Best Shots Advance Reviews: AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #1, More

Credit: Archie Comics
Credit: Archie Comics

Afterlife with Archie #1
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Archie Comics have been doing some incredibly interesting things over the last few years, whether it is parallel-universe stories in Archie: The Married Life, dealing with breast cancer or sending a million moms into a protesting frenzy with the introduction of the openly gay Kevin Keller. Their first non-all-ages horror title was inspired by artist Francesco Francavilla’s retro variant cover for Life with Archie #23. Despite a distinct lack of zombie content on the inside, that tantalising tease of “America’s typical teen zombie” was too good a concept for Glee’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to not follow up in this mini-series.

Unlike the bloodless Archie Meets The Punisher or the absurdly banal Archie Meets Kiss, Afterlife with Archie wastes little time in going straight for the jug(head)ular. Indeed, it’s Jughead who turns up on Sabrina’s doorstep on a dark and stormy night, the lifeless and bloodied remains of his pet Hot Dog hanging limply in his arms. Cut to a forbidden resurrection gone wrong and all the elements required for a zombie outbreak, and this would be a fairly predictable journey were it not for the fact that this is still an Archie book, and the entire notion of death by dismemberment is traditionally about as likely as Archie finally choosing which girl to settle down with.

This is where the mastery of this issue lies, in not betraying the formula that even casual readers are familiar with, but rather subtly subverting it within the context of a horror story. Archie must still contend with picking a sexy super-heroine in Veronica, or Betty the naughty nurse, at the school Halloween dance, and Reg is still the jock outsider. Only in Afterlife with Archie, Reg is the one that has run over Hot Dog, and Mr. Weatherbee proves to be tastier than we’d previously imagined.

Unquestionably, the reason to pick up the book is for the Eisner Award-winning Francavilla’s gorgeous retro influenced art. Sticking almost exclusively to various shades of yellow/orange, purple/blue and of course, red and black, Afterlife with Archie immediately distinguishes itself visually from the vivid colors of other Archie comics that usually line the racks. Taking the essence of what he does with Black Beetle, or perhaps more aptly the Batman ’72 concept art he recently produced, Francavilla doesn’t simply transplant the characters into his style, but rather reconstructs them with a modern spin to fit this darker world. He truly plays up the horrific nature of this concept, particularly when we see Sabrina the Teenage Witch's demonic aunts or the rotting flesh of an infected zombie bite.

Afterlife with Archie is the Archie book for people who don’t read Archie Comics, or perhaps the fringe group of horror fans that have always wanted to read an Archie comic. Peppered with references to pop culture, it’s a genuine horror story and proof positive that a good Elseworlds-style mash-up doesn’t require a line-wide reboot, but is simply a matter of taking two top creators and letting them run wild.

Credit: Image Comics

Chew #37
Written by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Loss - we've all had it. We've all experienced it. But what would you do for one more day with someone you've loved and lost? That's the secret ingredient for Chew #37, easily one of best installments of the series in quite some time.

FDA agent Tony Chu has the power to pick up information from anything he eats - but for my money, John Layman introduces his best wrinkle in the series yet, when Tony uses his powers to cross the very boundaries of life and death. While his sister Toni may have died at the hands of the cibopathic killer known as the Vampire, Layman introduces one hell of a smart final message, giving his late, quirky heroine another great hurrah. Sure, Layman introduces a bunch of exposition in there, as well, but ultimately the main gist of this story is Tony using his foodie powers to connect with his loved ones - both living and dead - one last time. It's bitter. And yet oh so sweet.

But what's great about this particular issue is that it doesn't just coast on Layman's smart twists. Rob Guillory draws a real heartbreaker here with his exaggerated, cartoony lines - there's a sequence where Tony remembers his prom night with Min, the mother of his daughter, that is both cringe-inducing and yet completely endearing. Watching teenage Tony crack a giant, brace-filled smile is exactly what makes Chew so compelling in the first place - Tony may be a hapless hero, but he's still our hero, dammit! Guillory also really pulls out all the stops when he illustrates Tony's powers, particularly the way he draws dozens of small panels as Tony's brain pieces together the last message of one Antonelle Chu.

In certain ways, the character-driven side of this comic is so strong that it actually makes the rest of the issue seem perfunctory. Layman has to have Tony do something besides naval-gaze, and so pitting him against a food-pornographer feels somewhat short (even if the conclusion winds up tying back to Tony's familial issues). In addition, Layman has to keep the overarching plot going by checking in with FDA agent Colby and the imprisoned Savoy, but these scenes don't hold a candle to anything involving Tony and the memory of his sister. It doesn't drag down the comic in any way, but instead feels more like the garnish to a really satisfying steak.

What would you do for one more day with someone you loved? Chew #37 brings the spotlight back to an old fan-favorite in a way that proves that this creative team still has plenty of tricks up their sleeves, plucking the heartstrings while driving the main plot forward. Combining character, action, humor and heart, John Layman and Rob Guillory have produced easily one of the best comics of the week.

Credit: DHC

Shaolin Cowboy #1
Written by Geof Darrow
Art by Geof Darrow and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Peter Doherty
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Lindsey Morris
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The Shaolin Cowboy has risen! Seriously, just check out the opening pages of Geof Darrow's newly relaunched series. Set six years after the conclusion of the original title, this book follows the Cowboy through the bowels of the desert on his way to the center of the earth. With a harrowing and quite lengthy recap of what the main character has been through to set the tone, this book quickly jumps back into the action-packed scenes and amazing art that marked its initial run as something special.

Wielding two chainsaws attached to a staff, the Shaolin Cowboy hauls his bruised and bloodied body through the desert while fending off zombies and homophobes alike. There is very little dialogue, our hero having only one line (spoken in another language). The few other words come from characters whose roles are unclear, or who we perhaps won't be seeing again. Their speech adds little to this specific issue, instead setting up clarity for later issues.

Let me reiterate. The dialogue is sparse, but there are six daunting columns in the beginning of the issue that, for the most part, sate the need for an explanation as to what's going on and/or character building. Skipping this introduction would be a detriment to the reading of the comic, and it's an easy indicator of whether or not this book is for you. If you find yourself chuckling while reading, excellent. If you find yourself skimming the recap with relative disinterest, this book might not be for you. Of course, there is still the matter of the art which could lead you to reconsider.

As you might expect, with so little going on in the writing department, this book is all about the visuals. Geof Darrow is an astounding artist. His line work has an enviable range and transitions seamlessly from thick black strokes to ultra thin detail - all within a single panel. The care he takes with not only his characters, but the landscapes in particular, are a real showcase of his talent. From the crushed soda cans littering the desert floor, to the lewd graffiti on boulders, to the bugs crawling their way up the legs of reanimated corpses - no detail is too small. No line is too small either, as craggy rocks of every size get a heavy smattering of minute details - many more than any character in the book receives.

There is almost too much to say about the illustrations. Like how the landscapes are reminiscent of Frank Quietly, the way the blood pouring from our hero's knuckles (and elsewhere) reminds me of José Ryp, and how the re-appropriated names on bottles and puns like "ewe-tube" recall Brandon Graham. There is a panel that looks like it references The Little Mermaid, cats and pigs floating in space that you might miss at first glance, stickers with logos like "HellMart", and bottles labeled "Spam." The list goes on.

It's the little things that make this book great, so if you're a sucker for the finer things (get it?), then this is the book for you. Who needs dialogue with so much to look at?

Credit: Oni Press

Letter 44 #1
Written by Charles D. Soule
Art by Alberto Jiménez Albuquerque and Guy Major
Lettering by Shawn DePasquale
Published by Oni Press
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Modeling a comic after a previous political institution is always a tricky matter. Almost without fail, you are going to alienate or offend a portion of your audience. In a way, it can't be helped, personal politics and feelings (rightfully) make their way into a person's work. And just by the laws of probability, there are going to be people that not only disagree with you, but are outright angry by your words. Which is what gives Letter 44 such an interesting premise. It's been a long tradition that outgoing Presidents write a personal letter to whomever sits in the Oval Office next. We rarely know what's in that letter and with that simple concept, Letter 44 is born.

Charles D. Soule pulls off a nice little hat trick with the opening pages of the comic. He takes all that we know (or believe) of the previous administration. Be it the lack of social programs, the entry into two massive wars in the Middle East, and the spending of billions in perceived unnecessary research into military R&D and gives it all a reason. A rather compelling reason. We are not alone within our own solar system. Someone is out there, building and waiting. They are coming and when they do, we'll need as many battle hardened veterans and proven tech to face these beings. Not only that, but a mission to contact these beings has already entered it's final moments and it's the new Presidents' job help the astronauts fulfill their mission.

Alone, that would make for a compelling read, but that only scratches the surface of Letter 44. Even with it's debut issue, there is a foundation of complex storytelling that wants to go beyond the typical alien invasion series. It's clear with the various personalities both on Earth and facing the unknown in space, this is a series built on strong and intertwined personal drama. It just happens to use the fantastic as a wonderful backdrop. With much of the first issue tasked with setting up all the players, artist Alberto Jiménez Albuquerque doesn't get to cut loose with alien combat or sweeping vistas. He does, however, step up to the task of conveying the emotional expressions of each character in the title. His incoming President Stephen Blades is the perfect example of a strong leader, but with hints of doubt and worry that often surface when others look away, if only for a moment.

With much of the issue taking place in less than exciting locations (save the rare moments in space), Albuquerque makes good use of heaving inking. Basic conference rooms or offices take on an air of foreboding as the deep blacks press in on the President. It's a strong visual reminder of the duties and responsibilities that fell upon his shoulders the moment he opened that letter. Taking a cue from films like Alien or even Serenity, the scenes aboard the manned space mission look very well lived in. The cluttered, almost dorm-like environment of the ship works as a fun contrast to the near sterile setting back on the Earth. Albuquerque's art suggests this crew long ago did away with conventions of rank and decorum. They all very much know the stakes, anything else is secondary. Combine that with Soule's penning of a crew that has it's differences, but doesn't fall into the scientists versus military tropes and you've got some very believable characters.

There are some pretty big ideas happening in Letter 44 #1 , with a creative team that isn't afraid to give the reader a slow burn. With all the pieces securely placed within their opening moves, this is definitely a title that's one to watch in the coming months. Politics, aliens, and the unknown; Oni Press just might have a real hit on their hands with Letter 44.

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