Comic Review: The Dregs (Black Mask Studios)

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Then he reviews one every other week.

I’ve been meaning to get round to reviewing The Dregs for a while, and with all four issues being collected soon (August 9th), it seemed like the perfect time to talk about it. The Dregs was created by Zac Thompson, Lonnie Nadler and Eric Zawadzki and published by Black Mask Studios, with Thompson and Madler on writing duties, pencils, inks, letters and covers by Zawadzki, and colours by Dee Cuniffe.

The Dregs is a grim detective story about gentrification, cannibalism and the human condition. Arnold is one of the many forgotten homeless on the streets of Vancouver, drug addicted and destitute and slowly being boxed into a five square block area known as The Dregs, as neighborhoods get homogenised and sterilised. But when his friend Manny disappears, it sends Arnold on a noir-esque trip through the streets, complete with mystery, death and even a femme fatale as he tries to get to the bottom of why the homeless denizens of The Dregs are disappearing, and why no one seems to care.

The Dregs relies heavy on detective stories, to the extent that the only possession Arnold owns is a battered copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which he stuffs full of clues during his investigation. He even uses the pseudonym Philip Marlowe, the lead character of Chandler’s detective stories and one of the most recognisable gumshoes in fiction, when confronting people. There is a danger of creating an eye-roll inducing referential slant to a story by name checking like this, but the The Dregs takes these influences and weaves them in such a way that truly understands the detective story and the character of Philip Marlowe that were it not for the time displacement, I could believe that this was Marlowe decades after his adventures where his mistakes have driven him to the gutter.

The twisted nature of the plot in The Dregs is certainly very strong, but it is almost framing device for the more important things the book has to say. The first is that genuine Marlowe feeling, the drive to uncover the truth not only to his own detriment, but in spite of the fact that no one else cares. Not even the people he is ostensibly trying to help. The second is how this factors in to the core theme of gentrification, of the uncaring nature of supposed societal improvement wiping away a problem (in an inventive an horrible way here) rather than treating the causes and truly helping people. And everyone is complicit in it. There isn’t just one evil cackling villain, but scores of people either turning a blind eye because they are too disgusted to look, or actually benefiting from wiping problems like homelessness away like an eyesore rather than people who need help, and have been let down by society. In this, I think The Dregs manages to deftly hold a mirror up to the issues that are compounded by “solutions” like those proposed in the book (and the real life attempts at dealing with homelessness and drug abuse are often barely less ghastly that they are here).

The book doesn’t just rely on social commentary and noir dialogue though; the art from Eric Zawadzki is powerful in its own right. There is an ugliness to everything and almost everyone that sells the grim nature of the story, and for most of the four issue run the art is very strong, strongly evoking the work of Chris Burnham when he was working on Batman. So as a baseline, the art is good. But there are moments where it truly shines to be something truly great. Early on as Arnold’s investigation moves forward, the art takes on the form of a twisted puzzle, that goes hand in hand with the detective story setting. And in the last issue, as things start to both coalesce and fall apart, Arnold’s journey through the city takes on an Escher-style mind-bending trip, not out of place on storyboards for Inception or Doctor Strange. Cuniffe’s colours make these pieces look even stronger, and while the general street scenes are rendered all the more realistic by their drab palette, the unfamiliar areas of the city to Arnold are awash with a colour that seems blinding by comparison.

I wasn’t expecting it going in, but The Dregs is one of the most effective and affecting books I’ve read this year. The grim nature of the plot and the skilled handling of the subject matter, combined with a spot-on detective noir style and some gorgeous art, make this something well worth your time. Issues 1-4 of The Dregs are available online through Comixology (and physical copies may still be available in your local comic book shop), or you can wait and check out the collection when it comes out on August 9th.

Score: 9 hits of Listo out of 10

Comic Review – Kim & Kim #1 (Black Mask Studios)

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Then he reviews one every other week.

This week I’m reviewing the first issue of the new Black Mask Studios series Kim & Kim, written by Magdalene Visaggio and illustrated by Eva Cabrera, with colours by Claudia Aguirre and letters from Zakk Saam.

Cover art by Tess Fowler & Kiki Jenkins

Cover art by Tess Fowler & Kiki Jenkins

Kim D & Kim Q are a pair of down on their luck galactic and interdimensional bounty hunters, struggling to get a decent job after their most recent payday fell through. Their target was ‘vacated’ and the bounty rescinded, with the Marshal refusing to even pay their expenses. Some old friends try to lend a hand in the form of teaming up on an exclusive bounty contract, but after she left The Catalans, their organisation run by her father Furious, Kim Q still harbours some resentment towards them. Instead, the girls decide to chase the bounty themselves, heading to the planet Clovis to find the mark, who has been quietly murdering people across the dimensions. With no leads, no real information on the target and The Catalans looking for him too, Kim and Kim may be in over their heads.

There is a definite punk and Riot Grrrl feel to Kim & Kim, both in the characters and plot, and in the book’s aesthetics. Kim Q even uses a bass guitar as a weapon, which is fairly punk rock (seemingly a common choice with a lot of my favourite characters,  looking at you Marceline the Vampire Queen). Black Mask describes the book as a “day-glo action adventure that’s bursting with energy and enthusiasm and puts queer women and trans women front and center.”, which is pretty spot on for a few reasons. Kim Q is a trans woman, and Kim D is bisexual: important facets of their characters that are put front and center in an honest and completely non-cynical manner, with both characters already having rich personalities in just one issue. Magdalene Visaggio deftly creates a warm and believable friendship between the girls that is big part of what makes this book work well and why they feel so fully fleshed out so quickly. Also it is basically a punk rock LGBTQ Cowboy Bebop or Firefly and I really can’t think of a better selling point than that.

Art by Eva Cabrera, & Claudia Aguirre, letters from Zakk Saam

Art by Eva Cabrera, & Claudia Aguirre, letters from Zakk Saam

The art from Cabrera and Aguirre is bright, beautiful and fun. There is an obvious Tank Girl vibe, but also an Adventure Time/Bravest Warriors aesthetic to the art too. The excellent character design of Kim and Kim put them at the center of attention in every scene, while the action feels fast paced but never too busy and the quieter moments of reflection are softer and focused on conveying well the emotion of the scene through body language and facial work. The colours finish off the art strongly with a bright palette in the city scapes at the start of the issue, a warmer glow sunset glow to the scenes on Clovis, and the “day-glo” colours reserved for Kim and Kim themselves.

Kim & Kim is a lot of fun, full of heart and an interesting plot with great art, and is a strong LGBTQ-positive book which is something fiction always needs more of. And as I said: punk rock LGBTQ Cowboy Bebop. Why haven’t you bought it yet? Pick it up at your LCS or digitally now.

Score: 8.5 Tentacles out of 10

 

Comic Review – 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank #1 (Black Mask Studios)

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Then he reviews one every other week.

Last week I was sent an advance copy of 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank #1 from Black Mask Studios. written by Matthew Rosenberg, with art by Tyler Boss and letters from Thomas Mauer. This is the first issue of a new  mini-series coming out next week on April 27th, “A coming of age crime caper comic book in 5 parts’. Here’s a nifty trailer from Black Mask about the book…

 

4kids titleIn this first issue of 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, we’re introduced to the main cast through their Dungeons & Dragons characters (due to my recent predilections for that game this got my attention very quickly). Paige, Berger, Walter and Stretch are a group of 11 and 12 year old kids, generally arguing, spilling drinks and falling out. When the gang are heading out for ice cream, courtesy of Paige’s dad, a group of thugs turn up at the house. They throw their weight around, make threats and leave. But they start hanging around the kids at school. And it turns out there is a family connection that no one was expecting.

4 Kids… is a really fun, witty and fast paced book. The dialogue from the strong-minded kids is snappy and full of a believable bravado that would make children stand up to genuinely terrifying threats. Threats that don’t have any qualms about hitting kids, or worse. And the book is very funny too. There are a few instances of repeated panels focusing on back and forth dialogue, over the radio and in the car for example, that are excellent examples of well timed comedy. The only drawback of this first issue for me is that it doesn’t seem to actually quite reach the main plot and the titular …Walk into a Bank part, that is the bank heist element to the plot. This is eschewed for set up and character development, which are done very well as a result, but it could have used a more direct connection to the events to come rather than ending on a visual reveal. But that really is a small complaint for an otherwise strong first issue.

4kids1The art from Boss is evocative and expressive, with a retro 80’s feeling complemented with a washed out colour palette, that reminded me overall of comics like Hip Hop Family Tree. There were some really impressive double page spreads too, in particular the hallway scene that showed the two groups facing each other down. The previously mentioned repeating panels showing only slight changes in facial expressions as the characters react to each other were really enjoyable to read.

4 Kids Walk Into a Bank is a really interesting first issue, and this mini series is shaping up to be a lot of fun with a dangerous, yet genuinely funny and charming core. It comes out next week, so head down to your local comic shop or check it online on April 27th.

Score: 8.5 Paper Bags of Beef Stroganoff out of 10

Comic Review – Young Terrorists #1 (Black Mask Studios)

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Every week he reviews of one of them, with potential minor spoilers.

This week I’m reviewing Young Terrorists #1 from Black Mask Studios, a massive 80 page first issue written by Matt Pizzolo and drawn by Amancay Nahuelpan, with colours by Jean-Paul Csuka and letters from Jim Campbell. If you’re unfamiliar with Black Mask Studios, they largely set out to tell subversive, hard-edged stories with a punk-rock/counter culture ethos to them. Young Terrorists is no different.

0c25152b-612f-4f06-bd89-f62c53d02fb1In the world of Young Terrorists, the world is ruled from the shadows by various cabals of mega-elites that are identified as The Black Temple, The Red Shield and The Golden Annapolis, outlined by a ranting man on a video stream called Infocide. The leader of The Black Temple, Gregor Solomon, is killed when a woman detonates a briefcase bomb behind him in a coffee shop queue, taking herself out and everyone else in the Starbucks replica. His daughter, Sera is framed for having some connection to his death and is taken away from her school and dumped in an internment camp, tortured and interrogated about a crime she has no knowledge about. Her brother is nowhere to be found. She eventually gains her freedom, not through conventional release but by winning enough brutal fights as to pay off some form off debt, and given a means of escape.

Years pass, and Sera has established a resistance movement masquerading as an illegal darknet entertainment network, including a fight club that she actively takes part in. Operating in a ‘failed state’ area in Detroit, the group streams these fights and pornography to those members of the public willing to dive in, and are allowed autonomy by the state within reason. A new recruit, a young Guatemalan named Cesar, is d0a172b7-c400-4e68-8b27-81e5cc1a133crescued from a horrible wandering existence by a member of Sera’s group, so we are introduced to this world through his eyes. While Sera takes him under her wing and seems to show a kindly side to the confused young man, it seems that she has plans for him. Plans that involve the group discovering the location of her brother. Plans that involve violence.

This is a brash, bratty comic takes its various influences, from Fight Club and its Project Mayhem to Rage Against the Machine’s Know Your Enemy, and pins them right to its chest. The writing from Pizzolo is on point and biting, and despite being a middle finger to authority and an attack on the status quo and ‘the grid’, he doesn’t lack the levity to poke fun in a tongue-in-cheek way at the sort of scaremongering conspiracy theorist ranting that can be found online (or on FOX news, in the Daily Mail etc.) through Infocide. First issues often either focus on character and lack a convincing display of the scale of the story, or do the reverse and lack real compelling character depth. By heading out the gate with this bumper 80 page first issue, Young Terrorists deftly avoids this problem by having the space to breathe life into both its story and characters.

The art from newcomer Nahuelpan is very strong too, full of bold and heavy line work and aggressive and visceral fight scenes. Csuka’s colours add an oppressive and washed out feel that seems to zero in on the focus of a scene, highlighting the pencil work well.

Young Terrorists is off to a good start. It is risky in its subversiveness, but for all its shady overtones its an interesting and fun read with great art. This first issue is a little more expensive than most, but the value for money is excellent. The first printing can still be picked up in stores now (my LCS had a decent stack of copies), but they are selling out fast and a second printing is already on its way. Make sure you check this out at your local comic shop or digitally!

Score: 8.5 Shroomgirls out of 10

Comic Review – The Disciples #1

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Every week he reviews of one of them, with potential minor spoilers.

This week I read The Disciples #1 from Black Mask Studios, which they were kind enough to send me a copy of. Billed as a ‘space ghost story’, The Disciples was written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Christopher Mitten, with colours by Jay Fotos and letters from Thomas Mauer.

The Disciples takes place aboard the Venture, a starship crewed by a small team of bounty hunters (think Firefly) on their way to a new mission. Dagmar, Rick and Jules have been hired by a senator to retrieve his daughter from a cult on Ganymede, having fallen in with them and their billionaire leader. After having to pay a few bribes at a space port, and joking around with each other before entering stasis, the Venture’s autopilot takes them through hyperspace straight to Jupiter. But something horrifying has either hitched a ride, or has come aboard in the planet’s orbit…

I’m a big horror fan, and sci-fi horror is always great fun. Alien, The Thing, Event Horizon, anything twisted and with a creeping sense of dread. That said, I felt like there wasn’t a huge amount of horror in this ‘ghost story in space’, at least until the final page. There was a small amount of (admittedly intriguing) foreshadowing in Dagmar’s “weirdmare”, but the rest of the issue focusses more on character introduction and a set up of the normal, every day that this crew faces before turning it on its head at the end. However, I don’t really see this as necessarily a bad thing. By all means make me care about these characters before they get ripped to shreds a few issues down the line – something often neglected in horror. Niles writes a very capable and interesting sci-fi background story with a likeable cast, and the promise of terror that he has a proven track reckon in to come.

db538d38-7515-47b1-9858-358f038aa429Mitten’s art really stands out in The Disciples, with gritty and scratchy line work that showcases the grim future, and the horrors of Dagmar’s dream and the nightmare at the end. The imagery of the hyperspace jump was gorgeous though, and the scale of the lunar backdrop when the crew arrives at their destination is grand. Fotos’ murky colours enunciate all of Mitten’s art, painting a gloomy picture of the future.

The Disciples is off to a great start, and while I had expected a little more horror right from the off this first issue benefits from the set up and great art as a lead in. Check this out at your local comic book shop, or you can get it digitally over at www.blackmaskstore.com.

Score: 8 Weirdmares out of 10

Advanced Comic Review – Space Riders #1

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Every week he attempts a review of one of them, with potential minor spoilers.

This week Black Mask Studios sent us an advance copy of the upcoming Space Riders #1, released this Wednesday April 1st. Space Riders was written by Fabian Rangel Jr. and drawn by Alexis Ziritt, with letters by Ryan Ferrier. From the press release…

From the galactic core to the outer quadrants, one name strikes terror in the hearts of evil beings everywhere: the Space Riders! Sailing the cosmos in the Skullship Santa Muerte, Capitan Peligro and his fearless crew deal harsh justice to the scum of the galaxy while searching for the forbidden truths of the universe! Fabian Rangel Jr (Doc Unknown) and Alexis Ziritt (The Package) bring you a new and exciting space adventure that will destroy your brain! (in a good way)

Space Riders stars Capitan (not Captain) Peligro, a gruff ship leader betrayed by his first mate, a fellow Space Rider, in the middle of a war. Following psychological evaluation, Peligro is relieved of his command for one year, which he seems to largely spend in a dive bar. He is finally brought back to active duty by his new first mate Mono (who is a baboon man) and Yara, the android who pronounced him unfit for active duty before. They return him to his ship, the skullship Santa Muerte (literally a spaceship in the shape of a skull) and they head out of orbit. They’re attacked by space pirates, and during their escape via interstellar jump they get trapped in ‘The Red Cloud’, a singularity-like vortex that sends them all temporarily mad, damaging the ship in the process. With the navigation out of action, they are sent plummeting towards the nearest planetoid.

This is a loud, brash comic that bleeds nostalgia, and works very well because of it. Peligro is a caricature, but a fun one, and the slightly ridiculous cast of supporting characters, most of whom are anthropomorphised, fill out the rest of the universe. It reminded me a lot of God Hates Astronauts, and I spent most of the read not really understanding what was happening, but not at all caring. Aesthetically the book is a psychedelic homage to Heavy Metal, with bold and intense colours and explosions. The almost kaleidoscopic splash page of the Santa Muerte spinning through the Red Cloud is particularly impressively from Ziritt.

61725072-2b84-4084-8973-773d88095c9aSpace Riders is a fun, over the top comic. I have no idea where the story will go, but it should be funny finding out. Issue #1 is out this Wednesday (1st April 2015), so check it out at your local comic book shop or try it out digitally.

Score: 8 Red Clouds out of 10

Advanced Comic Review – We Can Never Go Home #1

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Every week he attempts a review of one of them, with potential minor spoilers.

Black Mask Studios very kindly provided us with an advance copy of the upcoming We Can Never Go Home #1, released this Wednesday 25th March. We Can Never Go Home was written by Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon, with art by Josh Hood, colours by Amanda Scurti, letters from Jim Campbell and design by Dylan Todd. They even included this nifty trailer to tease the series.

We Can Never Go Home stars two high school students, Duncan and Madison, who both possess strange and secret abilities. Blowing of some steam at make-out point by firing a handgun at some bottles (I just assume all teenagers are armed these days), Duncan interrupts Madison and her boyfriend Ben in the middle of some vehicular promiscuity. Ben confronts him, and pushes Madison down when she tries to intervene. She doesn’t take kindly to this, using some form of latent strength to throw him through one side of the car and out the other, crashing to the ground and running off calling her a freak. Duncan reveals to her that he also has powers, specifically the power to kill with his mind – something he discovered rather tragically. The pair quickly develop a bond, with Duncan making Madison a mixtape and giving her a walkman (other cassette players used to be available) to listen to it on. She rushes over to his house to thank him, but events suddenly unfold in a quick and violent manner, and they both have to go on the run. They can never go home.

This is the first book I have read from Rosenberg and Kindlow, it may even be the first comic I have read from Black Mask Studios, and I am grateful for the chance to check out something more independent for a change. The story of Duncan and Madison is compelling, with solid first issue here. Both characters have a no-nonsense grungey edge, in keeping with the aesthetic of the book, managing to avoid the clichés and trappings of the high school roles they play, and with them going on the run there shouldn’t be any danger of getting bogged down in that environment. The wider premise of the story, as it opens out at the end of the issue, is where this comic really shows promise. This first instalment functions largely as a very competent introduction to our main characters.

The art by Hood is realistic and grounded, particularly strong for facial detail and expressions, with a downplayed approach to the powers we have seen so far from Madison. Scurti’s colours bring a great heavy feel to the backgrounds, with oppressive shading and accentuated bright blood rounding off the art well.

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We Can Never Go Home is a very decent start to what hopefully will be an interesting story, a road movie of sorts where the characters are constantly looking over their shoulders to see if their collective past is catching up to them. Issue #1 is out this Wednesday (25th March 2015), so check it out at your local comic book shop or try it out digitally.

Score: 7.5 Mixtapes out of 10