Best Shots Advance Reviews: RED SONJA #1, DAY MEN #1, More

Credit: Dynamite
Credit: Dynamite

Red Sonja #1
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani and Adriano Lucas
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating 8 out of 10

For as much as I enjoy a good sword-and-sorcery tale, Red Sonja has always been a tough sell for me. Very few writers delve too deep with the character, with most simply happy to play up her appearance and ferocity. Even her creator, Robert E. Howard, didn't seem to fully grasp her. Perhaps even more so than Conan, Red Sonja needs a writer that understands the balance between full brute force bravado and dark humor. Proving those skills time and time again on other titles, I was more than excited for Gail Simone's turn at the she-devil.

In Red Sonja #1, Simone opens with some familiar ground as the title character finds herself a slave in the gladiatorial pits of Zamora along with one lone survivor, a woman as skilled as she in battle. Freed by the only king that has a sense of mercy, dark events summon Sonja back when her savior asks one final task of her. Train his people so they might have an honorable death in battle when the Zamorans return to enact their revenge. It's a solid start that firmly places both the reader and Sonja deep within the lore of Howard's world.

Credit: Dynamite

Simone has a very good grasp on Red Sonja as a vibrant and interesting character. She maintains her air of aloof, almost cavalier attitude towards all she considers inferior (which is darn near everyone). And yet, when true injustice threatens those she sees as weaker, her true ire and ferocity burst out. Better still, Simone understands Sonja's need to grant those the honor and dignity that others may steal. This element revealed best when Sonja not only spares the life of a would-be thief and defiler, but offers him an honorable passing. All while the blood of his comrades still steams off her blade. Simone is clearly having some fun with classic fantasy themes throughout this comic, although it's not without it's bumps. Simone is still a little awkward with the dialogue of the setting. There are more than a few moments where Simone's attempt to capture Howard's dialect distract the reader. It's not egregious by any standards, but it's a distracting element in an otherwise strong narrative.

Walter Geovani on art has a strong grasp of both Sonja and her world. Without a doubt, Red Sonja #1 could have easily fallen into the “she has no head” syndrome of comic art. Thankfully, Geovani finds the balance that reminds the reader that, yes, she paints quite the striking image. But, stand still for just a minute to take it in and you'll find yourself with a sword shoved up through your jaw. What impressed me most was the grace with which he drew Sonja. Her movements, while savage, are drawn more like a dance than a battle. This goes a long way in reminding the reader that she is so much more than a female Conan. It's a nice touch that I hope he maintains through the entire series. Some of his detail does drop off when he's not penciling a primary character, giving a sense that he spent most of his attention on Sonja. The colors by Adriano Lucas were serviceable, if not all that inspiring. Indeed, some of Geovani's pencils were hampered by some rather heavy colors and shadows. I don't want or need to see every line, but too many of the panels melded into each other with unrefined separations.

Minor quips aside, this is a strong and promising debut. I think Simone knows well enough to avoid some of the more egregious tropes of the female fantasy character. In addition, her skill at combining the brutal with the humorous will go a long way in maintaining the correct tone for Sonja. If Geovani and Lucas can find a better balance between line art and colors, then Red Sonja will quickly find itself an audience hungry for strong fantasy.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Day Men #1
Written by Matt Gagnon and Michael Alan Nelson
Art by Brian Stelfreeze and Darrin Moore
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Are vampires ready for a brand new day? Or does BOOM! Studios' new spin on these creatures of the night just one more example that this creature feature is just getting long in the tooth?

Reading Day Men provides for an interesting point-counterpoint to this argument. With the return of Brian Stelfreeze to monthly interiors, it's hard to dismiss just how good this vampire/gangster book looks — indeed, seeing his moody, atmospheric scenes might be just enough reason to justify this book at all. At the same time, however, there's still something missing from Day Men, some new ground that needs to be uncovered to truly give this book its own identity.

Matt Gagnon and Michael Alan Nelson don't waste any time in dropping readers into the world of Day Men, which follows vampire go-fer David Reid as he acts as a cleaning crew and liaison for his vampire masters. When the bloodsuckers sleep during the day, Reid is on-call to tie up all their loose ends, and you can see there's a whole mythology and history hidden just beneath the surface. What intrigues me the most about this comic is the human element here, particularly how vulnerable David is when two vampire gangs wind up stirring up some bad blood.

But as I said before, it's the artwork that really justifies this book. Brian Stelfreeze has a real animated bounciness to his lines, a lush inking style that reminds me of a lot of the late, great Mike Wieringo. Stelfreeze has a command and control of his panel layouts that you just don't see much of these days — the first page alone is a great example of economical storytelling, as we introduce our lead character and watch him effortlessly beat the snot out of a guard (and still leave room for a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow quote at the beginning). And you can tell when Stelfreeze just picks a moment to inject some mood — watching a vampire shoot smoke out of his nose is downright intoxicating, and watching a seductive vampire queen just exudes sexiness, even when all we can see are her lips and shoulders.

Yet that all said, there is a weakness to Day Men that is hard to shake off. The elevator pitch for this comic is simple enough — a gang war starring vampires — but right now, this book has to compete with heavy hitters such as True Blood and The Godfather, which has not just one-upped Day Men, but have essentially defined their genres. Seeing how vampires would secretly survive in the real world isn't anything new, and because Reid himself is much of a blank slate in terms of characterization — sure, he's likable on a dialogue level, but what is his motivation? — it's hard to find someone to really root for.

Right now, Day Men has one advantage going for it — Brian Stelfreeze. Yet the ultimate question that this book poses — namely, is the vampire craze played out? — still doesn't have an answer yet. That said, there's only so much a creative team can pack into a first issue, and there's nothing dragging this opening chapter down — there's action, there's high-concept, and there's a ton of potential here. If Gagnon and Nelson can add their own bite to Stelfreeze's supernatural levels of talent, Day Men could be BOOM! Studios' next big hit.

Credit: Image Comics

Elephantmen #50
Written by Richard Starkings
Art by Axel Medellin and Gabriel Bautista
Lettering by Richard Starkings
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Richard Starkings' Elephantmen #50 is stunning because of what it isn't about. For fifty issues and assorted specials and miniseries, Starkings and his many artistic collaborators have told us the story of Hip Flask, a hippopotamus detective. It's been a science fiction story, a war story and a detective story. It’s been a love story and a story about hate and hatred. It’s been about these big, larger than life characters who are real animals; hippopotamuses, elephants, alligators, zebras and even a tiger or two. This issue isn’t about any of those things. To celebrate its fiftieth issue, Elephantmen turns its eye inward and looks at all of the creatures that we don’t know. It’s about workers. It’s about janitors, window cleaners, lumberjacks and farmers. It’s about the characters who didn’t become heroes or villains.

In a framing sequence drawn by series regular artist Axel Medellin, Hip Flask receives numerous packages in his apartment. Still sleeping off the adventures of the past fifty issues, his human girlfriend Miki lets her curiosity get the better of her and starts ripping open each package, only to find that each one is a painting (actually painted by Gabriel Bautista) of Hip Flask’s fellow elephantmen being part of society. In one swift narrative swoop, Starkings reminds us that the bestial creatures that we’ve been getting to know are just a small fraction of the animalistic armies that were created long ago to fight a corporation’s mad wars. Along with the paintings is a recording from their creator, an actual elephantine elephantman who drove an ice cream truck after the wars until he ate too many frozen treats.

Gabriel Bautista’s images really sell the normalness of this issue. Taking the letter where the artist is trying to remind Hip Flask of all of his brethren, Bautista’s paintings capture a timeless and quiet nobility of the simple worker. It would be easy to look at any of his images and mentally insert you or me or anyone we actually know over the images of these animals doing humans’ work. But with the elephantmen performing mundane tasks like walking dogs or selling vacuums door-to-door, Bautista gets to show us what Starkings’ story has always been about. It hasn’t been about the physical quality of these animals but it has been about the characters. It’s always been about the characters of Hip Flask, Obidiah Horn and Ebony who really are just men trying to find their way in the world.

For this issue, Starkings, Medellin and Bautista have made Elephantmen an immigrant’s story, getting us to care for these nameless masses who are just trying to become part of something that they are not naturally a part of. Elephantmen #50 is a story of a group of people having to find their way in a country or a world or a society that isn’t theirs. It is important that in this “anniversary” issue we get to experience these unseen characters and their lives because maybe we won’t see them again, although that seems a tad bit unlikely. Starkings has been a very deliberate writer on this series, planting seeds and waiting years to return to them to see what has sprouted. With this issue, Starkings continues to show us just how rich of a world that he and his multitude of artists have created. You can have these high concept stories, where mysteries take the characters to Mars in just the previous issue and here you have a very grounded story, a very realistic story about how the average elephantman had to assimilate into society while our main heroes and villains have had their celebrated and praised.

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