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The closest point on our planet to Mars is somewhere in the middle of Utah, where craggy rock canyons carved by long-vanished rivers stand, dead, before a gaping sky.

The last time I drove across the country there was a thunderstorm rolling across the road, and I could see it coming from what felt like an entire state away. It began as little flickers of light in the sky, migrating over the plain as I sped toward it for hours until I was engulfed in sheets of rain and explosive electrical crags — from a day’s journey away, the storm looked like a tiny harmless sparkle, but by the time I’d reached Salt Lake City, it had revealed itself to be a colossus and I was a mouse clinging to driftwood in a river.

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It’s the emptiness of the plains that makes them feel so big — that there is nothing large in sight makes the vastness feel far larger than the Rocky Mountains I’d left behind, waiting to be filled by storms and imagination.

I find myself thinking of those plains when reading Mawrth Vallis, a remarkable new graphic novel out this week that fills the emptiness of a Martian canyon with adventure. Thanks to Phoenix Comics for helping to pick out this week’s comic pics — and also keep your eyes peeled for a Free Comics Day preview coming soon. See you in the storm.

MAWRTH VALLIS

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I’ve never heard a book as loudly as I did Mawrth Vallis, a paperback that roars with nonstop sci-fi adventure. There’s no dialogue, but with instant action spilling across every page, I couldn’t stop my mind from filling in a deafening soundtrack. The book opens somewhere in the future on Mars — the title is a reference to a geological formation on the red planet — where opposing squadrons of fighters battle in the sky. An unexpected chase leads two combatants to form an uneasy alliance, and to discover hideous secrets about their own identities and the conflict in which they’re embroiled. That the book can offer such a rich action-mystery without a single spoken word is itself impressive, but my admiration is greatest when it comes to the art and layout, which is perfectly designed through fast-paced action scenes and tense ambushes. I discovered my heart racing as we approached the climax, which managed to trigger my adrenaline like the best moments of Mad Max: Fury Road. Tremendous work, and the icing on the cake is the perfect compact format in which Image Comics has chosen to print it: I wouldn’t mind seeing this lovely art presented in a larger format, but the smallish paperback is the perfect size for clutching in your hands and drawing it closer and closer to your face as the action unfurls.

Rating: 🚀🚀🚀🚀🚀 (5/5)

Writer, illustrator, designer, and editor: Electric Pick.

DARK BLOOD ISSUE #1

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Don’t be turned off by the oddly generic cover — a brooding tough guy swaggering toward the reader with a nondescript map of Europe above what looks like clipart of a small town; ho hum, seen it a million times. But inside you’ll find arresting art and an intriguing mystery involving a Black man who seems to have obtained strange telekinetic superpowers, somehow, while fighting in World War II. Our hero, Avery Aldridge, is happy to move on from his traumatic past; but the racist country for which he fought just won’t let him. Fantastic evocative art guides the reader through flashbacks to WWII combat and to something called “the variance” that, it’s hinted, is in some way intertwined with Avery’s powers. Issue 1 does the heavy lifting of setting up the world, its characters, its rules, and most importantly its mysteries — what is the variance, what is Avery, and how is history changed when a racist society pushes a Black veteran with superpowers to his limits?

Rating: ✈️✈️✈️✈️ (4/5)

Writer: Latoya Morgan. Artist: Walt Barna. Cover artists: Valentine DeLandro, Marco Rudy, Juni Ba.

M.O.M.: MOTHER OF MADNESS ISSUE #1

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I wish I could make heads or tails of this book, which throws all the right elements into a blender but then doesn’t hit the blend button. Or maybe it hits liquify instead? Whatever the case, despite having excellent art, fascinating characters, and an intriguing premise, none of those elements seem to be on speaking terms with each other. Our hero is Maya Kuyper, who is some kind of scientist with some array of superpowers living in some kind of future; while doing some sort of genetic (?) research, she somehow becomes embroiled in some kind of human trafficking scheme that is in some way related to her child. The book’s entire forty pages (long!) is devoted to this premise, describing seemingly random details in a stream of consciousness about disconnected snippets of smalltalk and sexism. That’s a shame, because in interviews, creator Emilia Clarke (yes, the Game of Thrones actor) describes a cool premise — taking the aspects of womanhood that society has deemed negative, and turning them into something powerful and positive. Neat! I bet Clarke has a particularly interesting perspective on the way that women are marginalized in professional settings, but this confusing collage of seemingly unrelated images and effects without causes obscures its own meaning. Gorgeous visuals, though.

Rating: 🧬🧬 (2/5)

Writers: Emilia Clarke, Isobel Richardson, Marguerite Bennett. Artist: Leila Leiz. Covers: Jo Ratcliffe, Jen Bartel.

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ALSO: HARRY POTTER BUT WITH MORE PUNCHING

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There’s lots more promising stuff this week: A new Moon Night series begins, no doubt in preparation for the TV series coming to Disney+ next year. Celestia is a gorgeous fantasy story lavishly printed in a hardcover work of art; I’m also interested in Bermuda, an action-adventure about spoiled rich kids shipwrecked on an island of monsters and resourceful castaways. I also love the look of Mashle Volume 1, a magic-boy/high school manga in which our hero has no powers so instead he learns to fight. And I’ve been meaning to read Syphon, the first issue of a 3-book series about an EMT who can absorb his patients’ pain.