Best Shots Advance Reviews: THE FOX #1, KICK-ASS 3 #4, FIVE GHOSTS #6, WITCHBLADE #170

Art from The Fox #1 by Dean Haspiel
Credit: Archie Comics
The Fox #1 Cover by Dean Haspiel
The Fox #1 Cover by Dean Haspiel
Credit: Archie

The Fox #1
Written by Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid
Art by Dean Haspiel and Allen Passalaqua
Lettering by John Workman
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

A journalist broke the rules by becoming the story, and now he can’t write a satisfying ending. Paul Patton is the Fox and he’s attracting trouble like a magnet in this lighthearted first issue that’s enjoyable but may not have enough to break through on the comic stands.

As Haspiel himself notes in the afterward materials, Archie Comics resurrects its Red Circle characters periodically, trying to find a way to make them stick. To his credit, Haspiel immediately works to make this comic something different. While Patton/Fox is extremely confident in his abilities, he doesn’t want to use them. That’s the hook for the book, and how compelling you find that concept will drive whether or not this is a new series you want to look at.

The two stories in this first issue do a lot to establish the character of the Fox for this new run. He’s appropriately anachronistic (preferring film to digital), has roughly the powers of any athletic man, and is incredibly loose and sloppy with his identity. That latter point was one of the things that bothered me-if he works as a journalist, how are they going to accept his accounts of the Fox’s actions if everyone knows he’s chronicling his own adventures? That’s glossed over, but it needs to be addressed at some point.

With Mark Waid handling the dialogue, it’s no surprise that the Fox is witty and sarcastic. Waid does a great job giving Patton a distinctive voice that doesn’t feel like a generic hero, though I think he and Haspiel might be going a bit over the top with Fox’s disdain for modern technology. (The plot of the first story is using social media to turn people in worshipers of a demon and in the second story, Fox as Patton goes on and on about how digital pictures are ruining photography.) Despite this concern, we quickly learn a lot about the Fox’s personality just in the first page, where he downplays what looks to be a desperate situation and explains his desire avoid the trouble that inevitably comes calling. There are a few moments where Waid’s script feels a bit tin-eared, but overall, the tone works well for the story Haspiel is telling.

Visually, this is an incredibly pretty comic book. Haspiel is an excellent choice for a character like the Fox, because his style flips easily between domestic scenes and the action. He’s just as much at home depicting Patton taking a beating as he is showing him leaping into action in full costume. Haspiel’s strength as an artist is in his ability to emote and the opening sequence is a good example of this. While two thugs rough up Patton, each of the tight facial shots are unique. Patton winces, cries out, and tries to avoid the blows as the page progresses across six panels. His sharp, angular lines guide us to the points of pain or resistance, telling a lot about what is going on without unnecessary comments in the script.

That same ability to show so much with his line work really nails the revelation that the beauty he’s been interviewing is really a beast. When he’s developing the photo-and Waid is distracting the reader with lines about staying faithful to his wife-Haspiel hints that something is wrong by having the blurry photo make an ominous shape that suddenly explodes into a hideous death’s head that would put the Red Skull to shame. Combined with the creepy color work of Allen Passalaqua, who starts with the red of the darkroom and then bursts the scene into hideous shades of green and purple, the transformation sequence is perfect from start to finish. It even ties into the old-school feel of the comic, because purple and green are the colors of the villains in so many Golden and Silver Age comics.

The Fox is a lot of fun to read and shows potential. The biggest problem for the comic is going to be finding an audience. This feels like a comic written for comic fans, but it’s published by Archie, so some may dismiss it as a “kids” book. (In fact, while there’s nothing adult in the material per se, the script and references definitely make this one for parents.) This one may be doomed to collapse like so many of the Red Circle books before it, but in the meantime, those looking for something different from the capes and tights set would do well to give The Fox a try.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Kick-Ass 3 #4
Written by Mark Millar
Art by John Romita, Jr., Tom Palmer and Dean White
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel/ICON
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

When is a winner still a loser? When your name is Kick-Ass. Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.'s self-effacing foray into embarassment porn feels like it's running in place this month, taking just enough time to check in with each of the main characters, but barely moving the actual story forward.

In a lot of ways, Kick-Ass is one of those books that you love to hate and hate to love. What's funny - well, in a nauseating sort of way - is that Dave Lizewski has grown since his introduction as a hapless superhero. He's ripped. He's got his own superteam. He's even got a girlfriend (who actually lets him sleep with her).

But kind of like a less redeeming version of Spider-Man, Dave is the kind of guy who, even when he's winning, he's still losing. He's still pathologically obsessed with superheroing, even though it's clear that his chosen profession is just feeding the worst kinds of fanboy behaviors. His interactions with his teammates are more heated than ever. Even Millar's love scene feels about as subtle as a sledgehammer, which makes sense, given that Dave has zero skills that don't involve Marvel or DC.

That said, we've already seen this before - indeed, we've seen this since the get-go of Kick-Ass, and considering the creative talent behind this book, you'd think there would be a bit more progression going on here. Besides Dave's incremental progress with his girlfriend and Justice Forever, this issue is largely just exposition. In certain ways, it feels like Millar is having more fun when he's writing for Hit-Girl or the bad guys in this book, but they're also one-dimensional characters - the joke, if there's a joke at all, has already been beaten to death. We need to cover new ground.

The artwork by John Romita, Jr., meanwhile, reads as smoothly as ever, even if Millar only has some sparing action beats in this issue. Even with half the characters in masks, you can see how much Kick-Ass and the Juicer hate each other, for example. Additionally, Romita really pumps up a brief sequence with Hit-Girl, as you can see the ferocity and anger in her eyes. Occasionally some of Romita's page layouts wind up feeling just a touch cramped, but he sacrifices no quality in making sure the readers know what's going on.

In a lot of ways, Kick-Ass is the comic book version of "Girls" - people love this book, even though the characters in this book are all completely unlikable and completely distasteful. (Indeed, there are many people who miss the joke entirely, and enjoy this book as if Millar were playing it straight.) This is less of a good-natured joke and more of a single-finger salute to mindless Big Two zombies, but if Millar and Romita would push the concept further, it would be worth it. Right now, going halfway on this gag is the most insulting gesture of all.

Credit: Image Comics

Five Ghosts #6
Written by Frank J. Barbiere
Art by Garry Brown and Lauren Affe
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

This issue welcomes readers back to Five Ghosts and it's leading man, Fabian Gray, following the conclusion of the five-part mini-series with this stand-alone story, "Legend of the Masamune." Barbiere loses none of the momentum from his last issue as he takes readers on a ride to the Far East and a treacherous encounter with another wielder of the fantastic dreamstone. Joining Barbiere is series regular colorist, Lauren Affe, and guest artist, Garry Brown, while regular, Chris Mooneyham continues working ahead on the next story arc. Fans who enjoyed the 1930s hero-explorer genre, best exemplified in The Phantom and later, Indiana Jones will continue to find plenty in this issue to slake their thirst for action and adventure in this issue

One of the greatest strengths to this award-winning series is its world-spanning reach, as Barbiere takes Fabian Gray to different ends of the earth. His story resonates with Joseph Campbell's notions of the world myth where Fabian's world is connected by the stuff of dreams – quite literally as seen in the dreamstones various characters employ in their own living narratives. Barbiere also draws upon elements of early-20th century pop culture with his depiction of the masculine, Western outsider as the love interest of the beautiful – yet deadly – Eastern woman. Yet, he does not rely on cheap stereotypes to provide a supporting cast for Fabian through fleshing out Hisano's backstory and her motivations throughout the story's plot. I also really enjoyed the dialogue between Fabian and Hisano as it not only recalled a similar tone of certain smuggler and princess from a well-known space opera, but it also hinted at the nature of their relationship – the "rascally bad boy" and the "refined lady love" inevitably drawn together.

Garry Brown's artwork is fairly strong in this issue, but the spotlight truly belongs to Lauren Affe. I was particularly impressed with her ability to impart an otherworldly presence to the panels, especially those where the various dreamstones are depicted. She also proves adept at adding a sense of depth to the page particularly as Fabian and company descend into the caverns. She is able to maintain the illusion that, in spite of my reading this comic in digital form, it appears to have been printed on old pulpy stock paper as seen in the slightest hint of splotchy blending of colors that marked many older printed magazines and comics. It's just a little detail, perhaps, but it is one of many the help set the tone and atmosphere of Barbiere's pulp adventure.

Although there were a few battle scenes in which I felt Brown's brushwork became a little too loose and details were lost, I found he did an excellent job of translating Barbiere's script to the panels. Whether Barbiere or Brown was behind the wheel in terms of driving panel and page composition, it is the reader who benefits from taking in the fantastic splash pages and creative layouts that help add to the overall energy of this issue. Of note was the way the story of Masamune was laid out. Hisano's face fills the left side of the page and then those panels telling the story of Masamune are laid across the back right side of her as a means of showing the reader this is a backstory while she relates it to Fabian.

Overall, it's good to see this mini-series has been given the green light to move forward as an ongoing title. Barbiere and company do great work in delivering a story that participates in a long tradition of heroic adventures, and it is one that even newer readers should be able to pick up and follow along without too much difficulty – though the trade edition of Issues #1-5 just came out, so it is well worth picking that up as well to stay current with this series.

Credit: Top Cow

Witchblade #170
Written by Ron Marz
Art by Laura Braga and Betsy Gonia
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Top Cow
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Coming back after a few years off the title, writer Ron Marz takes the reigns of Sara Pezzini once more in Witchblade #170 and he didn't come alone, bringing in up and comer Laura Braga on board on art and man is it pretty. Marz brings back the supernatural noir vibe back to the book with a nonlinear timeline. What we have here are two stories with Sara: one from two years ago, and the one in the present and things don't look so good for the one in the present.

Constantly on the move we find Sara the Sheriff of a small city and interestingly enough without the Witchblade. There's also a small backstory with her trying to get rid of the amulet with the help of Patience, the Magdalena. Unique concept here as I'm sure we'll figure out how the two settings come together eventually, but for the meantime, it's a mystery we'll have to unwrap slowly. Marz gives Sara her edge and attitude once more and it feels like he never left. We're introduced to a handful of new characters but aren't weighed down by origins or anything of that nature and jump right in.

Rising star Laura Braga joins Marz as the new artist for the series. Her style hearkens to an almost Disney vibe with Sara's pouting lips and striking features making her probably the most beautiful she's been since Rick Leonardi's take on the character back in the day. Minor critique though, her feminine faces look similar and it's almost hard to tell Sara and Patience apart aside from obvious outfit differences. The action scenes are pretty on par with what we've come to expect from a Witchblade story, but it's still pretty hard to shake the imagery of Stjepan Sejic when paired with Marz on this book. There's no nightmarish demons or anything like that, but a decapitation as well as somebody losing their hand gives the book its danger element. It almost feels grounded in a way.

Alongside Braga is Betsy Gonia on colors. I've always thought it was difficult to color things and environments when dealing with snow, but Gonia starts the book off already with some sharp imagery. Everything looks glossy though and a minor scale back to that would probably work better. But her color scheme on Braga's more animated style does suit things rather well and handles musty environments like Sara's motel room and the dingy bar scene excellently.

Now on the big question: can you just pick up and the book and start here? Well, yes, you very much can. Marz has made this a pretty good jumping on point for fans how have been Top Cow curious. As I mentioned, the side characters are there, but not really explored but you get the gist of their relationship with Sara within this setting. It's definitely a new beginning for the Witchblade world and I'm ready to see where things go.

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