Welcome to Comics Wire, SYFY WIRE’s weekly comics column that gets at the pulse of what’s going on in comics right now. We’ve got what you need to know about huge crossovers, real-life issues facing the industry, cool first looks, the week’s hot new comics, and everything in between.
Last week Marvel Comics finally launched the first issue of the mysterious X of Swords event, the latest stakes-raising gambit in the mutant makeover that began with Dawn of X and has continued through several wonderful ongoing series, all supervised by Jonathan Hickman as “Head of X.” The event’s debut title, X of Swords: Creation, set the stakes for the conflict to come, and of course did a little bit of explaining as to why several X-Men are about to be wielding legendary swords, but it also did more than that. In a clever bit of wordplay that also turns out to be a clever bit of stage-setting for the epic future of mutantkind, Creation also revealed the return of the Sentient World Observation & Response Directorate.
Because you can’t have an event called X of Swords without S.W.O.R.D.
And of course, that meant that mere hours after X of Swords launched as an event, Marvel revealed that by the time it’s over a new S.W.O.R.D. series by the Empyre team of Al Ewing and Valerio Schiti will be upon us.
One of the most fascinating things about this whole Dawn of X era is watching how the X-line behaves when it’s cohesive in a way that extends beyond continuity and crossover collaborations. It has that too, of course, but we’re reading through an era right now when mutants aren’t a faction, but a nation, and beyond that they’re a nation that’s managed to conquer death and reveal a whole separate continent connected to their homeland that contains its own secret history of mutantdom that we’re only just learning. To say it’s ambitious is an understatement, and after the fantasy-tinged X of Swords that level of ambition will have to keep climbing.
So for Ewing and Schiti to literally take mutants to the stars feels like both a logical step and a fun one, particularly with characters like Abigail Brand, Magneto, and Manifold (y’all, I love Manifold) along for the ride. S.W.O.R.D. is a fantastic idea in the Marvel Universe that still feels underutilized, and if anyone can find a way to squeeze maximum cosmic weirdness out of it, it’s Al Ewing.
S.W.O.R.D. #1 arrives in December.
TKO comes back for more
We love Big Two comics around here, to be sure, but it’s also a hell of a time for smaller publishers to team with incredible talent for original work that exists beyond the confines of continuity. Earlier this week we heard about the ambitious starting lineup for new publisher Bad Idea, and a few days before that the talent-packed publisher TKO Studios unveiled its third wave of titles arriving later this year, all of which look like addictive reads waiting to happen.
Since its founding in 2017, TKO has done its best to shake up comics releasing with a “binge” model of reading. All their books arrive fully formed, in either a batch of single issues or an oversized collection, so you get the entire story without having to wait for monthly releases. This release model helped make headlines, but the publisher has also made a lot of fans by packing its roster with creators like Jeff Lemire, Garth Ennis, Steve Epting, Roxane Gay, and more. Previous releases include books like The Banks, Sara, and my personal favorite, The Fearsome Doctor Fang. Now we know what’s next.
TKO announced last week that its “Third Wave” of titles include three new comics launching this November. The announcement leads off with The Pull — “a sci-fi epic that asks the ultimate question: What would you do if you only had six days left to live – give up or fight back?” — from writer Steve Orlando, artist Ricardo Lopez Ortiz, colorist Triona Farell, and letterer Thomas Mauer. If you’re up for something a little more hardboiled in a spooky way, there’s the supernatural crime tale Lonesome Days, Savage Nights, about “a private detective with one hell of a trick up his sleeve … and a monster under his skin,” from writers Steve Niles and Salvatore Simeone, artist Szymon Kudranski, and letterer Thomas Mauer.
Then things drop into full-on horror with Redfork, a series about “an ex-con who returns to his hometown to find something sinister is draining the very life from it,” from writer Alex Parknadel, artist Nil Vendrell, colorist Giulia Brusco, and letterer Ryan Ferrier. As with previous TKO launches, these titles combine intriguing talent with an eclectic mix of genres, cementing the studio as a publisher we should all continue to keep an eye on. The third wave launches November 9, and pre-orders begin October 16.
A Kickstarter to watch
Just about everyone on Kickstarter has some kind of hook, often a gimmick that might make you shrug or might make you click. Then sometimes when you do click you get more intrigued, then you scroll and you get more intrigued, until you realize you’ve found something worth betting on. The Trap, which launched as the passion project of a former NFL star, feels like one of those projects.
The Trap is a 120-page graphic novel conceived by seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker and former Chicago Bear Lance Briggs, written by Kyle Higgins, drawn by artist Danilo Beyruth, colored by Tamra Bonvillain, letterered by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, and designed by Sasha E. Head that fits neatly into a subgenre I happen to love: dystopian sci-fi sports drama. The series follows a young athlete who happens to be adept at “surfriding,” a futurstic sport that happens to be sweeping the galaxy, but our young hero is not just going to take his talents to easy street. No, when money gets tight on the eve of greatness, the whole story shifts, and “The Trap” of the title kicks in when his back is against the wall. For Briggs, it’s a very personal feeling filtered through a lofty sci-fi story.
“Before I played professional football, my life was very different,” Briggs said of the project. “I grew up in Sacramento, CA during the 1980s and 1990s, with my mother and two older sisters. But while many people hear ‘Sacramento’ and associate it with a place of power and decision making in the state of California, the reality— for many of its residents— is anything but. Our family struggled no differently than most in the south area. There were times when the pantry was bare and the fridge was empty. Days or weeks without power. Waking up to cold showers before school. For those of us who came of age in an environment like this, we have a simple name for it: The Trap. Put simply, the name translates to a community that has been failed by its governing bodies. The Trap is both a neighborhood and a resulting way of life— a system designed to keep you from succeeding.”
That’s a hell of a powerful allegory to root a story in, and Beyruth’s stunning art goes a long way to helping sell the execution of the project. If The Trap feels like something for you — and if you’re a fan of dystopian sci-fi adventure, it really feels like it should — you can get in on the Kickstarter action right now. Just 10 bucks will get you a digital edition of the graphic novel.
New Comics: The Department of Truth, Shang-Chi returns, and more!
That’s the news. Now let’s talking about the hot new comics of the week.
The Department of Truth #1: James Tynion IV is having one of the best hot streaks any comics creator has had in recent memory. He’s parlayed time on books like Detective Comics and Justice League into an extremely entertaining Batman run, has one of the best horror books currently publishing with Something Is Killing the Children, writes a great all-ages fantasy with WYND, and just launched the excellent horror anthology Razorblades. They’re all solid projects, but somehow Tynion was still holding back something else with the potential to be truly special, which brings us to The Department of Truth, one of the most buzzed-about books of the last few months.
The first issue of the series, from Tynion and artist Martin Simmonds, follows an FBI agent who believes he has a handle on conspiracy theorists and why they persist. As you may have guessed from the title of the series, it turns out he doesn’t know the half of it. What follows is a journey into a dark, captivating secret history that ends with one of the best To Be Continued stingers I can remember seeing in a comic.
That stinger, and the story that builds up to it, proceeds with beautifully paced swagger under Tynion’s pen, as he slowly builds the layers of the kind of deep-rooted thriller he wants to tell through various conspiracy theories you might already be familiar with. That sense of familiarity creates a kind of latching on point, a sense of fun that persists throughout the book, which then allows Simmonds and his gorgeously unhinged art to take over and pivot the book into something else entirely.
Through beautifully rendered pages that range from slight abstractions to all-out nightmares, Simmonds transforms The Department of Truth into a peek into another world that might be lurking just behind some door in some secret facility we’ve perhaps glimpsed but never entered. The combined effect of art and story is like peeking in on something we’re not meant to see, and it’s instantly compelling. This bold, taut, expertly crafted debut might just be the best new comic of the year.
Shang-Chi #1: Shang-Chi is getting his own movie in the not-too-distant future, so it makes sense that Marvel is rolling out a new book starring the Master of Kung-Fu, and it also makes sense that they got a superstar like Gene Luen Yang to write it. Yang gives you a few things immediately with a book like this: a firm grasp of the cultural identity of the character, a firm grasp on how to integrate that identity into an action-adventure story, and a firm grasp on exuberant superhero storytelling. Couple with that with some wonderful art and you’ve got an instantly fun debut that sets the stage for something big in Shang-Chi’s future.
When we first meet him again, Shang-Chi is living the quiet life, far from the world of warriors, secrets, and dark devotions his family ties once swept him up in. What’s striking almost immediately is that Yang and artist Dike Ruan are just as adept at portraying this quiet life with heart, humor, and a sense of peace as they are at the kung-fu stuff that will eventually arrive. For some of the action, artist Philip Tan has been recruited to layer in a sense of otherworldly, fantastic might and wonder, and it only adds to the fun of the juxtaposition. Shang-Chi is a fighter, yes, but he’s also a rather gifted baker.
All of this — the quiet life in semi-hiding, the epic flashbacks, and the fight scenes — merges to create a first issue that really roots us as readers in a fresh knowledge of who Shang-Chi is, not just what his backstory might be or where he fits into the Marvel Universe. Too many first issues spend forever trying to explain to us why the character we’re reading about is important, and while there’s some of that here, not a word of it is wasted, and Yang and company clearly understand the importance of readers meeting Shang-Chi as he is now first. It roots the book in a very big heart, and that’s going to make the confrontations to come all the more rewarding.
Joker War Zone #1: We’re nearing the end of Joker War, the massive Batman event that’s ravaged Gotham City for a few months, and before it all comes to a conclusion in the pages of Batman #100 DC Comics is treating us to a one-shot that helps expand on some of the many personalities, new and old, that have helped shape the event beyond the Caped Crusader and Mr. J. This would perhaps be a fine idea just as a kind of companion piece to the main action, but where War Zone really shines is its ability to show us not just what’s happening now, but what might happen next. It’s as much an expansion as it is a tie-in, and the hints it offers us about what’s to come are enough to make it worth picking up.
The one-shot features five different stories from throughout Gotham City amid the Joker War, several of which have “To Be Continued in 2021” tags attached to them which signify major important going forward. Of these, perhaps the most impactful are James Tynion IV and Guillem March’s story following a meeting of two villainous minds at Arkham Asylum, and John Ridley and Olivier Coipel’s tale of the Fox family in the wake of Lucius’ torture by Punchline. Both stories are set up as intensely focused character pieces that set the stage for bigger things, including Ridley’s upcoming Batman miniseries starring a person of color under the cowl, so they’re well worth absorbing in the midst of the Joker’s chaos.
Of course, the rest of the stories feature standout moments as well, including what’s easily the best thing about the whole one-shot: James Stokoe’s absolutely gobsmacking rendition of Gotham City in the Clownhunter story he collaborated with Tynion on. It all combines to create a book that feels like more than the sum of its parts, whether you’re reading it for temporary amusement, as an effort to gauge the long game of Tynion’s Batman run, or both. It’s a gripping book that makes the Joker War event feel like a true epic.
Alienated #6: If you’re looking for a short, haunting, endlessly surprising genre series that begins in an unusual place and just keeps building and building in its own mysterious ways, Alienated is now waiting for you in its complete form. The sci-fi/horror series from writer Simon Spurrier and artist Chris Wildgoose drops its final issue this week, putting the capper on a series that proved to be inventive, unforgettable, and unnerving in a way that will stick in your head for weeks after you’ve read it.
In case you haven’t been following the series, Alienated is the story of three teens named Sam — Samuel, Samantha, and Samir — who all exist as outsiders at their high school in one way or another. Their alienation leads them to take a common path through the woods to school one day, which leads them to a strange creature dangling from a tree. Soon, they find they’re in a symbiotic relationship with both the alien, who they’ve named “Chip,” and each other. Through Chip, they can hear each other’s thoughts, summon just about anything they want, and even see into other people’s minds, but what happens when they realize a creature that can give them anything they want can be exploited for more than just temporary gratification?
What happens is two incredible storytellers slowly unspooling one of the most quietly horrifying sci-fi stories I’ve read in a long time. Alienated begins from a place that’s almost like a more grown-up version of ET, but as it evolves it becomes clear quite quickly that something much more sinister is going on, and by the time you realize what it is you’re too compelled to turn back. Spurrier’s scripting is tight, tense, and full of little character details that make the story rich with empathy and horror, and Wildgoose’s art is simply stunning whether he’s showing us a typical high school scene or flat-out unraveling reality around the characters. This is a special book that absolutely stuck the landing, and it’s worth going back to the read the whole thing.
X-Ray Robot #2: Reading a Mike Allred book, whether he’s working on a Big Two property or laying out a strange new creator-owned world, is always a special experience. There’s a magic that Allred and his wife and colorist Laura capture through their work that no one else has, a since that we’re peering directly into the unfiltered imagination of someone who just sees the world differently than the rest of us. There’s a reason he’s a legend, and he keeps reaffirming it for us with things like his most recent creation, X-Ray Robot.
The robot in question is, in the first issue of the series, part of a grand experiment to peer into other dimensions. It’s an experiment that, as you might have guessed, goes horribly wrong, tearing reality asunder and sending the robot and his creators into battle against a terrifying entity that might just undo existence itself.
This is, of course, a perfect showcase for Allred to unspool psychedelic dreams and nightmares before our very eyes, which makes X-Ray Robot the kind of visual feast that other comics artists might only dream of. In issue #2, as the stakes of the story become both clearer and higher, Allred just keeps upping his game, delivering unforgettable image after unforgettable image. This is one of those comics you’ll stare at from one angle, then tilt the page to stare at from another angle, over and over again until you’re done. It’s a must-read for Allred fans.
And that’s it for Comics Wire this week. Until next time, remember what John Custer told his son Jesse in the pages of Preacher:
“You gotta be one of the good guys, son: ‘Cause there’s way too many of the bad.”