When they'd just started, Panel Syndicate1 was touted by some as the future of comics. This was in 2013, so I guess that now makes them the present of comics? People do read more and more comics on the web, but they seem to prefer to do it on webtoon platforms, where the successful material has more of a YA flavor to it. The kind of stuff you see on Panel Syndicate, genre material produced by some of the more familiar names in the direct market—a noir story written by Ed Brubaker, what will they think of next—isn’t very different from the type of books you can find at BOOM!, TKO, Image, AfterShock, Oni, Vault... I can go on for a while.
Their latest offering is literally an older work, originally published all the way back in 2004 on a Croatian website, and then printed in several languages over the years. Even at that time it probably would have been deemed backward-looking. This is, quite obviously, a tip of the hat (to say nothing of other items of clothing) to the sort of cheeky adventure strips you would find in the 1960s and 1970s - often starring a female protagonist to whom the description ‘nubile’ could be attached, who finds herself in all sorts of risky (and risqué) situations. Ok... I’m being overly complicated on purpose. It’s either Modesty Blaise, or one of her clones (likely drawn by John M. Burns).
It’s exactly the sort of thing I, as a dues-paying member of the comics criticism community, should resist on grounds of baseless nostalgia and shameless pandering. Which I would’ve done if Martine Moon #1, written by Darko Macan2 and drawn by Goran Sudžuka,3 wasn’t well-scripted, fun, and extremely good-looking. The series—this first digital issue collects two separate stories that can be read at any order or separately—stars the eponymous Martine, the sort of person who has a large number of associates all over the globe (a significant percentage of them probably ex, future and future ex lovers). Her day job is inherently vague (consider how many stories Tintin, a reporter, actually filed with his editor), leaving her enough time and money to get into all sorts of science fiction and fantasy-adjacent shenanigans.
The first story involves seemingly the entire population of world—or at least the United States—waking up with six-months’ worth of amnesia. A high concept like this could drag on for ages ‘til we reach a wholly unsatisfying answer, but Martine Moon wraps it up in less than 20 pages. The second story involved a frozen caveman and psychic powers, and is far sillier (not to mention hornier). While the series is styled after long-running adventure strips—and indeed the page layouts stick to formulaic three-panel horizontal tiers, stacked twice like a pair of dailies—it doesn’t succumb to their need to drag things out.
Is the series particularly clever or insightful? God, no. Does it pretend to be? Again, no. Like another shameless love of mine, Lobster Johnson, also drawn often by an able Croatian,4 Martine Moon works because the creators know exactly what they are here to deliver. The very first panel in the first story involves Martine getting out of bed, lovely in her lingerie, and the second panel finds her looking out of a window in manner clearly meant to evoke Frank Miller's infamous script direction to Jim Lee from All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder: “OK Jim, I’m shameless. Let’s go with an ASS SHOT.”
And you know what? It’s a massive improvement. Unlike Tegan, I wasn’t that big a Sudžuka fan going in. An able artist, to be certain, who could seemingly draw anything you threw at him and make it look easy. But his work never wowed me, was never quite a factor in making me get into something like his 2018-19 Garth Ennis collaboration A Walk Through Hell. Here he's like a man transformed.
It’s probably the black & white; modern coloring has this tendency to drown out the emotional resonance of the line in realistic textures, robbing them of their cartoonier elements. Or maybe its the steadiness, both in terms of style and scheduling, of the strip format. Martine Moon forces Sudžuka to focus not on layouts but the essential elements of each panel. And to draw the shit out of them. Look at the haircuts in these panels - I don’t usually pay that much attention character hair, but it's a pretty great way of visually defining upwards of four completely different characters in a tight space in a purely visual manner. It’s the most attractive work I’ve seen by Sudžuka, and I can only pray we'll get to see more of it in English.
Macan knows how to utilize Sudžuka’s particular set of skills - not just in drawing the female form, but also in selling light comedy. The first story has a running gag of Martine constantly correcting people who try to address her as "Ma’am" (“It’s 'Miss'”), which Macan manages to introduce, develop and wrap up in a manner that makes it feel as if it’s been around for ages - just a natural part of a long-running adventure strip.
And I think that’s why I like Martine Moon so. Because it feels natural and honest. This sort of retro-style storytelling has had a resurgence of late (I wrote about about Rich Tommaso's Black Phoenix Magazine not long ago), but often with a wink and a self-aware nod that makes it impossible to connect to anything on an emotional level. But Martine Moon is so old school it hasn’t even heard of winks and nods. If there jokes to be made—about the horniness of the strip, about the inexplicable work life of the protagonist, about the odd SF twists—it allows the readers to make them. Martine Moon ploughs onwards, as self-assured as its protagonist. So old, it’s new again.
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- The house Marcos Martín, Muntsa Vicente & Brian K. Vaughan built, offering pay-what-you-want downloads of exclusive comics with all proceeds going to the creators.
- Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in ages. Those of a particular generation still swear up and down by his Soldier X run at Marvel in 2002-03, though you’ll need a crowbar, or at least Frank Quitely, to make me care about an X-Men spin-off; still, based on the evidence here, I’ll assume he’s one of these talented non-Americans that Marvel wasted by underutilizing and badly applying his skills.
- TCJ’s own Tegan O’Neil already summed him up better then I could: “...one of those tremendously talented Croatian artists who crossed the Atlantic in the late '90s to seek their fortune in American comics.”
- Tonči Zonjić, incidentally, is also credited on the Croatian print edition, although he is not present in this issue.