Knights-Errant, Volume 1

Knights-Errant, Volume 1Creator: Jennifer Doyle
Publisher: Chromatic Press
ISBN: 9781987988239
Released: November 2016
Original run: 2015-2016

Jennifer Doyle’s series Knights-Errant had its beginnings as a webcomic in 2009. It was Doyle’s first attempt at a long-form comic. Somewhat unsatisfied with how the story’s structure was developing, Doyle decided to reboot the series as Knights-Errant: Pavane. The subtitle was eventually dropped and Knights-Errant ultimately became a part of Chromatic Press’ online multimedia magazine Sparkler Monthly in 2015. As a beautifully illustrated, queer-positive historical fantasy with compelling characters and engaging story, Knights-Errant was a perfect addition to the lineup. In 2016, the first volume of Knights-Errant was released in both print and digital formats. The book is in full-color and collects the first three chapters of Knights-Errant serialized online between 2015 and 2016 in addition to content not previously released: a short comic, “Anton & Beppe,” exploring the backstory of those characters, and a short story, “Justice,” written by Doyle’s partner Ursula Wood and featuring the characters Kadeen and Oswald.

The city of Adigo in North Vetal is under siege by the army of its own king. The population is slowly starving, essentially being held hostage by an influential but traitorous margrave whose loyalty to his god comes before his faith in the monarchy. Not all of the margrave’s soldiers share or support their commander’s fervent beliefs, however. At least one guard, Beppe, is working to end the deadly impasse by conspiring with a criminal. Wilfrid, after some amount of convincing, has become vital to Beppe’s plans. Jailed for stabbing two men, Wilfrid is given a choice: certain death by hanging for the crime or almost certain death by attempting to guide the king’s forces into the city. But only the latter gives Wilfrid the chance of surviving long enough to seek retribution and exact revenge. Wilfrid’s fundamental goals may only temporarily align with those of the soldiers who are are hoping break the margrave’s self-destructive control over the city and its people, but it is a risk that they are all willing to take.

Doyle has on occasion described Knights-Errant as a “hate/love letter” to Kentaro Miura’s Berserk. While that influence and inspiration can be seen in the comic, Knights-Errant is more than just a response to a single series–it is a brilliant work based completely on its own merits and worth. One of the many things that I particularly love about Knights-Errant, and one of Doyle’s intentions behind its creation, is the inclusion of queer themes and representation. Notably in the first volume, Wilfrid’s gender is naturally complex and Beppe’s closest and most intimate relationship is with his fellow guardsman Anton. But these sorts of personal qualities make up only one aspect of the series’ believably imperfect and multi-faceted characters. The layered portrayal of both the antagonists and protagonists–many of whom are dealing with traumatic pasts, grim presents, and potentially tragic futures–is excellent. The evocative artwork, colored with subdued but striking tones, seems to effortlessly carry and support the emotional weight demanded by the story. However, in part due to the comic’s admittedly dark and sardonic sense of humor, Knights-Errant does manage to avoid being overly oppressive.

Knights-Errant is a nuanced tale of politics, religion, intrigue, and revenge. It’s amazing how high the stakes have already risen in the first volume with the main players and the beginnings of the underlying plot having only just been introduced. The fate of a city and the lives both within and outside of its walls are at stake, and the threat of psychological and physical violence that the series’ main characters must personally face is tremendous. The entire situation is extremely volatile and everyone knows it–whatever happens next will not only have a major impact on the people who are directly involved, it may very well change the course of history for the kingdom as a whole. The tension and pacing in the first volume of Knights-Errant is magnificent, the intertwining complexities of the characters’ individual stories unfolding within the context of a much larger narrative developing on an even grander scale. Everything about Knights-Errant is intense in the best way possible, from the sophisticated dynamics of the characters’ relationships, to the intricacies of the plot and fully-realized setting, to the dramatic and expressive artwork. The comic is incredibly easy to recommend.

Gatesmith, Volume 1

Gatesmith, Volume 1Creator: Jen Lee Quick
Publisher: Chromatic Press
ISBN: 9781987988079
Released: July 2016
Original run: 2014-2015

My introduction to the work of Jen Lee Quick was through her comic Off*Beat. The first two volumes of the series were originally published by Tokyopop after which the comic sadly languished unresolved until it was rescued by Chromatic Press, becoming one of the publisher’s flagship titles. After completing Off*Beat with Chromatic Press, Quick began working on a second comic series with the publisher called Gatesmith. The origins of Gatesmith actually date back to Quick’s Tokyopop days as well, but the ideas for comic have significantly changed since then. At least one thing has remained the same though–Gatesmith is a dark fantasy Western drastically different from Off*Beat. Gatesmith began serialization in Chromatic Press’ digital magazine Sparkler Monthly in 2014. The first volume concluded in 2015 and the serialized content was subsequently collected as an ebook along with an exclusive epilogue comic and the short prequel comic “Hungry.” A small print run of Gatesmith, Volume 1 was released in 2016. As a fan of Quick’s work, I was very happy to snag a copy.

Edgeward is a western frontier town undergoing a transformation as its residents slowly build it into a successful mining city. But Edgeward is also the home to numerous strange happenings, phenomena which some people attribute to the area’s large deposits of mythrilite, a promising but potentially dangerous new energy source which hasn’t yet been thoroughly studied. Modernization can carry along with it tremendous risks, but there seems to be something even more primal, ancient, and bizarre at work in Edgeward. On the outskirts of town, strange lights can be seen in the middle of the desert. Peculiar trees spontaneously emerge where no tree has any right growing. Rumors circulate about monsters and creatures of legend roaming about. Ranchers are losing livestock and are uncertain whether or not to blame humans or something much more diabolical. Whatever it is that is going on in Edgeward may very well have a greater meaning and far-reaching impact than anyone realizes.

Gatesmith, Volume 1, page 72The setting of Gatesmith, while beautiful, is also a harsh and frequently brutal one. Survival is certainly not guaranteed in such an unforgiving environment. The comic opens with an attack on a covered wagon that leaves everyone directly involved in the incident dead and the violence in the story doesn’t end there. At this point virtually everything is unknown in Gatesmith, and the unknown is very apt to get someone killed. Gatesmith, Volume 1 offers very few answers as Quick layers mystery upon mystery. In the series, myth, folklore, and the supernatural are closely intertwined with scientific, social, and technological progress. The anxieties surrounding the changing times are very real and sometimes manifest in unexpected ways. When humans are attempting to deal with things that they don’t completely comprehend or understand trouble naturally follows, but it’s not always the inhuman that people have to worry about–unintentionally or not, civilization can be just as destructive and isn’t necessarily always a positive force. Tremendous resilience and adaptability will be required of any of the characters who hope to reach the end of Gatesmith alive.

Gatesmith is off to an incredibly intriguing start with its first volume; I am intensely curious to see how the comic continues to develop from here. However, part of what makes Gatesmith so appealing and engrossing is also what makes the comic somewhat frustrating. Quick is working with several storylines and a marvelously diverse cast of characters, but this early on in the series the connections between them all are not immediately clear. With the many strange occurrences and often stranger characters involved in Gatesmith, the ultimate direction and drive of the story is somewhat obscured at the moment and the worldbuilding hasn’t yet been established in its entirety. What has been revealed so far is enticing and tantalizing, though. Gatesmith is an interesting blend of genres. Quick draws on traditions of Westerns, folklore, horror, and other speculative fiction without relying heavily on preexisting elements or well-worn tropes, combining them together in striking ways. Currently Gatesmith is on a break as Quick concentrates on a few other creative projects, but I hope to see more of the weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird Western soon.

Tokyo Demons: Know What You Want

Tokyo Demons: Know What You WantAuthor: Lianne Sentar
Illustrator: Rem, Romy-chan, Tacto

Publisher: Chromatic Press
ISBN: 9780993861185
Released: February 2016

Ever since reading You’re Never Alone, the first novel in Lianne Sentar’s Tokyo Demons, I have been nearly consumed by everything even tangentially related to the trilogy. I find Tokyo Demons to be remarkably engaging and as the series has progressed I have become increasingly invested in both the story and its characters. Tokyo Demons has a small but very loyal fanbase, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that it became one of the flagship titles not only for Chromatic Press and the Sparkler Monthly magazine but also for Cherry Bomb, an imprint that provides an opportunity for Sparkler Monthly creators to explore more mature, sexually-charged stories and themes. Know What You Want, released in 2016, is the first Cherry Bomb collection to be compiled. It brings together four Tokyo Demons Cherry Bomb stories–”Building Up,” “Coming Down,” “Never Again,” and “Save Me/Don’t Save Me”–originally published online between 2014 and 2015. The volume also includes illustrations by Rem and Romy-chan and collects “Once,” a related short story previously released in You’re Never Alone, and “Unsaid,” a comic illustrated by Tacto which was created specifically for Know What You Want.

Some of the stories collected in Know What You Want take place before the beginning of Tokyo Demons, effectively serving as prequels, while others actually take place during the events of the main series. Rather than being organized chronologically, the stories are arranged by character beginning with Ayase and Jo who are the two primary point-of-view protagonists of Tokyo Demons. “Building Up” shows Ayase consciously and subconsciously struggling to come to terms with her complicated and conflicted feelings for Kiyoshi while “Coming Down” delves into some of the more unfortunate parts of Jo’s past. The following three pieces–”Once,” “Never Again,” and “Save Me/Don’t Save Me”–form a triptych which turns to Sachi, a somewhat unexpected Tokyo Demons fan favorite, and more specifically to the shifting dynamics of his relationship with Kadoyuki. (Appropriately enough, Sachi is also the character featured on the collection’s front cover.) Know What You Want closes with “Unsaid” which examines Miki, another member of the series’ extended cast, and the painful ramifications of his devotion to Mitsuko.

"Coming Down"Know What You Want epitomizes what Cherry Bomb is all about. The content is mature but it has purpose and meaning behind it. While there is sex, the real focus is on the characters and their relationships with themselves and with one another. The stories collected in Know What You Want provide additional background details and greater insight into the characters and story of Tokyo Demons. The situations portrayed are alluded to within the novels, but reading Know What You Want isn’t at all necessary to understand the main series. Readers who aren’t interested in erotica can still enjoy Tokyo Demons without needing to delve into Know What You Want, but those who are will discover that the collection expands and deepens the already impressive characterization and worldbuilding present in the trilogy. To varying degrees, all of the stories in Know What You Want can stand on their own satisfactorily, but the collection is really intended for people who have read and who are familiar with Tokyo Demons–the stories lose some of their impact and underlying meaning if removed from the context of the series as a whole.

The Tokyo Demons Cherry Bomb stories have been affectionately termed miserotica by both their creators and fans and rightfully so. Know What You Want is an intentionally uncomfortable, heartwrenching, and heartbreaking collection. Many of the characters in Tokyo Demons are teenagers who come from broken or nearly nonexistent families and homes. They are young, awkward, and apt to make terrible but well-meaning decisions in their social and emotional immaturity. While they are strong in some ways they are fragile in others, understandably desperate for and terrified of intimacy and human connection. The characters of Tokyo Demons are all incredibly well-developed and relatable, but it’s Sachi with his heightened empathy who tends to be the character with whom I most personally resonate. Partly because of this, the fraught relationship between Sachi and Kadoyuki is one of my favorites in the series, so I’m happy to see it receive so much attention in Know What You Want. “Save Me/Don’t Save Me” is a particularly powerful and moving piece (I have honestly cried every time that I’ve read it), but the entire collection is a provocative exploration of the complexities of love, longing, and acceptance.

Mahou Josei Chimaka

Mahou Josei ChimakaCreator: KaiJu
Publisher: Chromatic Press
ISBN: 9781987988017
Released: December 2015
Original run: 2014-2015

Mahou Josei Chimaka, or Magical Woman Chimaka, is the second long-form comic by KaiJu, a creative team made up of Kate Rhodes and Jennifer Xu, that I’ve had the opportunity to read. The three-chapter comic was originally serialized online in Sparkler Monthly between 2014 and 2015 before being collected and released in both digital and print book editions by Chromatic Press later in 2015. I love everything that Chromatic Press is involved with, but I was especially looking forward to Mahou Josei Chimaka for a number of reasons. Most notably, I was greatly impressed by KaiJu’s previous comic The Ring of Saturn (which also released by Chromatic Press) and have been closely following the team’s work ever since. It also didn’t hurt that in large part Mahou Josei Chimaka is a loving homage to and parody of the magical girl genre. That and it also it ends up being a sweet romance between two women.

Fifteen years ago Shimmer Shimmer Skypatcher Chimaka faced her greatest nemesis and lost, failing to protect her city. While Chimaka was able to temporarily repel the threat, a large portion of the city was laid to waste and left a giant, lifeless crater. Now her enemy has returned, intending to finish the job, only Chimaka isn’t a magical girl anymore. Her life fell apart after that fateful, disastrous encounter and, although she’s back on her feet again, the magic is gone. Chimaka now spends her days working as a scientist at Squid Petroleum and nights drinking with her colleague Pippa with whom she has become very close. But with the return of her old enemy, along with the persistence of a certain government agency which uncovered her past, Chimaka needs to find a way to regain her powers. The ever cheerful Pippa is determined to do all that she can to help Chimaka, but the task that the two of them face is a difficult and daunting one—Chimaka must once more become Shimmer Shimmer Skypatcher if she wants to save the world.

Mahou Josei Chimaka, page 94Mahou Josei Chimaka is crafted to especially appeal to readers who are fans of the magical girl genre (or, in this particular case, the magical woman genre) and who are interested in a slightly different approach than is often seen. While it’s not absolutely necessary to be familiar with the common tropes and themes of the genre—Mahou Josei Chimaka is completely enjoyable as a story in its own right—readers who are will be in a better position to truly appreciate the entirety of the comic and its satire. The elements one would expect to see in a magical girl story are all present in Mahou Josei Chimaka, including but certainly not limited to animal companions, transformation sequences, dazzling accessories, and an emphasis on the power of love. But these have all been slightly skewed through the lens of Chimaka’s growth into cynical adulthood. And yet, while KaiJu’s interpretation of the magical girl genre is honest and mature, it doesn’t become dark and depressing.

Mahou Josei Chimaka is a delightfully funny and charming comic. Much of this comes from the contrasting but complimentary personalities of the comics’ two leading women and the sweetness of their blossoming relationship, but as a whole Mahou Josei Chimaka is very playful. KaiJu has a great sense of humor which comes through not only in the story and characters, but in the artwork as well. The artists alternate between using more realistic illustrations and those that are exaggerated for great comedic effect. The final chapter does perhaps rush the story’s climax a bit as the creators pull out all the stops for the epic final battle, but it’s a sort of intentional ridiculousness that’s highly entertaining. Although preventing the end of the world is serious business, Mahou Josei Chimaka mixes in silliness in the best sort of way. I enjoyed the comic on my first read but I find that I like it even more after reading it again; Mahou Josei Chimaka is a great deal of fun.

Dead Endings

Dead EndingsAuthor: Jessica Chavez
Illustrator: Irene Flores

Publisher: Chromatic Press
ISBN: 9780993861154
Released: November 2015
Original run: 2013-2014

Jessica Chavez, a former localizer and editor for XSEED Games, has more recently turned to writing novels. Dead Endings, illustrated by Irene Flores, became her first published work. The novel was also among the first to be serialized in Sparkler Monthly, the online multimedia magazine from Chromatic Press. Sparkler Monthly‘s line of prose is influenced by the Japanese light novel format, aiming to provide engaging and easily accessible works of fiction with interesting characters and stories. I wasn’t previously aware of Chavez’s work before reading Dead Endings and I only vaguely recognized Flores’ name as an illustrator, but I was still very interested in reading the novel if for no other reason than it was released by Chromatic Press. Dead Endings was originally serialized between December 2013 and August 2014. The novel was collected and released in print in 2015 along with two additional side stories, “The Art… of LOVE” and “Rare Parrot Watching and Other Recommended Activities,” a bonus art gallery, and the short comic “Pancakes and Sex” illustrated by Crystal Jayme.

After nearly drowning off the coast of Miami, New Yorker and graduate student Cailen Delaney gained an especially unwelcome ability—she can now see ghosts. Not only that, they seem to be particularly drawn to her. So, when she’s not commuting to or from school or taking advantage of the fact that her roommate Gabriella is a part-time exorcist, Cailen doesn’t necessarily get out very often; she much prefers the company of a strong drink, whether it be coffee or booze, in the comfort of her ghost-free home. Enter Everett Jung, a young journalist-in-training who has his own peculiar way of sensing ghosts. He arrives at Cailen’s apartment looking for some assistance from Gabrielle as he investigates a series of murders that seem to be supernaturally linked. Gabrielle, however, is currently out of the country and so he settles on the reluctant Cailen instead. With enough persistence, Everett eventually convinces Cailen to help, but the case turns out to be much more dangerous than any of them expected.

Dead Endings, page 1Supernatural talents aside, I found the characters in Dead Endings to be very relatable, especially Cailen. She’s vaguely cranky and cynical, snark and sarcasm being some of her favored modes of communication. As the main protagonist of the novel, her personality carries over into Chavez’s style of writing in Dead Endings, resulting in a casual-feeling narrative which doesn’t shy away from frankness or the use of strong language. Although underneath it all is a vein of horror, Dead Endings also has plenty of humor. Chavez strikes an excellent balance between the two—the novel manages to be both fun and frightening, either in turn or simultaneously. Dead Endings, in addition to being a darkly humorous supernatural thriller, is also a satisfying mystery. While Cailen, Everett, and Gabrielle are particularly interested in the stranger spiritual aspects of the case, essentially they are involved in solving a murder investigation.

Ultimately, Dead Endings is a near-perfect mix of horror, mystery, and humor with well-realized characters and an engaging story. While the additional stories included in the volume add more depth to the cast, generally in a more lighthearted fashion, Cailen is the most fully-developed individual in the novel proper. I loved seeing her character arc unfold. She starts out as someone who miserably puts up with the consequences of her abilities, but by the end she has wrested control of her own life back. However, getting to that point takes effort on Cailen’s part, instinctual self-preservation, and a deliberate decision to not fall victim to the frequently perilous circumstances she finds herself in. Dead Endings can be honestly chilling—supernatural encounters and ghostly possessions are threatening and the living can be just as menacing as the dead—but the novel never becomes overwhelming dark or grim. I enjoyed Dead Endings immensely and am looking forward to its sequel a great deal.