Art/Letters: Paulina Ganucheau
Covers: Marguerite Sauvage, Kevin Wada, Jacob Wyatt, Babs Tarr
Color Assists: Savanna Ganucheau, Kristen Acampora, Tabby Freeman
The four issue miniseries Zodiac Starforce is a love letter to the magical girl genre and more specifically to one of the most influential manga series on American fandom, Sailor Moon. And it answers the question as to what an Americanized take on the venerable shojo manga would look like. Would the core concept of a group of teenage girls attending high school by day, while battling the forces of evil as astrology-powered, sailor-suited, super soldiers at night, successfully translate when removed from the exotic locale of Tokyo, Japan? Creators Kevin Panetta and Paulina Ganucheau certainly think so, and the story they craft will definitely feel familiar to anyone who has read Sailor Moon or watched the anime adaptation. To everyone else, this is an adorable looking comic that might not quite stick the landing.
Naturally, the comic’s main draw is Ganucheau’s slick reimagining of the Sailor Moon aesthetic. The saccharine color scheme of her Zodiac Starforce costumes immediately recalls the designs of the iconic Sailor Senshi fuku, but replaces their fetishistic elements with more utilitarian fashions in order to hew closer to the sensibilities of the American audience. This informs the warm tones used throughout the comic. Another way that Ganucheau updates the manga's art is in how she foregoes the earlier work’s heavy reliance on black and white zip tones for digital color gradients, making every page mimic the glossier appearance of modern Western animation.
Ganucheau's most overt alteration calculated to appeal to Americans is adding a lot more diversity to the cast, which can also be seen as a reaction to women’s generally problematic portrayal within mainstream superhero comics. The Starforce members exhibit more varied body types, faces, hairstyles, fashions, and ethnic markers. And their respective costumes/powers/weapons are visually reflective of their own differing personalities.
Where the comic stumbles slightly is in the story’s pacing. Panetta avoids having to narrate an origin tale by setting the comic at a point in time when the Starforce members have already retired after having actively served for an unspecified period. But it still takes awhile to establish the cast and reassemble the team. This puts the story on a slow burn which doesn’t pick up until the latter half. Most of the cast falls into recognizable archetypes: the reluctant leader, the muscle, the hothead, the meet-cute couple, the mean girl. Compared to their visual portrayals, their personalities still feel a little undercooked, in part due to page count limitations. The same could be said of its generic scholastic setting, which doesn’t distinguish itself enough from other fictional school settings seen in countless teen stories. And despite the greater effort put into fashioning the team’s leader into a more complex, conflicted individual, she still ends up getting upstaged by the villain's backstory during the climactic showdown.
In short, this visually sumptuous comic is interesting mainly for its unrealized potential. While constructed as a self-contained story, it's also the setup to a much more substantial arc. But for now, it doesn’t quite transcend being a homage to its Japanese inspiration.