Before diving into the comic book series you should read each month, I'd like to introduce a new component of Science-Fiction Weekly: The Golden Grok, an award given to the best new video game release. The word “grok” comes from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land; a Martian verb meaning “to drink” or “to understand” or “to experience enjoyment,” among other things.
This week’s Golden Grok goes to Paradox Development Studios for Stellaris. Set in the year 2200, Stellaris is as much an engaging "4X" strategy game as it is a fascinating exploration of the universe. Diplomacy and war erupt among the stars, but the big pull that keeps me coming back for more is the element of discovery and the fear and anticipation of exploring the unknown. This gameplay hook unfolds in numerous ways, such as traveling to different stars to see what kind of life or resources are there, or investing in technology to better my species' capabilities in ways I couldn't even begin to fathom from the outset of play. Politics, trade arrangements, and mineral collecting all come into play in Stellaris – an excess of micromanaging that can be daunting at times – but Paradox did a fantastic job of streamlining the experience and making the pressing matters the central focus. Fans of Star Control and Master of Orion shouldn't hesitate in diving into this alien-infested universe. For a more detailed breakdown of Stellaris' gameplay and lasting appeal, check out Ben Reeves’ review.
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Stellaris pays homage to many of the tropes that has shaped science fiction throughout the yeras. It's fun universe to explore, but it's a familiar one, especially if you consume a healthy dose of science fiction each year. To see the universe expand in ways you wouldn't expect, I highly recommend you read Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ brilliant monthly comic book series. Vaughn says the series is inspired by Star Wars, but outside of it being flush with aliens and a kick-ass bounty hunter, I don't see the connection. To me, Saga’s story is more Shakespearean in design, focusing intimately on two core characters, two lovers, Alana and Marko, who are engaged in a forbidden love much like Romeo and Juliet. Marko and Alana are from different worlds, and their people have long been at war with each other. Alana is from Landfall, a huge and prosperous planet, and Marko is from Wreath, Landfall’s only satellite, and a world governed by magic.
That's all you should know of Saga prior to reading it. Go in as blindly as you can. Through the series’ 30-plus issues, I continually find myself thinking “I’ve never read anything like this before,” or “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Just knowing the setup and key plot points can strip the wonder from this beautifully penned tale. Saga isn't just one of the best science-fiction comics out there, it’s one of the best comic books period. From what Vaughan has been saying, this story is still young, and will change through the years, but as it is now, it's one of the all-time greats for the medium. I put it up there with Transmetropolitan, Preacher, The Dark Knight Returns, and Y: The Last Man (another of Vaughan's books). One final word about Saga: It explores adult themes and imagery. Keep the kids away from it.
Writer Rick Remender, who was recently celebrated as one of the best writers of Marvel’s X-Men books, is currently at the top of his game with two different stories he’s penning for Image Comics. The best of the bunch is Low, a look at life in a distant future when the sun expands to a red giant and Earth’s surface is no longer habitable. Man now presides in the sea. The art by Greg Tocchini is abstract, stunning, and the perfect vehicle for this captivating story. Be warned: Like Saga, Low is loaded with adult themes and nudity. I know this is a weird thing to keep calling out, but hey, I'm a dad.
I’m also enjoying the hell out of Remender’s Tokyo Ghost. If you’re wondering what a society addicted to entertainment and social media would be like, this book gives us a fun and surprisingly violent look at that world, set in the year 2089. You’ll also see the Atari 2600 and NES controllers used in a clever way in the first issue. Sean Murphy’s framing of the action (and gore) is another selling point for each issue.
If you enjoy both of these books, Remender’s Black Science is also worth a look, especially if you are intrigued by the odd mashup of Lost in Space meets Sliders meets Lost. Even if you have no interest in this book, do yourself a favor and check out the wild cover art adorning each issue (you can see one in the gallery below).
One of my favorite writers, Jeff Lemire, who I plan on cursing for all of eternity for leaving Animal Man behind at DC, is currently writing Descender. I’m not crazy about the art in this book, but the story of a young android boy fighting for life in a hostile society has been wonderful so far. It reminds me of the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, but with intimacy and heart. I know I’m giving Image a ton of love here, but the publisher deserves it. Even Brian K. Vaughan’s strange We Stand on Guard is fantastic. He's somehow made Canadians look heroic. In this story, Canada is invaded by a robot army led by the United States of America. I know, it sounds dumb, but give it two issues before you make up your mind. Vaughan is clearly having fun with this one.
Marvel Comics’ science-fiction books are often overshadowed by the superhero and mutant titles, but the current runs in some of the various Guardians of the Galaxy titles are worth a look, especially if you like the movie (yes, it reminds me more of the movie than the previous comic book series). The flagship title Guardians of the Galaxy (led by the great Brian Michael Bendis) is off to a hell of a start, and you should still be able to find the first issue at your comic shops, if you read the physical versions. Do I think Thing, Venom, and Kitty Pride are odd additions to the team? I did initially, but I like how Bendis handles each character. Pride's relationship with Star-Lord is the beating heart of the book so far. The ancillary Star-Lord, Groot, and Rocket Raccoon & Groot series accompany the main series remarkably well, and are vehicles for backstories and character building. I sadly cannot say the same about Drax, Guardians of Infinity, and Venom: Space Knight. Avoid those three series.
Game Informer’s Matt Miller also reads a few Marvel series that I don’t have the time or dollar for, and says that Silver Surfer and The Ultimates are both worth your time. While Guardians of the Galaxy continues its excellent run of harebrained, edge-of-your-seat action, The Ultimates is the more cerebral sci-fi book in Marvel’s universe, which sees a particularly diverse group of scientists and superheroes pushing against the boundaries of the universe and knowledge.
As much as I love DC Comics – my go-to for superhero books – I recommend avoiding all of the publisher’s titles until June, when Rebirth begins. Rebirth is a soft universe reboot in a sense, offering a new jumping on point for readers with most series starting at number one. Of the sci-fi titles in Rebirth, Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps is the highest on my anticipation list (mostly for the Ethan Van Sciver art), and Justice League is also piquing my interest with the promise of a cosmos-spanning story about a dead world.
Speaking of avoiding things, do yourself a favor and steer clear of Marvel’s Star Wars titles as well. I know people love them, but they often make me cringe. Most of the writers on these books go well out of their way to make the universe as small as possible, often pitting famed characters against each other in battle. The only Star Wars title that I even remotely enjoy is Star Wars: Obi-Wan & Anakin. It brings back the fun vibe of The Clone Wars, which I'm surprised I missed. The other licensed comic that has been consistently fun is IDW's Transformers. After bouncing around with a wide variety of different takes on Transformers' lore, the publisher has settled into a groove with the latest stories.
And that's going to do it for the comic talk in this week's edition. I'd love to hear your thoughts (and picks) in the comments section below. From here on in I'm diving into big Star Wars SPOILERS and leaks. Read on at your own risk. If you don't want to know anything about Star Wars: Episode VIII's potential plot, you should stop reading now.
As Star Wars: Episode VIII's filming continues at Ireland's Malin Head and England's Pinewood Studios, people have spied a couple of interesting developments, including what appears to be scenes involving the mysterious Knights of Ren. The Knights were shown briefly in Rey's Force-powered vision, and were mentioned briefly by Snoke, but Disney has gone out of its way to avoid discussing or showing these characters again. Are the Knights still running with Kylo Ren? We'll have to wait to see. The report from Making Star Wars sheds some light on the Knights' actions for this one scene, and it sounds like all hell is breaking loose. Some fans even speculate that Rey's vision wasn't a flashback, but a look into the future. I don't know if I believe Disney set this scene up as something we'd see in the next movie, but it is odd that the Knights aren't in any of the merchandise from Force Awakens. Those toys would sell like mad, and almost everyone in the film has been turned into one by now.
One of the sets at Pinewood prominently features a dead tree, which may seem like ordinary set dressing at first glance, but fans believe it's the same tree from Marvel's Star Wars: Shattered Empire comic book. In this story, Luke is searching for the remains of a tree that once grew in the Jedi temple on Coruscant. The Force flowed through this tree and held great meaning, but we don't yet know the reasons why. Luke eventually located what he was looking for – two saplings born of the original tree. Luke kept one of the saplings. He handed the second to Shara Bey and Kes Dameron. They planted their tree on Yavin 4. Luke took his to an undisclosed location. It'll be interesting to see if the tree pictured in the set leaks is the one Luke took.
And that concludes week two of Science-Fiction Weekly. Please leave your feedback in the comments section below, but refrain from Star Wars spoiler talk if possible. See you in seven days!