Review: Warp Zone #2

By Ben Boruff

I wonder where Ted Lange IV goes to create Warp Zone. I wonder what the room looks like. The comic's multicolored, eclectic vibe transcends traditional comic book genres, so I imagine that Lange's workspace is equally stimulating. Given the Trekkian vitality of the first two issues of Warp Zone, I picture dark walls and a skylight. I see a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey behind a sleek, post-modern off-white desk. A number of dog-eared books, including Neuromancer and A Right to Be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury, rest on the floor. Small canvas prints of various surrealist paintings pepper one side of the room, and a wall-sized copy of Wangechi Mutu’s Funkalicious fruit field covers another. A randomized playlist of Janelle Monáe and Pink Floyd flows from wireless speakers hidden around the room, and glow-in-the-dark stars cover the inside of the door, signaling the arrival of the moon each night. At least that’s what I imagine.

Warp Zone ignores traditional narrative and artistic structures. Like a William Carlos Williams poem, this issue features a great amount of empty space. A few dense panels float in a black abyss, much like the protagonists of Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s space odyssey. The story is an episodic, stop-and-go jumble of comedy and plot—and I love it.

Lange’s Warp Zone is an existentialist tribute to Afrofuturism packaged as a high-concept comic. The protagonist, Mungo, spends much of his time trying to have an authentic reaction to the absurdity that surrounds him, and his journey toward authenticity is both entertaining and frustrating. To claim that Warp Zone #2 is a disorienting cocktail of science fiction comedy—one part Monty Python, one part Osmosis Jones, one part Enter the Void, and two parts The Fifth Element—is to underestimate the comic’s narrative depth. A thematically intriguing drama lives behind Warp Zone’s Mad-esque gimmicks.

Readers who—like Mungo—explore the abyss of multilayered subtext will be rewarded with a new appreciation of hope. “Since I left Earth,” Mungo says, “I’ve learned that hoping and getting are two different things.” Mungo’s acknowledgement of hope reveals Lange’s philosophical and optimistic approach to fantasy. In Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, science fiction is blended with suburban drama to create a grotesque examination of nihilism. At one point, Morty tells his sister Summer a bleak truth: “Nobody exists on purpose; nobody belongs anywhere; everybody's gonna die. Come watch T.V.” Though Warp Zone’s universe seems similarly chaotic—and at times equally pointless—the comic’s characters remain positive. Unlike Rick and Morty, Lange’s Warp Zone celebrates illogical hope. Mungo is more like James T. Kirk than Rick Sanchez, and Mungo’s recap of the first issue captures the spirit of Enterprise’s five-year mission: “Some time ago, I stumbled into something called a Warp Zone. It’s like a doorway between worlds. Since then, I’ve seen some wild shit.”

My advice: Enjoy the comic’s “wild shit.” And if you’re looking for more meaning, talk to Jack Elsewhere—and join the club.

Score: 4/5

Warp Zone #2
Writer/Artist: Ted Lange IV
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing

Review: Follow the Leader #2

By Ben Boruff

Innocence, as a concept, intrigues me. If innocence if inexperience, then children must be innocent—unless they have experience. But most children do not fully understand the experience they have, which is why juveniles are treated differently than adults in legal proceedings. So the majority of juveniles must be innocent, right? Jonas McCluggage's Follow the Leader does not answer this question, but it does offer several nuanced portrayals of innocence.

Follow the Leader is also filled with restless mobsters and young cannibals.

Again, the concept of innocence intrigues me.

Follow the Leader's second issue reads like a bloody version of a William Blake poem. Depictions of naiveté and purity permeate a narrative that, at its core, is a commentary on youth and acceptance. Larranceville's local park is a carnivorous Neverland filled with hungry Lost Boys.

This issue focuses more on plot than theme, which means that the story moves faster than the first issue. By the end of the first issue, the tone is set and battle lines are drawn, so the second issue spends much of its time filling the story’s framework with narrative plaster. Characters become more layered, and the city of Larranceville evolves from a blurry background to a multifaceted suburban ecosystem. Most importantly, McCluggage dedicates several pages to the cult that lives in the park.

McCluggage humanizes several seemingly “feral” park-dwelling characters, but the ominous “hunger” of the first issue does not disappear. Though readers learn names and backstories of several previously unnerving characters, a sinister presence still flows through this issue. McCluggage peppers the issue with reminders of Larranceville’s oppressive evil: One panel captures the worried face of a battle-hardened mafia leader, and the corner of another panel is inhabited by two yellow eyes and a crooked, belligerent smile.

On its surface, Follow the Leader is a story about the friction between the mafia and a cannibalistic cult, but most readers will find more than escapist entertainment in the comic’s pages. The narrative explores significant issues like longing and innocence, and it does so with an impressive level of empathy. Though the young cultists are ferocious, they are naïve. The mafia is both aggressive and tired. Readers are not coerced into connecting with any specific character. Instead, McCluggage fans the characters out in front of the reader like a deck of cards and says, “Pick one.”

Score: 4/5

Follow the Leader #2
Writer/Artist: Jonas McCluggage
Publisher: Self-published

Review: Red Giant #1

By Ben Boruff

A couple years ago, I picked up a copy of Red Giant at a local comic book store in Bloomington, Indiana. Today, I write this review.

Some stories linger. When I first saw Up in the Air, the 2009 Best Picture nominee starring George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, I thought the movie was a subpar commentary on modern business. Anna Kendrick’s character seemed like a caricature of a Digital Age yuppie, and George Clooney’s aggressive melancholy annoyed me. But the movie loitered in my mind for years. Every time I considered canceling plans with friends, I heard George Clooney’s admonitory voice in my head. “Life's better with company,” he would say, and then I would reluctantly text happy emojis to my friends.

I cannot get Red Giant out of my head.

In the first issue of Red Giant, a Byronic hero called the Baron decides to kill the Red Giant, an oversized, spherical bird. Described as a “pulp ephemeralist tale,” the comic moves quickly, offering minimal exposition and dialogue. Most of the plot is communicated through soliloquies and gritty artwork.

According to his website, writer and artist Rich Foster is an engineer and game designer, and Red Giant benefits from those talents. One page features the detailed design of an “outerland transport” vehicle (including its “Trepidation Chamber” and “very big tires”), and another page is filled with the inner workings of Green Bunny, a Frankensteinian rabbit that is described as a “trans-dimensional psychic shield.”

Red Giant is a tribute to absurdism. Like the third season of MTV’s Awkward, this comic chronicles the actions of a self-centered protagonist who pursues an ultimately unreachable goal at the expense of the protagonist’s humanity. The Baron’s tunnel-visioned hunt for the Red Giant costs other characters their lives. The Baron is a shaggy-haired blend of Daniel Plainview and Steve Zissou, and he has the confused intensity of Michael Keaton’s character from Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. Like Kanye West, the Baron is not afraid to alienate those around him, favoring conviction over friendship—even if that conviction is misguided. What makes the Baron unique, however, is the simplicity and absurdity of his failure.

I do not know why my mind often revisits the pages of this comic. Maybe I identify with the Baron’s single-minded pursuit of lasting recognition. Maybe I wonder if my dreams are Red Giants, unattainable and empty. Maybe, on some level, I perceive the impossibility of meaning. Whatever the reason, I choose to read the first issue of Red Giant as a cautionary tale: Regardless of their intrinsic value, my dreams are ultimately worthless if I must hurt everyone to achieve them. Even if the Baron had achieved his goal, he still would have ended his story alone on a mountain covered with snow.

Score: 5/5

Red Giant #1
Writer/Artist: Rich Foster
Publisher: Rich Foster Comics

Website Comic are currently only available in the San Francisco Bay Area. An online shop will be opened soon. Questions can be directed to Rich Foster Comics at

Don’t Believe the Hype: Comics Have Always Been About Social Justice

By Ben Boruff

Spider Jerusalem sits, feet dangling, on the roof of a strip club in a poverty-stricken district of the City and glares down at a bloody scene of misguided rebellion and police brutality—a situation that, according to comic's most famous gonzo journalist, is your fault. Surrounded by strippers and state-endorsed violence, Spider types an angry message—"If anyone in this shithole city gave two tugs of a dead dog's cock about Truth, this wouldn't be happening"—and his message reads less like the amusing monologue of a cyperpunk protagonist and more like an indictment of real-life ignorance, the type of tenacious apathy that condones police brutality and encourages xenophobic politicians to expel entire populations. Writer Warren Ellis yells at readers through Spider Jerusalem's mouth, and his message is simple: Humankind is filled with obtuse, narcissistic individuals, but there is hope. You can save yourself if you save others.

Spider Jerusalem is not alone. Transmetropolitan is one of many comic series that galvanize the efforts of activists and ethicists. A recent Breitbart article by Charlie Nash asserts that Marvel’s recent attempts at broader representation are damaging the company’s “creative integrity,” but the article fails to acknowledge the expansive history of successful, imaginative comic book characters that pushed readers to new levels of cultural awareness. Comics and graphic novels have always been about social justice, and modern discussions about comics and their extended universes should reflect that fact.

Though independent publishers showcase many of the more aggressive comic-based social commentaries, Marvel and DC have notable histories of socially responsible narratives. In the early 1970s, writer Dennis O’Neil took Green Lantern and Green Arrow on a socio-politically charged fact-finding journey across the United States. Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen debate the nuances of race relations, environmental issues, and corruption, and these storylines prove that major publishers are capable of approaching social issues with sensitivity, acknowledging complexity and avoiding polarization. This fact is most easily observed in the now famous "Snowbirds Don't Fly" story arc. In those issues, Oliver Queen discovers that Speedy, his sidekick, is addicted to heroin, but the narrative does not vilify Speedy. Instead, Hal Jordan and Speedy have a wide-reaching conversation about generational differences, and Speedy offers some thoughts about the nuanced nature of drug use: “Drugs are a symptom…and you…like the rest of society…attack the symptom…not the disease!” Eventually, the heroes discover that the drug kingpin is a crooked pharmaceutical executive who propagates anti-drug messages. O’Neil highlights the connectedness of different social issues—an act that is largely absent from modern political discourse—and his narrative encourages empathy toward those who are systemically disadvantaged.

Other comics from Marvel and DC have accomplished similar tasks. Grant Morrison’s revival of Animal Man includes discussions about animal rights; Alan Moore’s Watchmen is, in part, a critique of Reaganism; and most incarnations of the X-Men offer a connection between the misunderstood mutants and real-life marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities and the LGBT community. Given that the social impact of a comic is difficult to quantify, it would be challenging to list every Marvel and DC comic that has contributed significantly to relevant dialogues about equality and justice, but even a cursory glance at the histories of Marvel and DC reveals one unmistakable fact: the collective oeuvre of these major publishers and their various imprints has helped shape the global zeitgeist.

Indie and alternative comics have the distinctive ability to discuss social issues in an even more targeted manner—and they often do so. Sometimes indie comics offer more candor than mainstream comics, and sometimes they shed light on underappreciated issues, important topics that have been relegated to the periphery of pop culture. As a reviewer for this website, I have encountered a number of social justice messages, including Past the Last Mountain’s sweeping commentary on tolerance, Warp Zone’s vibrant portrayal of Afrofuturism, Deer Editor’s clever analysis of prejudice, The Creators’ poignant approach to bigotry and propaganda, and Sara Rising’s satiric attacks on misogyny and xenophobia. Even Test Tube, the avant-garde epic by Carlos Gonzalez, offers some thoughts on society’s progress as part of its exploration of the human experience. Beyond this website, I have found social commentaries in comics such as Empowered by Adam Warren, Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe, and Lumberjanes, the award-winning comic from Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke Allen. All of these comics—and others like them—pick away at the hardened prejudices that obstruct progress.

The impacts of comic book activism are significant and lasting. The famous Bechdel test—the three-point assessment that shines a light on gender bias in film—was created by cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel in 1985, and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus has sparked meaningful conversations about racism around the world since its birth in the early 1980s. In light of such results, any boundary-pushing by Marvel and DC seems both socially justified and—quite possibly—financially prudent. Readers respond to relevancy. Characters like T'Challa (1966 origin), Hector Ayala (1975) Jamie Reyes (2006), Miles Morales (2011), America Chavez (2011), Kamala Khan (2013), Jane Foster as Thor (2014), and Riri Williams (2016) are symbols of progress, and they fit well in fictional universes that have encouraged understanding and social growth for decades.

The Golden Age promoted social and political engagement, so the activism of the Modern Age should not surprise comic fans. In 1939, Superman was created, in part, to attack corrupt businessmen and foolish politicians. He was as a symbol of New Deal ideologies. Superman fought against domestic abuse, lynching, and certain aspects of capital punishment. He even battled the Ku Klux Klan in 1946. If, as 21st century consumers, we plan to critique most decisions made by comic book creators, we must do so with an appreciation of the long-standing social relevancy of comic books and comic book characters—from Superman to Question to Kai-Ro to Bunker of the Teen Titans.

Or, instead of debating the merits of new Marvel and DC characters, you can, as Spider Jerusalem says, “look out of the window instead, and do something about what you see there.”

Review: Follow the Leader #1

By Ben Boruff

My quiche is cold. I am a self-labeled glutton, and the café downtown makes a near-perfect broccoli-and-cheddar quiche. About 40 minutes ago, I ordered a slice, poured myself some hazelnut coffee, and sat down to read the first issue of Jonas McCluggage's Follow the Leader, a kaleidoscopic saga about violence, death, and hunger. After opening with an ominous depiction of death, the comic introduces Paris, an aging mafia member who is asked to facilitate gang business in a town called Larranceville. I consumed the following 30-plus pages in a few frantic minutes—and then I sat for a long while, quietly, somberly, thinking about what I had just experienced.

Eventually, I noticed that my quiche was cold. I never let my quiche get cold.

Before enjoying the delicacies of McCluggage's nuanced narrative, most readers will feast on the comic's multicolored artwork. The thick-lined silhouettes of McCluggage's weathered characters pop from the panels, contrasting the comic's often hazy, uncomplicated backgrounds. This disparity in detail highlights McCluggage's commitment to meaningful characterization: Follow the Leader is, in part, about people and the choices they make.

Paris is more than the high-ranking, Wolfe-esque member of an expanding mafia: Paris is a Titan, a Promethean protagonist who equips himself with conviction and a gun in an attempt to strong-arm the stubborn truth that he is not the most powerful entity around. A new power—a hunger—lives in Larranceville, and Paris learns slowly that his old ways—"grind your bones to make my bread," as he explains—will do little to combat the cannibalistic longing of the beings that watch from the local park.

Few stories have the ability to push quality quiche from my mind, but just a few pages of Follow the Leader seemed to eliminate my usual midday hunger. The comic's dialogue is smart, and the plot moves effortlessly. The most alluring aspect of this comic, however, is its ability to camouflage horror as mystery and violence. Behind the colorful panels and mafia-driven plot lies a ghoulish presence, a presence that seeps into the reader's consciousness slowly, forcefully, like dark clouds overtaking a once-bright spring day. Without warning, the narrative bares its teeth and bites.

Most readers will gain a better understanding of the consequences of hunger. Follow the Leader seems to assert that nourishment is a solemn sacrifice from one entity to another. Near the end of the comic, a park-dwelling creature asks Paris an important question: "Remind me...of Cain and Abel's two offerings, which did God favour the most?"

The one with blood. That is the answer.

Score: 5/5
Follow the Leader #1
Writer/Artist: Jonas McCluggage
Publisher: Self-published 

Check out the webcomic as well!

Review: Hotshot #1

By Ben Boruff

When I was young, I was easily frightened—and orcs are basically zombies on steroids—so I did not interact with the Lord of the Rings universe until a friend forced me to watch The Fellowship of the Ring on DVD. When Gimli stands on Balin's stone grave, clenches his double-bladed axe, and growls that "there is one dwarf yet in Moria who still draws blood," I was hooked. Peter Jackson's version of J. R. R. Tolkien's detailed, immersive world captivated me. Aragorn, Frodo, and the others exist in a universe with complicated histories, topographical maps, extensive genealogies, unique languages, and nuanced sociocultural interactions, and these details fuel—rather than limit—a reader's imagination. Hotshot, a young hero from Legacy Rising Publications, exists in a similarly elaborate world. This issue of Hotshot packs each page with enough detailed fodder to ignite curiosity in most readers—though it often does so at the expense of clarity and flow. The comic’s panels are saturated with details about Hotshot’s environment, but the narrative is sometimes erratic, moving at an abrupt, stop-and-go pace. Some seemingly crucial plot points are unjustified, like DynaGirl’s instant distrust of Hotshot’s bureaucrat friend, an old man who looks like Stan Lee and acts like Nick Fury. The most bothersome moment of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is when Blake identifies Batman’s secret identity based only on “that look on your face,” and DynaGirl’s inexplicable apprehension seems equally contrived.

As a character, Hotshot has the wit of Peter Parker and the style of Jaime Reyes, but he lacks subtlety. Some panels push the character beyond believability, and the “hectic life as an art student” element of the narrative seems artificial. A few pages of awkward, unsolicited emotion-sharing sit between artfully rendered action scenes. Like a more two-dimensional version of Tobey Maguire (and a more pleasant version of Andrew Garfield), Hotshot contemplates responsibility and relationships with a new acquaintance, giving readers the sense that, for all his bravado, Hotshot’s version of a casual greeting includes sharing his innermost feelings. In this way, Hotshot is a wellspring of cognitive dissonance: readers know his thoughts, but they do not know him. Hotshot is detailed, but he is not nuanced, not multifaceted—and this inconsistency impacts Hotshot’s relatability.

Though the characterization of Hotshot is rushed, readers will enjoy moving from page to page. The comic’s artwork pairs well with its dialogue, and the colors are mesmerizing. Roy G. Biv appears on nearly every page, and the action sequences flow seamlessly, each punch and kick effectively placed within the narrative.

Legacy Rising Publications has created an elaborate superhero universe—one that, over time, could become a successful indie alternative to DC and Marvel—and Hotshot is an intriguing part of that universe. As a comic, Hotshot has flaws, but it also sports an undeniable charm, an underdog-ian magnetism that sugarcoats narrative irregularity as swift foreshadowing. And despite his brash characterization, Hotshot shines as a likable protagonist. I cannot help but root for the Saint Walker lookalike—even if I do not know exactly why. I am excited to see how Hotshot fits within the larger Legacy Rising universe, so I will continue to read this comic. And I will encourage my friends to do the same.

Score: 3/5

Hotshot #1
Writer: Cary Kelley
Artist: Michael Watson
Colorist: Veronica Smith
Publisher: Legacy Rising Publications