Sara by Ennis & Epting

Every day I am hit with news that another comic book property has been licensed to a film studio, or that a television network has been developing a graphic novel adaptation, or that Netflix has turned a relatively obscure webcomic into a streamable big-budget feature starring Mads Mikkelsen. So forgive me, TKO Studios, for being a tad cynical about your motivations. I’ve railed in recent months about the output from numerous independent publishers: books and mini-series that appear to be nothing more than snazzy storyboards at best and, at worst, poorly executed treatments tailor-made for pitching a TV deal. I don’t want to read your script, I’m not going to greenlight a pilot, and I’m tired of folks treating comics like a shortcut to Hollywood. I want to read good comics that know they’re comics by top-notch creators who know the medium.

With the release of their first four books, TKO Studios may have silenced my fears and given me exactly what I wanted.

TKO Studios seeks to redefine the comic book industry creatively and commercially.

TKO Studios was founded by award-winning comic book, entertainment, business and tech professionals. We create unique takes on established genres, promoting diverse and exciting voices that reflect the modern audience.

Our aim is to publish high quality books and expand the comic book audience using modern methods of marketing, distribution, and audience engagement. We proudly offer the premier issue of each new miniseries available for free digital download.

Those are bold claims, but, judging by this initial release, and the efforts made to disrupt the traditional comics publishing and distribution system, TKO seems poised to deliver. The first four titles are all six-issue mini-series, simultaneously offered digitally, in collected trade, or in a collector’s boxset of individual issues. If word made it to your Local Comics Shop (as it should have; TKO has a tenacious marketing department), then copies of said books should be on shelves this week despite not being solicited by or sold through Diamond. You’ll know if they are — these comics stand out. And not just because of the oversized format.

Sara, by Garth Ennis and Steve Epting, with colors by Elizabeth Breitweiser, from its arresting cover through its stunning layouts to its compelling story, is everything you’d expect from creators of this caliber. The book takes place in the Soviet Union during the Nazi occupation of 1942-1943, and centers on the deployment of a team of women snipers on their homeland’s eastern front, repelling the invaders with steely precision and iron resolve.

Ennis, of course, knows his way around a combat narrative. The story is as much an action-packed war comic as it is a fierce examination of patriotism and loyalty. The titular character, Sara, is the most accomplished of the sharpshooters, and it is her struggle — both against the fascists who threaten from without and the shadowy government whose plots subvert from within — that drives the plot. And it is her skill behind a rifle scope that elevates Sara to legend and brings her into the sights of an equally deadly Nazi sniper.

Epting is no stranger to this genre either, having most recently built a memorable Cold War-tinged Captain America epic with Ed Brubaker in which they introduced the Winter Soldier. He’s a master storyteller in any genre, but the wonderfully paced layouts and crisp linework, as comfortable with explosive action sequences as they are with emotionally charged facial expressions, highlight Epting’s wheelhouse. Breitweiser’s colors bring out the stark beauty of the setting, and every page, beautifully printed in this oversized format, is gorgeous.

It’s important to note the conspicuous absence of superhero material in TKO’s first eight releases. As much as I love the capes n’ tights tales, I admire any publisher committed to embracing the ability of comics to tackle any genre successfully, and resist being pigeonholed by a popular culture that has made it increasingly difficult to separate the medium from its most popular product. They remind me a lot of the early days of the Paradox Press imprint; those guys, before they stuck to churning out Big Books of Clowns and Bananas and Natural Disasters or whatever the hell those Barnes & Noble bestsellers were, published a number of quality works of fiction in the comics form. (Granted, a few of those did become movies, but that never seemed to have been the intention from the start.)

Another title in TKO’s initial release, Goodnight Paradise, by Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli, and Giulia Brusco, is also highly recommended. The book is an incredible look at homelessness, gentrification, and modern vice, woven into a tightly-paced murder mystery. The focal character, Eddie, is a homeless man in Venice Beach who discovers the murdered body of a teenage runaway. His struggle to bring the killer to justice, fighting against pressures both psychological and societal, is moving and powerful. It takes place in Venice, but as a lifelong resident of San Francisco, whose homeless crisis is likely second only to southern California’s, I appreciate how this comic helps shine a humanizing light on a facet of my community that I still struggle to understand.

January 23 | Weekly Buzz | February 6