Best Shots Advance Reviews: PROJECT SUPERPOWERS: BLACKCROSS #1, THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #7, RUMBLE #2

Project Superpowers: Blackcross #1 cover by Jae Lee
Credit: Dynamite Entertainment
Project Superpowers: Blackcross #1 variant cover by Jason Howard
Project Superpowers: Blackcross #1 variant cover by Jason Howard
Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

Project Superpowers: Blackcross #1
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Colton Worley and Morgan Hickman
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Sometimes you have the right characters in the wrong story. Sometimes, you have the right story, but the wrong creators. And when it comes to Dynamite's upcoming Project Superpowers spinoff, Blackcross, I think a convincing argument could be made for either theory. There's something strange and dissonant about Warren Ellis's supernatural superhero thriller, and while this series may very well improve in time, this first issue may be difficult for all but Dynamite die-hards to get into.

To his credit, Warren Ellis and artist Colton Worley certainly know how to pace a comic, and Blackcross' opening scene is haunting with its sparseness, as a man is induced to douse himself in gasoline and light a flare. It's a great hook into this series, and this burning man wading into secluded waters is a potent image, one that's filled with potential. But unfortunately, that potential is short-lived, as we discover the series' weird chimera of a high concept: namely, a supernatural thriller featuring Dynamite's superhero catalog.

By virtue of their amazing gifts, superheroes don't always fit into the all-too-vulnerable tropes of horror, but what hampers Ellis most is the same thing that's hampered much of Dynamite's other superhero fare - namely, if you're not already in the know, none of this is going to mean anything to you. Ellis may win some cool points with an American flag carved into a corpse - "The American Spirit," in case you weren't sure which superhero this was supposed to represent - or "Rob Fenton" having night terrors before he assumes the role of the Black Terror, but ultimately, it's a bunch of winking and nodding without any context to help a reader out. I want to read a comic - if I need to use Wikipedia to make heads or tails of it, I'll move on to something else.

Still, even with an unwieldy concept and some even more unwieldy characters to work with, Ellis and Worley put up a good fight in terms of the execution. A scene featuring alcoholic medium Lady Satan is the most accessible and beautiful sequence of the bunch, as Worley gives her some ghostly hallucinations that almost remind me a bit of Francesco Francavilla's pulpy style. "They buried us in Blackcross," a ghostly Green Lama intones. But ultimately, it's still too little, too late - Ellis knows this story needs room to breathe, but that means he doesn't tell nearly enough to let readers know what they heck they're getting themselves into. You've only got one shot to hook readers, and I'm not sure even Warren Ellis's name will pull readers back in for more.

Many readers can criticize Marvel and DC for inaccessible storylines - and oftentimes, they're not wrong. The difference between the Big Two and Dynamite is that there's almost a cultural osmosis when it comes to Spider-Man, the Avengers or the Justice League, as generations have been bombarded with TV shows, movies, video games and merchandise to hammer home their characters' existence, if not their high concepts and status quo. Dynamite's Project Superheroes lineup doesn't have that luxury, and with a big name like Warren Ellis to draw in new readers, they owe it to customers - and themselves - to make their characters as easy-to-follow as possible. This comic may have its haunting moments, but the thing that should haunt Dynamite the most is how much better this comic should have been.

The Wicked + The Divine #7 cover by Jamie McKelvie
The Wicked + The Divine #7 cover by Jamie McKelvie
Credit: Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine #7
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Conventions. Are they heaven on Earth, or just a hell of human making? The answer is an easy one: Depends on which side of the table you're on. Using the human tsunami of "Fantheon" as a backdrop for continuing to explore this series' pop mythology further, The Wicked + The Divine #7 excels both because of its intelligence as well as the introduction of a nasty new demigod.

From just a look at the cover, you know you're in for a treat, as we've moved on from the Prince-influenced Inanna to the Daft Punk-helmeted Woden. And let me tell you - we haven't seen a god this magnetic since Lucifer, way back in the first issue. There's something about conventions - the fawning, the crowds, the intrusiveness, the sheer desperation - that brings out the worst in people, and Woden represents all that negativity and hatred (both self- and otherwise). Gillen writes a superb scene introducing the florescent-lit pop icon, as he humiliates a former groupie in public with just the promise of power. Is it petty? Woden doesn't care. "I tried being a nice guy. Didn't get me anywhere," he says dismissively.

But ultimately, the star of the show is still Laura, a fangirl unwittingly sucked into this world of mythology and murder. It's through her that Gillen really explores the twists and turns this mythology can go, including the Prometheus Gambit, a concept that's not only tense and exciting, but is a Chekhov's gun that is sure to go off at a crucial point in this series. (At the very least, it provides for an unsettlingly abrupt action sequence here, one that sends off Woden with the perfectly malicious tone.)

Yet even more interesting is that Gillen is really playing around with the level of energy and enthusiasm his heroine is presenting - we've seen Laura ecstatic, traumatized, filled with awe, but here, she's just burned out. She's depressed. She's fighting to stay in control, even when the crowds are sucking away every bit of strength. In other words, it's a packed fan convention. (Believe me, I've been there.) But in so doing, Gillen gives us a palate-cleanser of a second half, bringing us back to what defined The Wicked + The Divine in the first place - the sheer joy of whatever medium you were a fan of to begin with. As Gillen takes us to an underground concert, the book's pulse seems to come back, even if Laura herself isn't sure of the motives of her hosts.

Considering how jam-packed conventions typically are, it's pretty incredibly that Jamie McKelvie is able to keep his pages afloat, especially with his ultra-clean style. Instead, McKelvie makes some fascinating artistic choices here, leaving his crowds sketchy and ill-defined, fluttering through the convention halls like ghosts. (Props go to colorist Matthew Wilson for portraying all these fans in soul-sapping purples, thus making Laura and other important characters really pop off the page.) McKelvie continues to draw some of the most expressive characters in comics, and while we've seen him do this trick before, there's a great sequence as we follow Laura down the rabbit hole to an underground club. Occasionally, though, even McKelvie hits a snag here and there, as certain pages make his inks look a little sketchier than his usual ultra-polished style. Still, a premise like this would hobble a lesser artist, and it's a testament to McKelvie's skills that this crowd-heavy comic looks as good as it does.

One might accuse The Wicked + The Divine #7 as being almost cynical in its view of fans, putting them in a more fanatical light. But Gillen never forgets where his protagonist came from, or where he came from, from that matter, and gives this comic a much-needed injection of light and bittersweet joy - a feeling that plenty of post-convention attendees can relate to, whether or not they're on the job. All in all, this comic succeeds not just because of its superb characterization, but for what it says about our culture, as well. If only more comics were this intelligent.

Rumble #2 cover by James Harren
Rumble #2 cover by James Harren
Credit: Image Comics

Rumble #2
Written by John Arcudi
Art by James Harren and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Two issues in, and Rumble continues to cement itself as Image's most gorgeously bizarre new book. Or at this point, do we just call it "eccentric"? After an issue that focused more on atmosphere than narrative, writer John Arcudi begins to tease out the story of the scarecrow warrior Rathraq and spineless bartender Bobby, but it's all secondary next to the spectacular artwork of James Harren and Dave Stewart. More impatient readers may tire of the slow buildup, but make no mistake - this book has a level of spectacle that's hard to replicate.

Similar to the last issue, Arcudi takes his time setting up the tone of Rumble before ever getting into the story. For the first three pages of this book, Arcudi writes about six-armed old men feeding six-headed snake-geckos and giant possessed cats eating their owners out of house and home, and that's well before we even get into Rathraq slicing demon cherubs with his physics-defying sword. Some might consider it self-indulgent - I nearly called this book "Ramble" when I was writing this review - but it also establishes the irreverence that defines this series. But unlike last month's bombastic introduction, Arcudi begins to bring some steak to all that sizzle, as Rathraq has a curious, almost compassionate side to him, as he sits and watches Bobby as he's passed out at home. "Men, women, they are my charges. I could never allow you injury," the scarecrow says - and for just a moment, even this death machine has a heart.

It also doesn't hurt that Bobby is also progressing from his one-dimensional sad sack status from last issue, now that the action has subsided and he's started to get a little more accustomed to having the supernatural in his life. Arcudi imbues Bobby with some characterization not necessarily through his actions, but with a more muscular supporting cast, including his loser pal Del and a translator love interest who is immediately endearing from the first panel she's in. (Not to mention a gag about a Phoenician IOU is as hilarious as it is unexpected.)

But make no mistake - even with its human moments, everything about Rumble is as big, crazy and over-the-top as Rathraq himself, and it only gets away with it because of the cartoony, kinetic linework of Harren. The first thing you might notice about Harren's work is his sense of scale - he plays around with size constantly in this book, whether it's a gigantic cat ready to explode from demon energies and garbage food, or it's Rathraq looming over Bobby, having to almost fold himself to fit in a mere human-sized apartment. Perhaps even more impressive is how these larger-than-life characters then burst into action, especially the ways that Rathraq swings his giant sword (and the resulting explosion of limbs and gore that follow).

Granted, this comic's biggest strength is also its greatest weakness - namely, its aversion to anything related to a high concept, instead cribbing off the Mignola school of weirdness told well. Or at the very least, told beautifully. There will be plenty who don't appreciate the scattershot pacing of Rumble, with its inexplicable mutant demons or its massive, sword-swinging protagonist. But the artwork absolutely merits the price for admission, and if the slowly evolving narrative is any indication, Rumble may be a bet that will pay off for readers in the long haul.

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