I briefly spoke about Shaper #1 on Episode 176 of the CBMFP earlier this week, where I admitted its problematic nature, but overall thought it was a pretty good time. On a second reading, I actually dug it a bit more, which is always great. Liking stuff rules! I still think there are a few confusing choices in the story, some odd misnomers and ill-chosen devices, but altogether this new Dark Horse book has a fantastically vibrant look and fun feel that makes me think it might have some legs, be they human...or otherwise. Shaper #1 offers a universe wherein genetic therianthropy -- a ten dollar word I just discovered for “shapeshifting” -- is punishable by surprise incarceration (the worst kind) by the so-called “Caliphate Army.” Dressed in Guyver-stylee SWAT armor, the assembled dudes, chicks and things of indiscriminate gender within said army, hunt and capture so-called “shapers” for reasons, as yet, unknown. When things get really hairy (sometimes literally with shapers), the Caliphate sends its “Heroes” - mech suited badasses like the samurai-esque Tor Ajax, to throw down that heavy-D and take the shapers in, preferably alive. Unsurprisingly, these heroes are worshipped worlds-over by the galaxy’s sundry youth in an interesting Magic: The Gathering-style card game.
In effect, the universal framework of Shaper is a more scaled version of jaegers vs. kaiju, mixed with Altered Beast, served to taste and sent into space. That conceit, however, is tethered to a more intimate story in its first issue, following a boarding school student named Spry, whose post-graduate prospects look dim (in light of his rebellious brilliance), before his tentative career plans are suddenly scuppered when Tor Ajax himself shows up! In so doing, it is revealed that Spry’s lineage (and loyalties) may be more in question than he once thought.
As you will clearly note from my mention of Altered Beast, Shaper #1 has some very cool elements. For instance, I really like the idea around the titular shape-shifters, in that their range of transmogrification is limited only by their ancestry. So, if one of your forebears learned how to turn herself into, say, a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, your DNA’s “muscle memory” would allow you to do the same thing. So, it’s kind of like Teen Wolf, but with less van-surfing and more fire-breathing dragons.
The writing from Heisserer feels natural, with dialogue that’s easy-as-you-please to read, even when using futuristic space lingo or mentioning alien races and concepts. One bone of contention I had comes pulled from its more earth-based allusions; and, given some astrological tells here, I am assuming we’re not on Earth here. But Shaper #1 mentions, as I wrote above, a Caliphate, which is admittedly based on a pre-Islamic term, but is also generally agreed to be rooted in Muslim governance.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using it, but it is an interesting choice and I wonder if religion (political or otherwise) will fold into the story (which would be great) or if it’s just a cooler word for “kingdom” (which would be less great). Of course, it’s a phrase used not entirely without visual merit, being that it could be argued that Niva (one of the issue’s only women, and the only one with a speaking part) wears a sort of futuristic abaya. Then again, there are also miniskirts. So who knows? And I’m probably over-thinking this something fierce, but I just think it’s an interesting choice of vocabulary, and I genuinely hope the creative team explores it further in issues hence.
Another issue I had with Shaper #1 is its resolution, which comes furiously at the end, leaving Spry to accept a certain destiny far more readily than I would have thought capable for someone so young and, up until that point, obsessed with the hunters of shapers. Also, if someone gave me a cosmic cattle-prod in a box, the last thing I’d do is use it on myself. But then, I grew up watching WWF’s The Mountie, so I’m biased.
Something I did not have a problem with AT ALL was Shaper’s spectacular art from Felipe Massafera and Wes Dzioba. At its best this issue, Massafera’s art (which I’ve only otherwise seen on covers here and there) reminded me of Carlos Magno’s work on Deathmatch, which, if you know me, is a big compliment.
It’s both fluid and functional, with as rough and ready an approach to action as it has to clean lines, breathtakingly textured forms and an impressive range of expressiveness. I’d love to see Massafera on something like a Guardians of the Galaxy book, but I’m just as fine with him sticking around and doing fun sci-fi titles like this in the indies.
Dzioba’s palette, meanwhile shows a wieldy touch, which is necessary in a book showing this much action, aliens and atmospheric cosmos. It’s a testament to these two creators that I picked this book up in the first place, drawn as I was to its visual direction, only to b suitably impressed later with its writing.
Despite some of my misgivings, I’ll be sticking around Shaper for issues to come, for what I feel will be a somewhat oddly-paced, but otherwise fresh-faced space chase.