Comic Review: Action Lab Confidential (Previews)

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Now that I have this magic tablet thing, I’ve been able to take advantage of all the lovely stuff floating around on ComiXology (a comic store/reading app).  And since I’m now a comic book nut, I figure it’s fair to toss some more reviews at you all.

The first of my ComiXology reviews is for Action Lab’s preview collection, featuring excerpts from PrinceLess (Whitley, Goodwin, and Kim), Double Jumpers (Dwonch and Blankenship), Jack Hammer (Barrows and Ionic), Jetta:  Tales of Toshigawa (Wade, Wade, and Williams), Fracture (Gabborin, Cicconi, and Dwonch), Space-Time Condominium (Dwonch), Glob World (Freeman, Strutz, and Garcia), Monsters Are Just Like Us (Super Ugly), Exo-1 and the Rocksolid Steelbots (Pryor, Besenyodi, and Logan), Back in the Day (Dwonch and Logan), and Snowed In (Lundeen).  I won’t talk about all of these in much detail for obvious reasons (so many excerpts!).  Generally, I was unimpressed by the lot.  The best of these eleven comics barely rates as “something you’d use as filler.”  Some of them are awful precisely because they play into stereotypes best served “dead.”  Basically, even though I had no expectations when I went in, I came out extremely disappointed.
Here’s the breakdown:

PrinceLess (2/5)
The basic premise for this comic seems to be this:  princess is trapped in tower; male suitors come to “rescue her”; princess insults them and uses the abuse (and a dragon) to send them on their way.  The idea is cute enough.  I like the reversal of the princess-in-the-tower trope, especially when that reversal comes with a large side of feminist anger.  However, I also find it difficult to enjoy what is clearly a patriarchal universe (something readily apparent in one of the full issues), especially when we’re supposed to accept verbal abuse as a legitimate attack on those structures, despite the fact that the “Princess” never leaves the tower in this particular excerpt.  It just didn’t work for me.
Double Jumpers (0/5)
Sexism and gaming culture. Why do they so often go hand in hand? Why can’t we have respectful portrayals of women and female bodies in the game world? Such are the fundamental problems with David Dwonch and Bill Blankenship’s Double Jumpers.

The excerpt opens in a bar — if you’re expecting one of those “an accountant, a black guy, and a sexy redheaded intern walk into a bar” jokes, then you’ll thankfully find yourself disappointed here, though the setup seems to have been deliberate.  From there, everything goes downhill.  Well, actually, it was already at the bottom of the hill when it started; in the first few panels, one of the main characters does the following:  1) complains about someone else’s girlfriend; 2) proclaims that she is a bitch, but that he’d still “hit that” (direct quote); and 3) essentially hints that the redheaded intern’s value is derived from her ability to bring him beer.  Oh, and it doesn’t get better from there.  Shortly after, the same character acts as the butt of one of the oldest gaming jokes since the invention of female gaming characters:  guy wants to play big burly man warrior, but gets stuck playing the sexy warrior chick in skimpy clothes (boob grabbing and complaining ensues).

What might have been a humorous, positive portrayal of women within gaming culture turned out to be a long sea of jokes I remember as “funny” in the 90s (that’s the beginning of my involvement, so I cannot speak for gamers who were active in the 70s or 80s). That’s honestly what this comic feels like: a throwback to 12-year-old me, dripping with assumptions about who plays video games, what female bodies mean in this culture, and so on and so forth. In the end, the decent artwork and the fun concept (geeks playing MMORPGs via VR) couldn’t save the terrible characterization and the out-of-date jokes. I’d pass on this one if I were you.

Jack Hammer (2/5)
Private detective?  Check.  World with some kind of super power?  Check.  Murder?  Check.  That’s basically what you’ve got in Jack Hammer.  Of all the comics in this lot, this is probably the only one I found semi-interesting, though that quickly fell apart when the perspective shifted to the people who committed the crime, and then once again to some sort of past event.  None of this is properly explained, so the excerpt reads like a bunch of semi-random pages from different issues.  In the end, I was more confused than interested.
Jetta:  Tales of Toshigawa (2/5)

There’s something about two warrior women fighting for reasons that aren’t altogether clear, and in the midst of that battle, the protagonist talks ad naseum about how she feels about fighting this individual.  Why?  I don’t really know.  There’s an obvious history here; the character suggests as much.  But without a full understanding of that context, it’s impossible to really understand what is going on, except that two women are fighting with swords.  Additionally, the characters frequently utter some variation of the word “unga,” which looks as ridiculous as it sounds.  I have no idea what that sound is supposed to represent, as I’ve never heard a human being make that sound in any other context than “I’m being silly.”  But these characters are kicking and trying to stab one another.  Unga?  No idea.

Fracture (2/5)

A young man with a blown knee suddenly shifts his mind into that of a local super villain.  Hi-jinks ensue.  If one were to restructure this comic to avoid the absurd “jump” from one body to the next, I suspect there would be a lot of potential in the whole idea.  But the excerpt feels like two indirectly-related chunks shoved together.  There is no sense of character development.  Instead, we’re supposed to care about someone we don’t know.  On top of that, I didn’t much care for the artwork, in part because the character drawings and settings looked too two dimensional — I’m probably spoiled, though.

It’s sad, really.  I kind of liked this one at first.

Space-Time Condominium (1/5)

One very long poop joke.  You’ve heard this one before.  Move along.

Glob World (0/5)

I think this one is meant for children.  Very young children.  Very young children.  The premise:  odd little critters known as Globs have a hide & seek competition.  That’s the entire story.  I would guess I’m not the target audience for this one, because I didn’t get it.

Monsters Are Just Like Us (1/5)

This comic contains pictures of monsters doing things the rest of us do.  There’s a cutesy potential here, but I wasn’t sure what the author intended to produce:  a set of funny, ironic images, or something else entirely.  I didn’t laugh.  I didn’t feel much of anything.  Mostly, I was confused.

Exo-1 and the Rocksolid Steelbots (2/5)

Steelbots?  What are those?  You’ve got me.  The excerpt only shows us the Steelbots on the cover.  The narrative proper — what’s provided, that is — involves some kind of official operation (a secret exchange of “goods’); a few panels later and werewolves have crashed the party.  I’m sure there’s an idea buried in here, but the excerpt doesn’t say.  It was at this point that I started to wonder whether the publisher had any idea how excerpts are supposed to work, because so many of the preceding snippets failed to entice me to continue the stories (and for entirely different reasons).  The same was true of this particular comic.

Back in the Day (0/5)

Remember when you were a teenager and you had the chance to have sex with someone…and you didn’t take it?  And remember how that totally ruined your life forever?  No?  Me either.  But that’s the premise of this comic.  An older man didn’t sleep with another man’s mom (when they were younger) and suddenly his manhood is at stake.  Queue Asian genius friend, who mysteriously invented a time machine, which they don’t use for something interesting, like stealing the recipe for Coca Cola.  Nope.  They’ve decided to use the mysterious super science powers of their Asian genius friend to take their other friend back in time to convince his younger self to have da sex.  And in doing so, his life will somehow be better.

Can you tell how much I hate this concept?  First, it’s been done before.  Second, it perpetuates more idiotic stereotypes about women, sex, and so on.  It’s fundamentally impossible for me to enjoy these kinds of narratives anymore — not because you can’t explore sex in our culture, but because the way it explores that topic doesn’t actually address the problems with what I’m now going to call “the Virgin Complex.”  In other words, it’s just lazy storytelling.

Snowed In (Lundeen) (2/5)

The plot:  two couples in a cabin in the woods (sound familiar?) get snowed in; some random guy shows up and bangs on the door; and then…well, something happens in the full comic, but none of that is here.  Mostly, I think the problem with Snowed In lies in its cliche plot.  There’s no indication that something different will happen later, so a well-versed horror viewer such as myself has no reason to keep reading.  Joss Whedon handled these cliches perfectly in Cabin in the Woods.  He pointed out that they are hilariously silly tropes found throughout horror film.  Here, that trope is treated almost as though it were a new thing.  I’m sure plenty of readers will enjoy this, but it’s hard for me to get trapped in a horror narrative when the narrative follows a rigid formula.

To be fair to all of the excerpts in Action Lab Confidential, some of these comics likely suffer precisely because the stories are incomplete or take place in the middle of larger narratives.  Unfortunately, the publisher made the conscious choice to do so, leaving me with little to go on.  How exactly am I supposed to find myself enticed by out-of-context excerpts, broken narratives, and so on?  No idea.  It was sort of like ordering a sample ebook from the Nook store, only to find that most of the pages are copyright materials (in some cases, you don’t get anything from the actual book).  Regardless of the reasons for the format, I came out of the reading experience a combination of bored, offended, confused, and annoyed.  Hopefully there are better works from this publisher…

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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