Thursday, 20 September 2012

Sword of Sorcery featuring Amethyst #0 review

She learned the truth at 17, that she was born to be a queen.

OK, sorry, I couldn't resist riffing on the old Janis Ian song after reading the lead strip in this new DC title. A reinterpretation of an Eighties cult favourite, Amethyst tells of how school outsider Amy Winston receives a very special gift on her birthday - the knowledge that she's a lost princess from a fantasy kingdom. It's the dream of many young girls, but for Amy the dream turns into a nightmare. For one thing, arriving on Nilar the Gemworld, she and mom Gracie are attacked by warriors. For another, she's suddenly blonde.

Her redhead mother's now a blonde too. And though Amy doesn't know it yet, so is her wicked aunt Mordiel. And they all wear purple. Colour coordination is obviously big on Gemworld.

But so is intrigue, and magic, and warfare ... all the things you could wish for in a book entitled Sword of Sorcery. Amy's pretty handy with a sword herself.

We first meet Amy at school, the unpopular new kid, with her black, blue and purple hair, and big clunky jewellery. She makes the acquaintance of Beryl, another friendless sort - odd name, specs, awkward. So far so Heathers, Mean Girls, Square Pegs ... Refreshingly, though, Amy's not mooning over unattainable boys - she's too busy having a terrible time. Moved from pillar to post by Gracie, she's trained in combat skills daily by her mom, whom she - understandably - considers a 'freak'. The story she's told Amy is that on her 17th birthday, at a precise moment, she'll take her to their true home, where her father is buried.

And that's today.

Before that, though, Amy checks up on Beryl, who's been promised a date behind the bleachers with a school jock. Naive Beryl expects the best, but streetwise Amy suspects the worst. It's the worst; the guy turns up with two pals, intending to get 'a taste of Berry', not expecting the wildcat that is Amy. Suddenly, all that training pays off.

In Nilar, meanwhile - whatever that means in this context - Lady Mordiel is stealing the life essence of young girls who share her bloodline, several-generations-removed non-royal bastards.

Back on Earth, Amy is stunned when her mother opens a glowing portal with a mystic crystal, having likely anticipated a trip to Wales or Slovenia or somewhere equally Earthbound. They cross into a wonderland where both worshippers and would-be assassins await. Along with the aforementioned blonde and purple stylings.

Battle commences and while Gracie leaps forward to defend her daughter, Amy refuses to take advantage and flee. This first chapter ends with Amy - Sunday name Princess Amaya of House Amethyst, so the Who's Who text page tells us - leaping into the fray, in the first step towards claiming her birthright as warrior and royal.

Well, that was a nice surprise. Having read an interview with writer Christy Marx I wasn't expecting to like this: it sounded to be straying too far from the original concept of Amethyst - a 13-year-old suddenly flung into a magical world and her own adult body. Marx promised tweaks to backstory and relationships and it all sounded not for me. But it's good to give books a chance and within a couple of pages, the strip had me. Yes, Amy's older on Earth, and the only physical change seems to be her hair. But the essence of the strip, a young woman having to deal with big challenges and responsibilities, remains. This story, entitled The Catalyst, isn't something I'd give to my young nieces, what with the threat of rape, and the murder of kids, but there's a nice Showcase edition of the original stories out next month - a great all-ages read and perfect for colouring-in. Hopefully this ... I was going to say update, but the original is a timeless classic ... this reimagining will appeal to a different market, slightly older girls and big boys of all ages.

It's certainly nicely written. Marx quickly sets out the characters of her heroines - Amy, who wants to fit in with other kids while Crayola-ing her hair, dressing drably and avoiding the shallows; Gracie, intense, worried, fiercely protective. And both have the inner strength to take on imperial witch Mordiel, who's been gathering power as she awaited her relatives' return from exile.

The narrative is divided between the magical and the mundane, but the former never overwhelms the latter in terms of drama; the concerns of Amy may seem like small potatoes compared to those of her mother, but we all know how intensely teenagers feel things.
Former Ms Marvel and Wonder Woman artist Aaron Lopresti sticks with the ladies by committing to Amethyst, giving Amy and Gracie distinctive, characterful looks. Sadly, this goes out the window on Gemworld, as the Winston women suddenly look like the Olsen twins at a Renaissance Fair (click on images to enlarge). When they come across Mordiel, don't be surprised if they break into a chorus of Triplets. Obviously, it's a story point, but the sooner the three get into distinctive outfits and better differentiate their hair, the better.

That's the nearest thing I have to a quibble with the art, as Lopresti is a solid stylist. I've never seen him draw teenagers, but the schoolkids convince me, and I've seen Glee. The builds, expressions, postures, they all make for believable kids. As for Gracie - or more properly, Lady Graciel - she's a harried mom, a tigress determined to give her whelp the skills to survive. And Gemworld looks stunning, fantastical without being twee.

The colouring by Hi-Fi is exemplary, with superb facial modelling - essential when an artist isn't working with an inker - and well-considered and applied colour palettes. The lettering, meanwhile, is handled by Rob Leigh and it looks good.

So yes, this isn't your parents'/my Amethyst. But it is a version that deserves to connect with a new generation, and be given a chance by my own.

The second strip, Beowulf, is another update on an old DC property. Well, 'property' may be the wrong term, as the story of the warrior Beowulf dates to Anglo-Saxon times, making it public domain. But DC published a few stories about him in the Seventies, and he popped up in Wonder Woman - drawn by Lopresti, coincidentally - a few years back.

This new version is set in an unspecified future, but seems to be using the source material, with a warrior called by King Hrothgar of the Danelaw to take on the beast Grendel, who preys upon drinkers in the royal mead hall. This instalment sees a young boy, Wiglaf, trick Beowulf into going back with him, but I suspect the terrifying warrior isn't as dim as he seems. Apparently part of some mad science project, he likely has an agenda of his own.

Tony Bedard's script isn't as immediately engaging as Marx's for Amethyst, retaining the feel of a heavy epic, but points must be given for offering a different flavour. It looks like this isn't going to be so much sword & sorcery as sword & science, and it may yet grow on me. But darn all those authentic Anglo-Saxon names, I find made-up comic stuff so much simpler.
The art by Jesus Saiz is sublime, managing to be both elegiac and action-packed, with beautiful composition and figurework. Brian Reber's colouring is sympathetic, letting the strength of Saiz's illustrations shine through while making them pop. Steve Wands letters with dash, resisting any urge towards unreadable Thor-fonts, instead opting for a mix of regular comics calligraphy and a more rough and ready style for Wiglaf's journal. It's good work all round.

With an attractive Josh Middleton cover rounding off the package, this comic, offering something different and of high quality within the bounds of the New 52 marketing campaign, deserves to find an audience.

25 comments:

  1. Argh! My comic shop isn't getting this in this week and everyone, outside of a few naysayers, seem to be loving or liking this comic a lot! I so want to read it!

    From what I've been seeing and reading, all the women lead comics seem to be on this week. Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Amethyst, Batwoman, and even Birds of Prey to some extent. Although there was also Catwoman as well... no comment. Still, hooray for those comics!

    Well, next week is the release of Talon, the final new series to come out. I assume you won't be looking at that one.

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    1. Hi IG, I hope you manage to see the comic soon. As for the Talon comic, no ta, he still looks like Big Bird meets Aquaman on drugs.

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  2. I too was surprised by this book being good, though I would dispute your reading of Lopresti's teens - they're very chunky, lack distinct fashions to tell them apart and the lead jock rapist character looks different in every panel.
    What struck me most about SoS was that unlike male-centric superheroic tales, Amethyst's story allowed for commentary on the American class struggle, with the poor kids being oppressed or taken advantage of by the children of privilege (lawyers/evil bitch queens from hell). It's something I've wondered about in modern superhero comics as they increasingly become less about heroics and more about superhuman snobs telling the working classes what to do with their lives (remember when superheroes actually had secret identities because they wanted to blend in with the little people rather than set themselves apart from them?) and SoS actually tackles it head-on, even if it's somewhat undermined by Amethyst herself being a character supposedly destined to retake her privilege from an usurper, though we'll see how that pans out...
    I was less than interested in Beowulf, though, as I have already read that story, and - more importantly - played through it several times in various videogames. It is literally the most unoriginal comic I have come across in years, compounded by nothing actually happening, and I suspect it was added just to offset the lack of manliness presented by the girly Cinderella rags-to-riches trappings of the Amethyst opener.

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    1. Very interesting thoughts on the US class systerm, Brigonos; over here in the UK we tend to assume things aren't as extreme, what with our definitions of middle class being so different. I'll be watching with your words in mind to see just how interested this particular Marx is in inequality.

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  3. Ugh at the attempted gang rape. It's hackneyed as a PSA ("dowdy girls: don't hang out with jocks mkay") and squicky for an Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld story.

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    1. I was surprised that shallow jocks should want to abuse one of the less showy girls at school. It's like they're scumbags with depth.

      I'm uncomfortable at the use of rape as a story point in a book for young teens.

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    2. Ah... the original Amethyst had an attempted rape scene in it as well, but it was even worse when you consider that she was really 13 despite her appearance and it was going to be done by trolls.

      So frankly, if you think about it, this is sort of tone down in comparison! Creepy.

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    3. My gripe with the attempted rape was more that it was derivative of similar scenes in YA fiction like Twilight, although the way Lopresti draws it does seem to lack subtlety and I think he has to bear slightly more blame than Marx for how that scene is presented.

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    4. Troll rape. Now that's unpleasant, Information Geek. Anyway, sorry, I need a better memory - ta for the reminder.

      I'm nor a reader of YA books, Brigonos, so this is news to me. Interesting!

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  4. This is the only DC "Third Wave" book I'm taking a chance on*, and I really liked it. The only off note for me was the behind-the-bleachers attempted rape scene, which sells every character but Amy short. Jacks-as-rapists is old and tired -- so old and tired, in fact, that Beryl should have known better to go there without backup. I expect we'll see more of Beryl in the future, and I feel like I should hope that Marx was writing her out of character in this scene... because I really want her to be smarter than she acts here.

    Regardless, the rest of the story is great. Amy's got some terrific combat moves, I like her touchy relationship with her mom (I wouldn't expect to see all three Amethyst women in one scene very often, Mart... I suspect we'll get just one, if even that), and it looks like we're in for a big old high-fantasy romp. I like what I see so far.

    As for Beowulf, I liked it a lot. I hadn't realized that it would be a retelling of the original Beowulf story (with SF trappings), but now that that's clear (so far), I'm ready to settle down and watch it all unfold. Because it's a great yarn, and Saiz is a terrific choice to draw it. And the touches Bedard adds -- like the fake-captive bit -- are terrific, too.

    This might be my favorite DC launch since Earth-2. I hope it does well.




    *I have high hopes for the Tynion-written Talon to be good, based on the strength of his Bat-backups, but I don't have any interest in more Bat/Owl action at the moment.

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    1. Hi Rob, I do hope that Beryl doesn't transform into Princess Emmy or someone at some point. It'd be good to have an ordinary-looking person around.

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  5. Thanks Martin for 1. the great overall review 2. reviewing this title as it is not only different in that its fantasy, but also in that it has the rare female main character and writer and 3. for mentioning it might not be appropriate for young kids (because of 2 I considered seeing if this title would be ok for my young ones). There really are too few kids titles generally, and especially too few aimed at young girls.

    Do you think they will keep a second story in each issue?

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    1. I'm pretty sure Beowulf has been mentioned in all of the upcoming solicits. Most likely, it's intended to be a title like All-Star Western or GI Combat, with two stories in every issue.

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    2. Oh, I see, and that explains why All-Star Western and this title are $3.99 (I always wondered about that in regards to the former). Thanks Rob!

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    3. Mr Whiskas, Rob got there first - thanks Rob!

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  6. This story, entitled The Catalyst, isn't something I'd give to my young nieces, what with the threat of rape, and the murder of kids, but there's a nice Showcase edition of the original stories out next month - a great all-ages read and perfect for colouring-in. "

    Martin, I think you should give the original stories a look again. They are NOT as "all-ages" as you are remembering. There's a threat of rape in the original first issue, and Amy herself is the intended victim.

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    1. Thanks Scipio, it really is high time I had another look - bloomin' comics are hundreds of miles away at my Dad's. Another reason to get the Showcase. Thanks for the heads-up, and apols for the error!

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  7. Wait, this was issue #1? I thought #0.

    This issue was truly intriguing as, initially, I wasn't sure if I'd like a book where a teenage superhero deals with the regularly scheduled teen angsty moment that I, as a teacher, roll my eyes at - dating issues, boys, flirting, etc etc. But there was definitely more depth to this book and I look forward to more stories coming from this title.

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    1. Ha, it was #0. Gawd, I'm doing this at least once a week with the zeros ... usually I catch it. Let's try for a fix ...

      I'm glad you liked the book too.

      If anyone's not read your review, here's the link:

      http://hereticaljargon.com/2012/09/23/sword-of-sorcery-featuring-amethyst-0-review/

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    2. Well thanks very much for the plug!

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  8. I wanted to like this, and did in fact like much of the story. The rape scene bothered me a little; then again this is nuDC and more or less what I've come to expect.

    But that's John Constantine in the last pages. I despise the character, and object to his presence in the DC universe. More importantly, I can only stomach DC books any more to the extent that they don't remind me that this is indeed the new continuity. I thought that this would be mostly taking place in an independent pocket universe. So Constantine's presence sours it for me.

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    1. It's not a deal breaker, but I did pull a face and sigh theatrically - the new DC really doesn;t trust its comics to get along on their lonesome, does it?

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    2. well John Constatine started as a DC character. He was moved to Vertigo later as was Swamp Thing, but both started out being printed in the DCU and Constantine interacted with other DC heroes including Zatanna (in fact, Constantine was responsible for the death of Giovanni "John" Zatara, partially).

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  9. to be honest, why I enjoyed this comic, I still feel that at times it's a tad too generic. I really miss the feel of uniqueness that existed in the original Amethyst (the Maxi, not the later, weaker, on-going). Plus, I still find Amethyst's outfit to be ugly. I just think it looks tacky. I wish DC had gone with Renae De Liz's instead http://renaedeliz.blogspot.com/ seems so much more unique and better. Plus the costume? Awesome and updated Amethyst.

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    1. Thanks so much for the link, Jan - Renae's art looks great, and the series ideas worth a go. Maybe if Christy Marx moves on eventually she'll get her shot.

      Ernie Colon's art certainly have Gemworld a unique feel, immediately - I wonder if readers unfamiliar with the original mini series are getting more out of this reboot.

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