SAFE WORD: INSIDE THE VAULT (WEEK OF DEC. 29, 2019)
Vault Comics puts out more and more high-quality comics than any other publisher. That's the opinion of this site, anyway, but it's an opinion we share with more and more readers, critics, and pros in the industry.
We'll keep doing full reviews for new arcs and/or trades and OGNs for the publisher but, in an effort to prevent ourselves from ONLY reviewing Vault titles and to keep up with their growing catalog, we'll curate some briefer reviews of Vault's issues in lists like this. If it's not a collected volume or the first issue in an arc, you'll likely find it here. It's not an exhaustive list of everything they've put out recently, but it's what we've read, along with some highlights of our favorite parts of each issue.
(Unless otherwise noted, Adrian F. Wassel edits each issue, and Tim Daniel does the design work.)
MONEY SHOT #3
Review written by Matt Ligeti
W: Tim Seeley & Sarah Beattie
A: Rebekah Isaacs
C: Kurt Michael Russell
Chris and Omar seduce the warlord from the previous issue while the rest of the crew tries to escape their prison and convince the alien with the giant balls to teach them a powerful sexytime thing that could power their teleporter and/or be weaponized to eradicate a whoooooole lotta lifeforms.
Also, we find out more from the crew's past, getting to know one another.
The switching back and forth from past and present helps keep the narrative fresh and make the team's dynamic feel more realistic. The creative team didn't have to do this – we could all just suspend our disbelief and go, "OK, sure, these hot scientists bang aliens and each other for money to fund their experiments," and that would be that. But seeing the crew coupling, "practicing," feeling out their dynamic with each other is not only humorous, but it also helps see how a team could progress from fellow employees/scientists who work in the same area to intergalactic porn stars.
This coinciding narrative feels extremely Godfather Part II toward the end of the issue.
Also, seeing the various dynamics between couples is fascinating. Each character has such a distinct personality that it feels like doing experiments in chemistry class just to see what happens. It truly is us seeing which characters have chemistry!
In a comic where sex plays such a major role, you'd expect the art to focus heavily on the human body. Rebekah Isaacs does that, and yes, in a sexy way, but also in a not sexy way, and that takes skill. We probably see this best in Omar's body language. Omar would be a terrible poker player – he's unable to hide his emotions. Often, it's played for laughs, showing how awkward or uncomfortable he is, but you also trust him more because of it.
Every issue has been educational about sex, and this one covers STDs. What a helpful way to use the medium!
The way we're reminded about (and exposed to more story about) Omar and Chris's past is woven into the dialogue so smoothly, you might not even realize it's happening. But it also helps put their relationship into perspective. Plus, we get a humorous and topical comment about parental YouTube pranks as part of it which helps to develop Omar's character even further.
I'm a sucker for running jokes in comic series, or in any media, and Little Shot's keywords continue to make me cackle every time.
You might think, especially if you haven't read a lot of Vault comics, that MONEY SHOT might be a humorous, light-hearted, moderately sexual sci-fi romp. And you're mostly right. But there's so much skill and heart and talent in this comic, too. You might not think about it because you're so entertained, but this entire creative team is working at such a high level with this book, you might not notice how subtly Kurt Michael Russell divides or connects characters through his use of warm and cool colors, or Crank! leading your eye around the panels with his balloon placement so you take in the important elements on the page. You don't see the craft in the story's pacing and reveals or think about how smooth the dialogue is because you're so busy enjoying it. And that's good! It's a truly enjoyable series. But it's also a truly impressive and necessary one.
Now we know why the crotches look metallic and different from the rest of the uniforms!
What Doesn't Work?
I tend to forget characters' names pretty often, and this comic doesn't refresh my memory on several of them – at least, not early on. It's especially harder when it doesn't have the lead-up from earlier issues (like in trade paperback form) and the issues come out monthly, so you forget. Plus, each character has a stage name and their real name, making it doubly tricky.
Nudity, like penises and stuff, may make it not suitable for kids. Then again, I had to teach my daughter about the concept of death when she was 3 because all the princesses in Disney movies have dead parents, so I'm not gonna judge when you want to teach your kids about sex.
THE PLOT #4
Review written by Jason Jeffords Jr.
W: Tim Daniel & Michael Moreci
A: Joshua Hixson
C: Jordan Boyd
L: Jim Campbell
Plot happens, because it’s called The Plot…Okay, I’ll admit that wasn’t as great as last issue's wordplay! When you’re this far into a comic talking about anything feels like spoiler territory, but here we go:
We learn that [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] try to [REDACTED], but a [REDACTED] makes [REDACTED] follow them to the [REDACTED] and it [REDACTED] [REDACTED].
Hmmm...maybe you should just read it for yourself.
Redactions aside, The Plot #4 is the best issue in the story so far. I know we say that every issue, but that's because it's true. Issue #4 gets so many of its great aspects right while taking it to the next level. We learn more of Reese’s and Chase’s past, which explains a lot while adding even more questions.
Then we receive some great family moments, sheriff moments, lots of water, scares, and another family reunion.
I loved the cover of issue #3, but damn. The Plot #4 has a gorgeous cover, especially the orange coloring! If this came out earlier in 2019, it would’ve been my favorite cover of the year!
After I finished, I instantly wanted to go back and read from the first issue. There's so much here that references earlier events.
It’s nice to learn even more history on each character! Each time this happens, it builds layers onto them while adding greatly to the lore.
The story's slow reveals are used to great effect, and the pace works magnificently. A few things get revealed, yet it feels like new questions popped up.
Character Moment: Chase is starting to grow on me, especially the way he cares for the kids. At first, I wanted this bullet to focus on when the kids are scared and want to sleep in his bed, but after that, other moments occur that showcase his love. Chase has grown a ton since the first issue.
Hixson and Boyd continue to be a fantastic art team, and they may honestly be one of the best visual horror teams out there. This isn’t to take credit away from others, as we know comics are a team effort!
One of the things the visual team does perfectly is the tension-building seen in the panels. The team will make short panels that act as quick build-ups towards something, or longer panels to help draw a scene out. Better yet, the team sometimes combine the two.
Unlike movies, comics have page turns that, if utilized correctly, can amplify the horror or a dramatic moment. A great example of someone who uses this masterfully is Junji Ito. I bring this up as The Plot #4 applies this technique and does it splendidly.
The art in The Plot is top-notch. Honestly, I have half a mind to write a whole piece on how it builds tension and works magnificently in its execution. The manner in which the story is being told in wouldn’t hit as hard if The Plot was a movie (even though my next bullet goes on to talk about how one page resembles a movie).
During one scene in a [REDACTED], Chase and [REDACTED] are in conversation shown with five panels on the page. The scene starts zoomed-out with both characters taking up the right side of the panel. As the conversation carries on, the “camera” pushes in closer to the duo while panning behind [REDACTED] talking to Chase. Finally, at the end, Chase fills half the scene, his face filled with emotion.
That page (paragraph above this) was so amazing I had to go back and look at what the team accomplished.
Towards the end, we're treated to another scene with the plip sound effect. Just the sound alone takes the page to a higher level – especially when you notice how it references events from earlier in the series! Water is a recurring theme in this comic, and the sound effects pay special attention to this, for example in the "plips" disappearing behind Chase's arm or the unobtrusive-yet-menacing SPLIIIISSSSHHHHH later in the issue.
Memorable Quote: “If this house is trying to tell us something it can god damn spit it out already.” – Chase
What Doesn't Work?
I know we (especially me) keep saying it, but when it’s true, it's true: The Plot is one of the best horror comics out there. It keeps the consistent amazingness we have come to expect while building upon its golden foundation, making an amazing comic that you must read!
RELICS OF YOUTH #4
Review written by Matt Ligeti
W: Matt Nicholas & Chad Rebmann
A: Skylar Patridge
C: Vladimir Popov
L: Andworld Design
Blake and Tristan are MIA while Garret and Mia help rescue the island's indigenous people.
Nat & Derek are now being held captive by Serena, whom we find out more about while Derek lies unconscious and dying nearby.
It might look like it's all over, but really, the stakes have never been higher.
This is the final issue in this 4-issue miniseries!
The beautiful, almost haunting cover looks like it should be glowing. It positions the Fountain of Youth at the center of our merry band, reminding us of its previous existence and importance in the story.
Seeing the remains of the portion of the ship that was turned into paper was a nice visual callback.
I enjoyed Rebmann & Nicholas's nods to geek culture (like the X-Men reference) and American society (like how nobody checked Nat's ID for the gun).
Skylar Patridge is extraordinary at capturing facial emotions and mannerisms in a realistic way, to the point where you can easily imagine those same expressions on real, living people. I don't think I touched on that enough in this series. I also like her effect for close-cropped haircuts.
With a decent amount of action this issue, Andworld Design's sound effects were front and center. The effects were often layered over and behind elements which gave a sense of depth of field. The repeating "BLAAMs," all in the same font but in different areas gives us a good sense of the sheer volume of bullets being fired. Also, the textured "CRACK" and the curved "BOOOOM" were standout this issue.
What Doesn't Work?
I wasn't ready for the series to be over, and thought we'd at least have one more issue. The arc feels complete, mostly, the main points of the story having gone through their life cycle. However, the whole series felt rushed and cramped. Key moments were cheapened because we didn't get a proper runway to lend them the gravity they needed. The narrative had so much build-up, then had to fracture to cover multiple characters and tell a complete story in only four issues. Some characters felt archetypical because we simply didn't have the time to explore them, and they never all came together as friends in a way that felt satisfying. And the cliffhanger it leaves us on is huge! All that said, I think it has to be massively difficult to tell a complete story in only four issues, especially with that many characters, so I can also understand, especially if the series was cut shorter than intended based on sales (I don't know if this is the case or not – just speculating).
BLACK STARS ABOVE #2
Review written by Jason Jeffords Jr., with added points by Matt Ligeti
W: Lonnie Nadler
A: Jenna Cha
C: Brad Simpson
L: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
If you’re in the mood for a Lovecraftian tale in comic form then you’ve picked up the right comic! Other than that, not much can be said without spoilers for Black Stars Above #2, but damn is it a slow burn!
Instead of making everything REDACTED like my review of The Plot #4 up there, I’ll give you a brief synopsis/overview:
As usual, the wilderness is scary, take it from someone that lives in Alaska (me). Nonetheless, Eulalie has to make the decision of journeying north to deliver the package (mind you, the package she opened even though she wasn't supposed to) or return to her family. After the previous issue, you’ll understand why she doesn’t want to return to her family. But as she makes her way towards the town the box tempts her further as the trees (and things that may lurk in them) become even more terrifying!
As noted, Black Stars Above is a slow burn. So much so that even by the second issue, I can’t tell exactly where it’s going. Nonetheless, I am excited!
The story, pacing, and the dialogue and narration all feel very Lovecraftian. Hell, even the title sounds like something he would have written.
During one of the few times Eulalie speaks, the shot inside the panel zooms out, showing her at a distance. When this occurs, the dialogue box shrinks to show distance and acts like you are hearing Eulalie from a distance. Honestly, that’s smart as hell – well done, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou!
Otsmane-Elhaou's treatment of ballons and tails and type in certain points later this issue are so delightfully creepy, it felt like a perfect expression of what we'd be hearing
Cha uses several 9-panel grids to show the passage of time in different ways, be it Eulalie doing various tasks deliberately or to show how quickly the snow and bad/black weather comes in, for example. In most of them, we get a single panel that's different from the others: no captions, coarse panels borders, and a point-of-view further from the up-close-and-personal ones we're used to. These build to a satisfying payoff later in the issue.
Part of one of these 9-panel pages is a scene where several fish froze to death in a stream leading to a dam. Eulalie’s narration makes you wonder if others HAD been on this journey before and died by this point, or if it is a metaphor for the fish dying along their journey.
The juxtaposition of the narration's "One word repeated..." with the visual of the matches packet that says "LUCIFER" on it is chilling and contrasts with the narration's payoff, "Home." I believe this is intentional, purposely creepy, though even if not, the dramatic pause would have been highly effective even without "Lucifer" taking up the whole panel.
Simpson colors the parcel to be a rich crimson that sticks out infernally against the white snow and earthly other colors. It looks hot and foreign, out of place. As it should.
When a storm comes in, Simpson colors it so you feel as if you were immersed in it. It feels as heavy and claustrophobic as it would in real life.
It looks like the inky black we saw earlier is surrounding Eulalie's cabin, and by luck or providence, she manages to walk through the one area without it, not even seeing the danger all around her.
Again, we see the rigid panel borders set out by the first issue, only broken by something getting out of control – this time, it's the snow.
In one scene, we get another visit from the black star above and, with snow all around, it makes you think about people who were drowning, not knowing which way is up because everything looked similar. In this case, it's snow, not water, and instead of searching for the sun as your guiding light, she's depending on the black star above to guide her way.
Love, love, super love the creature design! Hey Vault Comics, any chance I can get a plush of the creature? Please and thanks!
What Doesn't Work?
Although the slow-burn of the plot is amazing for readers who like that particular flavor of horror, it may scare off readers who want more action or gore.
The cursive font fits the action and time period, but at times, it's hard to read. That being said, it feels much more like an entry in a diary than script would, especially with the underline for emphasis vs the traditional bolding.
In one scene, I was confused on if there was a second red box waiting for Eulalie out there in the wild, and the events surrounding it felt unreal, so the scene lost me for a bit.