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Picks of comic book week: Drugs ruin everything, even in space

Saga #22

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At this point in the narrative of "Saga", one of the many things that adds to the momentum this series has is the distant but inevitable knowledge of its' finality. Writer and series co-creator Brian K. Vaughan does not believe in stories that are eternal, and all of his previous creator owned projects have had compact set dates. "Y: the Last Man" from Vertigo ended after sixty issues; "Ex Machina" from Wildstorm called it a wrap within fifty. Even his tenure on the franchise he created at Marvel Comics, "Runaways", ended after thirty-six issues. Considering this evidence, it stands to reason that "Saga" (which Vaughan has crafted alongside regular artist and co-creator Fiona Staples) will reach its' midway point at the end of either this arc or the next, which could be considered the second arc in a massive three act production. With this context, this month's issue and especially the climax seem to be especially apt.

Your angel of death awaits!
Previews World
No, this isn't "Game of Thrones".
Previews World

The chain of events to the climax of this comic have been built up within the previous issues, and prove that true stories don't believe in any "happily ever after" endings. As Doctor Manhattan once said, "Nothing ever ends". After spending the first three arcs battling figures from across the universe to create and maintain their star crossed family, Alana and Marko now find that the enemy that not even they could have predicted was a life in hiding. Alana has chosen to work in the "Open Circuit", a combination of wrestling and professional wrestling which is broadcast to fans across the universe which acts as a bit of an in-joke about most pop culture franchise work. The strain and impurity of this work has led Alana to taking drugs, and perhaps neglecting things at home too much. Meanwhile, Marko's become a "house husband" in disguise, whose trips to a dance tutor for their daughter Hazel are the seed to an affair, as their old nemesis Prince Robot IV has lost virtually all he holds dear as a consequence to his actions. These two divergent stories will soon become fused into one as the insane janitor robot Dengo, who holds the heir to a throne as a hostage, and appears to be a rabid fan of the "Open Circuit".

Yet all of that foreboding likely won't be as memorable as the devastating argument that Alana and Marko have, matched with Hazel's narration that this likely isn't just a short term tiff. The series is called "Saga" and while it is a given that Hazel survives to grow up and narrate the tale, the relationships and lives of everyone else in the cast are more than fair game. Included in this is the very thing which drew many fans into the series, which was the star crossed and awesome marriage between Alana and Marko to begin with. Wisely, Vaughan has cast neither as the aggressor or "more wrong" party in the collapse of their marriage; much like in real life, both sides have a part to play in its' collapse. The same imagination, gusto, and nuance that Staples puts into far out opera or battle scenes are also laid bare for all to her in a scene about the end of a marriage. In fact the only blemish on the entire affair has nothing to do with the leads, but of the motives that Vaughan places on their antagonists. In the previous arcs, "the Will" was primarily motivated by the murder of his lover Stalk, and in a not too unfamiliar way the death of the Queen Robot has led to the angst and motivation for Prince Robot IV. While both Stalk and the robot Queen had enough scenes to be memorable beforehand, it does edge closer to the "women in refrigerators" trope than Vaughan may have intended.

Fortunately, "Saga" has more than earned the benefit of the doubt regardless of how many fans' hearts may have broken or what tropes it may flirt with. The art is simply fantastic, with Staples helping to create one of the most imaginative and visually stunning alternate universes ever put to fiction. Vaughan, as a writer, seems to have saved all of the tricks of his narrative toolbox for this series, which seems to be the culmination of all of his past work as showcase of all he has learned. This issue may mark the end of "true love", but it marks the continuation of one of the best, as well as one of the least predictable, comics on the market.

Here are the honorable mentions for this week. These are comics which are good or readable, but are not as good as the featured piece above.

Batman Beyond Universe #13: Following up the previous "Justice Lords Beyond" story is a hefty task for this plucky digital first series, but DC Comics is trying valiantly to achieve it. This effort sees regular writer Kyle Higgins teamed with co-writer Alec Siegel and a high profile artist like Phil Hester joining the efforts alongside regulars like Thony Silas, Eric Gapstur, and Craig Rousseau. The aim is to not only dip into embellishing what happened during the gap of time between the Adam Beechen run and this one, but what happened in the distance past of this based-on-the-Bruce Timm-animated series universe. This means not only does Terry McGinnis find out that one of the key participants of his father's murder was under his nose, but more about the events of the pasts of Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon are revealed. The catalyst for this is the Phantasm (from the most underrated Batman film ever, "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm") who has come out of retirement to begin another lethal vigilante crusade. The result are a lot of tense action scenes as well as powerfully emotional scenes as secrets are revealed and more skeletons seem to emerge from every closet. Once again, what was once an anthology series has become a large tome offering one story, albeit one which switches from past to present at will. Hester's artwork is quite a highlight to the opening act of a brief but what has quickly become another great Batman Beyond tale.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time #3: Erik Burnham continues with the latest of the quarterly side series to IDW's main TMNT comic. This time, it spins off from their recent annual (which shipped late) to offer amusing adventures of the Turtles throughout different eras of time which pays homage to the arcade game of the same name. After stops in the prehistoric era and Feudal Japan, the Turtles now find themselves zapped onto a pirate ship on the year 1776. They quickly become involves in a very different battle for independence as they help an eclectic crew of morally noble pirates stand up against "the Kraken", a ruthless band of pirates flanked by otherworldly technology. It turns out their benefactor is General Krang, whose occupation on Burnow Island stretched far longer than anyone could have imagined. Burnham's script is a delight, and gives Mikey a lot to do, but it's the art by Ben Bates which seems to make this issue especially memorable. From swashbuckling to costume changes to detailed colors, this issue is a visual treat from page to page. This series may seem like pandering fluff at worst or a distraction which offers minimal canon details at best, but so long as the art for each issue remains as strong as this (or the first issue by Ross Campbell), it's existence will always be justified and make for great reading.

Amazing Spider-Man #1.4: Due to clever scheduling, despite the fact that there have been seven weeks between issues of this past altering tale, it has still managed to ship once more month as expected. Dan Slott and artist Ramon Perez (alongside colorist Ian Herring) continue to tell a tale which takes place between "Amazing Fantasy #15" and first two issues of "Amazing Spider-Man" from 1962-1963. While this does intrude on other past reaching stories (such as "Untold Tales of Spider-Man" in the late 90's), it has sought to modernize certain elements of these Silver Age stories as well as add a brand new villain to the franchise. Slott and Perez do their best to do a modern telling of the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and they succeed in some areas and fail in others. The shout outs to the original designs of Marvel heroes and the feel of the world at the time work; their creation of a brand new cast around Peter at Midtown High School who naturally have never been seen since don't. Aside for Flash Thompson, none of the actual supporting cast members from that high school era (such as Liz Allen or to a small degree Sally Avril) have any role at all. Even Betty Brant has been mostly sidelined. Ever since "Superior Spider-Man", Slott has been criticized for altering characters for the sake of his stories rather than the reverse, and one can't help the feeling that such a tendency has crept up here to justify the creation of Clash. In essence, Clash is supposed to be a dark mirror of what Peter Parker himself could have become without the weight of tragedy and responsibility; a brilliant young man who wants to become famous and "look out for number one" at nearly any cost. His latest battle against the wall-crawler leaves the webbed hero defeated and the world of Peter Parker nearly shattered before it has begun, setting up a proper finale in September. At heart this is a fine story, although one gets the sense it is more about a writer wanting to leave a mark on a franchise more than a tale which feels natural or yearned to be told, despite the great artwork or the bombastic flair.

Cyclops #4: This issue marks the departure of regular artist Russell Dauterman (as he has a new female Thor to help usher into the world) and the debut of Carmen Carnero to pick up the slack. Fortunately, colorist Chris Sotomayor and inker Terry Pallot help Carnero hop aboard the story in progress without missing a beat, creating a world in his image which still feels very much within the same realm as to not be jarring. Such things are important as the script by Greg Rucka not only relies on depictions of a lush unearthly jungle and a fight with some flying dragon-vultures, but the more subtle time between a father and his son. Faced with weeks on an uninhabited world with little hope of rescue, the teenage Scott (from the past) starts to become bitter and depressed, forcing his reluctant dad Corsair to buck the boy up with more gusto than he can usually manage. The two eventually come to an understanding where their own strengths (Scott's tactical instincts and Corsair's experience and adaptability) unite to allow them to ultimate overcome the challenge before them as stronger men. Despite the ridiculous circumstances uniting these characters (the past version of an adult hero meeting the counterpart to his dead father, who himself was just resurrected), it is simply yet efficiently told issues such as this which allow the series to rise above the noise. This is amazing considering this series probably has the fewest female characters of any comic Rucka has written for a long time; the writer is often more in his element with ladies in his cast. A strong runner up for "book of the week", this has been a surprisingly great spin off series amid a sea of X-Men comics.

Silver Surfer #5: For writer Dan Slott, this issue (and run) couldn't be further apart from his recent Spider-Man work if it tried. The comic timing seems to be more on point and the quirky, imaginative flair which Slott built his fanbase around with works such as "GLA" or "She-Hulk" seems to be in full force. Perhaps this is due to difference between working on an iconic and perennial 50 year old franchise versus a cosmic hero who hasn't successfully kept his own series afloat since 1998. Or perhaps this is due to the influence of the art team of Michael and Laura Allred, for whom nearly any writer would shift in style to showcase. The lack of pressure or pretentiousness seems to flow in each page as the artwork becomes more bizarre and unique with each panel, and the dialogue becomes more charming and memorable to go with it. After a chance meeting in a space adventure, the Surfer was content to leave the curious Dawn Greenwood back in the small hotel she runs with her father (and an often reluctant twin sister), at least until he found himself once again trapped on earth. It turns out both of them have stumbled on what seems like an old "Defenders" adventure with Dr. Strange and the Hulk trying to save all of reality from merely become the dream of the demon Nightmare. This includes a trip into dreams themselves, even those of Norrin Radd. As always, Dawn's curiosity and innocent charm help balance the Surfer's stiff and stoic demeanor to make the pair entertaining to read about in nearly any adventure. The issue may literally end by announcing the tagline for the series itself, but it completes another satisfying chapter in what is becoming a very fresh and engaging run for both the character and the creators handling him.