Valiant, Rai #0-4, written by Bob Layton and David Michelinie, drawn by Joe St. Pierre, Sal Velluto and David Lapham, 1993
Here’s the thing about old Valiant titles—you have to have been there. I say this as someone who wasn’t. Reading old Hero Illustrated and Wizard magazines from the era, one gets the impression that Valiant exploded with almost as much fury as Image. Sure, the “Image Seven” are given the treatment of gods, but there’s also plenty of hype and praise for titles like Archer and Armstrong and The Second Life of Doctor Mirage—both now staples of the “we can’t give these away” bins. Jim Shooter’s early Magnus and Solar series are revered as masterpieces (neither of which I’ve read, regrettably) and titles like Ninjak and Bloodshot are at the top of the sales charts. You had to be there…
I picked up this trade of Rai for a measly 50cents. Quite a deal, I say, though I won’t be pressing you to run out and emulate my purchase. Rai is a neat concept and apparently Valiant’s first original creation to earn a solo ongoing. For those unaware, Rai takes place in the future (the same future as Magnus) in a Japan quite different from the one we know. The country had been sealing itself off from the rest of the world, eventually blowing itself into space as an ultimate act of isolation. The computer overlord that ran (some say peacefully, others disagree) society—Grandmother they call it, has abandoned the land and left “her” protector, Rai, to sort out the mess left behind.
It’s not a bad premise, actually. I was quite intrigued from the get-go, what with Rai’s strikingly simple design and built-in rich mythos. It’s a lot to absorb, having missed Rai’s first appearance in the pages of Magnus, but by the second issue things seem to be ironed out enough to follow. Though built on dense concepts and a complex backstory, the plot throughout these 4 issues is actually deceptively simple. Two factions are warring for control of Japan and Rai is caught in the middle. It’s here that the most interesting part of the series comes to fruition—Rai is, by his very essence, Japan’s sworn protector, but he’s thrown for a loop when there’s no clear cut right or wrong side to align himself with. He’s a hero, but he’s unsure of his path. This isn’t simply a right vs. wrong conflict, and it keeps both Rai and the readers on their toes.
The character work is quite good as well. Rai, having the power of all the protectors of Japan beforehand, is uneasy about his role in the society his finds himself in. His father, the former Rai, is wonderfully written as grumpy and a little off-kilter. There’s levity in all the right places, without resorting to cheap laughs or ridiculous stereotypes. Each character seems to have their own personality, with only a select few falling into the well-tread territory of “typical jealous politician”, or “typical rebellion leader”. Not every character is a winner, but there are enough original creations here to be impressed.
The art is your basic Valiant house style, this time courtesy of Joe St. Pierre. The drawings are simple, the story is clear and there isn’t even a glimpse of artistic originality. That being said, it’s all very well done and quite enjoyable, if you’re used to that classic Valiant look. For modern readers, the colouring may take some getting used to and everything might seem cheap or old-fashioned, but a keen eye will appreciate the detail, attention to storytelling and consistent character work. Sal Velluto chips in here and there as a fill-in and does such a good job, you almost can’t tell where he begins or ends.
And with all that being said, I realize I’ve completely ignored issue 0. It’s essentially the guidebook for Rai’s existence. We see his connection to the rest of the Valiant universe, how his lineage came to be—and then we’re told to forget everything we read in the first four issues. It doesn’t matter, because by issue 0 we have a new Rai. It’s jarring to say the least, but also very impressive in terms of world-building and streamlining a huge story into a few pages. David Lapham draws these pages and he is, by far, my favourite Valiant artist, so the book reads well. I wasn’t exactly happy with the direction the series suddenly took, but it’s interesting enough that I would continue reading if I found enough issues in the cheap bins.
I can’t say this series will be for everyone, but if you remember the glory days of Valiant and you’ve got a soft spot for their unique colouring and generic house-style art, this is a series worth revisiting. The story is great, if inconsequential, and leaves you wanting more. Give it a try, I say! It certainly won’t cost you much.
Dark Horse, Usagi Yojimbo #100-109, written and drawn by Stan Sakai, 2007-2008
I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read Usagi Yojimbo. Growing up, I cherished a specific action figure from the Ninja Turtles line—Space Usagi, and ever since I’ve taken a liking to the rabbit ronin. I would see his series in stores and root for Stan Sakai’s success with the character, but I never actually bought any the comics. It took a random trip to a library in a small town to finally find a healthy stack of these books for a good price. You can check every dollar bin in the world and sometimes all you need is a good library.
Man, am I ever glad I found these comics. They aren’t dense, life-changing stories. The art isn’t super detailed, thought-provoking or even coloured. This series is all about well-told, simple yet compelling stories. Issues 101-109 cover a story arc involving an evil spirit as it invades the hearts and minds of different characters. It starts off basic enough, but eventually grows to include a huge cast of characters, covering multiple story threads over multiple issues. I was expecting more done-in-one tales, but this grand story was a pleasant surprise.
As a new reader, there were a few things I had to catch up with. Certain characters had come and gone, certain plots had just wrapped up and as the storyline kicks off, it transitions from the old to the new very slowly. When we’re introduced to the demonic spirit, it’s downright terrifying. I was expecting plenty of classic swordplay and great, choreographed action (which there is plenty of, thankfully), but the edge of horror took me by surprise. Sakai draws little cartoon animals dressed up as citizens of feudal Japan, and yet he managed to give me genuine chills with quite the terrifying tale.
As the story progresses we’re introduced to the priesthood that’s had a particularly bad history with the spirit, different factions of bounty hunters, a corrupt government and an innocent woman and child—all interacting with the demon and Usagi in different ways. By the culmination of the plot, things reach an epic scale. Sakai builds an impressive story and pulls it off with abundant skill. The simple way he tells a complex story is truly remarkable.
Sakai’s art follows the same design—simple yet complex. There is just enough detail to make everything clear; not a single line is wasted. Backgrounds are there when they should be and absent when they may distract from important actions. His characters are incredibly expressive and animated, but again, you won’t be seeing an abundance of lines in every-which direction. Sakai has boiled his art down to its necessary components and mastered each of them. If I have any complaints, it’s that there are a few characters that look too similar and I often got them confused.
And then there’s issue 100, a celebration of the series by some of Dark Horse’s finest. It’s not a Usagi tale; it’s a Stan Sakai story. We get reminiscences and contributions from the like of Guy Davis, Mark Evanier, Mike Richardson, Frank Miller and perhaps most enjoyably, Sergio Aragones. It’s a great book, complimenting Sakai and his legendary creation. If there’s one comic that makes it seem like the industry is one big happy family where everyone loves each other—this is the book.
I love Usagi Yojimbo, but it’s a different kind of reading experience than other comics, I find. It’s sort of a down-time, quick read cartoon that leaves you satisfied and exhilarated. You don’t need to go into “comic reading mode” to fall into a Usagi tale. I find picking up these books to be a break from regular comic reading, if such a thing was necessary. This isn’t a series of great importance or revolutionary comic creation—it’s simple, enjoyable and perfectly assembled for readers of any sort.
New England Comics Press, The Tick: Big Cruise Ship Vacation Special, written and drawn by… Sean Wang, maybe? 2000
Again, how did it take me this long to review one of these? I’ve been a huge Tick fan since his animated series days. I even loved his ill-fated live action show, against all odds. Then why am I only reading my first Tick comic now? Your guess is as good as mine.
I’d like to first note that I only have a vague idea of who created this book. The credits are nowhere to be found. The only name we get is Sean Wang, as he’s illustrated and signed his name to the cover. That’s who I’m going with.
At first, I found this comic really hard to follow. The drawings are detailed but also not entirely clear. Sometimes a panel takes a longer to study to understand what’s happening. Background gags are there, but due to the art’s less than polished nature, they are sometimes easy to miss. That being said, I did enjoy the style of the art and the character work. The storytelling and layouts are inconsistent, and the whole thing seems like it was printed from cheap, under-resolution jpegs instead of carefully crafted pencils and ink.
The writing is another factor that makes this book hard to follow. There are some entire pages that I’d read and just assume I’d understand later. To be fair, that was true in many cases, but it doesn’t make for the easiest reading experience. Half the time I read something that I knew was a joke, but looked all over the page for an explanation to why it was there and came up empty. The other half of the time, I was bursting at the seams, because there is plenty of genuinely funny material here.
I sound like I’m knocking this book, but I did genuinely enjoy reading it. I was disappointed that it seemed less professionally put together than I had hoped, but I was still satisfied with the classic Tick humour on display. It’s a funny book worth reading, but one that requires patience.