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