Monday, January 3, 2005

Looking To The Stars: New Years E-views

A new year is upon us. And with it comes new comics.

New comic previews, to be exact. I was recently contacted by two people; one author (Tom Waltz) and one editor (Mike Penny), both of whom wondered if I would be interested in being the first to see their new works and the first critic to be given a chance to write about them. Free comics in exchange for some free press.

They had me at free comics. Of course, there is always a danger in making deals such as this. What if the books I get aren't any good? What if they think that sending me free books entitles them to positive commentary? Can I compromise my ethics as a critic and soften my blows so as not to seem ungrateful for the chance I have been given to be the first to see something new?

Thankfully, that hasn't been an issue so far. And it wasn't an issue this time as both of these books were great stuff.


Yet another superhero team book. Doesn't sound too exciting on the surface, does it? That's what I was thinking until I saw that the writer of this little book was Jason Rand of Small Gods. That was the first hint that Helios was to be more than "just another superhero team book". And boy, was it ever!

What Small Gods has done for police comics, Helios does for the superhero. Yes, the book does deal with a trio of super-powered heroes known as Neo Force, but it goes beyond the base concept with a little twist. As we enter the title, we are told that Neo Force, the world's main defense and containment force for super-powered criminals has fallen on hard times. With only three super-powered agents left (the fire-blasting Sunstrike, shape-shifter Façade and strong speedster Blur) and a handful of specially trained and armored agents, the program is barely scraping by.

As some top brass are touring the team's facilities, some unscrupulous military types make suggestions to Colonel Shiels, the team leader, that their funding situation might be improved. All that is required is a shift of focus from criminal containment and incarceration to reapplication of misused resources to military forces. In short, turn the rogue super-powers imprisoned by Neo Force into soldiers for an army to protect American interests. Naturally, Colonel Shiels is completely against the idea and is given one heck of a justification when the super-villain Hate escapes from his cell and proves unable to be a resource that cannot be "reapplied".

Rand's writing is top-notch as per usual. The plot of superhumans being used as weapons by the military is nothing new, but Rand puts a more realistic spin on it here than any author before ever has. Despite getting relatively little time with the characters, we do get a strong sense of personality among all of them. And the artwork by Gabe Pena and Chris Drier is perfectly in keeping with the neo-Silver Age feel that the whole book inspires. A solid 9 out of 10. If you like Small Gods, you'll love Helios too!

Helios #1 is currently on the stands. A preview of Issue #2 can be found at the Dakuwaka website.


Children Of The Grave introduces us to The Orphans: a special military team made up of men with no family, who are sent into the danger zones first. Lieutenant Michael “LT” Drake is the leader, spiritual heir to Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury. He is followed by Sergeant Reginald “Shiv” Reese (a knife-man from Detroit) and Sergeant Pedro “Lil’ Pete” Rodriguez (a sniper who joined the military figuring he was safer in Sarajevo than East L.A.).

The Orphans' latest mission has just taken them into the Middle-Eastern country of Stinwan; a place torn apart by civil war between the Stinwanese and the Kilipanese. Though the war is over and Sitwan is enjoying an uneasy peace, Colonel Akbar Assan has gone rogue and taken many like-minded troops upon a campaign to continue the war. His most bold move, the announcement of a plan to kill thousands of Kilipinese children, has attracted the attention of the international community and resulted in The Orphans being sent out to investigate the rumors of ethnic cleansing.

When The Orphans arrive, they find the proof they need: thousands of graves in the desert; child-sized yet oddly empty. This is enough for their commanders to give the go-ahead order for The Orphans to track down Assan and deliver a most bloody justice to him and his men. With the mystery of what happened to the bodies hanging over their heads, along with a series of disturbing dreams and mysterious visions of dead children begging for help, the three soldiers move deep into enemy territory knowing not what awaits them…

As a rule, I'm not a big fan of war comics or horror comics. That's not to say I don't enjoy the genre on occasion. I loved Garth Ennis' War Stories and I'll give a peek at anything Steve Niles has written when I'm in the shop. But as a rule, I don't get too excited about any story written about soldiers or the walking dead. Ah, but what if someone were to combine the two? What then?

As Mr. Burns of The Simpsons once said, "I don’t know much about art but I know what I hate. And I don't hate this." And that pretty much sums up my feelings about Children Of The Grave. By all rights, I shouldn't have enjoyed this book as it stand between two genres I am generally indifferent towards. And yet, I couldn't stop reading the first issue I was given a chance to preview and was well glad to have issue two handy to keep going.

The characterization here is top-notch. I feared that we would quickly fall into the realm of stereotyping that so many war-comics indulge in. I became particularly worried early on when I saw that The Orphans were, numerically, a racially-balanced rainbow coalition of ass-kicking. (Now there's a sentence that has never been used before!) Thankfully, all my worries proved unfounded as despite their general profiles, LT, Shiv and Little Pete prove to be more than just generic soldier #12345. And the villains are appropriately villainous, without degrading into "Die American Pig-Dog!" stereotyping. Writer Tom Waltz, a former soldier himself, deserves great credit for having captured the soldier's life so well and spinning a genre-crossing tale that can interest even jaded "seen it all" critics like me.

The artwork is top-notch as well, though I am at a loss for words as how to describe it. I am reminded of the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words and think how accurate that is. For it would take me a thousand words to fully describe the wonderful work that Casey Maloney has done in balancing the mundane and the mystic elements of this book.

Children of The Grave goes on sale in January. A preview is available at the Shooting Star Comics

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt Website.

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