Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Saga (purchase from Amazon)

Cyriaque Lamar, io9, “Brian K. Vaughan Talks Saga, One of the Year’s Best Science Fiction Comics

In the world of comics and graphic novels, it’s rare for a property to focus almost entirely on romance, but Brian K. Vaughan’s newest ongoing series, Saga, does exactly that. With help from talented up-and-coming artist Fiona Staples, Vaughan’s Image-published adventure chronicles the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of literally star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko and their newborn daughter Hazel.

In the science fiction/fantasy world of Saga, two alien races have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, with each faction bent on total dominance of the other. From out of the death and destruction, Alana and Marko’s outlawed romance blossoms and as a result, they hit the road in hopes of finding security and peace for their new family.

Along the way they encounter a collection of interesting and bizarre characters and places, the variety and complexity of which all help to elevate the book from cliched sci-fi space opera to an especially impressive creative work. Saga reads like an intergalactic road trip chronicle. And like Vaughan’s previous efforts (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina), his wry sense of humor and appreciation for each character’s personal quirks undercuts all of the intense action and strangeness to drive home the humanity of Alana, Marko and Hazel’s journey.

In complementing his script, Vaughan couldn’t ask for a more effective partner than Fiona Staples, who handles all of the art for the book. Her spare-yet-lively minimalist style manages to flesh out the sci-fi world without bombarding the reader with superfluous detail. Her sense of space makes every page feel open and light, while her character work gives real life to a unique and compelling cast. Staples’ cover work alone is worth purchasing the individual issues; you can view all of them here.

If you’re looking for an excellent graphic novel experience and are a fan of science fiction, I can’t recommend Saga enough. Check it out.

The Private Eye

Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, The Private Eye

Steven Morris, The Beat, “Review: The Private Eye #1”

I also just wanted to mention briefly another comic project on which Vaughan has recently embarked: The Private Eye. Ironically published online, The Private Eye tells the story of a private detective who must navigate the pitfalls of a future Earth in which the structure of the internet has collapsed and all personal data uploaded to cloud storage was made irrevocably public. The revelation of every person’s secret online history has completely transformed society, forcing a mass reversion to physical media (bound books, vinyl records, and print newspapers all make cameo appearances), and more importantly forcing almost everyone to hide behind a disguise to protect his or her identity. The deceptive illusion of anonymity and trust provided by using the internet is shattered.

Since there’s only been one issue released, it’s too early to say how this project will turn out, but the premise is intriguing and unlike the escapist fantasy of Saga, is more in line with Vaughan’s past socially-relevant and critical works. Marcos Martin’s art, appropriate to the comic’s neo-noir stylings, is cool and elegant, and one of the pleasures of the book is taking in all of the resonant elements he incorporates from panel to panel. The fact that everyone is wearing a disguise all the time makes for a very playful visual and narrative theme that has a lot of potential.

If you want to get in on the ground floor of a unique and compelling story that has something to say about the world in which we currently live, I’d recommend giving The Private Eye a shot. You can pay whatever you want to access the first issue online (available in a variety of digital formats) right now.

Every kid wishes they could fly.Man of Steel

A new Superman movie, Man of Steel, is in development, and after seeing the most recent trailer, I couldn’t be more excited. The film is directed by Zack Snyder, whose visuals are usually excellent despite so-so story-telling, produced by Christopher Nolan of single-handedly-reviving-the-superhero-film-genre-with-Batman fame, and stars Henry Cavill, who appears to have been genetically engineered for the role.

Judging by the trailer alone (some say I have too much hope), it seems like the film has the potential to become something really special: a big-screen adaptation of the ultimate superhero that does justice to what he means to many fans (myself included). The excellent narration of the trailer, provided by Superman’s biological father, Jor-El (played by Russel Crowe – there is another version featuring narration by Jon Kent, played by Kevin Costner), sets a lump in my throat and my eyes to watering, and captures perfectly the purpose and significance of the character:

“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El, is an incredibly complex character both in terms of his comic book incarnations and the public’s perception of him. Weighed down by decades of campy adaptations, inaccurate Christ comparisons, and sub-par storytelling, Superman is poised for a comeback on the more serious dramatic stage set by the recent Batman films. And given the relationship between the characters as two of the most popular of all time, it’s impossible not to compare them. It is common among people my age to dismiss Superman in favor of the Dark Knight, and that preference is an interesting touchstone with regards to the state of Western culture’s psychology.

If it wasn’t already clear, I am a fan of Superman, though not at the expense of my Batman fandom (friends know my faithful feline companion’s name to, in fact, be “Batman”). But it makes me sad to hear the tone of derision and cynicism with which many in my generation speak about Superman. I encountered this over the summer when the Man of Steel trailer above played ahead of The Dark Knight Rises. Despite the trailer’s obvious earnestness, it was met with murmurs of dismissal and scoffing. I was dismayed.

Like any good character, Superman has evolved since his creation and the most significant iterations have been fantastic (see Superman: Birthright, All-Star Superman, Superman: Secret Identity, and more). But for many, he is unfortunately nothing more than a cliched Boy Scout Christ allegory, without a place or relevance in today’s more hard-line, knife-edged age.

The gritty, depressing terror of the Batman films has dominated the pop-culture conversation regarding these types of characters and brought into question what they mean to the culture at large. Don’t get me wrong: I love Batman. The darker, more pragmatic side of me identifies with and idolizes the character for his ingenuity, steadfastness, seriousness of purpose, and many people obviously feel he’s very relevant.

But Batman inhabits a world of pessimism. Though he’s highly-skilled, the man in the suit is emotionally wounded. He rectifies wrongs, fights injustice, and helps others cope with the unfortunate ramifications of crime, but he cannot prevent crime. His most admirable qualities are generated in response to a world that reflects our own, but I find myself wondering if his is the kind of example we should seek to emulate. Any thoughtful reader or viewer knows that there is always too much injustice to combat permanently, so although we are entertained and satisfied by the stories, what do we take away? When we internalize the actions and ideals of a character like Batman, what do we do with his example? Is his path the one we need to walk?

Superman, on the other hand, offers the complete opposite, and although they differ, the characters are often presented as two sides of the same coin. Where Batman accepts a cynical reality, Superman encourages optimism with a vision of the individual as we would like ourselves to be. Where Batman is a human who is more super than any human will ever be, Superman is an alien who at his core possesses a humanity we wish we could emulate. Where Batman is distrustful and reticent, Superman is honest and joyous.

Superman is a metaphor that soars among the clouds, unhampered by the world that is, bringing into existence a fictional world we all wish could be reality.

As a recent ComicsAlliance piece demonstrated, the ideological significance of Superman cannot be understated. To celebrate Suicide Prevention Day, they posted a page from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman graphic novel. The page deals poignantly with a young woman’s intended suicide. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, she mistakenly concludes that no one – not even the doctor she came to trust – cares for her. Before she can kill herself, Superman assures her otherwise: “It’s never as bad as it seems. You are stronger than you think you are.”

Morrison wisely doesn’t have Superman show up in time to catch the girl after she’s jumped, making a cliched show of superheroics. Instead, Superman prevents disaster by offering a more human and inspiring solution: kind words and a hug. With this, Superman demonstrates the superheroics we could and should all engage in on a daily basis; to save a life is the kind of wonder we could and should all hope to achieve.

Sure, I may be ascribing more hope and credit than a big-budget film deserves, but the character of Superman – like the legends Robin Hood, King Arthur, Musashi, Gilgamesh, and countless others – holds special significance for culture and history. And sure, the stories from the comic books and movies don’t always embody the lofty paragon I’ve described here.

But in a time when you don’t have to work hard to witness the losing battle good, thoughtful people fight against true evil and horror every day in the real world, I personally cannot wait and sincerely hope that Man of Steel does what Superman has always done: Inspire hope for a better tomorrow among countless new and old fans everywhere. And that’s something I think the world could really use right now.

And if that’s not enough, bolting through the sky at the speed of sound is unarguably awesome.

Just the First Frame

Are you a fan of original web comics? I most certainly am. Creators featuring their work online are among the most unique, visually arresting, and interesting out there. They enjoy the freedom to play by their own rules and establish a style all their own. Not to mention that as a fledgling creator myself, it is inspiring to see others follow through and do it. And although I enjoy many of them, by the very nature of the internet, it can be difficult to find those worthwhile, high quality projects that consistently deliver a great story, or great humor, or great art and writing.

Thankfully, there’s a new website up called “Just the First Frame,” which focuses on presenting the first frame of a ton of comics collected from around the internet (some popular, some unknown), all in order to simply expose readers to something new and get them clicking. If you’re looking for some new comics beyond the usual (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, XKCD, and the like), I think this is the place for you.

There are many unique and beautiful stories to be found among those listed and I’ve already discovered some that I will definitely be sticking with for the foreseeable future. Besides the fact that they’re awesome, they’re all completely FREE, but I do recommend supporting the creators if you like what you see. A copy of reMIND is already ordered and on its way to my home. You can find my top picks listed below (each one of the links takes you to the first page). Please take a moment to support these dedicated creators and enjoy!

Jason Brubaker, reMIND

Chad Sell, Manta-Man

Erin Mehlos, Next Town Over

Jon Cairns & Renee Keyes, Alpha Flag

J.N. Wiedle, “Helvetica”

Way back (about 15 years ago), when personal computers were still in their popular infancy, my father bought our family an enormous monolith of a machine – a Gateway, I think – that, compared to even the most basic of its decedents today, was a jalopy. The thing took forever to boot up, forever to open a window of any kind, forever to do just about anything. Regardless, my brothers and I loved it. Though our legitimate uses for it were few beyond simple word-processing, we loved it because it managed to play (at reduced settings and a painfully slow frame rate) some of the coolest video games of the day. After getting my hands on Myst, I was hooked on adventure and puzzle games and spent an inordinate amount of time chronicling every piece of lore and the details of every mystery. I don’t remember the particulars, but along comes this game, Grim Fandango, and it absolutely blew me away.

The art style was reminiscent of Mexican “dia de los muertos” Mexican folk art, 40’s and 50’s art deco, and it was all mixed together with a film noir sensibility that appealed to me beyond any game I’d encountered until that point. It doesn’t hurt that at the time I had fallen in love with and was consumed by a leather-bound collection of Raymond Chandler’s most beloved Philip Marlowe detective novels. The story of Grim Fandango focused on a grim reaper in the land of the dead as he tried to unravel a growing mystery that was complicating his “life” as a reaper. The unique visual style, the characters, the voice acting, the story, and the music all combine in some weird alchemy to create a truly compelling, excellent game. If you can find it, I strongly recommend playing it. To say the game is “fun” is an understatement.

All of this aside, I came across J.N. Wiedle’s web comic, “Helvetica,” linked to from a post on another blog, and upon seeing it I was instantly brought back to those hours spent with Grim Fandango, trying desperately to make sense of the mystery. “Helvetica” tells the story of a newly dead soul as he tries to understand the life he lead and deals with the existential questions that understandably crop up as a result of being dead. It’s funny, beautifully illustrated, and like Grim Fandango, just a ton of fun. Check it out for an equally unique, rewarding, and spell-binding adventure in the land of the dead.

Comics Alliance, Andy Khouri, ” R.I.P. Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud (1938-2012)”

Moebius’s Official Site

Quenched Consciousness

One of the most prolific and influential illustrators to have ever worked in comics and popular culture has died. I wasn’t familiar with his work until a few years ago, but Moebius’s images have come to mean a great deal to me, invaluable for their imagination and vision. The Comics Alliance article sums up his legacy far better than I can manage, so I strongly recommend reading through it – the final half of it is punctuated with a sequence of art that perfectly exemplifies exactly why he was such an effective visual storyteller. I’ve also included a link to Moebius’s official site, as well as to a fan’s site created with the intention of collecting Moebius’s art.

In addition to his work in graphic novels, Moebius’s creative endeavors inspired the look and feel of many of my most beloved science fiction films, including Blade Runner and Alien. Tekkon Kinkreet also springs to mind as a film (and comic) which counts Moebius among its inspirations. There are a great many popular illustrators working in the comics medium whose work I admire, but few whose art frees the mind quite like his. The use of consistent, clean lines establishes a solid sense of reality in his work, while unique -sometimes minimalist, sometimes extravagant – designs and perspectives infuse his creations with vibrancy. The level of detail and energy he includes in his work is at just the right amount, which I think reflects an exemplary artistic philosophy focused on illuminating that which is most important.

Needless to say, Moebius will be missed, but thankfully his legacy will be carried on and amplified by the artists and dreamers, both professional and amateur, he has inspired with his work.

Boulet, “The Darkness”

This comic, collected in a single running story on the page above, is among the best I’ve ever read on the internet. In fact, it may be one of the best I’ve ever read anywhere, period. In a well-illustrated and humorous way it tells the story of one young man’s quest to find love and the difficulties he encounters as a result of the overwhelming attractiveness of his brooding roommate.

It’s a great, relatable premise and one that is explored lightheartedly while also addressing some of the most important aspects of romantic relationships: attraction, honesty, emotional connection, love. It also addresses issues nice guys often feel pressured to confront when trying to impress the opposite sex, including the decision to adopt or not adopt certain personality characteristics one feels may be more attractive. As you can imagine, the protagonist has a lot to learn in this department and Boulet has some great insights to share throughout the story.

One of the most amazing things about this comic is that it was drawn entirely within a 24-hour period earlier this year. If that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will. Boulet is an incredibly talented writer and artist and I cannot recommend this comic enough. I hope you take some time to sit down and enjoy it – I guarantee you will have a heart-warming smile on your face by the time you reach the end.