Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Virgin Comics Free Comic Book Day Issue #1: FCBD Exposed! Epilogue

Virgin Comics Free Comic Book Day Issue #1, April 2007, Virgin Comics
various contributors

Sometimes you don't have to ask to receive. During my nine-part review of Free Comic Book Day and its wares, I casually mentioned that I failed to find Virgin Comics' offering, despite my efforts to visit the local Virgin Megastore, where the salesperson that helped me seemed oblivious to his company's printed participation in the event. I regretted the loss of this issue, since my limited experience with Virgin Comics presented a definitively cultural reading experience, something to which my Western capes-'n-tights sensibilities aren't often privy. Well, I guess my disappointment was palpable, because Virgin Comics' Marketing Director Stephanie Brown soon e-mailed me and offered to send a sample of their flagship titles, including the FCBD issue, and, boy, did she deliver! A whopping twelve issues arrived in the mail yesterday, which is, as avid A Comic A Day readers will understand, eleven more than I need for this post! However, as an addendum to my FCBD series (generously co-published by Geek in the City), Virgin has offered a unique opportunity to review not just a single issue, or even a single series, but an entire rookie company! Who am I to turn that down?

No, sometimes you don't have to ask to receive, but, ironically, that's usually when you find yourself in over your head . . .

So, what are my impressions of Virgin Comics, aside from its generous marketing department? (Incidentally, these are the first free comics I've received from this company; I was handed Virgin Comics #0, which, like their first FCBD special, also featured excerpts from Devi and Ramayan 3392 A.D., at the San Diego Comic Con last July.) Well, from a visual standpoint, all of Virgin's comics are absolutely beautifully colored. While their interiors vary and styles and skill, every issue that I've perused (no, I haven't read all twelve issues yet, but I've flipped through them all) is richly layered in bold hues that emphasize the respective mood and atmospheres of their characters and stories. The latest series from this bunch, Gamekeeper, is an excellent example; when a band of terrorists attack Brock's home, a man that feels more at home in the wilderness than with his fellow man, the forest is blanketed in shadowy blue tones, which makes the stark, thin stream of crimson all the more shocking when our hero slices an enemy's neck. While all of these books are lush, these little moments are tint-based storytelling are a dynamic way of incorporating all of the medium's production elements toward one end.

Speaking of means and ends, another connection between all of Virgin's titles is an overwhelming sense of duty and honor among its characters. One need look no further than the four excerpts offered in their Free Comic Book Day issue. I criticized many of the FCBD issues that offered mere excerpts of their series, as oftentimes I felt that these snippets were too brief for their own good. In an attempt to present quantity, few publishers actually also offered quality -- not that those series aren't good on their own, but that we'd never know based just four pages. Virgin's FCBD issue suffers the same phenomenon, except for the undeniable thematic parallel amongst their titles, further specified in either a political and/or spiritual context. For such a young company (albeit the subsidiary of a much larger entertainment empire), a tight camaraderie throughout their titles, sans the usual bout of continuity-ridden crossovers, is only a good thing.

So, what are these comics about, eh? Since I specified either a political or a spiritual context, I'll separate my impressions according. Devi, Virgin's flagship title, is about a woman infused with the power of the gods to fight the conqueror Bala. When I first met Devi back in San Diego, I remember a woman surprised at the prospect of becoming a mythological superhero; in these six pages, I behold a woman comfortable in her role and brazenly attacking her treacherous, demonic enemy's stronghold. Though this is a villain-centric excerpt, these pages only emphasize Devi's boldness and strength in tackling his empire. Similarly, Ramayan 3392 A.D. is a reinterpreted incarnation of a classic Indian myth about warring lands and the consequences of prejudice. In this excerpt, statesmen debate whether they should unite with bordering bestial races to assure a strategic victory, an argument countered with reservations and bigotry. Though this is a tale of old, the wartime parable parallels today's global climate, even inadvertently, layering "India's answer to Lord of the Rings" with an undeniable relevance, whether one likes the fantasy genre or not. With a personality like Deepak Chopra at the helm, what else would you expect?

The series that emphasize a spiritual journey are thankfully less heady in their delivery, though just as analytical in their concept. In The Sadhu, an expert but skeptic professor conveniently establishes the concept of the Sadhu as superhuman, time traveling philosophers, and when a student sticks around to probe further, the prof nearly dismisses him, until the guy levitates and thus introduces himself as one of the Sadhu. It's an expected ending to this excerpt but intriguing nevertheless. Walk In is by far the most colloquial of all of these issues, and thus the one that compels me the most. Featuring a vagabond that frequently attempts to establish himself yet often blacks out to awake in a new part of the world, our nomadic anti-hero frequents strip clubs to center himself, not to mention for the free peanuts. Walk In #4 and #5 were included in my package and will be the first I read after this review. Both of these stories assert a sense of duty to oneself, a need to achieve a level of self-awareness for both survival and closure. However, something tells me that these heroes' journeys are just beginning.

Since issues of Snake Woman and Gatekeeper were included in my package but were not sampled in the Virgin FCBD issue, I thought I'd read them to develop a broader sense of the company's vision. Gatekeeper is by far the biggest leap of these titles' subject matter, taking place in contemporary times yet removing itself from civilized trappings by setting itself in the forest, establishing Brock (actually not unlike the character by the same name in Cartoon Network/Adult Swim's Venture Bros.) as a silent tough guy akin to the laws of nature, and though he is unable to save his mysterious benefactor from a band of conspiratorial trespassers, he will obviously be able to avenge him. I liked this issue, developed from a concept by film maker Guy Richie, particularly its inspired cinematic scope and character dynamics. Snake Woman was a bit more developed, however, with a back story too complicated to explain here, but interesting enough to arouse my recommendation. Essentially, twentysomething Jess is a reincarnated snake god with serpentine tendencies for justice, illustrated by Vivek Skinde with a Ben Templesmith meets Dean Motter sensibility. Again, the thematic consistency of duty and honor pervades these titles, and although I understand Virgin's commitment to its flagship books, I wonder if these series' inclusion in the Free Comic Book Day issue would've made a more laymen impression with casual readers potentially intimidated by the onslaught of Eastern lore.

My bottom line recommendation for Virgin Comics, for what it's worth if they're still reading, is to offer one full length issue from a series, preferably Devi or Ramayan to wholly establish the breadth of their mythology, while reserving spots in the anthology offering for series with more colloquial or contemporary roots. Regarding Free Comic Book Day as a universal marketing opportunity, a true evaluation can only surface in a few months, when companies like Virgin can calculate a potential rise in their sales based on the samplings they offered. Essentially, each of the Free Comic Book Day issues we've read are subtle inquiries from their publishers to their budding audience: "Will you give our comics a chance?" Whether or not we answer, time will tell, and in my case, Virgin has given me a complimentary cheat sheet, for which I am grateful. Sometimes, you don't have to ask to receive, but, sometimes, you do.

No comments: