  It’s a fun, inventive story, observing Batman at an interesting point early in his career where he’s still making lots of mistakes while establishing his reputation in Gotham.  The fourth part amps things up as Freeze is out for retribution, and nobody, not Bats, nor his bloodhound gang, nor the mobsters are expecting him.  Chaos and sloppy, uncoordinated action abound.  Curtis’ dialogue is sharp, but, as Russell noted with his Part 1 review, it’s Seth Fisher’s trippy, hyper-detailed art [think Geoff Darrow melded with Chris Ware and Mike Allred], blessed with Dave Stewarts colors, that’s truly the draw here.  The book is so unbelievably rich and alive with detail that it will take you take ten minutes to read it but an hour just to mull over its images.  The story may not follow Batman canon, which might irk the devout followers, but for the casual reader it’s sheer joy. -Graig

RAID RATING:


So ends this accounting of valiant warriors and high adventure! Return next week to honor still more comics. Praise Odin.

HAVE A COMIC YOU WANT TO SUBMIT FOR REVIEW? Contact Sean at scfahey@yahoo.com.

To discuss this column and all things Nordic, you may contact Sean at scfahey@yahoo.com , Devon at thedevonsanders@yahoo.com , Dave at dave@chud.com , Russell at inadvertent@mail.com , Rob at poprob@gmail.com and Graig at graig@geekent.com.