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First Impressions: Image’s Nouveau Science-Fiction

By / Posted on 10 April 2012

Image Comics is currently in the midst of a year-long celebration of the publisher’s twentieth anniversary. Founded by seven artists sick of the rigid structure and lack of creative control of their properties at Marvel and DC, Image has seen a number of success stories over the years that have allowed their creators significantly greater celebrity exposure than they would with the same properties elsewhere, from the early notoriety of Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood and Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to the recent multimedia blitzkrieg of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Indeed, Kirkman’s work speaks the greatest volumes of the success of Image, that his many books proved so valuable to the company and to fans that he was the first person outside of the original seven founders to be elected to Image’s board of directors. The public perception of Image had shifted over the past decade from the creator-owned powerhouse of creativity to the third wheelhouse that published ideas that weren’t good enough for Marvel or DC (or even Dark Horse or Oni). The Walking Dead changed all that. Critically-acclaimed for years, Kirkman kept Dead moving at a steady pace, along with his similarly-long-running Image superhero book Invincible. He was popular at Marvel, as well, and likely could have brought his creator-owned work over to them much like Brian Bendis and David Mack had with Powers and Kabuki, respectively. Kirkman stuck with Image, though, becoming their Chief Operating Officer and spearheading new media options that saw The Walking Dead transformed into one of the most popular shows on American television, with videogames and more on the horizon. All the while, as Image has always been about creator-owned and creator-driven work, the hype has almost all be Kirkman’s doing and the rewards have been almost all Kirkman’s. Surely other creators have taken notice, as a number of high-profile comic book creators have recently announced their new projects with Image when they would just as easily have been embraced by Marvel or DC. Our two most-anticipated new Image titles recently launched. Here’s what we have to say about their debut issues:

The Manhattan ProjectsThe Manhattan Projects

Jonathan Hickman is currently classified as one of the “architects” of the Marvel Universe, which is perhaps why it’s so surprising to see him return to his roots at Image. Anyone who has read Hickman’s work over the past few years on Marvel’s Fantastic Four and it’s sister book FF (which stands for the “Future Foundation”) are well aware that Hickman is a big fan of diving into the hard sciences. It should come as no surprise, then, that Hickman’s new series takes an Aaron Sorkin-styled behind-the-scenes look at what really happened with the Manhattan Project—the real-life US Military program that saw some of the biggest brains in the world produce the first atomic bomb in the 1940s.

“We hide our most important lies underneath a more tolerable one,” General Groves explains to Robert Oppenheimer  at the start of his tour of the facility. “‘That the Manhattan Project is a research and development program tasked with building, and deploying, the world’s first atomic bomb.’ I assure you, Doctor Oppenheimer… the truth is, we are working on much more interesting things.”

And so begins a lush a vivid exploration of intrigue, deception, psychic kamikaze robots and violence that borders on the edge of psychedelia Nick Pitarra’s art lulls a false sense of familiarity before sweeping the rug out from under the reader with its outlandish and over-the-top renderings of the fantastic in a setting that is utterly retro and steeped in our nation’s collective memories. The narrative of this first issue rather blatantly telegraphs it’s obligatory twist ending, but that doesn’t make the concept any less thrilling. The audience in introduced to an entire warehouse of potential stories, each more original and tantalizing than anything being produced by Marvel or DC. We couldn’t imagine being more excited for any comic book we weren’t personally involved in the production of than we currently are for more of The Manhattan Projects.

The Manhattan Projects

SagaSaga

Brian K. Vaughn made quite the name for himself at Marvel and DC over the past decade with absolutely incredible character studies in The Hood, Y: The Last Man, Runaways, Pride of Baghdad, and Ex Machina before moving his focus to Hollywood, where he became a prominent writer for the hit TV show Lost. After a hiatus that felt way longer than just one-and-a-half years, Vaughn returns to the joys of serial graphic storytelling with Saga, a space opera that mashes up civil war, Romeo & Juliet and Game of Thrones.

The first issue of Saga reminds us us of how enchanted we were by the first issues of Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. The lead characters Alana and Marko are utterly charming and instantly relatable while the wide variety of rich environments and races touched upon in this first issue promise tremendous intrigue in future chapters. Vaughn has proven to be the master of foreshadowing (the first issue of Y: The Last Man famously teased every storyline for the lifespan of the book) so our skin tingles at the thought of where this war between science and magic may lead, as well as the various third-parties and bounty hunters hired by either side. Each class of people clearly have a storied history to their demeanor, much of which is attributed to the remarkable art by Fiona Staples. Our main concern with Saga is that it may prove too much for Staples, who produces all of the art herself, while many of the more profitable comics employ separate pencillers, inkers and colorists. Staples even handwrites the narration, which helps to incorporate the third-person overview into the artistic presentation.

There is nothing not to love in this entire book (which, we should point out, is a double-sized first issue, absolutely crammed with setup much like the two-hour premiere of a new television drama). Vaughn clearly takes inspiration from the classic Star Wars trilogy and makes his own brilliant (as in “shimmering” as well as “intelligent”) universe that promises to be full of heart. Our hearts are beating right alongside those of the central family in Saga, but we already know some of the “bad guys” will be just as enthralling to follow.

Saga

Both The Manhattan Projects and Saga are already on the third printings of their first issues, so we aren’t the only ones who’ve caught on to how fantastic these books are. The second issue of Saga hits better comic shops this week, with Manhattan Projects following next week.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.