How do you like to deal with the stresses of the election and last night's rotten-to-the-core debate? Would you like to confront things head-on, directly to the forehead? Would you like to come at your troubles obliquely, dulling the blow? Or have you been marinating in enough misery for the last few months, and you just need a full escape?
Personally, when I find my mind veering too dizzily toward the country's nightmare trajectory, I water my plants for a while. But at this point the planters are so well-hydrated I think frogs might move in soon, which is why I'm grateful to have another form of distraction: This week's new comic book recommendations, chosen in partnership with our friends at Phoenix Comics on Capitol Hill (where all of these titles are available to pick up).
This week we've got the very timely Issue #1 of Department of Truth, which concerns the management of political misinformation (!!!); there's Tartarus, a lavish Afrofuturistic adventure in which powerful people keep terrible secrets; there's Shang-Chi, a thoughtful martial arts adventure; The Dragon Prince: Through the Moon, which may just outdo the Netflix show; and the utterly charming Voyage to the Stars to scratch your Steven Universe itch.
A single comic book issue is not enough to contain the world of Tartarus, which is why the new trade paperback was worth waiting for: A lavish space opera that’s been described as “Breaking Bad set in Mos Eisley” with a reckless abandon and love of adventure that reminds me of Alan Moore’s Halo Jones. We start with a thrilling sci-fi prison-break action sequence, then a jump-ahead of many years for a more somber filling-in of the world and our main characters, particularly a young woman whose hidden past suggests she’s destined for greatness in space.
The characters are great fun and the art is beautiful—an Afrofuturistic vision of a gritty, dangerous future—but it’s the universe and lore that sparks the imagination in this book. Tartarus is a huge sprawling story, and at times it feels like there’s too much of it to fit on the page. Some sequences can be difficult to follow as the point of view careens from one end of a scene to another, and at times I found myself wondering, “Wait… where are we now?”
Normally I’m annoyed by books that need to be read two or three times to fully understand the basics of the plot. But fortunately the story and art of Tartarus are a pleasure to revisit.
Marvel’s Shang-Chi gets a fun Issue #1 this week with a new storyline written by the excellent Gene Luen Yang (author of the must-read American Born Chinese). Sorcery, mysticism, fables and legend abound before we jump ahead several centuries to the modern-day hero, a young man living in New York’s Chinatown. Secret power struggles amidst powerful families are coming to a head, threatening Shang-Chi’s position within his clan. You know, adventure-type stuff.
Shang-Chi is getting his own Marvel movie next year (provided there IS a next year) and this is a great opportunity to dive into the character before the film comes out. Yang’s writing is of course wonderful, setting up a large cast of fascinating characters; and the layout of the martial arts fights is a thrill. I hope the film manages to measure up.
I dare you to find a book out this week with cuter, more appealing character designs. (And no the new MLP book doesn’t even come close.) Voyage to the Stars is based on the podcast starring nerd heroes Felicia Day, Janey Varney, and more; it begins with Earth's destruction and follows a plucky crew of misfits trying to save the universe.
Though I do love The Adventure Zone, I think this book does a better job of adapting podcast-to-comic, throwing the reader into a lush world while maintaining a fast pace and fleshing out details that were formerly left to the imagination. The Steven-Universe-ish tone of flawed friends in a chosen family is a real heart-warmer, and the lovely color palettes make this a perfect before-bed chill-out read.
Imagine a world in which misinformation is rampant and our very existence is threatened by lies propagated by the most powerful people on Earth. In other words, imagine the world in which we are living… but then throw in a little fantasy, with the twist that urban myths can become true if enough people believe in them.
Department of Truth #1 feels a little TOO real at times, particularly in the days after a presidential debate in which no lie seemed important enough to be challenged. Whether it’s the JFK assassination, a flat Earth, or shapeshifting reptiles, the shadowy Department of Truth is tasked with quashing conspiracy theories before they get out of hand. There’s an X-Files paranoia to the writing and a dreamy noir to the art that, after reading, may be hard to separate from the reality in which we live.
I’ve observed before that some stories just work better in comic form than as a series—The Umbrella Academy comes immediately to mind—and I wonder if that might also be the case for The Dragon Prince. A fine story with an Avatar vibe, I found my attention wandering from the Netflix show as it lingered for just a bit too long in meandering scenes and offered clumsy dialogue like “this is a story of redemption.” You know, a normal thing that people often say.
The new Dragon Prince book, Through the Moon, sits comfortably alongside the series (you will benefit from having some knowledge of the world and characters going in). But I found it a more satisfying experience than watching the show: The book gives room for character development that I’d have liked to see on the show, while also presenting a fast pace to the adventuring that I think the series lacked. It’s a nice pick for nerdy kiddos in your life, and perhaps something to remember when compiling holiday gift lists. Oh geez, how is it nearly that time already???