Best Shots Advance Reviews: THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #1, TURTLES IN TIME #1, More

Credit: Image Comics

Face front, 'Rama Readers! Our erstwhile leader David Pepose is still out patrolling the great expanse of the cosmos, so I, George Marston, am taking the reins to offer you a view of what's to come this week, and boy is there some killer stuff hitting the shelves tomorrow! We're gonna kick things off with a look at Kieron Gillen's The Wicked and the Divine from Pierce Lydon!

Credit: Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

David Bowie once said “I always had the repulsive need to be something more than human.” It's this idea, of pop stars as something more than human, as larger than life icons that drives Kieron Gillen's "The Wicked and the Divine." In Gillen's "poptimist" superhero exploration, 12 Gods return to Earth for a mere 2 years, reincarnated as teen pop idols. It's a simple premise, but it perfectly parallels the concept of superheroes and celebrities as our modern mythology.

What makes this book so profound is Gillen’s unique exploration of youth, obsession with fame and delusions of grandeur. The book’s tagline is “But remember: just because you’re immortal, doesn’t mean you’re going to live forever.” Ziggy Stardust may have committed rock n’ roll suicide but the character is immortal and the impact left on pop culture and popular music resonates even in this very book. The hook is in the mystery and the familiarity (maybe just like a good pop song). Luci looks like she fell out of The Thin White Duke’s closet. Amaterasu is a riff on Lady Gaga and Sakhmet looks so much like Rihanna. and that’s where the superheroics come in. These people are already larger-than-life. Who’s to say they don’t have powers? Luci’s display and subsequent trial is a reminder of the power of the snapping of fingers, the tapping of toes, the clapping of hands and singing along. It’s the 1-2-3-4 that can bring people together or tear them apart. It’s dangerous. It’s makes people uncomfortable. It can’t necessarily be controlled.

I think that Gillen and company are really trying to distill that feeling. The Beatles might have just wanted to hold your hand but they started riots in the streets. Adults were afraid that a simple shake of Elvis’ hips would corrupt the youth of their era. Youth is fleeting. Pop stars are forever. And while maybe that makes every Lady Gaga and Rihanna seem like a rehash, I think it’s more of a continuation. We’ve had a continuing obsession with the power of pop music. Because, yes, you’ll always be able dig out that old 7” that’s one of only 100 ever made by the band that broke up after 14 shows and that will resonate with you. But ask someone how they feel about “Pet Sounds” and you have something you can share. Phonogram is that old 7” and while The Wicked + the Divine might not be “Pet Sounds,” it aspires to that level of accessibility. Is it weird? Sure. So was Ziggy Stardust, though.

And none of this could be communicated without Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson’s work. McKelvie’s clean-lined style has definitely evolved over the years and his acute attention to detail is what really sets him apart from the pack. As evidenced by The Wicked + The Divine Tumblr and the talk leading up to the release, McKelvie has referenced the looks of his characters heavily. They’re a mix of high fashion and pop art. Luci’s all-white look comes in contrast with our usual visualization of Lucifer after the fall. Sakhmet’s look is full of nods to her namesake’s cat-like appearance as well as some visual references to bondage that allude to the meaning of her name, “power.” Amaterasu’s look is simple but otherworldly when she’s on-stage. McKelvie sells motion very well without overusing speed lines. He’s able to translate action with impressive posing for his characters. Matthew Wilson’s colors help set the mood of the book. From the euphoric haze of the concert scene to the assault on the gods themselves and the subsequent explosions of color, we’re treated to something almost Warhol-esque that fits in remarkably with Gillen’s tone. The almost drag vs. drab approach to visually separating the settings is perfect. There is no middle ground. Real life is boring, almost black and white. But pop stars are in technicolor.

The Wicked + The Divine embodies some of the weirdness of 90s Vertigo combined with the populism of more standard superhero fare. For the uninitiated, this might be the best introduction to this creative team’s work. It’s big and bright and over-the-top. It has all of Gillen’s trademark snark and that’s amplified by McKelvie’s continually improving grasp on expressions and body language. This is pop comics. It’s that song that comes on the radio that you’ll have stuck in your head for days. The beat is good. The lyrics hint at something bigger and you can’t help but wonder. Although what you are about to read is a work of fiction, it should never the less be played at maximum volume.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1
Written by Kim Newman and Maura McHugh
Art by Tyler Crook and Dave Stewart
Letters by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Horror fandom owes more than a great deal to a man named H.P. Lovecraft, whether they know it or not. Lovecraft, purveyor of the pulps and weird fiction of the 1930‘s, has been cited by many giants of the genre as one of the most influential writers of horror, despite his relative obscurity during his life. While Lovecraft’s influence can be most readily seen in works of prose, his pulpy sensibilities and sprawling mythos can also be quickly found in the medium of comic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the works of Mike Mignola, a creator that has infused Lovecraftian themes and characters into the majority of his works. This brings us to Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1 the latest issue into the adventures of Sir Edward Grey, special envoy to the Queen and occult detective. A man under instructions from the crown is found dead in the seemingly idyllic town of Hallam, Sommerset, but, of course, nothing is ever what it seems and Hallam may be home to a dark entity who preys on those who ask the wrong questions.

Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1 finds our irascible Edward Grey slumming through what seems to be a routine murder involving a man who was investigating the new favorite tonic of the Queen, Poole’s Elixir, the source of which is a newly formed town that has sprung out of a marsh due to the vision of one Horace Poole, the inventor of said tonic. Our titular hero soon finds himself heading for Hallam and brushing up against odd townsfolk and complacent town officials. Writers Kim Newman and Maura McHugh offer the audience what looks like a straight forward whodunit in the opening pages and slowly ratchet up the dread and weirdness as Grey starts to wade into Hallam and the larger mystery at hand. As Grey takes in the town upon his arrival, Newman and McHugh present small but off-putting hints at the larger evil that is infesting the town, much like the great Lovecraft tales “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” or “Dagon”. The script presents us the facade of normality while letting its weirdness show just through the cracks. Though it is never really outright horror at first, you still feel very uneasy as Grey ventures further and further into the town and its inner workings. Newman and McHugh perfectly nail the tone of a great Lovecraftian story, showing that writing a good weird tale is a lot more than just tentacles and insanity. Tone is immensely important when handling a story like this and Newman and McHugh absolutely deliver, both in Grey’s characterization and the pulpy genre that he inhabits.

Also handling a great deal of the heavy lifting in regards to tone are artists Tyler Crook and Dave Stewart, who lend a murky yellowed paper look to Witchfinder that plays the feel of the story right down to the hilt. Crook’s art coupled with the hazy colors of Dave Stewart gives the issue an almost Frazier Irving like look, heightening the stylish look and dreadful feel. Crook and Stewart take what could have been just dry period visuals and transform them into something evocative of an old penny dreadful yarn, even going so far as to include a sequence that appears straight up pulled from The Strand magazine. As Grey delves into the mystery, he picks the brain of Hallam’s resident bobby, Constable George Lawless, who offers his take on the motive and perpetrators of the murder. Crook and Stewart render this scene exactly like the two toned graphic storytelling of the time, injecting a bit of whimsy into the strange proceedings as well as a bit of visual flair. It is a fun sequence that highlights the understandably dour pages that surround it. This also may be the first time that “dour” could be seen as a selling point of a comic, as the story and artwork go out of there way to present themselves as such. Like most Lovecraftian stories, Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1 leaves little room for light to penetrate through the murky greys, greens, and blues that Dave Stewart saturates the panels with. While Newman and McHugh’s script nails the tone of a story such as this, Tyler Crook and Dave Stewart add the extra visual push that the script needs in order to really sell the story.

Though Lovecraft died in obscurity, he has, without question, inspired scores of writers and caused monumental shifts in what we know today as the horror genre. While his influence on prose writers is easily apparent, comics have always been tailor made for the kind of storytelling that he was known for. Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1 is exactly the kind of story that Lovecraft would have told. While it takes more than a few cues from some of his most known works, it still stands apart as a great single issue of a great comic series. Team Witchfinder has taken everything great about a good Lovecraft tale and crystallized it through the lens of modern comic book storytelling, introducing readers to not only Sir Edward Grey, but to the works of H.P. Lovecraft as a whole. Great stories always leave you needing more, and Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland #1 leaves you needing, wanting, and hoping for much, much more.

Credit: idw

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time #1
Written by Paul Allor
Art by Ross Campbell and Bill Crabtree
Letters by Shawn Lee
Published by IDW
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

For fans of a certain age, the title Turtles In Time will bring to mind some very specific memories of late nights hunched in front of a Super Nintendo, hopefully with a good friend at your side, wading through scores of dinosaurs, robots, aliens, and Foot Clan ninjas as any of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It's no surprise that IDW chose to resurrect the title - and concept - of that classic game as a mini-series, as astonishingly and simply evocative as it is. Writer Paul Allor, along with artists Ross Campbell and Bill Crabtree, aims to bring the same sense of subtle humor and frenetic energy that made Turtles In Time an endlessly enjoyable game, while taking great care to build a fun, engaging comic as a story in its own right.

The first thing that is immediately noticeable about Turtles In Time #1 is Ross Campbell's impeccable artwork. Straddling a line between Herge and Bill Watterson, Campbell brings a pitch-perfect amount of Saturday morning sensibility to a story about mutant ninjas, aliens, and dinosaurs. While Campbell's ligne claire style eschews nearly all of the grittiness that has characterized many TMNT comics, he smartly finds ways to inject some blocky shadows when they fit the scene, such as when the Turtles hide in a cave, or when Raphael, incapacitated for much of the book, finally finds himself able to cut loose. Campbell is aided by colorist Bill Crabtree, who manages to keep the book's palette simple, while still bringing out bright, engaging hues that bring to mind the look of old TMNT action figures and sunday morning strips in the best way.

Along with Campbell and Crabtree's stellar artistic presence, writer Paul Allor is no slouch himself. While the book's preface establishes that the events of Turtles In Time are a result of action occurring in another comic, all one really needs to know going in is that the Turtles have somehow become lost in time and space, with no way to get home. Even that is established in the story, allowing readers to dive right in whether they've ever read a TMNT comic or not. Further, Allor nails the characterization of Raph, Leo, Donny, and Mikey. Perhaps my favorite of Allor's Turtles is Michelangelo, whose role as the group's comic relief is balanced with his daredevil, consequences-be-damned attitude towards this world of dinosaurs and aliens.

If there's any misstep in Turtles In Time #1, it's that the boys in green feel too much like passengers in their own story. Though they receive the book's focus - this isn't a backdoor pilot for another character or concept - they are very much swept along in the story's current, lacking agency over their destination. That said, even with this caveat, Turtles In Time constantly finds ways to show off the Turtles' not inconsiderable prowess for fighting aliens, riding dinosaurs, and even falling backwards into luck. Turtles In Time captures the "anything is possible" feeling of the best TMNT stories, without falling into the trap of forcing everything and the kitchen sink into the picture.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time #1 recaptures the fun and frenzy of its classic namesake, while still managing to forge an identity of its own. This book feels inspired by its predecessor without being beholden to it. It's almost a shame that the next issue will see the TMNT swept away yet again, to another horizon, given how expertly and energetically Allor, Campbell, and Crabtree captured the excitement of this prehistoric setting, but if this issue is any indication of their overall capabilities as storytellers, the Turtles' next jaunt through time will be just as exciting and endearing as this one proved to be.

Credit: Image Comics

Sex Criminals #6
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky with Becka Kinzie
Published by Image Comics
Review by Brendan McGuirk
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Sex Criminals is back smutting up the shelves, ushering in a new era for both “sex comedy” and “adult humor.”

In pop culture, the sex comedy has a pretty hard-earned bad reputation. All too often, “sex” in these kinds of comedies is treated like an endzone; it's a threshold for the protagonist to cross, individually, with the “scoring” of the goal expected to provide the hero with affirmation and validation. The “comedy,” is then born through the increasing degrees of failure and embarrassment that pile up in the blind pursuit of this all-encompassing quest.

Until the guy gets laid and the credits roll.

There's something deeply unfunny at the heart of those stories, though. There's a suggestion that sex is something to try and coerce from someone else, by any means necessary, because failure to do so means boundless shame and scorn. It's a mean narrative, and it's not hard to extrapolate the destructive effect it can have on impressionable and already hormone-compromised minds.

Someone trying to have sex isn't that funny, it's actually kind of pitiful. And yet, having sex is brimping hysterical. It's all funny faces and weird noises and stickiness. Trying is lonely, and if comedy and sex have anything in common, it's that they're sensations best when shared.

The sex comedy that Fraction and Zdarsky are trafficking in is one where sex is equal parts hilarious, awkward, mystical, and, most critically, predicated on mutuality. Readers probably don't identify (well, literally anyway) with sexual climaxes that result in the freezing of time. But falling in love is universal, and few works of modern storytelling have more authentically represented those first moments of mutual infatuation and intimacy than the tale of Suzie and Jon getting it on.

Last arc, the two charming deviants met, realized the unique bond they shared, and, during that crazy suspension-of-disbelief phase, where limitations weren't even worth taking the time to acknowledge, fell in love and started robbing banks to make each other's dreams come true.

Of course, the reason they call it the “honeymoon period,” is that, by its very definition, it's finite. Issue six's “Coming On,” begins a journey that follows the opening swept-up-in-each-other torrent, where dust has settled and partners are no longer mere avatars of blissfully projected possibilities but are instead recognized to be people, with all the accompanying hangups and shortcomings.

Suzie served as readers' guide character for the majority of the last arc, and now it's Jon's turn to act as host. He has, in his own words, “some things, brain things. Problems.” This was all well and good when he was just taking a daily dump on his boss's office fauna, but as the stresses of he and Suzie's life compound, and his coping mechanisms are compromised, so is his effectiveness as a partner. Falling in love, after all, is only the start. Turns out that kind of nuance is what makes this an “adult” story, not all the boobies and wee-wees.

Tilting the focus from mere sexual hijinx to internal distresses reveals something vital about the core of this book. The enemy of Sex Criminals is not the Sex Police that have Jon and Suzie on the run; it's shame. Shame largely informs how our culture feels about sex, which can have terribly devastating reverberations. Fraction and Zdarsky have a silver bullet for shame, though; compassion. The book exhibited compassion when it explored its lead characters' budding sexuality, which is what made it funny, and inclusive. Compassion is what makes the story sex positive in a way unlike any raunchy contemporaries.

Passion got Suzie and Jon this far. Compassion will be what gets them where they go next.

Zdarsky and Fraction are redeeming the very idea of the sex comedy. It's important. And best of all, it relieves the tension.

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