Sunday, August 28, 2016

SAGA by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona staples Vol. 1 & 2


I read the first two volumes of this critically-acclaimed series in one sitting the other night and under two hours, maybe even less. Sometimes you just click with a comic book, you know, and this is definitely the kind of story that has both commercial and niche appeal. SAGA is a celebration and tribute to the hybrid elements of fantasy and science fiction, a rich and diverse tapestry of characters, themes and settings that leave readers awestruck and infatuated with the story very easily since the impact is just as long-lasting. 

Published in 2012, SAGA has had numerous awards and recognition, mostly pertaining to its flexible range when it comes to ethnicity, sexuality, social and gender roles, as well as its commentary and sentiments towards war and conflict. Reading SAGA made me think of Joss Whedon's short-lived series Firefly. That show instantly clicked with me two episodes in, and that's exactly how SAGA felt like for me! It's a remarkable blend of everything I love in fantasy and sci-fi! The Vaughan and Staples team is an unstoppable force of nature!

The first volume opens by impressively burying the lead, and never bothering to ease the readers into the mythos and world-building in SAGA though this will still happen later on over the course of the story. This added to the suspense and thrill of the moment as the action occurs seamlessly throughout the pages that I can't stop turning and digesting every piece of dialogue and scenery therein. Writer Brian K. Vaughan's caliber is noticeably relaxed and caustic, employing a naturalness to his characters' speech that most authors in comic books tend to take for granted. His dialogue, I believe, is the most stellar part of this series; every retort between and among characters is beguiling and often raunchy and hilarious at that! And don't get me started with Fiona Staples' illustrations because they are quite visually striking in a sense that she captured emotions in expressions in fine details; a great way to accompany Vaughan's text which is just as dynamic and spunky.

What we do know about the plot is this: we have an unseen narrator speaking to us as an adult as she crafts the quixotic tale of adventure that is her parents' exodus: a star-crossed pair of dumb shits named Alana and Marko who are of different ethnic ties and whose species are at war with each other as they overcome obstacles to raise a family. These two suckers fall in love and now have to run with their newborn child Hazel across the galaxies while mercenaries and other concerned parties of an ongoing political strife are on their asses all the time. 


The second volume opens with just as enough heart-pounding suspense and sublime comedic moments which never diminish the more serious and meaningful scenes and message of the plot. Everything about the second volume made me lose my shit especially with the climactic confrontations among our heroes and their adversaries. It's daring, sexy and funny. 

Vaughan's pacing never slows down, enticing the readers to feel as if their own lives are endangered as well, and making them sympathize with Alana and Marko as they become more privy to the politics and atmosphere in SAGA. The largest planet in the galaxy Landfall is at war with its moon/satellite Wreath whose inhabitants wield magic. Other coalitions and even royal dynasties are caught up in this galactic war. Alana and Marko meet when Alana as a soldier was stationed as a guard where Marko, a revolutionist for his people, is being kept imprisoned. They escaped together and became fugitives, hunted by both sides especially since they have produced an offspring, a hybrid cutie pie named Hazel.

They meet a ghostly apparition named Izabel who is a casualty of the war when her village and family were massacred in one of the many battles being fought by Landfall loyalists and Wreath fighters. She soul-bonds with the baby Hazel and has since become the official babysitter. Marko's parents also join in the fun and the family drama is both entertaining and poignant to watch unfold as they try to deal with the fact that their son has shacked up with an enemy. Other supporting characters include the mercenaries or 'freelancers' who hunt down the couple and their child such as The Will who is a killer with his own unique sense of morality, accompanied by his sidekick Lying Cat who can telepathically tell when people lie. 

I'm only two volumes in but this is already high on my list of comic books to keep reading as soon as my self-imposed list of graphic novels to read and review for 2016 have all been completed. SAGA simply has a full palette of flavors that I can't wait to experience completely. Staples' art style is also another spectacular thing about SAGA. Her landscapes and character designs, especially with the diverse ensemble of alien species, are truly creative and innovative. I could tell that he and Vaughan are having fun coming up with the appearances. Their collaboration on the ever-expanding mythos and how to put that best in print was a worthwhile accomplishment that is one for the ages!

So do yourselves a favor--stop whatever you are doing---and start reading SAGA instead!


RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Friday, August 19, 2016

SEX CRIMINALS by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky Vol. 1-2


The premise of this series pokes fun at but also celebrates a lot of things regarding sex and the relationships that develop around it, both platonic and romantic. Every human interaction is transactional after all, most notably when the business of 'doing it' is concerned. With the chemical tandem of writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarksy, Sex Criminals is a real crazy romp in the sheets that manages a feat like no other; it examines the troubles of relationship-building and intimacy in a way that is both comical and poignant, a biting yet introspective commentary on the nature of love and sex. I've read the first volume in passing and would have written a review about it last year, but other things got in the way. Now, I'm very pleased I also read the second volume right after re-reading the first one, because man, oh, man, these books. These. Fucking. Books. Let's talk about Sex Criminals, shall we?

Writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky have something special, and they understand each other very well as co-creators. Their chemistry is apparent in every panel and dialogue, in every careful yet also wacky developments between plot and characters. As a reader, I can tell that they're having fun with their creation, letting everything run wild yet also applying a great literary sensibility in regards of how they approached the sensitive topic of sex. But why is sex such a sensitive topic anyway, subjected often to secrecy and shame if it's about abstinence, and outright exaggerated hedonism if it's associated with sexual liberation and freedom? And why are other factors that are just as elusive, such as romance and dating, being treated by most mainstream media as nothing but a festival of good feelings and climactic confessions complete with a well-orchestrated music in the background?

Fraction and Zdarsky provides a creative and low-key deconstruction of this in Sex Criminals.



~ VOLUME ONE: ONE WEIRD TRICK ~


Published in 2013 by Image Comics, this series is still ongoing and have currently produced three volumes in trade paperback and fifteen issues released. This is definitely more recommended for mature readers but anyone above eighteen can very much enjoy this a lot because of how humorous and quirky the storytelling mostly tackles its subject matter. Fraction provides many instances of breaking-the-fourth-wall as well as an off-beat narrative that naturally ebbs and flows because there never was a moment he made his characters take themselves too seriously. Meanwhile, the illustrations deftly produced by Zdarsky are just astonishingly appealing; his panel choices were rendered a perfect complement to the fast-paced comedic style of Fraction's writing. Readers truly get the sense that this comic book is written by two people who are close friends, essentially telling this story because it is meaningful for them as well as buttloads of fun! Colorist Becka Kinzie also deserves much credit because there is a depth in the textures and harmony in her palette choices that bring about the freshness and vibrancy of the story across the pages.

The first volume of Sex Criminals unfolds in two parts: respective point-of-views of the Girl and Boy of the story, Suzie and Jon. One can consider this comic book like a quintessential rom-com--but more honest and unafraid in breaking the long-held conventions and stiff opinions about what relationships should be about versus what they become most of the time anyway if you don't put enough work and compassion in communicating and sharing your life with the person you are in love with. But this examination happens later on in the second volume. For the first volume, we get acquainted with our protagonist couple, burdened by a magical power of being able to stop time when they orgasm.

Yes, let me repeat that: Suzie and Jon as individuals can stop time when they orgasm.



In One Weird Trick, readers become privy of their personal backstories. They get to know Suzie during her puberty as she tries to discover the strange things that are happening to her body, with the added bonus of the time-stopping orgasmic bliss she often finds herself in. She calls this piece of solitude as "the Quiet". Inside it, Suzie is alone and can pretty much do anything. She's also very passionate about books and learning new things, so after school she became a librarian. It's not an easy to keep a library open these days, what with the technological downside of e-books and other ways to read stuff easily online, so Suzie tries to save up enough money so that her library won't get closed by the bank. In doing so, she hosted a few charity parties and in one of these parties she meets Jon. And sex happens.

And then one mind-numbingly fantastic orgasm later:



Jon's side of the story comes much later on after the two kids discover that they share the same superpower. Thrilled that they have that thing in common, they began to talk about how Jon became aware of what he can do. Unlike Suzie who is pretty much tougher than she looks in spite of her difficult upbringing as a child of a an alcoholic single mother, Jon didn't fare as luckily as she did. He was diagnosed with an antisocial disorder, prominently manifesting in rebellious behavior even as an adult man now. He isn't a nihilistic, dangerous fiend, of course, but he does have impulses that can only be monitored through doses of drugs and therapy sessions. However, Jon had stopped medicating, mostly because the pills make him numb all over and affect his libido as well. Jon would rather live with his reckless compulsions than become a zombified version of himself, no matter how he seemed well-adjusted on the outside. I really found myself intrigued by Jon's personality and hardships while I also identify slightly with Suzie, particularly her zest for books, and how she treats them as her sole companions that armed her with self-knowledge back in her troubled times as a youth.

As for their chemistry, it's definitely a realistic one. It's not yet love since they are still strangers who are bound by their shared secret of time-stopping orgasms, but the potential to be something more is undeniable. Suzie and Jon have felt different and isolated all their lives. To be sexually intimate with people and yet also being capable of entering into a transcendental plane of reality alone after every sexual encounter that leads to orgasm? That can be the loneliest of experiences. Sex is supposed to be a union not just of flesh but of mind and spirit, and neither of them ever found a partner who can be with them in their quiet worlds of the afterglow...until now, that is.

For the first time in their lives, both Suzie and Jon found somebody else who understood this weird thing their bodies can do, and of course they'd be more than eager to be around one another, and discover new and better ways to be intimate and accepted together. Each relationship has to start somewhere, no matter how strange the origin.



The protagonist couple are endearing and relatable enough, especially when they are remorseless in how they try to understand the other's insecurities and social hang-ups about their sexuality and experiences. I like them as people, and I like them to stay together because they're an engrossing pair, especially what comes after next:






RECOMMENDED: 8/10




++




VOLUME TWO: TWO WORLDS, ONE COP ~




While the first volume introduces readers to the wacky sensibilities and grueling sexual histories of the protagonist couple Suzie and Jon, the second volume of Sex Criminals entitled Two Worlds, One Cop delivers a more well-balanced story arc which enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment of this series. It solidified my fan status for what writer and artist Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky respectively have accomplished. 

Suzie and Jon had just reached a breaking point after their misadventures last time when they decided to use their time-stopping orgasms to plan a heist and rob for the bank Jon is working for in order to save Suzie's library from being closed. As it turns out, they are not alone. Other people have the same ability and this is when they were approached by a unit of three people who call themselves the Sex Police. They are led by a woman named Myrtle Spurge whom Suzie and Jon fondly referred to as 'Kegelface". To save their relationship and get out of the Sex Police's radar, Jon decided to go back on his medication. Suzie was more than happy to have a normal relationship again except that she also began to understand that Jon is pretty immature and repressively angry in many ways. 

As for Jon, he admits readily in his POV issue that he was doing it all for Suzie which is not the kind of mindset someone with an antisocial disorder should have if he truly wants to get well, mentally and emotionally. As a gap grows between the two, a heated argument took place that drove Jon to commit something he will later forget.

This second volume was amazing in both the subtlest and explosive of ways! Fraction's writing is not only just humorous and sardonic--it's also touching in a lot of places, given the depth he tackled Jon's depression and impulsive behaviors geared towards anti-authority. The issue focusing on Jon's struggles to be noticed after his parents have more than stopped caring about him even as a young boy is pretty fascinating and sad to see unfold. I really felt for Jon's solitude whenever he is in the Quiet (or the Cum World as he personally prefers it). Inside that transcendental plane of reality, there are no rules or rejection; it's just him being able to scream and kick and wreak havoc as much as he wants to. What I think was sympathetic about this is that Jon doesn't want to be some kind of a terrorist who hurts people; he just wants to express his anger and frustration over being abandoned in ways that are not dangerous per se but are still detrimental to his well-being as a person.



Meanwhile, Suzie opted to take a break from Jon, assessing that as much as she cares about him, she has to look out after for herself first. In a panel sequence, she even expressed that she's not with Jon because she wants to fix him. She stresses that Jon should want to get better and seek help with his psychological difficulties, and I think this was a truly positive message to convey for a lot of young women who have this gratingly twisted way of perceiving themselves as life givers for the men they love. I've had friends and have met various women who think they can repair someone by the power of their love and support and that sucks balls because life begs to differ. Sometimes love isn't really enough for a person to get better and stop being disruptive in their personal lives. More often than not, we should all learn to cut off abusive people from taking advantage of our kindness and devotion, and I'm glad Sex Criminals and its creators made the right decision in making Suzie say these things to the readers because it's uplifting and empowering:



I won't be spoiling the crucial moments in this volume anymore because I would like to encourage EVERYONE to read this scintillating series, especially this volume in particular that has a lot of heart and guts. I'm pleased that a comic book like this got published. Fraction has instilled enough humor and self-awareness in Sex Criminals that can be valued a lot more than just its entertainment factor. Zdarsky's illustrations were also splendid, particularly on how he drew Suzie. She has curves in her body and is not that drop-dead gorgeous-looking either, much like Jon is typically just average-looking too. In a nutshell, Sex Criminals is a promising and important work that you should not missed out on!



RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Friday, August 5, 2016

AMERICAN VAMPIRE by Scott Snyder Volumes 1 & 2


I probably like vampire-centric stories as much as the next person who had seen enough of it in movies and shows. In fact, two my current favorite 22 shows that I watch dutifully each season launch are about vampires (The Vampire Diaries and its superior spin-off The Originals). I haven't read any Anne Rice books but was familiar with her mythology because of a friend who obsessed about her work; I continue to regret to this day the the fact that I had read Stephenie Meyer's shit of a series, and I enjoyed True Blood,  but only finished the first 2 seasons because I didn't like Sookie Stackhouse as the anchoring heroine of the show. So, you know, I like vampire-centric stories, but not to the point where I actively seek out the genre. If the formula works for a vampire story, it works. I'd watch/read it. Hell, I like the romantic melodrama of the Vampire Knight manga as well.

American Vampire is written by Scott Snyder and illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque. The first volume featured Stephen King because, apparently, he wanted to be featured because he had a compelling origin story to tell about the vampire asshole character. It worked. I think Snyder had loved having him around, and that is why the first volume worked in a dual manner where Snyder handled telling the 'present' story in Hollywood America about a pair of aspiring actresses and friends Pearl and Hattie; while King paralleled it with a sweeping cowboy tale that gives the readers information about the vampire asshole named Skinner Sweet.


Artist Albuquerque's visual style is commendable with a technique that offered enough variation in his depictions of both stories told in different periods, complementing both Snyder's and King's narrative voices. It was therefore a dream team that showcased American Vampire and, for the most part, the first volume was your standard fanfare of blood and gore coupled with the same kind of hedonistic sensibility and Shakespearean drama that I know and eat up when I do read/watch vampire-centric stories. American Vampire is no exception. 

I wouldn't do it an injustice by calling it a rehash of the same things I saw already because anything could be called that; what should be notable is the execution and the believability and appeal of it. In that sense, American Vampire does its job being gritty, enjoyable and self-aware enough to be considered clever. But I wouldn't call it a masterpiece--at least not with two volumes read. There is potential in this series that I can't wait to get into!

In Snyder's vignettes of Pearl and Hattie's story, he brandishes the same kind of hopeful voice in his characters amidst the backdrop of despair that they have to put up with as they go about their daily grind. Synder after all is the current Batman writer who gave us a Gotham City that is alive and thriving with either chaotic or neutral evil machinations, while his Bruce Wayne is actually more dreamy and introspective than any other version of Batman I have ever read. He employs that same thing when he wrote Dick Grayson as Batman in The Black Mirror, and he does it again with Pearl in her story of transformation from ordinary struggling nobody-actress to a vampiric hybrid, sired by the enigmatic Skinner Sweet due to nothing more but lucky chance. It actually reminded me of that scene in Hellsing manga where Alucard rescues a British policewoman by turning her. It's reminiscent of that.

As two standalone arcs, they complemented each other fairly well. The dusty landscape and gun-totting characters for King's Sweet origin story was action-packed and disconcerting, told in the perspective of a writer haunted by the upsetting evils he had seen when he personally witnessed Skinner Sweet's rampage as a newborn vampire of a different breed. Meanwhile, Snyder's quieter yet suspenseful tale focusing on Pearl Jones and her integration into the vampire lifestyle was a little heartbreaking and personable, where a good woman was given not only the unwanted curse of immortality because of Sweet's rare yet twisted moment of generosity, but also the package of ancient enemy vampires who want Sweet extinguished because they see him as a threat as the next step of evolution for vampires.

This volume was not perfect or an easily rewarding experience aside from the pivotal revelations and crackling action sequences that kept the story afloat for the most part, but Snyder certainly has a vision, and it's one that shows a lot of promise and creative endeavor along the way. I'm invested enough on Pearl as the heroine to root for, and I'm glad that Skinner Sweet is mostly in the shadows, still barely knowable, and that adds to his charisma, making him more of an intimidating figure in spite of the way he can be an utter goofball at times. I like this volume. It's inventive enough to be fresh and thrilling.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10





Now it is true that pop culture is probably oversaturated with vampires (not as much as zombies though, which is a genre that always baffled me for its massive commercial appeal). Going by Stephen King's own introduction alone back in the first volume, you might think he and Scott Snyder reinvented the vampire story--they didn't. But two volumes in for this series, and I can say that this was still a top-grade story, both a fine example of what the vampire genre can offer with its conventions, and how the medium of comics actually helped its development and evolution. It had been a terrific ride, and I will read the other volumes right after I finished reading and reviewing my other scheduled GNs of this year.

The second volume of American Vampire had definitely sold me to the series for good (and it didn't even need Stephen King this time around). The writing just spoke for itself because Scott Snyder (Batman writer) is definitely at the top of his game and I say this with utmost confidence due to his four-parter story arc included in this volume called The Devil in the Sand. I was enthralled by this arc; I never even put the volume down at all which was why I was only able to finish this within two hours or less. It was that riveting.

The Devil in the Sand was a compelling drama that played out to its readers' expectations about certain telling points in its narrative, but was also still able to satisfy them with a rewarding conclusion. Skinner Sweet doesn't have a big role at all and it was more centered on the struggles of a secondary character that could or would never appear in the next volumes. That being said, his role here was memorable enough especially his internal conflict about his family and obligation as an officer of the law. I'm not going into details about it because I would encourage you to pick this series and read The Devil in the Sand yourselves and hopefully experience what I felt. I think it's a solid supernatural drama all in all.

The vampire mythos for this series is also beginning to expand, introducing readers some more to the strife between ancient bloodlines of vampires and the extinction of others after a new breed came to power. Skinner Sweet (and the woman he sired, Pearl) were supposed to be the new evolutionary step, sort of a mutation in the gene, and that's why everyone is after them, particularly on Sweet since he's not the nicest of vamps, really. He's used to being hunted and causing chaos and fun on his own, but the fall-out of this is that someone like Pearl is also burdened by a threat to her existence now that she was sired to Sweet. Pearl is content with her domestic life with a boyfriend who accepts her affliction, but sooner or later she might have to start running no matter how much she wants to settle down.

The thing I like about the character interplay between Sweet and Pearl is that they don't have interactions at all (or at least so far in the first two volumes). They're both just doing their thing, and have separate lives and stories but conflicts tied to their vampirism often get them in each other's radar even if they don't wish it so. Pearl does respect Sweet on the account that he gave her life by turning her, but the relationship is basically distant. I'm sure this could change and evolve later on but for now Snyder is building up the suspense and conflict very nicely indeed. It's great to have two protagonists who never have to be in the same scenes together but can still hold out on their own as pivotal characters.

The final story that ended this volume was pretty much perfection. I can't even spoil because it would just ruin the surprise that awaits you if you do decide to check out this series one of these days. Overall, American Vampire is a graphic novel you don't want to miss out on. It's vibrant and brutal; a lovely period drama that spans over American history as it follows the misadventures of a cowboy vampire who is up to no good, and a fierce young woman who wants the same thing as the rest of us but tragically may never get anymore.

RECOMMENDED: 9/10