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Cry Havok #1

Cry Havoc #1
Words Simon Spurrier
Pictures Ryan Kelly
Colors Nick Filardi (London), Lee Loughridge (The Red Place), and Matt Wilson (Afghanistan)
Image Comics

There has been a poster in front of the register in the Chapel Hill Ultimate Comics store with a gorgeous werewolf picture and the tagline, “It’s not about a lesbian werewolf going to war. Except it kind of is.”

Sold.

If you need more information, I can rave about the story or the art or the gender politics (and trust me, that’s what the rest of this column is going to be), but really, the tagline alone tells you what you need to know about the wit and mind of this project.

The story takes place in three parallel lines, each with a different colorist. Chronologically, we begin in London, where Louise is a blue-haired street musician who was a disappointment to her zookeeper girlfriend even before her unfortunate run-in with a big lupine monster. The middle section follows her as she joins a team of four folks with mysterious supernatural abilities as they investigate a monster that busted up a US facility in Afghanistan and exposed their “enhanced interrogation techniques” to public eye. By the time the story catches up to The Red Place, Louise is going to be behind bars and in deep trouble.

The decision to color each segment of the story differently was inspired. Flashbacks in comics are often done with completely new pencilers, allowing the main artist to get work done more efficiently without disrupting the way the book looks. But here, the pencils are a consistent throughline, and the reader gets to learn a lot more about the subtle ways colors have been telling us stories this whole time. London is wrapped in blue, giving a calm to even the violent wolf encounter and a sense that this is deep in the past. That blue line carries through with the main character’s hair as she enters the smudgy yellows of the Afghanistan chapter but disappears some time between then and the oppressive dark reds that confine her in the final segment. After talking about colors with superstar Rico Renzi at last fall’s North Carolina Comicon, I’ve gotten better at picking out the role colors play in this medium, and this book is a lush exercise in that art.

But at heart, I read comics for the words more than the pictures, and as a queer liberal, I am always looking for quality representation of diversity. This book has at least three out characters so far – Louise and her girlfriend feel like a realistic couple, a pair that should probably break up if they always disappoint each other but who haven’t really pushed hard enough on that to make it happen yet, and Ottar is a big, handsome Viking who hopes to get a little action with one of the soldiers after his Afghanistan mission is over but still takes his job seriously. A book doesn’t have to be about lesbians yelling at straight people to be about diversity. It needs to demonstrate an understanding that the world has lots of types of people, and it needs to understand how to make a character that incorporates whatever sexuality fits. And this book does exactly that, showing queer characters who own their sexual identity but are not defined by it.

The gender roles advance even further with two key scenes. In one, a soldier is explaining the mission to Louise, and even though he never directly propositions her, his crude language and provocative word choice helps me as a cisgendered man briefly taste how gender-hostile environments are a form of harrassment. In the other, Louise is asking her girlfriend about the hyena at the zoo, and she explains that female hyenas have a clitoris that extends to appear as a penis and block sexual entry, giving the females of the pack control over mating choices and establishing matriarchy as a pack dynamic. This image of sexuality, identity, illusion, and agency make the hyena a compelling symbol in the book rather than just a comedian, and man, I hope one of the characters turns out to be a were-hyena.

I can’t recommend Cry Havoc highly enough. This is rich, an exploration of comics as a craft and as a political communication. Come on down to Ultimate Comics in Chapel Hill or Raleigh and say you want that lesbian werewolf warrior book from the poster – they’ll know what you’re talking about.

-MATT CONNER for Ultimate Comics

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Devolution #1

Devolution #1
Writer Rick Remender
Artist Jonathan Wayshak
Dynamite Comics

Rick Remender wants to put the Apocalypse back in post-Apocalypse dystopias.

In his new miniseries, humanity’s wars have continued, and rather than acknowledge the role of government and economics, people have pointed to religion as the scapegoat. Scientists developed a way to devolve the part of the brain that believes in God, but release of this mutating agent causes a global reduction of living creatures to sabretooth tigers and giant plants and atheist cave people who are, shocker, just as warlike as humans have ever been. Raja is a tough woman trying to survive amidst bands of brutes roaming the bones of the Vegas strip, trying to prove to her memory of her father that his God has no interest in saving Earth’s people. As these stories tend to go, she finds a band of humans but almost immediately wishes she hadn’t.

Dystopian stories have been especially popular in comics since The Walking Dead took off, and readers are justified in asking what makes this one different. For starters, the art is vivid and visceral, a real treat even when the subject matter gets pretty gory. The writing has a lot more sex and swearing than you get in the more popular dystopian comics – Kamandi never interpreted his world as “We choked on s— so our governments could compete in imaginary economic games.” But as base and profane as this book gets, the real draw is the examination of faith. On the minus side, the human camp leader uses religion to torture and control his people, and the swastika scalp tattoo is hardly subtle. But the premise is willing to say that accusing religion of all of humanity’s problems is a mistake, a distraction. There is no really great spiritual character, but Raja seems to value her choice not to believe and to potentially respect the choices of others as long as we can recognize the ways we are tricked into hurting our neighbors and rise above this. The evolution-creation debate has been going on for decades and shows no sign of stopping, but this book seems to be raising the question – why spend time arguing about the origin of species when so many of ours is intent on wiping the rest of us out? Whether the answer comes from a holy text or a university laboratory, Remender’s work suggests that we focus on peace and other noble ideals, and that gives his exploration of this savage Hellscape a compelling depth.

Come on down to Ultimate Comics in Raleigh or Chapel Hill and pick up a copy. And then, for the love of whatever you choose, be good to each other, okay?

-MATT CONNOR for Ultimate Comics

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Red Sonja #1

Red Sonja #1
Written by Marguerite Bennett
Illustrated by Aneke
Colored by Jorge Sutil
Dynamite Comics

A couple of years ago, I hosted a panel at the North Carolina Comicon to talk about Women In Comics, and I was so excited to get to sit next to Gail Simone, a writer who coined the term Women In Refrigerators to spotlight the mistreatment of female supporting characters, a writer who got my brother to read Batgirl, a writer whose work brought representation of transgender, bisexuality, and polyamory in an unfailingly feminist voice. And I was loving everything she had to say, and I was feeling complacent, so I asked Jamal Igle, the artist who put modest shorts on Supergirl, about costumes on female characters being ridiculous and objectifying. And the room got quiet. And everyone looked at Gail. Because she was writing Red Sonja, the woman in the chain mail bikini. I blushed and went numb – had I insulted an industry great? She answered the question perfectly, saying that she was put off by the bikini but loved the challenge of getting to know this amazing woman and her rich history, and she understood the character as feeling uncomfortable in excessive clothing. She took a cheesecake icon and allowed the character to assume ownership of her look, shifting the book out of the male gaze. Gail Simone went on to write a critically celebrated run on the character, culminating in Dynamite’s massive Swords Of Sorrows crossover last fall. But I admit I was too embarrassed to pick any of it up.

This week, the book relaunches under the pen of Marguerite Bennett, a woman who wrote Ultimate Comics’ recently-reviewed erotic horror series, Insexts, and the delightful 40s-era DC Bombshells. I don’t have a ton of experience with the character, and this issue was a perfect starting point. In it, Sonja slays a monster but fails to use its body to heal her king. As he dies, he offers her the throne, and she declines, knowing her She-Devil skills wouldn’t translate well to political games. A year later, she returns to find her kingdom prospering peacefully under a mysterious new king, and the reader is treated to several funny scenes of how bored she is with nothing to smash before the final scene reveals a darker side to Hyrkania’s good fortune.

Three things sold me on this book. First, it was accessible and fun. I haven’t read any Sonja or Conan books and didn’t think I’d like a barbarian comic, but Bennett loves this character and obviously enjoys showing her humor and power. Second, Sonja is an openly bisexual character, made explicit with a few illustrated daydreams, and I am always happy to support sexual diversity in my comic books.

Third? As you can see from the cover, Red Sonja is now wearing a tank top instead of a bikini. I loved Gail Simone’s ownership of the bikini top, but now I have a comic I wouldn’t have to explain if caught reading. Maybe that makes me shallow, but I love how sexy Sonja is even without seeing her belly button.

Come on down to Ultimate Comics, where you can pick this up alongside a copy of Bennett’s Insexts. And get ready for more panel discussions at the Oak City Comic And Toy Show April 16 at the Raleigh Convention Center – I can’t promise it will get awkward, but let’s just say the odds are good.

-MATT CONNER for Ultimate Comics

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Last Gang In Town #1

Last Gang In Town #1
Writer Simon Oliver
Artist Rufus Dayglo
Colors Giulia Brusco
Vertigo

This new Vertigo series takes its name from a Clash album and evokes the punk rock out of Britain in the late 1970s in more ways than just that. The story follows a powerful woman in a Swiss nursing home as she remembers life in the 1977 punk scene as she built her criminal empire to stick it to the aristocracy. Setting that cartel up includes recuiting the Heavy Mannerz, a trio of aggressive teens unafraid to use a little larceny and public disturbance to set up for the next gig they booked in a BDSM bar.

The writing and art are uniquely filthy. London is drawn with streets strewn with garbage, her people covered in sores and other imperfections, her punks bedecked in safety pins through noses and stockings alike. Characters curse as often as they breathe, and even for a Vertigo book, the sexual content is graphic. This isn’t a book for children, but for readers with a fondness for this era of music history, it’s going to hit the right notes.

Head on down to Ultimate Comics in Raleigh or Chapel Hill to pick up your copy!

-MATT CONNER for Ultimate Comics