Comics Reviewed! Four Eyes, 100 Girls, Realm of Kings & Artifacts

Four Eyes Volume 1: Forged in Flames (Image TP, $9.99)
By Jeb D.

Dragons may not be as overworked as vampires and zombies these days, but they’re typically even more limited in their characterization than those various iterations of the living/un dead, so to come up with a new approach to the mythical fire-breathers is welcome. And if writer Joe Kelly and artist Max Fiumara (with colorist Nestor Pereyra) don’t completely hit it out of the park with this series, they’ve at the very least managed a stand-up triple, and we’re only one 4-issue miniseries in.

Fantasy tales with young protagonists these days usually stand in the shadow of Harry Potter, but the story here is fundamentally rooted in even more classic tropes: a young boy forced by tragic circumstance to take on a man’s burden, who must prove his worth to an adult world that doesn’t believe in him, and who will find true friendship with a creature equally reviled.

Laid out like that, it’s obvious that Kelly’s greatest challenge is going to be in the world-building: creating an environment, and set of characters, that will hold our attention for the sort of timeless tale we often saw in old Disney movies. And he delivers.

As Four Eyes begins, Enrico is the young son of an Italian immigrant father; his mother appears to be native-born, white, and not terribly strong; she relies on her huge rock of a husband for every kind of support a woman can need. We first meet this family taking a day on the beach in Queens, New York… and we quickly discover how odd this is: we’re in the middle of the Great Depression (or an alternate universe’s version of it, at any rate), and for a man to miss a day of work should be tantamount to taking food from his family’s mouths. Enrico can sense that there is more to their holiday than simple recreation, and when he disobeys an order not to follow his father, he learns just how tragically correct he was: his father has been providing for the family by hunting dragons, and in a scene of sudden, startling power, Enrico loses his father, but gains access to his secrets.

In the wake of his father’s death, though, life becomes much harder for Enrico and his mother, particularly since she has convinced herself that dragons, and his father’s occupation, were just figments of Enrico’s imagination. Their hardscrabble life becomes one of desperate poverty, and for all Enrico’s desire to assume his father’s mantle, he has no idea how to go about it; he only knows that he will one day avenge himself on the creature that took his father from him.

It’s only when the mobster who had been paying Enrico’s father to hunt the beasts enters the picture that Enrico sees his opportunity, and the remainder of the book takes us on the first steps of his journey. This 96-page volume is jammed with memorable variations on such stock characters as the elegantly-attired crime boss and the hard-bitten foreman who forms a grudging affection for Enrico; Kelly may not have created these character types, but he deploys them expertly in setting up Enrico’s story.

Four Eyes also does a splendid job of revealing its mysteries one by one: if dragons do exist in this squalid urban setting, why does the public at large seem not to believe in them? How and why is their existence kept a secret, and who benefits? And if no one believes in them, why is there a determined-looking young girl carrying a sign decrying their abuse?

It’s a solid premise for a comic, and Kelly knows how to make his stock themes and character types feel fresh and interesting. But what really puts the book across is the amazingly fluid artwork. Fiumara’s pretty casual with anatomy here and there (hands and feet sometimes become elongated to the point that you almost expect Reed Richards to show up), but his faces carry the weight of emotion so vividly that you could do away with half the word balloons and not miss much of the plot. More to the point, though, he is completely in synch with Kelly’s world-building, creating a New York that feels completely true to the Depression era, with its poverty, grifters, and gangsters, but with a sense of gritty alienation that makes you keep from questioning the idea of dragons in the first place. And holy hell, can the man do dragons: his monstrous wyrms are among the most awesome (in the true sense of the word) you’ve ever seen in comics. Even though, in some ways, the story is just beginning, there is plenty of action involving the creatures, and the heat and light (and smell!) of them almost radiates off the page. That Enrico could hate and fear them is entirely believable… that he will eventually come to see them in another light doesn’t make them any less fearsome.

It took a while for this first miniseries to be completed (I think it was over two years from issue #1 to #4), and as of a couple of months ago, I hadn’t seen any indication of when the next installment would be released. But don’t let that deter you: this is a truly fantastic-looking book, with a solidly crafted story at its core. Hopefully, there is much more to come.


100 Girls: The First Girl Volumes 1 & 2 (Arcana, $9.95 each)
by Adam Prosser

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a young girl, living a seemingly normal life, begins to discover that she’s got some kind of strange abilities. The next thing she knows, she’s on the run from a pseudo-military organization who, it turns out, genetically engineered her, and who have a whole menagerie of other baddies ready and waiting to track her down. Because, you see, this particular girl is extra-special, and powerful enough to bring down the whole—

–Why didn’t you stop me?

Arcana’s 100 Girls isn’t a bad comic by any means, but good night is it generic. This is exactly the kind of story I remember reading over and over and OVER again in the early 90s, and it hasn’t exactly been scarce since then either, particularly in comics that start with “X”. Writer Adam Gallardo delivers it with a fair amount of professional polish, and he does throw in a couple of decent character relationships, in particular involving a conflicted villain, but the one truly distinctive aspect of the story is too half-formed to really click.

That aspect? The heroine, 13-year-old, super-strong Sylvia Mark (incidentally, there’s a certain level of objectification applied to the many 13-year-old girls in this comic that feels like it tips over just a bit into “inappropriate”) discovers that she’s one of the titular 100 Girls, brought to life via genetic engineering and each with their own unique abilities, and all of them scattered across the country. Not only does Sylvia have to track them down—she has to literally merge with them, thereby gaining their powers. Yeah, seriously. When Sylvia hugs one of her clone-sisters, there’s a bright light, the body dissolves into a desiccated corpse (!) and suddenly the girl in question is a voice in her head. This is…seriously pretty weird, especially given that the girls in question actively want to merge with Sylvia, yet remain discrete personalities afterward, meaning that Sylvia is an increasingly powerful multiple personality sufferer before the end of the first collection. And yet this does very little to give the book any real personality; the merging aspect isn’t explored or allowed to take control of the story, which is otherwise a fairly repetitive array of encounters with faceless agents and super-powered enemies who fly past (and get torn apart) too fast to register.

Fortunately, the book has another major asset in the charming artwork of Todd Demong. Demong’s a storyboard artist for animation, and it shows in his powerful sense of movement and elegant stylization. He gives Sylvia and her clone-sisters a level of personality that frankly isn’t there in the script. If you’re willing to forgive a plot skeleton as unimaginative as this as a coatrack for a bunch of very pretty action sequences and character designs, then by all means, this book is worth your while. Otherwise…well, it’s a thing to read, if you’ve never read a comic before in your life.


Realm of Kings HC (Marvel, $39.99)
by Graig Kent

Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have been heavily involved with “Marvel Cosmic” for half a decade at this point, for most of it acting as the driving force while at the helm of the two main “Cosmic” titles Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy and the last two events, Annihilation: Conquest and War of Kings. Much like the “X-titles” operate almost in their own slice of continuity, DnA (as they’re collectively known) have also firmly established the “Cosmic” as their own subsection of the bigger Marvel picture.

While the Earth heroes have been at Civil War with each other, at odds with the Skrulls and facing down the Hulk, Nova and the Guardians have been saving the universe, or dying trying. After the War of Kings, wherein the battle between the Shi’ar empire (misguided by Cyclop’s power-mad brother Vulcan) and the Kree (newly ruled by the Inhumans) resulted in a tear in the time-space continuum between the two interstellar territories called The Fault.

Realm of Kings is less the next event and more firming the foundation for a new and lasting facet to the Marvel Universe, as The Fault allows for inter-dimensional and inter-time travel, with limitless possibilities and few rules. This hardcover, collects the three “Realm of Kings” mini-series: ROK: Inhumans; ROK: Imperial Guard; and ROK: Son of Hulk, as well as the ROK one-shot.

Kicking off with the one-shot, Quasar travels into the rift in the name of scientific research, only to find his newly resurrected life put yet again in mortal danger, encountering a familiar and yet radically altered Earth to his own, bathing in menace and seeping sinister. You’ve heard of “Marvel Zombies”, meed “Marvel Lovecraft”. DnA have reimagined Marvel’s mightiest as if they sprung from the same mind that created Cthulhu. Artist Leonardo Manco’s heavy inks and fractured lines lock down the heaviness of the story and characters, and Quasar’s desperate plight to flee the planet builds to an intense finish that leaves the gate open for more “Marvel Lovecraft”.

Following the death of Black Bolt in War of Kings and the defeat of the Shi’ar, ROK: Inhumans explores the new galactic power under the rule of Queen Medusa, but it’s a shaky governing power at best, and the mini-series explores deftly the many political maneuverings and machinations of the various parties involved. Regular X-Factor artist Pablo Raimondi provides the bulk of the pencils for the series, with a clean, photographic, detailed style accentuated with vibrant coloring giving this series an almost pristine feeling compared to the by-and-large gritty, battle-ravaged Marvel Cosmic we’ve generally seen until now.

ROK: Imperial Guard is the flip-side of ROK: Inhumans, dirty, jagged, and messy, while looking outward more than in. The Shi’ar, now have Gladiator as their leader, but the role as statesman doesn’t suit the hardened warrior, and he can’t help but want to get his hands dirty. He sends his former teammates in the Imperial Guard out on missions and looks for any excuse to join them. Assembling a small crew alongside the Starjammers, they enter the Fault to see what lies within, finding only the danger that Quasar is too late to warn them about. Kevin Walker’s roughly-hewn style is far from pretty but through his storytelling, and given the context, it’s wildly effective.

The final collected series is ROK: Son of Hulk. Readers who have been following the Marvel Cosmic might find themselves at a bit of a loss if they’ve not been keeping up on their post Planet Hulk mythology, as I was quite uncertain as to how this series related the the remainder of the “Realm of Kings” except to reintroduce characters from the classic(?) ’80’s series, the Micronauts and to establish a new threat that seems to be leading more towards the Hulk sector of the Marvel U than the Marvel Cosmic. The story itself, written by relative newcomer Scott Reed, is a disjointed read, as I wasn’t certain whether Hero–Kala (Hulk’s other son) was a good guy or a bad guy. Overall, the story feels somewhat detached from the familiar Marvel Universe and Marvel Cosmic, since none of the characters were all that familiar to me. The art from Miguel Munera, Terry Pallot and colorist Veronica Gandini, is passable, but has the feel of an unrefined, self-published indie fantasy comic, the main detraction being that the consistency of the figures (faces and proportions) between panels varies wildly .

With 15 issues of comics for $40, the Hardcover is actually quite a bargain compared to buying everything off the stands, however the Son of Hulk does lower the quality of the collection, and it lacks the cohesion that the DnA efforts have, thus making this collection difficult to recommend. No doubt ROK: Inhumans and ROK: Imperial Guard will be published separately in trade, so it may behoove Marvel Cosmic fans to wait a little longer until then.


Artifacts #1 of 13 (Top Cow, $3.99)
By Jeb D.

Despite decades of failure by any number of companies, the attempt to establish a third ongoing comic book universe, one that can sustain an entire line of characters–and buyers–remains a holy grail for publishers. Top Cow is the latest to take a stab at it, with this 13-part crossover series featuring the motley crew of characters that they (and Image) have assembled over the years

They have one thing going for them: they’re following the successful path that Marvel and DC used (more or less by accident), by creating comic characters first, then letting their stories and relationships gradually form into a cohesive universe (the typical approach is to try to birth the thing out of whole cloth, and companies like Crossgen and Dark Horse can tell you just how well that works). But, then, that worked back when comics were a dime and two coppers. I have my doubts that, no matter how well they go about it, any publisher today can bring aboard a readership dedicated to following a newly intermingled universe across multiple titles (or who could afford to do so).

The storytelling in this first issue is fairly brisk and efficient, and given that only a serious Top Cow fan is going to be familiar with all the characters, does a good job of filling us in on just what we need to know about each in order to keep the story moving, with the lion’s share of attention being given to Witchblade wielder Sarah Pezzini and The Rapture‘s Tom Judge.

But if the storytelling is effective, the actual story being told isn’t especially promising: twelve known artifacts of power (which conveniently works out to one for each featured character and one per issue-whoda thunk?) and a mysterious thirteenth need to be kept out of the hands of demonic seekers or… the universe ends. You know: that universe that I basically just met for the first time?

Hurm. Now maybe it’s just me, but when I know that the stakes are the continued existence of an entire universe that a comics publisher is working hard to interest me in–and sell to me–my level of urgency drops a bit, particularly when it’s flatly laid out in the form of expository dialogue in the first issue. The whole point of this exercise is to get the casual reader of, say, Witchblade, to fall in love with the rest of the Top Cow universe and keep buying its comics. Even if you can’t come up with anything more original than “the universe will end,” why not structure the story so that, over the course of the series, the reader learns for themselves what the price of failure might be? Or, here’s a crazy notion: how about letting us wonder which side the various characters are on as a way of keeping the mystery going? Putting all the cards on the table right upfront makes it awfully easy for me to shrug and assume this is just another “If-we-fail-the-world-ends” story, of the sort I’ve read a hundred times. If I already knew the characters, I suppose I might stick with it, but as way of getting me to enjoy them, it just feels flat.

I would also mention that the attempt to up the ante for one of the characters is handled in a pretty crass fashion that left a sour taste in my mouth: it takes “we’re so edgy” to a place it didn’t need to go; do something like this after you’ve got me interested in the story and it carries some emotional weight. Just toss it in cold and there’s no resonance.

I’ve held off mentioning the art because that “stuck-in-the-Image-heyday” style doesn’t do much for me in the first place, and you might like it much better than I do. Artist Michael Broussard (with inks by Rick Basaldua and Sal Regla, and colors from Sunny Gho) handles the paneling pretty well, and mostly tells the story clearly, but there’s just way too much Liefeld / Finch going on here for my taste. I’ll give him this: when Marc Silvestri drops in for a quick two-page summary of the origin of Witchblade, I’m reminded how much worse things might have been. So there’s that.

As a bit of fan service to the Top Cow faithful who have just been dying to see Angelus and The Darkness team up to save the world, this series promises to deliver, if in a somewhat dry, by-the-numbers fashion. For anyone else, it’s just another intra-company crossover that depends for its effect on your level of interest in and affection for the characters involved. I got about two cans of enjoyment out of it, but I’m adding an extra can for its general level of competence.


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