Moth & Whisper #1
Written by Ted Anderson
Art by Jen Hickman
Lettering by Marshall Dillon
Published by AfterShock Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
In the vast majority of cyberpunk stories, the world is a focal point. In cyberpunk comics, there’s often a focus on setting and worldbuilding that often comes at the expense of characterization. Opening moments of Ghost in the Shell, Neuromancer and Akira are withholding when it comes to letting their protagonists show their true selves. This often relentless focus on worldbuilding is why most of the notable examples of the subgenre feel overly grim or cynical. Perhaps that is the reason why Moth & Whisper #1 feels so kind and sincere, as writer Ted Anderson and artist Jen Hickman are much more concerned with the comic’s protagonist Niki than with shocking readers with how miserable and high-tech the world has become.
The comic opens by establishing the Moth and the Whisper as the two most successful thieves occupying a vaguely cyberpunk city. The Moth is a master of disguise, capable of changing any and all facets of their appearance and presentation, whether its facial features, clothes, make-up, or voice, to avoid detection. The Whisper, on the other hand, has mastered his craft by perfecting the art of stealth. The two have a reputation that the comic makes a point to show us is known throughout the city, with the two leaving their respective calling cards at the scenes of their heists. While it would have been nice to see more reaction to the calling cards to further establish just how renowned the Moth and Whisper are, this trope of heist stories is an absolute treat in the comic, and is really representative of a lot that this comic does right. Gritty, noir-inspired cyberpunk stories exist in abundance. Those stories have been told. Moth & Whisper has more in common with Sly Cooper than with Blade Runner. In its opening pages the story is brimming with a delightful sense of playfulness and a theme of legacy that is rare in its subgenre.
Readers learn that the Moth and the Whisper have both disappeared six months before the comic begins, but that Niki has recently taken up both of their parents' mantles, utilizing their mother’s disguise tech and their father’s sneaking techniques. Following Niki from the first part of their heist as the Moth to the final part as the Whisper — one which ultimately ends poorly — is an engaging part of the story, but also helps to further support Niki as a character. Niki is a good thief, but they can’t quite reach the level of their parents’ legacy quite yet, particularly when acting as the Whisper. Still, the protagonist looks cool and competent, even in failure, giving Anderson a stellar opening to his narrative.
Jen Hickman’s art is outstanding on every page. As mentioned, she never delves into vast cityscapes or neon-laced intricacies, but the more claustrophobic scope helps readers connect with Niki more, even as they rapidly change their appearance. The high point of Hickman’s visuals is easily on her flashback panels. The Moth and the Whisper spend most of the first half of the comic depicted only as silhouettes with subtle color flourishes to help differentiate them. These panels look cool on an aesthetic level, but they help reinforce just how shadowy these figures are, and how their reputations are somewhat larger than life even if the people behind them are largely unknown. This makes the late-comic reveal of what they actually look like via Niki’s recording have impact. It isn’t a twist reveal, but it makes them seem more important. We are getting more concrete depictions of the characters, but they are still just a recording. It’s a nice moment where art and storytelling converge to build intrigue.
Much has been made in the promotional material of the comic that the protagonist is genderfluid. While representation is important in and of itself, particularly with underrepresented non-binary individuals, Moth & Whisper goes beyond representation to recognition, with Niki’s gender-fluidity being not only an integral part of how they navigate the world but also contributes to the worldbuilding itself. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most cyberpunk has, at its core, notions of self-constructed identity, and how technology assists in that. Niki using their mother’s disguise tech to seamlessly flow through the spectrum of gender makes sense for the character — its tech that allows them to adequately express their identity — but it also is necessitated by the plot.
There is an incredible amount of ground and commentary that the Anderson can make with just this plot mechanism alone. Despite that, the comic never makes a point to comment on Niki’s gender identity, which is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it could be read as refreshing and utterly lacking in condescension, on the other, it could make the promotional materials seem like they are cashing in on representation. The comic feels more good-spirited and rooted in the former, but it will be interesting to see how and if that topic is addressed in future issues.
As a debut issue, Moth & Whisper #1 is a resounding success. Despite imitation being at the forefront of the narrative, the book itself makes it clear that it is not content to imitate other dystopian comics. It’s a fun story with an empathetic lead, all propelled by a few layers of mystery. It’s hard to put the issue down and not feel like Ted Anderson has crafted something special, or to be flipping back to just admire Jen Hickman’s artwork. The comic is able to be both playful and serious, while never jeopardizing either tone. Readers will likely be hooked by this well-paced, visually enjoyable comic.
Cemetery Beach #1
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Howard
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Warren Ellis and his Trees collaborator Jason Howard are back with a new miniseries from Image Comics, Cemetery Beach. This time around their science fiction has a much more classic feel coupled with Ellis’ trademark crass sense of humor. But somewhat frustratingly, this book is over before it really begins - giving us enough to get going but maybe not enough to come back for me. Jason Howard turns in some effective work for the story but like Ellis, he feels a bit reined in - as if having one or two more pages might be all he needs to really break this one wide open.
Probably the most clever bit of the whole issue is how Ellis delivers the setup for the story. Our protagonist, Michael Blackburn, has been captured and he’s immediately very chatty with his captor. Ellis almost lets it go on long enough that you start think he’s forgotten how to write a comic before pulling the rug out from under the reader. But as good as that is as a mechanism to deliver exposition, Ellis’s narrative just doesn’t feel all that urgent. Our main character looks like he might get confused for a famous Hollywood Chris escapes his space colony prison with the help of a dour, punky woman while being chased by a cadre of buffoonish villains. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Still, despite a somewhat rote setup, Ellis is a wizard at pacing this book out. This book moves and that’s part of what makes it work even though it feels familiar.
Jason Howard is a huge part of why this is so enjoyable. While Michael Blackburn has a fairly simple and straightforward design to him, the characters that surround him have a lot more going on. Howard’s inks bring a gritty texture to the entirety of the book that communicates a lot of information about the setting that Ellis doesn’t have room for elsewhere. But there’s a somewhat cartoonish buoyancy to Howard’s work that really propels the script forward and balances out the bits of violence throughout. Howard’s choices give the book a Spielbergian quality as the silent action sequence that is the standout portion of the issue is really expertly choreographed. There’s a lesson here in how to do action-adventure in comics and Ellis knows he doesn’t have to do anything but let Howard teach it. In a lot of ways the art is the saving grace of the book.
While it may have more in common with Ellis’ work on Marvel’s Secret Avengers than his heady approach to a title like Supreme: Blue Rose, Cemetery Beach is still a solid read from cover to cover. even if it does fall into that “writing for the trade” trap. The craft at work is evident in these pages but there’s only a hint of a hook when there really needs to be something a little more overt in order to set it apart from the rest of the sci-fi comics on the shelves. Howard proves once again that he’s an incredible talent who can really elevate a work. Cemetery Beach feels like a title that will reward fans for sticking with it, and given the track record of these two creators, a seven-issue miniseries doesn’t seem like too tall an order.