Maybe It Should Be Called Boob Saga Instead?
By Beth Hannan Rimmels
Sigh. Every time I think Image has learned how to be a little discreet or a little less tacky, something new comes out to prove me wrong.
Three months ago, Image Comics solicited Soul Saga with the following blurb: "A tale set in a world where scientific marvels clash with the myths of the ages. In the heart of the perilous Dreadlands, the captured Soul Blade has awakened, signaling the ancient prophecy of upheaval. Meanwhile, within the ranks of the Dominion military, an adventurous young soldier, Aries, embarks on a journey that will alter the course of his destiny and the fate of his world." Since I'm a huge SF/fantasy fan, I thought it sounded cool, so I ordered it.
The cover didn't thrill me when the issue arrived. While unbelievable, steroids-on-overdrive physiques are not exclusive to Image, such stylings are depressingly common there. The woman on the cover was even worse. Besides being a member of the "how does she stand up" brigade, her costume was so skimpy, it seemed an afterthought. She didn't even get the dignity of a thong, just a wisp of cloth dangling in front of her crotch. Still, I told myself it's a tough market. Books have to do anything they can to attract a buyer and deceptive or exaggerated covers are not exactly unknown in the comic book business.
Besides, scantily clad, large-breasted women don't automatically turn me off a book. I've explained before* that I actually like several books in the "T&A" category, but execution is everything. One title might simply reflect the artist's preference for busty women while another is exploitation. So, I ignored the cover and dove into the book.
The good news is the story is everything you'd expect from an epic fantasy adventure. The plot is promising, though it's too soon to tell if this will be a conventional fantasy tale or one with a few twists. The dialogue is smooth and credible. Too many fantasy characters sound like they're making pronouncements from on high. The cast of Soul Saga sound like real people. But the bad news is the art takes the term "gratuitous" to new levels.
Soul Saga starts the reawakening of the Soul Blade. There's very little explanation in regard to who is holding it and when, but this is a prelude to tease us into the story, and it does the job nicely with a darkly attractive two-page opening spread that conjures up memories of Robert E. Howard's harsh fantasy realms or Heavy Metal stories. Five pages later, we meet Aries, the title's hero, shortly before he himself meets his adopted family. Flashforward about 20 years when Aries and his siblings Marius and Katrina are members of the Dominion army fighting the Khan hordes. The bulk of the first issue focuses on a diplomatic mission to end the fighting, with Aries and Katrina part of the unit protecting Princess Persephone.
The art for the first six pages is fine. Moody, dark but believable within a fantasy context. The problems begin somewhat with page seven and start going rapidly downhill as of page 12. OK, I understand that epic fantasy heroes are larger than life but does every guy have to look like he would set off a small earthquake with every step? But even that I could understand, particularly since the first image of the adult Aries recalls some of Frank Frazetta's Conan the King paintings.
I don't mind half-naked women in fantasy stories either but when the first image presented of a princess/ambassador officially meeting her guards is an extreme close-up of huge, barely covered boobs, it's hard to consider it anything other than gratuitous. Yes, the Princess' appearance provokes some bickering between Aries and Katrina, but the nearly full-figure drawing of the Princess that follows the first image could have sufficiently prompted the exchange as well.
The book slips into exploitation four pages later when artist/cocreator Stephen Platt seems to be working very hard to squeeze two more extreme cleavage close-ups while setting up the ambush on the royal ship. It's almost surprising he didn't get a boob shot on every page considering his lack of subtly. I guess it's pointless to ask why a princess on such a crucial mission would be nearly naked? The exposition "...whose radiant beauty is only matched by her fierce independence" is probably supposed to cover that. I hate to break it to Platt and cowriter Christian Lichtner, but usually a woman as independent as the Princess is portrayed doesn't want to be a walking centerfold, regardless of how beautiful she is. The back cover is also ridiculous since it presents Kat (or at least it looks like Kat) in a costume as revealing as the Princess' even though in the first issue Kat is wearing armor like her brothers.
I mostly expect such stunts from lousy writers trying to use a smoke-and-mirrors routine to hide poor plotting or dull dialogue, but Platt and Lichtner seem to be capable at the very least. Only time will prove if their execution of Soul Saga is competent or excellent, so why cheapen it with women drawn in the worst fashion of the comic book stereotypes? I'm sure they could still easily attract the hormone-driven teenage boys while using a little discretion and not alienate other potential readers. Plus, they're making themselves a target for any high-strung parent who hates the fact that their teen reads comic books. Other beautiful women in comics, TV and film have had both male and female followings such as Wonder Woman, Xena, Buffy, Nikita, Shi and Catwoman, just to name a few. Why paint a bull's-eye on your back for no reason?
The irony is that Soul Saga #1 contains full-page ads for two other T&A books released by Image that don't bother me. Yes, Witchblade is equally notorious for revealing a lot of curvy skin, but thankfully Michael Turner isn't tacky enough to do extreme close-ups of boobs while the characters are talking (or if he has, I've missed those issues). And the ad for Fathom, also drawn by Turner, is practically demure next to Soul Saga even though it's clearly trading on appearance.
There was a bit of a flap some weeks ago when Jim Valentino sent a memo to the writers and artists at Image shortly after taking over as publisher from Larry Marder. The memo, which was leaked to the press, had two key points: Books should ship on time and gratuitous near nudity should be avoided. Valentino admitted that he had no direct control over titles produced by Image studios (and Soul Saga is a Top Cow release), and Soul Saga was probably too far along the production process to be affected by the directive anyway. Still, I hope that future issues are influenced by Valentino's suggestion that sometimes less is more.
Otherwise one day comics might have to ship in plain, brown wrappers.
Review © 2000 Beth Hannan Rimmels. Soul Saga and its artwork © 2000 Stephen Platt and Christian Lichtner. Fathom artwork © 2000 Michael Turner.