Welcome to the second installment of Presenting Dark Horse! First, I’d like to give a hearty hello to my new readers, who are surely eager to learn more about this esteemed comics publisher (if you need a quick introduction, check out my first post). Second, here’s a special shoutout to all the poor souls I’ve managed to lure back with my long, excited rants and totally charming humor. It will be my absolute pleasure to try and make this column accessible, useful and fun for you all!
Overall, the comics industry has been transitioning from a frantic summer of major cons and breaking news to a more even keeled fall season. Things at Dark Horse were rather low key throughout August; on one hand, great comic books either just began or finally reached their series end, and promising debuts were being teased for the very near future. But at the same time, there were no really significant announcements on par with the Berger Books preview or the several new TV shows on the horizon from the publisher’s entertainment branch. I was actually a bit worried that this month’s column would be too sparse of interesting content…
And then everything changed when the Hellboy reboot casting decisions started rolling in.
But before we get to that, upwards and onwards to the latest Dark Horse Comics news!
New Comic Reviews
Gems of the Month
The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One by Michael Dante DiMartino, Irene Koh and Vivian Ng
As much as I adore Avatar: the Last Airbender – and I boast a serious adoration of the series, punctuated by capitalist merchandise worship and a brief academic foray into animation – there’s always been something about The Legend of Korra spinoff that really resonated with me.
I was pretty close in age to the Krew when the show first premiered, and I strongly identified with their growing pains as young adults trying to chart the course of their lives in an uncaring urban sprawl. Most significantly, Korra herself served as a rare fictional mirror through which I saw my own experiences as a queer woman of color reflected back to me. Following her journey from a wondrously headstrong Avatar in Training to a proud young leader and the savior of Republic City was an affirming experience for me, and my sentimental connection to the series is something that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate with the proper amount of respect it deserves.
So, it probably goes without saying that I ascended to a higher plane of existence when I heard about the novelized continuation of the series during last year’s New York Comic Con. Since two of my fellow WWAC writers have already discussed the first Turf Wars book at length, I won’t sing its many praises too extensively here. At the very least, I will say that it shines as a reintroduction to this fantasy universe. It almost goes without saying that DiMartino’s unparalleled knowledge as a co-creator enriches the plot of Turf Wars by further delving into the bender/nonbender cultural issues and socioeconomic tension first introduced on the show. Koh and Ng’s stunning artwork collaboration then eases you into the familiar setting with their near perfect replication of the show’s animation, while the subtle uniqueness of their individual styles gently clues you in that things are not quite what you remember them to be.
And the biggest change from the show is, of course, the explicit confirmation of Korra and Asami’s feelings for one another. Their interactions throughout Turf Wars radiate with a sweet and nervous tenderness that perfectly captures their budding romance. It’s interesting to see how they reorient themselves into their social circles following their revelatory trip to the Spirit World, especially as DiMartino provides a more inclusive look at the Avatar mythos and this world’s various expressions of and opinions about human sexuality.
Of course, I would have liked to see more time dedicated to these new interpersonal dynamics, and there certainly needs to be a deeper examination of the still somewhat underdeveloped political and social affairs around the city. But for now I am pretty pleased with the promised direction of this three-part series. It truly feels like a natural expansion of the cartoon, with a distinct maturation in writing and style that successfully guides longtime fans into the next chapter of this story.
Lady Killer by Joëlle Jones (Vol. 1 also by Jamie S. Rich and Laura Allred; Vol. 2 also by Michelle Madsen)
No matter how occasionally I stray towards light-hearted material, in my heart of hearts I truly am a sucker for dark stories – give me blood, give me horror, give me intense excursions into the unknowable abyss that lurks within the human heart. Throw in some espionage, historical intrigue, and a killer aesthetic reminiscent of the hottest fashion trends from the 1960s, and I’ll probably melt to the floor from sheer happiness.
Basically, give me Lady Killer.
With a tagline boasting “Betty Draper meets Hannibal,” this series follows a contract assassin named Josie as she juggles her career aspirations with her cover life as a stereotypical housewife. Its simple premise never fully rises to the expectations promised by its marketing, which was at first disappointing for this closeted fannibal, but Lady Killer is not the type of series that needs extensive philosophical ruminations on human nature. Instead, readers are treated with a trope heavy dark comedy that revels in such wacky situations like our protagonist trying to make a nice family meal while a) entertaining the kids, b) soothing her husband’s corporate woes, c) hiding a body stuffed in the freezer, and d) trying to ignore her rakish handler lurking just outside her home with a new assignment in one hand and some lewd comment poised on the tip of his tongue.
At the same time, Jones cleverly threads more complex themes into this seemingly casual romp. The time period is fertile ground for examining gender roles and the sexism that women face throughout their lives. That unfortunately timeless question of, “Can women really have it all?” haunts Josie despite her flawless track record in a field dominated by men and her perfect, unquestioning appeasement to the fantasy of domestic bliss for her conservative family and friends at home. In neither arena does she receive the respect she deserves and, while she is clearly hurt by the circumstances around her, time and again Josie triumphs above these challenges to carve out the trajectory of her life on her own terms. These battles are bitter and at times barely won, but it’s always refreshing to see fictional women who are given a lavish gamut of opportunities and then refuse to compromise on her desire to yes, goddammit have as much or as little of it as she chooses.
This theme is stunningly rendered thanks to the artists behind the two volumes, whose unique styles demonstrate their powerhouse influences on the comic’s creative direction. Allred brings early 60s’ sensibilities to Lady Killer’s first volume, which serves as an appropriate introduction to Josie’s early navigation of her double life and preference for the hearth. By volume 2, Madsen brings a slicker look to the series that represents a new era of women on the move, going to work, fighting for their rights and wearing pants of all things. This of course corresponds with Josie’s desire to hit the assassin scene as an independent woman, now more dedicated to really making a name for herself in her career. While there is a notable difference in style between the volumes, thankfully both artists hold a mutual love for excessive amounts of blood and gore. Here, that Hannibal comparison is apt and awesome. Contextually, it’s a sign that in this primal activity Josie is truly free and in a realm that she can control. Its larger societal implications suggest the brutal lengths women are willing to go through to ensure their survival.
Special Comic Preview
Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact by Matt Mair Lowery and Cassie Anderson
Here’s a treat for you, my dear column readers: a preview for a new comic coming out this month!
I had the opportunity to review this charming debut prior to its publication, which is incredibly fortunate as I’ve been counting down the release since the comic was first announced back in February. Typically, I’m all about extolling the virtues of patience and delayed gratification when it comes to the comics industry; it’s hard enough as it is for creative teams to meet monthly deadlines for single issues, let alone a fully fleshed out and multichapter comic. This time, however, my anxious excitement could not be tamed because Lifeformed promised nearly all of my favorite science fiction tropes – alien invasions! Found families! An anthropological deep dive into an alien culture! And, dearest to my heart, a kickass young girl maturing in the face of all this adversity.
To paint a more linear picture, the comic opens with the everyday life of the titular Cleo, whose biggest problems throughout a typical day include preparing to do a research presentation in front of her class and trying to articulate her pubescent angst about growing up with her loving goofball of a father. Unfortunately, this relatable normalcy is short-lived. A shapeshifting alien species invades Earth, and in the devastation Cleo’s father is killed trying to protect her. To make matters worse–and honestly, at that point I really thought nothing could be worse than Anderson’s wondrously brutal depiction of his death and Cleo’s immediate, heart wrenching response–an alien rebelling against his invading comrades quickly adopts her father’s physical form and somewhat convinces Cleo to join forces in order to save the world.
Stories that deal with such intense, apocalyptic nightmare scenarios must navigate a fine line between readers’ expectations of realistic horror and outright melodrama. Thanks to the wealth of similar content available, there’s a formula behind the fictional invasion narrative that proves popular to readers due to its familiarity: survivors narrowly escape the first wave of chaos, try to find shelter and supplies, fight and bond with one another, and ultimately face off against the invading forces. At the same time, these narratives succeed when they surprise readers with new examples of emotional poignancy and the exploration of humanity as it fights for survival. When done well, we get seminal works like The Last of Us or the better adaptations of War of the Worlds. On the other end of the spectrum, we get the Sharknado franchise or any given M. Night Shyamalan film after The Sixth Sense.
Lifeformed falls much closer to the former category than the latter. It does not stray far from the aforementioned formula and, while the comic had more than enough bandwidth to take a few risks in its plot, its structural simplicity does allow Lifeformed’s creative team the freedom to focus almost exclusively on the development of Cleo and her new companion. Interwoven into the action are numerous insightful scenes from Mair Lowery that depict Cleo’s life before and after the invasion, from cracking jokes with her father over dinner to scavenging for food in a devastated city riddled with monsters. Through this juxtaposition Mair Lowery allows his young protagonist to engage in a refreshingly wide range of emotional responses as she comes to terms with her fresh losses. Anderson’s art is greatly employed in these instances, as Cleo’s brightly colored home of pinks and greens descends to a grittier reality of muted blacks, browns and greys. Her work is especially powerful when it is the sole method used to convey Cleo’s grief, fears, and frustrations, and all the little ways she tries to reestablish an old sense of normalcy in her new life. There’s a clever little trick where, for each chapter cover, we see the steady acquisition of Cleo’s favorite colors and childhood objects that she then uses to quietly decorate her survival backpack.
Meanwhile, I was also impressed with the character work that went into the alien now posing as Cleo’s father. Viewed from Cleo’s perspective, Mair Lowery skillfully balances the humor of teaching an alien how to dress like a human with the horror of being constantly reminded that this invading lifeform is really not Cleo’s father, but may play that role for the rest of her life. Anderson also helps to cement this difference in the subtly drawn physical mannerisms that mark Cleo’s father and her alien companion as two completely different people. As a concept this companion is utterly frightening, but its curiosity in human nature and its steadfast belief in an equitable society for all lifeforms are endearing enough traits to somewhat defang the severe existential crisis it represents. I didn’t know I needed a dorky alien warrior dedicated to intergalactic social justice, but I’m 100% here for it.
In the end, I’m happy to report that the wait for Lifeformed was so worth it. Not only is it an emotionally gripping debut in its own right, but it is also a fine example of the sci-fi genre’s most beloved themes of choice, courage and the similarities that connect us despite a galaxy of differences. This new comic comes highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see what these two incredibly talented creators have in store for their readers in the future.
Lifeformed will be released on September 13, 2017.
‘HELLBOY’ REBOOT NEWS
When casual comic fans think of Dark Horse, one of the first things often and rightfully mentioned is the Hellboy series by Mike Mignola. As one of its earliest creator-owned comics, Hellboy’s 1994 premiere in Dark Horse Presents doubtlessly helped the comics publisher embrace the mix of independent and licensed content that we enjoy today. In consideration of its own creative ambitions, Hellboy is a multimedia franchise whose expansive mythology spreads across its insular comic series, the entire Dark Horse content library, several cinematic endeavors, television show guest appearances, a few video games and more crossovers in Marvel and DC’s individual multimedia properties than even I can keep up with at this point.
Basically, Hellboy is nothing short of a comic industry darling. As a result of its extreme popularity, any attempt to bring this mythos to a wider mainstream audience has one simple, but important, maxim to remember for the sake of longtime fans and newer viewers: do not fuck it up.
And at first, all seemed to be going pretty well for the current Hellboy cinematic reboot. With a potential 2018 release, the first few months of August welcomed awesome casting news. We learned that Stranger Things actor David Harbour will portray the titular demon alongside such seasoned actors as American God’s Ian McShane, cast as Hellboy’s adoptive father, and the undisputed sci-fi queen Milla Jovovich who will serve as the fillm’s villainous sorceress. For one brief and shining moment, the reboot seemed destined to bring a fantastic version of the Hellboy franchise to film that greatly adheres to its source material.
Then, everything seemed to derail on the Day of Black Sun (and that’s the last Avatar: the Last Airbender/eclipse joke you’ll need to suffer through until the next one in 2024. You are very welcome).
Still, strangely coinciding with this year’s total eclipse was the announcement that Deadpool actor Ed Skrein would join the Hellboy reboot as a side character known as Major Ben Daimio. The problem with this casting is that Daimio is Japanese-American in the comics, and Skrein does not share this identity as he is of English and half Jewish-Austrian descent.
So Hellboy became marred in controversy amid rightful accusations of whitewashing and the erasure of the few well-known Asian characters that currently exist in American fiction and film. It’s an especially exhausting situation considering the recent insults of this nature which include Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell, Netflix’s Death Note adaptation, Marvel’s Doctor Strange and too many other examples from the past year alone to name. At a time when industry gatekeepers will think up any type of bullshit to prevent the depiction of Asian stories in mainstream media, and thus block Asian actors from their rightful places in the cinematic spotlight, watching Hellboy descend into the illogical madness of this blatant racism is disappointing to say the least.
Yet, this story has a surprise – and hopefully happier – ending. After listening to fans’ outrage over this whitewashed casting decision, Skrein stepped down from the role and expressed his sincerest apologies about his ignorance of the source material and the offense he inadvertently caused. In his official statement below, he also acknowledges the importance of marginalized representation in the media and his dedication to promoting diversity in the Arts:
Hellboy producers Lloyd Levin and Larry Gordon followed up with their own statement a few days later, and promised to actually look for a more culturally suitable actor for this role:
“Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”
Given how quick actors and executives have been to stubbornly defend their casting mistakes in the past, this news does come as a pleasant shock. The fact that it is coming after the backlash is still frustrating, as in a perfect world we wouldn’t have to fight to have a character of color accurately represented in their fictional portrayals in the first place, but it may perhaps suggest a shift in mainstream opinion about the necessity of marginalized representation in our media. For now, as always, just avoid the comment sections and bask in the glory of change.
Here’s hoping that Hellboy will continue to correct its mistakes and respect the rich source material that will ensure its cinematic success.
And Coming Next Month…
It’s time for New York Comic Con, baby! After agonizing over a potential press application and letting that deadline pass me by like a thief in the night, I’m attending as a civilian ready to fangirl to my heart’s content with the rest of the geeky pop culture scene. As always, Dark Horse is pulling out all the stops with several different panels at this con, including a live introduction to its Berger Books imprint, a discussion on the art and written craft behind comic books, and an in-depth exploration of the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe. If you’re also attending, you’ll be able to find me in the front row of every single Dark Horse panel, possibly grinning like a fool. Otherwise, you’ll get to read about my adventures in the next column.
There’s also some pretty cool book collections being released throughout the rest of September and October. Personally, I’ve got my eye on the official Overwatch anthology and a Brian K. Vaughan comic inspired by Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, but there are so many other new releases that I can’t wait to get my hands on and share with you. So stay tuned!