Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
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Zodiac Starforce #1 from Dark Horse Comics is a nostalgic romp into the Magical Girl genre. Plucking inspiration from Sailor Moon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and 1980s Saturday morning cartoons, writer Kevin Panetta and artist Paulina Ganucheau (with color assists by Savannah Ganucheau) put an interesting spin on the genre by focusing on slightly weightier subject matter. While more upbeat Magical Girl titles like Boom Studios’ Power Up focus on quirky characterizations and endearing, highly stylized designs, Zodiac Starforce is more inclined to use tried-and-true tropes to observe the ramifications of the heroic lifestyle.
Zodiac Starforce #1 follows Emma, Kim, Savanna, and Molly, four magical teenagers sworn to protect the planet against evil creatures. They’re lead by Astra, a magical entity who grants them abilities, and draw their names and powers from astrology akin to Sailor Moon. Despite Marguerite Sauvage’s dynamic cover, the series begins two years after the Starforce disbanded, following the defeat of their nemesis Cimmeria. Now the heroes are resuming normal lives as team leader Emma continues to deal with the loss of her mother, presumably at the hands of Cimmeria. When a monster attack in the school library and the case of a missing girl brings the team back together, the girls must help Emma overcome her pain to save the day once again.
While Zodiac Starforce starts off strong, it stumbles a bit in the middle. The opening monster fight is well-paced and does well to show the shock of losing her mother has affected Emma, setting up her reluctance even as Kim insists they get the team back together. Likewise the closing sequence of Emma, Kim, Savanna, and Molly coming back together as a team is another highpoint, both in terms of visual storytelling and characterization. The writing is at its best when the team is working together. Overall, Panetta delivers a solid script, but the house party scene that comprises the bulk of the narrative is uneven.
Top heavy with 80s pop culture references and high school movie clichés, it reads as oddly out of date for the otherwise contemporary settings. The character designs, largely influenced by 80s cartoons aesthetics, reflect this attempt to play with nostalgia, but the end result just doesn’t quite land right. It reads a bit too much like a Buffy clone for its own good before catching back up to the strength of its opening scene. Hopefully this will resolve itself in coming issues as the title finds its own stride beyond simple pastiche. There’s interesting stuff here; it’s just overwhelmed by one-liners and outdated references.
Fortunately Ganucheau’s artwork is robust enough to make up for these nostalgic misfires. Zodiac Starforce’s candy-colored world is warm and inviting, with well-defined character designs and flamboyant palettes. A glossy, almost effervescent polish makes each character sparkle, culminating in the team using their powers to summon the glowing goddess Astra in the closing pages. The info dump house party sequence makes for a few crowded, busy pages, but overall Ganucheau has a good eye for composition. While this necessary halt for exposition here unfortunately slows the pace, and does a bit more telling than showing, it ultimately doesn’t detract too much from the story.
Throughout the issue Starforce’s distinctive personalities shine, both through their civilian clothing and costumes. Ganucheau’s careful attention to posture and body language in several key panels further emphasize the girls’ temperaments, using action to provide visual exposition. Dramatic movement and facial expressions draw from manga tradition to make for lively exchanges and humorous reactions as the characters come back together. This uses the backstory given so far to its full potential, playing up the tensions between the former teammates and anchoring the issue with meaningful emotional context. Themes of friendship and healing are central, and I hope to see them explored with more depth in coming issues as we get to better know the team.
Despite a few soft spots, Zodiac Starforce #1 is a strong debut. It’s a solid offering from Panetta and Ganucheau, using nostalgia to hook the reader in before trying something a little different. If you love Power Up, Sailor Moon, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, be sure to pick up Zodiac Starforce.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed
Despite a few soft spots, Zodiac Starforce #1 makes a strong debut.