Tuesday, April 28, 2020

SENTRY FORCE #0 Provides an Entertaining Glimpse at Tiny Supers' "Gallantverse"

Gallant Knight Games ran the Kickstarter campaign for their Tiny d6 based super hero role playing game Tiny Supers in July/August 2018. I've chatted about Tiny Supers on the Geekerati Podcast, but haven't done a full review of the game. The tl;dr version is that the system has quickly become one of my top 10 super hero rpgs ever. It's easy to learn and very flexible. I loved the system so much that in the blog post for the Tiny d6 episode of the podcast, I did quick conversions of two members of the Fantastic Four (The Human Torch and the Invisible Woman).

I'll do a full review of the Tiny Supers game later this week, but last week Gallant Knight Games' own Alan Bahr sent Kickstarter backers a copy of Sentry Force Prime #0, the first (and hopefully not only) comic book based in their in house Gallant-Verse super setting. I've had a chance to read the comic, several times and in a couple of formats, in order to give it a thorough examination. Before I get deep into the weeds of my analysis of the book, I'd like to give you my overall impression of the book.

TL;DR/Overall Impression

I like it a lot. It's not perfect, and suffers from what I call "pilotitis" when discussing television shows, but it is a fun and engaging book. I love the illustration style and I am impressed with Alan Bahr's attempt at writing a "team origin story" for his first ever comic book script. The short and sweet? Buy it and make sure you read the pdf in "2-page mode" in order to get the most out of Nic Giacondino's art work.

The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome

There are two things that are essential in order for a comic book to "work, you need good writing and good art and in that order. Sentry Force has both. They aren't perfect (as will be discussed in "The Bad" section) but they are good.

When I was an undergrad I took a couple of creative writing classes with an award winning Science Fiction and Fantasy author. Over time, she became one of my most supportive mentors and I am eternally grateful to her. One of the most important lessons she taught me was that "writing a novel is hard, but writing a short story can be even harder." What she meant by this is that readers of novels will allow the writer to meander, but readers of short fiction demand tight, lean, and compelling prose. The medium itself demands it. While comic books may have the benefit of beautiful art, their word count is small and if you are writing a fully contained origin story for one-shot title, you've given yourself quite a writing challenge. There's a reason that the Avengers comic book was written after the characters had their own stand alone books, and there's a reason the Marvel movies started with solo stories rather than jumping right into the first Avengers film. It's easier to create one compelling protagonist at a time than to try to connect readers with multiple protagonists in one go.

It's a difficult challenge to meet, but author Alan Bahr manages this task. The Sentry Force is filled with an interesting array of characters that fit a nice array of super hero archetypes while retaining a touch of their own personality. Velocity, the techie "Iron Man" proxy and the hero who assembles the team, is presented as a man desperately outmatched in a city on the edge of collapse as new villains emerge. He's running as fast as he can to keep the city safe, but he cannot do it alone and what heroes there are in Sentry City have yet to work together in any meaningful way. Velocity wants to help, but all he can do is triage. A fitting metaphor as in his secret identity, he runs a medical supply company. The character is a nice balance of arrogance, vulnerability, and desperation. He might also be, as is revealed in the comic's "voiceover," one of the causes of the rise of meta-humans. Bahr crams in a lot of backstory without a lot of exposition. That gives depth to the setting, but it also leaves room for interpretation and development. Did Velocity's tapping into the Tachyon Bridge merely result in the creation of his Velocity armor, or is it a partial explanation of the emergence of meta-humans? I'm guessing it's just the first, but the second possibility could be developed into some fun story lines.

The first Gallant Knight Games product I backed on Kickstarter was the Powder Mage Roleplaying Game based on the excellent book series by Brian McClellan. It was a very good attempt at adapting McClellan's fictional world to the Savage Worlds rules set. It was especially rich as a Black Powder Mage Universe world guide. In another world, that might have been the only Gallant Knight Games product I purchased, but that would be a world where Alan Bahr didn't work with great artists. From the first time I saw concept art Michael Leavenworth put together for the 2nd Edition of the Tiny Dungeon Role Playing Game, I knew I had to back that game. From their, Bahr introduced me to a number of talented illustrators who's work was different than that being used by other role playing game companies. Of the Gallant Knight Games pool of artists, one stands apart from the others in my esteem. Nicolas Giacondino is the Jack "King" Kirby of the Gallant Knight Games stable. His work is consistently evocative and fun and brings to mind many of my favorite comic book artists. When I see a Giacondino page, his work brings to mind the layouts of Keith Giffen and the art of Matt Wagner, Chris Sprouse, Ty Templeton, and Mike Wieringo. All of these artists have clean line work and demonstrated that the 4-color illustration style of the Silver and Bronze age of comics could be as sophisticated and dynamic as the best of the Iron and Digital Age illustrators.

You can see the influence of these artists on Nic's work in many places, but one place I wanted to examine briefly is in how Giacondino approaches page layouts. Take a look at these three pages with art by Matt Wagner, Keith Giffen, and Nic Giacondino. It should be noted that I intentionally chose one of Giacondino's "least interesting" pages in order to make this quick demonstration, but it should also be clear from even this basic page that Giacondino understands how to tell a story graphically. Each of these pages is a riff on the classic "9 panel page." Two of them are expressly 9 panel pages. Giacondino's page uses the structure of the Giffen (center) page, but uses narrative techniques demonstrated in both the other comics. Notice how Giacondino starts at a wide anger and zooms in one step at each step of the conversation. He's playing with point of view and demonstrating the increasing intensity of the argument between the characters. It's similar to what Wagner is doing in the panels from MAGE #1, which alternates from mid-shot to close-up to match the information being transmitted in the dialogue.

One of the things that stands out in the Giancondino piece, though this really should wait for "The Awesome" section, is that he hand inked the pages. Inking by hand and not digitally or by color coding gives his illustrations a nice depth of space more closely aligned with the Wagner illustration on the left than the more flat-space dominated Giffen art from LEGION OF SUPERHEROES in the middle. Even in a "boring" Giacondino panel, you see variety and texture. We'll see more of his work as I move through "The Bad" and "The Awesome." I do have one small quibble with the page and that is with the lack of window frame behind Camila Cantor. The yellow space behind her is a paneled window and those panels are shown on the next page and add needed background to the page.

Which brings me to "The Bad" elements of the book, none of which are too bad but all of which need to be discussed honestly if I want you to trust my opinion about comics and other media. I really liked this book, but has roughness around the edges.

The first patch of roughness comes in the use of exposition. Bahr doesn't use a lot of it, but there is one case where it needed significant tightening. In presenting Velocity's backstory on page 3, Bahr has the following two sentences back to back. "We were exploring tachyon physics to cure muscular disability and illness, but we stumbled onto the Tachyon Bridge..." and "I had to shut down the research, lock it up, and control it, because what we unlocked with the Tachyon Bridge was bigger than anything I'd ever dreamed of." What is striking here is the repetition of the term Tachyon Bridge. The second sentence could easily read, "I had to shut down the research, lock it up, and control it, because what we unlocked was bigger than anything I'd ever dreamed of." By eliminating the repetition of "with the Tachyon Bridge" it reads quicker and cleaner. There are a couple of small things like this. They aren't deal breakers by any means, but they demonstrate a writer learning to write in a new medium. Comic book story telling needs to be tight and this is a little loose. To be fair to Bahr, I've been reading some older Gardner Fox books (his CROM comic book if you must know) and Bahr's work here is significantly better than Fox's on that title. Let's just say that when you're work is better than Fox's, at any point in his career, you're doing fine.

The second patch of roughness comes in the art work. I know I praised the art earlier and I'll praise it more because Nic is AMAZING, but he's not perfect. Let's take these two pages of action. Where Velocity foils a bank robbery by the villain Darklight. We've got great action flow on the first page, but then WHOAH! What's happening? That top panel on page 5 has me wondering who's PoV we are seeing from. It's not the guy Velocity saved. We can see him on the top of the panel. Who is looking at the world upside down and why? It really pulled me out of the action. Which is too bad, because the action of the panel is fantastic if confusing at this PoV. I can see what Nic is attempting using the split faces on the top of the page, and that's nice, but a small modification really helps the page pop in my opinion.

Sentry Force Pages 4 and 5 (as Published)

What if we didn't feel it was necessary to keep the compelling split faces as the top of the page and instead let them go to the middle of the page? As you can see, since Darklight is in the upper left of the panel when we flip it right side up, we cannot put the face there. We have to have the faces on the bottom of the panel if the action is right side up. And look at that action! It's dynamic. Bullets are flying, Velocity is running to the action, and our hapless customer is falling. The scene has emotional appeal and it brings to my mind the combat panels from the interior of the 2nd edition of the Champions role playing game, and that's a good thing.

Page 5 Image Flipped and Mirrored

Let's add this flipped panel back to the original page and give it a look. To me this is an improvement, especially when viewed in 2-page mode. The action from page to page, and these pages are paired in Acrobat, look dynamic and there is no confusion of the action in my mind. Your mileage may differ. You may prefer the original layout on the page, but this works better for me. Regardless of which works better for you, the illustrations by Nic are a lot of fun.

Sentry Force Pages 4 and 5 (post Tweak)

And that brings me to "The Awesome." There is so much that is great about this book. It starts with a complete vision for the setting. Alan Bahr has stories he wants to tell and he wants you to experience them. Whether we get them as an RPG campaign or as a comic book, I'm sure we will see more of the Gallant-verse. Bahr is a font of ideas on a Walter Gibson (the creator of the Shadow) scale. He's always writing and publishes RPG products on a schedule almost unmatched in the industry. Bahr and Wiggy Wade-Williams are old school writers who pump out quality material on a schedule. I'm in awe of Bahr's abilities and his imagination. He's put together a great team and a compelling universe with characters ranging from the Magician Asher Solomon (a mash-up of Constantine and Dr. Strange who is now one of my favorite super-wizards), Bulwark (a "Brick" and a little more), the Eagle, many more, and...the super-heroine Gallant (the Gallant-verse's "Superman" equivalent). These characters are all discussed in detail in the excellent Tiny Supers RPG and Bahr has provided a fun Gallant-verse adventure in the back of Sentry Force #0 for you to play.

If I wanted to go into "The Awesome" as much as I wanted, I would do a page by page breakdown of all the interesting characters and detailed examination of Nic's artwork. It's really a lot of fun to look at, though I'd desaturate the colors a little to make the very strong line art pop a little more, and he manages a couple of "Perez Pages" where the panels are filled with a horde of characters who manage to be distinct and dynamic and for me the ability to do "Perez Pages" is the measure by which all comic book artists are measured.

Instead of doing all of that, I'll just leave you with the panel introducing Gallant. It's pretty darn EPIC. It has all the emotion and power I want from a character introduction.

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