Fun Stuff from Rod Espinosa

Somehow or another Antarctic Press has managed to exist as a comic company for a quarter of a century without my ever really having taken notice of them before. Well okay, I did pick up an issue or two of Warrior Nun Areala back in the day-- I had to know what that was all about. But for the most part I haven't really paid much attention-- I've never gotten way into manga, so American manga sounded like an even iffier proposition. In a way though, Antarctic's output could be seen as more accessible than traditional manga: they're released in American comic-sized bites, they read front to back, they're in color. They're an interesting alternative for U.S. readers who don't get manga.

Filipino-born Rod Espinosa is not only Antarctic's VP of Production, but also one of the more prolific creators producing for the company. As far as I can tell from the credits, Espinosa does it all: writing, penciling, coloring, he might even letter his stuff as there is no separate letter credited. Scanning the shelves for outer spacey goodies to review, I ended up with not one but two recent Rod Espinosa graphic novel releases: the first volumes of Prince of Heroes and Dinowars, two books laden with fantastic imagery, imagination and fun exciting action.

Prince of Heroes is a coming of age tale told over a space opera backdrop. The young protagonist Ronen Ladarna has grown up in humble surroundings, but was born into a powerful clan and has a greater destiny. What's a bit unorthodox about the setup is that Ronen is already aware of this at the beginning of the comic. Usually in these kind of tales the hero is unaware of the secrets of his past and he and the reader become aware of things together as the story progresses. But in Prince of Heroes everyone in the story knows what's going on well before the reader does; some key information isn't really explained until halfway or even three-quarters of the way through the book. Only towards the end do you start to get the picture of what really should have been explained in the early pages.

For thousands of years, the galaxy has been under the dominion of the powerful elitist clans of the Greater Darem Empire. Ronen was born into one such clan, but for unrevealed reasons his mother Aiymie took him away to live an obscure childhood on a frontier world. Now that she has decided that Ronen is old enough to be introduced to his father and formally claim his rightful place, the two of them have been slowly making their way back to the core-- moving as far as their finances will get them and then stopping to earn more and get them further along.

Ronen has grown so fond of living the life of a simple farmer on their latest world of Irdne, that he isn't really sure that he cares about his lineage. He counts many locals among his close friends, including a martial arts master named Ze, wheelchair-bound and blind but still commanding great respect, and his wards Tenny and Zeb, who are like younger siblings to Ronen. He and his mother also have three fuzzy family servants who are as skilled in battle as they are in farming. Ronen identifies so strongly with the locals that he stands against fellow Darems of the Mesozora clan who arrogantly throw their weight around and terrorize the local populace. Because of the increased size and strength of Darems, this leads to an epic-scale hyperbolic martial arts battle that takes up a goodly chunk of the first book.

If you like space opera as much as I do, this is a intriguing beginning to what could develop into an great saga. Ronen's life is thrown into chaos when open rebellion on the frontier causes the withdrawal of Darem colonists in the face of local violent uprisings. One young man caught up in the great historical events of his time is the stuff of legends, and by the close of the first volume Espinosa had me ready and eager for the next installment.

On the other hand, if big epic space opera is not really your thing, hows about rampaging cyborg dinosaurs stomping across the Earth and trying to wipe out humanity? That's the premise of Dinowars, Espinosa's other recent graphic novel release. It's a bit light and not particularly sophisticated, but as a quick fun read of armies battling dinosaurs, it does its job.

Here's the high concept: millions of years ago, dinosaurs evolved into sentient tool-users known as Triassians. The reason humanity has remained ignorant of this development is that when warned of the imminent approach of a deadly ice age, these intelligent saurians built spacefaring craft and left the Earth. After eons spent floating around the asteroid belt in hibernation, this advanced civilization rains down from the sky, and they want their homeworld back! One faction, called the Protosaurs, are willing to negotiate, but the more murderous Megasaurs see humanity as a pestilence to be wiped out. Two human heroes are at the center of the action as it unfolds.

Commander Hank Armstrong is the kind of square-jawed all-purpose military hero that you can only find in comics. When we first meet him, he is the first astronaut to set foot on the moon in forty years. When they uncover cybernetically enhanced dinosaurs on the surface, he barely makes it back to his shuttle. Upon his return to Earth, Armstrong picks up a machine gun and is suddenly leading ground forces against the invaders. Why army personnel would gamely take orders from a passing astronaut is beyond me. At the climax, he hops aboard a prototype bomber with a mystery weapon, and sudden he's a jet pilot. He's such a mack daddy that when he flies into combat for the final battle, he has a hot babe strapped to his lap the whole time!

The babe in question would be Debra MacDonald, a small-town waitress from Nowhere, Texas. Her dead-end life takes a sharp turn when Protosaur emissaries crash land on her family farm, and soon mindlink with her so that she can be their interpreter. Before long, this humble server is addressing the United Nations with the Protosaurs' wishes to populate Antarctica. And wouldn't you know it, when Debra and Hank cross paths, it turns out that they were high school sweethearts who broke up at the prom! What are the odds?

Espinosa's greatest strength is his artwork, which yes is manga-inspired but is more lovingly-wrought and detail-oriented than a lot of stuff I see coming out of Japan when I'm at the bookstore skimming. He has a great design sense, whether he is conjuring up cyber-saurs, extraterrestrial beings, starships or alien artifacts, it all looks great. He's equally adept at cute heroines or state-of-the-art military hardware. Espinosa also clearly makes use of computer rendering for a lot of his designs, which is sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows him the ability to create meticulous highly detailed cityscapes which border on breathtaking. However, the digital and line art doesn't meld together as well as it might: buildings all look too pristine, too symmetrical. If Espinosa can figure out a way to give his CGI work a worn look and make it blend better, it would look way better. Espinosa also has a tongue-in-cheek cheesecake element to his female characters which I find fun but may exasperate others. Female characters tend to get their clothes shredded and the woman who faces Ronen in combat ends up face-down, ass in the air in a blatantly submissive position more than once.

Bottom line, both of these books are capital-F Fun. The Dinowars pocket digest has a prominent "1" displayed on the cover and spine, but frankly the book has enough closure to satisfy me, and I don't think there's enough going on there to make me want to come back for a second round. It was enjoyable enough, but Prince of Heroes is the story I'm eager to see more of. Ronen's story is just beginning, he's only just headed into space and his destiny as the first volume comes to a close. Now's the time to jump aboard and see where the story is headed. Espinosa has helpfully posted the first volume online, which seems like an odd strategy while trying to sell a book of the same material, but at least readers can judge whether they want to preorder Prince of Heroes Volume 2, the first issue of which is being solicited this month. I'm on board.

Dinowars Rating: 7/10
Prince of Heroes Rating: 7.5/10


Star Trek: Countdown #1

If there's anyone else out there who's been anxiously awaiting for more info to trickle out about the new Star Trek movie, a few interesting links have hit the net in the past couple of weeks:

JJ Abrams Explains How Only He Can Stop Get the Trek Franchise Out of the Shadow of Star Wars.

Esurance Had a Neat Featurette About the Film with Footage as Well as a Contest to Attend the Hollywood Premiere.

Playmates has Revealed a Slew of Toys Tying into the Film.

Pocket Books Plans to Stick to the Tried and True Original Timeline for the Forseeable Future

Okay, This Do-It-Yourself Star Trek Chart Has Nothing to Do with the Movie-- But I'm Throwing It In Anyway

But probably the mother lode of clues to what the new film will be about would be the Star Trek: Countdown limited series from IDW, billed as the official prequel. Since Star Trek screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have a "story" credit for the first issue, there's a good chance that this 4-issue mini will provide some impactful backstory to lead into the May '09 release. Because I'm so obsessed with trying to figure out how much I'm going to love or hate the movie, I'll be combing through this series with more spoiler details than I usually get into. So if you are trying to keep reasonably ignorant before getting to actually see the film, this is not the post for you.

Although the Abrams film is famously about the early days of Kirk and crew, the origins of the tale take place in the 24th century, sometime after the events of Nemesis. How long after is a little unclear so far. The wizened Ambassador Spock reflects in internal monologue that he has been on Romulus for "four decades"-- "Unification" plus 40 years would place the mini about 29 years after Nemesis. However, in a review on Trekmovie.com, Alex Fletcher decoded the stardate and claims it's just 8 years later. Here I thought stardates were arbitrary claptrap... who knew they actually meant something? Hopefully future issues will clarify when we are, but I guess all we really need to know is that Spock has devoted his life to trying to unify the Romulans and Vulcans for a good long time now.

The issue open with Nero, destined to be the big bad of the film, but here he is just the captain of a mining ship trying to make a living on the fringes of Romulan space. No tattoos or vengeful 'tude, (nor, for that matter, does he wear a quilted gray jumpsuit with giant shoulder pads) just a hard-working guy providing for his emerging family. During a fateful mission in the Hobus system, Nero and his crew get a firsthand look at a dangerous threat to the Empire-- the system's star is losing stability and threatens at any time to go supernova. They barely warp out in time before a rampant solar flare destroys the planet they were mining on moments before.

Back on Romulus, Spock addresses the Romulan senate. For many years our old friend has been working underground, but in the past five years has become the official Federation Ambassador to Romulus. In that capacity, Spock warns that the destruction of Horus may be so powerful that the entire Empire could be consumed. This is met by disbelief and derision from the Senate, particularly when Spock explains that the only way to quell the star is by allowing the Vulcans to process the Empire's highly valuable store of decalthium into "red matter" which will create a black hole to counter the supernova (technobabble, anyone?) Much like the Kyrptonians ignoring doomed Jor-El, the Romulans are dismissive of Spock's findings and promise only to investigate further. Apparently after all this time, there is still no love lost between these galactic cousins, so much so that the Romulans would rather risk annihilation than trust Vulcan to take control of their highly valuable isotope.

Although he always considered himself a loyal servant of the Empire, Nero can't sit idly by and wait for bureaucrats to decide the Empire's fate. With the lives of his family and his people in the balance, he makes the only choice he really can, which is to offer the services of his ship and crew to Spock in order to mine some decalthium without the Senate's knowledge or permission. No sooner are they in range of their goal than a couple of quick plot twists occur to close out the issue-- c'mon I can't spoil the entire thing.

The comic's credited writers are Mike Johnson and Tim Jones, so I don't know how much they are responsible for or what came from Orci and Kurtzman. What we have here is a perfectly okay setup that unfolds a little on the slow side, and so far is just a little too neat of a predicament. A supernova that can only be stopped by a certain element and the aid of a distrusted world? Convenient. I assume all involved are aware of Superman's origin. The artwork, by David Messia is serviceable but unspectacular. I like his ships and technology better than his people and his action.

You can see that this won't end well, although how Nero will end up so hateful and wanting to destroy Vulcan is not yet clear. Also, I still can't predict what the time travel in the movie will accomplish, even if the star does end up destroying the Empire, as seems inevitable. Or rather, why the movie Nero will be obsessed with destroying Vulcan and/or Spock-- if he's traveling in time anyway, why not cook up some "red matter" at his leisure and then go back and throw it in the star before it becomes a threat! Oh well, maybe I'm anticipating too much, I should just wait for the rest of the series to come out...By the way, naming your protagonist "Nero" in a story where a planet called Romulus is in danger of burning? Cheesy!

Rating: 7/10