REVIEW: TKO Studios Wave Two

TKO Studios nabbed a lot of headlines last year with its publication wave of four complete comics stories of different genres, all available in boxed sets of six issues or as oversized trade paperbacks, including digital options (now available on ComiXology). Their progressive approach continues in 2019 with their second wave, again pushing four fully-formed titles out the gate and mixing established and emerging talents. TKO was generous enough to provide physical copies of their second wave paperbacks for review, a format I am happy to handle (I bought their first wave in digital last year, which led to a review of Sara). The big, floppy pages are satisfying to turn, and I like their unique smell that seems to come from the heavy inks. (If smelling books sounds weird to you, it’s okay to be in the minority, I don’t judge you). Also, each trade includes the cover art for all six issues, which I appreciate. Here are some of my thoughts on each new book:

THE BANKS  / Writer: Roxane Gay / Artist: Ming Doyle / Colorist: Jordie Bellaire / Letterer: Ariana Maher / Publisher: TKO Studios / Release date: October 31, 2019

I enjoy Roxane Gay’s writing, Ming Doyle’s art, and Jordie Bellaire’s colors in other books, to say nothing of Doyle and Bellaire’s work on The Kitchen. What went wrong here? This book feels like all three had the flu or something. The premise, focused around three generations of women planning a heist worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has a lot to say about the women and nearly nothing about the heist. The character building is good, with a family reunion of sorts taking place while a corporate sleazebag all but asks for his comeuppance, but the heist takes place so quickly and uneventfully that I feel misled. In addition, Doyle works almost exclusively with static conversations and plain living-room settings, making what should be an increasingly tense or playful arc into something ordinary, even if Gay writes with heart. At least she gets to use body language to convey romantic entanglements well. Bellaire’s colors look muddy in almost every scene, with minor exceptions during a handful of brightly-lit scenes, including a party with pink rooms. I have to ask if this should even be a comic – it feels more like a television pitch in the vein of Power or Empire. I don’t want to disregard the book’s merits, such as the (largely sassy) family bonding, or a lesbian doctor who romances a pregnant patient. The family drama and the heist aren’t terribly compatible, though, and without the art doing some heavy lifting, all aspects fall short. Maybe this would read better digitally?

VERDICT 2 out of 5.

SENTIENT / Writer: Jeff Lemire / Artist: Gabriel Walta / Letterer: Steve Wands / Publisher: TKO Studios / Release date: October 31, 2019

A sentient spaceship AI, Valarie, has to watch over a group of children after the adults on board all die – did Jeff Lemire adapt a Descender side story, or what? The human/robot relationship develops further in each chapter and never flags, with constantly rising stakes until the end. Gabriel Walta’s art takes advantage of the sci-fi scenario to place the children in alternately warm and isolating staging, as well as tightening the panels and framing to convey danger. The children and Valarie separately mature and discover new sides of themselves as they are tested and learn to trust each other. Steve Wands uses blue, square balloons for Valarie’s dialog, instantly causing it to draw the eye on an otherwise sterile ship. My only hangup with this book is that it kind of rushes to its ending in the last issue when it feels like a multi-volume series in the making.

VERDICT 4 out of 5

POUND FOR POUND / Writer: Natalie Chaidez / Artist: Andy Belanger / Colorist: Daniela Miwa / Letterer: Serge LaPointe / Publisher: TKO Studios / Release date: October 31, 2019

Underground MMA fighter Dani, prone to blackouts that lead to berserker rages, must rescue her little sister with the help of her former trainer. Flashback memories of Dani’s family crossing the border into America are dotted along what is an extremely violent revenge story. Natalie Chaidez keeps the story chugging from bout to bout, from regulated blows inside the ring to a drug-fueled orgy, a snake-filled pit fight, and a moonlit cultist melee, to name a few highlights. Andy Belanger balances intense emotions with abstract dream layouts and hard-hitting panelling that hurts to read. Every scene seems uniquely color-coded, as Daniela Miwa plays with day, night, glowing tasers, burning blood, and expanses of Mexican desert. I feel like comics about fighting are common indie comics showcases – lots of action and anatomical staging, as well as easy-to-suspend disbelief for any creative flourishes. The story infuses the cast with meaningful vulnerability and camaraderie, lending more dimension than your average champ’s fight card.

VERDICT 3.5 out of 5.

EVE OF EXTINCTION / Writers: Salvatore A. Simeone & Steve Simeone / Artists: Nik Virella & Isaac Goodhart / Colorists: Nik Virella & Ruth Redmond / Letterer: Ariana Maher / Publisher: TKO Studios / Release date: October 31, 2019

This is a lot like The Last of Us if the infection only affected men. The gendered nature of a rain-spread contagion suggests a lot of sharp insights into gender norms, but the only applicable examples are fairly shallow. One of the girls in the story is caught in an invasive love triangle in which both boys act entitled to her time and attention. “You always think… you’re too good for me!” one of them yells at her while mutating early on. I wanted more on-the-nose, super-literal mutations of toxic masculinity! Luckily, the survivalist pack of ladies watching each other’s backs while searching for safety is a fun angle. If The Banks is prestige TV, then Eve of Extinction is a horror videogame on rails. Sal and Steve Simeone’s dialog leans on characters telling each other what to do in several situations before cussing out monsters, but they also keep the plot moving while Nik Virella and Ruth Redmond’s colors find the ambulance and lightning flashes to keep from succumbing to darkness. A zoo lit by trees strung up with lights is pretty enough that I want to grab a controller and look around. One of the protagonists is protected by her birth and stepmothers in a push-and-pull family dynamic that lends a little pathos to the cycle of exploration / grabbing by mutant / protagonist shouting “Get the fuck off of me!” and killing/escaping her way to the next setpiece. This and Sentient have the strongest first issues of the bunch, each perfectly pitching their premises and demanding readers follow along to the next chapter – which is savvy, considering TKO offers the first digital issue of all their series for free. The story runs out of steam by the final chapter, but the developing family dynamic keeps things fresh enough to avoid rotting like Nik Virella and Isaac Goodhart’s mutated gore that stalks across the pages.

VERDICT 3 out of 5, higher if Naughty Dog makes a The Last of Us spinoff out of it.

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Thomas is a teen services librarian who reads way too many comics. He can be found gobbling pancakes at the nearest diner with Jessica Cruz, Forsythe Jones III, Jane Foster, and Hellboy. He reviews media for the public here and graphic novels for librarians at No Flying, No Tights.

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