Best Shots Advance Reviews: ZERO #4, GHOST #1, UMBRAL #2

Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Zero #4
Written by Ales Kot
Art by Morgan Jeske and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Something that's been particularly interesting about Ales Kot's Zero is that you can never quite get a bead on it thanks to the art. From the craggy lines of Michael Walsh in the Gaza Strip to the youthful bounce of Tradd Moore in the U.K. to the streamlined, metropolitan look of Mateus Santolouco in Shanghai, Zero is always on the move, geographically, morally, aesthetically. But the theme - the target - is always locked into place. There's more to Edward Zero than just being a killing machine, and Ales Kot and Morgan Jeske take some small but brutal steps as they drag their leading man towards his destiny.

But let's start off with the art. One of the great strengths of this series is how Kot has matched his artists with his scripts. Opening in Rio de Janeiro, you can feel the sweltering heat from the very first page, as colorist Jordie Bellaire drenches the scene with a solid, almost overwhelming orange. It almost hurts to look at, but in a good way - this is an uncomfortable scene in an uncomfortable town, as Edward has a gruesome errand to run... namely, taking out Gareth Carlyle, a one-time Agency asset who's gone off-grid with God knows what secrets in his head. Morgan Jeske's artwork looks like it got into a fight, somewhat similar spiritually to Michael Walsh from Issue #1 - only his characters are more worn, a bit of muscle beneath that sinew, a hint of Brandom Graham or Frank Quitely underneath all those scratchy lines.

But if you think you're in for just a bloodbath, well, you're in for a surprise. From Carlyle's scarred, scraggly face to the tangled city beneath him, Kot and Jeske suddenly wrench us into a whole other world. Kot delivers a short story inside of another short story, showing Carlyle's bleak romance, and how it led to his modern-day exploits in Rio - and making it very obvious how much it mirrors Zero's own life. But it's Jeske's intepretation of this world that is truly astonishing, as Carlyle conjures up a mixed-media black-and-white realm with street maps and wild turtles twisted by sadness and regret, presided over by a gorgeous, otherworldly woman. Perhaps most interesting is Kot and Jeske's barely-there insertion of a quote from Wuthering Heights - "as if anybody dreamt of coveting his company!" It's a very smart choice, showing not just how Carlyle's world was changed by this unnamed paramour, but also what a low self-image his bloody past had left him.

But if you thought the blood was behind either of our lead characters, well, you have another thing coming. Kot and Jeske know when to lay on the sentiment and when to go mano a mano. It's inevitable for Zero and Carlyle to come to blows - it's a story of the ages, the story of evolution, the old is eaten by the new - but that doesn't prepare us for how fierce this combat will be. Chairs are thrown, bones are crushed, and the lights of the Rio streets start to bend and wind as our combatants move at catastrophic speeds. At one point, Carlyle's face winds up looking like an old and dusty skull, the hollow black of his eyepatch staring at you like the abyss. Even small bits like Edward spitting blood onto the ground show how relentless this fight gets, particularly as Bellaire pours a sickly, infected green onto all that blood. And this fight is not for the squeamish. On the contrary - it is horrific, it is painful, and it is long. But that doesn't make it any less masterful.

Ironically, if this issue of Zero has anything holding it back, it's that it doesn't quite finish the job. Yes, there is resolution to Edward's mission - the done-in-one nature of this book makes this particularly accessible - but the ending of the actual comic comes off surprisingly abrupt and surprisingly quiet, considering all the heaviness of the previous 23 pages. The question throughout this series - who is Edward Zero? - still takes precedence, and we know that Kot and company will continue down that relentless road. But Zero #4 is really a love story - or maybe, more accurately, a romantic tragedy - underneath all that brutal spy game. It's the kind of book that, despite its rugged first impression, will unexpectedly steal your heart - that is, before it tries to rip it straight from your chest.

Credit: Dark Horse

Ghost #1
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Chris Sebela
Art by Ryan Sook and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Richard Starkings and Comicraft
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Dark Horse’s demon-hunting damsel returns in Ghost #1, from Kelly Sue Deconnick, Chris Sebela and Ryan Sook, packed with enough supernatural punch to hook new and old fans. Elisa Cameron’s mission is simple: protect Earth from the demons that seek to enslave it. Bt Elisa’s unique skill set differentiate this book from your usual supernatural detective fare. Throw Sook’s artwork into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for success.

The most immediate comparison to make with Ghost is that it seems a bit like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The similarities are definitely there. A headstrong girl fights supernatural entities with help of a few friends, each with their own skills to bring to the table. But Ghost is not just about saving the world from demons. Elisa has lost most of her memory and the title doesn’t refer only to her ghostly power set but also to how she feels making her way through an everyday existence. It’s in those moments that Deconnick and Sebela really shine through. They’re able to make Elisa instantly relatable. It begs the question: how can you save the world when you don’t even know who you are? That’s something that teenaged superheroes have struggled with since the beginning of time. Elisa is older though. She should know who she is but she can’t. It must be jarring to have an existential crisis when you can’t even reconcile your own existence.

Ryan Sook’s work provides the right amount of balance between bombast and candor. The big, demon-fighting action sequences are met with moments of inner turmoil. Elisa has a lot on her plate at all times. It shows in her face. Whether she’s in the midst of battle or lamenting the loss of someone she couldn’t save. I was impressed by Sook’s demon designs as well. Obviously somewhat animal-based, they still invoke a sort of nightmarish, B-movie quality. These are the things that keep you up at night. There are the shadows you think you see moving out of the corner of your eye. They are big and grotesque and ugly which comes in direct visual conflict with Elisa’s angelic costume. McCaig’s colors get a little murky at times but for the most part embody the spirit of the issue.

DeConnick, Sebela and Sook pick up right where the last volume left off but add a last page twist that will surely define this iteration of Ghost. The dialogue does get a little over-expository at times (especially considering how succinctly the recap page can bring you up to speed) but not enough to affect the quality of this book. Consider this one another feather in the cap of Dark Horse’s superhero lineup.

Credit: Image Comics

Umbral #2
Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Christopher Mitten and John Rauch
Lettering by Thomas Mauer
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten’s Umbral #2 couldn’t be any more different than their previous series, Wasteland. Mitten’s black and white artwork set the tone for that dry, arid comic book. Wasteland’s art was as harsh as the environment and set the tone for Johnston’s story. In Umbral #2, Mitten continues to set the tone for Johnston’s story but it’s an entirely different tone. Mitten’s brittle, cracked lines in Wasteland give way to rich, luscious and cool artwork, made that much more royal by John Rauch’s purplish pallette. Mitten’s easily at home creating the high fantasy setting of Umbral. The city he creates is highly reminiscent of any city from any fantasy novel or story (see almost every setting in the new Hobbit film) but Mitten draws a very organic city as the buildings rise up out of the ground around Rascal and her new ally Dalone. The architecture that he creates of a city that’s built without machines or plans but rather as needed, full of shadows, is somewhere between complete and crumbling. That’s the age he naturally gives to this city. Its best years may be behind it but it’s not so old that it’s decrepit.

It’s a wonderful setting full of all kinds of shadows and hiding places for a story that’s pretty much a chase from the first page to the last. On the run from the Umbral, the thick and murky black creatures that have killed the entire royal family, Rascal’s whole city becomes a place where every shadow is a place to hide or a place where her enemies may be lying in wait. Johnston and Mitten keep the reader and the characters on the run in this book that lies someplace between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones on the fantasy scale. Rascal’s one ally, Dalone, still remains a mystery. Trying to distract the guards who are chasing them, he begins chanting an incantation which frightens Rascal more than the guards and creatures chasing her. Magic “[is] about the only thing more illegal than religion,” she tells Dalone. It’s such a subtle line but it’s so captivating, since so much fantasy is built around the concepts of magic and religion.

There was a lot of heavy lifting that needed to be done in the first issue of the setting. It was world building that landed the necessary plot elements to establish a foundation for this series. With that out of the way, the second issue is a race to stay alive and one step in front of the enemy. Johnston and Mitten keep you on the edge of your seat this time because they never give you or Rascal a moment to rest. With Mitten’s crazy town, there’s danger around every corner and eventually it will catch up with the characters. In between all of the running and adventure, they slip in some world building here and there. That line about magic and religion is one example. Rascal isn’t given much to do here as she was well-established in the first issue, but they give Dalone his moments to shine as we begin to see him and the world through Rascal’s eyes. She’s so young, while the world around her is so old, that she maybe doesn’t know it as well as she thinks she does.

Johnston and Mitten quickly built their world and now they’re getting to play in it. Umbral #2 lets the creators run free through their story, creating the look and feel of it as they go. From Mitten’s wildly impressive artwork to Johnston’s carefully planted details strewn throughout the issue about the characters and the world they inhabit, Johnston and Mitten’s Umbral #2 perfectly blends their skills to produce a fun and gorgeous-looking comic book.

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