Best Shots Advance Reviews: AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #2, TWILIGHT ZONE #1, Much More

Credit: Archie Comics
Credit: Archie Comics

Afterlife with Archie #2
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Don't think of it as a sophomore slump - think of it as a sophomore shamble. But after the pitch-perfect first issue of Afterlife with Archie, it's admittedly hard for Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla to top themselves. Now that the initial punch - or is it bite? - of this high concept has faded, this second issue stumbles just a bit, but the growing undead horde threatening Riverdale still retains its potent, subversive charm.

The best part of Afterlife with Archie continues to be the ominous mood Aguirre-Sacasa stirs up, as we see Archie's wholesome characters suddenly thrust into newer - and infinitely more lethal - territory. Aguirre-Sacasa checks in with some of the lesser-known characters of Riverdale, including Cheryl Blossom, Ginger and Nancy. These characters all have their own agendas and problems, but what they all have in common is that they've been sufficiently (a-hem) fleshed out... that is, before the zombie versions of Jughead and company come to dismember them.

It's those moments of pure hellishness that make this book worth reading, and that's when Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla really hit their stride. Francavilla has this smooth, almost sensual vibe to the mood, as Riverdale is drenched in shadow and scratchy lines - there's a real artistry to even a page of a drawn-back curtain, as he ominously writes, "I didn't like Jughead when he was alive. Now that he's dead, well... the less said the better." There's a great bit where lovestruck Ethel meets a sinister end, and what he doesn't show is actually as powerful as what he does - seeing an apple fall into a bloody puddle is a surprisingly tasteful way of showing the zombie apocalypse.

That said, this second issue is far from perfect, as it coasts a little too heavily on the taboo nature of this premise - sometimes to the point of being gratuitous. For example, it feels like Aguirre-Sacasa has to put a subversive spin on everything in Riverdale's squeaky-clean environs, rather than make it organic - Ginger and Nancy's secret lesbian relationship, for example, feels more like a mean-spirited Kevin Smith-esque joke than something that fits into the plot, as does the incestuous undertones (if they can even be called that) between Cheryl Blossom and her brother, Jason. Additionally, I feel like sometimes the terror is actually throttled back a little too much, both in the art and the plot, so when the gang actually learns that the dead are rising to eat them, there's no hysteria or blind panic to get the readers' blood pumping.

Yet second chapters are always the toughest ones to pull off, and it's heartening to see that Afterlife with Archie didn't decompose too much between installments. The lunatic high concept of Archie being stalked by zombies is worth the price of admission alone, and if you can get over some of the occasionally tasteless beats, this combination of subversive writing and top-notch artwork make this book a book to both run toward and away.

Credit: Dynamite

The Twilight Zone #1
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Guiu Vilanova
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating 7 out of 10

As an anthology series, The Twilight Zone is really a fantastic venue for comic books. Rotating casts, no worry of continuity, and a single narrative voice that guides the viewer, or reader in this case, along. Which makes me wonder why the series never found a strong life as a comic book, beyond the Gold Key adaptations. Perhaps the answer lies in the program itself. Beloved and revered as the show might be, it's still a niche form of storytelling trying to find life in a format dominated by, in the case of comics, the cape and cowl. Finding new life at Dynamite Entertainment, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Guiu Vilanova hope to change the record.

Issue #1 opens in the style even the most passive of Twilight Zone fans would expect. A narration that asks vague, yet deeply philosophical questions on the nature of existence. Or in the case of this story, it's inevitable end. Before we even delve into the story proper, it's nice to read an opening that captures Rod Sterling's soothing tone as he welcomes you into the Twilight Zone. The opening issue focuses on Trevor Richmond, an investor that personifies all the nastiest of traits we envision when someone on the evening news reports on yet another financial scandal. He's horrible, greedy, and only cares for the man that looks back at him in the mirror. Seeing his freedom in peril, he makes a Faustian deal that promises freedom, but in the classic Twilight Zone style, will offer that and more. Whether he likes it or not. Complicating matters more, the comic suggests there are two other stories running parallel to Trevor's.

Almost immediately we see a concern with Straczynski's style. He drops some obvious hints at a connection between Trevor and his aging and grief-stricken boss, but little enticement. This narrative spilt is even greater with Diana, the woman at the deli counter that's handed Trevor his lunch for years. Although I don't need or even want events spelled out for me in great detail, I wish Straczynski had spent a little more time on both characters if we're expected to have any interest in their stories in future issues. His dialog also suffers from a style that might work on television, but reads very stilted on the page. While it's true that strong art can convey a sense of motion, it still can't capture that same feeling of dialog and movement as seen on the small or big screen. As a result, many conversations read as locked in the moment, almost out of place. It may not bring a page or panel to a halt, but it certainly takes the reader out of the natural flow of the scene.

From the very first page, Guiu Vilanova's art looks highly rendered. Perhaps a bit too much for my personal liking. However, once you get past his backgrounds, there are some smart layout choices and his overall line work is strong. In fact, Vilanova has a style that lends itself to the mysterious nature of the comic. His facial expressions convey emotion that rarely needs the dialog that often, perhaps too often, accompanies the work. In fact, there is more than one occasion where I found myself wishing the writer had scaled back the text and allowed Vilanova to tell the story as a pure visual medium. Hopefully these are just the hiccups of a team working together for the first time. The one glaring element to the art is the coloring. The issue looks like very little attention was paid to the coloring of the book. Far too many times the choices of shade and depth cut and flatten the detail Vilanova brought to the book. Having seen some of Vilanova's work rendered in crisp black and white, it's a real shame to see what happened to his work in this issue. Of all the concerns I have with this title, the poor coloring choices is the one that most impacted my enjoyment.

The Twilight Zone #1 is an interesting, but bumpy start. The ideas and pieces are all there. If the creative team can synch up their individual styles under one form, the book has the chance at being a modern classic. As it stands now, fans of the original television series will find elements to enjoy, if a bit lacking. New readers, however, will be an even harder sell.

Credit: Image Comics

Sex Criminals #3
Written by Matt Fraction
Art and Lettering by Chip Zdarsky and Becka Kinzie

Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

There have been a lot of words used to describe Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals; Irreverent, heartfelt, hilarious, and sexy just to name a handful. But, as I read issue three I finally came to settle on the one word that I would use to describe the book from now until the end of time. I found the one word that I would use to crystallize my feelings for this weird, dirty book for myself and for others that I would be recommending the book to. Delightful. Sex Criminals is a damn delightful book.

Now, why delightful? Well, that could be answered in a number of different ways. It could be that each panel has a joke rate that would make old school Simpsons episodes look hacky. There has been a constant barrage of jokes being thrown at the reader from the very beginning of this series and #3 shows no sign that Fraction and Zdarsky plan on letting up. It could also be that Fraction has allowed the story to breathe and in turn allowed us to fall head over heels in love with John and Suzie just by seeing them fall in love with each other. Fraction’s scripting has really shined through with his creator owned projects and Sex Criminals could very well be his masterpiece (now THAT is a sentence I never thought I would type). Fraction has spent three issues allowing us to get to know these two characters fully before actually trying to throw us headlong into any more of the high-concept sci-fi stuff that has been hinted at during the couple’s first robbery attempt the book is all the better for it. Gone is the breakneck plotting of say Invincible Iron Man and in its place is a thoughtful, well paced, delightful story about two people meeting each other and being better with each other. See what I did there? Delightful. Plus, it doesn't hurt that #3 has three separate jokes that made me spit iced tea all over myself because I was laughing so hard. That’s so painfully rare. This book is like a unicorn... but instead of a horn, it has a dildo on its head.

Chip Zdarsky is a madman and nowhere is that more illustrated than within his art. Zdarsky has shined like a crazy diamond from the very start of this X-rated ride, but in #3 he gets to showcase just how talented of an artist he is, while still packing the panels with dick jokes. There is one sequence in particular that is so perfectly Fraction and Zdarsky’s personality radiating off the panels that you can’t help but just smiling through the entirety of it, all while marveling at Zdarsky’s vibrantly weird pencils. But he’s not just some one note joker, Chip Zdarsky is a big part of why the book works as well as it does. Just as much as Fraction is selling the relationship between John and Suzie on a scripting level, Zdarsky nails the awkward, roiling, flat out mortifying moments of budding sexuality with a fun frankness that I don’t think has ever been done like this before. This is the anti-Black Hole; all the fun and terror of sex with none of the weird Cronenbergian stuff...just...time travel. Chip Zdarsky’s art gives the book the exact amount of charming momentum that it needs to worm its way into our hearts, making it the huge hit that it is.

Sex Criminals has been a book that I was excited about from its announcement and now that we are three issues in, I couldn't be more entertained by it. Its so much more than just a comedy, or just a love story, or just a weird semi-autobiographic romp. Its something brand new, yet completely recognizable to all of us . Fraction once asked “Where was The Apartment of comics?” and with Sex Criminals, I think he and Chip Zdarsky have given us a worthy heir apparent to the sex comedies of old. They have given us a wildly original, wholly engaging delightful comic that keeps us howling just as much as it keeps us feeling.

Art from The Fifth Beatle
Art from The Fifth Beatle
Credit: Tiwary/Robinson

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story
Written by Vivek J. Tiwary
Art by Andrew C. Robinson, Kyle Baker and Steve Dutro
Published by Dark Horse Comics/M Press
Review by Erika D. Peterman
’Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Emotionally powerful and visually breathtaking, The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story is one of the best graphic novels you’re going to read this year. Though its appeal is instantly obvious to us Beatlemaniacs, this book holds great value for anyone who appreciates exquisite art and a moving narrative. Telling the story of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was clearly a labor of love for writer Vivek J. Tiwary, a theater producer, and main artist Andrew C. Robinson. They got by with a little help from their friends, co-artist Kyle Baker and letterer Steve Dutro.

Brian Epstein’s name is not well known outside Beatles fan circles, but it should be. He’s the man responsible for transforming the band’s image into an iconic one, and taking them from scruffy lads in leather to the dapper, charming young men who induced mass hysteria worldwide. While his life is inseparable from theirs, The Fifth Beatle puts Epstein squarely at the center of this tale. And what a story. Epstein — gay and closeted at a time when homosexual activity in England was illegal — experienced great triumph and tragedy in his 32 years, his life cut short by an accidental drug overdose.

It’s a gut punch, literally and figuratively, from the beginning. During a nighttime scene in Liverpool, Epstein pays dearly for assuming a soldier is amenable to a sexual encounter. The sequence is brutal and all too realistic. Tiwary and Robinson consistently do an excellent job of showing and not just telling us how painful and isolating the era’s virulent homophobia was for Epstein.

They also successfully show readers the transformative nature of Epstein’s discovery of the Beatles. It’s more than a bright spot for him. It’s a revelation. The close-up of his face as he watches them play at the Cavern is worth a thousand words. In that moment, he sees his future and theirs.

Robinson’s artwork throughout The Fifth Beatle is ravishing, and the word “masterpiece” is not an overstatement. This book’s pages glow with his craftsmanship. Robinson draws from a rich color palette, and mixes the realistic with the abstract extremely well when called for. He takes some risks to depart from traditional layout style but does so in a way that feels appropriate rather than needlessly showy. His presentation of the time period, from the clothes to the hairstyles to the furniture, couldn't be more authentic.

Robinson’s take on the Beatles themselves is also perfect, as he captures their essence without being too literal. But man, can Robinson do literal when called for. Baker, who provides some stylized standout moments, shouldn’t be overlooked. The lettering is surprisingly flat for the most part, but that’s a quibble.

Tiwary avoids the trap of and-then-this-happened chronology to create a story that has the feel of a film. Most importantly, he makes you care deeply for Epstein and become invested in his struggle, which includes taking powerful medications provided by doctors to quell “the homosexual inclinations.”

It’s not all dark and serious, though. For example, the Beatles’ delightful cheekiness comes through in a sequence where John, George and Paul (still in their pre-Ringo phase) meet Epstein for the first time.

“You’re late,” Epstein tells George Harrison.

“No, I’m not. I’m George.”

The Fifth Beatle might require a little more work on the part of the uninitiated, as it doesn’t trade in a lot of exposition. The effort is absolutely worth it. Dare I say it? Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Credit: Dynamite

Pathfinder Special #1
Written by Jim Zub
Art by Kevin Stokes and Mohan
Letters by Marshall Dillon
Published by Dynamite Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

I love the fantasy genre in traditional literature and in comics. From the epic, high fantasy of series like Mice Templar to the absurd comedy of Skullkickers and the brash and bold Rat Queens, the genre just seems to be getting better and better. Needless to say, I knew I was behind the curve for not having already jumped on board with Dynamite Comics' Pathfinder series; however, Special #1 provided an opportune moment to try the regular series, and I didn't want to miss out. I have to say that I was not disappointed.

This lengthy story focuses its attentions on two of the characters: Meri, the elvish rogue, and Kyra, the clerk, as they travel the city of Magnimar and come uncover some hidden times from the thief's past. These characters are already established members of a larger party of adventurers, who are largely absent from this issue, but Zub weaves bits and pieces of each characters' backstories into the narrative so that newer readers – like myself – don't feel excluded from what is going on. It's an interesting story about these two heroines take a night out on the town and the mishaps that follow the more daring elf and her more cautious compatriot. Along the way, Zub finds opportunities for Meri and Kyra to develop as characters with individual personalities and breaks from some of the more common stereotypes often found in fantasy when it comes to women, elves, thieves, and clerks.

I also found the art to be very well executed and consistently enjoyable. Stokes' style works well in those quieter moments, especially with the different characters' facial expressions; additionally, his action sequences deliver an equally dynamic reading experience. Mohan's colors should not be overlooked either. Even though the story takes place at night, thereby necessitating a darker color palette, I still expect to see a robust, vibrant set of colors in my fantasy comics. After all, this genre is one noted for magic, supernatural, and generally being larger than life; so it makes sense that the colors in these comics should help breathe life into the panels and help the pictures pop off the page. Like Zub and Stokes, Mohan does not disappoint.

Overall, this was a fun comic that should readily appeal to any fan of the fantasy genre as it strikes a balance between adventure, humor, and character development. Specials, annuals, and other non-standard issues in an on-going series can be a bit of a "grab bag" but for newer readers looking for an opportunity to pick up this title – or even regular readers debating about trying it out – Pathfinders Special #1 is a definitely worth checking out.

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