X-Men: Red #2
Written by Tom Taylor
Art by Mahmud Asrar and Ive Svorcina
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Leadership continues to suit Jean Grey nicely in X-Men: Red #2, which refuses to get bogged down by plot points and instead hurdles ahead on its globe-trotting adventures. What might be most impressive about writer Tom Taylor and artist Mahmud Asrar's sophomore outing is that not only do they solidify Jean's standing as a natural-born general, but they also firmly establish the chemistry of her team.
With Jean celebrating her new lease on life by pursuing a utopian future for man and mutantkind alike, of course someone would sabotage her - or in the case of last issue, frame Jean for telepathic murder. For many writers, this would be a perfect opportunity to navel-gaze, but Taylor has bigger fish to fry, giving his lead some wonderful resourcefulness and agency as the X-Men simply pack their bags and take political asylum in the land of Wakanda. It's with this change of scenery that not only is Taylor able to increase the scale of his story, but he's able to inject the story with some warmth and likability, from Nightcrawler's gentle humor to Honey Badger doing a cannonball off a waterfall while shouting, "political exile is awesome!"
But Taylor is also able to show off some deft writing with the introduction of not one, but two new recruits to the team. In particular, Taylor does a terrific job at selling the mutant technopath Trinary - while it would very easy to write off a new character with that powerset as a lazy cheat, Taylor gives the character some edge by giving her an activist bent, using her powers to skim off 25 wealthy CEOs and giving the cash to every woman in India. In a lot of ways, characters like this feel very similar to the best of the X-Men's recruits - not only is she a character of color who hails from another part of the world, but Taylor very quickly establishes her perspective and point of view. It's still too early to say if Trinary will go the distance, but as far as first blushes go, it's promising.
Mahmud Asrar, meanwhile, turns in some nicely solid work, reminding me at times of a more cartoony Leinil Francis Yu. While he might be a little understated for those who want insane amounts of energy to their superhero comic books, I still find myself struck by Asrar's quieter beats - for example, his very first panel of a group of tiki-torch wielding protesters can't help but feel a little chilling, while Gentle's small smile after being bothered by Honey Badger gives the character some real likability even when he doesn't get a single line in the book. Additionally, Asrar actually pulls off a terrific heist sequence featuring X-23, Nightcrawler and Honey Badger in hoodies and track pants, giving Nightcrawler in particular a pretty badass look.
If there's anything that might put a little drag on X-Men: Red, it's that it sometimes feels like Taylor has to go through the motions in terms of injecting action to the story, when you can't help but want to know what's going through Jean Grey's mind. There's a clear plan in play, and a vision to strive for, but every time we get a step forward, it feels like Taylor has to play to the diehards, such as a cliffhanger featuring the Sentinels. A franchise like the X-Men, just by virtue of its sheer high concept, is all about evolution and change - and it's the moments where Taylor has to look back that can't help but sap some of this book's promise.
Still, "promise" feels like the best word to describe X-Men: Red, which feels brisk and light on its feet while still tackling some thoughtful discussions about the X-Men and their place in the world. It's a credit to Taylor and his team that they've been able to so immediately establish a team with such warmth and chemistry together - a feat that I'd argue only Astonishing X-Men has been able to approximate - and across superhero team books, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a book that does it better. There are still some rough edges for this book to churn through as it finds its feet, but X-Men: Red can't help but impress.
Shade the Changing Woman #1
Written by Cecil Castellucci
Art by Marley Zarcone and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettering by Saida Temofonte
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Shade the Changing Girl was never a comic book content to be like the pack. Even among its strange siblings in the Young Animal line, writer Cecil Castellucci, illustrator Marley Zarcone, and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick never delivered a boring or uninspired comic book in that initial series. As Shade evolves into Shade the Changing Woman it’s clear that the creative team are insistent upon both giving the series a greater sense of urgency in terms of internal and external conflicts while creating a nearly unending string of pages dedicated to spectacles of the bizarre.
Like some of the series’ more hallucinatory chapters, the narrative is something of storytelling jazz. Picking up in the wake of her Avian body dying and her hijacked human body in a state of technicolor deterioration, Loma Shade seeks counsel from the one being in the metaverse that could relate to her experiences - Rac Shade. Rac is somewhat detached but friendly. His cosmic removal and ability to show Loma peaks at the two lives she has left behind make him the perfect character to receive her musings. Living as a human leads to a particular kind of heartbreak that is foreign to Avians. And with her new body, Loma embraces hedonism to explore the sensation of which it is capable, culminating in her telling her friend River, “It was delicious until it was disgusting,” one of Castellucci’s best lines amid a comic littered with them. Through her conversations with Rac and River, it’s obvious the existential challenges that Loma faces now that she is completely human, and as the comic closes on River learning that the government has taken an interest in undocumented extraterrestrials, the force that will be pushing against Loma in the upcoming months feels authentic and scary.
While the comic book’s uncompromising drive to not slow down is certainly admirable, it does make this a potentially obtuse issue for new readers, belying the book’s new name and reset numbering. While the most essential information can be inferred by the end of the comic and you’d be hard pressed to not get some idea of who Shade is and what is a threat to her, new readers will likely find themselves concerned that vital information lacks the impact that it should given their unfamiliarity. Readers who feel alienated may start to view the comic as an aesthetic object more than anything else, and luckily Zarcone and Fitzpatrick are able to fill that role as the comic is nothing less than a masterwork of striking visuals and panel layout.
Part of what makes Zarcone’s artwork and panel layout so interesting is that she is able to make the grounded Earth or River-centric scenes straightforward and engaging before turning things into a visual barrage of psychedelia, with the latter panels and pages being so strong and unique that it's almost too much to take in. On one hand, Shade the Changing Woman looks nothing like anything currently on store shelves, but on the other it crams about four comic books' worth of memorable panels in one book. All of the surreal images are incredible, but the frequency makes it hard to pinpoint what exactly is the visual toward which the comic builds.
This is, of course, a good problem to have for a comic book - certainly better than if it were uninspired or dull. Marley Zarcone’s paneling likewise balances the fine line between mesmerizing and disorienting, and no scenes of the comic showcase this more effectively than when Loma Shade and Rac Shade interact. Whole pages seem to take place within the void in Rac’s chest and when readers are given a view of the opposite side of him, Loma’s placement in the hole in his chest makes a sort of in-text panel within a panel. It, like every other visual component of this comic, is striking.
The issue is certainly vibrant in every sense of the word, but while Zarcone’s overwhelmingly strong illustrations make a definitive impact, it's also worth noting that Kelly Fitzpatrick’s coloring is exemplary from the opening page. The fact that she is able to take the wide range of colors and, excuse the pun, shades that the comic book requires while making them look like part of a cohesive aesthetic unit and not a random assortment is impressive. From a color perspective, every panel looks like a Shade the Changing Woman panel, whether its a straightforward or mind-bending panel, and that strength in coloring helps to unify the two worlds that the comic ties together.
Shade the Changing Woman is the first post-"Milk Wars" Young Animal title and leads the charge for this month’s weekly offerings from DC’s wild and untamed imprint. As a debut issue it does everything it needs to do. Readers will understand everything that Loma Shade can lose in this series, and all the ways that that loss can occur, while also establishing that this is a series that would never be content to be predictable. The team of Castellucci, Zarcone, and Fitzpatrick already had a winning formula with Shade the Changing Girl, so it's exciting to see all three pushing something already great further into excellence. As an inventive comic growing up from a previous inventive comic book, it’s good to see that some things never change.
Prism Stalker #1
Written and Illustrated by Sloane Leong
Published by Image Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
It’s hard to imagine "Xenogenesis meets magical girls," but Sloane Leong delivers. The debut issue of Prism Stalker #1, out this week from Image Comics, is a surreal tale that will linger with you long after the final page. Prism Stalker follows Vep, a young woman from a quarantined planet working in indentured servitude to the hive species that took in a small band of refugees from Vep’s homeworld. Vep chafes against the rigidity of the work she’s trapped in and works to find small ways to keep culture her new hosts are attempting to distance her from - only to have her small acts of rebellion land her in the custody of a recruiter for a mysterious academy who won’t answer her questions or take no for an answer.
Leong is a skilled writer and illustrator. She crafts a world that’s both eerily beautiful and uncomfortably claustrophobic. The vibrant and otherworldly palette becomes almost oppressive as her panel-dense layouts leave you feeling as if walls are closing in with no escape in sight. We’re trapped with Vep, but Leong takes great care to keep Vep more determined than hopeless in the face of an almost unfathomable travesty. It’s grim determination, but determination all the same to preserve the memories of her homeworld Inama and the culture her ‘rescuers’ would prefer to let fade into the far-reaching history of the galaxy.
Prism Stalker invokes the ethical questions of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis saga almost immediately and leaves these questions looming large as Vep is essentially kidnapped for enrollment into the Chorus academy she’s told is better suited to her curious and (implicitly, to the ‘caretakers’ of her family of refugees) contrarian temperament. The assumption is that alien intervention to save a species would be welcome, but as with Butler and the Oankali, Leong explores the profound imbalance of power that comes implicitly with being a small community forced to take refuge under the wings of a much larger and farther-reaching government - particularly when the concept of fair payment for their kindness involves not just labor, but assimilation.
The Sveran have rescued Vep and her family, and offer food and shelter in exchange for not just their labor but ultimately, their identity. “It’s important for your social health to move beyond your base traditions.” Forget yourself, feel nothing when your elders speak a language you can’t learn, don’t fear for the future of your people. When Vep is ‘offered’ the opportunity to join an academy focusing on populating new planets, the lingering question is what precisely these recruits will be populating it with - if all refugee children are like Vep, separated from their families and raised in the culture of the species that rescued them, then even returning to the quarantined world they were snatched away from would make it something new. New traditions, new language. Is the death of a culture more or less or equally devastating as the death of a species?
Whole cultures and languages have been lost on Earth before, and Prism Stalker #1 is a particularly compelling work for its ability to hint at this in whispers that creep in underneath the fantastical sci-fi elements of the narrative and cling to you long after you’ve turned the final page. In Prism Stalker #1, Leong offers an impeccable, engrossing new world that’s as strange as it is beautiful, and a thoughtful, well-paced story that tackles complicated issues with subtlety and skill. Her work is science fiction at its purest - innovative and thoughtful, captivating and challenging all at once. Leong offers a fresh and vital new voice to comics, and Prism Stalker #1 is a must-read.