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“Stakes, suspense, and agency,” those were the three elements drilled into me in a creative writing class many many years ago. Give your characters something to lose, give them a worsening problem, and give them the power to do something about it, the instructor told us, and you’ll solve three-quarters of your narrative problems.

I think back on that trilogy a lot when I review comics, because sure enough those are often the three elements that make the difference between a book that works and one that I yearn to put down. I don’t mean to say that I assign review scores based solely on whether they meet those criteria — just that it’s hard to dislike a story when it nails those basics.

This week we have one new release that hit stakes-suspense-agency squarely on the head, a book that nails stakes and suspense but fumbles agency, and a third book that manages to avoid all three. All in all, a solid validation of one of the few things I actually managed to absorb in college. Thanks as always to Phoenix for the help sorting through new releases!

LAND OF THE LIVING GODS ISSUE #1

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An excellent pairing with last week’s New Masters, this Afro-Futurism adventure presents a far-off future Johannesburg where vicious gangs roam the wastes, ghosts watch over the living, and hovering speeder-bikes mix with witches. There’s a marvelous blend of age-old magic and modern technology, and I’m particularly intrigued by the way that the old magic seems to have aged much better than the tech. In the passing of centuries, machines have become rattly and dilapidated, whereas the ancient gods have thrived. Unfortunately, this issue-one takes a decidedly light touch when establishing the rules of this world: How do ghosts work and who can see them? How dangerous and numerous are the gangs? What is the mysterious illness plaguing a hero’s mother? Is the seemingly-sentient plant a product of genetic engineering or divine magic or both? A little mystery in a story is fine, but it’s less fun when it becomes head-scratching homework.

Rating: 🌿🌿🌿🌿 (4/5)

Writer: Isaac Mogajane. Artist & Colorist: Santtos Letterer: Dave Sharpe. Covers: Andy Clarke, Jose Villarrubia, Jen Hickman, Dale Altmann. Logo design: Dave Sharpe. Backmatter Design: Charles Pritchett. Editor: Mike Marts. Created by: Isaac Mogajane

A SPARK WITHIN THE FORGE

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A bustling bronze-age city is bifurcated between two social strata: On one side, the powerful occupying soldiers who serve the rich; and on the other, a put-upon laborer/slave caste who must watch their every step, lest they be arrested, tortured, or killed. In that lowly class, a young laborer named Darin yearns for something more — he is a gifted artist, and spends his days sketching the world around him, and also leaping from rooftop to rooftop to escape detection and capture by the guards. It’s a little bit Disney’s Aladdin, a little bit 1980’s Xanadu. Our hero is your standard hero’s-journey square-jawed handsome hunk, with a family that shakes its head at how his head’s always in the clouds. Far more interesting (and, sadly, given far fewer pages) is Darin’s sister Laia, who carries memories of their long-gone mother and complex feelings about the mother’s role in a presumably-failed resistance movement. Laia carries some trauma that makes her reluctant to leave the house, but when she’s forced to venture out into the world, we see that she has rich relationships with other workers, access to juicy gossip, and a far more interesting dilemma than her brother. If only she’d been our main character instead of her bland-blond brother.

Rating: 🍑🍑🍑 (3/5)

Story: Sabaa Tahir. Script: Nicole Andelfinger. Art: Sonia Liao. Inking assistance: Annette Fanzhu. Colors: Kieran Quigley, Micaela Tangorra. Letters: Mike Fiorrentino.

PUTIN’S RUSSIA: THE RISE OF A DICTATOR

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“Well, this is going to be a real laugh riot,” I thought when I picked up this illustrated chronology of Vladimir Putin’s life. Prepare for 150 pages of bummers in what feels like a terse Wikipedia entry. Putin’s Russia is a list of facts, which I imagine would be handy to someone who needs to get up to speed on the ups and downs of the dictator’s life; but I wouldn’t call it a particularly gripping read. The dry recitation of events lacks the context of causality — yes, that person was poisoned, or that oligarch was exiled, and that target was bombed, but why? What was the fallout? Who benefitted? As eventful as this narrative is, it’s difficult to gauge the relative significance of the events: A thing happens; another thing happens; something else happens; but so what? In the end, it’s clear that Putin’s a bad guy, but didn’t we know that already? The art is coherent but aside from the occasional map does nothing to further illuminate the text. Buried in this lengthy listicle are touches that seem like they could make for interesting stories — the creative assassinations and catastrophic mis-handling of various crises raise many unresolved questions about just what went wrong and who was responsible — but the necessary connective tissue between the facts simply isn’t there.

Rating: 🇷🇺🇷🇺 (2/5)

Written and illustrated by Darryl Cunningham.

ALSO: DEADPOOL GETS A MANGA, FORBIDDEN SPACE-LOVE

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It’s a big week for weighty paperback releases! Marvel gives Deadpool a new look with Deadpool Samurai this week, a surprisingly thick book. Also of interest is Across a Field of Starlight, a sci-fi romance about literally star-crossed lovers. Pixels of You presents a future in which a robot and a cybernetically augmented human must learn to work together. And The Greatest Thing is a gentle coming-of-age about shifting friendships in high school.