Astonishing Times / Twelve Percent Dread – Graphic Novel Review

Dark Horse have a lot of new graphic novels out this week, with a variety of titles on offer. Whilst some of their titles have some more action and horror oriented themes, not every book does, and if you’re looking for something a little different, these two might just be of interest to you.

Astonishing Times Vol. 1

Superhero comics are the backbone of the industry. When comics were first coming into being there were a lot of genres on offer, from superheroes to crime books, to pirate stories, and sci-fi schlock. And whilst many of these titles fell away over the years the ones that kept selling, that grew in popularity year after year, and have become the genre that people think of when they hear the word comic is superheroes. Some characters have gone on to become instantly recognisable across the globe, and you can show people in most countries the Superman logo and they’ll know exactly who it is. Superheroes are modern mythology, and this is a big theme for the new book Astonishing Times.

Astonishing Times is set in a world where superheroes are very real, and have been operating out in the open for decades. Whilst they were once beloved by millions, they’ve gradually faded into the background somewhat as people get used to them, and no one seems to bat an eyelid when a costumed hero is waiting in line in the local coffee shop. But there is someone who still thinks of these heroes as worth people’s attention and adoration: Noah Sans.

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Noah is a reporter, covering the adventures of the world’s ever growing superhero population. However, people don’t care about heroes anymore, and Noah’s column is on the verge of being cancelled. Using the goodwill of his father’s legacy at the paper (a man who also covered superhero news), Noah gets one last chance to write the story that will save his career. And whilst he sits and scours the web, trying to find something that will stop him losing his job, the biggest story of his life falls into his lap. A superhero has been found dead, and it begins a series of events that will lead to Noah discovering some dark secrets about the world’s greatest heroes.

Astonishing Times is trying to take something of a different look at supe heroes, mainly by focusing on someone one step removed from the heroes themselves. We follow a pretty normal guy instead of one of the costumed adventurers, and whilst this gives us a decent introduction to this world it’s not long before you start to feel a bit lost in the piles of continuity and history that the comic is trying to conjure up, despite it being the first volume in this series. There is a lot of history here, there are characters with decades of adventures under their belts, and world events that have changed this setting until it’s quite different from our own; and whilst Astonishing Times draws upon all of this in the crafting of its story it never really explains much of it to the reader.

We meet heroes who are the ‘greatest’ the world has ever known, but we’re not told much about them. Characters reference past conflict and relationships, but we’re not told what they are. We hear about alien invasions and global conflict, but aren’t given any detail about them. And the bad guy is set to tear the world down and start again because of everything they’ve seen and been through, but we don’t know what it all is. The biggest problem with this book is that it doesn’t feel like a volume one, it feels like a volume one through ten squashed down into five issues. Things happen too quickly, too much history is referenced without any weight behind it, and for the most part I was left unable to care for what was going on. Frank Barbiere and Arris Quinones, the two writers, clearly have a lot of good ideas, but it feels like they’re trying to use everything all at once.

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The art in Astonishing Times, provided by Ruairi Coleman and Lauren Affe, looks great, and they’re able to make the book look bold and interesting throughout. The bland, everyday scenes all have extra details and small things thrown into them for you to take a look at, usually tiny details that adds to the world building, and the action sequences are done really well. The book has a visual scale and scope that matches the story well, and even if you’re left unsure of everything that’s happened in this world up to this point, the art showcases why the events here are grand.

If you’re looking for a superhero book that’s doing something a bit different from usual, and want to jump into a small, self contained story that you can read in a single sitting Astonishing Times could provide you with what you need.

Astonishing Times is out now from Dark Horse.

Twelve Percent Dread

Twelve Percent Dread by Emily McGovern is something of a strange book. At more than 400 pages long it’s a big, bulky read that certainly gives you a lot of content for your money. But does that length translate into quality, or does the book spend too long doing nothing?

The story follows several characters in their day to day lives in a Britain not too different from our own. Our chief character is Katie, who’s living with her non-binary ex, Nas, in a rented room with a washed up 90’s TV comedian whilst they wait for Nas’ visa application to be approved. Out of work and struggling to get by, Katie jumps from job opportunity to job opportunity, trying her hand in all kinds of fields, before scamming her way into being the personal tutor for the daughter of the wealthiest and most powerful woman in the country, tech billionaire Michelle.

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Michelle gets a lot of focus in the book too, as her tech company Arko is trying to push their new apps and tech whilst doing shady dealings with the government. Katie’s friend Emma also works at Arko, and is one of Michelle’s go to people. She gets landed with a special project whilst working to get their new social media app working right, where she has to babysit a strange new member of staff. All of the stories in Twelve Percent Dread move in and out of each other, intertwining until they become one larger narrative later on in the book.

For the most part, the book feels like a strange ‘slice of life’ type tale for a modern audience, where everyone is glued to their tech, people are struggling for work, and the world feels a bit like a capitalist hellscape that’s doing everything it can to grind you down into nothing (so nothing like modern Britain at all then). One of the biggest issues with the book, for me at least, is that it takes far too long for anything to actually start to happen. The book spends more than a hundred pages following the characters around, watching their daily lives, listening into meandering conversations, where nothing much really happens. Yes, stuff does happen later in the story, but I really struggled to feel encouraged to get to that point, as I kept wanting to put the book down as nothing happened over and over again.

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Another problem I had was that it was incredibly hard to connect with the characters and to know what was going on. Part of this was down to the really weird things that they said and did, and it wasn’t until I read the blurb later on that I realised the book was supposed to be a comedy. If that’s the case, it’s a form of humour that absolutely didn’t connect with me, and it ended up leaving me feeling like I was watching really weird people who say the most unusual things for no reason. The artwork also didn’t help with being able to connect with the characters. The art feels incredibly simple, and there’s very little detail to it. None of the characters are drawn as people, and are more crude approximations of what people are like. They have square, round, or triangular heads with two dot eyes and some lines for hair, and that’s it. A couple of the characters are more distinct because of hairstyles that are obviously theirs, but there are many times where the narrative jumps to another character and you just don’t know because the characters don’t really look that different. It often felt like reading a rough draft of the final book, with storyboard images rather than the final product; art that gives the general impression, but lacks any real depth.

I understand that the book has done well, and has garnered a lot of praise, and all I can say is that I must just not be the right reader for Twelve Percent Dread. And whilst I didn’t get on with it, and didn’t really enjoy it, that doesn’t mean that others won’t. So if you’re looking for a book that is very, very different from other graphic novels on the market, this is definitely one of them.

Twelve Percent Dread is out now from Dark Horse.

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