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Karl Schroeder: The Sunless Countries

After Pirate Sun, which brought to a close the events in the first three books of Virga, I wasn’t sure whether Karl Schroeder planned to write more in the universe or if that was it (at least for now). While there were some loose ends, it formed a loose trilogy around three characters, Hayden Griffin, Venera Fanning, and her husband Admiral Chaison Fanning, as they embarked on an odyssey through Virga – a 5000-mile-wide, pressurized balloon in space – to stop their home nation of Slipstream from being destroyed by a more powerful rival. Along the way we learned a lot about how Virga works, and the wide diversity of civilizations that live within it.

As it turns out, there is more, and The Sunless Countries is the first book with a protagonist not from Slipstream, thus presenting a somewhat different view of Virga. Leal Maspeth is a young historian in the city of Sere, a collection of wheels in the sunless counties of Virga, the giant pressurized balloon within which the series takes place. Leal has been frustrated by not being able to crack the faculty of the university, and even more frustrated with the Eternists who are in power in Sere, a party who believe that Virga has always existed, rather than having been constructed by humans (and others) thousands of years ago. Sere is visited by Hayden Griffin, the heroic Sun Lighter, whose deeds in creating a new sun for his nation of Aerie have made him famous, but who has an uneasy relationship with the government.

Worse than the Eternists, something is lurking out in the dark, something which is probably responsible for disappearing ships around Sere and whose origins may hearken back to the origins of Virga. The government slowly moves to action, more for show than for effect, and Leal thinks she has some idea of what’s going on. Unfortunately, her theories run contrary to Eternist dogma, and her hopes of proving herself right fade when the government takes over the university to reconstruct it along their own ideals, barring people from the library.

Schroeder continues to explore the ramifications of living in Virga, this time focusing on a relatively isolated nation without a sun, and what being surrounded in perpetual darkness means. His characters are always well-realized, as none of the protagonists of each novel feels much like any of the others. Leal actually feels a little more generic than the others, especially by contrast with Griffin, who has grown up a lot since he starred in the first book, and who is a leader but arguably not a natural one. Leal’s backstory involves deceased parents and a frustrated career as a scholar, making her a melancholy figure, but one whose beliefs strongly oppose those of the Eternists.

Schroeder uses Leal and the Eternists to score some social commentary points, as the Eternists conduct a referendum about the nature of truth, such that any disputed truths in Sere will be decided by public vote. It’s an incisive commentary on the dangers of direct public government, as well as a grenade lobbed at the opponents of scientific principles, such as creationists. Tyranny of the majority, when that majority votes based on irrational belief rather than rationality and evidence is a frightening and dangerous thing.

The Sunless Countries also delves deeper into the origins and history of Virga, and what lies outside it, the post-singularity phenomenon named Artificial Nature. Schroeder’s take on posthuman society is a little different from what I’ve seen elsewhere, arguably taking that portrayed in Charles Stross’ Accelerando a step further. He’s also starting to work through the implications of posthuman cultures living alongside human cultures, a scenario whose surface has only been scratched in the fiction I’ve read so far.

The novel works much better when dealing with the political, historical and science-fictional elements than it does in its character-based drama: Its setting and the exploration thereof is so rich and deep that it seems Schroeder can keep plumbing it forever. On the other hand, Leal is pushed into a position where she has to decide among several unsavory options, one of which would fulfill her dreams at the cost of her integrity, but the decision feels a little too mechanical, not as heartfelt as it could have, not to me, anyway.

Despite that, The Sunless Countries is probably the second-best of the series so far, behind Queen of Candesce. It’s clearly the first of a longer story (a second trilogy?) and it ends on something of a cliffhanger, but the potential for more neat stuff is so clearly evident that you can believe I’ll be around for the rest of the story. The Virga series is some of the very best hard SF being published today.

Torchwood Season One

It took a while, but we recently finished the first season of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off about a team in Cardiff, England defending the planet against alien incursions, and featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the occasional guest-star of Who. As I’ve done with Who, I’ll list the first season episodes in order of most to least favorite, and as usual my comments below will contain spoilers.

  • Captain Jack Harkness (written by Catherine Tregenna)
  • Ghost Machine (Helen Raynor)
  • Out of Time (Catherine Tregenna)
  • They Keep Killing Suzie (Paul Tomalin & Dan McCulloch)
  • End of Days (Chris Chibnall)
  • Countrycide (Chris Chibnall)
  • Random Shoes (Jacquetta May)
  • Greeks Bearing Gifts (Toby Whithouse)
  • Combat (Noel Clarke)
  • Everything Changes (Russell T. Davies)
  • Small Worlds (Peter J. Hammond)
  • Cyberwoman (Chris Chibnall)
  • Day One (Chris Chibnall)

A friend of mine said on Facebook that you have to look at Torchwood as a guilty pleasure. That would be fine – since much of this season is very poorly written – except that I already tend to see Doctor Who as a guilty pleasure, and Torchwood is a big step down from it, so where does that leave it?

The most frustrating thing about the show is that the Torchwood team are mostly incompetent, which is a big change from most shows of this type where the government organization protecting us from the unknown is instead highly competent. But this isn’t really a theme of the show, it’s just a lever used for the stories: The characters are incompetent, so they do stupid things, and that results in problems.

So, for example, in “Cyberwoman”, Ianto has been hiding his half-cyberized girlfriend in the basement of Torchwood since the Battle of Canary Wharf back in Doctor Who season three. He doesn’t really have a plan to reverse her condition, and he certainly doesn’t trust that his co-workers would help him. Naturally it all goes disastrously wrong once she gets loose. Or the first episode, “Everything Changes”, when the characters are making selfish use of the alien artifacts that Torchwood has access to even though Captain Jack’s told them not to. All this would make more sense if the team were more of a research organization, but that’s not really what they do, and it’s certainly not what they’re set up to do. This pattern continues through the season finale, “End of Days”, when the whole team turns against Jack to do something remarkably stupid which puts the whole world at risk. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Maybe next time you’ll listen to Jack!” at the television during the season.

Not that Jack is a whole lot better, since he’s written very erratically. He’s certainly the most competent character in the group (although Tosh is okay; she’s a fair sight better than Gwen, Ianto and Owen), but he also swerves from being empathetic to being very callous and uncompromising. It’s like the writers couldn’t decide if they wanted him to be a tough-as-nails leader, or more of a heroic figure like the Doctor.

The season’s rocky start has one good episode, “Ghost Machine”, and a decent one, “Countrycide”. The former is an atmospheric story about a device that can show echoes of the past, while the latter is a creepy horror story whose punchline is very different from what you’d expect. But neither of these are episodes to build a season on; in a better show, they’d be meat-and-potatoes episodes rather than the standouts. And they’re amidst dumb episodes like “Cyberwoman” or the immeasurably stupid “Day One” with its sex-obsessed alien killer (gah!), or the faerie-inspired but muddily-plotted “Small Worlds”.

The series does get better as it goes on, though. “They Keep Killing Suzie” features the forgotten Torchwood member from the first episode coming back to cause trouble, a well-constructed episode that unfortunately peters out with a pointless chase sequence at the end. “Out of Time” involves some people from 1953 brought forward to the present and having to adjust to a very different era. It’s one of the more thoughtful episodes in dealing with this premise seriously. And the best episode of the season is “Captain Jack Harkness”, in which Jack and Tosh are thrown back to 1941 during the dawn of World War II and have to figure out how to get back even as Tosh is the subject of anti-Japanese sentiment. They also meet, well, Captain Jack Harkness of that era, who’s not at all what they were expecting.

That episode sets up the last episode, “End of Days”, in which the mysterious goings-on turn a promising set-up into the team turning against Jack pointlessly and resolving into another stupid monster story. It’s a bombastic story but it’s frustrating and not very satisfying. And it ends with Jack disappearing to adventure with the Doctor at the end of his third season, which makes the series feel even more like a spin-off which is subordinate to its original series.

Torchwood has all the ingredients to be a solid series, perhaps a little derivative of The X-Files, but with a flaboyant, unusual star character, an inventive visual look to the team’s headerquarters, and an unusual pedigree. But the writing just doesn’t follow through on the series’ premise, and rarely delivers stories that either make much sense on their own terms, or involve characters doing things that seem sensical. Overall, it’s mediocre, and never truly great.

This Week's Haul

Powered by the love and affection of the Wizard convention circuit, it’s time for another round of reviews:

  • Doom Patrol #4, by Keith Giffen, Justiniano & Livesay, and J.M. DeMatteis & Kevin Maguire (DC)
  • Secret Six #15, by John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men #32, by Warren Ellis, Phil Jimenez & Andy Lanning (Marvel)
  • Immortal Weapons #4 of 5, by Duane Swierczynski, Khari Evans, Victor Olazaba & Allen Martinez, and Hatuey Diaz (Marvel)
  • Nova #1, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea DiVito (Marvel)
  • The Secret History book six, by Jean-Pierre Pécau & Igor Kordey (Archaia)
  • Absolution #3 of 6, by Christos Gage & Roberto Viacava (Avatar)
  • The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #2 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Age of Reptiles #1 of 4, by Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
  • Witchfinder: In The Service of Angels #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola & Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #36, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #3 of 3, by John Byrne (IDW)
Doom Patrol #4 I admit it: I’m a sucker. I signed up with my comics shop for DC’s Blackest Night promotional ring giveaway. It’s not like I don’t have enough random crap around my house that I need a bunch of plastic rings, but something about the idea appealed to me just enough to sign up. The catch is that I’ll buy single issues of a bunch of comic books I don’t usually buy, so we’ll see if any of them are good enough to me to keep buying them. And you get to go along for the ride with me!

And I’m far from the only one jumping on this bandwagon: Lots of other people have, too, which means a big sales spike for some DC titles. Which probably means more of this promotional gimmick in the future. But that’s okay, I don’t have to buy into any more of them if I don’t want to.

Doom Patrol is the latest incarnation of the venerable Silver Age comic featuring normal people who acquired super powers which made them outcasts from the rest of society. At its best, the series plumbed the depths of this premise better than its Marvel counterpart, The X-Men; at its worst, it was routine superhero fare. Not a bad legacy for a book that was – aside the bizarre Grant Morrison run in the 80s – a B-list title. But as with many such titles from DC, the book has a history so convoluted I really can’t figure out its continuity, including a re-launch by John Byrne (which I skipped) which seemed to throw all previous continuity out the door (which, honestly, is fine with me) and return to the original cast of Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Woman and the Chief. Apparently Infinite Crisis restored the team’s previous continuity, which makes absolutely no sense to me, and it appears from the Wikipedia article that DC went to greater-than-usual lengths to explain away the inconsistencies. Sigh.

So this issue – which features the deceased members of the “new” Doom Patrol of the late 70s coming back to fight the “new original” team of this decade – makes my head hurt, since I understand just enough of the continuity to know who these people are, but not enough to be able to make any sense of how these two teams could coexist in their current state. Would it be easier for a new reader to make heads or tails of this book, or harder? I really have no idea.

Is the story any good? Well, it’s not awful, but it’s little more than a collection of disparate fights, and I don’t have enough attachment to any of the characters to feel the emotions that I’m presumably supposed to feel about the dead characters coming back, and honestly the main Blackest Night title has pretty much gone the distance with that premise anyway. The issue ends on a cliffhanger which is interesting enough that I just might buy the next issue, but it’s a close thing. As an introduction to the series, this issue isn’t a very good one. The art by Justiniano and Livesay (what is it with single-name artists these days, anyway?) is pretty good, solid, dynamic, stylistic enough to grab my attention, especially in the last two pages. If you like Doug Mahnke’s or Ariel Olivetti’s art, you’ll find the art here to your taste.

The issue features a back-up story by the creative team of Justice League International introducing a set of fembot villains for the Metal Men, another B-list team of Silver Age heroes, and who barely appear in the story. I wasn’t a fan of the jokey nature of the JLI era, so this story didn’t do much for me. (As back-ups go, the Blue Beetle story in the back of Booster Gold has been much better.)

So I can’t recommend Doom Patrol #4 for anything more than the promotional ring.

Age of Reptiles: The Journey #1 Ricardo Delgado published two Age of Reptiles mini-series a decade or so ago, and as an unreformed childhood dinosaur lover, I loved them. They’re serious “this is what it could have been like” stories of the giant lizards hunting, eating, fighting, protecting their young, only a little anthropomorphized to give the story a plot. Delgado’s artwork brings the creatures to life like nothing else I can recall seeing. They’re well worth seeking out.

Now the reptiles are back in The Journey, the first issue of which has left me slightly baffled. As you can see from the cover to the left, all the animals seem to be heading somewhere, and there are hints inside that they might be looking for warmer climate as the earth cools, and the mix of beasts could be from the late Cretaceous period. But the story seems a little buried in the set-up. Still, as I recall from the first two series, it’s the whole that matters, not just the individual issues.

Delgado’s art is still great, although it seems a little less detailed than in the past. Maybe my expectations for this series were so high that I was bound to be disappointed by the first issue. But I’ll still be picking up the whole thing, so check back in a few months to see if the whole outweighs the sum of the parts.

Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels #5 I’ve been on the Hellboy bandwagon for so long that I guess I’m just jaded. Some of the stories are very good, most are okay, few are bad. When push comes to shove, Witchfinder is closer to the “bad” end of the spectrum. Sir Edward Grey was a (fictional) occult investigator in the Victorian era, much like Hellboy in the 20th century. His adventure in this 5-issue series just didn’t make a lot of sense to me, trying to stop a demon killing people in London by reuniting it with its bones, and with various occult stops along the way. The story was too convoluted for me to sink my teeth into, and there wasn’t a single character worth caring about. Overall I think the series was just too clever for its own good, and it lost sight of telling a good story.
Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #3 John Byrne’s Star Trek Romulans series apparently comes to an end this month, a bit to my surprise as I’d thought this was going to be another 5-issue series.

As I’ve said before, Byrne’s telling easily the most entertaining Star Trek stories I’ve read in years, maybe decades, and he has the visual look of the classic Trek series down pat. His Romulan story has been a shadow history of the Klingon/Romulan alliance implied by the third season of classic Trek. The Hollow Crown described how the Klingons engineered the death of the Romulan Emperor to put their own puppet on the throne to get around the Organian Treaty forced on them with the Federation. Schism is the other end of that story, as hostilities among the Klingons, Federation and Romulans come to a head in a fairly nifty (and wonderfully well-illustrated) space battle.

The only real downside to the story is that it ends rather abruptly, with a literal deus-ex-machina with no believable explanation for why it didn’t arise previously. The story ends seemingly setting up yet another arc in the same storyline, but I understand this is the last chapter, so I’m not quite sure what’s going on.

That’s really the achilles heel in Byrne’s Trek stories: They’re entertaining, but the endings are abrupt, ambiguous, and/or perplexing so it’s hard to see what the point of the story is. It’s frustrating, even as light adventure fare (which after all is what Star Trek is). All the pieces are intriguing enough that if Byrne keeps writing ‘em and IDW keeps printing ‘em then I’ll keep publishing ‘em, hoping that eventually all the pieces fall into place and he produces a truly great one.

The Hidden Side of Webcomics

Interesting article at Robot 6 about webcomics that come to an end. The basic economy of webcomics – they’re freely available, and almost always free to read – means that the barrier to entry for a creator is low, but the return on investment can also be low. So many webcomics end after a few strips, and many more end – deliberately or through neglect – some time later:

“Over 15,000 webcomics now exist online,” Wikipedia tells us, but probably 14,000 of those stopped updating after six episodes. This is the dark side of The Promise of Webcomics: It is true that anyone can start a webcomic, and that without the usual barriers to publication, such as editors and budgets, the web has become a seething cauldron of creativity. However, things like slush piles and contracts and editors are there for a reason: Not just to keep the crap out, but also to make sure the creator finishes the damn comic. The internet imposes no such restrictions. Consequently, many webcomics start with a burst of enthusiasm and fizzle when the creator runs out of ideas or has to study for finals.

The parallels to blogging are obvious. I’ve been blogging for over 12 years now, and my direct return on that investment is measured in Amazon.com referrals. The indirect returns, on the other hand – in the form of friends and acquaintances and the things that friends and acquaintances can bring you – have been much greater. Not to mention that I enjoy blogging, which is the direct impetus keeping me going. (I could arguably make some money by putting ads on my blog. I doubt it would be enough money to make a difference in my life – I’m just not a popular enough blogger – and it might not even be enough to justify the effort to put up the ads in the first place.)

I’m enthusiastic enough about the webcomics I read that I have a fairly meticulous system for keeping up with them through RSS feeds and bookmarks. I also enjoy finding a great new webcomic with an extensive archive, and I will buy the print collections of the webcomics I most enjoy. But apparently I’m unusual in that respect, and for many readers a large backstory is a barrier to entry.

But then, this is a problem that mainstream superhero comic books have been dealing with for years: How to satisfy their meat-and-potatoes fans who are into the continuity, while still bringing in new readers. Television series have the same problem. The economics of those media are different, but the problem is similar.

Myself, I’d suggest to someone who finds a new webcomic they enjoy with a large archive not to be put off by it. Enjoy the recent strips for what they are, but also consider going back to read through the archive, even if over a period of weeks or months. You might find it well worth the time invested. And I’d suggest to the creators of those strips that they keep their “About This Comic”/”New Readers” pages up-to-date so new readers can jump in and feel oriented right away; it’s unfortunately quite common to come across strips whose orientation pages seem years old. (As a reader, I’d also rather see an orientation page than a list of cast members; I’d rather learn about the cast by reading the strip.)

For new webcomic creators who find their enthusiasm waning after a few strips, consider that someone who seems like an “overnight success” usually has put in years of work to get to that point, it just seems to other people like that success came overnight. But I bet that much like blogging, you need to be doing a webcomic because it’s what you want to do. Because I don’t think very many people make a living drawing webcomics.

(Another interesting read is State of the Webcomics Union by Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content.)

Just Sick

I’m home sick today – with a cold, not the flu, thank goodness. (At least, it feels like just a cold!) Slept in, read comic books, noodled about on the Internet, blew my nose a zillion times (but that’s better than the sore throat I had last night). Grabbed In-n-Out Burger for dinner while Debbi went shopping with her friend Lisa.

Some other year this would have been a great day to curl up in the evening and watch the World Series. But I just can’t watch playoff games with the Hated Yankees (not even Red Sox/Yankees series), so no World Series for me. Someday maybe MLB will put a couple more teams in New York City and level the playing field a bit. But I won’t hold my breath.

I read a tweet tonight that said “Yankees:Apple::Red Sox:???”. Given the Yankees’ cash flow, free agent signings and aging roster that looks like it had a very healthy dose of luck this year, it’s clearly the Red Sox who more closely resemble Apple, with their more blended line-up, and cutting-edge analytic approach to team management. Just the notion of comparing the Yankees to Apple makes my head hurt. Probably another reason why using sports as a metaphor for real life is a bad idea.

(Besides, if you’re honest about it, it’s the Devil Rays who look the most like Apple.)

Anyway, yeah yeah yeah, as with all things sports, wins by New York teams make the world a little blacker. But I guess it wouldn’t be dramatic without some black hats to root against.

Hopefully things will look brighter tomorrow assuming I can shake the rest of this cold!

Grass Patching

Over the summer I decided to adjust the sprinklers for our complex to see if we could save a bunch of water while keeping our lawn green, since California is 3 years into a drought. The default setting on the sprinkers is 10 minutes per sprinkler per day, which seemed like way more than was needed. Last winter I turned the sprinklers off for the rainy season, and when the rain ended I set them to 3 minutes. That didn’t work out so well, and the lawn started browning. Unfortunately, I thought I’d changed them upward but in fact I’d just imagined it, I guess, so the lawn got browner and browner until finally I changed it to 5 minutes, which seemed to do the trick. Alas, some patches of grass had just plain died, and two months later had not come back, even though the rest of the lawn was green and growing.

So I went out and bought some grass seed – actually a mix which included some green stuff to deliver the seed in, which I think also contained fertilizer – and spent some time digging up the brown patches to mix up the soil, laying down the seed mix, and watering the results. The one patch I tried it on a few weeks ago has come up quite nicely, so this weekend I did a whole bunch of other patches in front of my neighbor’s unit.

Last night Debbi and I were watching WALL•E after dinner when the doorbell rang: The neighbor had come over with a plate of delicious brownies to thank me for laying down the grass seed.

Sometimes good deeds do get rewarded!

(And we’ve hopefully saved a lot of water this summer, too. I don’t know how much water the sprinklers use, but if it’s 1 gallon/minute, then I estimate that that’s over 100 gallons/day! I bet it’s less than that, but still significant.)

This Week’s Haul

And… we’re back! A bumpy ride for the server the site’s hosted on has slowed down getting much done around here, but it doesn’t stop me from buying new comics, no sir!

  • Astro City: Astra #2 of 2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Blackest Night #4 of 8, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • Green Lantern #47, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #32, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges & Jesus Merino (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #16, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #19, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Wesley Craig (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #137, by Fred Van Lente, Greg Pak & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Nova #30, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Kevin Sharpe & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • FreakAngels vol 3 TPB, by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield (Avatar)
  • Ignition City #5 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Gianluca Pagliarani (Avatar)
  • Abe Sapien: The Haunted Boy, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Patric Reynolds (Dark Horse)
  • Dynamo 5 #25, by Jay Faerber, Mahmud A. Asrar & others (Image)
Astro City: Astra #2 One way to look at superhero comics history in the so-called Marvel Age of Comics is that Stan Lee and his bullpen humanized heroes by giving them down-to-Earth problems in the 1960s (Spider-Man being the prime example), and creators of the late 70s and early 80s took the next step by – essentially – turning team comics into ongoing soap operas involving the relationships among the crimefighters (the new X-Men and the New Teen Titans). One could see that the next logical step in that progression might be for heroes to have lives and problems which are directly reflective of those of real people, whether they’re your everyday Joe or a worldwide celebrity. But instead comics went in a different direction, moving towards stories based primarily in shock value (violence, sex, gore, and zombies) and incestuous continuity for the hard-core fan. Rather than bringing the content of comics closer to the mainstream, this served to get comics noticed by the mainstream, and then marginalized as commercial art form more than ever before, as sales over the last 15 years have been at historic lows.

Disregarding any oversimplifications I’ve made, the two part Astro City special featuring Astra is arguably a glimpse of how comics could have gone. Astra is a worldwide celebrity with the problems of being a worldwide celebrity – problems you rarely see, say, the Fantastic Four having to deal with – such as trying to figure out what to do with her life after college, under intense media scrutiny which doesn’t always regard her in a heroic light. The genius of Kurt Busiek‘s series is that he considers the natural implications of what a world full of superheroes means, without making it a grim and depressing world as one sees in Watchmen or its legions of descendants. As Astra gives her boyfriend a tour of a slice of her life, we see both the wonders she’s experienced and the downsides of being a famous superhero. Busiek is the best in the business at presenting such nuances with a minimum of authorial judgment, resulting in a rich world full of crunchy notions for the reader to think about. There’s really nothing else like it in comics.

That said, the Astra story was a little disappointing in that Busiek took what I thought was a disappointingly cheap shot in the development of Astra’s relationship with her boyfriend. I saw it coming pages away, and thought, “Geez, I hope that’s not the way this story is going”, but it was. Even making what I thought was this poor choice, Busiek still handles it elegantly, but it still made the story less than I’d hoped.

Nonetheless, any week with a new Astro City is a good week!

Guardians of the Galaxy #19 Guardians of the Galaxy wraps up its various ongoing storylines this month – but unfortunately it’s not good. Star-Lord’s team returns from the future to learn that Adam Warlock managed to prevent the rift opened at the end of War of Kings from dooming that future, but the price he paid is of being transformed into his own evil future self, the Magus, whom the Guardians must now defeat to save the future again. They do so, but at a very high price: About half of the team is dead by the end of the story.

Boy, where to begin? Guardians as a series has been wrecked by crossovers with Marvel events, especially War of Kings. The characters have never been able to develop as a result, the team having been fragmented for months. The initial promise of Vance Astro arriving from the future and the murky threat of the mysterious Universal Church of Truth have been completely swamped by these later, largely unrelated, developments. The story’s developed so haphazardly that there’s really been no dramatic payoff to any of those elements, and killing off half the cast is a poor reward for fans following the series to this point. (And bringing them back would be even cheaper.)

The artwork in the series has gone steadily downhill, too, with Wesley Craig’s work here being its nadir: Simple, angular linework, extreme facial grimaces, minimal backgrounds, it’s very cartoony in appearance and just doesn’t work for me in the Marvel space milieu.

Its fellow title Nova has held up much better through the various crossovers, moving both its main character and its background forward a little bit each year. Guardians seems to have fallen completely apart, having lost its focus and not replaced it with anything. It’s one high-stakes action sequence after another, and that gets tiresome after a while unless there’s something more coherent holding it all together. But just typing the synopsis of the recent issues made me shake my head at how disjointed it all is. It may be time to bail on this series.

(Incidentally, although Kang the Conqueror appears prominently on the cover and does impact the storyline, he does so as a deus-ex-machina and isn’t even the adversary in the book. Talk about misleading!)

Ignition City #5 Warren EllisIgnition City wraps up this week. Cynical and violent, it’s been sort of interesting in pulling together analogs of old SF heroes into one rather depressing milieu. The story works out a little better than most of what I’ve read from Ellis’ series for Avatar, as I don’t really want to read what Ellis comes up with when a publisher lets him unleash the grotesqueries of his mind, but it’s still a so-so read. The world Ellis has concocted is interesting – after the golden age of spaceflight in the 1930s comes to an end, the remaining spacemen are stranded on the island of Ignition City in the 1950s – but we really only scratch the surface of it. The most interesting bit is a Buck Rogers character who’s depressed because of his glimpse of the bleak 25th century. Mary Raven’s quest to avenger her father doesn’t really measure up to the implied backstories of the other characters.

Gianluca Pagliarani’s artwork is okay, although his characters don’t always have a consistent look and their expressions tend toward the vacant; his renderings of the gritty setting are solid, though.

Overall, not one of Ellis’ stronger works, and I doubt I’ll be on board for any sequels.

Dynamo 5 #25 Jay Faerber is I suppose the reigning king of superhero soap opera comics, first with Noble Causes about a famous team of superheroes and the people they slept with, and now with Dynamo 5, about a team of young heroes who each have one power inherited from their father, Captain Dynamo, who fathered each of them with a different woman, and none with his actual wife, who’s now the team’s mentor. I bailed on Noble Causes early in its run due to an erratic publishing schedule, even more erratic artwork, and a story I couldn’t quite follow. I only gave Dynamo 5 a chance recently, and it’s a much better series, with a consistent artist, Mahmud A. Asrar, who’s entirely capable of drawing a fun, dynamic superhero series, with a bit of a Bryan Hitch look to his style but more of a fluid Alan Davis approach to his layouts.

This issue is apparently Asrar’s last, and the series is going on hiatus while Faeber brings a new artist up to speed. But the first 25 issues are a lot of fun, with characters from different backgrounds with powers that don’t always match their personalities, and the usual frictions among the members. This issue culminates the recent storyline in which the team were stripped of their powers, but in a twist reminiscent of Power Pack, they regain them but each member has a different power than they’d had before. So this is a natural breaking point between Asrar’s run and whatever comes next. It might also be a good jumping-on point for a new reader, save for the aforementioned hiatus, which may well see the series cease to be a regular series and go to some different format. Which would be a shame since that’s one of the things that put me off of Noble Causes.

Drawing comics art is hard work, no doubt about it, especially given the high standards artists working at a modern major company are held to by the company and the readers. (Just look at some of the criticisms I level at artists of comics I read.) So I respect both Faerber and Asrar for trying to figure out how to position Dynamo 5 to continue publication in the future. But on the other hand, options like a “series of mini-series” are very hard to pull off, and I think Robert Kirkman’s Invincible has demonstrated how important it is to have a regular artist who can work a regular monthly schedule and produce quality work as well; there’s really no substitute for it. Heck, the musical artist chairs afflicting some series at DC and Marvel have really hurt those series, too (I’m looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy). Honestly I think finding such an artist ought to be Faerber’s highest priority for Dynamo 5.

All that aside, if you’re looking for some quality science fiction soap opera, check out the paperback collections of Dynamo 5. And then we can see what direction the series takes from here.