(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)
The single best ongoing comic book right now is clearly Brian K. Vauhgan and Fiona Staples’s Saga. No other comic comes close to matching Saga’s inventiveness, progressive attitudes, and sheer storytelling energy. Vaughan has written some pretty good comics in the past — Ex Machina and Y the Last Man were both flawed but generally excellent series — but his collaboration with Staples has produced something absolutely magical, an artistic and entertaining masterpiece unfolding on a (semi-)monthly basis. Which is how it should be; comics are a collaborative medium, so some partnerships are just better than others.
The last two weeks have seen the release of first issues of new comics series from Vaughan and Staples, working separately. This creates a great opportunity to examine what each collaborator is capable of on their own. Last week, the first issue of a new series from Vaughan and horror comics illustrator Steve Skroce was published. It’s a war comic, and a dystopian future comic, and an opportunity to examine what it really means to be Canadian.
No, that’s not a joke. We Stand on Guard tells the story of an elite paramilitary group of Canadian revolutionaries trying to defend the Great White North from gigantic, lumbering American war machines. As a first issue, Guard works well: it introduces a team of characters, gives them distinct personalities and motivations, and then sets them into action. The futuristic sci-fi elements are handled well, and they don’t overwhelm the essentials like characterization and plot. The people sound like people and not mirthless post-apocalyptic grimace machines. Vaughan’s script is expository without being clumsy, and Skroce’s artwork is clean and expressive. It’s not the slam-dunk that Saga #1 was — that issue practically bubbled with the dance between liveliness and possibility, while Guard has an air of staginess, of scene-setting — but it’s a decent start.
Meanwhile, this week Vaughan’s Saga co-star has a new first issue of her own, launching the first in a new series of Archie comic books with writer Mark Waid. Like most comics fans, I’ve always taken Archie comics for granted, assuming that they would take up space at grocery store checkout lines for years after I’ve grown cold in the ground. But a series of recent adult reinventions — zombie Archie, married Archie, murdered Archie — indicates that maybe the formula is in trouble. The hiring of Staples and Waid to reinvent the character seems like the latest drastic measure in a long line of drastic measures.
Happily, this particular drastic measure paid off. Archie #1 is a very fun comic book. It’s more realistic than the cartoonish stories that came before — Archie always superficially grew and changed with the times, but Riverdale has always felt like it’s stuck in some weird 1950s Twilight Zone — but it’s not some humorless Dawson’s Creek-style soap opera, either. The characters are still exactly who they’ve always been, but they feel more human than ever, thanks to Waid’s lively script. Archie talks directly to the reader, setting the scene (there’s been drama with Betty, and a new wealthy family, the Lodges, are moving to town) and easing us into daily life in Riverdale. It gives the book the loose air of a stage production, and it keeps the melodrama from getting too soppy.
Staples is an inspired choice for an artist on this series. Her characters’ body language and expressions are rich and personalized, and she somehow stays close to the original character models while adding something new. A few panels later in the book, when Archie is playing guitar, actually depict the way a human being holds a guitar in real life; it’s an object with weight and some awkwardness, not a cardboard prop. This may sound like a small touch, but it’s really quite significant in terms of reading enjoyment, and Archie is full of small touches like this.
Unfortunately, Waid authored another first issue out this week that does not fare anywhere near as well. Strange Fruit #1 — yes, the title refers to what you think it refers to — is a gorgeous book to flip through. You could lose yourself in artist J.G. Jones III’s painted panels for hours at a time; I’ve never seen coloring quite like this in a comic, and it sets the scene admirably. But the problem is that Waid and Jones are a pair of white guys telling a story about the history of race in the south, and they don’t seem equipped to deal with what that means. The book feels remarkably tone-deaf on race and then some sci-fi elements are dropped into the story and it all feels painfully wrong. I’d say more about it, but J.A. Micheline at Women Write About Comics has already explained the problem with Strange Fruit at great, satisfying length. Go read what she has to say about why this project could have used a lot more thoughtfulness and consideration. It’s 2015, and paying lip service to racial justice isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to demonstrate your commitment to racial justice, too.