Jack Boniface, aka Shadowman, is in the business of slaying demons. “The Deadside could ripple into our reality just about anywhere these days. When that happens… things crawl out… birthing themselves into this world. And it’s my job to shove back.” Jack is in Shadowman form for nearly all of this book, which means he swings a magic scythe, has hair of flickering shadow, uses supernatural vision, and wears a mask resembling a skull. As branding goes, this is as straightforward as Shadowman has ever been, using his shadow powers to wreak shadow justice. Jack is biracial, though this is not evident in the story beyond his dark skin.
He gets his powers from a shadow loa, an element of actual Haitian voodoo adapted for superheroics here, but this is no origin story. He starts out the story on the clock, so to speak, fighting one demon and on the trail of its matching partner. Each of this book’s four chapters features a showdown with a different demon that has infiltrated Earth by way of “thin spots” between here and the dark afterlife known as the Deadside. Bunn is good at twisting horror tropes, making a rampaging demon a tragic figure and a bloodthirsty hitchhiker the unsuspecting victim. Sometimes the horror is mysterious and subtle, other times violent and bloody. Negative emotions and experiences—violence, cruelty, hatred, sadness—embolden the Deadside to break through, as in the case of a toxic demon who lurks in a drug den. Baron Samedi, a teleporting skeleton who travels alongside Jack with taunts and advice, is normally a series villain but an effective foil here. The white dot in Samedi’s eye socket constantly teases mischief behind his guidance.
Jon Davis-Hunt’s illustrations bring to mind the word sharp. He uses the same amount of detail on faces and bloody violence as he does on backgrounds and outfits. The setting moves from New Orleans to an Arizona ghost town to Barcelona, Port-au-Prince, and London. Each location looks distinct, adding to each chapter’s distinctive feel. I want to look at everything on the page, from Baron Samedi’s flamboyant outfit to Jack’s smile right before he checks a mansion guard who lays a hand on him. Jordie Bellaire’s colors play a large role in the book’s appeal too, as the palette routinely morphs from natural and sickly colors in the normal world to heightened warm colors and glowing magical hues when the Deadside arrives. There are plenty of devils and antiheroes atoning for their sins in comics, but the art team here makes this a unique pleasure to read. Clayton Cowles’s lettering suits the mood too, with Jack’s uniform, white-on-black dialog and monologue bubbles contrasting against Samedi’s creeping, uneven bubbles.
A lot of Shadowman’s appeal is similar to that of a procedural TV show: hero shows up, turns over some clues, takes on a baddie, builds a little intrigue, and moves on to the next location. There’s no shame in that formula here, as it makes for efficient storytelling and it’s easy to imagine that Vol. 2 will have more Deadside demons, Samedi tomfoolery, growing threats from beyond, and look beautiful the whole time. There is a reference to a character from another comic Cullen Bunn wrote for Valiant, Punk Mambo, but the background knowledge isn’t necessary to understand this story. This collection represents a fresh take on the character, stemming from Valiant’s linewide 2012 reboot of their original 90s comics, but this isn’t a bad jumping-on point. Back matter includes some monster and setting commentary, as well as variant covers and a few black and white pages. Give this to fans of Hellboy, The Witcher, and Spawn.
Shadowman, Book One By Cullen Bunn Art by Jon Davis-Hunt Valiant, 2021 ISBN: 9781682153741
Publisher Age Rating: 12+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Character Representation: African-American,
For a comic about three different women from the Valiant universe, Faith: Dreamside is surprisingly accessible. Each of the three leads represents a different take on super-heroics: the flying and levitating Faith Herbert (Zephyr) uses a Clark Kent/Superman dynamic to separate her personal and superhero lives; the transformative Monica Jim (Animalia) is on the run from government agents for using her powers to stand up for oppressed children, and Shan Fong (Dr. Mirage) uses her occult powers as the professional lead of a paranormal investigation television show. The plot is straightforward. Faith saves Monica from a police standoff. Monica is haunted by ghosts, so they consult with Shan, who takes them to a realm called the Dreamside to see where these ghosts originate. After a big showdown with a nightmare creature, everyone goes home as friends feeling a little better about themselves.
Why should they feel a little better? Each of them brings baggage from the past. Faith’s superhero persona was previously framed for murder, so she resorts to saving people on the down low. Monica is navigating the trauma of losing several friends and allies among her Renegade group. Shan’s late husband Hwen, with whose ghost she regularly socializes, has asked her to move on with a living partner. Despite these setbacks, all three flex their powers with confidence and operate as a competent trio. Writer Jody Houser deserves credit for maintaining a balancing act that allows all three women to deal with personal conflicts throughout the main story without losing focus. Dave Sharpe’s lettering places dialog, narration, and sound effects out of the way of the main action, always leading the eye to the next focal point. The final-act boss battle with Dreamside’s vicious Belu is taut, but effective. His introductory monologue sets up a villainous concept that is easy to understand and immediately personal: “The first moment a being became aware of a hope, a dream that would remain unfulfilled… that was me.”
Artist M.J. Kim is skilled in the levels of expression and fantasy settings required to tell this kind of genre mashup. Nightmare creatures, devious ghosts, kaiju projections—all are rendered with appropriate detail, with excellent palette choices from colorist Jordie Bellaire. In one scene, our heroes walk through the seemingly bright and cheery Dreamside, oblivious to the decaying and corrupted environment that waits just beyond. Kim and Bellaire’s artwork shows off the contrast to wonderful effect with a spread showing off the bright, daycare-esque happy images of clouds and smiling flowers alongside progressively drearier, rotted wasteland. Belu’s growth from a relatively cute little snake into a majestic king of nightmares is impressive, including its horns, wings, scales, four eyes, and split face.
Kim and Bellaire’s teamwork applies to the human moments, too. Scenes of depression and mourning surround characters in black background. A shot of violence is drenched in red. Faith’s flashbacks to her youth are colored so that people pop out against monochrome backgrounds, a nice parallel to how her levitation powers grant people and objects a golden shine. Shan’s actions and wardrobe are consistently blue and white, including the glowing effects on magic and ghosts. Monica’s curly hair and spunky expressions make rooting for her an effortless pitch, and that’s before her transformations take over a page. This story ends only four issues in, which can feel a little tidy plot-wise, but the characters are so distinct and fun to watch that readers shouldn’t mind.
Faith: Dreamside is another efficient home run from Valiant. It ought to serve as a fair entry point into the worlds of its diverse leads, whether it’s to discover where they’re from or where they’re going. Hand this comic to teens who want to see a black girl turn into a Godzilla-ish monster (and a kangaroo!), Undertale fans who thrive on seeing happiness and fortitude tested by personal nightmares, or pop culture junkies who will find a friend in the collectible-hoarding, reference-dropping Faith.
Faith: Dreamside By Jody Houser Art by M.J. Kim ISBN: 9781682152973 Valiant, 2019 Series Reading Order: https://www.goodreads.com/series/172181
Jim Shooter’s company Valiant Comics has had its moments in the sun. I fondly remember its 90’s era, with Kurt Busiek helming Ninjak and Christopher Priest exploring race and heroism with the super comedy duo Quantum and Woody. Especially in the latter case, Valiant gave its readers something they hadn’t seen before—superhero buddies divided by race and class, trapped together by super high-tech bracelets, each defying stereotypes and relentlessly mocking each other’s life choices. With Jody Houser’s series Faith, Valiant has given us another book unlike any other—the story of a geeky, plus-sized super trying to get by in Los Angeles.
In some ways Faith Herbert—also known as the high-flying Zephyr—is a typical superhero. She has incredible power that she genuinely revels in (a “companion field”—a force field that enables flight, invulnerability, and a kind of rough-but-effective telekinesis), she wears a costume, maintains a secret identity, teams up with other heroes, rescues people, and fights evil as her schedule allows. It’s the details that make Faith a bit different from her peers.
Most obviously, there’s Faith’s appearance. Female superheroes have typically followed the model established by Marston’s Wonder Woman—beautiful glamazons in swimsuits and knee-high boots. However, Faith is modeled more after comedienne Melissa McCarthy—before the weight loss—than Gal Gadot. Instead of a form-fitting catsuit, she wears a loose blue-and-white outfit that calls to mind Ms. Marvel’s burkini. There’s a lot to like about this aspect of the book. While Faith is a blue-eyed blonde with model good looks, she’s a plus-sized model with an active social and romantic life. It sends a good message.
The second attribute that sets Faith apart is her personality. She has a life beyond her super-heroic calling, and it feels genuine. Faith plays Dungeons & Dragons with friends from work, attends comic book conventions (dressed as a Steampunk version of herself), and has a credibly ridiculous amount of trouble maintaining a secret identity. She Skypes with her love interest, Archer (one of the Valiant Universe’s long-running heavy hitters), dreads seeing her ex-boyfriend, obsesses over TV shows, and fantasizes about meeting celebrity crushes. Like many other Millennials, her job isn’t quite what she hoped for, and, even with super powers, she’s only recently left the comfortable nest her superteam/family represented and she’s finding out that large portions of her starter life aren’t working.
Finally, setting this book apart from the superhero mainstream, Faith is a funny book. The humor is deadpan rather than wacky, and notably is never about Faith’s weight or appearance. But its satirical bent is unmistakable. Most superhero satires are focused on the superhero genre itself; Gwenpool, Ambush Bug, Howard the Duck; but pop culture is the target in Faith’s sights. Her superhuman ex, for example, is now a reality TV star; the alien cult The Hollywood Vine has a strong Scientology vibe; and Faith’s most embittered foe turns out to be a superhero actor who can’t get villainous roles because of his all-American good looks—he has a never-ending army of stunt doubles, it’s fun.
Faith even has an active fantasy life, where she imagines meeting the actors she loves on TV and the big screen, and imagines that they’re also her biggest fans. Not surprisingly, when those meetings do occur (*cough cough evil nemesis*) they turn out a lot different than Faith imagined or hoped.
Like many superhero series, Faith is handled by more than one artist and much of the artwork does little to distinguish itself from other comics in this genre. The most outstanding visual work is done in the series’ many fantasy sequences, largely penciled by Marguerite Sauvage and Colleen Doran. These sequences are done in a dreamy soft-focused style, usually with a doe-eyed and sultry Faith meeting her favorite TV stars. This feels appropriate for geeky, good-natured Faith, but the sudden shift in tone and style can be a little distracting.
Faith isn’t a perfect series. Its ideas are sometimes better than its execution. Jokes sometimes fall flat (or at least sideways). More problematic, even with its empowered, unconventionally attractive heroine it suffers from some of the ‘male gaze’ difficulties associated with superhero comics. Especially in early issues, there’s a discomfiting number of scenes where Faith is changing clothes, showering, or wrapped in a towel—all PG, but also gratuitous, and the objectification of different female body types is less progressive than it is progress adjacent. The characters are well realized, but the plots can feel rushed, like a TV series that’s not sure if it’s going to be canceled—which may be part of the problem, since after 12 issues the Faith ongoing series was canceled, with its story somewhat continued in the mini-series Faith and the Future Force. Whatever the source of the problems, this is a book I want to cheer for, but it doesn’t always live up to its potential. Still, as the series learns to land on its feet more often, it increases the chances of finding and reaching both its readership and its somewhat ambitious creative goals.
The Faith series is technically a 12-issue ongoing series sandwiched between two four-issue mini-series, but it has story and author continuity throughout, making it no more disjointed than most mainstream superhero books and a good fit for public and high school libraries. If you are collecting it, it’s worth collecting in toto. While her future is uncertain, with fun female superheroes like Squirrel Girl and Carol Danvers still in the spotlight, it’s likely the character will surface again soon.
Faith by Jody Houser, Joshua Dysart Art by Francis Portela, Pere Dysart, Joe Eisma Faith, vol 1: Hollywood & Vine ISBN: 9781682152010 Faith, vol 2: California Scheming ISBN: 978-1682151631 Faith, vol 3: Superstar ISBN: 978-1682151990 Faith, vol 4: The Faithless ISBN: 978-1682152195 Faith and the Future Force ISBN: 978-1682152331 Valiant Entertainment, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: Teen
It is the year 4000 A.D. and the first murder in a thousand years has taken place in the floating nation of New Japan. Residents of New Japan live with Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled partners called Positrons, or PTs, for companionship. A master AI called “Father” governs the populace, monitoring everyone and designating who may procreate. Father’s enforcement agent, Rai, is dispatched for major crimes in New Japan, and this recent murder just became his top priority. He will learn secrets about the country he has guarded for so long, including Father’s true nature. Along for the ride is the teenage Lula, a fan of Rai, willing to perform gumshoe detective work, and a secret agent named Spylocke, both of whom are in for more techno-noir trouble than they ever reckoned.
Kudos to writer Matt Kindt for balancing so many perspectives within the four issues of this collection, but the brightest star in this comic is artist Clayton Crain, whose digital painting style distinguishes this comic with slick, futuristic visuals and a signature look different from anything else Valiant has produced. Crain’s art showcases a talent for light and detail that rewards close and repeat scrutiny. This quality holds up whether characters are swooping into action or talking in a bar, under the sun or moon (though the story favors moonlight), and whether panels need to direct physical action or focus on a character’s motives. Gutters between panels sometimes take on a pattern of digital noise similar to how Rai’s teleportation ability is depicted, transmitting as a flurry of miniature rectangles. Rai practically swims through New Japan when he’s in a hurry, most likely to slice ‘n’ dice targets assigned by Father in a bloody and stylized fashion. Crain’s New Japan is glowing but moody, lushly colored but immediately habitable. Readers will lose themselves in the detail of a boutique aquarium filled with colorful fish before turning the page and beholding a warehouse-sized card catalog of tall, brown cabinets (according to Lula, “It’s an old library”).
What about Rai, as a character and a series, is Japanese? His name translates to “spirit” in Japanese, and some of New Japan’s residents believe him to be a wandering spirit of punishment. His face, chest, hands, feet, and katanas bear the red circle of Old Japan’s flag, and the floating island of New Japan was formulated from the industrialized Old Japan. New Japan’s social hierarchy is based on proximity to Earth: the lower you are physically, the lower you are socially. “If you walked from the bottom of Japan to the top sector it would take you at least a month,” Lula explains. Every so often, the island opens its exhaust valve and releases a destructive blast on the Earth below. Despite this vicious xenophobia toward Earth, New Japan is not just preserving Japanese aesthetics and offspring. Some characters appear to have East Asian facial features, but others do not. There is a black character for a few panels. Rai, though empowered with superhuman abilities by Father, has a human, Japanese mother. Each sector of New Japan houses a different kind of environment, from urban sprawl to idyllic beach to prehistoric jungle.
Librarians and collectors should be aware that the Rai series currently clocks in at three paperback collections or one hardcover, and leads into the book 4001 A.D. and a book of one-off stories, 4001 A.D.: Beyond New Japan. Zeroing in on a typical “read this if you like” recommendation is tricky, since this series includes elements of noir, cyberpunk, mystery, science fiction, and samurai stories. Violence and blood in action scenes, though largely stylized, leads to a teen recommendation. Rai serves as a great entry point into publisher Valiant’s universe, referencing a few characters from the main timeline but not requiring any advance knowledge. This trade paperback includes extras in the back such as variant cover gallery by various artists, Crain’s concept art, and annotated sketchbook pages from Kindt.
Rai, vol. 1: Welcome To New Japan by Matt Kindt Art by Clayton Crain ISBN: 9781939346414 Valiant, 2014 Publisher Age Rating: T+
Anna the human, Froga the frog, Bubu the dog, Christopher the worm, and Ron the cat return in the latest translated volume of Anna and Froga with seven new delightful stories.
This book is perfect to kick off a wintry season, as our gang starts by exchanging Christmas gifts. Bubu’s quest to make a perfect homemade gift has led him to consuming hundreds of fudgsicles, leading to a story that is the essence of New Year’s resolutions. Our characters attend an expensive “detox retreat” where they valiantly suffer through dieting and exercise before leaving early to comfortably gather at home with pizza. The following stories are full of similar trials and triumphs.
Bubu’s sense of superiority continues to cause trouble for him, always leading to a laugh for the reader with a bit of a lesson attached. For example, you may try to play finders keepers, but karmic retribution won’t let you off the hook (and neither will your friends, if they’re good ones!). It’s important to note that these lessons are never heavy-handed morals, making the stories appropriate for a broad audience. Perhaps one day Bubu will retain some of these lessons and act responsibly, but for now his folly is our fun.
Anna and Froga demonstrates some real tensions in friend groups in lighthearted ways, as each of the characters fills a different role: the bossy friend, the one who will do anything for a good prank, the pleasantly oblivious one, the snarky one, and the one who always seems to be left out of the joke. The shenanigans that ensue are adventures that appeal for a sense of balance—our characters would see a lot less trouble if they were a little more patient, observant, and took the time to look up every once in a while. While it seems fitting that only Bubu could lead our gang to the Eiffel Tower without even noticing it towering overhead, the joke doubles in hilarity because none of the others noticed either.
As with previous books in the series (see Anna and Froga vol. 4: Fore), this volume is a sturdy hardcover book with lovely endpapers, this time pale blue featuring flowers and insects, imagery from a picnic scene in the book. The plot in this volume is quite cohesive, as the first two and the last two stories are paired together. This creates a good sense of continuity for the story, but order is not essential to reading this series.
Ricard’s art continues in her clean and bright style, with every joke visually reinforced through the characters’ expressions and the background of the panel. In terms of consistency, background details are not always the same from panel to panel across a story—the weather, the color of a dresser and the objects resting on it are all subject to change. The stories are fast-paced enough that these inconsistencies are not immediately noticeable, but if you play a lot of “spot the differences,” you might find yourself amused or annoyed accordingly.
As with the previous volume, there are no true content warnings for this volume; the sarcasm, slapstick, and practical jokes continue.
Anna and Froga: Out and About, vol. 5 by Anouk Ricard ISBN: 9781770462403 Enfant, 2016 Publisher Age Rating: Juvenile
Eleven-year-old Alanna doesn’t care about the long history of conflict between men and dragons. Tender-hearted and stubborn, she refuses to do what her older brother Hamel tells her to do just because it’s sensible. When she finds a baby dragon and a cave full of hatching dragon eggs, she is not frightened. Instead, the orphaned girl empathizes with the motherless newborn dragons. She creates a flame-resistant dragon costume out of her brother’s blacksmithing leathers, and the dragons accept her as one of their own. Enter Sir Cedric the Dragon Slayer, who asks Hamel to show him where the dragons are located. Hamel, seeing this as a way to leave the tedium of blacksmithing behind, agrees. However, when they find the dragons guarding masses of silver, Hamel realizes his mistake as greedy Sir Cedric tries to steal the eggs and kill them. Hamel joins his little sister in her efforts to save the dragons, and Alanna uses her bravery and ingenuity to earn the title of Dragon Girl. By doing this, she also invites her brother to change his own destiny and gives him the opportunity to pursue new dreams.
This is a charming story of two orphans trying to make their way in the world. The characters are fully realized with modern and relatable problems despite the fantasy setting: Alanna misses her father and wishes her brother could still be as playful as he was before he had to become the adult. Hamel has no love for his father’s blacksmith trade, but feels stuck in the role of responsible provider. Readers will enjoy seeing both of them break free of their constraints and root for them as they try to protect the dragons.
The high-contrast, realistic black and white drawings are reminiscent of the old Prince Valiant comic strip and are well suited to Alanna’s story. The dragons are depicted as a species of many variations, some in the traditional European flying ilk and others as land-bound creatures that look more like dinosaurs. With action-filled panels that are easy to follow, this medieval-flavor adventure is sure to appeal of fans of Bone, Mouse Guard, and Broxo, with the added benefit of featuring a girl as its central character. Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley is the first in a projected series.
Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley, vol. 1 by Jeff Weigel ISBN: 9781449441838 Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014 Publisher Age Rating: 7-12