Best Shots Advance Reviews: INVINCIBLE #111, AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #5, More

Credit: BOOM! Studios
Invincible #111 cover
Invincible #111 cover
Credit: Image Comics

Invincible #111
Written by Robert Kirkman
Art by Ryan Ottley, Cliff Rathburn and John Rauch
Lettering by Rus Wooten
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Invincible #111 could have been an incredible opportunity for writer Robert Kirkman to follow up on his controversial cliffhanger – namely, the rape of our hero, Mark, by the superpowered Viltrumite warrior woman Anissa – with a story that explores the fallout a superhero struggling with this terrible trauma. It could have been groundbreaking – but instead, Kirkman casts aside a substantive narrative approach in favor of immersing readers in carnage and slaughter to such an extent that it seems to border on the absurd. All of this bloodshed, while potentially of interest to some long-term readers, ultimately results in a comic that will likely be of little consequence to the new readers it hopes to draw in with this first "new" issue.

You would think after last issue, this comic would start off grim, yet it’s quite the opposite - the issue begins with Invincible still sitting on the ground in shock over what took place between Anissa and himself moments earlier, only to be discovered by a local farmer who clothes the young hero and sends him on his way. That’s pretty much it – the rest of the follow-up to this plot, frustratingly enough, isn’t being discussed. Instead, as Invincible reunites with government agent Cecil to inform him of his new discoveries in his interdimensional travels, Kirkman and Ottley ratchet up the violence to an "11." The pacing is fast as blood, bone bits, brain, and limbs begin flying from the hands of someone once thought to be a trusted ally.

This isn't to say that the villainous reveals don't move the story forward or that this issue, in and of itself, is necessarily bad. The problem, as I see it, is that Mark's rape was introduced, and yet nothing is really made of it in anyway in this next issue. Moreover, there seems to be no real need to have rushed through the events of the previous issue. What readers will encounter in Issue #111 could have easily been presented one, two or even three issues later – there's no immediate need for these events to interrupt what might have been an otherwise promising storyline. Instead, what seemed like a topical and relevant discussion of a problem in comics (through the reversing of the gender roles) is interrupted for yet another four-colored, grim-and-gritty grindhouse comic in a costume. It just felt disappointing.

I do believe some longtime readers of the series will find something to enjoy in this issue as the creative team is making some big changes to the lives of their cast of characters. Additionally, Kirkman and Ottley seem to be setting in motion the events for what promises to be the next big story arc. Those who found enjoyment in the superhero whose inspirations were drawn from Superman and Spider-Man, however, will be far less likely to find much to enjoy in this increasingly grim series.

Artistically, Ottley, Rathbun, and Rauch do fine work in delivering what the cover advertises in their depictions of violence, mayhem, and misery experienced by Invincible, his family, and friends. Suffice to say, there is a significant amount of detail on each panel to such a point that they leave little room for the reader's imagination to work, and it reinforces what is most important in this issue – the hyper-violent nature of Invincible. It is somewhat ironic; however, when Wooten plasters one particular half-splash page with the word "WHAM!" as Invincible beats down a particular turncoat. It felt as though it could have also been representative of the comic beating these excessive depictions of graphic violence into the reader. If this is the sort of comic one enjoys, then these artistic elements could even be interpreted as a type of sadistic beauty. However, I think there is a lot to be said for leaving some of the blood in the gutters.

The bombastic claims [on the cover] that Invincible #111 is in any way a first issue that provides a jumping-on point into the series for new readers is incredibly inaccurate. Readers will need to have a fairly solid grasp of the past few story arcs to have a sense of the context for the events unfolding. This context enables one to appreciate the content of the discussions taking place between each of the characters and understand the nature of their various relationships of the different characters as they come into contact (and conflict) with one another. The Walking Dead is also an incredibly violent comic, but the gore is introduced in service to driving the theme of humankinds' struggle to retain its sense of humanity in the face of a brutal world. Lacking such context, however, this issue becomes highly reminiscent of the sort of hyper-violent comics Image published in the early 1990s – violence for its own sake – and hardly on par with the quality output in the current renaissance Image Comics and its readers are experiencing.

Put another way: This is not a comic for the uninitiated. Had Kirkman focused on the events of the past issue, it would have allowed for an easier transition into the series. After a mere page of addressing the events of Issue #110, however, this story rushes off into other directions and fails to hit the mark as an introductory issue. From a narrative standpoint, it quite literally runs away from dealing with a more substantive plot of Anissa and Mark in favor of giving its readers "Terror!" "Violence!" "Mayhem!" "Horror!" and "Misery!" Although it claims to be a launching point ostensibly for new readers, this issue came across instead as more of a vehicle for servicing some fans' need for blood and guts. I would be genuinely surprised if new readers found this was "the ONLY superhero comic [they would] ever need."

Credit: Archie

Afterlife with Archie #5
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

It's been just over two months since the last installment of Afterlife with Archie, and the conclusion of the book's first arc is looking a little moldier than Riverdale's undead hordes. With the book suffering a big hit in momentum after last issue's brutal storytelling, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa only compounds this book's decay with some really scattershot pacing.

The main problem with Afterlife with Archie #5 is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Aguirre-Sacasa spends most of his time using the Lodges' venerable butler Hubert as the point-of-view character, and while he sets up Hubert as almost an invisible, all-knowing witness to the various denizens of Riverdale, it doesn't really go anywhere. There's no moments to show why Hubert is important, even with his very particular upbringing. The rest of the issue follows suit - we have subplots featuring the closeted Ginger and Nancy, Kevin Keller gets an appearance (and gives Reggie an earned slug in the jaw for tolerance), a squabble between the incestuous Cheryl and Jason, and both Archie and Betty have their moments of grief. The problem? Aguirre-Sacasa tries to cover too much ground in too little time, which makes these moments feel unearned and underutilized. There's a lot of sadness and trauma that comes from the deaths of everyone you know and love, and unfortunately this issue doesn't linger long enough for us to feel it.

From a macro standpoint, this series continues to move forward, but the other downside for juggling so many characters is that Aguirre-Sacasa isn't able to really set up the stakes. Riverdale is overrun, and while people who have read the last few issues know from Archie's perspective how bad things are, a flashback panel here or there wouldn't have been so bad, just to remind us. The horror also isn't really apparent here - there are a couple of moments where you think our characters could be close to a potential zombie close encounter, but on the whole, this issue feels too safe to really get your adrenaline up.

Still, the one constant in this comic is artist Francesco Francavilla, who draws with the same sketchy flair that has always made this comic such a treat to read. Granted, like I said before, he doesn't get much to do in terms of the actual undead - there are a few minor appearances featuring some zombies, but they're a little distant and undetailed to really frighten. where Francavilla succeeds is in his character work, particularly a page where Archie mourns his father, who he had to personally dispatch with a baseball bat last issue. One page in particular he gets the short end of the stick, trying to pack 13 panels of crucial planning onto one page. Still, he excels in the small character moments, particularly as we watch Kevin Keller and Ginger Lopez calling each other "Ginger Spice" and "Queen Arrow" as they practice their archery skills on some undead.

There's a lot to like about Afterlife with Archie as a concept, and after this issue, this creative team is poised to bring the Riverdale gang to some very interesting places. But as far as conclusions go, this first arc doesn't end with a bang, but a long, decomposing shuffle. Here's hoping that we don't have to wait so long for the next installment of this ingenious series, and that next time, Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla really go for the jugular.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Hellboy in Hell #6
Written by Mike Mignola
Art by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

If there is anything that hasn't felt right in the first five issues of Hellboy in Hell, it's that while the setting has changed, the tone of this series hasn't greatly shifted away from the supernatural adventure that has been the heart of Hellboy. The character and the audience just needed to get used to a new setting while everything else about this comic stayed the course it has long been set on for a long time. As it turns out, Mignola was just taking his time to get us acclimated to this new world because Hellboy In Hell #6 starts to show us that these aren't the same old Hellboy shenanigans that we've grown accustomed to over the decades. Hellboy is dead but what does that really mean?

Hellboy in Hell #6 opens with Hellboy, sitting in a bar listening to a couple of men talk about their business opportunities of creating a map of Hell. If the context has changed a bit, Hellboy sitting around drinking is not a new concept. Even the idea of him drinking with ghosts and ghouls isn’t that far of a stretch from anything we’ve seen Mignola or Hellboy do before. What stands out is actually how respectable in an old timey way that the two men look, with their Victorian waistcoats and scarves tied around their neck. If anything, their plans at fame and fortune seem a bit ill conceived. Describing their map, they talk about the city of Hell. “as it’s all one sprawling tangle of buildings and streets,” one of the men says. The other one then confesses, “... And, I’m embarrassed to admit, we’ve never quite managed to find our way out of it.” The men creating the map are the ones most in need of it. The men look like any number of proper English types from a Mignola book except for one brief panel close to the end of their interaction with our hero when we see their heads as skulls. It’s a quick panel, but it’s enough to show that not everything here is what we think it is.

The two spirits are chased away by another more ominous looking gentleman who asks if Hellboy is interested in a game of cards. Of course, this being a Hellboy story in Hell means that like the two mapmakers, this man is also not what he seems to be. He’s not just a spirit looking to have a nice, friendly game of cards. It turns out that when he was alive, this spirit had fought and was defeated by Hellboy years ago in Prague at a similar game of cards. As the creature looks to get his post mortem revenge, he’s described as a man who is so corrupted, “he no longer has any desire for Heaven… He is not chained to [Hell,] but dwells here of his own free will.” That becomes a key line because from what we’ve learned about Hellboy in previous stories, Hell is his. It’s where he belongs and he’s not really fighting his way out of it. It’s hard to say if he doesn’t desire Heaven but he’s certainly not actively trying to claw his way out of Hell either.

Mignola’s storytelling in Hellboy in Hell #6 is all about mood and character. More specifically, it’s about the mood of the characters. It’s about the weight of Hellboy’s fate and how it weighs down on him. Combined with Dave Stewart’s heavy and oppressively sombre colors, the comic becomes this thick, murky environment that affects Hellboy much more than he cares to admit. Like those two mapmaking spirits at the beginning of the comic, we start to get a good look at the real Hellboy. Gone is the crimson red, larger-than-life hero that we’ve thrilled to and in his place is a shrunken, diminished, grayish spirit who has quite literally lost his heart. You can even see the hole where it once was. Hellboy has changed much more than he or Mignola have wanted to let on up to this point but now we start getting hints that this isn’t the same roguish rapscallion who travelled all over the world hunting monsters.

Hellboy in Hell #6 explores death in a way that’s quite a different than what we usually see in comics. Most of the time we’re waiting for the heroes miraculous resurrection because there’s a new event around the corner or a new movie is coming out next week. Even here, that hope is always going to be there; you’ve got to hope that one day you’ll see Hellboy fighting alongside the B.P.R.D. again to save the world but it doesn’t feel as inevitable as knowing that Peter Parker will be alive again. Hellboy is dead and Mignola’s story is about how death can truly change you. Visually we’re starting to see this character as a dead man and that flips around the story. So that as Hellboy enters his third decade of publication, Mignola has fundamentally changed his character by killing him. It sounds so stupid and simple to say “death changes everything” but Mignola is showing just how complex an idea that really is.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

The Lumberjanes #2
Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis
Art by Brooke Allen and Maarta Laiho
Lettering by Aubrey Aiese
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Lumberjanes is definitely no Camp Grenada, especially when considering the fact that there’s no opportunity for these campers to be bored when they’re facing down a monstrous sea monster when trying to earn a merit badge. Writers Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis manage to capture what makes summer camp so fantastic, frustrating (at least from a former camp counselor’s point of view), fun, and exhilarating, all while building the foundations for a story that looks to be the makings of a great one. Artists Brooke Allen and Maarta Laiho are able to capture the “essence” of summer camp through their overdramatic art, which only serves to engage us more in the story.

Anyone should be able to find something with which to identify in The Lumberjanes. As a former camp counselor, the first few pages were perfect when seeing Scout Master Jen taking these girls out canoeing. Stevenson and Ellis took the opportunity, again, to show us the wide range of character traits these girls possess: from Ripley’s overenthusiasm, to April’s overconfidence, to Mal’s fear of the water. It’s fairly easy to get lost in a story with so many characters, especially when they all seem to have equal importance; although their names are sometimes hard to remember, Stevenson and Ellis make them so different from each other personality-wise that it only complements and enhances the story.

What’s even more impressive is how Stevenson and Ellis incorporate real aspects of scouting in the story. Taking these campers out for canoeing feels like something that should happen at a summer camp, which adds to the story’s credibility and believability. However, it’s what comes from the plot that’s so significant: we learn about these characters as they’re tested by something as simple as earning a “Naval Gauging” badge to something as terrifying as facing a sea monster. Stevenson and Ellis are able to push the plot forward, reveal character, and embed themes all in one shot, all of which is nothing short of impressive. Adding to that, they’re able to seamlessly inject humor into the story, like when April earns her “Pungeon Master” badge for making a pun. Characters like Jo voice our own concerns, when she asks, “Are you serious?” and it’s the deadpan manner in which she answers — courtesy of Allen’s penciling — that makes it so hilarious.

Stevenson and Ellis should count themselves fortunate that artistic talent like Allen and Laiho are on board with the project as well. Their art is what makes the humor in The Lumberjanes that much more hilarious. From the expressions on characters’ faces to their physical movement, readers should expect to get a visceral reaction from these characters’ portrayal. To all the current and former camp counselors, if you’ve never made faces or gestures like Scout Master Jen makes, you had it easy; to anyone else, they’ll look as funny as they are and will more than likely appreciate how characters like Ripley can be so expressive.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is that it shatters gender norms and stereotypes and celebrates girls being girls, whatever that means to them. It’s inspiring to see characters like Ripley and Mal who break from the stereotypical “girly” appearance, but still see characters like April shine. Readers who enjoyed Daphne’s portrayal in the live action Scooby Doo will most likely feel satisfied, as April gets to save the day with her traditional “girly” attitude. Characters like Jo — who discredits April by chastising her in the heat of the moment — give readers an opportunity to reflect on their own views and makes learning opportunities in the narrative. At its core, The Lumberjanes celebrates all facets of female empowerment without alienating any other audiences. Everyone, male, female, or anyone on anywhere on the gender identification spectrum, should be able to find something in these characters that speaks to them.

The only downside of this book is that, although it’s immensely enjoyable and fun to read, we’re still wondering what it’s about. It looks like we’ll be getting some answers in The Lumberjanes #3, but for now it’s a small note that can’t help but be heard. After all, wouldn’t you question monsters at summer camp, too? The fact that it’s gone on for two issues without much elaboration implies that it’s normal for the camp. While Stevenson and Ellis may ask readers to blindly accept a little too much that’s going on, The Lumberjanes is, nonetheless, a fantastic read that everyone should at least give a chance, especially those former camp counselors out there!

Credit: Ted Naifeh

Princess Ugg #1
Written by Ted Naifeh
Art by Ted Naifeh and Warren Wucinich
Lettering by Warren Wucinich
Published by Oni Press
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

While anyone picking this up might have some recollections of Brave - from its red-haired, weapon-wielding heroine to its tale about an unlikely princess trying to fit into the role - Princess Ugg stands as its own story by the end of the issue. The story of Princess Ugg is set in a fictional land, where princesses attend the “prestigious Princess Academy” in the fairy tale kingdom of Atraesca. Forgettable, made-up names aside, Princess Ugg will win you over with its protagonist Princess Ülga of Grimmeria as she takes princess-dom by the horns.

It’s no question that it takes a bit of time to get into this story. Writer Ted Naifeh opens the issue with an exchange between Princess Ülga and her mother, but this exchange doesn’t do enough to ground the reader or fully flesh out what this story will be about. While it’s only the first couple of pages, Naifeh could have chosen a different opening that still captured the tender moment between a mother and her daughter. Part of the problem is that Naifeh writes the dialogue phonetically, making reading it sometimes confusing as we have to trudge through words like “edgykayshun,” “tewsand,” “dinnae,” and “cannae.” Though the context of the dialogue is—most of the time—enough to divine the meaning of these words, it’s an extra step the reader has to go through, which risks removing readers from the story.

Those short pitfalls aside, this first issue remains strong overall, especially in how Naifeh and artist Warren Wucinich portray Princess Ülga and Lady Julifer as foils to each other. It’s clear that this story will inevitably be about them learning about each other and how they could benefit from taking leaves out of each other’s respective books. Naifeh shows the dichotomy between them perfectly as he illustrates their morning routines. Where Princess Ülga wakes on her own and gets ready in an admittedly bombastic fasion, Lady Julifer is pampered and taken care of by her servants. Even from there designs there’s a clear different: where Princess Ülga is built, angular with her muscular frame, and short in a down-to-earth fashion, Lady Junifer is tall, with her design being more elegant and poised.

In fact, it’s the book’s art that’s one of the major highlights of this new series. Naifeh’s cartoonish style fits the over-exaggerated aspects of the story and his attention to detail grounds us visually in the story. You’ll never feel lost as he details the backgrounds to take the time and set the scene; however, it’s Wucinich’s colors that really make these setting real. Wucinich isn’t afraid to play with color. His style, which doesn’t shy away from exploring how highlights and shadows affect colors, makes for some stunning artwork, especially in the pages where Princess Ülga enters the city. This pair of artists works incredibly well together, making for a read that’s both appealing to the eye and serves the narrative well.

The premise of the story is fairly believable, making the ability to suspend your disbelief fairly easily. Although this issue mostly sets up the basic foundations of the plot, and not too much happens in terms of action, Naifeh engages the readers by keeping the initial cast of characters small. Ancillary characters like Princess Ülga’s parents, the headmistress of the Princess Academy, and Lady Julifer’s handmaid still retain a personality without getting in the way of allowing our protagonist and her rival tell the story. Though we’re obviously meant to identify with Princess Ülga, Naifeh still allows us to at least sympathize with Lady Julifer, setting himself up for points to expand upon in subsequent issues.

Princess Ugg is one of those stories you wish you would have thought of yourself, as it feels so obvious after reading it. Naifeh gives himself the latitude to explore these characters in a unique setting where their mettle will be tested as these young Princesses try to learn the craft without losing themselves to others’ expectations. Paired with Warren Wucinich’s colors, Naifeh and Oni Press have a reason to catch people’s attentions — let’s see what they can do with it.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Bee and PuppyCat #1
Written by Natasha Allegri, Garrett Jackson and Madeleine Flores
Art by Natasha Allegri, Patrick Seery and Madeleine Flores
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Bee and PuppyCat has been a property on the rise ever since creator Natasha Allegri's first animated short. The Kickstarter that followed ended up one of the most successful Film/Video campaigns in the site’s history, and fans have clamored for more. Like her friend and colleague Pendleton Ward, Allegri has created something that is both a loving homage to some of her favorite creators and still a unique take on genre conventions. Allegri combines a love for Sailor Moon and Garfield that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s why it mostly works.

The biggest thing that Bee and PuppyCat has going for it is its purity of vision. Allegri is in complete control, despite having a couple of collaborators. But I think that’s also what holds it back in terms of the ways we critique comic books. If a creator’s goal is to tell a story a certain way but that goal doesn’t line up with our expectations and standards of a “good comic book,” then how do you evaluate it? Allegri has admitted that Bee and PuppyCat is awkwardly paced for a cartoon, and that same approach carries over to the comic. That can, unfortunately, make it a weird read. But this is a weird comic with a weird concept, so maybe the approach helps sell the feeling. Bee’s world, as we understand it from this first issue, is fairly insular. Considering that Allegri is a fan of Garfield, I’m not surprised. There’s no urgency to expand the world until the concept takes it there.Because truly what else would an unemployed magical girl do except hang out with their PuppyCat and nap all day? Where Allegri’s approach doesn’t do the property justice is in regards to communicating the concept. Still, there’s an initial lack of understanding about what exactly is going on in the first part of the book. The secondary story by Madeleine Flores (a nice follow-up to the initial animated short) does more to help readers understand the “magical-girl-as-temp-job” concept and I think that because it’s a bit more straightforward in its execution.

Allegri’s art is a huge sell as well, and it helps that fans that are already familiar with her work won’t be forced to adjust to a new art style just for the sake of supporting a property they love. Allegri’s art is simple but her visual gags are hilarious. (PuppyCat being too short to reach the door knob is a favorite of mine.) There’s a clear ‘90s anime influence going on that works really well for both the setting of the story and the characters themselves. It allows Allegri to take advantage of a full range of expression for her characters and it’s very charming. Patrick Seery’s colors are worth talking about as they lend a truly surreal quality to the magical sequences but still do a great job of grounding the real world ones. Madeleine Flores’ work on the back-up story is very true to Allegri’s vision but eschews some of the more unconventional choices made in the main story. The colors are bit more regular. The panels are, as well. Just like the narrative, it’s more straightforward overall but just as entertaining.

This book already has a huge built-in audience that will surely be overjoyed to see Bee and PuppyCat in comic book form. But unlike something like Adventure Time, it hasn’t hit its stride in this medium yet, and that’s working against it garnering new fans who might be expecting something a little bit more polished. But Allegri’s trademark charm and unique worldview do shine through this work. Bee and Puppycat is a fun concept with a lot of room to grow. In a few months, it could be truly one to watch.

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