It’s been years since I first read Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, but I’ll never forget my sense of wonder at the world it created. It has enough evidence of our own society to suggest a link, and yet the discrepancies present a fascinating mystery about how things got the way they are. Greg Pak’s Kingsway West #1 occupies a place similar in my imagination to that which The Gunslinger did way back when.
A familiar world, with some interesting exceptions
As our story opens, we know that we are in something resembling U.S. western territory, some time around the 1860s. But we also quickly learn that this is neither the precise place nor the precise time in American history that we remember. From the beginning, this is a book involving “‘extramundial’ phenomenon otherwise unexplainable by science.”
We meet our hero, Kingsway Law—a Chinese gunslinger—in the past, and it is apparent that he is a loner and an outlaw. An altercation with soldiers from the Golden City brings him into contact with the Mexican woman who becomes his wife. We fast forward five years to the present, where it turns out that trouble has a way of staying on Kingsway’s tail. His wife goes missing after another dust-up with the Golden City, and with the help of the mysterious Ah Toy, he sets off to find her.
Pak is better on his own
It just so happens that I’ve reviewed a number of Greg Pak’s stories for DC in the past few months, and read even more than I’ve reviewed, and I am generally not his biggest fan. He writes well, but most of what I’ve seen has been disposable at best, and downright unpleasant at worst. So when the opportunity for an advance review of Kingsway arose, I was curious to see whether or not Pak could turn out a better product (by my standards, at least) when working with complete creative control. I’m thrilled to say he’s done it.
For me, nothing shows the better Pak more than the patience with which he tells his story. We’re thrown into a world that demands explanation, but—to his credit—Pak offers very little up front. Compared with something like Jeff Lemire’s Descender #1 from back in 2015, Kingsway is light on world-building, relying instead on more organic revelation doled out in small bits over time. We don’t know much about the Queen of Golden City by the end of this first issue, and that’s just fine. She is a much more effective threat—and will have a much more meaningful first appearance—precisely because she isn’t some detailed word-picture revealed in a chunk of dialogue or narration. Even Kingsway himself remains largely shrouded in mystery as we await #2. We get enough to make him sympathetic and compelling, and that’s all we need right off the bat.
I love the dialogue, too. Perhaps even more than the costumes, the character voices place us in the Old West, and in a way that you don’t notice unless you’re looking closely. Rather than glaring misspellings and token cowboy phrases, we get subtle-but-effective verb (mis)use, incomplete sentences, and attitude. And for Kingsway and Ah Toy, the voices are strong and consistent. There’s a sense of fatigue and impatience in the former, but rebelliousness and mischief in the latter, and they are nearly as recognizable in their words as they are in their appearance. I look forward to getting to know them both better.
But he’s not completely on his own
From cover to cover, the art team of Mirko Colak and Wil Quintana deliver a gorgeous realization of Pak’s vision. Colak’s faces and figures are consistently excellent, with lots of helpful expressions, gestures, and posture. His layouts are likewise outstanding, evoking Western films even as the bulk of the book takes place outside of typical Western film environments. And those environments, by the way, are revealed by some truly breathtaking establishing shots. The only ding on Colak comes from two somewhat confusing gunfights. I was eventually able to form a good guess about what was happening, but I’m still not 100% certain, even after multiple reads through the book.
Quintana’s colors are solid all the way through, even and especially when the scene is busy or complicated by fire or snow. My favorite comics take me places, and the environments created (largely) by Quintana’s work give me a sense of place distinct to each scene, leading me on a multi-stop journey through some incredible locales. I’ve skimmed the book several times just to take in the beautiful, varied splashes of color.
Simon Bowland provides letters, and he does great work. His hand-lettering on the opening map page makes for a much more immersive experience than conventional computer fonts would, and his typeface choices throughout the rest of the book are pitch-perfect, with the exception (in my humble opinion) of the chunky, gold face used to indicate locations and times. It looks close, but not quite right—maybe a lighter weight of the same face would have integrated more naturally. It’s ultimately a minor quibble, though, and a testament to the excellence of Bowland’s other choices, which blend so seamlessly with the rest of the aesthetic that the slight dissonance of this one font should stand out.
- You like a good Western story…with a twist.
- You love discovering and exploring a new world in the pages of a comic book.
- You’re willing to give a creator time to reveal character and story elements organically (gradually).
I had originally scored this a 7, but as I wrote my review, I realized just how much more I actually like it. My favorite stories are slow burns, and if Pak can maintain the patience with which he’s begun, this could end up as one of my favorite titles of the year. For now, I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment, and expecting another narrative and visual treat. Pound for pound, this is a great debut, and I look forward to what this team is cooking up for future issues.
So that’s Kingsway West. You should check it out. You should also take a look at these:
Betty & Veronica #1 (Archie)
There’s a plot to Betty & Veronica #1, and I wouldn’t call it irrelevant, but it is secondary in importance to the delightful characters constructed by author/artist Adam Hughes. I’m a very new Archie fan, my only prior experience coming from the first volume of Mark Waid’s recent reboot. I do not, therefore, have a great deal of experience with the teens of Riverdale. Nevertheless, they all feel familiar in here, so there is it least some internal consistency in this new incarnation of Archie’s world. Jokes, barbs, disregard for the third wall, and a canine narrator (Jughead’s hilarious dog) make this an easy read. Hughes creates a visual aesthetic far more straight and serious than the light-hearted content would seem to require, but his thick outlines and José Villarrubia’s (relatively) flat character colors keep things from feeling too real-world; ultimately, the juxtaposition of verbal and visual styles ends up working really well. Betty & Veronica is just all-around great fun, and I can’t wait to see more.
The Flash #3 (DC)
I’ve been a big fan of The Flash since its inaugural run in The New 52, so I have some ideas of what I expect for the title, even beyond good characterization for Barry and his supporting cast. Lucky for me, Rebirth ushered in another stylish, flashy (pun so very intended) visual spectacle and an intriguing mystery right at the start. Carmine DiGianomenico’s marker-esque outlines and messy interiors took an issue or two to fully grow on me, but I love the work he’s doing, particularly in layouts that burst with energy (and color, thanks to Ivan Plascencia). In this, the third installment, we see Barry’s heart for all of those affected by the recent “Speed Force Storm,” and we are given perhaps more reason to worry about his new sidekick; but for me, the center of gravity remains the “storm” itself. I suspect that Williams has some long game he’s playing, and that the particular people now imbued with the power of the Speed Force will prove of less significance (overall) than the sudden increase in activity for the Speed Force itself. I will happily continue investigating that hunch when issue #4 comes out on Wednesday. The Flash is easily one of my favorite of the Rebirth books.
Rocket Raccoon and Groot #1 (Marvel)
There’s no denying that Marvel Unlimited is one of the best values available to comic fans in the digital world. As long as you don’t mind being six months behind (I don’t), you can pretty much read whatever Marvel’s putting out for a monthly (or yearly, at a discount) fee. This morning, I opened it up for the first time in a while, and was delighted to see the first issue of Skottie Young’s Rocket Raccoon and Groot was available. Fans of Young’s previous Rocket book should feel right at home here. Without spoiling too much, in the wake of Secret Wars, Rocket and Groot are presumed dead, but as anyone with a krutaking mind would guess, they are, in fact, far from perished. Littered with all of the delightful outbursts, creative sound effects, and “I am…shrub???” you’ve come to expect, Rocket Raccoon and Groot #1 is a heck of a good time, brought to life at once humorously and beautifully by Filipe Andrade and Rocket alum Jean-Francois Beaulieu. If you’ve got an Unlimited subscription, this one’s a no-brainer—check it out.
Action Comics #960 (DC)
There’s so much going on in Superman at the moment, and I’m loving every bit of it! The new Superman is fully accepting his responsibility. Lex is proving his worth. Clark Kent has mysteriously appeared. Doomsday is creating mass devastation, and . . . he’s turned his attention to John. What I originally thought was an overly convoluted story has quickly turned into one of my favorite titles from DC!
Aquaman #3-4 (DC)
I’ll admit, at first, I wasn’t very captivated by Aquaman, but these last two issues have taken the title into an interesting, new direction as Dan Abnett sets on a mission to make Atlantis an internationally recognized sovereign nation. Unfortunately, a perceived attack on the U.S. is causing quite a few problems, resulting in Arthur being labeled as a terrorist. If the creative team really tries to run with the idea of establishing Atlantis as a sovereign nation, then this could go down as one of the most influential Aquaman stories ever published.
Green Arrow #3-4 (DC)
Like Aquaman, this is another example where I wasn’t too fond of the Rebirth special, but boy has it turned things around since then! While a little overused within the rich, superhero community, the narrative pertaining to Ollie’s loss of his fortunes is rather intriguing. What’s really selling this title though, is the growing relationship between Green Arrow and Black Canary, as well as the rising conflict with the 9th Circle, Shado, and Emiko. Throw in a little Diggle, and you’ve got near perfection from Ben Percy and team! It’s also great to see Ferreyra’s art on this title, although I’m a little sad I don’t have a full review to praise his work!
Wonder Woman #2 (DC)
Issue 2 of Wonder Woman is the first of Greg Rucka’s “Year One” arc, and it wasn’t a disappointment! Stemming from revelations from the Rebirth issue, this story begins the journey of discovering what Diana’s history really is. Beautifully illustrated by Nicola Scott, Rucka delivers an endearing narrative of a young Amazon princess yearning for the world that lies beyond Themyscira. If you’re not reading Rucka’s run, you need to!
Wonder Woman #3 (DC)
To continue Greg Rucka’s praise, his modern day Wonder Woman story is another captivating story in his run. Though it’s still early in both of his arcs, he’s already showing great depth in Diana’s character by showing the drastic change from where she was in “Year One” compared to where she is now. The best thing about this story though, is the direction he’s taking Wonder Woman and Cheetah’s relationship.
That’s all for this month’s edition of Break from the Bat. Hit me up in the comments with your…err…comments, recommendations, and requests. Until next time!