Presenting Dark Horse: September 2018

Hello lovely readers! Welcome to the September installment of Presenting Dark Horse. We’re officially in the throes of autumn’s chilly embrace, and I am so ready to get my sweater weather on with one of my favorite publishers. And what goodies does Dark Horse have to bring me in these last few weeks before Halloween?

Well, first there is the juggernaut that is New York Comic Con (NYCC), which has generated more Dark Horse announcements about upcoming comic series and thrilling business adventures than I could even keep up with over the weekend. Then we return to our regular news cycle, which as mentioned in my last post includes a new Dark Horse brewery and several updates on previous stories. And of course, as always, new comic reviews from the month—a little harsher than my usual glowing reviews, perhaps, but absolutely analyzed from the bottom of my heart.

Now, without further ado, upwards and onward to the latest over at Dark Horse Comics!

New Comic Nibbles

Crystal Fighters

Jen and Tyler Bartel (co-writers and co-artists)
September 18, 2018

Cover of Crystal Fighters by Jen and Tyler Bartel - A plucky adventurer with purple hair stands triumphant with her arm raised in a fist; in the background, two women look on mysteriously

There are few artists out there who I follow as religiously as I do Jen Bartel. The vibrant colors in her artwork put all of my childhood Lisa Frank notebooks to shame. Her proclivity for drawing sexy, badass women is very much appreciated by this queer writer. You can tell Bartel is pushing herself past the boundaries of her own incredible talent with every new art piece, and watching her time and again gain a new mastery in this craft is downright aspirational for artists of any skill level. I admit it, I’m a bit of a fangirl. So when I learned that Bartels recently released a creator-owned graphic novel with Dark Horse, I was beside myself with excitement. I started this GN ready to be blown away… and I was a little bit, but far from the way I imagined I would be.

Crystal Fighters follows the adventures of our protagonist Stella, your typical teen doing the whole affectatious routine around her family and friends. What’s unique about Stella’s world is that virtual reality games are deeply entrenched in the culture. However, Stella’s somewhat overbearing parents will only allow her to sate her teenage frustrations in the sugary sweet kids game “Crystal Fighters,” where players are magical girls in a world with no real conflict. At least, that’s what Stella first thinks. Through a series of accidental malfunctions on her end, Stella winds up in a secret magical girl fight club. While initially presented with the kind of thrills she craves, she also discovers a dark conspiracy involving her fellow magical girls, and now must prove herself in the ring if she hopes to save her virtual life.

In many ways, this GN hits all the familiar magical girl narrative beats that have been popular to reimagine in the last couple of years. Compared to other examples that exist in this same genre—and even within the same company, such as Dark Horse’s Zodiac Starforce—the plot of Crystal Fighters is a little thin beyond its reveal of a hidden world of magical girl fighters. The real world appears mostly in expositional infodumps to explain the girls’ reasons for escaping into the virtual world, but these backstory shortcuts do not really help garner sympathy or deepen readers’ understanding of these characters. In turn, they prevent any feeling more than a passing concern for these characters and their fates in the virtual world, which is equally as ungrounded but for a very different reason.

Simply put, this book does a poor job of rendering its backgrounds. They are quite literally nonexistent except for a few gradient colors or rudimentary furniture. This lack of detail would be expected in some instances, such as a visual cue that the real world is lacking and the virtual world is a vibrant environment in comparison, but these missing backgrounds are not used so judiciously. They’re just… not there, everywhere, and it makes already sparse panels of two characters fighting each other in battle or talking to one another at school feel ironically distracting because of the spartan nature. The artwork elsewhere is fine when it comes to carrying the story, and the designs for each character’s Crystal Fighter and Battler outfits are superb. But given that this story is already pretty basic, having additionally basic art ultimately leaves it sitting a little below average as enjoyable reads go. It’s a little disappointing, but hopefully just a hiccup in an otherwise illustrious comics career.

Stranger Things #1

Lauren Affe (colorist), Aleksi Briclot (cover Artist), Keith Champagne (inker), Jody Houser (writer), Stefano Martino (penciller)
September 26, 2018

Cover Stranger Things #1 - Will holds a walky-talky and looks scared; behind him is the silhouette of the Demogorgon with a blue light erupting from its head reminiscent of the poster for John Carpenter's The Thing. On the flip side of this image Mike, Dustin, and Lucas look worried and a red light shines behind them

Full disclosure: despite the heaping helpings of hype that Netflix’s Stranger Things series has received in the last few years, I only could make it through season one before I gave up the ghost and stopped watching. In a sea of ’80s themed sci-fi adventures featuring a ragtag bunch of young adults, it was fine. Not exactly innovative, but exciting and genuinely heartfelt enough to keep me interested. And I was interested when Dark Horse acquired the license for the property as well. Not only has the publisher provided numerous fandoms with expansive new material from other franchises its held in the past, but maybe this new series would be cool enough to get me to catch up on the show. Unfortunately, right now the new Stranger Things comic fails to achieve either of these lofty dreams.

Stranger Things #1 is quite literally an adaptation of the first few episodes of season one from the perspective of Will Byers. Considering Will was kidnapped into the Upside Down about five minutes into the first episode, the goal of this comic series is to look at his time spent in that dangerous ether between worlds. This is the perfect setup for a horror story that is both physically threatening and psychologically torturous, which Houser does achieve through her deft use of narration throughout this tale. The cat-and-mouse chase between Will and the Demogorgon takes readers through the dark mirror version of Will’s house and hometown, and even though readers know the rough sketch of this ordeal, holding readers’ hands through Will’s thoughts during this time helps cement the terror and suspense of this already known situation. Martino & co. further establish a strong atmosphere of decay and distortion through their collective artistic efforts, so strikingly similar to the show’s color palette and design that the transition from TV/laptop screen to comic book pages is incredibly seamless.

Despite this great praise, the biggest problem with Stranger Things #1 is that it is really boring. It is a perfunctory foray into a well-stomped battleground, giving readers a surprisingly unimaginative playground to let this story run its course. While I don’t necessarily want all the secrets of the Upside Down to be revealed in this limited series, the fact that it’s allowed to fill in the blanks of season one should have encouraged a… weirder look at the environment, at the very least. There’s still some time for this kind of exploratory work, of course, and maybe that’s what we’ll see before Will is taken by the Demogorgon into its hive. For now, though, this debut didn’t really wow me as a reader with the little knowledge I have of the series. And honestly, I’m not sure anyone but hardcore fans will keep reading.

WWAC Reads…

Dark Horse has one of the most robust publishing schedules in the industry… which means there are far too many fantastic comics for little old me to read every month. Thankfully, my fellow WWAC writers are always interested in checking out a new release or two, and I want to celebrate this collaborative spirit in my own monthly Pubwatch reviews.

Olivia Twist #1

Adam Dalva (writer), Darin Strauss (writer), Emma Vieceli (cover and main artist)
September 19, 2018

Cover for Olivia Twist #1 - A plucky lass sits on the landing of a skyscraper, long green hair caught in the purple breeze

This month, Kate Kosturski read and reviewed Olivia Twist #1 by Adam Dalva, Darin Strauss, and Emma Vieceli, which is another addition to Dark Horse’s Berger Books line. Readers looking for a by-the-books adaptation of the classic Dickens tale won’t necessarily find it here. In fact, Kate’s analysis of this comic in comparison to its source material finds that there are “only certain elements that Olivia Twist shares: the names of characters, setting, and plot basics.” However, this loose interpretation allows for a unique reinvention of the story that can both “appeal to Dickens fans and those just looking for female-centric adventure.” And if there is any way to describe the magnifying debut, it is unique.

Two decades prior to the start of Olivia’s story, her world underwent a mysterious event called “the Contraction.” Whatever the cause of this event, the result has been far-right immigration policies and internment camps that have transformed the future into a dystopian nightmare. Yet despite these societal obstacles Olivia has carved out a position of power for herself, which she selflessly uses to advocate for the more disadvantaged citizens of London. One such incident of altruism involving a small child takes Olivia into the throngs of a lady gang called the Esthers, and promises to transform her place in the world forever.

In her review, Kate had an array of praise to bestow onto Olivia Twist. Vieceli’s highly detailed artwork successfully “mashes up post-punk with touches of steampunk,” as well as renders its women in a realistically diverse manner that doesn’t reduce them to “over-sexualized caricatures.” The story’s empowering feminist themes are emphasized from the names of the cast to the focus of the narrative itself, which makes this series especially timely given the real world societal oppressions that women are currently battling against. Simply put, it’s the kind of series that reflects the ways in which women “claim a new voice and new agency to reshape our world.” If this fantastic review isn’t enough of an argument to check out Olivia Twist, then I encourage you to check out Kate’s wonderful interview with the series’ creators as well. Then go read this comic, and maybe be a little inspired to take charge of your destiny.

Publisher News

Dark Horse Takes on NYCC 2018

Picture of NYCC - A huge crowd of people on the convention floor with a Dark Horse banner in the foreground

Can you believe the 2018 con season is coming to an end? It feels like just yesterday we were all geeking out over ECCC and SDCC during the peak of our nationwide summer heat wave, and now it’s time to gently ease ourselves into the cold weather of a new year. But out of all the cons we love each year, NYCC is definitely a great way to wish con season of 2018 goodbye.

With that being said, I couldn’t personally make this end-of-the-con-year party, for a lot of boring but very responsible adult reasons. Thankfully my absence doesn’t matter really in this age of high-speed internet. It also helps that Dark Horse has a fabulous PR team who share their con announcements in the most efficient manner possible as soon as they start to break the internet. With that being said, here is a concise list of some of the hottest Dark Horse news from NYCC—with some of my absolute favorites below!

Occult Historical Thriller Unknown 9 Archives Launches at Dark Horse This Spring

Montreal-based production company Reflector Entertainment is launching its first ambitious transmedia property called Unknown 9, an occult conspiracy thriller which will span multiple platforms such as film, TV, video games, podcasts, novels, and comic books. And Dark Horse Comics has just secured the honor of bringing the Unknown 9 comic books to life. The first series will be Unknown 9 Archives, which is expected to go on sale Spring 2019.

Dive Into the Deep End With Berger Books’ The Girl in the Bay

Berger Books has a new limited series joining its critically acclaimed imprint! The Girl in the Bay begins in 1969, when seventeen-year-old Kathy Sartori is brutally attacked and her body hurled into Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. Miraculously, she survives and fights her way back to the surface, only to discover that fifty years have passed and an eerie doppelganger has lived out an entire life in her place. Kathy soon confronts not just this strange double, but the madman who “murdered” her five decades earlier… but to what end? The first comic in the series will go on sale February 6, 2019.

The Legend of Korra continues at Dark Horse with co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino

Following the success of the graphic novel series The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars, Avatar: The Last Airbender co-creator and writer Michael Dante DiMartino returns for a new three-part story arc, The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire. This series will feature the return of Kuvira, the archvillain of The Legend of Korra Season Four! Part one of the new series will go on sale May 21, 2019.

Dark Horse Returns to Pandora!

If you’re still waiting for the next installment in James Cameron’s epic Avatar franchise, I highly recommend briefly quenching your anxiety with Dark Horse’s comic book reimagining of the first film. This adaptation will follow the story of a proud Na’vi warrior whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of Jake Sully of the Sky People, and revel in this warrior’s sweeping tale of sacrifice and heroism. The series will go on sale sometime in 2019.

Get Your Drink On with a New Dark Horse/Ninkasi Brew

Ninkasi Brew

As an entertainment company, Dark Horse has dipped its toe into an array of unique business ventures over the years. Some are pretty typical for a comic book publisher, such as different licensed properties and creator-owned limited series. But sometimes, Dark Horse stamps its brand across industries that are highly unusual in their line of work—in the best possible way, of course.

One such awesome new endeavor is Dark Horse’s partnership with its Pacific Northwestern neighbor, the Ninkasi Brewing Company. The two are developing a new comics series called Legends of Ninkasi: Rise of Craft and a similarly named beer brand. The plot itself is equally alcohol-influenced: in the medieval kingdom of Eugenia, citizens subsist in a listless stupor because the evil King Blüdweisen is holding them hostage. He’s outlawed craft beer and serves only his terrible-tasting, mass-produced brew. Sensing some corruption of the spirit of beer, Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of fermentation, and her faithful companion Tricerahops travel through time, space, and hordes of zombie Vikings to investigate these dark portents.

“One of the best things about comics is the ability to bring together unique visions to create something great, and that’s exactly what this project has been since day one,” said Megan Walker, Dark Horse Associate Editor. “Partnering with the folks at Ninkasi Brewing has been a natural fit, and the story we are creating is a lot of fun—I couldn’t be more excited to be working on this project with them!” I wonder if they’ll be releasing an IPA soon? Now that’s something I would love to whet my palate with during my New Comic Book Wednesdays.

Previous News Updates

Every Presenting Dark Horse post has a little news section at the end, and sometimes it’s good to go back and see if there are any new developments for a particularly juicy story. This month, there were two Dark Horse-adjacent stories that resolved after several weeks of turmoil and ambiguity.

The first news update deals with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly licenses, which 21st Century Fox pulled from Dark Horse in August for undisclosed reasons. Last post I predicted these licenses would relaunch under Marvel Studios, considering the recent Disney/Fox merger and the fact that Fox relaunched the previously Dark Horse-held Star Wars franchise under Marvel back in 2015. However, it looks like Buffy the Vampire Slayer has now been acquired by BOOM! Studios. The comics publisher has set plans to release a new monthly series, numerous limited series, and graphic novels, along with any other product of interest to Fox. We’re still sad to see this iconic series go after twenty years at Dark Horse, but at least it’s found a good new home. Still no news on the Firefly franchise yet, so I’ll keep you posted.

Lastly, I have much better news coming off the heels of a scandalous policy concern back in June. Trans comics critic, X-Plain the X-Men podcast creator, and former Dark Horse editor Jay Edidin publicly revealed that Dark Horse had exclusionary in-house healthcare insurance that purposely did not provide coverage for “anything related to gender dysphoria and transition.” After numerous other trans creators and advocates took the publisher to task for this issue, Dark Horse released a statement stating that “effective October 1, 2018, [their] health plan will expand to provide additional coverage for medical transition services for transgender employees.” Edidin recently followed up on this mandate, and the result is, well… pretty heartwarming in the grand scheme of our 2018 dumpster fire. Yay, progress! I always knew there was a place for you in comics.

Coming Next Month

  1. More book and comic book reviews, including Death Orb, Incognegro: Renaissance, and a look at Dark Horse’s manga offerings!
  2. Whatever news I’ve missed from NYCC, more than likely (seriously, it’s a lot. Stay successful, my friends).
  3. I think it might be time for a Hellboy movie update, don’t you? I definitely do—so stay tuned!
Paige Allen

Paige Allen

Adult-in-training by day, queer geek of color by night.