Three for Thursday: Independent Comics Review


Every Thursday, I want to explore the new releases of independent comic publishers by reviewing a handful of titles. This week, we look at three:

Valiant Universe Handbook #1
Edited by Peter Stern
Art by Barry Kitson, Trevor Hairsine, Lewis LaRosa, et al
Published by Valiant Comics

For all practical purposes, I am a total newbie to the Valiant Universe. I recognize only a few of the characters, and I would not be able to tell you much, if anything, about them. But thumbing through the Valiant Universe Handbook #1 at the comic shop, a couple of things grabbed my attention.

The art and production values for the handbook are very good. The editor chose detailed and intense artwork from the Valiant universe for use in the handbook. Coupled with fun to read “histories” for each entry, this artwork really shines. The Valiant Universe Handbook also took me back to my childhood and the handbooks Marvel Comics published in the 80s. There were all of the heroes and villains of the Marvel universe laid out and organized alphabetically, solid if not amazing art, and the aura as if you had been given a backstage pass. Much of the appeal, I remember fondly, was reading about characters that I had not come across in my teenage, cash-strapped, comic collecting experience. I sought out new titles, learned more about characters I thought I already knew, and developed a more sophisticated understanding of the Marvel universe.

Today, and with the internet at our disposal, hundreds of handbooks and wikis exist that cover everything you would like to know about any comic universe character. Yet if you were not aware of the universe or the character, no amount of wikis could help you expand your knowledge base. And while I was certainly aware of the Valiant universe and a few of its characters, it took browsing around the comic shop for me to take the next step. Much like those Marvel handbooks from so long ago, the Valiant Universe Handbook has got me itching to further explore a comic universe.

From the publisher:

"The epic origins! The fearless first adventures! The ever-shifting allies and allegiances! In honor of Valiant’s 25th anniversary, get everything you need to know about the most formidable heroes and villains that the Valiant Universe has to offer right here with an all-new 40-page handbook for just $2.99! From Animalia to Zephyr, get an essential briefing on Valiant’s most important players with a highly detailed and thoroughly updated breakdown of the monumental characters that will be making the Valiant Universe tick in 2015 and beyond! Featuring artwork from an all-star cast of Valiant superstars – Doug Braithwaite, Clayton Crain, Trevor Hairsine, Clayton Henry, Bryan Hitch, Cary Nord, and many, many more – discover everything you need to know to jump into the world of Valiant’s award-winning series right here! Plus: start at the beginning and find out what you might have missed with a brand new guide to Valiant’s trade paperback collections! It all starts here in the VALIANT UNIVERSE HANDBOOK."

Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King #1 (of 5)
Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Art by Peter Bergting and Dave Stewart
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Long a fan of Mike Mignola, I am embarrassed that this is the first Lord Baltimore title that I have read. Mignola first introduced us to the character in 2007, and Dark Horse Comics has given us a steady stream of Baltimore comics since 2010.

As with his other collaborations with artists, Mignola’s choice of penciler (Peter Bergting, who Mignola has worked with before), reflects a style similar to his own: lots of blacks and reds, a good grasp of graphic horror, and masterful action sequences. The story and characters remind me of Mignola’s more famous B.P.R.D. books in that a mixed group of adventurers work together to fight against forces dark and evil.

But that is about where the similarities end. Baltimore: Cult of the Red King takes place in the 1920s, and the characters feel a lot more gritty and human compared to the fantastical members of the B.P.R.D. In this first issue, we are introduced to Lord Baltimore, a haunted and driven man, and the team that has built up around him. While we learn quite a bit about Lord Baltimore and what haunts and drives him (death of family, etc. at the hands of a nasty vampire), the secondary characters’ origins and motivations are comparatively weak. We pick up on the connections between characters on the fly, if at all, and you get the feeling there are things that have happened and are happening, and for some reason, you’ve been left out.

In this instance, the approach to the story works, if only barely. The universe that Mignola and his team have put together is one of shadows and the unknown, so it somehow feels right not to be totally comfortable with the narrative. Having said that, the story moves along with a satisfying tempo, punctuated by just enough humanism and horror to keep the pages turning.

From the publisher:

"The Red King is legendary. But is he the stuff of myth—or the ultimate adversary of the human race? In this series, Lord Baltimore discovers the truth about an ancient evil that threatens to destroy the world.* A great starting point for anyone looking to delve into the world of Baltimore.* Baltimore’s ultimate quest begins here!"

Roche Limit: Clandestiny #1
Written by Michael Moreci
Art by Kyle Charles and Matt Battaglia
Published by Image Comics

Over the past several years, science fiction comics have gotten very sophisticated in their story telling. Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Matt Fraction and other A-list comic creators have turned out quality sci-fi stories that deal with everything from time-travelling adventurers (Chrononauts) to prison planets (Bitch Planet; please see the most recent review by our own Matt Conner) to perhaps the greatest space opera of all time (Saga). Science fiction in comics is growing up.

So when I picked up Roche Limit: Clandestiny #1 the other day, it was more out of a craving of more of the same than any connection to the creative team behind the comic. In fact, I had never heard of either the writer or penciler. The art reminded me of Paul Pope’s work, if still developing and not as tight. But the dark colors, focus on technologies and a story centered around a female protagonist gave the comic a distinctive Alien vibe. We do not see any xenomorphs in this premier issue, though what appears to be a psychopathic A.I. does make an appearance. Really, Roche Limit: Clandestiny stands alone, while at the same time nodding toward some of the more iconographic sci-fi stories.

This is the first issue of volume two of what is being advertised as a three-volume series. I did not catch volume one, but this first issue of volume two is quite accessible. And the hook is pretty standard: a military-led crew has been dispatched to an abandoned colony. Mayhem and mystery are sure to follow.

From the publisher:

"THE BREAKOUT HIT OF 2014 RETURNS WITH VOLUME TWO OF THE GROUNDBREAKING SCI-FI TRILOGY! It’s 75 years after the events that left the Roche Limit colony in flames. When a crew of military and science personnel are sent to the forgotten and desolate planet on a mysterious expedition, they quickly learn its dark secrets—and that their mission is not what they thought it to be. With danger lurking all around, the crew members fight to find a way off the planet and resist the mysterious presence that haunts them all."

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