Comics has an accessibility problem. After decades of existence some books can be really hard to ease into. That’s why the infamous “jumping on point” was created — single issues designed to garner new readers and lure back old fans. Each week brave surveyors Luke Miller and Jamil Scalese will venture into the comics abyss and let you, the consumer, know just which series are worth JUMPING ON, and which are better left to be revisited at a later date.
Kings Quest #1
(Ben Acker; Heath Corson; Dan McDaid; Omi Remalante)
Jamil: We fanatics have an inclination for escalation. In my first experiences with just about any pop culture phenomenon, particularly superheroes, I remember wanting to know everything, to absorb all media, to own all toys or games or whatever janky pencil eraser Spider-Man’s face was slapped on. When I started seriously reading graphic literature the same sensation persisted, I wanted to map and memorize the whole of all fictional universes. As I attempted to do that I realized the scope of comics went well beyond what happened on the page and I started to become interested in the medium’s commentary and creation. In the last few years I’ve dipped into nonfiction, in particular reading about noteworthy comic creators and/or the impact and influence of various figures (real and fiction) through the years. The Golden Age quickly nestled itself into a soft, warm spot in my heart, the wily old bastard.
One of the most fascinating things in comics are origins, and the birth of the comics itself is rife with awesome facts and mysterious nuance. Superman is rightfully credited with being the spark that started the ever-glowing supernova but he wasn’t the first hero with great abilities to appear in picture and text form. Though it’s certainly not an all-encompassing roster this week’s comic sports lineup of legendary pulp heroes who were among the first mavens of sci-fi literature. Lucky for us they all happen to be owned by Kings Features Syndicate.
The solicit text for Kings Quest #1 reads: “THE PERFECT JUMPING-ON POINT FOR NEW READERS!” (We’re literally getting requests out here, Luke!) It’s part of a fairly new shared universe between adventurers like the Phantom, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant and others. I found it to be an enjoyable ride, though not as accessible as the advert screams. Did this story start in medias res or is it a direct continuation of whatever happened in Kings Watch? Why is everyone is such great peril? How do these characters feel about each other? Why does the protagonist keep yakking on herself?
Luke: Yeah, the constant references to puking were weird. A bit distracting/detracting (take your pick) from the story itself I thought. I liked the idea of these characters being thrown together, because I knew almost all of their names and knew they were classic golden age pulp fiction guys. Well, except for Mandrake the Magician. That guy slipped by my radar. But the Phantom, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Prince Valiant, even the villain, Ming the Merciless, are names I recognize. (My local newspaper used to syndicate Prince Valiant – you know, back when newspapers were still a thing. I kept trying to read it and thinking, “this isn’t funny… at all…” My first introduction to “comics don’t have to be funny.”)
However, I have to disagree with the solicitation. Knowing nothing about the characters except for their names doesn’t make a good jumping on point if you don’t tell us about the characters. This issue didn’t really tell us anything about the characters at all – other than “New Phantom,” and all we really learned about her is she doesn’t feel prepared for this and has a tendency to vomit all the time.
The plot was fine enough, but I kept wondering if I’d have enjoyed it more if I was already steeped in the traditions of Flash Gordon, et al. I feel like Golden Age Aficionados probably had a lot more fun with this than I did. Too much was going on with too little explanation; that’s sort of antithetical to this column, isn’t it?
Jamil: I think the more we write for this column the more we see the plethora of ways to ease new readers into an established book. I don’t necessarily agree that a story can’t already be going full-tilt in what should be an introductory issue, given the new era of seeing origin stories retold over and over I kind of like that, but I do agree that writers Acker and Corson do a fairly poor job of telling the audience exactly who they are looking at, what they can do and how they feel about it. Yes, I can visually identify Phantom from a mile away, but I have little clue what makes that guy tick, or why there’s now a female version with a weak constitution.
I have to agree this does NOT seem like a great comic for a newb. It’s not exactly inaccessible, all the characters really do is crash land in a weird place then fight wild animals and Ming’s forces, however I failed to find the hook aside from from it being a team-up of the some of the first ever sci-fi and adventurer heroes. These very much are the forefathers of modern fiction, and there’s an underlying appeal to that, but that’s all Kings Quest is really working with at this point.
Dan McDaids art is pretty good throughout though. His oily inks relate a newspaper comics feel that speaks to the origins of these characters. His depiction of Jungle Jim, now literally a living jungle, is forceful and a touch macabre. The action really works for me, and it has to since this issue is merely action layered with action. One page really gave me pause: the one with Prince Valiant slashing through foes as he climbs a steep embankment. The page seemingly breaks every rule about eye flow and balloon/panel placement but I loved the risk. Stuff like that could set this comic apart.
Luke: You know what this book reminded me of? A 90’s crossover that just threw a bunch of B and C list characters together in the hopes that something would happen and readers would jump on. Specifically, it reminded me of “The Crossing,” an Iron Man/Avengers crossover which has a plot too crazy and complex to get into here (but I still need to write about at some point because that thing is nuts.) In it, you’ve got Iron Man and the Avengers teaming up to stop an unknown force killing them from within, but the Avengers at this point are like Hercules, Quicksilver, and Crystal. War Machine, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Black Widow all get roped in at various points, but the heavy hitters (Thor, Cap, Spidey, the Fantastic Four, Hulk, the X-Men…) are absent through the thing except for Iron Man. Technically, you could jump on to that first issue and be fine without knowing anything about the C-list Avengers (which I did), but it takes several issues to get up to speed on who the characters are and what drives them.
If you really want to read about these characters, I suppose this issue is as good a jumping on point as any, but you have to have faith the writers are going to come through in the following issues with the why’s and wherefore’s.
Jamil: Agreed. I could take a look at this title at another point but right now I’d suggest leaving it on the shelf unless you already know what the hell is going on.