Best Shots Advance Reviews: MARA, DARK HORSE PRESENTS, More

Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Mara #5
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Ming Doyle, Jordie Bellaire
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Brian Wood’s skills as a writer are evident in his ability to seamlessly slide between his mainstream and creator-owned material. In the same month that he launches a new flagship X-Men series, he’s also quietly bringing this intriguing and idiosyncratic series to its penultimate moments. To date, the series has been a slow build, providing just enough detail to get us hooked on his not-too-distant future world where celebrity obsession has been taken to a whole new level.

It’s somewhat appropriate this series begins wrapping up around the time that a new Superman film hits the silver screen, as there is something of a parallel between Mara Prince’s growing alienation and some of the more contemplative moments with the man of steel. Wood has dealt with super-powered coming of age stories before, through years on various X-Men books, but Mara’s arc is the flipside of the story. So far, we have seen her effortlessly take on her new abilities, including her discovery of flight, but also seen something more sinister growing in the back of her mind. Hounded by the press and public, who distrust her newfound abilities from the start, she no longer feels as though she is part of the human race. As she is pushed further, it makes her final decision in this issue terrifying.

Wood’s world is a fresh take on the superhero genre, filtered through the revisionist trend we have been witnessing over the last few decades. The oft-posed question of what would happen if Superman realized he was a god is answered in part here. However, Mara is still young, as we were reminded in the previous issue that she is "not even legal yet". The power to shatter the world coupled with the raging emotions of someone not equipped to handle them yet is a staple of comic bookery, but it is the cool relaying of those feelings that sends a chill up our spines. "Not only did she not care what they thought of her," we are told. "She didn’t care, period."

Ming Doyle’s clean and bold style emphasizes the newfound clarity that Mara has discovered. Opening with several shots of the titular character floating in space and calmly looking down at Earth, Doyle achieves this sense of isolation in the visuals. Most of the time, Doyle keeps Mara in the frame by herself, juxtaposed occasionally with populated areas. However, in another moment, we see Mara perched on an ice shelf in Antarctica, discussing with penguins how they deal with the cold. Jordie Bellaire’s crisp colors are kept to an understated minimum on any given page, yet there is a variety of color to be found in the issue. Television images, by contrast, are only limited to one or two colors perhaps indicating it is "less real" than her super outlook. It’s also probably no coincidence that Mara now dresses in black and white.

With one issue left, we are left with the question of whether Mara Prince is irredeemable or incorruptible. One of the joys of this book has been in discovery, and with only one final chapter to go, we still can’t guess what is coming next. In an age where comic arc are spoiled months in advance, the element of surprise is a welcome feature.

Dark Horse Presents #25
Written by Jane Espenson, Matt Fraction, Ron Randall, Frank Barbiere, Fred Van Lente, Phil Stanford, Peter Hogan, Dan Jolley, Mike Richardson, Andrew Vachss, Mike Barron, Emma T. Capps
Art by Dominic Reardon, Karl Moline, Ron Randall, Emma T. Capps, Christian Ward, Micah Kaneshiro, Freddie Williams II, Patric Reynolds, Phil Winslade, Leonard Kirk, Steve Rude
Lettering by Richard Starkings, Jimmy Bentacourt, Nate Piekos, Ken Brozenak, Steve Dutro, Glenn Whitmore, Rob Leigh, Frank Barbiere
Published by Dark Horse
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Never let it be said that the anthology comic is dead, for the revamped and Eisner Award-winning Dark Horse Presents has now been going strong for over two years. Arguably the best showcase for writers and artists of its kind, it’s not only a great collection of short and ongoing comic work, but of the quality of the artists and writers that Dark Horse has managed to attract. Case in point, this month welcomes the seemingly ubiquitous Matt Fraction to the fray, one of eleven stories that continue to defy expectations in this monthly must-read.

Sometimes a portfolio of new works, at other times a minor cross-promotion for other major Dark Horse series, the first vignette in this month’s book falls a little bit in each camp. TV writer and producer Jane Espenson presents the first installment of the three-part "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Love Vs. Life" with artist Karl Moline. Tying directly into the ninth season of Buffy, currently running across various comics, it focuses on Billy the Vampire Slayer. While readers not up on the current season may not fully understand what is going on in the first few pages, Espenson does a terrific job of making this accessible to more general audiences. Keeping with the season’s ethos of providing more personal and character driven stories, the "zompire" attacks are secondary to the big decision that Billy makes concerning his boyfriend Devon. It’s the stuff of classic Buffy television episodes, and a perfect opener to the issue.

Undoubtedly, it will be Fraction’s story that garners the most attention. "The Time Ben Fell in Love" is about time travel and love gone wrong, the sort where pulling on a thread unravels a whole garment. The one-shot piece, in one which paradox begets another, is faintly reminiscent of David Gerrold’s novel The Man Who Folded Himself, but only in that it layers its time travel so completely. In a handful of pages, a Fraction completely distinct from the one who writes Hawkeye and Fantastic Four weaves an epic story of love, loss and lives dissipating. Complemented by the stunning gentle surrealism of Christian Ward’s art, it is a story that will have you time jumping back to the first page to experience it all again.

Andrew Vachss, best known for his series of crime novels featuring the antihero Burke, is adapted by Mike Richardson for a new series called "Underground". Underground was also the name of an anthology series from Vachss almost a decade ago, which also featured a monthly contribution from the writer. In this story, crews cruise the underground playing serious games of killing citizens, earning points for each kill. The issue mostly concerns an argument between gang members as to how points should be distributed. The cold dystopian characters are almost clinical in their approach, but the backdrop makes this a grittier version of Kafka or Anthony Burgess. Dominic Reardon’s art is heavily shadowed, only using browns, oranges and black to paint this bleak vision of the future. ?

There’s more chapters of "Trekker", "King’s Road", "Bloodhound" and "Nexus", but there couldn’t be a more perfect example of Dark Horse’s ability to pick up future talent than the one-page story by 15-year-old Emma T. Capps. Simple and sketch comedy based in its approach, it still shows a sophisticated knowledge of structure and more importantly, a love of comics. It’s great to see Dark Horse encouraging talent very early in a career. Who knows: one day Capps could be the next big thing, and this issue will be worth a fortune?

Credit: Ink & Thunder

Demeter #1
Written and Illustrated by Becky Cloonan
Published by Ink & Thunder
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Becky Cloonan has built a reputation for the ability to tell a beautiful and haunting story over the past two years with her past one-shot singles, Wolves and her Eisner-nominated, The Mire. Cloonan’s third creator-owned story, Demeter is now available for purchase this week through Comixology as well through her own website. Fans of her first two stories will not want to miss out on this melancholy and provocative story and neither will readers who are new to Ms. Cloonan’s work.

The story takes its name from Greek myth, and Cloonan imbues a certain "otherworldly" feel to this story. She tells of two young lovers that live a simple life by the sea: The husband is a fisherman and braves the hungry oceans while the wife keeps the home and tends the garden. There are little elements of high romance, and the elements of chivalry, court, and lords and ladies from her past stories — no matter how twisted they may have been in their depictions — are absent from this rather bucolic setting. Yet, all is not well given the wife’s continued concerns over the "insatiable hunger" of the sea and the appearance of a mysterious and malevolent being lurking around their home at night. Although some aspects of the plot are a little easier to predict than some of her previous stories’ endings, there are still some twists that will no doubt catch readers by surprise.

All in all, Becky Cloonan continues to impress with her ability to craft a complete narrative in only one issue; moreover, she does it all within less than thirty pages. To be frank, there aren’t many comic storytellers who demonstrate such economic use of time and space to deliver a story in the way Cloonan does. Characters have relatable and believable motivations, which we see play out in through the entire story. Even the forces opposing the protagonists do not feel two-dimensional. Further, there’s something to be said about a comic creator who makes her readers do their homework: True, one does not need to be familiar with the myths from which Cloonan draws some of her inspiration, but it does add a certain amount of depth and nuance to the story as a whole making it that much more enjoyable.

One also cannot overlook the ways in which Cloonan’s artistic style has grown in this latest short story. Her line work has a smoother and more confident feel to it from Wolves where there was a slightly more scratchy feel (though, in its defense, it worked within the context of that story). Here, there is a certain… boldness to the way in which her characters are depicted, which captures and conveys the strength of her two protagonists. Of course, Cloonan’s inks are perhaps the strongest I’ve seen from any of her work to date. The darkness she conveys in this story, like the sea, is insatiable as it washes over page after page. But it’s done deliberately- not accidentally. The murkiness of the sea is a threat in this story, and so her inks reminds of its ominous presence. After reading The Mire again, I was surprised to see how much more light Cloonan included in that story when compared to this one.

Finally, I really appreciated the mix of different approaches she used when composing the artwork. Some pages employ a more traditional grid with only a little variation, while other pages eschew this conventional format to much greater extents. Through effectively arranging her panels in a variety of ways, she draws readers' eyes to where she wants them to go and sets about delivering a far greater emotional impact. Her depiction of the husband’s train of thoughts about not being alone in the depths of the sea while making love to his wife was brilliant in the way it highlighted comics’ ability to use form to convey content; and the final page Cloonan leaves us with is especially memorable.

I won’t lie: Becky Cloonan’s short stories are not comic book "fast food," even if she delivers on the promise of a "one and done" story. To truly appreciate her work is like drinking a fine wine: Take it in slowly and linger over the elements of each page allowing yourself the time to digest each movement in the story as it unfolds.

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