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Author: MichaelPenkas

Dark Orbits

Dark Orbits

Space vampires!

Barbarian babes!

Psychedelic murder!

Dark Orbits is an animated science fiction series brimming with so many ideas that a rift had to be opened to another universe just to make room for them all. The only thing more amazing than the fact that this whole series is apparently produced by one person is the number of Youtube views it’s garnered. And by that I mean … way too few. Seriously, the first episode, Arrival, hasn’t even broken the 1,000 mark. The number of subscribers hasn’t even broken the 500 mark.

And this is absolutely the sort of show I’ve wanted to see for years. There are shades of Aeon Flux, Ralph Bakshi, and 1981’s Heavy Metal in every episode. What’s it about? Like Aeon Flux, the series is largely dialogue-free, leaving the viewer to work out exactly what’s going on. But basically, a rift in spacetime has been opened near an alien planet. Ships drawing too close to the rift encounter … strangeness. Meanwhile, inhabitants on the planet’s surface have to deal with all of these bizarre visitors.

Like Heavy Metal, there are several different stories and each episode focuses on either the spaceship crew sent to investigate the rift, the primitive pseudo-Amazon tribes on the planet’s surface, or what appear to be several different alien vampire cults vying for hosts. After ten episodes, there are hints of how the stories are connected, making it a series that rewards repeat viewing.

As for the animation, I have trouble believing that this series was done by one person, since the quality is consistently high. The animation style lends itself to action-focused storylines with bizarre alien creatures. Nothing is meant to look realistic and the plot, music, and animation come together to give the whole thing a dreamy, trippy vibe.

If you just want a taste, check out the promo trailer. The whole series (ten episodes at the time of this article) can be viewed back to back in less than an hour’s time. While it’s free on Youtube, you can also support the creator through Patreon. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Mage: The Hero Denied 14

Mage: The Hero Denied 14

Mage 14So we’re down to the penultimate issue of the entire Mage trilogy. Obviously, I’m not expecting any big reveals until the very last issue, so this one is just going to let things simmer just a little bit further until the boil.

We begin with the reveal that Magda and Hugo did NOT kill a Gracklethorn last issue, instead just knocking her out. When two of her sisters find her, they set her free, then start squabbling about what to do about their prisoners escaping. Their argument is interrupted when Karol walks in holding the Fisher King.

The scene shifts to Hugo and Magda walking through a cavern. Magda mentions that the doorway they entered through disappeared, so they can’t go back the way they came. She then reasons that “it had an entrance, which means that it has to have an exit as well.” And while that’s not technically true, she’s likely just saying that to calm her son. Up next, Hugo sees a troll with his magic glasses and knocks it off a cliff with a magic light bulb before it can sneak up on his mother. Before they can go any further, Magda’s wedding ring lights up, which apparently signifies that it’s detected Kevin nearby.

We cut to a scene of Kevin holding Excalibur, which suggests that the Magda’s ring didn’t detect him so much as detect the ignition of his magic. After killing what looks like the entire Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, Kevin is asked by Mirth if he’s all right. It’s at this point that Kevin mentions (for I believe the first time in this series) that his hands sometimes hurt after he uses his power. Mirth explains that, while Kevin’s power continues to grow, it will become more than he can handle. As Kevin, Mirth, and Miranda continue through the caves, we see the little imp hiding behind a rock, observing them.

Cut back to the Fisher King, who explains that he’s finally come out of hiding so that he can bear witness to the “moment of confluence.” He does a whole nine-panel spread of shape-shifting to show that he can assume a variety of forms and a variety of names and that none of them really matter. Olga is about to kill him, when Karol reminds her that the Umbra Sprite needs him alive for the ritual. This is the ritual that the Umbra Sprite has been planning since the very beginning of Hero Discovered. Of course, at this point, the Gracklethorns have no idea where their mother is or how to reach her.

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Mage: The Hero Denied #13

Mage: The Hero Denied #13

Mage The Hero Defined 13-small“Remember, Kevin, in the world of magic … things aren’t always as they seem!”

That’s a line from Mirth in this latest issue. This time, I’ll talk about what we see in this issue (spoilers), as well as what I think is really going on (double spoilers).

So, it opens with Mirth appearing before Kevin and Miranda, telling them that his power has been greatly reduced as Kevin’s power has grown. All he can do at this point is guide them to the Umbra Sprite’s lair and advise them along the way.

Meanwhile, Magda and Hugo are still wandering through the Umbra Sprite’s lair when they are approached by one of the Gracklethorns. This one is taken out rather easily with a can of magic hairspray. And by “taken out,” I mean killed, because Magda tells her son that they have to hide the body before they move on. They choose to hide in a closet and re-think their strategy, but the closet door that Magda opens leads into a vast cavern complex.

Back to Kevin and Mirth, with two pages of dialogue that I think gives away the game. Kevin mentions that Mirth’s hair has gone from white to black again, assuming that he has finally recovered from being trapped in a bank teller machine way back in the first series. Mirth mentions that the bandages that cover his legs (or specifically the spaces where his legs once were) are now also covering his arms, as he’s acquired new scars. He then ridicules Kevin for thinking that his one bat-strike against the Umbra Sprite in the second volume could have done anything more than annoy it.

Eventually, Mirth is able to dispel the illusion that hides the Umbra Sprite’s tower. Kevin manages to defeat a two-headed acid-spewing dragon and then Kevin, Mirth, and Miranda make their way into the cavern at the base of the tower. Of course, the caverns that they enter at the bottom of the tower look similar to the caverns that Magda and Hugo enter near the top of the tower, implying that they’ll meet each other somewhere in these caverns, probably next issue. It’s also significant that we see the imp hiding behind a rock, observing Kevin, Mirth, and Miranda.

The issue ends with Karol Gracklethorn, working in a rescue mission in her human guise, being approached by a one-legged hippie who announces that he is the Fisher King and that he knows she’s been looking for him. And that’s the issue.

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Mage: The Hero Denied 12

Mage: The Hero Denied 12

Mage 12Before we begin this review, you might still be on the fence about whether or not to even start reading this series. If so, there’s a list of eight great reasons to start the series, with number 7 being the very best of them.

The way this last mini-series has been set up is that Matt Wagner will release four monthly issues, take a one-month break, release four more monthly issues, then another one-month break, four more monthly issues, a one-month break, then the final three issues. While this process allows everyone involved a bit more breathing room when putting out a regular series, it also ends up creating three extra-special cliffhangers. What that means for issue 12 is that we’re getting to the last special cliffhanger of the series before Matt Wagner finally powers through to the big finale.

It opens with Magda and Hugo stuck on a platform, being attacked by snake women. Last issue, we saw Magda’s Mary Poppins umbrella trick. This issue, we see her Penguin umbrella trick as she uses it as a gun to melt two of them before another one destroys it.

Meanwhile, the Umbra Sprite takes a dip in her pool of darkness in order to gather even more power, stating that “The Three” MUST be united for the plan to work. Of course, she still has no idea about who exactly composes “The Three,” although she’s fairly sure that Kevin and the Fisher King are two of them. Before submerging, she essentially places Karol in charge, warning her that “Sasha is a vain and vapid creature” and “Zophia (is) a slave to her own cruelty.” She then informs her most trusted daughter that all four of the remaining Gracklethorns must be prepared to fight and likely to die in the coming struggle. Given that she murdered one of her daughters in the previous issue, there’s no doubt that the Umbra Sprite is prepared to sacrifice all of them to achieve her goals. It’s also clear that the daughters so fear the Umbra Sprite that they’re willing to die rather than defy her.

Elsewhere, Kevin and Miranda are pursuing the mysterious imp. Despite knocking down some trees, Kevin loses not only the imp, but also the Questing Beast, who slips through a magic portal, sealing the portal behind itself. Even worse than losing their quarry, the magic mirror that Isis gave Kevin to stay in touch with Magda has been cracked.

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Mage: The Hero Denied 11

Mage: The Hero Denied 11

Mage The Hero Denied 11-smallSo a lot of The Hero Denied seems to concern the dual identities that parents need to maintain, but which far too many don’t. And yeah, like so much of the series that’s gone before, we’re going to start by talking about fairies and magic, but we’ll soon find that we’re talking about our actual lives. If I seemed down on this third part of the Mage series early on, it’s because Kevin Matchstick seemed to be setting up a false choice between fatherhood or adventure. He didn’t have a job, didn’t seem to do a hell of a lot with his kids beyond picking them up from school, and basically spent a lot of his time wandering around aimlessly. His wife would nag about his going off on adventures when he should be attending parent-teacher conferences. His kids were little more than vulnerable targets for monsters whom he would eventually resent.

But with the kidnapping of Magda and Hugo, the dual identities of father and hero have finally come together. Kevin’s finally seeing that he’s raised a couple of amazing kids. We even get a glimmer this issue of the wonderful, horrible truth that most parents eventually realize: his children will one day be able to look out for themselves and won’t need him any longer. And rather than treating his wife like a damsel in distress, Kevin is confident that Magda will be able to take care of herself and their son. Basically, Kevin’s gone from seeing his family as targets to seeing them as allies. Powerful allies. His roles of hero and father aren’t meant to be a choice, but rather complement one another.

So this issue opens with Magda sending her purple flying cat familiar, Cleo, off into the vertigo chamber that lies outside their penthouse prison. The familiar is charged with finding an exit. While that’s going on, Magda shows Hugo all of the magic items that she’s managed to cobble together. The scene is very reminiscent of Q showing off gadgets to 007. There are exploding light bulbs, a hairdryer gun, invisibility hats, and spider-walking sneakers. I’m sure it’s significant that Magda paints lightning bolts on the sneakers, signaling that Hugo is taking on an aspect of his father.

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Mage: The Hero Denied 10

Mage: The Hero Denied 10

Mage 10So I might have sold Isis short last issue.

For those of you who are new to the Mage series … honestly, this is a terrible place to jump on. We’re two thirds of the way through the final volume of the trilogy. Stop reading and go pick up Mage: The Hero Discovered. You’ll be a better person for it.

Anyway, during my critique of last issue, I was a bit harsh towards Isis, Magda’s sister. Basically, Kevin informed her that Magda had been kidnapped and that he needed someone to watch his daughter, Miranda, while he went to rescue her. At the time, not only doesn’t Isis offer to help Kevin rescue her sister, but she can’t even be bothered to watch Miranda, meaning that she’d rather have her niece face off against a pack of demons than take time from her spell transcription work to babysit.

However, in issue #10, we see that Kevin has stopped leaving Miranda in the car while he goes adventuring. Instead, he’s bringing her along to help him suss out magical threats. Sure, he’s still the one doing the fighting, but Miranda is definitely helping out. So I’m wondering if Isis deliberately turned Miranda away, knowing that she would be able to help Kevin. As we’ve seen in past volumes, Kevin isn’t always that good at teamwork. I guess when you’re nigh-invulnerable, you might see other people as little more than targets that need protecting. And we’ve already seen how much Kevin is surprised by his daughter’s resourcefulness, so there’s probably an issue of him not believing that she could help him. So Kevin would never choose to take his daughter with him on an adventure, but if he had no choice …

This issue opens with Magda trying and failing to contact help from outside her penthouse prison. Meanwhile, Hugo is staring into a bottomless pit that lies beyond the door to that prison. We’ve actually seen this same setup in the Styx Casino way back in Hero Discovered. But unlike Kevin, Hugo has no fear of heights, so he spends a lot more time staring into the abyss, eventually noticing that there are vague creatures flittering around in it.

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Mage: The Hero Denied #9

Mage: The Hero Denied #9

Mage-9-smallSo there’s a weird thing that happens in superhero comics after they’ve been running for a while. No matter what sort of superhero we’re dealing with, how weak or powerful, eventually we start to see stories that begin with someone attacking them out of the blue, followed by the hero trying to figure out what’s happening. This happens even more often with superhero teams, since they tend to have publicly known headquarters. While these are sometimes set up as stories of revenge for some past defeat, more often it’s something along the lines of, “The hero is going to stop my evil plan, so before I even start the evil plan, I’m going to take out the hero.” Strangely, after the villain fails to take out the hero, they’ll just go ahead with the plan anyway. But in almost all of those stories, the hero wouldn’t even have KNOWN there was an evil plan if they hadn’t been attacked.

Kevin Matchstick is semi-retired at the start of Hero Denied. He has no idea that the Umbra Sprite has set up a new operation. He’s raising his kids and doing nothing that will cross his path with the Umbra Sprite. He’s not even looking for the Fisher King. Really, he doesn’t start moving until he’s attacked. And even then, he’s basically flailing about with no real focus until his wife and son are kidnapped.

So if the Umbra Sprite had just left Kevin Matchstick alone, he wouldn’t be coming after her. He wouldn’t even have known that anything was going on. Which I suppose is a lesson in how we often make bigger problems for ourselves by overthinking situations.

The issue opens with Kevin and Miranda driving through Fairy Land. Kevin’s got a dozen baseball bats in the backseat, ready to get charged up. I’m not sure how we’re meant to take that fact. On the one hand, it could mean that Kevin’s just getting ready for a lot of fighting. But since he can basically charge any object with magic energy, there is the question of why he’s chosen only to pack baseball bats instead of an assortment of weapons. Or why he doesn’t continue the habit he’s developed in the first half of this series of using improvisation to charge up whatever’s around. It might just be that he’s grasping for something familiar and comfortable as his world is torn apart.

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Mage: The Hero Denied #8

Mage: The Hero Denied #8

Mage The Hero Denied 8-smallSo I’m starting work on my review for Mage: The Hero Denied #9, when I realize that, while I wrote a rather lengthy review of issue #8, I never got around to posting it. Expect the next review in the next week or so.

See the previous reviews in this series here.

Being a fifteen-issue series, issue #8 is obviously the halfway point for the story and as such we expect it to be something of a turning point. And while some parts of the story are very predictable for a mid-point chapter, this issue did manage to surprise me a few times. The two starting points are Magda waking up in the villains’ lair and Kevin facing the ogre that trashed his house. Magda gets the stereotypical James Bond treatment, where her enemy sets her up in a luxury suite and promises to provide her with every comfort before killing her. And Kevin gets pummeled by a monster. But then both story threads go in unexpected directions.

It starts with the way that Kevin handles the ogre. His focus here is on finding his family and since killing the ogre won’t help him in that goal, he refuses to fight back. The result is that the ogre starts tossing him around while Kevin just keeps asking where his family’s been taken. This isn’t the strike-first and ask-questions-later approach that we expect from Kevin. It’s the tactic of a more responsible hero who is controlling his rage so that he can achieve a more important goal than just defeating the monster.

The scene switches to Magda demanding to see her children. And here we see another parallel between Magda and the Umbra Sprite. She’s told that the Umbra Sprite values her daughters as much as Magda values her children. She’s then reunited with Hugo. And we’re left to wonder what’s happened to Miranda.

Back to Kevin, who continues to get pummeled by the monster, refusing to fight back until his questions are answered. But then he discovers that only Hugo and Magda were captured. Miranda is hiding in the rubble. Once he realizes that his daughter is there and could be harmed, he makes very quick work of the ogre, revealing that he could have easily killed the monster at any time.

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Mage: The Hero Denied #7

Mage: The Hero Denied #7

Mage 7As promised, one Mage review is delivered right on the heels of the other one. Starting off, Kevin is still on the trail of the Questing Beast. He can see the Beast’s footprints thanks to some magic eye-drops that he got from a magic pot dealer last issue. When he finally catches up with it, he sees the Questing Beast communicating with a little devil-child (he calls it an “imp”). The imp and the Beast dash off just as the eye drops wear out, leaving Kevin nauseous and vomiting in a public waste bin.

Meanwhile, Magda is trying to shrug off the advances of the school superintendent, only to find out too late that he’s an incubus in disguise. It’s interesting that the succubi dress in little more than nylon body stockings, while the incubi seem to prefer tailored suits. Whatever draws the eye, I guess. Unfortunately, he recognizes her as Kevin’s wife (no idea how) and reports to the Umbra Sprite that he’s captured her.

By the time Kevin wakes up the next morning, his wife and daughter have been kidnapped. He arrives just in time to see his son lured onto a school bus with dozens of redcaps. While various monsters come and go throughout all three volumes of this series, the redcaps have been around since near the beginning and seem to be the go-to beasties when a villain just needs a nasty little army to do a quick and dirty job.

The issue ends with a green ogre destroying Kevin’s house.

So, in this issue, Kevin’s wife and children are kidnapped by the Umbra Sprite and his house is destroyed. Kirby’s dead and Joe’s made it clear that he won’t be helping on any further adventures. Kevin still has no idea about the third Mage’s identity. He has no home, no allies, and no idea what to do next. If he could put his ego aside, he would go to Magda’s two witch sisters (last seen in volume two) and ask for their help. But I’ve got a feeling that he’s going to try handling things alone.

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Mage: The Hero Denied #6

Mage: The Hero Denied #6

Mage 6So I picked up issue 7 of Mage this week and realized that I’d never gotten around to reviewing issue 6, so expect another review to follow this one very soon.

Issue 5 ended with Kevin and Joe spotting the Questing Beast. Upon seeing the pair, the Beast takes off. Kevin tells Joe that he’s got to follow it. Kevin thinks that the Questing Beast could show him the way to the Fisher King. Joe’s response is that he’s out of this whole hero/quest thing and then leaving.

When Kevin gets home, he finds Magda waiting up for him. What follows is an argument that touches on some things that I’ve been going on about in earlier reviews. We learn that Kevin hasn’t had a regular job since he was twenty-two years old and that he’s been relying on that magic debit card for most of his adulthood. No idea how that sort of thing generates enough money for them to afford houses without anyone asking where the money comes from … unless everyone just assumes that Kevin is a drug dealer. The fact that Kevin hasn’t really used his powers to help anyone in this volume of the series, only fending off monsters that have come looking for him, makes Magda seem less like a killjoy and more like a wise friend offering good advice. On top of that, we’ve seen that Joe’s given up adventuring with no ill effects, while Kirby’s dedication to adventuring eventually got him killed.

Meanwhile, the Umbra Sprite is testing the city’s resident handicapped population to see if any of them are the Fisher King in disguise. Of course, the “test” involves opening a handbag full of flying piranhas on them. Anyone whom the flying piranhas (OK, she calls them Sluagh Sidhe) DON’T eat is the Fisher King. Needless to say, this ends with a lot of bone piles and no Fisher King. While the plan of setting up shelters in order to look for the Fisher King makes sense, we understand as readers that he likely won’t be found in such a conventional, undramatic fashion, so these interludes are mostly excuses to show the various grisly acts that the Umbra Sprite and her Gracklethorns are willing to commit.

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