Wednesday, August 14, 2013

This Week in Panels: Comics Outside the Big Two

It's time for everyone's favorite not-even-remotely-weekly feature, This Week in Panels! Now featuring panels from Archer and Armstrong #12, Saga #13, and Astro City #3. All after the break.

Archer and Armstrong #12. By Fred Van Lente and Pere Perez. Archer and Armstrong has been chugging along for a while now, and for what's basically a buddy comedy book, it's covered a lot of ground. The original plot was that Armstrong was an immortal layabout, and Archer was a boy trained to perfection by a cult to kill Armstrong and procure the secret to his immortality for the cult's leaders. Now, they're friends and go on various adventures to save the world. At this particular point, they've landed in a strange world where time moves differently, and they're currently trying to save a village of lost aborigines from a time-lost American admiral and his army of butt-obsessed grey aliens. Here, Archer is trying to convince a time-traveling spiritual sect based around teachings he hasn't written yet to join the fight on his side. As you can see, it does not go well.

All right, so that plot's dreadfully complicated and convoluted. It's to Van Lente and Perez' credit, then, that it never feels that way. Instead, the book stays at the level of action adventure buddy comedy, with occasional moments of weight and gravitas that lend meaning to both characters. It's really the only book being published at the moment that consistently makes me laugh. It's the writing that draws me to the book, but Perez makes his contribution too--the jokes above depend on conveying Archer's body expression. He's got a style that it's easy to overlook, but he knows what he's doing.
Astro City 3. By Kurt Busiek and Brent Eric Anderson. I am so glad to have this series coming out on a regular basis. The  premise of Astro City has always been a more realistic look at how a superhero universe actually works, in terms of the day-to-day life. That's not a unique theme; everything from Kick-Ass to Straczinski's old Supreme Power series for Marvel has a similar idea behind it. The difference is that Astro City isn't about mocking the ideals behind such a universe, or a relentless, bitter deconstruction. Rather, it's about how superheroes are when they're leading ordinary lives, and about how ordinary people persevere living in a super-powered world. Take this current issue--it's the second in a series focusing on an ordinary woman who gets a job at a call center. But it turns out to be not just any call center--she and a bunch of others have just been hired to crunch the data that comes in across the globe to decide where and when the world's premiere superhero teams get sent. They're all exceptionally proud to make a difference, and gradually a competitive spirit develops among them--which one will field a call that leads the heroes to the next big villain takedown, eliminating a threat before it starts? At the end of the last issue, though, our protagonist realizes she screwed up; what she took to be a domestic abuse call was actually a super-villain sighting--a villain who didn't take kindly to being exposed. Now, the heroes have come to the scene after full chaos started, and she's left with the guilt that her call has cost lives. What happens next?
I chose this panel because I think it illustrates the difficulty in doing the art for Astro City. The cast is constantly changing, as is the scope; one page it'll be ordinary people, and the next, it'll be a super-powered splash scene. And the scene is never the main focus--it's almost always the smaller story that's the focus of attention. So Anderson is called on to render heroes and villains the reader is only passingly familiar with in big and bold terms, and convey an entire epic battle in a few odd panels. That takes chops.

Saga 13. By Brian K. Vaughn and Fionna Staples. Speaking of books I'm glad to see are back, Saga returns after a brief hiatus. The basic premise behind Saga is that during a war between ram-people and winged people, two soldiers from opposite sides fall in love and have a kid--thus earning the enmity of both sides. They then go on the run from various mercenaries and soldiers, and the whole thing is narrated by the couple's child, decades later. I know some are put off from the series by its sometimes juvenile language and imagery, and its very loose use of sci-fi (it's closer to a magical universe set in space). But I'm happy to follow along just to see the weird worlds and interesting characters Staples and Vaughn create to populate them. This panel is typical of what I like about the series; you have the majesty of a flying horse, and a strange statue--and also a bag man/winged man, pushing a very earth-like shopping cart. It's the mixture of high and low that really appeals to me here.

That's it. Honorable mention goes to this week's Avengers Arena, in which previous Avengers Academy writer Christos Gage gets to take the wheel for an issue, and do the Herculean job of filling in the major plotholes raised when you have a series based on the premise of a dozen superheroes being kidnapped and no one noticing.

Later Days.

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