Best Shots Advance Reviews: TOOTH & CLAW #1, CHEW #44, THE WOODS #7, More

Interior art from Tooth & Claw #1 by Ben Dewey and Jordie Bellaire
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Tooth & Claw #1
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by Benjamin Dewey and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by John Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt
Published by Image Comics
Review by Kat Vendetti
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The world of Tooth & Claw is one that Kurt Busiek has been brewing for over a decade, and his premiere double-sized issue is a testament to that time. In the vein of Conan and Game of Thrones, Busiek leaves no stone unturned in his expansive world-building, rich with an intricate mythology and history.

Magic is beginning to fail in the Seventeen Cities Above the Plain, a sprawling cityscape in the sky populated by magic wielding anthropomorphic animals. As witnessed by the young bull terrier Dunstan, Gharta the Seeker assembles the most skilled wizards to summon the Great Champion who will reopen the gates of magic, but as Dunstan’s narration alludes, darker times are ahead.

In Tooth & Claw #1 Dunstan leads us through the day’s unfolding events while also integrating us into the vast universe Busiek has built. In the opening pages he introduces us to gods they worship and customs to which they adhere, and an airship ride to the land below with Dunstan and his father illustrates a hierarchy in order - all intentional and carefully crafted scenes that shape and define Busiek’s world.

However, as this issue continues, new information gets heavier, and at 44 pages it can be a little hard to digest. Busiek pulls us right into the setting, writing pages laden with exposition to expand on the intricacies of the Seventeen Cities and all it entails, but there are instances where it undermines the art. Scenes like the summoning sequence involve Gharta explaining away what’s happening second by second, and it hinders Benjamin Dewey’s freedom to share in the storytelling. Big things happen in small panels, as Dunstan narrates how amazing it all is while there is little to actually see, and some pages turn static with dialogue and minimal movement. Coupled with this issue’s steady pace, the expository script and limited room to depict the action cause some scenes to lose their impact, and events that are written as devastating can feel a bit underwhelming.

But that is not to say that Dewey doesn’t get any room at all to depict the world of Tooth & Claw, and these aren’t problems that persist throughout the entirety of this issue. Dewey renders some stunning pages of this vast wicker city that Busiek has so carefully created, and his ability to illustrate the diverse figures that populate Tooth & Claw brings the fantastical setting to life. And while some pages can fall flat under heavy exposition, Jordie Bellaire’s colors revive them. With magical rainbow hues and entire pages that explode in a green glow, her colors continually flow throughout this issue, giving this book the movement it may lose through its pacing.

It’s clear that Kurt Busiek has poured his soul into Tooth & Claw. Though it’s a bit of a slow start, it’s a compelling one, and while its density might deter some readers, Tooth & Claw #1 gives enough of a taste of a world that is sure to reveal grander things as the story unravels and grows.

Credit: Image Comics

Chew #44
Written and Lettered by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory and Taylor Wells
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

LAYMANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN

You'll know what I'm talking about when you read Chew #44. Because not everybody makes it out alive.

Last issue, we were treated to a shocking cliffhanger page, as we jumped to the future to watch the vampiric cibopath known as Collector brutally slash Olive Chu across the face. And if you thought that was rough, John Layman and Rob Guillory have plenty more in store. As Chew approaches the final quarter of its run, this issue is a buffet of blood, violence and gore that'll make you ashamed to want seconds.

Given the general comedic bent of Chew, it's easy to forget that Layman and Guillory have some great chops when it comes to action - and that's really the flavor of this issue. Colby, Caesar, Savoy, Applebee, Olive and Poyo bring the fight to the Collector in this issue, and it's a great way to illustrate all the food-centric rules the world of Chew has been building up for 44 issues. We get razor-sharp chocolates, tortillas and chopsticks, butter knife kung fu and even a hilarious nod to a certain spinach-eating sailor. It's all payoff to what we've been seeing Layman spin together before - if we thought the powers of cibopathy were powerful in the hands of the good guys, how terrifying is it to see someone with zero humanity go to work?

And that's not even including the sad tale of Babycakes! *Sniff* Poor Babycakes.

While Layman paces this issue with care, it's artist Rob Guillory who sells all the emotional beats. There are a lot of different tricks he pulls in this issue - in particular, the way he portrays combat is shockingly effective, especially as he utilizes diagonal composition and panel designs to really emphasize the razor-sharp weaponry of the Collector. (He also seems to take a page from the Ryan Ottley school by making each of his characters seemingly fit to burst with blood and guts.) But beyond the savage combat, Guillory is also a detail man - little bits like the Collector's painting of a man with a fork in his head, or the Manhattan Projects cameo in one hilarious sequence, all look great. In particular, there's an 18-panel page featuring the Collector's cibopathic gifts that shows that even with his cartoony style, Rob Guillory is not an artist to underestimate.

Now, this issue is a strong one, but there are a couple of hiccups along the way - really, just a few tricks up Layman's sleeves that could stand to get a little bit of rest. The first one is just a minor infraction in terms of pacing and page count, as Poyo gets yet another psychedelic two-page spread - while Guillory throws in enough details like "Opposite America" to make it funny, it can't help but feel like two pages out of 20 that are wasted. The other thing that surprisingly trips up the issue is usually Layman's greatest strength - his sense of structure. The last three pages of this issue are a flashback to before the story began, and it doesn't quite seem to add much to the story itself, as opposed to a more terrifying cliffhanger like last issue. These two beats aren't the end of the world, but when a quarter of the book feels wrong, it detracts from the product as a whole.

The end is nigh for Tony Chu and company, as John Layman and Rob Guillory gear up for their final 15 issues of Chew. And you couldn't end a chapter any bleaker than this. Yet just because it's shocking and gory doesn't mean it's not also imminently well-executed, and if your tastes run towards the bloody side of the spectrum, Chew #44 might be your favorite issue yet.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

The Woods #7
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Michael Dialynas and Josan Gonzalez
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Stones don’t break. At least, that’s what Ben’s grandfather had to say when faced with adversity. It’s clear that The Woods doesn’t break either, at least in terms of its momentum. Neither does Ben, for that matter, as he struggles with meeting his father’s expectations and being true to himself.

The Woods #7 earns a perfect score because the series has become one of the most important comics being published today and this issue is a culmination of all its strengths. It’s hard to dance around that fact the one of the major issues facing the comic book industry is the issue of representation: how can we say comics reflect the world around us when—much more often than not—white, heterosexual, cisgender, able bodied, thin men take center stage and drive the story. Writer James Tynion IV has given us a diverse cast for the woods in all the right ways and this issue gives Ben the chance to shine.

I’m not going to lie: I like Ben because he’s a big guy. I’m a big guy, too - I’ve been so since childhood, and Tynion has talked about how he struggled with his weight as teenager and that Ben is a representation of that in the comic. It’s refreshing to see a character who exudes both emotional and physical characteristics someone besides the “typical” reader. It’s so powerful to have an overweight kid beating up monsters with his bare hands, protecting one of his friends, because it tells people who look like Ben that there’s a place for you in the story and there’s a place for you in the world. It might not seem that way to anyone sees themselves reflected in the media all the time, but take my word for it.

Hats off to Michael Dialynas for making it look realistic, as well. Both Tynion and Dialynas are able to balance the gentle giant that Ben is while still allowing him to burst with power when needed in a way that visually asserts his gentle side and sheer power. In other words, he still looks big - not muscular — when he fights, which tells anyone who identifies with Ben’s size that they’re capable of amazing things, no matter what the situation.

The best part about all of this is how organically Tynion is able to do this within the narrative. While the opening removes us from the action currently happening on the planet, the flashbacks peppered throughout the issue lets us into Ben’s world and shows us why he does what he does. All of it feels real because Tynion is able to create three-dimensional characters with each one: we only need to meet Ben’s dad for two pages and we immediately understand him as a person and suddenly we become interested in this storyline that doesn’t automatically seem relevant. It’s for that same reason we feel the same as Ben when his father makes any sort of judgement, good or bad. Tynion starts with the characters and draws us in and allows us to move forward in the story. We couldn’t care less what setting Ben is in - whether that be on the planet or in the school’s auditorium for the play - because we want to see what Ben will do next to achieve his goals when faced with conflict and adversity.

Tynion is able to seamlessly place this all within the context of the overall plot. We still see Karen, Adrian and Culder throughout the issue and Tynion drops a pretty significant reveal that turns the tide against the attacking animals. We still know pretty much next to nothing about this world, and with this issue that list continues to grow. Yet despite the rules of the world being left unexplained, there’s an immediacy to the story that makes us want to turn the page and find out what happens next because, again, Tynion puts these characters first. Dialynas and colorist Josan Gonzalez support the story because of the fluid nature of their art. It’s a major accomplishment, considering the dichotomy between the two settings. On the one hand, we see Ben during a school play where the dramatic tension is high during a fight with his friend; on the other, we’re seeing these kids literally fight for their lives. Both are able to visually come to life from the synergy Dialynas and Gonzalez are able to produce.

If you’re not reading The Woods right now, I honestly wouldn’t be able to figure out why. This particular issue has all the elements of great storytelling: fleshed out characters whose characteristics act as both strengths and weaknesses, naturally developed motivations and actions, and a monumental main plot that builds momentum with each and every issue.

Credit: Oni Press

Terrible Lizard #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Drew Moss and Ryan Hill
Lettering by Crank!
Published by Oni Press
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The odd team-up of plucky kid and monster of wondrous size or legend is not all that new. In fact, one could easily argue that enough comics, movies, and games have tapped that flight of fancy that it's a small genre unto itself. And now, with Terrible Lizard #1, it's time for Cullen Bunn and Drew Moss to take a shot at the idea. From the cover alone, this book gives the reader the impression that Bunn is trying to branch out from his more mature titles. Even his work over at Marvel and DC have a decidedly mid teen demographic in mind. While not skeptical of this shift, I was curious if his slightly twisted approach to comics storytelling would work in a more kid friendly book.

When your comic promises larger than life dinosaur adventure on the cover, you better deliver on that promise very quickly. And Bunn does so by having Drew Moss cut loose with monster action on both the first page and then follows it up with a two-page splash. While not anything truly original. It does pull you in and sets the stage for what is to come, with narration provided by our focus and main character. The afore hinted at plucky kid, Jessica Anders. And like so many animated tales from our youth, Jessica is far too smart (and bored) for her own good. Indeed, it only takes a few pages to realize that Bunn is reaching deep into the storytelling tropes pantry and doing his best to make a tasty stew. From the brilliant if slightly inattentive scientist father, to the quirky reason the massive dinosaur bonds with Jessica, and even the event that brings forth its appearance are all things that even a younger reader will recognize.

But just because something is familiar doesn't mean it isn't without merit. With Terrible Lizard #1, that merit comes from the art team of Drew Moss and Ryan Hill. Moss draws every panel as if it were its own splash page. There is never a moment, visually, where the reader doesn't get a sense of true motion and movement from the characters. Even during times of simple talking head conversation or eating sugary cereal, there is some form of movement. It's a wise choice for a book with a massive dinosaur and an ever in motion girl as its main characters. The are a few moments when the facial expressions slide a bit into the cartoony extreme, but there is generally so much chaos happening on the page, it's easy to overlook. The colors by Ryan Hill are both warm and familiar, while still able to convey an energetic setting of science gone wrong and the monsters that happen because of it. His strengths really come through when big baddies rear their heads (and tails and claws). There is some shading and tone work that truly stands above the rest of the issue. And if this is what we can expect in future issues, Terrible Lizard will at least be a visual blast.

I really want to like this comic, and to an extent, I do. I love me some giant monsters, science gone amuck, whip-smart kids as heroes, and slobbering dinosaurs. Really, that's the kind of stuff that fuels the imagination. While I can shut off the more analytical part of my brain and give into the crazy. There was still a lot of the all too familiar to make this a genuinely original and fantastic read. That isn't to say Terrible Lizard #1 is a bad book, very far from it. There just isn't a whole lot here to grab a new reader that they haven't seen, read, or even played before. However, for all those concerns, Terrible Lizard #1 is still a book one could gladly give to any young reader and feel confident that they'd have some fun.

Credit: Image Comics

Penny Dora & The Wishing Box #1
Written by Michael Stock
Art by Sina Grace, Tamra Bonvillain
Lettering by Hope Larson
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Writer Michael Stock might be best known as the founder and DJ at the popular Part-Time Punks club night in a Los Angeles venue, along with the radio show of the same name, which makes Penny Dora & The Wishing Box an all the more pleasing track change. Like the best DJs, Stock has segued so seamlessly into his first mostly all-ages comic book that one could barely noticed that he’s spinning a different tune.

The story goes that Stock based the tale on a short piece called “The Magic Box” that his daughter Nico had published in her school newspaper when she was eight. Effectively a retelling of the Pandora’s Box narrative, it follows the titular Penny Dora who opens a gift on Christmas Day and unwraps an old wooden box. Nonplussed, Penny puts the box aside stuffed with wrapping paper, only to discover that all the presents she could possibly want are now hers. Things take a turn when the box begins to whisper to her, and some horseplay puts the wish-making box into the paws of her feline companion.

Penny Dora & The Wishing Box is simply charming, placing itself squarely in the "careful what you wish for" camp without being didactic or overly twee. In this sense, it begins more like an episode of Twilight Zone than a fairy tale or fable, although the magic qualities of the latter leave their fingerprints all over this issue. As such, it works well for younger audiences and mature readers in equal measure, although playing on a few bedtime fears might make it a wee bit spooky for the readers who are probably too young to pick up a comic anyway. Yet for the most part, it plays just on the right side of creepy, and just like Pandora’s Box, any trepidation will rapidly be overcome by rampant curiosity to see what happens next.

Sina Grace, writer and artist on Image’s recent Burn the Orphanage and perhaps best known for his art on The Li’l Depressed Boy, tackles art duties on this debut. At least half the charm of the book is owed to Grace’s energetic pencils, from the uniformity of the planned community in which we lay our scene through to the early storybook qualities of Penny’s discovery of the box’s gifts. Similarly, Tamra Bonvillain’s shift effortlessly from the brightness of Christmas morning to aiding the look-and-feel of some wood-cut texture in the later pages.

Penny Dora & The Wishing Box #1 is the first issue in a planned five-issue arc, with the writer already planning a second arc to follow this one. It’s a familiar story, albeit one that is incredibly readable, and it’s easy to see how this could become a modern all-ages favorite, with the right mixture of youthful exploration, cautionary tale, and sheer magic. It’s even got a cat for good measure. What more could any discerning reader want from their fantasy stories?

Credit: Image Comics

American Legends #1
Written by Bill Schwartz and Zachary Schwartz
Art by Studio Hive
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Top Cow/Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The old adage about printing the legend when it becomes fact has never been more appropriate than for the fables and heroes of American cultural mythology. Indeed, that expression is largely attributed to John Ford’s film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a classic piece from the western genre. If anything was familiar with stretching the truth for the sake of a good story, then it is undoubtedly the western. For a country relatively young, at least compared with its European ancestors, pioneering tall tales from Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Sally Ann Thunder, Johnny Appleseed and Mike Fink continuing to this day, and they all promise to be in this new mini-series.

Whether it is from Disney’s "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" or the numerous books, records, cartoons, comics and films that have featured the figure over the years, it would be difficult to not have at least a passing familiarity with the King of the Wild Frontier. Yet American Legends offers a unique viewpoint on the man and the myth, emphasizing the ‘bickering partners’ elements of his relationship with riverman Mike Fink, and introducing Sally Thunder as not just an object of mutual desire for Fink and Crockett, but a fierce frontierswoman in her own right. Set down in New Orleans, the loose story is ultimately a mash-up of various characters from Lewis and Clark to Marie Laveau, the witch queen of New Orleans (“she’ll put a spell on you”), complete with a conspiracy from Napoleon.

American Legends rips through various facets of U.S. fables quicker than you can say Seth Grahame-Smith, which is something of a mixed blessing. The book doesn’t fail from a lack of ambition, trying to squeeze in at least three separate but increasingly connected stories. As such, it relies on at least some knowledge of these characters and their fates, particularly for the lesser-known (at least outside of the US) Sally Thunder and the French-American pirates and privateers, the Lafitte Brothers. This might be an impediment for international readers without a friendly visit to Mr. Google or their local public library, but more to the point, it muddies the narrative a little with its scattered jump-cut nature.

Art is provided by the collective Studio Hive, the Bangkok-based coalition of artists and illustrators who produce work for a variety of formats. Undoubtedly a high quality production, with a color palette that brings out some period-accurate details and marvelous lighting effects, the character design is unfortunately a little generic. It is difficult at times to tell the difference between the stock character types, with the beardy and the burly all blending into one, and Mike Fink in particular looks like at least one other character (who is shot and killed) and perhaps even the man that did the shooting. While it could just be one of the pitfalls of working within a predominantly bearded landscape, some variation in character models may have also improved the story flow as well.

The remainder of the five-part weekly series promises to bring in even more folk heroes of the North Americas, some of which don’t even have beards. Yet with an already fully-loaded complement of legends, it is difficult to see how this expansion won’t simply compound the problems evident in this first issue. It’s a shame, because this has such great potential to be a modern retelling of some of the best tall tales in America’s history.

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