Zero-G #1

When I take a chance on a new title or unknown creators these days, my M.O. more often than not is to buy the first issue when it’s solicited, then if it hooks me when it arrves to wait for the trade. I realize that’s not the ideal way to support up and coming artists, but I do have to work within a budget here. Too many times in the past I’ve wasted dough preordering three or even four issues of a title before reading the first one and learning it’s less than great.

In the case if Zero-G, however, I have indeed preordered the whole mini for two reasons. First, the solicitation sounded like the kind of thing I would dig and the cover art was good. Second, there’s really no guarantee that a relatively minor series such as this will ever be traded if it sells poorly in singles. Since the ultimate goal of this blog is to try in some small way to raise the profile of SF comics in the U.S., I have in this case put my money where my mouth is.

So far, no regrets. The first issue is fast-paced and fun, and Jason Badower’s interior art is just as pretty as his cover. While there’s a lot of set-up going on, Alex Zamm never goes overboard with talking heads and there’s plenty of time for a rocket launch, a dogfight in space, close encounters and some very bad news to close out the issue on a cliffhanger.

The plot is set in motion by the approach of a massive asteroid the size of Manhattan, which will pass through the solar system between the Moon and Mars. Interest in space exploration is at such a low these days that such a sighting probably wouldn’t stir up enough public support for a mission, however Zamm has a solution for this. This asteroid just so happens to be absolutely filthy with gold, platinum, diamonds, and enough uranium-235 to solve the world’s energy crisis. Suddenly, several different nations are in a race to get there first, not to mention at least one ambitious billionaire eager to finance his own private enterprise to claim this unprecedented source of wealth and power.

The initial discovery of the approaching asteroid is made by Atom Weaver, a simple geologist who finds himself thrown onto the team greenlit to plant the U.S. flag on its surface. Atom makes a good point-of-view character because he’s a reasonably average guy thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Plus, the team leader in charge of the billionaire’s competing mission happens to be his former college sweetheart!

So what makes this story science fiction? The core premise could be about rival treasure hunters racing to claim a gold-leaden Spanish galleon at the bottom of the ocean. But soon after out heroes land on the asteroid’s surface, they discover artificially carved tunnels in the rock, stumble across an underground graveyard of giant alien carcasses, and spot a shadowy observer whose silhouette strongly resembles a humanoid robot. All this in just the first issue!

The creators of Zero G show some real talent. Alex Zamm's writing is fun, breezy and not overly serious. There is good comeraderie between the characters, and the action moves fast with minimal exposition. Jason Badower’s pencils are quite nice, though he can’t resist the temptation to draw everyone beautiful and buff; even scientists and miners have tight athletic bodies. The most unintentionally funny line in the book actually comes from the character data files in the back: in the entry for Weaver’s ex we find out: “Evelyn has found her supermodel looks make it difficult for her to gain the respect she’s due from the scientific community.” Yet, look how she chooses to present herself in the televisied press conference announcing her mission:

Come now, this is a woman who wants everyone to respect her scientific abilities and not pay attention to her looks? Riiiight.

In this first issue, the creators basically lined up a bunch of dominoes, and over the next three months we get to watch ‘em fall. Zero-G is shaping up to be a fun little adventure, and so far I have no regrets about committing to the entire run.

Rating: 8/10


My Virtual Display Case: Previews October 2008

Here's the start of a new ongoing feature here at Rock the Raygun called "My Virtual Display Case", in which yours truly pours over the latest issue of Previews and basically slobbers all over the kewl and overpriced toys that would look great on display in his Secret HQ, if only he had unlimited resources and space and zero familial responsibilities. If I were independently wealthy with a few thousand square feet of display space in my palatial estate, I would probably create a veritable museum to geekdom. In lieu of this, posting images of some of the cooler stuff I'd love to have is the closest I can come. It's materialism at its geekiest and most pathetic!

Before getting to the fun toys, I wanted to point out a couple of newly-solicited books of interest to space cadets everywhere: You can now preorder the complete HC collection of Universal War One from Marvel. In my very first post I talked about how impressed I was with the first issue and am looking forward to the rest. Discount Comic Book Service is offering this for a whopping 50% off the $24.99 cover price-- I'm not getting paid to advertise that, either, it's just a damn good price. Also I'm incredibly intrigued by not-so-subtly titled Holy Sh*t!-- sounds like a blast.

Buck Rogers Statue:

I'm actually partial to Flash Gordon, but damn if this isn't a wicked cool statue! It so perfectly captures the aesthetic of this site, I feel like I should change my profile image. This goes for a paltry $189... you see why I'm settling for ogling the image! Basically, when you go around calling yourself "Space Cadet Juan", this is how you picture yourself in your deluded mind's eye.

R2-D2 USB Hub:

This one is practical as well as cool; who couldn't use extra USB ports for all the techno-junk we plug into our computers? This goes for 45 bucks, which is about 30 more than a 4-port hub that doesn't look like the greatest droid in the galaxy. But would a plain old Linksys model light your heart up with joy? I think not.

Gundam Fix Figuration Metal Action Figure:

Let's not beat around the bush here: this is a hundred dollar toy that's only five inches tall. But it's die-cast metal, fully articulated, and "features various hands and a host of weapons"! Drool, drool.

Conan the Barbarian statue:

Crom! A mere 239 gold pieces.

Tribble Role Play:

I'm kind of surprised no one thought of this sooner: a tribble replica toy that "features real sound and motion" Hopefully it doesn't reproduce when it gets into your grain supply.

Batman Black & White Bruce Timm Statue:

Granted Batman is a cool looking character, and so popular that there is probably at least one new statue of him every month. But this is based on the design sensibility of the fantastic Batman Animated co-creator Bruce Timm, which makes it double-secret cool.

Serenity Valley Map Limited Edition Lithograph:
Boy, how esoteric can you get? A detailed map of an imaginary battle on a made-up planet, based on a TV show that was cancelled after less than a dozen episodes aired! Want it anyway.


The Martian Confederacy

This is easily the most challenging comic I’ve attempted to review in the short existence of this blog, and I don’t just mean because my copy was a misprint missing the first 8 pages (although that certainly didn’t help). Great characters rub shoulder with outlandish unrelatable ones. Exciting, engaging passages are undermined by tangents into eccentric shtick. A steady increase in suspense is deflated by anticlimax. All this depicted with disappointingly simplistic artwork that looks for all the world like a minicomic sketched out with a sharpie in the back of biology class instead of paying attention to the teacher.

In the far future, humanity has joined the greater interstellar community, and a habitable Mars is a local tourist attraction for the galaxy. Writer Jason McNamara concocts a mostly believable future history in which Mars’ core is restarted, the polar ice caps are harvested for drinking water, and immigrants relocated in droves from the filthy Earth, but lest we mistakenly take the premise (or this graphic novel) too seriously, he also throws in the fact that the people of this future society consider 20th century entertainment to be historical artifacts, hence “apes replaced dogs as human pets in the 1980’s and William Shatner bravely conquered space travel.” It’s this kind of serial dopiness that crops up again and again throughout the book.

The plot is set in motion when a local professor develops a moss which will enrich the Martian atmosphere. This would eliminate the need for the breathers humans have been relying on to survive in the thin air. The local Alacalde, who is a total crooked bastard, finds this completely unacceptable, since he is heavily invested in the Breather market, so he murders the prof and burns down his lab. When he suspects that samples of the moss may have already been taken elsewhere, he’s petrified that the Breather industry is about to become obsolete. The bulk of the comic is a long chase as the Alacalde and his goons try to kill off anyone who might have learned about the professor’s experiment before it is revealed to the world.

At the center of this situation are three characters that I took a great liking to. Elijah Boone is a thief, outlaw and all around scoundrel who considered the professor like a father to him growing up. Aside from the questionable way he makes a living, Boone’s defining characteristic is he’s a total babehound who has seemingly scored with every woman on the planet. In fact, the only female he’s not interested in is his roommate Lou, but that’s only because she’s an android, and he doesn’t go that way. It’s his loss, because Lou is easily the most delightful and charming character in the whole book, a funny and fearless rogue who laughs in the face of danger and coolly navigates through every sticky situation with style. Spinner is your standard-issue uplifted bear, who runs a local dive in order to provide for his wife and cubs. Spinner isn’t actually involved in Boone and Lou’s shady lifestyle, but when he is thrown through no fault of his own into this mess, it’s great to watch the veil of domesticity drop away. He becomes reacquainted with his inner grizzly when would-be assassins threaten him, his family and his way of life.

Other characters, however, are so outlandish they truly challenge the readers’ suspension of disbelief. Like this cute babe named Sureena whom Boone meets early on that is willing to become all involved in his troubles after only a few minutes of conversation. When the Alacalde nearly catches up with them, Sureena is willing to doff her clothes, pretend to be a stripper, and distract the lawman with her boobs in order to let Boone sneak off and abandon her. Later when Boone breaks into her house covered head to tow in excrement (yes, really) she not only invites him to use her shower, she hops in with him! Boone is supposedly good with the ladies, but this is ridiculous!

The goofiest character of all is the Alacalde’s genetically anomalous girlfriend Sally, who is basically like a siamese twin, only with two top halves that meet in the middle. When the side that loves him is up top, her other half is upside down, walking on her hands underneath their skirt. Halfway through the story she/they do a somersault, the skirt flips over, and the side who is not so keen on the Alacalde is up top! Sally defies all logic: how does she go to the bathroom without a bottom half? Doesn’t all the blood rush to her upside down head? Maybe I’m taking this all too literally, and the reader is supposed to accept the character metaphorically. But what’s the metaphor? Women’s conflict over falling for men that are no good for them? Probably I’m just too literal-minded a reader to get behind the meaning of all the story’s really out-there elements.

When I cracked open this book I took an immediate dislike to Paige Braddock’s minimalist art style, though I must admit it grew on me after awhile and by the end I decided it was not totally horrible. Every once in awhile she nails a certain facial expression just perfectly, but overall I was pretty underwhelmed. Maybe my tastes are too mainstream but I could’ve enjoyed this book a lot more with a more accomplished penciller, especially for a book with a $15 cover price. Also all the black and white art is shaded in swaths of red, which gets old really fast. Red, cause it’s Mars, get it?

It’s very strange, I really wanted to like the Martian Confederacy a lot more than I actually did. Unfortunately, the final product is not as wonderful as some of its better elements, and it almost pains me to say I would only rate it about a 5.5. Despite my decidedly mixed reaction to this book, I actually would be interested in seeing another adventure of these characters, under the right circumstances. If McNamara were to bring back Boone, Lou, and Spinner, retain the humor while toning down the over-the-top surreal parts, and drawn by a more professional artist, I really think he could end up with a great product. In the meantime, I’m stuck with this odd duck of a book that I can’t even resell because it’s missing pages. Rats.



Avid TV watchers are usually dooming themselves to disappointment if they make the mistake of trying to invest in a new show on the Fox network. As fans of Firefly, Drive and countless other promising series can tell you, Fox is absolutely notorious for smothering their babies in their cradles. Many fledgling shows have had to deal with preemptions, schedule changes and episodes shown out of order before the ensuing spotty ratings are cited as reason to unceremoniously cancel the whole production. With the recent announcement, however, that the paranormal investigation show Fringe has been picked up for a full season, I can discuss the show without fear that my review will be rendered obsolete the moment I post it.

In all the prepublicity leading up to the premiere of Fringe, the folks behind the show almost went out of their way to distance themselves from the X-Files, insisting that while the paranormal theme is the same, they are actually quite different. It’s curious that they seem to want to deny any similarity, since X-Files was such a cult hit in its time and did very well for Fox for nearly a decade. Possibly the show’s luster dims in retrospect because it went on too long after the original co-stars no longer wanted to even be there. Perhaps like me, many viewers got fed up when we realized that X-Files’ much discussed and dissected “mythology” was a meaningless mess that the creators were making up as they went along. I know that I, for one, tuned out after season 6.

Fringe is not like X-Files in that it none of its characters in any way approach the crackling yin and yang relationship of Mulder and Scully: the believer vs. skeptic, wiseass vs. straight arrow, always with an undercurrent of sexual frission. Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish are fine actors but really there was no way the show was going to be remotely the same without its emotional core.

Rather than revolve around a core partnership, Fringe uses an ensemble cast, which is de rigueur for primetime dramas these days. If it were on CBS, it could be called CSI: Weirdsville. Rather than be disrespected outsiders, the investigators on this show have the full backing of the government, including manpower and appropriate budget. It’s the kind of scenario Mulder could only dream about, since he could never seem to scrape together the kind of proof necessary to convince his superiors that he wasn’t just chasing shadows.

The series’ lead, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), is an earnest FBI agent who unwittingly stumbles into a mysterious world of paranormal phenomenon after her lover and co-worker John is critically injured in a chemical explosion, cured of a bizarre transformative disease, revealed to be in cahoots with the bad guys, dies in a car crash, and now has apparently been resurrected through as-yet-unrevealed means. As character motivation “I need to find out what my snakey ex-boyfriend has been lying to me about” is not as geeky-cool as “my sister was abducted by aliens”, but it’ll do.

John Noble, who was wonderfully awful as Denethor in The Return of the King, plays Walter Bishop , the uber-eccentric mad scientist whose expertise is needed to crack the various bizarro mysteries encountered from week to week. A cross between Victor Frankenstein and Rain Man, Bishop exhibits all manner of ridiculous behavior, from talking to himself incessantly to sitting in the closet to announcing in the middle of a mission that he’s wet himself. But while these antics almost make him oddly endearing, at least once an episode Bishop shows his sociopathic side as he demonstrates again and again that his theories and experimentation take precedence over other people’s feelings and safety. Is Bishop merely misunderstood by conventional thinkers, or is there something much more sinister going on behind those hooded eyes?

Bishop’s estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson) comes from a shady background and appears to be involved in criminal dealings as the series opens, but he is pulled over to the side of the angels initially as Walter’s wrangler, but as the show progresses has become more invested in the work the crew is doing. Peter makes a nice contrast to the FBI characters, because he doesn’t feel hemmed in by the rules and doesn’t always feel the need to do things by the book. However, it seems his past will come back to bite him on the ass; already we have seen a mystery tail taking photos of him for unexplained reasons…

There are a few other actors to round out the cast, but so far they haven’t been given a terrible lot to do. Lance Reddick is essentially this show’s “Skinner”, the boss man who hands out the assignments, but at least there is the hint that he may be playing both sides of the fence, which is intriguing. Kirk Acevedo’s character mostly just executes arrest and search warrants, and Jasika Nicole’s character is a glorified gopher. It’s pretty sad when the only notable scene involving Nicole’s Astrid Farnsworth is to be snuck up on and stabbed in the neck with a hypodermic needle of tranquilizer by Walter.

In terms of content, after watching 5 episodes it seems to me that Fringe follows the X-Files paradigm pretty closely in terms of the “freak of the week” structure. Each show begins with a creepy teaser setting up the puzzle or mystery of the episode, followed by eerie New-Agey opening credits. The heroes show up after the commercial break to investigate, and things seem to be wrapped up pretty well by the end of each week. But then there is often a coda which indicates things are not as settled as the good guys might’ve been fooled into believing.

So as the X-Files had its conspiracy “mythology”, Fringe has “The Pattern”, an overarching connection between all these seemingly isolated paranormal events that suggests they might be orchestrated towards a single unguessable goal. Instead of a Cigarette Smoking Man, there is The Observer, a hairless man in a suit and fedora who is present at every catastrophe to takes notes in a pictographic writing. The recent episode “The Arrival” has a black ops baddie that is reminiscent of Krycek. Since Fringe is executive produced by JJ Abrams, I can’t help but to look to his previous series to get some idea as to whether the Pattern storyline will be executed any better than the X-Files’ slapdash mythology. On the one hand, I truly do get the sense when I watch Lost that the creators know all the answers and are slowly working towards those big reveals at the end of the series. On the other, the ongoing Rimbaldi thread in Alias was loaded with potential that went absolutely nowhere, and the whole thing was dropped halfway through the show’s run. So really this show could go either way, but I’m hopeful.

I’m not the world’s biggest horror fan, but I’m sticking with Fringe. Few new series get past that crucial 3-episode trail period with me, but I’ve decided to take the ride with this one in the hopes that it takes me to some cool stops along the way. Right now I would rate Fringe at a 7.5, although that could certainly rise with time as the characters develop and the Pattern mystery unfolds.


M-Theory #1

The creators of M-Theory pretty much state their intentions right on the cover, which is clearly an homage to the EC sci-fi comics of the 50s. This title is chock full of retro elements that wouldn’t be out of place in those books of old: aliens, monsters, robots, and space rangers armed with ray guns and jetpacks populate these pages. Sadly, the theme doesn’t continue on the artistic side, which doesn’t reflect the EC style in any way and is a big letdown.

With so many ingredients thrown into the mix, writers Dwight L. MacPherson and Bruce Brown unveil no fewer than three plotlines in the premiere issue in this mini. The first involves the fallout from America’s first contact with aliens in, you guessed it, Roswell New Mexico. The second takes place in Princeton’s science department during Albert Einstein’s tenure there and in the third we are off in deep space with the aforementioned spacemen. Presumably these threads will all dovetail together by the end, though how they will be able to coherently accomplish this in just 3 issues remains to be seen.

The lead character of the Roswell section is Friedrick Goetz, a jaded and cynical inventor with his own robot sidekick in tow. Goetz witnessed the arrival of the aliens firsthand, although in this version of events they didn’t crash but rather landed safely and were subsequently blasted out of existence by the trigger-happy U.S. army. Before dying, one of the aliens transfers its consciousness into Goetz, giving him instant knowledge of an entire otherworldly civilization. Over the next five years, Goetz toils in a secret underground research facility replicating the aliens’ technological marvels, but he is bitterly certain the government will never allow the average citizen the benefit of their use.

In the Princeton section, Agnes Font is a young physicist who has built a “quantum receiver” capable of communicating with other dimensions for her master’s project. Now I’m all for equal opportunity, but it seems anachronistic to have one of Einstein’s contemporaries be a cute young female, but then I wasn’t around in the 50s so maybe I just have a wrongheaded idea of gender roles in that time. Anyway, in a classic “be careful what you wish for” scenario, Agnes’ device succeeds in making contact with an alien consciousness which reaches out from wherever-- but when their minds meet she’s overwhelmed and passes out.

In the third and most action-packed section, three unidentified dudes in spacesuits travel around space blasting just about everything that crosses their sights. As I read along, I had in my mind that perhaps these were U.S. soldiers utilizing the tech that Goetz was developing, but really that’s just guesswork on my part. It’s never mentioned who these guy are, what they’re up to, or even if they’re from Earth. Their “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude is reminiscent of the army in the Roswell scene, so maybe that’s meant to be a hint.

Mike Barentine’s pencils killed a lot of my potential enjoyment of this issue. I realize there are not many artists around today who can compare to Wally Wood or Al Williamson, but at least an attempt should have been made to emulate the EC art style in some way. Barentine’s zany Mad Magazine-style cartooning is not only not attractive, it makes the whole project seem lightweight and disposable, as if the creators are saying “you weren’t planning to in any way take this seriously, were you?” If someone put a blaster to my head and forced me to say something positive, I would point out that Barentine draws good distinctive faces, but that’s about it.

Behind the scenes, the situation with M-Theory seems as messy and disjointed as what’s between the pages. After issue two had already been solicited MacPherson and company decided to part ways with Shadowline and Image over compensation issues, the result being that issue one is the only one you are likely to see on the stands anytime soon. Now I notice that issue two (but not one) has been posted on WOWIO, so it doesn’t seem likely that any kind of profit is going to be turned on this thing.

It’s a pity that I don’t dig M-Theory more, it has all the elements of a fun little retro tale, but the creators don’t seem to be saying much new or interesting with them. And the art simply isn’t my thing. I appreciate the effort, but I would only give the finished product a 6/10. It’s too bad they couldn’t get Al Williamson out of retirement to draw this, but then again they probably couldn’t afford him, especially if they’re going to be giving the issues away for free.


Devoid of Life

I wouldn't normally want to give too much away about the big bad in a horror story, but in case of the new Image graphic novel Devoid of Life, the nature of the terrifying aliens is explained in the back cover blurb, and they are depicted in all of their shambling glory on the front. The Xenos hail from an unknown planet in our solar system, which remains outside of human knowledge because they hunt down and kill anyone who discovers the secret of its existence. These hideous creatures mean business: if they cannot contain the threat, they will jump straight to genocide. The opening pages, set 5,000 years in the past, depict the end of the Martian civilization after they discover the Xenos homeworld.

The heroine of our tale is Rochelle Bonner, who is police chief of a small American town called Andini. While Rochelle seems to have the responsibilities of her job well in hand, privately she is plagued by extreme anxiety linked to a fuzzy half-remembered incident from her childhood. Her troublesome past is affecting her marriage, to the point where her husband Garrett has decided they need some time apart. In other words, her world is already falling apart even before the really strange stuff starts happening.

Rochelle's work day starts out with a trip to a local farm where an entire cornfield has simply disappeared overnight. On her way back through town, she suffers through an extensive waking dream in which she is trapped in a creepy deserted building which is somehow reminiscent of her hazy past trauma. Her worst day ever culminates in the discovery of a massacre at the Andini Observatory. And who happens to be the now late designer of the new telescope which had unfortunately noticed the Xenos homeworld? Garrett's brother, Victor.

Writer/Artist Raffaele Ienco's greatest strength is his artwork, which is amazingly assured and effective considering this is only his second published work. He is equally adept at depicting people having a quiet conversation or twisted in a rictus of death; cars and buildings believably coexsist with gruesome monsters and walking corpses. Ienco clearly has a great awareness of and love for the elements of effective horror. The imagery throughout this graphic novel is genuinely creepy and thrilling. If a J-horror director were to film a Lovecraftian mythos story, it would look something like this.

But then there's the ending. I'd like to think I'm not a total dummy, but I'm having a hell of a time connecting all the dots when it comes to this book's final act. For starters, the climax hinges on one of the characters having possession of-- well let's just say it's not something you can pick up at the local five-and-dime. And while it's to be expected that Rochelle's mystery past will tie into the current crisis somehow, the specifics cause logical knots of Donnie Darko proportions. Where did that opportune pack of wolves come from? What's with all the helicopters? If I didn't know better, I would almost think there were pages missing somewhere along the way.

I would love for someone to option Devoid of Life, because it would make one scary-ass movie. As it stands, I would rate this book a 7.5, but if someone could explain to me what the heck was going on towards the end, that rating could easily go up or down. In any case, Raffaele Ienco is a talent and I intend to keep an eye out for his future work.

UPDATE 10/24/08: Well, my tongue was in cheek when I talked about having the ending explained to me, but Raffaele Ienco himself contacted me to patiently explain what I was missing. Lest anyone think the book is too complicated, let me assure you that it all pulls together quite nicely, as long as you understand that prolonged proximity to the Xenos has made White super super smart, like Brainiac 5-level smart.

Raffaele gave me permission to reprint his email, but I think it gives away too many spoilers. In classic "give em an inch and they'll take a mile" style, I briefly considered trying to convince Raffaele to grant me a short interview, but I decided not to pester him because let's face it, how many readers can this blog possibly have? Besides, I came across a pretty good interview at Comic Book Resources that answers most of the questions I would have asked anyway.

Anyway, I hearby bump up my rating to an even 8. Devoid of Life is good scary fun, everyone go out and buy 5 copies!