Best Shots Advance Reviews: Ellis's TREES #2, C.O.W.L. #2, SKULLKICKERS #28

Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

C.O.W.L. #2
Written by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel
Art by Rod Reis
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

C.O.W.L. takes a step forward in the art department in Issue #2, but the narrative is still treading water. Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel are building something big while trying to forge a new path in done-to-death cape comics. But the world-building is slowing the pace to a crawl. The writers are trying to flesh out a complex cast that will allow their story to really sing, but it’s not as easy was it might be with a television show that can rely on an actor to turn in a good performance.

Credit: Image Comics

Through two issues, Rod Reis’ art has been the star. A amalgamation of Bill Sienkiewicz, Phil Noto and Frazer Irving, his work oozes style and confidence. The grim overtones of ‘60s Chicago really shine through, but Reis expands his skill set in this issue in a way we didn’t see in Issue #1. By varying his color palettes from scene to scene, he’ s able to better set them apart, which helps with the consistency of coherency of the experience for the reader. As with many period dramas, there are a lot of characters in similar states of period dress. With a lack of truly defining physical features, some of the characters in the first issue tended to blend together. Reis avoids that here, and it allows him to showcase another of his strengths: nuanced expressions. This is a fairly dialogue-heavy title, and it requires an artist to help sell the underlying meaning of the text through each character’s different looks. Reis absolutely delivers in this regard. All of this, and we’ve still said nothing of his action work that brings to mind Mike Huddleston’s incredible experimentations in combining Eastern and Western comic influences to infuse each panel with it’s own unique energy.

Credit: Image Comics

Reis is really buying his writers some time. The major players seem to mostly be in place, but rather than provide us with a microcosm of a larger world as a way to build from the inside out (for example, Powers’ “Who Killed Retro Girl?” arc), Higgins and Siegel go the opposite way. We’re given information in stops and starts. We don’t really know too much more than the characters and at this point, it’s still hard to know who to root for. Maybe this story doesn’t have any real heroes, but a clear-cut point of view character usually emerges (even if it does change later on, a la Mad Men’s shift from Don to Peggy as the series has progressed). It’s understandable why the writers might go this route. As we get more and more information, patterns will emerge and suddenly the conversations that we didn’t quite understand or feel had much weight will take on a different context. It’s clever but it’s a real long game approach and frankly, one that many comic book fans can’t afford.

Almost everything about C.O.W.L. feels very familiar; the character archetypes, the loose concept, the art; but it’s so polished that it feels like it’s just about to turn the corner and really start to make some waves. We just haven’t been given enough to really sink our teeth into yet. And until we are, it’s hard to really get entirely behind this book. Fans of period dramas, slight twists on the traditional superhero and gorgeous artwork are definitely going to find something for them. But readers that want more story in their reads might be better off trade-waiting on this slow burner.

Credit: Image Comics

Trees #2
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Howard
Lettering by Fonographics
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Trees #2 picks up with the Spitzbergen Station in the Arctic where a team of scientists continues to monitor a gigantic alien Tree in the frozen wastes. Readers get to know the team of scientists, including Marsh – a scientist dedicated to uncovering the mysterious appearance of what may be foreign plant life brought by the Trees. Meanwhile, Ellis continues his whirlwind tour around the Tree-populated world with brief stops in Italy and Somalia, where readers can further experience the ways – both local and global – the Trees have affected the people of the world.

Credit: Image Comics

First off, it's important for readers to go back and reread the first issue of Tree, particularly the last four pages, as the opening sequence picks up on this in Issue #2. I didn't do this in my initial reading, and I felt like I was missing some context, which the rereading of the first issue helped alleviate. In many regards, Issue #2 continues to do much of the same work of the first in terms of establishing the world in which these alien Trees exist, so the pacing remains slow and deliberate. For readers who are patient, this won't be a problem. Ellis does introduce the plot thread with the alien plant life, but given how little is known about the Trees, the implications are unclear what this may hold for the characters and the world. Additionally, Ellis seems to be setting up some sort of conflict in Somalia given the revelation that the Tree there is smaller than the rest and will provide some sort of tactical launching pad for its government. Unfortunately, little more information than that is revealed, and again, how this will affect the primary narrative remains unclear. Overall, this issue may prove to move a little too slowly for some readers given a lack of conflict, which never really materializes in this issue.

Credit: Image Comics

Arguably, the real draw to this issue remains Jason Howard's art. Most readers familiar with Howard's work will know of him from The Astounding Wolfman and Super Dinosaur - fun-filled, action-packed comics with a more cartoonish aesthetic. Not so with Trees. In this series, Howard displays a much more coarse feel to his line work that underscores the rough and uncertain nature of the world he's co-creating – a world where the crisp and animated pencils of his previous work would not be as well-suited. He also makes expert use of composition and layout to convey the imposing nature of the Trees, often using only wide-angle shots and often half-and-full splash pages to showcase these constructs. It's also worth pointing out that Howard continues to handle the coloring duties as well, and I found his cool palette accentuated the distant and detached tone of the story. What we see then are a number of examples of where Howards uses both form and design of the medium to further convey the tone of the content making for some strong visual storytelling.

Credit: Image Comics

Overall, I think many readers will leave Trees #2 hoping to have learned a little more about the Trees themselves. There is a tension Ellis creates between the limited serialized format and his desire to introduce readers to over half a dozen locales in just two standard-sized issues that may leave readers feeling less invested in the characters – with the exception of Marsh – than they might otherwise be. Still, fans of dystopian fiction and/or Ellis' past work will certainly want to continue following along to see where he takes this narrative. He is clearly and deliberately taking his time to establish this world, and I'm still curious to see what direction he's going to take this story. And certainly, fans of Howard will no doubt enjoy seeing him branch out and expand his artistic repertoire.

Credit: Image Comics

Skullkickers #28
Written by Jim Zub
Art by Edwing Huang, Kevin Ragnat, Misty Coates and Ross Campbell
Lettering by Marshall Dillon
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

In the fourth part of "A Dozen Cousins and Crumpled Crown," readers finally discover Rolf's fate following the sacred dwarven justice ritual of purification – which is just a high-fallutin' way of saying he was crushed between two big stone slabs after being captured by his dwarven kin and mistaken as an imposter and enemy. Meanwhile, his fellow adventurers – Rex, Kusia and one pair of alternate reality clones of Rex-and-Rolfe, all arrive on the scene too late to save their friend as the Glacier Giants arrive to wreak havoc upon Dwayre. After spending the past issue building up Rolf's backstory with the Wartyke – and his part in its becoming inoperable – Zub and company are quick to pick up the pace in this issue and throw their characters back into the combat and comicality that long-time readers have grown to love from this series.

Credit: Image Comics

If there's really one reason why this series is worth buying every month, it's because it's fun. The art consistently comes alive between Huang's energetic and expressive lines and Coates' vibrant and lush colors. Moreover, they're able to create a visual design as seen in the Glacier Giants and Wartyke – which I'm still itching to see go into battle against each other – that quickly catches and keeps the reader's attention. As I've mentioned before, it looks as though Zub is setting up a sort of medieval fantasy version of Pacific Rim in this story arc, and Huang and Coates do a great job of creating the visual appeal for this scenario.

Credit: Image Comics

With regards to the writing, it's exactly the sort of Skullkickers story fans of the series have come to enjoy – buckets of bloody gore (literally), sword fighting, monsters, mayhem, and a hell of a lot of snark. My favorite sequence of the issue took place between pages sixteen through eighteen where the two narrators – a device that I've rarely seen used simultaneously and even rarer still seen executed successfully in comics – get into yet another argument with one another. This underscores the sheer absurdity of the world Zub has created when the comedy is literally spilling out of the story itself and playing out between the narrators. What makes this equally funny is that Huang and Coates seemingly go about their business as visual storytellers and keep the reader on track while Zub's narrators become thoroughly distracted in a hilarious argument over literary semantics and guidelines for what can and cannot be shared with the reader.

Overall, Skullkickers #28 might not make for a great first issue for new readers, but it does make for a great next-installment for those readers who have been following the current story arc. And it's a rare thing to find a comic that is written well enough to regularly elicit laughs, so I'd certainly recommend new readers in need for a little levity in their reading pick up the this issue along with the previous three installments.

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