CROSSGEN AT 8 MONTHS
It's two thirds of a year since CrossGen's first books came out. And nary a week has gone by without some interesting announcement from them. They've signed superstars such as Mark Waid and George Perez to (nearly) exclusive contracts. They've landed Greg Land and Bart Sears, amongst others. Their early issues are selling out now. They've got trade paperback collections coming out soon of those early issues. The line is expanding. The titles still remain separate. They're approaching profitability. The books are coming out on time every month with amazing consistency.
It's been an amazing first year, and I haven't looked at most of the books they've produced since the first month. So between this column and next Friday's, I plan to look at all five regular series. (By the end of the year, there will be three more.) This week, I'll start with SIGIL and SCION.
…has a touch of feudalism to it, and a dash of sword and sorcery. (OK, mostly it's sword. The sorcery is over in MYSTIC, to be reviewed next week.) On this world, the omnipresent CrossGen sigil marks a boy named Ethan on the day of his achieving manhood in a ceremonial battle. Tragedy strikes when the sigil unexpectedly allows Ethan to wound his enemy, something that should not be allowed to happen. This quickly ignites into war between the two sides.
That's the much-abbreviated version.
As a whole, the series holds together really well, stays completely self-contained, gives us high adventure, and a small number of environments and lifeforms.
Ron Marz displays a remarkable knack for writing dialogue in this book. The characters speak like you'd expect to see them speak in a period piece film. As I was reading through it, I could hear the voices of the characters in my head.
Jimmy Cheung does a pretty good job in maintaining a high degree of detail in his artwork, as well as with telling a story. He doesn't skimp on the backgrounds, or on the level of detail in the costumes worn. The sixth issue is his high watermark, as he illustrates the war between the Eastern Lands and the Western Lands in all its widescreen glory. That issue came out around the same time as the first issue of THE FIRST, and the two shared a certain dynamic for the month.
The story across these first seven issues is more than just an origin tale. Usually, you get the origin story out of the way and then devolve into something fairly episodic, utilizing everything you've set up in the origin. In some ways, there are some fairly typical origin bits to this puzzle. We're introduced to an underwater race in the fifth issue that seems to serve no purpose. Heck, you could remove most of the elements of the fifth issue and still carry through with the story. It seems that the chance to play PERFECT STORM was just too cute to pass up. (If one wished to extend the movie metaphor, then the sixth issue is somewhere between BRAVEHEART and GLADIATOR.)
There's just something nipping at the back of my skull about this book, though, and it's something I fear I can't put into words. A lot of stuff happens. But it happens too fast. There's not a remarkably large cast of characters for a book in which two lands are preparing for war, but it often seems as if there are some opportunities wasted. The politics of the situation are given short shrift. They are rapidly explained to put the adventure and action elements into motion. War is as much about politics and personalities as it is about blood and weapons. I come from the Isaac Asimov school of storytelling – put two smart guys a room and let them disagree for 30 pages. That's exciting to me. The visceral rush from watching one guy gut another, or from one character outrunning and outmaneuvering another pales by comparison. (Unless, of course, there's some clever thought put into those sequences.)
This first batch of seven issues wouldn't work as a movie, for example, because there are a lot of things that just wouldn't make sense. We put up with them because we recognize that this is a serialized form that will attempt to explain them all over the course of time. I imagine that with the eighth issue, we'll see those early concepts reintroduced and brought back into the spotlight. I'm looking forward to seeing what light Ron Marz chooses to shine on them there.
The biggest plot question right now revolves around the character of Ashleigh, the character that fulfills the book's babe quotient, as well as being an important friend to Ethan. But her allegiances are unsure and her actions not quite predictable. In her sly way, she's rather intriguing. How does she do the things she does, and what is her link to certain other characters in the book? (I'm keeping things vague to hold back some spoilers. Judging from the cover for the forthcoming eighth issue, I'm guessing we'll be learning a lot more about her soon.)
As a comic book, it works. It's an interesting title. You'll fast find yourself rooting hardest for Skink, Ethan's second and probably the most sympathetic character in the book. He plays the Alfred to Ethan's Batman.
Jimmy Cheung's art (with Don Hillsman II's inks) is easy to look at, and does not go anywhere near the bad girl territory that it could have gone in at certain points. His male character and female characters all look remarkably... human. Not artificial. He doesn't skimp on drawing dramatic vistas, or detailed cities or crowds of "Lesser" characters, either. He just has a bad habit of drawing Ethan with his mouth wide open on the cover an awful lot. (Check out issues 1, 3, 4, and 6. Issue #5 sorta qualifies, but it's not the same expression.)
Caesar Rodriguez colors the book and adds in some wonderful mood lighting where appropriate, such as mist and clouds. If you like your comics colored in multiple shades of blue, you're going to love this stuff. ;-)
SCION also gets high marks for using Rick Leonardi to do the fill-in art on the seventh issue. We need to see more art from him, and this issue is one more example of why.
…is the science fiction/fantasy series, starring a bunch of Saurians (dinosaur people) at odds with a series of human cultures. In the middle is Samandahl Rey, who has recently been given the obligatory CrossGen markings on his chest, giving him the powers to mutate objects into any form he wishes, and the need to bare that chest as often as possible.
SIGIL starts off with a bang, and doesn't really stop for the first seven issues. Barbara Kesel keeps the book moving, although sometimes it seems to move at the expense of explanations. (Sound familiar?) Of the two books this week, this one seems to be the one with the most amount of back-story and the largest cast of important characters.
The first seven issues function as the origin story would. We're introduced to the characters that will be the stars of the book – one of which is killed in the first book, but gets better. Sorta. We've got the young danger-lover, JeMerik, who happens to be running away from his security job with the king's court. The older danger-lover, Samandahl Rey, is possessed of the sigil. The contracted bride who's run away from the sultan, Zanniati, joins up next. And the dead woman, Roiya, whose soul possesses the ship starts off as Sam's confidant. Pretty nifty stuff, actually, but the book has a series of problems.
The first is that I still have no idea how old the lead, Sam, is supposed to be. When the Lai brothers drew the book for the first 5 issues, he looked to be about the same age as JeMerik, the runaway security guard. (Heck, if it weren't for the two wisps of hair in front of JeMerik's face, there would times I couldn't tell them apart at all.) Merik keeps positioning himself as younger. And Sam, in the fifth and sixth issues, makes references to his last conflict with his "squad" ten years earlier against the villain, nicknamed "Loser." Even worse, the two new artists on the sixth and seventh issues (Steven McNiven and Kevin Sharpe) make him look progressively older, turning his golden hair closer to gray and adding wrinkles to his face.
|Will the real Samandahl Ray please stand up?|
|The Lai Bros. draw
Sam in issue #2.
|Kevin Sharpe ages Sam
dramatically later on…
Sam's relationship with Roiya is a bit odd, too. I can't tell if they're supposed to be best friends, ex-lovers, potential lovers, boss and secretary, fellow adventurers, or what. Sam seems slightly jealous in the beginning when Merik begins to flirt with Roiya. Later on, however, there seems to be a bit of an age gap separating them, and Roiya seems to be fine with Merik hitting on her. Merik, for his part, seems to be hinting to Zanniati that she's got a romantic interest in Sam.
There's a slight faux pas in the third issue when the sultan's wife, Zanniati, reveals herself. Sam comments on how hurt she looks. In that same panel, you get a mid-range shot of Zanniati. But there are no visible injuries. In later panels, you can see a black and blue on her cheek, but there's not a single visible injury on here in this panel, when there should be, by all rights. It's a minor lapse of storytelling in the grand scheme of the story so far, but it popped me right out of the story for a minute.
Roiya, upon her death at the end of the issue, becomes the soul of the ship. (Or, rather, her soul inhabits the ship. Take your pick.) But I didn't realize this until I read the "Story so far" blurb inside the cover of the second issue. If, like me, you're more inclined to read the comic, there's no sign that Sam isn't hearing voices solely in his head until later on. And there's no sign that Roiya's in control of the ship – and not just issuing Sam orders – until later on. I think you should have all the information you need to read a comic spelled out on the story pages, and not on the inside front cover.
The first issue even commits the cardinal sin of not giving us a character's name. Merik doesn't introduce himself or offer up his name until halfway through the second issue. And it doesn't seem obvious to me that he's playing the coy stranger with ulterior motives just then, either. He seems to be a fellow caught up in it all. Thankfully, we can hang upon him the tag of "The guy that sorta looks like Sam but has those two wisps of hair dangling in front of his face." Or, if you prefer, "One of the sultan's Ex-guardsman."
The first seven issues had some potential for typical sci fi clich ridden angst, but Barbara Kesel stayed away from that, to her credit. While this may not be the most revolutionary piece of science fiction or fantasy ever written, it gets the job done as an imaginary piece of storytelling, set against a backdrop of political intrigue and curious characters.
CrossGen released SIGIL #8 this week, representing the first issue of the next story arc. Many of my qualms about the series that I've had so far seem to have been planted there on purpose now. The eighth issue is a real turning point for the series and starts to better introduce us to the characters of Merik and Zanniati. Each is hiding secrets, and I get the feeling that learning what they are and how they impact Sam and Roiya, et. al., will be the gist of the next few issues. Hopefully, we'll get some more political shenanigans, too. This issue is a very promising first step for the next arc.
The Lai Bros., despite my qualms with their artwork mentioned above, did a fine job on this book. They're gifted when it comes to drawing strong technical work, and so a sci fi book was the right approach to take with them. Kevin Sharpe's art is utilitarian. It'll work. It doesn't distract you too terribly much, and it doesn't take anything away from the story. But it's also nothing that I'm highly excited about seeing month to month. The characters look, to me, clumsier and more uncomfortable in their own skins.
Scot Eaton takes over the art chores in this book in a couple of months and he should be a pretty good art choice for this book. I actually own a page of his VANGUARD work from Image Comics. I have a feeling that he'll have a ball in drawing the Saurian characters, and should adapt to the sexy women and starships of this series very easily. I'm looking forward to that.
There's more CrossGen to discover, including the most anticipated series (MYSTIC) and the most talked about (MERIDIAN). Plus, don't forget THE FIRST, with Bart Sears' "widescreen storytelling." That's all coming up next Friday's Pipeline2 column.
Tuesday's column included some more glances back at the Year 2000 In Comics and a bunch of reviews, including ZERO GIRL, THE DEFENDERS, and HELLBLAZER.
You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board. Join in the fun. Things are as busy over there as they've ever been. I'm posting Quicky Reviews of books as I read them, so feel free to jump in on those conversations.
There are now over 175 columns archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML that won't be earning me any real world jobs. But I'm willing to learn if you're willing to hire. ;-)
And, finally, I continue to write weekly DVD movie reviews for the gang over at DVD Channel News. If you're into DVDs, check out my stuff there.