Friday, June 13, 2014

Salt City Strangers [#1, #2]: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A review for Salt City Strangers (#1 and #2). Credits at the end. 

Nutshell: The comic is about the latest incarnation of a team of superheroes defending Salt Lake City and, indeed, the whole world (because of Magic Stuff involving the transcontinental railroad that is actually kind of interesting). The series promises to deal with matters of faith (the Strangers range from Mormon-in-name-only to hardcore-believer) but has only barely begun to dip its toes in the water. Only time will tell if it can grow legs and live up to its potential.

Atmosphere: 1 out of 4. There's just no atmosphere at all, to be frank. They're here, and then they're there. They're in a graveyard, mmkay. And now they're in an office building, alright. But nothing about the environment or the dialogue really makes me feel anything about these places or what's going on. The exception is Trenchcoat Slim from the first issue, who is actually kind of creepy, minus the hammy dialogue. 

Characters: 2 out of 4. There's nothing bad about the protagonists but there's nothing really special about them either. It would be nice to know what powers everyone has if there isn't a reason for doling it out bit by bit. An exception, again, is the antagonist Trenchcoat Slim, who seems laughable in a couple of places but is clever in other places and 

Plot: 2 out of 4. There's nothing especially bad, but there's nothing new, either. Token guy wanting to disband the team because they're not perceived as useful anymore? Check. Infighting among the team members because of stress? Check. I would hesitate to put these before the spoiler tag but this is so much to be expected that I don't really see how it could surprise anyone. 

Writing Style: 1 out of 4. Not all of the writing is bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's average at best and there are plenty of places where the dialogue seems stilted. 

Worldbuilding: 2 out of 4. It's your average "dark spirits were close to ruling the world but were bound away, and now they're trying to break out" story. That said, I like the vampire, and I also really like that it appears that there's something tying together all of the fantastic elements of the series (in contrast to universes like DC and Marvel and their thousands of possible origins and frameworks and paradigms all trying and failing to mesh together properly). 

All ratings are on a scale of 0-4, 4 being incredible and almost literally beyond belief, 0 being so abysmal as to be the literary equivalent of a trainwreck, and 2 being average.

Details, details: [here there be spoilers]

Let me start by saying that I wanted to give this a string of 4s all across the board. For those who don't know, I'm a member of the LDS Church (recently returned from a two-year mission) and one of my niche interests is in fiction that takes the fantastic and asks "How would a Mormon react to this?" 

There is a dragon in your garage. How does this fit into your worldview, Mr. Mormon? 

You are now having an adventure in time and space.  If your
theology can't deal with this, then get a new one
because this is awesome
You are now a vampire. How does your theology shape your reaction to this, and how does your unlife now shape your theology? 

So I loved finding out about Salt City Strangers

First impressions... I have to say that I'm fond of the subtitle (supertitle?) on the cover: "Utah's Most Fricken Awesomest Heroes." I also like that Golden Spike is front and center on the cover, which tells us that he isn't going to be the token black guy. 

Unfortunately I can't say as much for Den Mother, who thus far is looking to be the token girl. She's the Den Mother, for crying out loud, which seems to play on the usual stereotype of Mormon women (they're all homemakers, so on and forth) than it bucks them. The other major aspect of her character at the moment is that she's being set up to be the Golden Spike's love interest.  

The dialogue can get pretty corny. I haven't adjusted the scores one way or another for that because it seems to me that the story is intentionally going for a Silver Age feel and if that's so then it does it pretty well. 

While it's a bit hard to tell because of the art style, that thing in Trenchcoat Slim's hand when he "calls" for reinforcements seems to be technological rather than magical, and I like that the forces of darkness aren't afraid to science it up. No conflict between magic and technology here! The Big Bad was going to use the transcontinental railroad to take over the world, too, so maybe we can expect further blending of magic and technology as the series progresses. 

Speaking of things that we might see as the series progresses, I hope that it eventually deals with some of the nitty-gritty of LDS theology. Does Golden Spike care that the LDS Church once espoused some racist doctrines? The website says that Son of Bigfoot is a sasquatch, so unless that's a very weird kind of human (it's listed under "race/nationality") then he isn't human. What does that mean to him, being a member of a Church that effectively says that humans are the highest creation of God? Does he interpret things more broadly than most members of the Church do, or is this a source of discomfort?

I have a lot of hope for the Gull, about whom very little is known. We don't know xir ethnicity or even xir sex or gender. Do the others members of the team know? The second issue implies that the Gull is the least devout of the team. Perhaps these things are linked, and the Gull doesn't fit the "your gender matches your sex, and you are attracted to members of the opposite sex" expectation that pervades a lot of the Church today. In light of what's going on in the Church today, I think that Salt City Strangers would have a lot to play with if it wanted to deal with the present climate. 

The Golden Spike got his title and powers from his father and the Big Bad thinks that if Golden Spike dies then he won't have a successor. This says to me that the legacy is tied to the bloodline, which means that the first Golden Spike was probably African American too, and seeing a black guy have to lead a team of superheroes in a pretty racist time and place is something that strikes me as more interesting as what's going on in the series right now. Hopefully this will change (and maybe we'll get some glimpses of the first Golden Spikes, too, since the series has proven itself willing to show events from such times). 

The issues are five dollars each, which strikes me as a little expensive. While the art quality improves drastically in the second issue it's still nowhere as good as What If? Age of Ultron, which is $3.99. Now, I don't expect Salt City Strangers to be, like, fifty cents or something, but either the writing or the art should be as good as the mainstream if you're going to list it at mainstream price, and both of them need to be better than average if you're going to charge even more than that. 

As the nutshell says, Salt City Strangers has a lot of potential, and I think that we should all have a little bit of patience as it learns to grow comfortable with itself. 

Salt City Strangers #1 was written by Chris Hoffman and Josh Butterfield, with covers, layouts, and lettering by Chris Hoffman and finishes by Sam Rodriguez. 

Salt City Strangers #2 was written by Chris Hoffman, Josh Butterfield, and Jeremy Gates, with cover, layouts, and lettering by Chris Hoffman, finishes by Soo D. Lee, and cover colors (for the Kickstarter version) by M. Woods. 

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