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The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu: Enter the World of Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’

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Riding high on the critical success of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, Marvel and Netflix are ramping up advertising on their fourth collaborative project, Iron Fist. Though Daredevil was at least somewhat known to mainstream audiences thanks to (or perhaps in spite of) the 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck, the rest of Marvel’s streaming properties come from more obscure origins. Iron Fist is no exception, and this is the first time the character will have been brought to life in live-action. Though you may not have heard of him, the character has been around for nearly 40 years, and he’s rubbed elbows with pretty much everyone in the Marvel Universe at one time or another. While reading a pile of back-issue comics large enough to crush a small child could be a fun way to spend a weekend, don’t feel bad if you’d prefer to read this handy guide to get you caught up in time for the show’s March 17 premiere instead.

Iron FistOrigins: The 70s Kung Fu Craze

The year was 1974, and Kung fu was everywhere. Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon had hit cinemas like a one-inch punch, made bittersweet by its stars’ death just weeks before. The David Carradine-starring series Kung Fu was pulling in decent ratings on the small screen, and a certain song was being played to death on the radio, proclaiming the ubiquity of Kung fu for all to hear. Marvel had already begun to capitalize on this new craze in 1972 with the debut of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, but that wasn’t the end of it.

Iron Fist writer and creator Roy Thomas heard the term “Iron Fist” in a martial arts movie, and liked the sound of it. After running the idea by Stan Lee, Thomas got the go-ahead to begin developing a new martial arts-themed character for Marvel. Thomas drew a lot of inspiration from Amazing-Man, a now super-obscure character created by Bill Everett. Like Amazing-Man, Iron Fist would be an orphan raised in a secret Tibetan monastery inspired by the myth of Shangri-La. Upon mastering the martial arts, including several supernatural abilities, both characters then ventured out into the world to use their powers for good.

Iron Fist first appeared in issue 15 of Marvel Premiere, a series used not only to revisit characters who no longer could sustain their own titles, but also launch new creations. After appearing in ten issues of Premiere, Iron Fist began appearing in his own self-titled series starting in 1975. Sales dropped off, and Iron Fist’s solo series was unfortunately canceled by issue 15, despite the all-star creative team of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne.

Marvel was interested in keeping the character around though, and decided to team him up with another character, one whose book was seeing a sales drop: Luke Cage, AKA Power Man. You’d think that the pairing wouldn’t work, but the two struck a balance, with Iron Fist’s level-headedness complementing Cage’s more fiery temper. Think Riggs and Murtaugh, but with the ethnicities swapped and more colored spandex. The pairing worked, and a lighter tone helped the book stick around for a total 125 issues.

Iron Fist

Iron Fist died in the final issue of the team-up series, but comics being comics, he eventually came back. Since his return, Iron Fist has been a fairly regular presence in Marvel comics. He’s had several solo titles in recent years, under writers including Matt Fraction and Kaare Andrews. He’s also been a regular supporting cast member in other series, including The New Avengers, Daredevil, and more recently a new Power Man and Iron Fist series.

Mystical Kung Fu Whamma-Jamma

The last year or so has seen Marvel introduce paranormal elements to their TV and movie properties, or at least paranormal elements that don’t try and pass themselves off as science through the use of words like “quantum.” The Marvel Cinematic Universe saw the introduction of magic through Doctor Strange, and Ghost Rider’s appearance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D brought the supernatural to the TV side of things. Unless Iron Fist’s Netflix series is secretly a drastic reinvention of the character, he’ll bring a similar infusion of magic and the supernatural to Marvel’s streaming properties.

Iron Fist’s story begins with Wendell Rand, a billionaire industrialist who brings his wife and young son, Danny, to the Himalayas in search of the mystical city of K’un-Lun. Wendell has his own (long, hard to explain) reasons for wanting to find K’un-Lun, but he never makes it, as he and his wife both die after his business partner, also along for the trip, betrays them. Danny is found by the monks of K’un-Lun and is raised in the hidden city, mastering numerous forms of martial arts.

Iron Fist

Eventually, Danny rises to the top of K’un-Lun’s warriors and earns the right to become the city’s champion, or “Immortal Weapon,” the Iron Fist. To do so, Danny defeats a dragon named Shou-Lau the Undying, absorbing its chi (or life energies), which grants him superhuman abilities and a rad chest tattoo. Using the chi of Shou-Lau, Danny can increase his physical abilities, most notably by concentrating his energy into his fist. This turns his blows into devastating attacks capable of punching through just about anything.

After becoming the Iron Fist, Danny leaves K’un-Lun to reclaim his father’s company and use his powers for good as part of the superhero scene.

So while previous Netflix series like Daredevil and Luke Cage are all about gritty realism, Iron Fist goes in another direction entirely, with a premise rooted firmly in martial arts mysticism. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see a whole lot of K’un-Lun, Shou-Lau, or much else of the more “out there” aspects of Iron Fist lore directly, both for budgetary reasons and because the Netflix series so far have preferred to play things more…”realistic.” There hasn’t been any sign of Iron Fist’s signature green and yellow costume in any promotional materials yet, for one thing, but who knows? Maybe the trailers are grossly misrepresenting the show, and it’s actually a bright, colorful martial arts spectacle full of magic and mayhem like some people want it to be.

With Friends Like These….

Like most Marvel characters, Iron Fist has a fairly extended supporting cast of friends and allies, of the costumed and non-costumed variety. Audiences will meet some of them for the first time when the series premieres, but more than a few important faces in Danny’s life will already be familiar to those who watched Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

The obvious one is Danny’s best friend and frequent partner in crime-fighting, Luke Cage. Cage and Danny probably won’t meet face to face until the two teamup with Daredevil and Jessica Jones in The Defenders, the Avengers of the Marvel/Netflix partnership. To hear Colter tell it, the roles have been reversed a bit, with the more eager Iron Fist being tempered by Luke’s cooler, more experienced mentality.

Iron Fist

Cage himself isn’t the only cast member from Iron Fist‘s direct predecessor to play an important role in Danny’s life, though. One of the fan-favorite characters from Luke Cage, NYC detective Misty Knight, is a hugely important character in the Iron Fist mythos. Misty and Danny have a tumultuous relationship history to say the least, going from on-again to off-again to back-on-again a number of times. At one point, it even looked as though the two would be having a child together, though this turned out to be a phantom pregnancy in a less-than-stellar moment of narrative hand-waving. Misty has been confirmed to not be appearing in Iron Fist, but actress Simone Missick has been spotted on the set of The Defenders brawling with Jessica Jones, so odds are that the groundwork for the Misty/Danny pairing will be at least laid out.

The last of Danny’s allies we’ve already met is Jeryn Hogarth, Carrie-Anne Moss’s character from Jessica Jones. Jeryn, aka Jeri, is a gender-swapped version of Danny’s family lawyer, who helps Danny juggle the worlds of business and superheroics. Carrie-Anne Moss has been confirmed to be returning in Iron Fist as well as The Defenders, probably playing a similar role as her counterpart from the comics.

On the villain side of things, it’s been heavily implied that Madame Gao, the mysterious crime lord who appeared in both seasons of Daredevil, is in fact an Iron Fist villain by the name of Crane Mother. K’un-Lun, you see, is one of seven “Capitol Cities of Heaven,” extra-dimensional city-states that flit in and out of contact with the plane of Earth. Each one has its own champion similar to K’un-Lun’s Iron Fist, usually with much cooler names like “Bride of Nine Spiders” and “Dog Brother #1.” Crane Mother rules over K’un-Zi, and has a major ax to grind with Iron Fist. The previous holder of the mantle of Iron Fist, a man named Orson Randall, killed the champion of K’un-Zi, Crane Mother’s child. Crane Mother can only give birth to a new champion every 300 years, and the untimely death of the current champion left K’un-Zi weakened. Desperate for revenge, Crane Mother reached out to Davos, an old Iron Fist enemy who went by the name Steel Serpent. That name should sound familiar, as the name “Steel Serpent,” as well as the character’s logo, adorned a powerful drug sold by Gao’s organization in previous Netflix shows. Gao has been confirmed to be appearing in Iron Fist, and it’s probably only a matter of time until she’s confirmed to be Crane Mother.

Iron Fist

That leaves one last important member of Danny’s extended family, one who we’ll meet for the first time in Iron Fist. Actress Jessica Henwick will be playing Colleen Wing, a private investigator and martial artist. Colleen is best known as one half of the Daughters of the Dragon, with the other half being Misty Knight. Similar to Iron Fist and Luke Cage, Wing and Knight have been a longtime duo in the comics, having first teamed up way back in 1977. The two won’t be crossing paths until The Defenders, so add that to the increasingly large pile of relationships that show will have to set up.

And that’s really everything you should need to know. Iron Fist has a long, rich history to draw on, and hopefully Marvel and Netflix make the most of it.

Beginning as a co-host on a Concordia TV film show before moving on to chief film nerd at Forgetthebox.net, Thomas is now bringing his knowledge of pop-culture nerdery to Sordid Cinema. Thomas is a Montrealer born and raised, and an avid consumer of all things pop-cultural and nerdy. While his first love is film, he has also been known to dabble in comics, videogames, television, anime and more. You can support his various works on his Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/TomWatchesMovies You can also like the Tom Watches Movies Facebook page to see all his work on Goombastomp and elsewhere.

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‘The Fade Out’ Demonstrates a Mastery of the Noir Genre

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The Fade Out Image Comics

Whenever someone who doesn’t read comics asks me what comic I would recommend, I always answer The Fade Out

Modern noir masterminds Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips began their five-year deal with Image Comics in 2014. It was an unprecedented deal, allowing them to do anything they want with total freedom, total control, and total ownership over their projects. Their first project would be The Fade Out, a sprawling saga of corruption and redemption set against a gritty West Coast Hollywood backdrop.

As the premiere storytellers of crime/noir comics, The Fade Out saw them return to the familiar conventions of the genre, weaving a tangled web through the underbelly of a 1940’s film industry. In addition to unsettling narrative themes of ambiguity and violent death, certain stylistic characteristics immediately spring out: stark, angular shadows; the isolated feel of modern cities; conflicted anti-heroes and boiled down dialogue. It is everything a fan of detective stories could want. The multi-layered plot grabs you immediately — and Brubaker’s achievement as a writer cannot be overrated. This first issue alone moves swiftly from scene to scene, yet finds ample time to quickly define his characters. More importantly, it is quick to establish a mystery, making readers eager to see what happens next. And as you keep reading, The Fade Out keeps spooling out more narrative twists until the ingenious maze turns into an oppressive tangle.

What is it About?

The Fade Out tells the story of Charlie Parish, a struggling screenplay writer who finds himself smack in the middle of the murder of a Hollywood starlet named Valeria Sommers. The story is framed from the perspective of Charlie, a man plagued with nightmares from the war, and now struggling to hide a dark and terrible secret. Luckily for him, a power-crazed Hollywood mogul and his security chief will do anything to avoid another scandal, including a cover-up that frames the crime as an act of suicide. That’s just the beginning, as Brubaker’s script quickly establishes the central conflict before moving on to introduce the key players.

Via Charlie’s quintessential, hard-boiled third-person narration and various flashbacks, we meet a heap of supporting players including Earl Rath (an Errol Flynn lookalike and movie star womanizer) – Gil Mason (one time writer and full time alcoholic) – Dotty Quinn (publicity girl and all-around sweetheart) – Phil Brodsky ( the studio’s Head of Security), and the aforementioned Valeria Sommers, an up and coming actress killed before her time. Like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Valeria is a mystery and remembered differently by different people and part of the fun in reading The Fade Out is discovering exactly who Valeria Somers actually was. The rest of the cast comes across as the usual noir stereotypes – a collection of tough guys, femme-Fatales and corrupt businessmen, but everyone seems to hold some dark secret that makes them necessary in telling the bigger story. And while our protagonist fits the mold of a noir anti-hero, he quickly becomes a likable and sympathetic character, and someone we can root for.

At the center of this series is the relationship between Charlie and his partner Gil. Brubaker presents Gil as an alcoholic devastated by his professional blacklisting in Hollywood while being investigated for communism. For the unfamiliar, the Hollywood blacklist was rooted in events of the 1930s and the early 1940s, encompassing the height of the Great Depression and World War II. The U.S. government began turning its attention to the possible links between Hollywood and the party during this period and many screenwriters, producers, and directors were banned. In The Fade Out, for example, we learn that Gil has been working as a ghostwriter for Charlie. The two support one another both financially and artistically and despite his addiction, Gil remains a proficient author of successful screenplays and uses Charlie’s name to allow his work to be sold and brought to life on the big screen. Gil may be a drunk, but he’s a talented drunk, but for Charlie, he’s a mere typist who’s experienced in the war have left him with a prolonged writer’s block.

Brubaker does a superb job in sketching out the main cast here and fleshing out a larger sense of emotional damage the protagonist Charlie Parish carries with him. Charlie is more or less an anti-social loner that is subject to existential angst. He’s burdened with a sense of guilt, desperation, and frustration. Much like Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Charlie is a nice guy, modestly successful, but a man with a faint smell of cynical opportunism within his persona. While he may be our protagonist, he can’t be trusted, and so we sense that his fall from grace isn’t from a great moral height.

The Fade Out is a Modern Masterpiece

What makes The Fade Out great is how quick it establishes many subtle, subliminal clues between the flashbacks and real-time sequences; every page is loaded with rich painstaking detail, making this the most ambitious series yet from the award-winning duo. Brubaker pulls from the decades-old lineage of hardboiled tough guys channeling the likes of Sam Spade, Walter Neff, and Joe Gillis. Tension and suspense are increased by the use of Charlie’s inner monologues and flashbacks, in that the audience is always cognizant of impending doom. The seamless connection and disconnection, between the thoughts of a character and what we see on the page, is brilliant. The voice-over in the series isn’t used to tell us what we are seeing, rather tell us what we aren’t seeing. More so, it lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Notes of racism, sexism, and antisemitism are also peripherally present, but this allows for Brubaker and Phillips to naturally explore a time and place where these behaviours were socially acceptable.

As the story unfolds, The Fade Out moves away from beaten-down protagonists Charlie Parish, shifting its spotlight on new characters while more familiar faces slide into the background. Using unexpected flashbacks and unique third-person narration, Brubaker reveals the complicated personalities of these additional characters at the opposite end of the Hollywood spectrum. Included are Mr. Thursby (head of Victory Street Pictures who has been doing everything in his power to silence the true nature of Valeria Sommers’ death), and Maya Silver (a young actress hoping to replace Valeria’s lead role in an upcoming film). Ed Brubaker shows us more of the dirty side of the film industry, capturing the various power struggles and moral dilemmas that come with seeking fame and fortune. Maya, for example, is an actress waiting for her big break and hoping to fill the void left behind by Valeria Sommers. She’s been promised the role that once belonged to the now-deceased actress, but she’s had to endure countless indignities to help get her to where she is now. Maya has certainly been a victim of a horribly sexist system, but while she is preyed upon, she’s far from weak. Her past continues to haunt her, but with the help of a new friend, she may be able to finally escape her demons.

Many of the characters in The Fade Out are polar opposites but they share one common goal: they will do anything it takes to ensure the film moves forward, and that they each remain involved. Thursby who wields immense power in Hollywood, reflects on his voluptuous past, wishing he could go return to the life he once knew; meanwhile Maya longs to escape her demeaning past and climb up the ladder of success. Thursby is a man who was once happy and free, only now he seems trapped by the studio system. In a way, he probably feels just as trapped as his actors do. As The Fade Out slowly begins to pull the curtain back, the story reveals a chilling noir tale about murder, immorality, gender roles, lust, greed and the position of women in the early 20th century.

Characters are the focus of The Fade Out, not just plot beats and despite the central mystery, The Fade Out is not about solving the question of who killed Valeria Sommers, but about the consequences that a corrupt Hollywood system had on her, and continues to have on everyone else involved. If anything, The Fade Out is a study of men and women destroyed by the 50s success ethic, left broken, alone, and in some cases, left dead.

If there was ever a comic that would make a great television series, it is this…

The artwork for The Fade Out is exquisite. Each panel is framed and lit much like a movie from the late 40s, and as you are reading, you can’t help but visualize it on the big screen. Sean Phillips is indisputably one of the most talented artists in the business, and when it comes to depicting gritty, realistic settings, he’s the best. Phillips’ character designs are so photo-realistic that one Tyler Graves looks like a young Montgomery Clift reincarnated in animated form.

Phillips has been a regular collaborator of Brubaker’s for quite a while now, but this is the first time they’ve worked with Elizabeth Breitweiser, and her work here is a blessing. Everything from the backgrounds, landscapes, dutch angles, heavy shadows, low-key lighting, and depth of field captures the era and look of noir perfectly. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Breitweiser must also be given credit for her fabulous work as the colourist. There’s something to appreciate around every corner — most of all, visuals to astound and amaze. Mostly, though, the book comes across like the fever dream of an artist who’s been up all night watching every black-and-white crime movie made in the ‘40s.

The series also masters the art of juxtaposition juggling between multiple timelines and subplots seamlessly. Along with the third person narrative, Brubaker and co. communicate subtle relationships between characters, plot, and an overall arching theme of corruption. The level of detail and the attention to every line of dialogue speaks to the effort to capture 1940s Hollywood as accurately as possible – so much so – they hired Amy Condit (a Hollywood expert who manages the L.A. Police museum), as a research assistant.

A Classic take on Classic Hollywood

Brubaker’s name has been synonymous with the noir genre from the very start of his career, but The Fade Out marked his first trip into Hollywoodland, the never-innocent city of illusions. The Fade Out relishes in classic Hollywood tropes – so much so – that every page looks like a storyboard from an Anthony Mann film. This is clearly, a labor of love from its creative team who even went the extra mile by assembling a series of supplementary content that helps readers get into the mindset of the time. The painstaking attention to historical detail cannot be overlooked. Using the murder of a Hollywood starlet as a catalyst to expose the web of dark secrets that runs through the City of Angels, the award-winning team has put together one of the most intriguing comics of the decade and a series that is destined to be a cult classic. Everything from the distinctive characters to the shadowy visuals to the thick labyrinthine plot, the cynical, hopeless tone, the dialogue and so on, makes it an incredibly fascinating read.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips will always be remembered as one of the greatest teams in comics’ canon. Their work is unmistakable, and consistent in quality since their early days working on the indie crime series Sleeper, to the modern masterpiece that is Criminal. Like Jack Kirby and Stan Lee or Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, they can do no wrong when working side by side. Fade Out isn’t quite up there with classic Hollywood noirs, but it’s the closest thing since Chinatown. This is a wonderfully entertaining series in which dark secrets; the mystery and allure of Hollywood; double-crossing; and secret alliances, are all but some of the ingredients found.

Ed Brubaker’s darker than dark drama about the inner workings of Hollywood is essential reading and further proof that Brubaker and Sean Phillips are two of the industry’s best, performing at the top of their game. Every chapter of The Fade Out is designed to set up the many things to come and advances the plot a few inches forward while exploring the backgrounds of the entire cast. The dead body which turns up at the start is just but one mystery – The Fade Out has so many more mysterious for readers to unravel.

Given the success of The Fade Out, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the bestselling, multiple Eisner Award-winning creators renewed their exclusive deal with Image Comics in 2018. And thanks to Image Comics, the duo can continue to follow their creative instincts and continue to produce what is arguably some of the best stories you’ll find in the medium without having to sacrifice their artistic and creative freedom.

– Ricky D

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Dark Horse’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Graphic Novel Series Is The Fourth Season We Never Got

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“Alright, Team Avatar is back!”

Avatar: The Last Airbender is- and will always be- my favorite television show of all time. Its sixty-one episode story never ceases to amaze me every time I rewatch it, but it always leaves me wishing that Team Avatar could reunite for another adventure or two, whether that be for explanations regarding their future lives before the events of its successor series or completing yet another unresolved plotline.

After all these years, I finally discovered what I had been looking for; more Avatar that is on par with the storytelling and animation of the original series that will make any fan squeal with joy. Its time for fans to step up and recognize what should practically be considered as The Last Airbender’s fourth season; the stories that are still making their way to printing presses rather than television production.

If you are craving for more Avatar in anticipation for the Netflix live-action remake, wanting something to fill your desires after a rewatch, or even just dying for a new story after a first viewing, then this series of graphic novels will surely peak your interests. Team Avatar’s adventures are far from over because Dark Horse’s Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novel series is the fourth unforeseen season of the show that you always wanted and it is something that every fan should indulge themselves in whether they are looking for some ongoing laughs from the heroes or serious answers to what they want to know most.

From Moving Presentations to Still Pages

In 2010, show producers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko originally pitched an idea to Nickolodean; to continue Team Avatar’s story through a 90-minute television special known simply as The Search. This story would have wrapped up all loose ends by closing off the story’s only real cliffhanger, the resolution for the disappearance of Zuko’s missing mother. Despite interest in the project, the executives at Nickelodeon ultimately deemed that the special would never see the light of day on the small screen as they declined the proposal in favor of creating an original series about the next Avatar who would succeed Aang. 

The Legend of Korra was conceived thanks to the failed pitch that was The Search, but that did not stop DiMartino and Konietzko from allowing their unused story to go to waste. During the concept stages of Korra, the two producers managed to strike a deal, allowing Nickelodeon to partner with Dark Horse Comics in order to finish the final story of Avatar: The Last Airbender while tieing in many of the events that would build up the world seen in the The Legend of Korra through a series of various graphic novels- which are still ongoing today.

The Search, The Promise, Team Avatar Tales, Smoke and Shadow, North and South, and the currently ongoing Imbalanced are the story arcs that truthfully culminate into the epilogue fourth season of The Last Airbender that fans have pleaded for. Each volume adds up to about one or two new full-length episodes of the show that have the same story-telling and animation quality as what we originally fell in love with. These stories help establish events that strengthen the extended continuity that The Legend of Korra added to Team Avatar’s story while giving The Last Airbender’s fans more of what they want; stories featuring their favorite characters that do not threaten the shows neverending appeal- if anything they add more to love about an already fantastic series. 

Continuing What Was Already Perfected

The graphic novels produced by Dark Horse Comics are a justifiable canon extension to Team Avatar’s story that is both written and supervised by the shows original creators [DiMartino and Konietzko]- in other words, there is no need to worry about a new interpretation helmed by people who do not understand the series’ core ethics and values that can easily be misinterpreted just for unreasonable box office profit. Each volume of every story arc serves a legitimate and well thought out purpose to the world of Avatar. A single page is never wasted.

“There is no war within these walls.”

Each story arc continuously builds on the world of Avatar by presenting a slow technological transition into the twentieth-century inspired landscape seen in The Legend of Korra, while showing audiences what the characters and locations had in store during the near distant future after the defeat of Phoenix King Ozai and Prince Zuko’s reconquering of the throne. The comics allow the two series to seamlessly transition into one another by explaining how technology, freedom of speech, political ideology, and spiritual connection all began to expand over the course of just a few months as the four nations slowly became more united under the helm of the last surviving Airbender and the previously banished fire lord.

Every character is written as if they were pulled directly from the source material- just as they should be since the original producers behind both Avatar and Korra are directly involved with the production of every page printed in these books. Characters and locations are constantly being built up to fit their future roles seen throughout The Legend of Korra. Nothing ever feels out of place in these graphic novels. Reading through these books made me feel as if Avatar had never ended; a feeling that every reader should feel when they have fully emerged back into a previously ended story. Every word, character, and location builds an authentic atmosphere that will quickly pull you back into what you previously loved. Seriously, try and not to read these three panels below without hearing each character’s voice in your head.

If you have not read any of the current set of available graphic novels, I highly recommend you purchase at least one of the stories in order to see if this is what you are looking for- and believe me, it will not disappoint. While The Promise is the direct sequel to the finale of The Last Airbender– literally, as the first volume takes place seconds after the last scene in ‘Sozin’s Comet Part 4’ before the credits roll- the graphic novel that I personally believe will completely sell you on this series is The Search; the story arc that contains a resolution you are probably dying to know the answer to. Just sit back, throw on a soundtrack compilation, and enjoy where you last left off in the world of the four nations.

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The Top Ten Space Opera Comics

Logan continues his list, this time giving his top 5 picks for the best Space Opera Comics.

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The list of best comic book space operas continues from Part 1 and enters the 21st century, with a pair of crossovers from Marvel and DC, some indie excellence from Image Comics, and the great Black Mask Studios among the top 5:

5. Annihilation (Marvel; 2006-2007)

Even though it was released at the same time as Marvel’s famous Civil War event, cosmic counterpart Annihilation arguably holds up better a decade later. Annihilation is a beautiful hybrid of military science-fiction and space opera, following a rag-tag band of Marvel cosmic characters as they battle Annihilus and his Annihilation Wave, a group of bug-like creatures who are being manipulated by Thanos and want to suck the whole universe into the Negative Zone. The stakes are immediately raised when they wipe out the entire Nova Corps, except for Richard Rider. Annihilation is responsible for bringing now-popular characters like Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Nova, and Gamora into the limelight. Without this comic, there would probably be no Guardians of the Galaxy film, even if its tone is way grimmer, and Peter Quill is more crazy than sexy and charming in it.

Instead of crossing over into every Marvel comic under the sun, this event consisted of a prologue one-shot, five four-issue miniseries, and a six-issue core miniseries simply called Annihilation, written by Keith Giffen and drawn by Andrea DiVito. The minis remind me of George R.R. Martin using different narrators in A Song of Ice and Fire, and they provide different perspectives on the war against the Annihilation Wave. They are also more character-driven, whereas Annihilation is the big blockbuster finale, even if it doesn’t end in complete and utter triumph while leaving some threads open for Annihilation: Conquest and the excellent Nova solo comic, which immediately comments on how petty the heroes’ in-fighting in Civil War is in light of the events of its sister crossover.

Annihilation: Nova is the Hero’s Journey with a sense of humor, as future Guardians of the Galaxy writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, along with superstar artist Kev Walker, show how Richard Rider goes from runt of the Nova Corps litter to the leader of the fight against the Annihilation Wave. Annihilation: Super Skrull and Annihilation: Ronan cast the Marvel villains Kl’rt the Super Skrull and Ronan the Accuser as noble figures, with Kl’rt making a heroic sacrifice. Ronan’s story has an added element of existential crisis from writer Simon Furman, as he must find purpose in a world where the Kree have stripped his Accuser rank and are ruled by bureaucrats who don’t care how many Kree warriors die. Annihilation: Silver Surfer is the most cosmic comic of the bunch, with Silver Surfer and former Heralds of Galactus banding together to stop the nefarious figures that are using Annihilus and his carnivorous insect crew like puppets on strings.

Andrea DiVito and Scott Kolins are the standouts on Annihilation and Annihilation Prologue, as far as the art is concerned. They can lay down a double-page spread showing the destruction of planets and cosmic beings, while also highlighting the human moments in the middle of the action, like the rage in Drax’s face every time Thanos is mentioned.

Annihilation and its follow-up, Annihilation Conquest (who can resist Ultron in space?), are memorable comics because they are good science fiction stories that happen to take place in the Marvel Universe. They add extra depths to characters that are one-note villains, like Super Skrull and Ronan, and tell a story about the cost of war and unlikely allies banding together in the face of disaster. If you pick up one Marvel “event comic” from the 2000s, make it Annihilation.

4. Sinestro Corps War (DC; 2007-2008)

In the DC Universe, the Green Lantern Corps are space cops who have overcome fear and can use their power rings to create projections of anything in their imagination to protect the universe. On the other side of the coin is the Sinestro Corps, who use yellow power rings to bring order to the universe through fear. The two sides comes to blows in the “Sinestro Corps War” storyline, told in the pages of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and Dave Gibbons’ and Peter Tomasi’s Green Lantern Corps, with art from Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, Angel Unzueta, and countless fill-in pencilers, inkers, and colorists that bring these almost Biblical – and quite emotional – space battles to life. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but “Sinestro Corps War” succeeds because Johns take these godlike characters’ feelings and insecurities seriously, while also lifting Sinestro into the pantheon of archvillains. It was a coming out party for the Green Lantern franchise and may have partially been responsible for the greenlighting of the 2011 film.

The idea for “Sinestro Corps War” came from an obscure Green Lantern story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame, one that is very rooted in DC Comics continuity. However, Johns leans on a tremendous team of artists, including Reis and Van Sciver, to depict past events, like Hal Jordan becoming evil in the 1990s, all the way through to the present conflict. His almost religious reverence for the DC stories of the past pairs nicely with Gibbons’ cheeky character-driven writing, which makes even the most D-list members of the Green Lantern Corps compelling, like the combat medic Soranik Natu, who patrols Sinestro’s home planet, or the planet-sized Green Lantern, Mogo. A throwaway joke in a Moore and Gibbons comic becomes the heart and soul of Johns, Reis, Gibbons, and Gleason’s creation.

Fear is a powerful motivation for most human beings’ actions, and Geoff Johns leans on this terrifying, yet true reality to orchestrate the DC Universe’s finest soap opera since the days of Jack Kirby. He uses the emotional component of the Green Lanterns and Sinestro Corps’ powers, not just for cool action scenes, but also to explore the motivations and feelings of those who wield them, including the walking mediocrity, Hal Jordan. “Sinestro Corps War” established Ivan Reis (currently on Justice League of America) and Patrick Gleason (currently drawing Superman) as their go-to artist for blockbuster stories, while still keeping in mind the human aspects of these big-time characters, and not just doing double-page spreads. Best of all, it set the stage for Blackest Night, the most epic non-Grant-Morrison-written DC comic that didn’t make this list (because it is more of a superhero/horror book than space opera).

3. Saga (Image; 2012 to present)

When I started thinking about comics I was going to write about for Space Opera Month, Saga immediately popped up into my head. This Eisner, Harvey, and Hugo Award-winning science fiction comic by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and Fiona Staples (Archie) is about a couple named Alana and Marko, who are from the perpetually-warring planet and moon of Landfall and Wreath. They fall in love, have a beautiful daughter named Hazel, and then go on the run from a variety of pursuers, including morally-ambiguous bounty hunter The Will,  Mario’s ex-fiance Gwendolyn, a spider-legged bounty hunter named The Stalk, an aristocrat with a TV for a head called Prince Robot IV, and a cat named Lying Cat (who is literally a lie detector). One of the best parts of Saga is seeing Staples’ creative – and occasionally disturbing – design for the different beings that Alana and Marko run into, including a hipster teenage ghost who is their babysitter, an adorable and loyal (fan favorite) seal creature named Ghus, anthropomorphic fishnet stockings who live on the pleasure planet Sextillion, and countless others.

Even though it happens on a variety of strange planets against the backdrop of complicated political intrigue, Vaughan and Staples make Saga about the difficulty of starting a family, even though there are plenty of fire fights, magical duels, and timely escapes. Alana and Marko fight a lot of the time, and recently in the comics they have been separated. The series also doesn’t keep Hazel (who is the comic’s narrator) a baby forever. At the time of this writing, she has grown into a rambunctious little girl, who is slowly becoming aware of what the outside world thinks of her parents’ actions.

Hazel’s coming of age and Alana and Marko’s relationship struggles keep Saga grounded, while Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples indulge in some seriously cool worldbuilding – like a romance novel that’s a secret revolutionary treatise, or how Alana used to be a kind of soap opera actress – while fleshing out an ever-expanding supporting cast. At its core, however, Saga is about how creating and nurturing life is better than taking one, even if it seems like the senseless violence will never cease… (Warning: Saga kills off characters on a Whedonesque level)

2.Starlight (Image; 2014)

He’s most famous for his violent, entertaining, and more than a little sophomoric Kick-Ass and Kingsman series, as well as a revisionist take on Marvel heroes in Ultimates and Civil War, but Starlight showcases a more mature side of comics’ Scottish enfant-terrible, Mark Millar. It also has some gorgeous Moebius-meets-Norman-Rockwell (but with a sense of humor) art from Goran Parlov (Fury MAX). The comic is about an elderly man named Duke McQueen, who saved the planet Tantalus and its queen from the tyrannical Typhon when he was a young man. After his victory, he left Tantalus to be with his beloved wife, Joanne, who passes away from cancer in Starlight #1. Duke is ridiculed for the outlandish accounts of his adventures, and is a lonely old dude who is almost forgotten. However, in Starlight he is called to save Tantalus from a new tyrant – with the help of his number one fan Krish Moor, who looks like he belongs in the Speed Racer universe, but has a sad backstory similar to Batman.

What makes Starlight so endearing is the character of Duke McQueen. Sure, he ends up being a double blaster-wielding, double-fisted hero in the end, but the early issues set him up as a sad old man who misses his wife. Goran Parlov is fantastic at drawing vehicles and sci-fi weaponry, but he also nails the sad moments, like Duke sitting alone and smoking under the stars, or a place setting for a family dinner that no one bothered to show up to. These emotional sequences make the action in the back half of the series that much exhilarating, as Duke inspires the Tantalans to rise up against their new tyrant, Kingfisher (who looks like Darth Vader and has the appetite for luxury of Jabba the Hutt).

Starlight is the old New Testament quote “No prophet is accepted in his hometown,” but on an intergalactic level. Sure, Duke saved a whole planet, but he’s treated as a crank by his family and neighbors. Duke’s journey from retired hero to returning hero is thrilling, and he’s a selfless, noble man with wry one-liners to boot. The miniseries is worth reading for Goran Parlov’s command of the comics medium ,as he excels at everything from double-page spreads of tyrannical mining planets, to furious car chases, and even an old man watching the stars that he once saved. It’s a pity that this was his last interior art, as of early 2017.

1. Space Riders (Black Mask; 2015, 2017)

With its Jack-Kirby-meets-a-Grimes-album cover (or a really well-done punk rock zine), art from artist Alexis Zirritt, and anything goes/picaresque-style plotting from writer Fabian Rangel, Space Riders is a fucking awesome four-issue space opera miniseries from Black Mask Studios, one of comics’ most innovative publishers. Space Riders follows the adventures of Capitan Peligro (Spanish for “Captain Danger”), his first mate Mono (a religiously devout baboon), and Yara, a badass, yet level-headed female android (who saves the crew’s bacon multiple times). Their ship is the Santa Muerte, a literal flying skull that has been discontinued by the EISF, the Space Riders’ employer. There is an overarching plot featuring gods, a tomb, and the fate of the universe, but Space Riders is really a comeback story, as Capitan Peligro must prove himself to his superiors and regain his rank and ride. He must deal with the legacy of his father, who was also a Space Rider, as well as also try to get revenge against his rival, Hammerhead.

It only took a few pages of Space Riders #1 to make me fall in love with Alexis Zirritt’s art and colors. Every page that he draws deserves to either be a poster or an album cover. With his intense reds and wobbly, seemingly LSD-laced pencils, Zirritt makes faster-than-light travel seem like the scariest shit ever for a human being. Jumping to hyperspace isn’t some mash-a-button-and-escape deal for Capitan Peligro, but a dark night of the soul, as he goes a little mad and ends up wrecking the Santa Muerte. This comic is packed to the gills with generally cool stuff, like a double-page splash of a space whale getting harassed by Viking-themed space biker gangs, along with your usual space opera fare, including killer robots and tractor beams. There are layers to this coolness, however, like the space whale being a riff on Moby Dick (but with Peligro wanting to protect this majestic – and possibly divine – creature instead of killing it like that windbag Captain Ahab). It’s a nice environmental parable that isn’t schmaltzy thanks to the presence of Tarantino-esque one-liners, chest mounted machine guns and – did I mention the Viking motorcycle gang?

Space Riders is a wild ride of a comic book, and it’s one of the books on this list that I feel comfortable recommending even to people who aren’t into science fiction, but still like cool action and characters with problems. Fabian Rangel and Alexis Zirritt don’t waste time on oodles of exposition, instead just throwing readers into intense situations and never letting off the gas. Capitan Peligro gets a solid character arc as he evolves from an utter fuck-up, and refuses promotion so he can be free to fly through space with his crew, beating bad guys and figuring out more about the mysterious dying gods in the current series, Space Riders: Galaxy of Brutality.

PART ONE

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