Hubert & Kerascoët – Beauté (Beauty)

If you recall my reaction to the amazing graphic novel Beautiful Darkness, it will come as no surprise that I ended up with another Kerascoët-illustrated graphic novel. This one is an original fairy tale, no less, so I was sold pretty quickly.

beauteBEAUTÉ
by Hubert & Kerascoët

Published by: Dupuis, 2013
Hardcover: 160 pages
Series: Beauté #1-3
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Morue! Morue! Morue!

When the repulsively ugly Coddie unintentionally saves a fairy from a spell, she does not understand the poisonous nature of the wish granted her by the fairy. The village folk no longer see her as repulsive and stinking of fish—they now perceive her as magnetically beautiful—which does not help her in her village. A young local lord saves her, but it soon becomes apparent that Coddie’s destiny may be far greater than anyone ever imagined. Caustic and flamboyant, this fairy tale offers grownups an engrossing take on the nature of beauty.

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Morue (Coddie in the English version) is quite ugly. She always smells of fish, as her job in the village is scaling fish and cleaning the house. Her ears stick out, her head is weirdly-shaped, her eyes are bulging. The ony person who is kind to her is Pierre, the chubby son of Morue’s employer. When her outsider status becomes too much to bear, Morue flees into the forest to cry and inadvertantly drops a tear on an ugly toad. Which – surprise! – turns out to be Mab, the fairy. She grants Morue one wish – and turns Morue beautiful. Well, sort of. Morue is still ugly, but everybody will perceive her as beautiful.

Beauté is, unsurprisingly, an exploration of beauty and what it means to have it or lack it. Morue goes from being mocked and ridiculed to being the center of everybody’s attention. She is so beautiful, however, that the fairy’s gift is more of a curse. Not only do all men suddenly want Morue, they are quite willing to be violent to get her. Morue falls in love with a lowly Duke, but thanks to Mab, is not satisfied with her life. After all, somebody as beautiful as Morue should at least be a queen!

Morue – who is later called Beauty – is an intriguing character. She starts out as a sympathetic heroine. A girl shunned for her looks, but with a kind heart and values that I could get behind as a reader. As things fall into her lap simply by virtue of being suddenly very beautiful, her character changes. She does make it to queendom and, at first, only wants her people to be happy. She wants to eradicate poverty (and tells her king to pass the appropriate law) but, one second later, runs off to try one of her 100 new dresses. She seems naive and childish at times, all while retaining some of her original character traits. I was glad that she had these flaws – vanity, distractedness, carelessness – because if her sudden change into the most beautiful woman in the land didn’t change her, the entire story would have lacked credibility.

Her story, told in three volumes, reads more like a slow descent into hell. I came to expect a fairy beauty pagetale, and the style and story elements are all there. Princes, dukes, warring kingdoms, a beautiful queen… except things decidedly don’t follow any other fairy tale tropes. The body count is ridiculously high, Morue suffers for her beauty (and I don’t mean plucking her eyebrows or going through a daily beauty regimen), and things generally don’t turn out for the better. This twisted tale turns dark really quickly and reaches its high point in the third volume. People die left and right, Morue reaches the depth of her descent and wants nothing more than to be ugly again…

While the focus is on Morue’s story, there are side characters whose role in the big picture should not be underestimated. They, too, are influenced by beauty (or its absence) in their daily lives. The king’s sister, for example, is considered quite ugly and doesn’t expect to ever be married. But just as Morue has to realise that her beauty is a curse, her sister-in-law Claudine finds out that being unattractive doesn’t keep you from leading a happy life filled with love.

Much like in Jolies ténèbres, it struck me how much the authors let the pictures talk rather than use a lot of words. Most comics and graphic novels I read tend to have quite a bit of dialogue and explanatory text accompanying each panel. Here, the words are sparse, many panels stand alone without any text, so all you have (and all you need) is the artwork and the characters’ expressions to tell the story. This is surely a matter of taste but I was quite happy looking at the pictures and being told a story non-verbally. On a side-note: I noticed while Googling that the comic books are actually in full color, while my collected edition is kept in only black, white, and a golden-ish brown. I really liked the clean triple-color version but it’s interesting to check out some of the fully colored pages as well. Depending on your taste, you may want to buy the three volumes individually.

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The art is simple, almost cartoonish at times, but the contrast between Morue as she is and Morue as she is perceived is striking. I’m not sure a more detailed style would work for this kind of story. Just like in Jolies ténèbres, the strength of the graphic novel is how much style and content differ from each other, how they should clash, but somehow don’t. This exploration of beauty, its power to free someone at the same time as corrupting them, was enjoyable to read, in a macabre sort of way. I adored the ideas, I liked Morue’s character development, I loved how high the stakes actually were. But the pacing was off in certain parts (court life, for instance, was quite boring and drawn out too long) and the story almost too bleak.

I did like the nod to other cultures in the epilogue. Morue-as-Beauty is the perfect woman – judging from a very narrow, western beauty standard. The epilogue acknowledges that and ends the book on a funny note. All things considered, I would recommend this novel, but it didn’t impress me as much as Beautiful Darkness.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Šejić – Rat Queens Volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’rygoth

I’ve been waiting so long for this. Re-reading the first volume was entertainment enough for a while but I am so glad I finally got to join the Queens for another adventure. They are as kick-ass as ever and even though the art has changed, the story is still superbly funny.

Rat Queens 2RAT QUEENS: THE FAR-REACHING TENTACLES OF N’RYGOTH
by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Illustrated by: Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Šejić
Published by: Image Comics, 2015
Paperback: 128 pages
Series: Rat Queens #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Damn it, Sawyer!

This booze-soaked second volume of RAT QUEENS reveals a growing menace within the very walls of Palisade. And while Dee may have run from her past, the bloated, blood-feasting sky god N’rygoth never really lets his children stray too far.

Collects RAT QUEENS #6-10

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While readers had to wait quite a while to find out what the Rat Queens did after saving Palisade from a bunch of monsters, only one night has passed in their world. If you remember, there was a party, and we begin this second collected volume with its aftermath. More precisely, we see who exactly every one of the girls wakes up to the next morning.

The story is pretty simple this time. Big Bad threatening the city and everyone who lives in it, the Rat Queens come to the rescue and get in quite a bit of danger. All the while, they retain their snarky, no-nonsense policy of awesome. The tone is probably what I love best about this. Neither of the girls has trouble cursing or calling genitals by their name (sometimes even referring to actual genitals).

Not only the dialogue is snappy and unafraid, the pictures follow suit. Unlike in TV-land, where people have sex while wearing all their underwear, the Rat Queens appear appropriately naked when things get steamy. I love how this story doesn’t focus on sex but rather shows it as an integral part in everyone’s lives. Violet, Dee, Hannah, and Betty have bigger fish to fry but hey, when they get the chance to sleep with someone they like, they’ll fucking take it! After all, they never know if they’ll survive the next adventure. Betty also still happily tries any new drug she finds and the effects are hilarious.

rat queens and their weapons

What makes this book especially interesting are the tentacle-induced flashbacks. We know Violet shaves her beard but now we actually get to see why she started. Man, I wish my hair looked as good as Vi’s beard… A glimpse into Hannah’s past was even more intriguing but this is getting close to spoiler territory. Let’s just say, I was surprised and not surprised at the same time and I’m not quite sure how to feel about the revelations yet. But Rat Queens being what it is, the comic never takes itself too seriously, so I shouldn’t either.

Arat queens violet is awesomenother thing any careful reader will notice is the change of art mid-volume. I missed this bit of news when it happened, but Google tells me Roc Upchurch was arrested for domestic violence and Kurtis Wiebe decided to continue the series with a different artist. Stjepan Šejić does a fantastic job, although the change is quite visible. Having fallen in love with the art as much as the story, I felt a certain stubbornness and refusal to like new things. I didn’t want a different Hannah. I wanted my Hannah (if you can’t tell, Hannah is my favorite). But I must also pay all sorts of respect to Šejić who not only kept the characters reconisably the same while making them his own, but also for improving some of them. It may be due to the story line or the art or both, but Violet was the star of this volume in my eyes. The picture on the right is too perfect for words and describes Violet better than any piece of prose could.  And since Šejić kept Sawyer just the way I like him, I am now okay with him taking over the series.

Despite the revealing (sometimes literally) flashbacks, there is clearly still a lot to discover. Secrets want to be let out, backstories want to be told, romances want to develop (or break apart), the city needs to be re-built (only to be wrecked again, I’m sure). I sincerely hope the next volume won’t be quite so long in the making because I still can’t get enough of the Rat Queens. May they fight, may they drink, may they fuck, and may they curse Gary to their heart’s desire. I’ll be right there, following them.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët – Jolies ténèbres (Beautiful Darkness)

It’s no secret that I love the French and the way they treat comic books. This graphic novel kept being recommended to me by various engines (Goodreads, Amazon) until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. After browsing a few reviews, I was sold. Don’t let the cute art fool you, this is one hell of a dark story!

jolies tenebres

JOLIES TÉNÈBRES
by Fabien Vehlmann

English title: Beautiful Darkness
Published by: Dupuis, 20019
Hardcover: 96 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: He’s coming! He’s coming!

Kerascoët’s and Fabien Vehlmann’s unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale is a searing condemnation of our vast capacity for evil writ tiny. Join princess Aurora and her friends as they journey to civilization’s heart of darkness in a bleak allegory about surviving the human experience.  The sweet faces and bright leaves of Kerascoët’s delicate watercolors serve to highlight the evil that dwells beneath Vehlmann’s story as pettiness, greed, and jealousy take over.  Beautiful Darkness is a harrowing look behind the routine politeness and meaningless kindness of civilized society.

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beautiful darkness“Anti-fairytale” is the most accurate description I can think of, so well done, blurb-writers.  With a cover like that (or the English one, pictured on the right), and warnings about this story’s darkness, it isn’t hard to imagine that the larger of the two characters pictured is probably a human body. This suspicion turns into fact after only a handful of pages – and that’s when the real horror begins.

Aurore had just invited Hector for tea when suddenly reddish goo drops down on them and Aurore barely makes it out of her home – the now dead girl’s body –  onto dry land. She ends up next to the corpse of her former apartment (if you can call it that) along with many of her friends and acquaintances, all of whom look like dolls and puppets and things from a child’s toy collection – or a child’s imagination… Together, they try to build up their civilization from scratch, collecting food, building shacks, and keeping good manners alive.

All of this sounds very cute and the drawings and colors give the same impression. The decision to write a story in such stark contrast to its art was a brilliant one if you ask me, as it hits all the more home when these creatures cannibalize each other, send someone to certain death, or watch others succumb to illness without so much as batting an eye. To give you but one example of the seriously dark twists, have a look at this hungry ballerina trying to get some food by pretending to be a baby bird:

jolies tenebres birds

There are scenes far worse than this, believe me. As the young girl’s corpse decays and the seasons change, fewer and fewer of the little pixies are left. But this isn’t merely a collection of cute little creatures dying left and right (though it is that too), it’s the story of Aurore, the good-hearted girl at the center of everything. Despite her best efforts to build a society, to keep everyone fed, to be fair, and to establish friendly relations with the neighbouring woodland creatures, she has to learn that life sometimes just sucks and stabs you in the back whenever you’re not looking.

Starting as a lovely, innocent, even naive young girl, she ends up as a princess of revenge. Although I liked her best of all, the other  characters are worth mentioning too. Take the guy who seems to do lots of work but secretly “delegates” every job to some other poor soul. Or the pretty princess whose selfishness threatens to kill half the population. Or the disfigured cast-out whose fate just makes me want to cry. Also, the baby everybody seems to have forgotten. The birds, hedgehogs, bats, and ants are the opposite of what you’d find in a Disney movie. Not only do they refuse to sing, they will gladly gobble you up if you cross their path. Not to forget about other human-sized folk that might live nearby… The characters in this story show just how quickly people are willing to turn on each other in a difficult situation, how fast we devolve to base survival insticts, how easily we’re willing to kill.

jolies tenebres aurore

Beautiful Darkness can be read as a series of terrible events, or as the brutal coming-of-age tale of one young fairy tale creature. An interesting theory is that the dead girl’s personality literally spilled out of her after dying, and that the little pixies represent aspects of who the girl was – her naive dreams, her romantic hopes, her secret cruelties… But whether you read it in little chunks or devour the entire book in one sitting (I dare you not to!), it is exactly the anti-fairytale it promised to be. And as I still tremble with horror, I already catch myself eyeing the book to pick it up and give it another go.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Absolutely excellent!

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FTF Comic Book: Bill Willingham – Fables

This is not a review of the comic book series, or at least not all of it, because I haven’t finished reading it yet. As I write this, the very last few issues are being published, ending the series with #150. My final opinion will depend very much on stories yet to come, but because I am so in love with what I have read so far, I wanted to share with you just a few reasons to pick up Fables.

fables animal farmFABLES
created by Bill Willingham

Published by: Vertigo, 2002-2015
Issues: #1 – 150
Editions: single issues, TPB, deluxe HC
Artists: Mark Buckingham, etc.
Covers by: James Jean (up to issue #81)
João Ruas (since issue #82)

 

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What’s this all about?

In the same vein as best-selling “fractured-fairy-tales” such as Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is Bill Willingham’s runaway hit graphic novel series FABLES. No longer just children’s tales, Willingham has created a new world for these beloved fables…one that exists within our own.When a savage creature known only as the Adversary conquered the fabled lands of legends and fairy tales, all of the infamous inhabitants of folklore were forced into exile. Disguised among the normal citizens of modern-day New York, these magical characters created their own secret society-within an exclusive luxury apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side-called Fabletown. But when Snow White’s party-girl sister, Rose Red, is apparently murdered, it is up to Bigby, Fabletown’s sheriff, and a reformed and pardoned Big Bad Wolf, to determine if the culprit is Bluebeard, Rose’s ex-lover and notorious wife killer, or Jack, her current live-in boyfriend and former beanstalk-climber.

Where do I start?

That was the first question I asked myself when faced with a ton of comic books, different formats, spin-off and crossover series, computer games, and even more stuff. The biggest help I found on the internet was this post by The Written Word, titled So You Want to Read Fables. The beginning is pretty straight forward but keep an eye on the issue you’re reading. At a certain point, you’ll have to jump into the Jack of Fables spin-off in order to avoid spoilers . Most recently, I read about a crossover episode between Fables and The Unwritten. As I’m not nearly far enough ahead in the series to have reached that particular issue, I’ll worry about that when I get to it.

fables issue 53The next big question is: Do you buy the trade paperbacks or the (super shiny) deluxe editions? Because I like pretty books with pretty covers, I went for the deluxe hardcovers. Let me tell you, they are gorgeous! There are some differences compared to the trade paperbacks, such as little flashback stories, prose stories, or even  1001 Nights of Snowfall, the Arabian Nights of Fables. These are all contained in the deluxe editions at points in the story that Bill Willingham thought suitable. If you buy the paperbacks, some of these will have to be bought separately. Wikipedia has a list of which physical book contains which issues so you can make a nice comparison between the paperbacks and the hardcovers and see what works best for you. As far as my own experience goes, either way of reading them is fine. But it does make a difference whether you hold a big, sturdy hardcover in your hands, with glossy paper, high quality printing and just all around prettiness. If you’re not the kind of person who re-reads comic books or you don’t want to spend that much money, the paperbacks are probably the better choice.

Is it worth it?

Hell yes! The first story arc (and the first half of the deluxe edition #1) called Legends in Exile, didn’t strike me right away as something I needed to read. But once all the characters are introduced in their urban setting, I fell into it. Once I got to know the Fables that can’t be integrated into mundy (read: muggle) society in Animal Farm, I got more and more intrigued. Seeing that not all is well in Fabletown society makes things way more interesting than just following a bunch of characters hiding who they really are.

My love for Sheriff Bigby Wolf knows no bounds, the tension between him and Snow White alone makes this worthwile. Plus, I started really digging the drawing style. It’s not all beautiful or brightly colored but it’s just perfect for the stories it’s telling. The covers, on the other hand, are always stunning!

fables covers

But what really made me go out and buy all the Fables that are currently available in hardcover (plus the entire Jack of Fables spin-off series) was the way seemingly unimportant side characters show unexpected depth in random places. Boy Blue, for example, was a likable guy who is always around, but only when I read The Last Castle did I truly appreciate him as a character. The same goes for Flycatcher – the Fables version of the Frog Prince. Boy, did those two rip my heart out!

Also interesting is the passing of time. While some issues follow up on what has happened before, others jump ahead a year or two in time. The flashbacks and POV switches add another layer of depth to the world. Whereas most of the plot happens in New York, the Fables chosen exile after the Adversary took over their Homelands, we do get glimpses of these fairy tale realms that used to be the characters’ home. Things that seem simple at first turn out to be much more complex and complicated after a while.

reynard fox esquire

Fables contains a world that is bigger than the sum of its parts. I may have come in for the fairy-tales-living-among-us-mundies but I stayed for the people I’ve grown to know and love. Once you know Jack, you’ll laugh at his idiotic schemes. When it becomes clear just how in love Bigby is with Snow, you’ll yearn for the two of them to work out their issues. You’ll rejoice when Rose Red finally finds her place in the world, and you’ll laugh at Flycatcher with tears in your eyes.

My love for Fables took a while to grow but now it is steady and strong and here to stay.

There’s other Fables stuff out there?

I’m only a Fables baby but thanks to the Steam Summer Sale, I went ahead and bought myself The Wolf Among Us, a prequel to the entire comic book series (no prior knowledge needed, no spoilers for the comic books) and have played it a few times since. I will be gushing about that game in a separate post within the next few days. But let it be said here that it is absolutely worth its price.

fairest issueApart from the crossover with The Unwritten (which is on my wishlist now), the women of Fables got their own spin-off series, called Fairest. It’s still ongoing and seeing as Lauren Beukes wrote for it, there is no question I will buy and eat it up.

Some other much shorter spin-offs include Cinderella: From Fabletown, With Love and Cinderella: Fables are Forever as well as Werewolves of the Heartland, a  graphic novel following – unsurprisingly – Bigby Wolf. 2009 also saw the publication of the first illustrated Fables prose novel, called Peter and Max. One look at the cover gives you a clue as to whose story it tells.  1001 Nights of Snowfall is contained in the deluxe editions but not in the paperbacks. It’s not vital to the overall story but trust me when I say you don’t want to miss it.

1001nights of snowfall

If all of that spinning off and prequelling turns your head, there’s a handy Fables Encyclopedia.

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Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples – Saga Volume 3

Let the squeeing begin.

saga volume 3SAGA VOLUME 3
by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Published by: Image Comics, March 2014
Paperback: 144 pages
Series: Saga #13-18
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: I’m positive, they were a fuckin’ couple.

When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never–ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe.
From New York Times bestselling writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and critically acclaimed artist Fiona Staples (Mystery Society, North 40), Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds. Fantasy and science fiction are wed like never before in this sexy, subversive drama for adults.
In volume 3, as new parents Marko and Alana travel to an alien world to visit their hero, the family’s pursuers finally close in on their targets.

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From gigantic troll scrotums to a family board game – there is nothing Saga cannot do. The characters have been well established in the first two volumes (collecting issues 1 through 12) and several plot lines have been set up, making our fannish expectations soar. That said, I can’t talk about this third collection without spoiling some events from the previous ones. Consider yourselves warned.

In volume 2, Brian K. Vaughan left us on a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger that came out of pretty much nowhere because just before it, we jumped ahead in time. Volume 3 catches up on how Alana, Marko, and his mother got to be in this latest crazy-dangerous situation. On their way to meet Alana’s hero, the writer D. Oswald Heist, the small family are still pursued by Prince IV, the assassin The Will, and Marko’s ex-girlfriend Gwendolyn. Add to that a couple of journalists too curious for their own good and you’ve got a nice idea of how important the young couple is for the world. Some want them destroyed, others want a bit of revenge, and the journalists just want a good story. This time, though, someone actually catches up to them.

saga gwendolyn

Volume 3 differs in tone from its predecessors. Alana and Marko – and of course Hazel and Marko’s mother – spend almost the entirety of this story at Heist’s residence where, for the first time really, they can think about what it means to be parents and to just have lost a parent themselves. They are still on the run, but not running. They are dealing with the aftermath of all that’s happened, but they get a little bit of rest. Not that you don’t get the blood and violence you’d expect, it simply isn’t as front and center as it was in the previous volumes. Instead, the story focuses on characters and world-building.

With the addition of the wonderful new character, the author Heist, we get a new perspective to the current situation. The war that brought Alana and Marko together has been a given since the series began, one the couple have been questioning since they fell in love, but through Heist, we are offered a point of view by someone who has been thinking long and hard about war and life, and come to the conclusion that a little kindness would go a long way. No wonder he lets the family crash at his place and ends up playing board games with them and reading Hazel wildly inappropriate stories.

The Will’s storyline continues to be interesting, although a bit chaotic. Now accompanied by Gwendolyn and the little slave girl they saved from sex planet (I still shudder at that), they land on a gorgeous planet to have the ship repaired. The Will’s story, almost a parallel to what Alana and Marko are going through, is much more introspective this time, rather than relying on breathtaking action and heartstopping moments of mortal danger. He is haunted by his ex-girlfriend – remember? The spider woman? Yeah… – and seems confused about Gwendolyn. Slave Girl, who finally gets a proper name, was part of my favorite scene so far. Who would have thought that Lying Cat, as cool as she is, can show kindness in such an unexpected place? This rather character-driven episode also shows us that Lying Cat isn’t just a gimmick, a cool creature to add to an already pretty dope world. Lying Cat has a past and Lying Cat has feelings. If I hadn’t already been a total fan, now would be the time that I’d lose my heart to Lying Cat.

Prince IV gets very little screen time – probably because we already got a chunk of his storyline in the last volume and are merely catching up on what the others did in the meantime. But his story did take an interesting spin that would lead us into spoiler territory. I can’t wait to find out what happens with him in the next volume. And I’m still waiting to find out more about his situation, his home, his super-pregnant wife, etc.

I mentioned that some new characters are introduced. Apart from Heist, whom I absolutely adore, Upsher and Doff, two journalists trying to get the scoop on Alana and Marko, help to add both depth and width to the world. Their visit to Alana’s step mother was hilarious, in that it was so utterly believable. Since this is secondary world fantasy/science fiction, you never know where the characters stand on real-world issues. But with these two new guys, who clearly look like a different species, with green-blue skin and webbed feet, we also learn that homosexual couples aren’t accepted in all of the world, and at least sneered at in the parts where they are. Their subplot at first seems like a vehicle for world building but this wouldn’t be Saga, if it didn’t come with a twist.

saga 3 alana

Upsher and Doff also help show off Fiona Staples’ a-ma-zing skills. So far, I have gushed about how she depicts emotion on the characters’ faces, but she does so much more than that. The colors create exactly the right mood for where the story is going, the characters’ clothing and hairstyle tell us about their personality. Marko grows a beard, Alana used to look like a goth, Gwendolyn is always dressed impaccably (she’d look hot in anything, I suspect). I still love how the artwork tells a story all its own and how little details help flesh out the world. This is how comic books should work, right? Art and text complementing each other, coming together to tell an awesome story.

Saga Volume 3 not pack the same punch as volumes 1 and 2 did, but it offers a unique view at the characters we have come to love. There are still monsters and strange creatures, there is a crazy mix of fantasy and science fiction, but it is the small moments of family bliss in a world dominated by war that make this series so special. I crack open the pages and fall into a story that – while brutal and unpredictable – invariably makes me smile.

 MY RATING: 8,5/10  –  Excellent!

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  1. Volume 1
  2. Volume 2
  3. Volume 3

Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch – Rat Queens: Sass & Sorcery

See, 2014 is full of awesome. The only comic book series I’ve ever really gotten excited about was Saga (My pre-ordered volume 3 should arrive by the end of the month!). But do me a favor and read the description of this comic below. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Now you know why I needed to read this. And it was even more fun than expected.

rat queens sass and sorceryRAT QUEENS: SASS AND SORCERY
by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch

Published by: Image Comics, 1st April 2014
Ebook: 128 pages
Series: Rat Queens #1-5
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: …and what we face now is, alarmingly, one of Palisade’s greatest threats!

Who are the Rat Queens?
A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they’re in the business of killing all god’s creatures for profit. It’s also a darkly comedic sass-and-sorcery series starring Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Smidgen Thief.
This modern spin on an old school genre is a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!

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Lord of the Rings on crack, indeed! Take your average band of mercenary heroes who kill monsters with swagger and style and always something witty to say, make them a diverse group of girls and add a fistful of humor. There you have it – a hilarious comic adventure that I, for my part, will be following closely.

Hanna, Violet, Dee, and Betty are the Rat Queens, a group of mercenaries usually out to hunt monsters for money. However, when they’re off the job, they enjoy drinking, swearing, brawling, and sex. They also curse like sailors and will kick your ass into next week if you dare speak an angry word at their friends. I fell in love with them immediately. And for so many reasons.

Hannah is dressed like a 50ies super heroine but with her necromantic powers, she can turn quite dark. She is also snarky, sarcastic, and fiercly protective of her band of heroines. Violet shaved off her dwarven beard and instead chose the life of a sword-fighting maiden of awesome. Betty, a Smidgen of many talents, was the fastest to steal my heart. Not only is she a lesbian who enjoys sex and lets people know it whenever she can, she also went full Sherlock in one scene, making further investigations unnecessary. Oh yeah, and she mixes a mean drink. Dee – one gorgeous woman, if you ask me – is terrified of social situations and still has to come to grips with her family’s weird belief in a Chthulu-like god.
They aren’t all equally developed characters but I suspect and hope that the writers simply saved up a bit for later issues. I can’t wait to find out more about each and every one of these girls.
rat queens introduction
But these girls’ personalities are just one slice of the pie. Look at them! I cannot express how much I love the way they are drawn. Hannah’s Rockabilly hairstyle rocks. Violet has the face of a fairy tale princess on the body of a well-muscled, normal woman. Betty looks like half child, half goblin (don’t think for one second she is as cute as she looks) and Dee is one beautiful girl with a dark dress sense. None of them look like anorexic models or unrealistically muscly super girls. They have butts, they have boobs, and their faces are all different. There is nothing I dislike more in comics than when characters look exactly the same, except for their hair and clothes. These girls have personality, inside and out.

If you’re worried that Dee is the only Person of Color in this story, you can stop worrying now. The writer and artist seem to have taken the cry for more diversity in SFF to heart. Sawyer, the captain of the guard and keeper of the peace and law in the city of Palisade (and a majorly good-looking man, if I may say so) has dark skin, as do other side characters. But skin color isn’t even a thing in this story. Neither, so it seems, is species. Violet will gladly seduce an orc if she feels like it and Betty certainly doesn’t keep her romantic adventures within the boundaries of her species. You get to see troll women and orc women (something I’ve never seen in any fantasy story featuring those creatures) and what’s more, you get to see them kick ass and be beautiful! Yes, a large woman with gigantic boobs and legs so muscled they look like tree trunks can be pretty.  Especially as she rips your goblin heart straight out of you.

rat queens betty aint no foolThe tone of the story is much lighter than my beloved Saga but this is also the Rat Queens’ strength. The humor is never cheap and it got more than a few chuckles out of me. There is situational humor, sarcastic remarks, highly original swear words (Fucktarts), and clever jokes galore. This hilarity isn’t merely conveyed through text, however. The art shines with it.

Strike that. The art shines, period. I can’t say anything about the style that will make you like it or dislike it. It is so incredibly subjective. But, like Saga, this one really worked for me. The colors are stunning and immediately give every new setting character. The book is also full of little details that aren’t important to the story, but help build the world without clunky exposition in the text. I’m still happy about that little dog with horns that I caught sitting in the corner of a page. I’m pretty sure there is more to discover and will report once I’ve re-read it.

I haven’t told you anything about the story yet – it’s really not necessairy. You take these four girls, put them together, and you got dynamite. But just to make your mouths water a bit more. There are hints of romance, dark secrets of the past, intrigues… also alcohol, drugs, street brawls, lots of blood, and some insanely quotable lines. You’ll find brightly colored pictures of pretty girls with cuts on their faces and battle scars all over their bodies, drinking and sword fighting and kicking copious amounts of ass.

I just pre-ordered the paperback copy. This needs to be on my shelf in all its glory.  Don’t make me for the next one too long. Pretty please? While I’m waiting, I’ll leave you with this glorious bit of fun (click to biggify):

rat queens secrets

MY RATING: 8,5/10  – Excellent!!

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Links of interest:

China Miéville – Dial H: Into You

I’m probably not the typical comic book reader. If you made me choose, from my experience with the movie adaptations, I’d pick the Marvel Universe. I don’t normally read superhero comics (I go for graphic novels) but when China Miéville’s name is on something, I wants the precious. I heard about Dial H in a youtube video with Miéville and he made it sound wacky and fun and like the perfect playground for a writer like him.

dial h1DIAL H Volum 1: INTO YOU
by China Miéville & Mateus Santolouco

Published by: DC Comics, 2013
Paperback: 168 pages
Series: Dial H #1-6
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: Littleville. Gotta love it.

In the small run-down town of Littleville, CO, a troubled young man stumbles upon the lost H-Dial and all of the secrets and power it possesses. It has been many years since the H-Dial has been seen, though legions of villains have been scouring the globe looking for it and its ability to transform users into a variety of superheros and take on their powers and psyches.
Will our hero be able to harness the power of the H-Dial and protect it from falling into the hands of evil? Will this newfound power plunge our hero to madness? And will we ever discover where the H-Dial came from and its true meaning?

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Prior to China Miéville mentioning it in this interview I had never heard of Dial H but when he explained that the protagonist turnes into a different superhero every time he dials H for Hero on an old phone, it’s easy to understand why the series was discontinued by DC. Coming up with a new sort of hero – one whose powers haven’t been seen a million times before – is difficult and can feel forced very quickly. But then, Miéville has always been full of ideas, most of them unconventional. I went in expecting to meet with some superhero-shaped garbage, trains and octopuses.

The protagonist, Nelson, has reached a low point in his life. He just had a quasi-heart attack, you only need to look at him to know he is very unhealthy and overweight, he smokes too much, he doesn’t get out, his girlfriend dumped him, he lost his job, and his only friend is a criminal. That’s the first thing that drew me in. Turning this guy into a superhero comes with interesting implications. While other superheroes are usually socially impaired in their normal life, they are never as hopelessly overweight or alone as Nelson. And sure enough, Nelson dials random numbers and turns into Boy Chimney.

boy chimney

Now that’s exactly the kind of crazy I was hoping for. You can tell Miéville wrote this. His obsession with everyday things that are usually considered ugly shines through on every page. Boy Chimney, who has smoke coming out of his top hat, has a certain beauty about him. But Nelson soon discovers that with great powers… nah, not what you expect. Nelse is aware of Boy Chimney inside his mind, he is flooded with strange memories and they get stronger with every superhero shape he takes. He soon realises that it is his mind he has to watch out for because these heroes have minds of their own and if Nelson’s not careful, they might take over.

Good thing he meets one of the resident heroes, Manteau, a red-haired woman who wears a silver mask and her name-giving cloak. Between the two forms a bond that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about. Their development, as single characters and as partners, was beautifully done and shows both in the dialogue and the drawings. Nelson is incredibly overweight at the beginning of the story, but slims down a bit after a while, to the point where he doesn’t look like he might burst an artery at any given moment. I love that two such unlikely people are the heroes of the series and how their personalities complement each other. They keep each other grounded, the more experienced Manteau lets Nelson in on her secrets and Nelson keeps her on her toes when it comes to crime-fighting.

The shapes Nelson changes into are carefully chosen. While some are clearly Miéville-esque, others verge on the ridiculous (Captain Lachrymose) or are used to deconstruct the comic book genre’s racist past (Chief Mighty Arrow). Whether it’s a gigantic gun-shooting snail, an emo hero who gains strength from tears or a hoop with a chicken head… there’s a lot of fun and games mixed with seriousness in the caped or not-caped people Nelson embodies.

cockahoop

I really enjoyed the artwork, even if I thought some pages were difficult to read. The panels smudged into each other and there was too much going on at the same time. I have no idea how the creative process works with comic books (I imagine it’s rather difficult) but the end result was a bit jarring at times. The quieter parts, with Nelson and Manteau talking, or a quick flash to see what the bad guys are up to, were wonderful and easy to follow, the art never getting in the way of the story. But the big battles and the action scenes sometimes felt messy and I came out of them feeling as if I’d missed something.

With the last issue collected in this paperback, I had made up my mind to continue reading. The first four issues were fun and everything, but nothing to get me hooked. Issue five, despite its lack of action (or maybe because of it) made me care for the characters more than ever before, and issue six – a departure from the first issues – grabbed my attention with the story, the characters, and especially the big revelation at the end. So count me in, I’ll be coming back for some more dialling.

RATING: 6,5/10  –  Quite good, leaning towards a 7

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Gene Luen Yang – Boxers & Saints

This was a Christmas present from Sonja over at Literaturschock and I am sooooo grateful. After I devoured the first part in one sitting, I immediately got the second one. This is a historical fiction graphic novel with some speculative fiction aspects. But never mind categorizing it, because brilliant doesn’t need categories.

boxers and saints2BOXERS & SAINTS
by Gene Luen Yang

Published by: First Second, 2013
Paperback: 325/170 pages
Series: Boxers & Saints #1-2
My rating: 8/10


First sentence:
Spring is my favorite time of year.

One of the greatest comics storytellers alive brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing new work.
In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.
But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.
Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation.

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This is why I love books. I had never heard of the Boxer Uprising before reading these graphic novels, now I have at least some idea what happened in China between 1899 and 1901. But while this is a historical novel, what makes it so great is not that it teaches you something about historical events. It’s a deeply personal story, both for Little Bao and Vibiana.

Boxers tells of the boy Little Bao who struggles to be taken seriously by his elder brothers and has to train kung fu in secret, instead of with Red Lantern, his rolemodel and hero. When the foreign devils (Christians) destroy the village’s god statue, Bao takes it personally. What follows is his journey through the Boxer Uprising, fighting at the front lines for what he thinks is right.

There are certain aspects to this story that qualify it as speculative fiction. Bao has dreams and visions of a very powerful man who tells him what to do, what is right for China. Whether you believe this magic is real or just a figment of Bao’s imagination, it’s a beautiful way to depict his inner conflict in a comic book. The art, while very clean and simple, shows facial expressions so well that a lot of the time, you don’t even need the speech bubbles to know what the characters are thinking.

The one thing that made me insanely happy was that, when they perform their pre-fight ritual, Bao and his brothers and friends turn into gods, one of which is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King (I love him so much I’m going to re-watch A Chinese Odyssey this weekend). These gods bring a lot of color into the otherwise rather bleak, brownish world of the book.

I simply must mention the kick-ass women of Boxers. When the Brotherhood refuses to take the girls along to fight with them, they do their own thing and pretty much end up saving the men’s butts. This was possibly my favorite scene in the comic book. The Brotherhood, almost defeated, and then these colourful, brilliant female godesses coming to help them. After that, needless to say, they fight together.

boxers img

As the story progressed, as I got closer to the end, my heart broke over and over. I found that I cared deeply for Bao and understood his motives to some degree. But his actions, especially towards the end, made it clear that isn’t some pure-hearted hero, that – while he struggles with it – he is capable of doing terrible, terrible things to fellow humans. I may have shed a tear or two…

Saints, which I expected to like even more, didn’t quite get to me as much. It tells the story of Four-Girl (being the fourth child who never got a real name) trying to find a place where she can feel like she belongs. When she is rejected by all who surround her, she decides she might as well become a devil. And then goes on to work on being the best devil there ever was. Naturally, as Christians are called foreign devils, and converted Chinese secondary devils, she becomes a Christian and chooses her own name: Vibiana.

Her story runs parallel to Little Bao’s and if you read them in order, you know in advance where their pathways intersect and how their stories end. Vibiana has visions, just like Bao, but instead of Chinese emperors or gods, she is visited by Joan of Arc, a proper maiden warrior that Vibiana can aspire to become.

As I said, her story never touched me as much as Bao’s, but I can’t really tell you why. My favorite part of Saints was the not-a-romance between Vibiana and Kong. Their interactions, their sword training, Vibiana’s mood swings, were just a lot of fun to read, especially in the midst of all that drama and sadness.

In comination, these two novels are highly recommended. I already put American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang on my to-buy-list.

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Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples – Saga Volume 2

I don’t read comics an issue at a time. This may be because I love long, sprawling novels and still haven’t quite warmed to short fiction but reading a story one comic book issue at a time feels like chopping a big tale into very small bits. As soon as I get into it, it’s over. So I’ve been waiting for the second collected volume of Saga since I devoured volume one. When it showed up as immediately available on NetGalley, I frantically clicked on the download button and squeed like a little girl. Adobe DRM made it impossible for me to read the book on my boyfriend’s tablet (ugh!) but it only speaks for Saga that I simply couldn’t wait and ended up reading it on my computer screen.

saga volume 2SAGA: VOLUME 2
by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Published by: Image Comics, July 2013
ISBN: 9781607066927
Paperback: 144 Pages
Series: Saga #2

My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: I should rewind for a second. This is my old man back when he wasn’t.

The smash-hit ongoing epic continues! Thanks to her star-crossed parents Marko and Alana, newborn baby Hazel has already survived lethal assassins, rampaging armies, and alien monstrosities, but in the cold vastness of outer space, the little girl encounters something truly frightening: her grandparents!
Collects Saga issues #7-12

dividerAlana and Marko just got themselves to a mildly safe place – a tree that is also a space ship – and could continue their flight almost comfortably. If it weren’t for Marko’s parents who drop by unannounced and are less than happy to find their only son married to a Landfall girl. At the same time, The Will and Prince IV continue their search for the scandalous couple and their baby. And to make things worse, there’s a new hunter on their trail…

This series manages not only to keep up its whacky style, it turns it up to eleven. Whether it’s a giant with a monstrous scrotum trying to kill our heroes, a “space fetus”, or a rodent medic, Vaughan and Staples’ imagination seems to know no limits. The artwork is stunning as ever, the characters are vivid and don’t all look the same (something I’ve noticed with certain comic artists), their age differences are visible. But there are more reasons to love these characters, because they feel utterly believable, each with their own problems and dreams. Most of all, I was impressed (again) with the depiction of Alana and Marko’s relationship. There is no romanticizing or cheesy scenes. Apart from them having wings and horns, respectively, they could be an ordinary couple trying to make it in our world.

I suspect that this story will continue to grow and end up being about way more than an interspecies war. If it keeps up this kind of quality and suspense, I’m in for the long ride. Ten volumes? Great. Twenty? Why not? Because so far, every issue was better than the last and there are more characters to love or hate, but always with a passion.
The Will and Lying Cat grew on me even more in this volume. Once Will is joined by Marko’s mysterious ex Gwendolyn (whom I love and hate at the same time), things take an interesting turn and plot strings tie together beautifully. There were even a few moments that made me hold my breath and fear for the characters’ lives – until then I hadn’t even known I cared that much.

saga will and lying catI was extremely pleased to see how Marko and Alana met, a scene that added another layer to each of their personalities. The appearance of Marko’s parents temproarily splits the plot in two. Because Hazel’s new babysitter was unceremoniously sent away by Marko’s mother, Marko goes out to find her and his mother follows after him. Which leaves Alana and her new father-in-law on the ship with Hazel. Marko and his mother don’t have much time to talk about relationships or family because they are thrown from one danger into the next. Alana on the other hand, gets some quiet moments, interrupted only by her discovery (yet again) of how babies work.

saga alana readingEvery plot thread delivers a wonderful mixture of action, character development and flash backs to keep me utterly hooked. The only negative I can think of is that Marko’s parents – while featuring throughout the entire collection – don’t get enough depth. Yes, they are layered characters but I was under the impression that I was supposed to care a lot more about them than I did. This being a very, very minor issue (and may just as well be my own fault for not connecting with the characters), my love for the comic series has only grown. So… when is the third collection coming out?

THE GOOD: Amazing characters, crazy ideas, a killer plot – drawn beautifully and vividly. Realistic depiction of Marko and Alana’s relationship. Fantastically narrated by Hazel-at-some-unknown-point-in-the-future.
THE BAD: I couldn’t connect with Marko’s parents as much as I wanted to.
THE VERDICT: Even more highly recommended than volume one (which you should read first, nonetheless!). Possibly my favorite comic books ever.

RATING: 9,5/10  – Pretty close to perfection.

dividerSaga:

  1. Volume 1
  2. Volume 2

LEO – Bételgeuse (Graphic Novel)

Comic book-wise, I am still recovering from the amazing Saga (and eagerly awaiting the second paperback collection). But then I remembered another awesome science fiction comic series on my TBR pile. Léo keeps up everything he did right in the first cycle and adds cool new aspects. We meet old characters and get to know new ones. It is difficult to find fault with these books – except maybe how unknown they are.

betelgeuse integraleBÉTELGEUSE
by Léo

Published by: Dargaud, 2001
ISBN:
Hardcover: 48 pages each
Series: Bételgeuse #1 – 5
The Worlds of Aldebaran #2

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Papa! Viens voir! Vite!

Follow the continuing adventures of our Aldebaran heroes. Mark and Kim are sent to Betelgeuse to look for survivors of the spacecraft crash that killed 3,000 people seven years earlier. They do find survivors, among them Tazio Menegaz and Colonel Logan, who tell them the colonisers had been divided over whether the Iums (indigenous creatures) are as intelligent as humans. If they are, the humans would have been forced to abandon their colonising enterprise according to UN laws. Kim decides to investigate for herself.

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Once again, the blurb tells a lie. Kim, our spunky heroine from the first cycle in the Worlds of Aldebaran series, is sent on a mission to Betelgeuse in order to look for survivors of the spacecraft Tsiolkowsky. Other than in the first “season” of the series, we don’t follow one single point of view. Instead, we are introduced to other chraracters right away and there is no narration to keep their perspectives together. Inge and Hector get a lot of time in the first volume and I liked their characters well enough. But they fall rather flat in the subsequent books.

The story – and the art through which it is told – are stunning. Betelgeuse is a planet mostly covered in desert land with one lush canyon full of incredible plant and animal life. Léo puts wide shots of flying cars, people walking across plains, to good use by showing us the characters (drawn small) against a backdrop of strange creatures and plants, often in the middle of catching their prey. These images lend a depth to the new planet that would be difficult to establish in prose without sounding info-dumpy. Léo does his world-building almost exclusively through pictures.

betelgeuse creatuers

Because we lack a single narrator, the plot feels somewhat convoluted in the beginning books. The survivors now living on Betelgeuse have separated into two opposing camps – one group who thinks the Iums (the creatures you see on the cover) are highly intelligent and the colonization must be stopped – and one group who believes they are simply smart animals who don’t use tools or create art. It so happens that the latter group have also set up a pretty dictatorial village. Kim is the feminist voice when she enters this place ruled by men, where women are given domestic tasks and used as birthing machines. One child per woman per year – and the partner is picked by the authorities, in order to guarantee a good mix of genes for the future generation. Kim arrives and – within minutes – questions these rules.

The message here is maybe a little blunt but I was happy to see it nonetheless. Betelgeuse also offers a surprising amount of diversity when it comes to characters. It is set in the future so humanity has probably ingermingled enough that you can’t really call anyone an African-Betegeusian or Asian-Betelgeusian anymore, but it was wonderful to see a cast of characters that are not all white. You get POC characters who were depicted as human beings – some good, some bad, some misled in their beliefs, and others ignorant.

betelgeuse kim iiumsThere were a few things I didn’t enjoy and I was hoping until the very end that a good reason would come up for why everyone falls in love with Kim. She is a cool, confident woman, yes, and she is pretty to look at. But literally (I am using that word correctly) every male character in contact with her falls head over heels in love with her. And they like to declare that love by telling her how hard it is to keep their hands off her or asking her to sleep with them. There is no romance to be found, everybody states their love business in as blunt a fashion as possible. At first, I thought these were the repercussions of that pill she is taking from the mantrisse on Aldebaran. But if that is the explanation, we never officially get it here.

Betelgeuse also features a young girl, Mai Lan, who plays a very important role in the beginning – being the only human who can get close to the Iums, talk to them, and even ride on their backs. Sadly, when she makes an appearance in the fourth and fifth volume, her character is downgraded to an anxious teenager who constantly worries about the size of her boobs – and nothing else.

Speaking of breasts. I enjoyed how normal nudity was in Aldebaran and that it was depicted tasetfully. It is still tasteful here, but there is an excessive amount of women undressing and men commenting how – if they looked – they couldn’t hold themselves back. Not only did this do nothing to further the plot it also wasn’t particularly sexy. It’s a small complaint but happens often enough for me to have noticed it.

The last instalment of Betelgeuse finally offers some revelations (which, in turn, create more questions) and paves the road for the sequels. Unfortunately, the most interesting background information on the mantrisse is delivered in a massive info-dump. Pages upon pages of two characters’ faces in conversation. Why Léo didn’t do his signature move and show them in a wonderful environment, I don’t know.

I enjoyed Betelgeuse, but it lacked the character depth and development of Aldebaran – we will see how the third cycle, Antares, will hold up. Because no matter the Kim-insta-love, I will continue reading these comic books. That is, if I can get my hands on the French editions sometime soon.

THE GOOD: A great setting shown through wonderful, if old-timey-looking drawings. Kim is as strong a character as ever.
THE BAD: Too much falling in love, especially with Kim. The relationships take a soap opera spin in every instalment.
THE VERDICT: Recommended. If you’ve read Aldebaran, you will want to learn more about the mantrisse and you definitely do in this cycle. It was nowhere near as good as its predecessor but still offered some fun hours looking at terrifying creatures and beautiful scenery.

RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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There are four cycles in Leo’s comic book series, Aldebaran is only the first one. aldebaran logos

The Worlds of Aldebaran:

  1. Aldebaran (5 volumes)
  2. Bételgeuse (5 volumes)
  3. Antares (4 volumes)
  4. Survivants (2 volumes so far)

Bételgeuse:

  1. The planet
  2. The Survivors
  3. The Expedition
  4. The Caverns
  5. The Other