Best Shots Advance Reviews: WICKED & DIVINE #2, RAT QUEENS #7, LIFE WITH (DEATH OF) ARCHIE #36

Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine #2
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

If The Wicked + The Divine’s bombastic debut issue didn’t do it for you, Issue #2 is sure to change your mind. Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and company have already set up the concept and themes that they’ll be exploring, but now they get a bit more character-driven, and it really helps the books move forward. McKelvie and colorist Matt Wilson really expand the visual language of the book as well, allowing the narrative room to get even weirder as the team truly kicks it into a higher gear in the final pages.

Credit: Image Comics

Kieron Gillen has mentioned Jonathan Hickman quite a bit in regards to this series, and Hickman’s penchant for planning is definitely an influence here. The pacing is very deliberate, and it puts the focus on our point of view character, Laura. As she becomes a bit more fleshed out, we start to see an even more conniving side to Luci and while the themes were apparent before, we start to understand the conflict more. Gillen throws in a lyric from The Mountain Goats’ “No Children” in the back matter that plants the seeds of some serious underpinnings for the future of the book. “You are coming down with me/Hand in unlovable hand.” As Laura begins to go down the rabbit hole with Luci, it’s hard to read that without wondering just what that devil has planned. Gillen is just as good at creating believable young characters as he is adept at writing tricksters like Loki and Luci. But I think where I’m most impressed is in his ability to shift the tone and show us a side that we haven’t quite seen from him. As Laura traverses the depths of the abandoned train station, there’s a sense of something much larger at work. Gillen’s words are left almost entirely on their own. The reader is left to hang on them like the quiet build before a return to the chorus. And with the final reveal, we get that sense of release. And things just keep getting bigger and bigger, and soon they’ll be out of control.

Credit: Image Comics

And if a band is only as good as their drummer, then a comic is only as good as its art team. McKelvie and Wilson stick pretty close to what they’re known for in the first couple of scenes. Expressions are key and Wilson stays out of McKelvie’s way, never letting the colors overtake the scene. But our first look at Ananke strays from the norm. McKelvie always includes details in his work, but he’s very skilled at using few lines to deliver information. It’s never incomplete. It’s just enough. Luci’s awakening of her true nature is packed, though. It’s a great expansion of the way McKelvie’s style usually uses space. The page is almost claustrophobic, an appropriate feeling when your life is being turned upside-down. But these two really turn it on when Gillen needs them to. Just as blackness overtakes the pages of the final scenes and Gillen goes into his solo of word, the art provides sparse reminders that something is coming. A rung-out chord of color as Laura descends the depths. A panel placed perfectly like the slowly building roll of a snare drum. And finally, a click, click, boom as the “New King of the Underground” makes his appearance.

The Wicked + The Divine feels a lot like falling in love. Not necessarily romantic love. Just the idea that something can so consume you that you’re kept constantly on edge. And a book like this welcomes that idea and encourages it. Gillen isn’t concerned with whether you recognize the names of his pantheon. He knows you’ll look it up. He won’t explain the symbols and references he makes right away because therein lies part of the fun.It’s a lot like finding your first favorite band that no one else has heard of. You keep close and secret and you stoke the private little fire of your own obsession. It’s how Laura relates to the Pantheon. It’s how many people relate to actors, writers and musicians. You don’t just want to love them, you want to be them. But like some singer sang, “You better watch out/Oh, what you wish for/It better be worth it/So much to die for.”

Credit: Archie Comics

Life with Archie #36
Written by Paul Kupperberg
Art by Pat Kennedy, Tim Kennedy, Jim Amash and Glenn Whitmore
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

They might not wear capes and tights, but Archie Andrews, along with his longtime love interests Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, have been staples of the comic book industry for a reason — in fact, make that two reasons.

Credit: Archie Comics

The first reason is simple: Archie’s high school romances, while definitely soapy and even a little goofy, have always been relatable, human stories buoyed by a sense of optimism and inclusiveness. The second reason might be even more potent: The stories were always accessible, never needing a convoluted backstory like the superhero crowd in order to get invested in the action.

Life with Archie #36 doesn’t deliver on either of these. For those eager to get in on the action following the company’s successful media blitz — Archie Andrews shot dead protecting gay friend — this comic is very difficult to follow, as the series hinges on the premise of two separate universes but fails to explain the conceit in the context of the story. Meanwhile, lapsed readers eager for more of the fun Riverdale hijinks of their youth will find this comic shockingly depressing, even though the fatal shot doesn’t take place until the tail end of the book. In other words, Life with Archie #36 may make for good headlines for the public and will certainly be a milestone for diehard Archie-fans, but that doesn’t mean it stands on its own as a strong narrative.

Credit: Archie Comics

There’s always been a bit of a winking tone to Archie’s adventures, which ordinarily allows for some wiggle room on the reader’s part towards accepting some somewhat sloppy writing — with a book this cartoony and melodramatic, it’s not a stretch on your suspension of disbelief to have Veronica call Betty a cow in one story and then be BFFs in the next, or to have the next joke about Jughead avoiding the company of women for a hamburger. It’s all in good fun! But that doesn’t necessarily work in a more dramatic vein, like writer Paul Kupperberg takes. The actual premise of the story, introducing Senator Kevin Keller and the would-be assassin who takes Archie’s life, winds up coming out almost out of nowhere. And tying together the Archie Marries Betty and Archie Marries Veronica universes — that’s a whole other paragraph — Kupperberg’s script reads like a eulogy long before Archie bites the bullet. Thanks to an encounter with crotchety Mr. Pavia, Archie is waxing nostalgic, but after awhile, the navel-gazing about fate and destiny and thinking about all the other ways his life could have turned out feels not just telegraphed, but outright overindulgent. When Archie winds up randomly telling Mr. Weatherbee “thanks… y’know… for everything,” it goes beyond bleak. When it takes literally 10 pages to shoot Archie, it starts skirting Funky Winkerbean territory.

But what I think might be an even greater pill for readers to swallow is how inaccessible this book is. There is literally a two-page text grid at the beginning of this book explaining the “AMB” and the “AMV” universes, and Heaven help you if you try to read this book without reading that first. Furthermore, there’s such a huge chunk of this book that goes into justifying this weird twin universe premise, as Kupperberg has to bend over backwards to establish that the story he’s telling could be either in the “Betty” or “Veronica” universes — to the point where not only is his wife unnamed, but artists Pat and Tim Kennedy don’t even show her head. It makes for a weird experience reading this book, as Jughead and the rest of the Riverdale cast need seemingly little backstory, while the three most important members of the mythos are ill-defined or out in off-panel limbo. Combine this with the time frame of this story constantly jumping around, starting in Archie’s childhood, then seeing him as a newlywed, then jumping to the future as a father of two — it’s hard to tell where this story is actually taking place.

Credit: Archie Comics

That said, there are some Archie staples that will likely retain some fans, not to mention the diehards, who will certainly cheer for Archie’s heroic sacrifice. The art by Pat and Tim Kennedy is clean and easy to follow, adhering nicely to the standard Archie house style. (That said, with Older Archie only having a wisp of gray in his hair, it does make it difficult to distinguish him visually from his newlywed self.) But the real highlights of this book are when Kupperberg isn’t beholden to some greater storyline, but instead just lets Archie and his friends be themselves. There’s a really sweet moment where the gang hangs out at Pop’s Chocklit Shoppe, as Betty and Veronica flirt with Archie, Jughead flirts with getting a double cheeseburger, and Reggie winds up causing an explosion of fries and burgers with one ill-timed swing of a baseball bat. Even the beginning of this otherwise depressing story has its roots in love, and seeing Young Archie fall for the first time is a wonderfully romantic beat that really encapsulates the whole “Betty or Veronica” debate.

For those who have grown up with Archie and followed him into the parallel universes of married life, Life with Archie #36 will be a sad chapter in the Riverdale saga. And if you’ve grown up with him, how could you not feel for him? How could you not savor in the life that he’s put together, seeing the all-too-uncertain futures of Archie and the gang as they’ve all grown up? But I would argue that the death of a cultural icon like Archie isn’t just about his friends — it’s also about the people who never got a chance to meet him. It’s about distilling everything that made Archie Andrews great, and giving him a sendoff that feels both jarring, fitting and earned. This bleak finale unfortunately has none of that. Life with Archie #36 may grab headlines, but it won’t pluck your heartstrings.

Credit: Image Comics

Rat Queens #7
Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art by Roc Upchurch
Lettering by Ed Brisson
Published by Image Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Credit: Image Comics

Since its debut issue, Rat Queens has gleefully embraced creative violence and raunchy dialogue between four wholly believable fantasy women as they carve and blast their way across the land. With an honest love for the genre, Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch have been building an impressive addition to the sword and sorcery genre of comics. That love comes through strong with Issue #7 as the ramifications of, for lack of a better term, character creation are starting to raise their heads. Every gamer knows that the first adventure is all about the group getting to know the characters. The same is true with this comic. The first arc revealed to the readers just what kind of a world the Rat Queens lived in, and where they saw themselves in that world. And now, for better or (likely) worse, that world is going to start calling in its payback for their actions.

Credit: Image Comics

As the Rat Queens #7 opens, Hannah comes face-to-lamprey mouth with the elven woman that hired assassins to take her whole crew out. All while Dee's estranged husband comes to the Palisades to ask for her help, as Violet does her best to help Betty come down from some serious mushrooms. You know, basic Rat Queens stuff. Only the stakes are raised when the reader discovers the truth behind the founding of the Palisades and the masked man that's been in the shadows since this arc started. This story is not going to end well for our ladies. But as has been the case since Issue #1, how we get to that ending is far more important and entertaining.

One of the most impressive elements to this issue is its restraint, which I will admit is strange to write in a comic packed with an incredibly nasty and visceral fight scene. But it's a statement I stand by. Issue #7 has writer Kurtis J. Wiebe bringing out some very intense personal dynamics between the Queens. Hannahs actions towards the woman that literally paid people to have her and her friends slaughtered is eye-opening and refreshing. Of all the characters, Hannah has the thickest emotional armor, but with her simple actions in the street, we are starting see some cracks. How she will weather this subtle emotional reveal will have ramifications for a long time to come. Indeed, the very theme of Issue #7 revolves around secrets and lies. More so, about the dangers of keeping those elements so close to your chest. It is all but inevitable that these secrets will come out and they will strain all but the hardiest of friendships as hearts break and bodies start to fall. For a story that is so far low on the body count (at least as delivered by the Queens), I've never been more nervous for these four fantastic women.

Credit: Image Comics

Roc Upchurch continues to be one of the most visually exciting artists working in comics right now. In this comic there is no such thing as a simple background person. Everyone is drawn with just enough detail and expression to make the reader believe this is a living and breathing world. In doing so, we're emotionally invested in everything that happens to not only the Queens, but the people around them. This isn't disaster porn. This is all too real and we feel it with each brush stroke. And, for as much as we talk about Upchurch's ability to pencil incredibly expressive faces and poses, it's easy to forget how much energy he brings to a fight scene. The composition found within the almost shockingly brutal fight in the middle of the book is on par with films like The Raid – Redemption. You can feel and hear every nasty punch, kick, and blade to the skull in those few pages. There is a sense of honest danger and violence that few comics even hope of attaining.

Some special attention should also be played to Ed Brisson. His letters do more than simply move the dialog along. Since Issue #1, he's helped bring the vocals to life with these characters, and in Issue #7, he locks them in tight. I can hear accents and tones in my head as the women speak. And when combined with Upchurch's wonderfully energetic fight scenes, the lettering is indeed a special effect that enhances the story. For an issue that's all about emotional honesty and secrets revealed, there is so very much more going on just below the surface. There is just no getting around it, Rat Queens is still a perfect title that everyone should be reading.

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