Back in the ‘90s, when the Internet seemed new (I know, I know, it was decades old at that point, but it wasn’t until the era of Seinfeld and scrunchies that most people noticed it), there was a brief flourishing of epistolary novels — that is, stories told through a series of communiques.
In previous decades/centuries, such books tended to focus on hand-written letters, as in The Screwtape Letters, Dracula, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. The ‘90s twist was to present them as a series of emails or chat logs, which was … well, given how people tend to write online, these books tended to be not entirely pleasurable to read for long stretches.
I’m interested to see a new approach in a book by Adam Ellis — yes, the former-BuzzFeed cartoonist, the “let people enjoy things” guy, the dick-shadow guy — that tells a story through, of all things, a fake strategy guide for a nonexistent game. I don’t know why any author would choose such a dizzying challenge for themselves but I am happy to see any project that makes literature more weird than it already is, so hats off.
Thanks as always to Phoenix for sorting through this week’s releases!
DUNE: THE WATERS OF KANLY #1
There are two types of people in the world: Those who would like to know more about Gurney Halleck, Warmaster for House Atreides during the reign of Leto Atreides I, and those who say “who?” If you are invested in Frank Herbert’s Dune (or David Lynch’s adaptation, or Dennis Villeneuve, or the one that never happened with Salvador Dalí) then you will be tickled by this opportunity to suck up even more lore around the heros who fought for Arrakis. This series takes place in the window between the Harkonnen treachery and the reappearance of Paul many years later — a period hastily time-skipped in the Lynch version — and involves Gurney’s furious quest for revenge against the Harkonnen lords, in particular the Beast Rabban. Issue #1 is a treat for fans, presenting an appropriately massive universe of weird destinations and bizarre characters for Gurney to chafe against. What’s more, the adventure’s jaunty pace keeps the plot bounding along much more enjoyably than the sloooooow plod of the films and (forgive me, Frank) the original novel. Pulpy space swashbuckling and portentous dialogue lend the feel of a tasty, trashy Edgar Rice Borroughs fantasy — immersive, tense, and surprising.
Rating: ☀️☀️☀️☀️☀️ (5/5)
Writers: Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson. Illustrator: Francesco Mortarino. Colors: Raúl Angulo. Letters: Ed Dukeshire. Cover art: Christian Ward. Alt covers: Massimo Carnevale, Junggeun Yoon, InHyuk Lee.
Publisher: Boom! Studios.
THE PANIC #1
Ten strangers are trapped in a derailed subway train after it crashes in the tunnel under the Hudson, and must find their way to safety as mysterious seemingly-supernatural evil forces close in on them. It sounds like a great premise, so it’s a real puzzler how the telling went so awry. The first problem seems to be a disorienting use of time-jumps — backwards and forwards, as far as I can make out — and if there’s any motivation for the abrupt scene changes, it eluded me. “The Poseidon Adventure but in a train tunnel” would be such a great pitch, but what should be a straightforward romp is, in its initial pages, befuddling. Fortunately, the story gets back on track once the train derails; once the initial disaster has plunged our heroes into crisis, misfortune flows more smoothly and we can see alliances and rivalries forming in the unhappy crew of survivors. That’s likely to be where the real meat of the story lies: Now that these strangers have been randomly chosen by fate, will they manage to work together and save themselves or descend into suicidal bickering? A little more of that action and a little less art-film up top would have been most welcome. I’m also deducting a few points for the oddly sterile lettering.
Rating: 🚂🚂🚂 (3/5)
Script & lettering: Neil Kleid. Art: Andrea Mutti. Editor: Bis Stringer Horne. Diversity & inclusion consultant: Amanda Stevens.
Publisher: Migdal Comics/Comixology.
I don’t know how to describe the visual style in this book in any way other than “concept art for a semi-obscure XBox platformer circa 2002.” Cute-weird colorful creatures bound through an imaginative fantasy landscape, and with every turn of the page I found myself wishing I could play along in this fun world. Our hero is Twig, an adorable little monster with a splatter-shaped pet; his job is essentially to travel and deliver stuff. I suppose it’s consistent with the art style to open with a series of fetch-quests; but it would have been nice if our guy was faced with some interesting choices to make so we could get to know him, rather than just receiving task assignments. Still, this gorgeous environment is a real treat for the eyes, and even if Twig’s never presented with a proper conundrum, I’d be willing to stick with it for a few more issues just to enjoy the setting. Issue #1 ends with a plot twist in the final panel that hints at a thicker plot in issues to come, and I wish that had come juuuuuust a bit sooner so our hero had a chance to react. As it is, I feel like I’ve got a closer relationship with the landscapes than our would-be protagonist. This first issue is comfortably all-ages, though I hesitate to recommend it to kids simply because Image tends to offer more adult fare and there’s no telling how dark it might get in the future; I don’t want to make the same mistake I made with Stray Dogs.
Rating: 💎💎💎💎 (4/5)
Author: Skottie Young. Illustrator: Kyle Strahm. Colors: Jean-Francois Beaulieu. Lettering, logo, and design: Nake Piekos of Blambot. Editor: Joel Enos. Alt covers: Kyle Strahm, Skottie Young, Peach Momoko. Layout and design: Ryan Brewer.
Publisher: Image Comics.
ALSO: A SLEW OF YOUNG-ADULT GRAPHIC NOVELS
Where to even begin with all the excellent book for middle-grade readers this week? Check out Heart Takes the Stage, a cozy slice-of-school-life about drama in a drama club. Also great is a coming-of-gender story called Kisses for Jet — though it should be noted that the book is published by Nobrow, which has been criticized in the past for exploiting creators. Anne of West Philly is a marvelous modern-day adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, and Apple Crush is a cute-as-a-button story about making friends after moving. All are lovely!
Other comic fare: DC has a new entry in its Dark Crisis series, along with a new Wonder Woman series in which our heroine is Black. Marvel has some X-Men stuff cooking, and a new Obi-Wan series to coincide with the new Disney+ series. History buffs will enjoy Bauhaus, a comic about the design movement. And I have no idea who Fever Knights is for, but I like it nonetheless — a narrative story told through a “fake strategy guide” for a nonexistent game (drawn by Adam Ellis, who is great), this surprisingly thick book puts a weird twist on storytelling and I am not only intrigued, but curious to see if now it will get adapted into an actual game.