Zodiac Starforce: Cries of the Fire Prince #3
In modern comic books, reinvention is quite common, be it occurring in the genre, archetypes, and tropes of a story. Taking something familiar like nostalgic heroes or infamous monsters helps a story be engaging and stand out, provided they can add something new to their reinvention. Kevin Panetta and Paulina Ganucheau have created such a re-imagined work, updating the much beloved “magical girl” archetype to create their indie hit, Zodiac Starforce. Issue #3 of its second mini-series, subtitled Cries of the Fire Prince, continues to be an entertaining book with clever nuance.
For the uninitiated, the “magical girl” genre is one that originates from Japanese manga and anime, detailing the exploits of super-powered young women endowed with powers of cosmic significance. These heroines struggle to balance fantastical exploits with adolescent life, mirroring the lives of the stories’ target demographic. The series most familiar to mass audiences is the successful Sailor Moon franchise. Since many who grew up with this genre are now in the entertainment industry themselves, new takes on the “magical girl” archetypes are now seeing releases, such as Panetta and Ganucheau with Zodiac Starforce.
Zodiac Starforce is a re-imagining of the genre featuring 5 USA based high school girls gifted with astrological powers by the goddess Astra, to combat the dark goddess Cimmeria. Cries of the Fireprince is a sequel mini-series to the first Zodiac Starforce title and revolves around the conflict between the Starforce and a released worshiper of Cimmeria named Pavos. In issue #3, they are joined by a previously unknown unit of Zodiac Starforce cadets from the UK, heal the near-death Molly (codenamed Aries), try to discern if the new Starforce is trustworthy, and defeat Pavos, who is gaining power and resources.
Like other homages of popular works, Zodiac Starforce aims to re-imagine and subvert the works that inspired it with a modern script. However, Zodiac Starforce, being a wholly original idea, means more freedom to experiment with common dynamics within the genre. For example, Pavos is a fairly accurate tribute to the androgynous male villains sometimes seen in magical girl anime (and the Voltron franchise’s Prince Lotor), but with heightened sensuality too mature for entertainment for children. Then there is the UK Starforce, some of whom are confrontational and condescending to their American counterparts. Additional members of a team is a common practice within the magical girl genre. In-fighting and conflict among heroes, though not unseen in some magical girl anime, tend to be a plot element among Western superhero stories. Panetta uses Zodiac Starforce to combine the best of both sensibilities in a really unique way.
The overall script by Panetta is incredibly strong. There is a lot of exposition and new concepts being introduced in this issue, but the plot is never stopped or slowed down by them. The stakes of Molly’s critical condition or Pavos gaining power are felt from the action of the characters, as opposed to Panetta just writing that these events are significant. The UK Starforce are fascinating additions that compel the reader to want to learn more about them, while not overshadowing the original Starforce or undermining their still-developing arcs. Humor helps give the title a unique voice, being interjected sparingly and not betraying the more serious moments. And the book continues to use the familiar setting of its genre to tell an ensemble story filled with character journeys of loss with the UK Starforce, love with Savi and Lilly working as teammates and romantic partners, leader Emma misplacing her rage as an adrenaline junkie, and a big twist on the last page implying explorations of moral ambiguity come next issue.
As great as the script is, one of the biggest draws to Zodiac Starforce is the breathtaking art by Paulina Ganucheau. Ganucheau’s art style is inspired and supplies so much of the unique charm that has made Zodiac Starforce a much-beloved title. The character designs are top notch, informing motive and personality while highlighting an array of body types and character diversity. And her cinematography and energy effects are stunning, beaming with bright colors of all kinds from colorist Sarah Stern’s eclectic palette. There is an element of stylized design to the art that lovingly homages the genre Zodiac Starforce is inspired by, while not being a crude pastiche of it like some of the Marvel Mangaverse titles from the mid-2000s.
Issue #3 is the penultimate issue before both Starforce units have their final confrontation with Pavos. It does a great job excelling the plot, expanding the universe's mythos, offering strong themes, and position characters for their climactic bout in the last issue. Its clever script and gorgeous illustrations make it a great reading experience, with the quality most fans have come to anticipate from its creative team.