Best Shots Advance: SAGA #13, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1, Red Sonja #2 Reviews

Red Sonja #2 Frison cover
Credit: Dynamite
Saga #13
Saga #13
Credit: Image Comics

Saga #13
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It has been almost four months since Saga went on hiatus, and in that time it has become one of the most awarded new series of the last year. This issue begins the third major arc for the unique blend of science fiction and fantasy, and with it a tonal shift. Still reeling from the tragedies of the last story arc, it is safe to say that the swerve is not necessarily an uplifting one.

Vaughan weaves a delicate balance here, playing with the anticipation he has built up in his audience over the last few months, while also crafting a perfect jumping-on point for those who don’t want to go back to the beginning. After leaving the audience on a cliffhanger in the last issue, Vaughan presses firmly on the breaks and instead goes back to fill in some of the gaps. It will be a tactic familiar to anybody who is familiar with his sublime Y: The Last Man, as character detail is fleshed out. The issue is split into three parts, explaining what each of the characters was up to in the lead-up to the climax of the previous chapter.

The deliberate withholding of information might be frustrating for established readers, but its what distinguishes Saga from its contemporaries. Going back over similar ground, Vaughan uses the distance of the last few months to give us a fresh perspective. It’s also a profound musing on the nature of loss, told from the point of view of hero and anti-hero both. The Will in particular is given added layers, and has rapidly become one of the most complex characters in series. For Alana and Marko, the adrenaline is wearing off, and the harsh and sometimes mundane realities of their predicament is setting in. It’s a sobering handful of moments, and not the expected move on the back of so much build up.

Fiona Staples has long been one of the draw-cards of the series, her distinctive art gets to flex its muscle in three unique settings. A standout scene includes Alana fighting off a creature made up from the animated bones of the dead, and this gives us a taste of what we might expect of the next five issues of this latest arc.

Vaughan continues to be one of the most consistently intriguing writers in and out of the the comic book world, balancing out this epic Saga with the slow boiling intrigue of his self-published The Private Eye. We hope we don’t have to wait quite as long between arcs next time, but for now readers rejoice: Saga is back, and the comic book shelves just got all the brighter for it.

Credit: IDW

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1
Written by Phil Hester
Art by Andrea Di Vito and Rom Fajardo
Lettering by Chris Mowry and Shawn Lee
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Sometimes lightning doesn't strike twice. Case in point - THUNDER Agents. Kicked around from company to company, this team of fatalistic superheroes hit an all-time high point a few years back over at DC Comics, when Nick Spencer wrote his soulful, truncated run with a murderer's row of artistic talent. Unfortunately, it's impossible to look at IDW's latest iteration of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves without comparing it to DC's recent run, and unfortunately it can't help but pale in comparison.

Part of the problem is THUNDER Agents just hits the ground running, rather than building up a theme or introducing the characters or concept for new readers. Phil Hester assumes you know about the Iron Maiden, that you understand how Noman jumps from body to body. The only character that he really works to introduce is Len Brown, the strongman known as Dynamo, but his arc already feels tired. What makes this washed-up leg-breaker worthy of wielding the Lightning Belt? Is it just a tolerance for pain?

The other problem is... this first issue doesn't really introduce the team, either. We've got Noman and Dynamo, as well as a few forgettable THUNDER bureaucrats, but the rest of the team is still MIA. Hester winds up picking up the pace near the end of the book with a sort of buddy-cop dynamic between the green Dynamo and the experienced Noman, but as I said before, their voices sound so nondescript that it feels really shallow. When the cold, distant Noman starts cracking wise about Iron Maiden's "chromed butt cheeks," something has gone off the rails.

The art, while clean, doesn't lend a lot of dynamic qualities to this comic, either. Andrea Di Vito has that sort of old-school Dan Jurgens kind of vibe, where his characters look nice, but they're also just standing there. Part of the problem is that Hester is packing a lot of six-panel pages to his script, and it winds up often being too much for Di Vito to fit on a page. With his layouts often feeling static rather than energetic, there aren't too many memorable visual beats to this comic. It's not ugly by any means, but the art isn't pulling its weight, either.

Given the multimedia arms race for established properties, perhaps it's no surprise that IDW jumped on THUNDER Agents after DC called it quits. But just because DC didn't know what a gem it had with Nick Spencer's run doesn't mean the rest of the reading community will so easily forget - a property as obscure as THUNDER Agents needs to build up goodwill for readers, rather than just assume we know the backstory and stakes. As we saw not too long ago, THUNDER Agents is a concept that is rife with dramatic potential - but a by-the-numbers superhero romp is not the way to go.

Red Sonja #2
Red Sonja #2
Credit: Dynamite

Red Sonja #2
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani and Adriano Lucas
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

In all the time that various incarnations of Red Sonja has been on the shelves, the problem to the casual observer is that the book seems to have been little more that targeted at the fantasies of adolescent boys. Rightly or wrongly, even the most recent versions have suffered this malady, mostly thanks to the endless stream of cheesecake covers that grace this (and virtually every other Dynamite title) franchise on a monthly basis. Last month, readers had their assumptions challenged by the addition of Gail Simone to the series, a writer long associated with writing strong female characters and injecting a healthy dose of humor in the process.

Simone puts the laughs on the shelf for this second outing, having already established that she is willing to have some fun with the character. Picking up on a cliffhanger, Sonja confronts Dark Annisa, a fellow warrior that she was once close enough to call sister. What is essentially one long action sequence is evenly intercut with flashbacks, as Simone slowly crafts her own take on Sonja’s illustrious history. It’s also an issue filled with multiple twists, ones that will make those of fairly green to Red Sonja sit up and pay attention.

Although Red Sonja comes with decades of history, fans and detractors, Simone not only makes it feel fresh and exciting, but very easy to climb aboard. While this might be an especially exposition-heavy issue, Simone’s aforementioned ability to combine action and setup into one seamless sequence ensures that Red Sonja remains a page-turner. Indeed, perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given to a monthly title is that it is surprising to suddenly find there are no pages left to turn, coupled with the frustration that it there is a month between that last panel and its pay-off.

Walter Geovani confidently lays out this action-packed issue, handily showing us how to depict a strong heroine without making it exploitative. Indeed, like Simone, artist Geovani never sacrifices heroics for femininity, finding that the two can readily coexist. Case in point is one panel depicting Sonja as she discovers some unfortunate news, and her reaction shot is framed via the reflection of a blade. Though it would be too easy to label any of this as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, when what Simone and Geovani have created first and foremost is a human drama told within the confines of a traditionally exploitative genre.

The visage of a flame-haired warrior in a metal bikini might still illicit snicker, for it is a singularly ridiculous costume given her regular swordplay. Yet Simone has instantly given us a character to connect with, and one that is worth returning to next month. If you are yet to give this reboot of Red Sonja a chance, or haven’t even thought about picking up anything about the She-Devil with a Sword, then this is a terrific place to start.

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