While I forge my way to the Canadian wilderness for vacation this summer, I will be unable to see The Guardians of the Galaxy film, Marvel’s latest comic book blockbuster. With me, however, is another space epic: Twelve Gems by Lane Milburn.
When the cover art was first revealed, I imagined it had been lifted from the backdrop of pinball machine located in a dingy cantina somewhere in the distant cosmos. A three-headed, horned monstrosity floating above space lava and encircled in glowing lights? Yes, I found my summer read. A copy recently arrived in the mail, and I diligently put it away so that I could save it for my trip. Only now my flight is delayed, I’m stuck in Denver and missing a day of vacation, and Twelve Gems is my only hope—and it’s delivering.
Part Heavy Metal, part Infinity Gauntlet, part progressive metal band's vinyl LP artwork, Twelve Gems offers a space opera send-up that reads like a serious good time. Writer and artist Milburn begins with an eccentric scientist, Dr. Z, who enlists three heroes (Furz, the heavy; Venus, the beautiful warrior; and Dogstar, the talking animal) to find the legendary twelve gems—what they do once collected, no one knows. All that matters is that Dr. Z wants them and he’ s willing to share in the reward, whatever it may be.
Across the stars, the three heroes (who aren’t so heroic) encounter robots, monstrous aliens, and more monstrous aliens, all of whom want the twelve gems for themselves. Dogstar develops a crush as Venus’ outfits only get tighter, and Furz keeps upgrading his murder weapons. It’s absurd how much fun this is, with double-page chapter breaks that would not be out of place on the side of a black van driven by two dudes wearing bandanas. Milburn’s throwback style, the heavy-lined and dense pages are only matched in goofiness by his dialogue: “You who wander this kaleidoscopic cosmos, who possess the mirror-trick of consciousness…speak!” And the crew can’t seem to catch a break even when they stop at a local space-bar--wherever they go they encounter thieves and assailants. “What?! We don’t get a moment to relax,” Venus bemoans as she readies her battle pose. “This galaxy sucks!” Furz agrees as they both hop into the melee.
This is exactly what summer blockbusters should be, only Milburn’s is a singular vision. He exploits clichés by embracing them, and he busily captures hyperspace hilarity, while the black and white pages never feel overwhelmed by the dark backdrops or Milburn’s detailed designs. This compact paperback comes with Fantagraphics’ usual high quality paper stock and attention to detail, and I’m so glad it’s here with me—my vacation may have stalled but Twelve Gems gave it a warp core boost regardless.
See also The Comics Journal’s extensive interview with Milburn.