SAFE WORD: INSIDE THE VAULT (WEEK OF JAN. 26, 2020)
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.)
WASTED SPACE #13
Review written by Matt Ligeti
W: Michael Moreci
A: Hayden Sherman
C: Jason Wordie
L: Jim Campbell
Unlikely companions Billy and Fury have been captured by a people who only want them to be happy...so they can ritually sacrifice them in their purest form.
Perhaps surprisingly, Fury seems almost OK with this, at least playing along more than Bily. Billy, being Billy, fights every step of the way, for better or for worse.
Dust, Molly, and Rex are off making the galaxy a better place, no longer tied to Billy or his needs. But they seem to still feel tied to him, somehow. And though it's pretty clear that Billy was a toxic presence in their lives, aren't we all hoping the band gets back together at some point?
In just a few lines, Hayden Sherman is able to capture complex facial expressions. You can imagine someone – a real person – making those exact facial expressions, and it helps give the dialogue (or Billy's monologues) so much character.
Pairing Billy and Fury together is brilliant. It has the uncomfortable feeling you get when you see a romantic comedy where someone's exes or current flame and ex-flame have to share the same space. And, in a way, that's Billy and Fury, right? Two people who brought so much negativity into Dust's life. But aside from the entertainment aspect, it's great to seem them interact with one another, contrasting how each copes with their pain and how they challenge each other.
Similarly, it's heartening to see Rex, Dust, and Molly without Billy's influence. Rex now seems so wholesome and respectful of his sister, even going so far as to save her life. But it's funny to see Molly and Dust continue to talk about Billy, even freed from him. We see that tension in Molly's violence, the effect Billy's had on her. It's a good example of how, when you get rid of someone that toxic from your life, you still feel their effect on you even after they're gone. In that way, Dust and Molly feel like their agency and character growth is still restricted, since they're unable to talk about anything but Billy even after leaving him. It's a fascinating study. I hope they're able to define themselves outside of Billy eventually.
It's also interesting to see Billy and Fury in their predicament. As the audience, we're rooting for them not to grow or recover from their trauma, so our characters aren't sacrificed. Michael Moreci's a tremendously strong writer, but what I love most is how he uses situations like this one to make us think.
I also want to talk about Billy as a main character, briefly. I know, we're, like, 13 issues in. This feels like something we should've discussed ages ago. But we're really seeing Billy's negative influence on himself and others while his more redeeming qualities are all but gone. Positioning him as a main character makes sense, as he's the sort of "hub" for all the plot and characters in WASTED SPACE. It's also a great reminder that our "hero" doesn't have to be heroic, moral, or even likable. But that's a point that's easy to forget when so often, protagonists ARE those things. And so we're stuck trying not to pick sides. We want Billy to have his revenge, taking down the Creator, but we also want his companions to be happy. And we want Billy to be happy, too. Or, at least, at peace. But all these things are at odds with one another, and that brings the tension that keeps us turning pages.
As always, Hayden Sherman's line art is wonderful, and I love seeing how he plays with panels. Standout in this issue is a tiny panel of Billy in the middle of a larger panel of Fury, which serves to underline Fury's point. Also, the motion-y, vibrating effect when Rex lands in one panel was a favorite of mine, this issue.
Colorist Jason Wordie plays up the drama this issue with deep reds and blues. It's interesting to see how they're used. In some cases, the argument between Billy & Fury happens in the blue, while the alleged "peace" comes from the red. But also, the red feels menacing, since we know where it ultimately leads. However, a close-up on Fury's face in red, making an excellent point, gets contrasted against a tiny Billy surrounded by blue, punctuating Fury's point (with probably the most poignant line of the entire issue). The reveal that leads to this could also be a meaningful game-changer for the series and its characters.
Last, a few of my favorite moments this issue were letterer Jim Campbell's sound effect work ("SPLOOM SPLOOM SPLOOM") and the alien who said "You said it, brother."
What Doesn't Work?
I feel like I should preface this by saying this is just my personal opinion and I have complete faith in the creative team to tell this story – this is just where I'm at. For one, I don't really care for the quest Molly, Dust, and Rex are on because it just seems like a vehicle for them to get away from Billy, though I'm glad that it's giving Molly (and Dust) some much-needed agency and building some action into the story so it's not all slow moments. I also feel like we've lost some of the urgency we had with the Creator and Billy's quest to kill him. Billy's not changing (though this is kind of a major theme in the story, so I don't expect him to, yet) and it feels like we just hit the PAUSE button on the overall plot. But it's also more complicated than that, because I do like seeing growth from other characters, and I feel like often, big story beats don't hit hard enough unless you've put the time into them. For example, if Dust, Molly & Rex just saved Billy & Fury this issue, we wouldn't have the important discussion Billy & Fury had, and the time the group had apart wouldn't feel significant enough for it to be meaningful. I'm probably just being impatient, but I'm ready for the big showdown and all the character growth to happen.
BLACK STARS ABOVE #3
Review written by Matt Ligeti
W: Lonnie Nadler
A: Jenna Cha
C: Brad Simpson
L: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
When last we left Eulalie, she was saved from a blizzard by a man in a wolf pelt and brought inside a cabin. As we open this issue, however, the extremely creepy vibes we get from the scene suggest Eulalie has exchanged temporary safety for the potential of a different kind of danger.
The whole first half of the comic here plays out so tensely. A man lies on the floor, weak from what we can guess was frostbite taking his hand. The more we hear from him, the less we like him, but at least he seems weak enough to not pose a threat. Second, is a boy, playing with a puppet. He doesn't say much, except when he pours something from a red bottle that never seems to empty (and, as we know, red in this world is a symbol of nothing earthly). Third and final is the man who saved Eulalie, who starts to monologue in a way that's a little hard to follow. The further on that monologue goes, the tenser the scene feels, until it comes to a breaking point.
The latter half of the issue is a mixture of past and present as Eulalie forges ahead with her task, unsure of how the pieces fit together but not wanting to go back home to be married off and forgotten.
Sweet jumping Cthulhu, this issue is TENSE. The entire scene in the cabin had me physically sweating as the tension built and the feeling of safety went sour. Though we could feel it leading to that point, partially aided by knowing the genre of the comic, I like that we felt that sense of danger click into place when one panel shows Eulalie and the character to her left, then another panel showing Eulalie and the character to her right, and then both panels come together into one single "oh no" of a panel. The scene then devolves further, the tension now palpable through the bearded man's actions and monologue, the clawed hand of the boy, and Brad Simpson's shift to a darker palette.
I haven't seen much from Jenna Cha before this title, but I am amazed by her talent with every page turn. Her ability to balance horror and terror, which are two very different things, makes you feel like you're reading Junji Ito.
Cha switches up points of view, which is always a good way to keep each page feeling fresh. It also gives letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou room for little flourishes and thoughtful applications to his balloons, which plays to his strengths. In one scene, we see characters talking from the other side of a window, and Otsmane-Elhaou tucks the balloon tail behind the window's muntins, helping us imagine a conversation that might be slightly muffled by the window.
The inclusion of the "Mr. Punch" puppet was an interesting one, particularly because, as readers, we want to shout to Eulalie and warn her about the men in the cabin, just as audience members used to do at Punch and Judy shows.
We revisit some themes from the first issue in this one. Like the dinner with her parents in issue #1, the chase scene grid system starts deliberate and measured, then devolves into chaos. Brad Simpson's sparse use of red for scenes like this one and others, as well as in the few infernal items in the story help sell these moments and link them to feelings of danger, insanity or loss of control. We also revisit the lynx seen in the first issue, ichor dripping from its eyes, and get a link to a diary that Eulalie stumbles upon this issue. Does it represent Eulalie, tainted by the creature and falling into a different kind of trap?
Speaking of the diary, we get several pages that are only text. Though this may be polarizing for readers who are more visually stimulated by art, we get several pages chock-full of creepy story and content. Personally, as someone who grew up playing Resident Evil, I'm a huge fan of stumbling upon diaries left over by people who likely didn't survive. But I also want to say that the diary also tells a story visually, albeit subtly. Otsmane-Elhaou's typeface works well for cursive handwriting, linking each letter seamlessly (usually); it's a happy medium between painstakingly writing out each letter and an obviously designed typeface. Certain phrases are spaced apart, or centered or crossed-out, some more vehemently than others. There's a poetry to this prose, a deliberate pacing that tells the story visually as well as textually. Needless to say, I really enjoyed this part of the issue.
The ending (SPOILER ALERT, kind of?), foreshadowed by the creepy cover art, leaves Eulalie with just as many questions as it leaves us. How is the snow a language? How are the infant and the black stars connected? And honestly, what the hell is going on?
There's also a soundtrack you should definitely listen to while reading, available for free on YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Apple Music.
What Doesn't Work?
There are a few points where dialogue (or a monologue) feels dense. Sometimes, Eulalie understands, and we just have to figure it out through context. Others, it feels like it's out of left field, hard to follow, though this also is possibly used to imagine how Eulalie feels. Though it may take reading through a couple times to absorb it, I'd much rather have a comic that challenges me as a reader than one that doesn't push me to grow at all.
Violence, cursing, and blatant penis make this comic not the best for younger audiences. Eulalie also makes for a questionable role model, taking books from disembodied hands in the snow and being a very poor judge of character.