Category Archives: Comics

Saga, Volume 2: Meeting the Grandparents

After greatly enjoying the first volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staple’s space-fantasy comic book epic Saga (read my thoughts on the first volume here), it was only a matter of time before I came back to give my opinion on the second volume of the hit series by Image Comics. Volume 2 collects issues seven through twelve of Saga and includes a couple of rescues, a surprise team-up, and a fair amount of sewing.

Volume 1 left off with Marko coming face to face with his parents for the first time in years, Alana meeting the in-laws, and the infant Hazel meeting her grandparents. Oh, and the spectral Izabel was banished from the ship because Marko’s mother, Klara, is a bit hasty in her actions. Marko equally hastily takes action by chasing after Izabel with his mother in tow, while Alana and her new father-in-law, Barr, are left to make small-talk.

Meanwhile, freelancer The Will comes into contact with a new ally, Marko’s ex-fiance Gwendolyn, who is out for the blood of the man who spurned her, but may end up being either a help or a hindrance when it comes to rescuing a child-prostitute from slavers. And Prince Robot IV follows up on a lead based on a book that had made an impression on the newlyweds early on in their relationship.

This is the cover of the second volume.

This is the cover of the second volume.

The interactions between Marko and his over-bearing mother are quite telling, as are the scenes of him in his childhood. It is easy to see how Marko wound up such a formidable combatant and also able to burn out so quickly on that violent style of living. Klara’s needling of Marko about his choice of bride quickly enrages him, but the hints of timidity shine through when he is around his warrior-mom. Their search for Hazel’s baby-sitter takes a surprising twists when they realize the world they landed on isn’t exactly what it seems.

Barr is much more accepting and takes it upon himself to help the new members of his family, whether they want him to or not. His revelation that he is in the last stages of a terminal illness and his ability to make stylish clothing that are also able to stop bullets warm Alana’s initially icy reaction to him (he is an armorer, not a seamstress). But as is usually the case with life, tragedy lurks in shadows waiting to strike.

All of life's big moments are made more awkward by a towel.

All of life’s big moments are made more awkward by the presence of a towel.

This volume focused primarily on Marko and how he became the damaged, dangerous, somewhat-pacifistic man on the run he is today. Early in his life, his parents brought him to the sight of a brutal battle in the war between Wreath and Landfall, and used magic to have him experience the carnage as if he was presence. This act, and presumably others like it, shaped Marko into a fearsome warrior, but did not manage to permanently poison his opinion on their winged enemies. It is also said many times by the narrating-from-the-future Hazel that he has a certain way with the ladies, excepting the ones who currently want to kill him, namely his ex-fiance and possibly his mother.

The Will and Gwendolyn clash early and often, but you don’t have to a be one of the creators of Saga to see where their relationship is going, and the dynamic is fun and connects his subplot more fully to Marko and Alana’s story. Also, the Lying Cat is still a very amusing presence in story and a nice source of levity in a subplot that has the potential to get very depressing very quickly (a grieving hit-man trying to save a young prostitute…).

I'm not sure what use the ax is on a dead person, but the prospect is intriguing.

I’m not sure what use the ax is on a dead person, but the prospect is intriguing.

The plot of this volume, while still very entertaining and tense, isn’t as gripping as the story in the first volume. I believe it is because most of the characters are still reacting from the events of the first volume, and only truly start to to move in new directions in the latter portion of the book. The cliffhanger ending, however, certainly promises some very interesting situations to come and a larger, more immediately threatening, role for the antagonistic Prince Robot IV.

The best part of the book is still Fiona Staples’ art, which has not missed a beat from the previous volume. The characters are attractive without being unrealistic (aside from the horns and the wings and the guy with one eye and you get my point) Every page is detailed and cinematic in the manner implying that a movie screen wouldn’t be able to do it justice: Staples definitely shines brightly here.

Brian K. Vaughan is one of the legends working in comics today, and Saga is certainly reaffirming that reputation. Intimate and epic, funny and tragic, Vaughan has hit just the right balance in his writing for an enduring series we will presumably be enjoying for years to come, and in tandem with Staples’ art, it becomes something really special, though maybe not for everyone.

Saga‘s second volume continues the same high level of quality as the first, with both Vaughan and Staples continuing to be exceptional. While the plot isn’t quite as exciting as that in the first volume, the deepening of the characters and the setting of the stage for things to come keeps Saga the must-read it already was. I am awaiting the third volume (in six months or so) with bated breath.


Superman: Unbound: My Review is Also Unbound

Marvel may be dominating the world of live-action super-heroism, and probably will continue to do so barring some unforeseen dramatics, but DC Animation has been equally dominant in the (admittedly significantly less lucrative) realm of animated film-making. They continued their solid stretch of quality film-making with Superman: Unbound, based on the 2008 “Brainiac” story arc in Action Comics by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. The sixteenth DC Universe Animated Original Movie, Superman: Unbound is directed by James Tucker and has a voice cast lead by Matt Bomer (White Collar) as Clark Kent/Superman, Stana Katic (Castle) as Lois Lane, John Noble (Fringe) as Brainiac, and Molly Quinn (Castle) as Kara Zor-El/Supergirl.

It is just another day in Metropolis, Superman is off doing something or other for the betterment of humanity, the sun is shining, and Lois Lane has been taken hostage. Again. Since this occurs in the first two or three minutes of the film, it is a given that she is rescued from her predicament with all of her snark still intact. Her rescuer is Superman’s adolescent cousin Kara Zor-El, who has taken on the moniker of Supergirl. Kara has all of the power, with twice the midriff. Clark Kent may have the power of a god and be an unparalleled master of disguise (Glasses! So subtle, so genius!), but he lacks that specific tact needed to deal with a troubled teenager (who was actually familiar with the home planet that was obliterated) without pushing a few buttons.

You're not my real Dad!

You’re not my real Dad!

Superman: Unbound was shaping up to be an understated meditation on the importance of family and open communication in all sorts of relationships, but this is all derailed (damn you comic-book cliches! I’m kidding, hooray for explosions) when a robot from space engages in a lengthy brawl with the Man of Steel and it is revealed that the pair of Kryptonians may have to deal with an enemy Superman never knew he had, and Supergirl wishes she could forget: Brainiac. Brainiac is a being that is part organism and part machine who thirsts to know…everything. The impossibility of that mission has caused him to rig the game by eliminating the element with the greatest potential for chaos in the universe: life, and all the free-will that goes along with that. Brainiac travels from planet to planet miniaturizing and bottling cities from intelligent worlds for his collection before destroying those planets. One such conquest was Kandor, the former capital city of Krypton.

Superman, desperate to stop the inevitable destruction of his new home, decides to seek out Brainiac in the cosmos and leave the Earth in the care of Kara, who still remembers the fruitlessness of the defense Krypton mounted against Brainiac. Meanwhile, Lois wants to stop hiding her relationship with Clark Kent and has discovered the joys of wearing miniskirts to work (admittedly, this probably makes her interviews go more smoothly).

The character designs in Superman: Unbound were hit and miss for the most part, with Brainiac and Supergirl looking fantastic but Superman and Lois Lane looking slightly off, and not quite like themselves. Note: the characters don’t unnatural, it just never quite feels like Superman and Lois Lane, at least based on their appearances. The background animation and environmental scenes are all superbly rendered, even if the actual motion of what’s on screen can feel clunky (a minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless).

Who said superhero movies couldn't be shocking?

Who said superhero movies couldn’t be shocking?

The character of Superman works better for me here than he has in a long time, certainly better than in Man of Steel, in that it adds shades to the character that do not detract from the character’s core qualities while adding a depth that is just not inherent to the character (sorry fans of the character, I’ve never quite gotten it). His upstanding nature has made him self-righteous, and his all-consuming protectiveness has added hints of timidity in all things non-violent. Superman: Unbound also conveys something refreshing in that it is usually not seen with character, at least not on screen: he’s out of his depth. Brainiac is Superman’s match and then some, and they both know it. Additionally, Lois Lane is at her least cloying in the film, which saying quite a lot considering my dislike of the character (I may be ambivalent towards Superman, but I genuinely dislike Lois Lane…I’m sorry, fans of the character).

Matt Bomer’s voice-work is certainly competent, and the actor looks the part (not needed in a voice-actor, but I thought I should point it out), however, it is generally bland and unmemorable. I did appreciate that Bomer made his voice sound slightly more nasally when voicing the definitely-not-Superman Clark Kent, as opposed to the definitely-not-Clark-Kent Superman. Stana Katic is equally competent and unmemorable in her role of the feisty reporter commonly known as Lois Lane.

Brainiac makes for a good villain, and is suitable as a foil for Superman who is not named Lex Luthor (also: good on Superman: Unbound for not inserting that character when he is unnecessary). Superman is essentially a god, but he wishes nothing more than to be able to be fallible without disastrous consequences ensuing. Brainiac seeks godhood, and the question regarding his apotheosis isn’t if he will become a god, the question is just when did he shed the last remnants of whatever humanity he had to start with? John Noble probably does the strongest voice-work in the film, though I feel it was a mistake for him to interject any emotion into Brainiac’s voice. Cold, calculated brutality is just so much more terrifying than some of the heated decision-making we saw.

I kind of like the decor.

I kind of like the decor.

The action is a good, though it sometimes it feels like the action sequences are from a stylistically different film from the quieter scenes with fewer explosions. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be jarring at times. The plot of Superman: Unbound moves along at a very quick pace, and the film could have definitely used an extra ten minutes or so to develop the characters and their relationships a bit better, though profit margins must be maintained and animation is expensive to produce relative to the revenue that they yield (not a judgment).

Superman: Unbound continues the increasingly impressive streak of DC for quality animated features, though it is not up there with some of the more exceptional works they have put out. The voice-acting is solid, and the focus on lesser-known characters (to the general public) such as Supergirl and Brainiac is refreshing when facing the overabundance of Lex Luthor (who I like) in Superman media. Superman: Unbound is a solid animated effort, and fans of the character, the genre, or non-mainstream-superhero-cinema (it being about the most mainstream of superheroes not withstanding) should enjoy it.

The Wolverine: Clawing Its Way To Mediocrity

As the years have ticked by, the landscape of cinematic super-heroics has changed remarkably. We have a new Spider-Man, Marvel has launched and maintained a fantastically successful movie universe, and DC looks to launch their own (presumably less) successful movie universe, but, thirteen years later, Hugh Jackman still plays Wolverine. The Wolverine marks the sixth time Jackman has portrayed the clawed Canadian, and the second time starring in a solo feature (arguably the fifth time). Based (very loosely) on the classic limited series Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, this film sees Wolverine go to Japan and engage in some good old-fashioned violence and engage a fair amount of brooding over his immortality. The Wolverine is directed by Jamed Mangold and stars Tao Okamoto, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rila Fukushima, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, Brian Tee, and Famke Janssen alongside Jackman.

Wolverine (aka Logan) is a man with one hell of a past, he just can’t remember most of it, and, unfortunately for him, the aspects he actually manages to remember plague him with nightmares (mostly featuring the deceased Jean Grey). Following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (in which Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Professor X died, and that is all we will say about that film), Wolverine has taken to living alone in the wilderness and doing a somewhat decent impersonation of Grizzly Adams (he has one hell of a beard). He also befriends a grizzly bear.

Eventually, he is tracked down by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a young Japanese martial artist who has sought the hairy mutant on behalf of her employer, Yashida, a man Wolverine saved from the atomic blast at Nagasaki. What Wolverine believes will be a brief foray to Tokyo to say goodbye to a man from his past turns into a fight for survival as he flees from Yashida’s enemies with Mariko, Yashida’s lovely granddaughter. Oh, and his healing factor is severely weakened for a while by a devious mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who is snakelike in more ways than one.

I like their hair.

I like their hair.

Let me get this out of the way first, Hugh Jackman does his typically competent work as Wolverine, despite being too good-looking to play the role (a damning indictment if there ever was one). Hugh Jackman portrays the deep longing, the brutality he barely holds beneath the surface, and the desperation for something other than violence that characterizes Wolverine extremely well, even if the movie doesn’t quite live up to the standard he sets (X-Men Origins: Wolverine didn’t either, so hooray for consistency!).

A pair of Japanese models make their feature film debuts in leading roles and they are both up to the task. Tao Okamoto does very well with her rather one-note role as Mariko Yashida, Wolverine’s love interest and a relative of just about everyone villainous in the film. Rila Fukushima is also solid as Yukio, even if the role isn’t particularly well written. Jackman has good romantic chemistry with Okamoto, and a believable friendly rapport with Fukushima.

In fact, most of the supporting cast actually manages to do good work with what the script gives them. Hiroyuki Sanada is suitably malicious as Shingen Yashida, a very ambitious and ruthless businessman and Mariko’s father. Will Yun Lee is decent as Kenuichio Harada, a former flame of Mariko’s, a sworn protector of the Yashida clan, and a flip-flopper of epic proportions. Svetlana Khodchenkova is attractive and villainous, and manages to hiss a lot (because she is playing Viper), and, well that’s about all that was required for that character (a very poorly written character, I might add). In addition, Famke Janssen returns to the role of Jean Grey in a series of superfluous dream sequences that do nothing for the film aside from inflating its run-time.

I'll never fully understand the intricacies of applying makeup.

I’ll never fully understand the intricacies of applying makeup.

The Wolverine starts off relatively promising, and is surprisingly willing to have a slower pace and a more meditative bent than the previous Wolverine solo effort, only to be derailed by an incompetent third act and a smattering of purportedly intelligent characters acting illogically and inconsistently. For example, from scene to scene I was unable to discern just whose side Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee) was on. In addition, a villainous turn late in the film makes little to no sense, in addition to the predictability of the magnanimous illogicality (I tend to be long-winded, sue me).

The surprisingly little amount of action in The Wolverine (Wolverine can barely go to the restroom without having to battle a group of martial artists) is decent for the most part, excepting a snowy scene late in the film that caused me to burst out laughing (more of a guffaw than a chuckle), and I wasn’t the only one. An extended sequence involving a bullet train is especially pulse-pounding and a clever variation on the typically snikt-and-slash nature of Wolverine going berserk (fun fact: snikt is the sound Wolverine’s claws make as they come out).

Spoiler: He gets out of that jam.

Spoiler: He gets out of that jam.

The effects are decent in the manner that most special effects are decent in this day and age, the only truly notable thing about them was the marked improvement on those found in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Admittedly the effects they used on the Silver Samurai tended towards the bad kind of cartoonish and Viper’s powers were not as convincing as you would expect a woman shedding her skin like a snake would be: shocking, I know.

The Wolverine is a missed opportunity, and a frustrating viewing experience to boot (at least for us comic book nerds). Despite the disappointments of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, director James Mangold was given a golden opportunity, and a relatively clean slate, to make a good Wolverine film.  However, despite strong work from Hugh Jackman and most of the cast, a script rife with problems and a rather thorough butchering of the source material (the film hardly resembles the work by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller) leaves us with yet another disappointing entry in the increasingly convoluted world of the movie X-Men.

Dredd: Dredd and Loving It

Karl Urban will need his own wing at Comic-Con before long: Eomer in The Lord of the Rings, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek, and now Judge Dredd in Dredd and its potential (but unlikely) sequels. Dredd is an adaptation of the popular comics about Judge Dredd and his moral absolutism. The film is directed by Pete Travis and stars Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, and Domhnall Gleeson.

In the future, there exists a mega-metropolis (megatropolis?) called Mega-City One; housing a population of eight-hundred-million, the city is rampant with crime, with only the Judges to keep the peace. The Judges act as judge, jury, and executioner. Morally absolute and answerable only to themselves, the Judges strive to eliminate crime at the source and act as a deterrent for prospective criminals.

Judge Dredd has been chosen to test a potential new Judge, Cassandra Anderson. Anderson is special case, she has telepathic abilities far greater than most psychics. Dredd and Anderson follow up on a reported triple-homicide at “Peach Trees”, a slum tower with two-hundred levels under the control of Ma-Ma, a vicious drug lord. Stumbling upon secrets regarding a new drug called “Slo-Mo” (it has the effect its name would suggest), the Judge and the Judge-to-be must fight their way to the top floor in order to deliver judgement and to save their own lives.

They issued their judgement on that door.

They issued their judgement on that door.

If you are expecting something profound in this film, don’t. This is a good old fashioned action film and it makes no pretensions of being anything else, and unlike that atrocious Judge Dredd from 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone, Dredd is actually pretty damn good. The two films are also completely unrelated, so be thankful for that. In a lot of ways the film mimics its lead character, it knows exactly what it is: brutal, efficient, and assured.

Judge Dredd doesn’t grow as a person, he doesn’t gain a new perspective on life, he doesn’t even gain a spunky young female sidekick, at least, not really. Dredd is the most frightening thing in the world: a moral absolutist. Completely confident that what he is doing is right, though its doubtful that he cares, Dredd is a shell of a man, I don’t know what made him the way he is, and I don’t know that I want to (I actually very much do, for your information). Karl Urban plays Dredd with the commitment that he seems to give in every role, and he becomes Dredd. Urban does not give Dredd an emotional arc, and it would be a disservice to the character to do so, he doesn’t remove the helmet, he barely even changes his facial expression. That commitment sells the character, and his selling the character allows the film to work.

That chin is surprisingly emotive.

That chin is surprisingly emotive.

Cassandra Anderson is young and untested, with abilities that could make her a particularly effective, and by that I mean lethal, Judge. Occupying a world of grey, rather than Dredd’s black and white, Anderson is faced with what it means to be a Judge and the restrictions, and also the freedoms, that being a Judge comes with. Dredd is more Anderson’s story than it is Dredd’s, he is already an absolute, this is the story of her becoming one. Olivia Thirlby does strong work as Anderson, wisely playing her as someone not caught between two ways of life, but rather as someone finally learning how to pull the trigger. This is a far cry from her breakout performance in Juno, and she handles it well.

Lena Headey, of Game of Thrones fame, portrays Ma-Ma, a former prostitute turned ruthlessly effective drug lord, and addict. Ma-Ma is not a particularly original or well fleshed out villain. Sporting scars, some wild hair, and dry, cracking lips, Ma-Ma is believably brutal, but is very much just a reason to see the reason criminals dread Dredd (sorry). Headey is solid, and anyone who has watched Game of Thrones knows that she can be enjoyably malicious, but the character just isn’t there, and it is easily the most glaring weakness the film possesses.

Slo-Mo, not even once.

Slo-Mo, not even once.

The special effects are quite good in Dredd, bombastic, but not outlandish, they work well throughout. They might overdo it a bit with the slow motion sequences, but it isn’t distracting. The world of Mega-City One is very well realized, and is a future I could imagine happening, if not in terms of society, then certainly in terms of technology and architecture. “Peach Trees” is futuristic, but also squalid and dirty, much like the Los Angeles in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Unexpectedly, considering the unapologetic nature of the film, the science-fiction elements are subtle and grounded (excepting the scenes when people are thrown off balconies to their deaths, but I’m only mentioning that for the sake of a pun), which is a welcome thing in a genre all too often known for indulging in something worse than the outlandish: the implausible, but Dredd is plausible, at least to  the extent it needs to be.

The action is just plain fun, it is loud and fiery, but possesses, or more accurately, Dredd possesses, a certain cold efficiency that differentiates Dredd from many films in the genre. Dredd doesn’t want to go out in a blaze of glory, or win some woman’s heart with his stunningly accurate shooting, he wants to end criminals quickly and efficiently, and he calculates and weighs his options to that effect. The guns the Judges’ possess are interesting, they only fire for their specific Judge and they are capable of shooting a plethora of different types of ammunition. Basically, people die in several different ways and I like that, sicko that I am.

Dredd is certainly not a film of great import, or revolutionary in any way shape or form, but I have to wonder, who the hell cares? I can be as pretentious as the next guy, I mean, I saw Shame in theaters (great film, not for the feint of heart, probably wouldn’t watch it again), but I can also fully appreciate Dredd for what it is: a rollicking good time. Dredd did not do well at the box office (I blame society), and while that doesn’t effect the film’s quality, it does hamstring any possibility for a sequel, which I admittedly would like to see. So I have to say, it would probably be worth your time to watch it if you’re into this kind of thing. I mean, Karl Urban wants you to, and considering he becomes Judge Dredd, it is probably a good idea to acquiesce to his wishes: he is the law.

Berserk, Volume 2: Just a Mere Mortal

The second volume of Berserk, the ongoing manga series by writer and illustrator Kentaro Miura builds upon the dark and gory atmosphere of the first volume (written about by me here) and moves along the plot-lines begun in the aforementioned previous volume. The two chapters present in this volume were originally collected in 1991 in Japanese, while the English translation is published by Dark Horse Manga.

Guts and his arm/crossbow. This is also a cover.

Guts and his arm/crossbow. This is also a cover.

The volume opens where the last left off, with Guts and Puck being led to a hideout by a terribly scarred man who was sworn to take his revenge on the demonic count in charge of the city. Guts sees this setback turn into an opportunity upon seeing a behelit, a living key that allows him access to the God Hand, or those whom he seeks to destroy. The behelit was formerly the property of the Count until it was stolen by the broken man before them as he had escaped from his tormentors. Guts kills many more people and eventually comes face to face with the regenerative count, while Puck ends up in the possession of Theresia, the Count’s daughter, who has been caged within the finery of her bedroom by her father. The two chapters in this volume are titled “The Guardians of Desire, Part 2” and “The Guardians of Desire, Part 3.”

The character of Guts is not fleshed out much more in this volume aside from the implication that he has survived what it is impossible for a mortal to survive and that he may know more about the demonic element in the story than anyone that is not actually demonic. Guts continues to be terse and, arguably, cruel towards Puck, but there appears to be something of a bond developing between the two, even if it is only the nature of this type of story that is telling me so. Guts once again demonstrates his prodigious ability with the sword, to the point where he matches a super-powered demon blow for blow and defeats him. We learn a little bit more about what makes Guts tick, particularly in regards to people who do not fight their own battles, but his past thus far remains a cipher  Guts continues to be interesting as a character, but hopefully details about him aside from how awesome he is with a sword will be revealed soon.

He may be overcompensating.

I couldn’t find a picture from this volume online, so I reused this one.

Puck the elf continues to be simultaneously intrigued and disappointed by Guts, yet slowly begins to understand his attitude more after viewing the hellish and violent world he lives in day in and day out. Puck also becomes a more proactive character rather than just insisting that Guts be proactive for him: in this volume when he takes it upon himself to try to save someone from the Count, even if that doesn’t turn out so well for either of them. The change in Puck’s demeanor is predictable, but welcome character development, considering he could (still) easily end up being the character to act as Guts’ conscience without actually taking any action through volition of his own.

The art done by Kentaro Miura continues to be stellar, though some of the splash pages when Guts is fighting some monster or other tend to be a bit hectic and overcrowded, though they are not confusing story-wise. His Guts is hulking but not to the unrealistic degree certain comic characters can be drawn. His Puck is minuscule, youthful (at least appearance-wise), and very expressive, which is good when the character is a fraction of the size of the other figures he shares panel space with.

The setting is still reminiscent of a European influenced medieval world, with monsters and such added in, but this volume spends more time focusing on the fantasy elements than the initial one. The dark and foreboding atmosphere is consistent from the last volume, with an even greater sense of menace behind the scenes with Guts seemingly getting ever closer to the enigmatic “God Hand” that he seeks for what is seemingly revenge, but could potentially be something else.

This volume picks up where the last one left us, and leaves us on a significantly more frustrating cliffhanger, but the writing and art remain strong and Berserk has continued to be a worthwhile read. The premise is still frustratingly vague (what is this “God Hand”? Just who is Guts?) but the setting and atmosphere are intriguing and the characters continue to develop interestingly and naturally, if a bit slowly. At any rate, read Berserk if you like a solid medieval epic fantasy or just some fun action involving a gigantic sword.

Saga, Volume 1: A Horned, Winged, and Hazel-Eyed Infant…in Space

Saga is an ongoing comic by acclaimed writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples that premiered in March of 2012. And it also may just be the space opera I have been waiting for since I first read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and thought to myself, “why can’t this be in space?” Joking aside (that series is fine just the way it is), Saga has the feel of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings without the scruples that prevented Lucas and Tolkien from acknowledging sex and the grislier aspects of life.

This first trade paperback covers this first six issues and what seems to be the first complete story arc of the series. The series opens with Marko and Alana’s child being born, quite literally, under fire. Marko and Alana are each members of (humanoid) species that have been warring for centuries and have a deep-seeded resentment towards one another. The war has long since been outsourced to other planets and other species in the galaxy, but Marko and Alana are each soldiers. Marko was a prisoner of war and Alana was one of his guards, they then fell in love and fled from both of their peoples. Determined to forge a life for themselves and their new child, the new parents are desperate to flee the war-torn world they are trapped on and see the galaxy, that is if they can avoid the freelancers (bounty-hunters/assassins) and a prince of the Robot Empire (humanoids with television heads) that are hot on their trail and out for blood.

Marko and Alana are like Romeo and Juliet without all of the delusions about life, they have both seen and dealt out death in spades and they are hardened to it. Marko, with horns on his head and an ability to wield magic, is a warrior that has chosen to give up violence and live his life peacefully. It is ambiguous what instigated Marko’s change of heart, but it led him to the woman he would later marry and bear his child (he turned himself in as a “conscientious objector”).  A character chasing after the lovers describes him simply as a “force of nature” after seeing the damage he has done. Marko only unsheathes his sword once throughout the initial six issues, but the implication was quite clear: Marko is terrifying.

Alana was a bit of a screw-up before and after being drafted into the army, with low test scores and reputation for promiscuity she was sent to a brutal backwater planet where she met Marko. Possessing an abrasive personality and an impulsive streak, Alana, wings and all, proudly raises her middle finger to the world and runs off with her horned husband and new daughter. Alana, while hardened to life much like Marko, is more blusterous and less brutal than her husband. In the previously referenced incident when Marko unsheathes his sword, Alana, who had earlier been strongly predisposed towards violence, watches as he takes down multiple armed men swiftly, efficiently, and, surprisingly, passionately.

Ah, young love.

Ah, young love.

Prince Robot IV, a member of the royal family of the Robot Kingdom, which has been contracted by the home planet of Alana, Landfall, is our pair of fugitive spouses’ chief pursuer. Humanoid with a small television for a head, he has recently returned from a tour in the trenches, where he survived but was not successful, to his wife, only to be tasked with hunting down our pair of protagonists at all costs by his father. Mentally scarred from his time in the war, the prince possesses something of a violent streak, but is of ambiguous competence.

The Will is a bounty hunter hired by Wreath, the home moon of Marko, to kill the couple and bring back their hybrid child alive. The Will possesses a flexible moral code but certainly has one, and may be a more dangerous enemy for the duo than the robot prince. The Will’s partner is a creature known as the Lying Cat, a feline with the ability to determine the truthfulness of what is said. A colleague, and maybe more, of The Will’s is The Stalk, an arachnid-like bounty hunter with a fearsome reputation for bounty-hunting that she certainly lives up to.

The Will and the Lying Cat ominously staring into the distance.

The Will and the Lying Cat ominously staring into the distance.

Saga employs a considerable amount of narration done by Marko and Alana’s child, Hazel, from the future where she is still alive. This technique works well in that it allows for Vaughan to elicit an emotional connection early on in the story to this infant and not have her become the plot device newborns tend to be all too often. Hazel seems poised to take on the role of the character involved in, but not the cause of, sweeping world-changing events. She seems to be less like Luke Skywalker and more like Ben-Hur (which I just found out they are remaking, but that’s fuel for another discussion).

The scope of Saga is vast enough to make my epic fantasy loving, space opera adoring, comic-book reading hair follicles stand on end with excitement. Obvious comparisons include works like Star WarsThe Lord of the RingsA Song of Ice and Fire, or even Dune (let the spice flow), but Saga is shaping up to be its own beast, which is truly how it should be when it comes to ambitious projects. There also seems to be potential for intriguing political commentary given that the endless war between the two races has taken the idea of subcontracting to its natural, and extreme conclusion.

Look! Magic!

Look! Magic!

Saga is a work that doesn’t shy away from the “dirtier” aspects of life. Characters curse and characters fornicate, and at no point does that seem unnatural. Prince Robot and his wife are introduced mid-copulation and it isn’t something unbecoming, its life. Vaughan’s willingness to address the subject is embraced (wrong term?) by artist Fiona Staples, who draws realistic bodies (both male and female) and whose nudes actually possess genitalia (if I was a southern belle  would be fanning myself vigorously right now).

The artwork of Fiona Staples is one of Saga‘s greatest strengths and an ideal match for this vast, fantastical setting. Her characters are expressive and grounded in reality, yet far from out of place when something outlandish appears, like a specter and soon-to-be babysitter or spider-like assassin. Staples’ landscapes are vivid and suitably epic for this space opera, and her interiors are detailed enough to make a wooden spaceship seem natural.

Saga is cinematic and bold, and despite the obvious inspirations of better known works, stands firmly on its own two feet. I don’t know, I could just be a sucker for an ambitious science-fantasy epic, but to me, Saga is something potentially very special and is certainly a comic-book that is not to be missed by fans of either space-operas or Brian K. Vaughan.

Berserk, Volume 1: That is One Huge Sword

Berserk is a long running Manga series both written and illustrated by Kentaro Miura originally published in 1990 that remains an ongoing project. Bloody and dark, Berserk is set in a medieval-Europe style fantasy world rife with monsters, evil spirits, and cruel demonic overlords. I will be discussing the first of the thirty-six released volumes of the manga and not either of the anime adaptations available. The English language version is published by Dark Horse Manga.

This is a cover.

This is a cover.

The volume opens with a chapter titled “The Black Swordsman” in which a large man named Guts armed with a fake arm and a freakishly large sword dispatches a tavern full of armed soldiers that are threatening to kill an elf (visually like a fairy) named Puck. He does this in order to send a message to the person who employs them. Identifying himself as “the Black Swordsman”, Guts commits a slaughter that draws out the mayor as well as the creature threatening the mayor into servitude. A fight erupts, revealing the creature as something called an apostle that serves “the God Hand” the members of which, Guts wishes to kill. It seems personal.

The second chapter is titled “The Brand” and features more of Guts killing things and more hints at why he does what he does. Guts comes across Puck once more in the back of a wagon driven by a priest and a young woman. After some discussion regarding Guts’ way of life (he is some sort of a mercenary), Guts is targeted by a horde of undead skeletal creatures as a result of the brand on his neck, which apparently draws evil spirits towards him during the night (or when he sleeps, it’s vague). Violence ensues.

The third (and final) story is titled “The Guardians of Desire, Part 1” and yes, it does end on a cliffhanger. Guts comes across another town fresh from beheading a woman accused of being a heretic. Guts’ nature gets the better of him and another huge brawl with more armed soldiers erupts (he kills many, many people) before escaping into the sewers with Puck on the instructions of a mysterious, mutilated man who sees in Guts a chance for vengeance. This town is also led by something vaguely human (but almost definitely not) who burns anyone as a heretic for the oh so slightest of reasons.

Berserk‘s first volume sets up its world well in terms of atmosphere: this medieval world is dark, brutal, and corrupt. Vague evilness practically seeps through the pages between all of the blood splatter. Thus far, the setting seems to be the typical dark fantasy world replete with the requisite monsters and a quasi-medieval setting. The presence of more sprite-like elves differentiates Berserk from most fantasy series that follow the typical Tolkien model of man, elf, and dwarf (and orc, goblin, wizard, balrog, hobbit…) for their fantasy worlds. The presence of a priest also hints at potential religious strife later on and the apparently under-the-radar nature of the monsters and demons that Guts hunts hints at a fantasy series more grounded in reality rather than just one that is just dark and gritty.

The character of Guts, however, is ripe with potential for both character depth and cinematic style thrills. One of which is only hinted at, the other is supplied in spades in all three chapters (he cleaves torsos through armor with ease). Guts is a warrior, plain and simple. He fights and he kills and he seems to do both often enough and well enough to have time for little else than fighting and looking for his next battle. That is, not unsurprisingly given his status as Berserk‘s protagonist, deceptive. In all three instances of him fighting he has a clear motive: hunting evil or defending himself from it. His proclamations that he couldn’t care less if the weak are trampled and if innocents die also ring hollow: the one time he is anywhere close to being shaken from his berserker-rage (like the title) is when an innocent girl dies in front of him; he didn’t even lose that steely gaze of his while being tortured. Guts as a character has potential to be an interesting antihero should his implied depths be delved. For all of you A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones) geeks out there (like myself), Guts in some ways reminds me of Jaime Lannister: a bastard to those that meet him, but a bastard with damn good reasons once you get inside his head.

He may be overcompensating.

He may be overcompensating.

The only other recurring character between the stories is Puck, an elf just looking for interesting things to see that views Guts as a person always coming across interesting things (I’ll wager he is correct). Though Guts brushes him off as a pest and weakling, he seems to recognize in Guts something besides the brute he shows himself to be to the world (the two fights Guts starts are over innocents being killed and Puck notices this). I have a hunch that Puck is here to stay and will be the first member in an ever expanding travelling party for our hero (a cliche, but a good one).

The art by Kentaro Miura is crisp, detailed, and, most importantly, clear. It is not difficult to get a sense of what is happening or who is doing what to whom (why is a different matter). There is also no vagueness in regards to the speech bubbles and who their designated speakers are, which is often an issue in comics with a fast-paced, action-packed, and kinetic style of story-telling like Berserk.

Is it worth reading? I’d say yes, though it is not for the feint of heart or those who dislike gratuitous bloodshed. The setting is fairly standard and the villains are (at this admittedly early point) shallow and vague, but a strong lead character and hints of hidden complexities in both the setting and the character of Guts will keep me reading for at least another couple of volumes.