Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars #1 is the most recent example of a strange beast, one that shouldn’t necessarily be a comic, but comics are kind of popular right now, so why not? Based on an ongoing story from the Thrilling Adventure Hour radio/podcast program, it’s a number 1 issue with a number 0 issue as a back-up, and a lot of the dialogue involves plays on words and soundalikes that are the bread-and-butter of radio and don’t play well in print. It’s pretty messy. Sparks Nevada is the local lawman in the Martian wilderness, and he’s safeguarding a spacecoach across the desert, when his little caravan is accosted by varmints and thieves. His Martian friend, Croach the Tracker, helps protect the caravan as part of an onus (that will not be the last time you hear that word in this series, or force yourself to read it) upon him which he owes to Nevada. In between, we meet some of the colorful characters inside the caravan, including a very alarmist old man, and a woman named Mrs. Johnson, who would seem to be the Widow Johnson of the title (“The Sad, Sad Song of Widow Johnson”), even though her husband is very alive and in little to no danger throughout.
The problem with the storytelling of Sparks Nevada is that it’s still very rooted in an audio format. Characters talk for what seems like days about nothing, which, in the hands of a talented voice actor, can be a pleasure to listen to; a person properly dictating a garden path sentence in a radio play is part of what makes the radio play beautiful and oftentimes hilarious. In a comic, it’s just a run-on sentence. It’s enough of a problem in this issue that rather than have smaller font in situations when people are speaking quietly, there are times when they have to shrink it down to fit it all in the balloons and not overcrowd the panel. For the frequency of it, it doesn’t seem like a mistake on Dillon’s part, as opposed to just the best solution to the problem he was faced with. As just one example, there are panels where each of the four deputybots says the exact same line (they’re linked robots, after all), and Nevada responds to each one of them. It’s verbose without adding anything we don’t already know to the characters. After Croach shows up, there’s a running gag that Nevada isn’t pronouncing his name correctly. There’s no difference in spelling or italicization or any visual cue that he’s pronouncing it any differently, so it makes the payoff at the end of the issue mean almost nothing.
In addition to those problems, this is a double-sized issue, with a #0 issue after the #1. That’s not a problem in theory, but it does mean that two of the jokes from issue 1 are punchlines to jokes that got set up in the second half. It’s like how a lot of the Darth Vader/Obi-Wan dynamic in A New Hope changed once you got context from Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith; that is to say, it makes it worse.
The art for Sparks Nevada is very well done. Bone and Remalante have a style that reminds me of a brighter and cheerier version of Bruce Timm or Alex Toth’s styles, very blocky but more fluid than, say, Kirby. All the character designs fit the aesthetic of this send-up of several genres, from the Martians on flying machines, the robot horse of Nevada, and the basically-but-for-contractual-reasons-actually-not Starfleet headquarters at the beginning. Issue 1 was also a big leap forwards from issue 0, which was good to see.
Acker and Blacker are skilled writers. Their Wolverine issues and their Thunderbolts run recently have been great comics, and obviously the Thrilling Adventure Hour is stellar. This is just one of those scenarios where the charm doesn’t translate. I would only recommend this to the most diehard fans, and even then, I can promise you it won’t be the same.
Writers: Ben Acker and Ben Blacker Artist: J. Bone Colorist: Omi Remalante Letterist: Marshall Dillon Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 2/18/15 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital