Best Shots Advance Reviews: CASANOVA: ACEDIA #1, GOTHAM ACADEMY #4, THE DYING & THE DEAD #1, BITCH PLANET #2

Bitch Planet #2 cover by Valentine De Landro
Bitch Planet #2 cover by Valentine De Landro
Credit: Image Comics
Casanova: Acedia #1 cover by Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá
Casanova: Acedia #1 cover by Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá
Credit: Image Comics

Casanova: Acedia #1
Written by Matt Fraction and Michael Chabon
Art by Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba and Cris Peter
Lettering by Dustin Harbin
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Who is Quentin Cassaday? For that matter of fact, who is Casanova Quinn? It’s been a couple of years since Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s retro-modern superspy ended up amnesiac in an alternate universe’s version of Hollywood. Casanova: Acedia #1 quickly catches us up with Casanova, or Quentin as he goes by now. A man without a past, Quentin is now the majordomo for Amiel Boutique, a man more like Quentin than he realizes. When a beautiful assassin tries to kill him, Quentin is set down a path to discover who he as well as who Boutique actually are. If you’re worried at all that you’ve forgotten who Casanova Quinn is, don’t worry. You’re in the same boat as he is.

Casanova is on its fourth miniseries, but Fraction has never lost the throughline of this story after all of those starts and stops. Casanova: Acedia #1 actually resets the established themes while continuing to build on what has come before. From the very beginning in 2006, when he was kidnapped to an alternate reality and forced to take the place of himself in that reality, Casanova has always struggled with identity. He's been a thief, a spy, a femme fatale, a best friend and a worst enemy. It only makes sense that sooner or later he would lose himself, either literally or metaphorically. Fraction actually makes it that he's lost both ways, amnesiac in yet another alternate world.

Fraction and Fabio Moon are on their way to recasting Casanova as a L.A. noir story. With Cris Peter's colors cast as stunning southern California lighting, Moon creates a dangerously sexy L.A., where libraries can turn as deadly as poolside parties. Fraction and Moon's story shows a man who defines himself by his job and right now, Casanova’s job is being a bored-but-rich old man's right hand man. Neither man knows who they are but we know who one of them is and, if you've been paying attention to the older stories, may know who the other is. As we begin the fourth of seven planned story-arcs, Fraction and Moon start folding the story back on itself, using this new L.A. to start using Casanova's forgotten past to move the character into the future.

Even as they are working to reestablish Casanova to himself and to their audience, Fraction and Moon create a story that manages to be both accessible and completely dependent on everything that has come before it. By disorienting the character of Casanova as much as they have, they’ve given room to the reader to have forgotten a bit of what has happened before this. It’s a great way to bring the reader and the character together as they try to discover just who Casanova is. Even as Fraction and Moon do that, there are all of these little clues planted along the way that can only mean something if you’ve been reading the series up to this point. From Casanova’s subconscious need for authority/father figures to the introduction of Amiel Boutique, these elements of the story build on what we know about Casanova as they continue to push him forward.

Michael Chabon and Gabriel Ba provide a small backup story focusing on an all-girls pop band who also happen to be deadly assassins. It’s an odd tale because it feels like we’ve been plopped into the middle of an ongoing story without the built-in safety net of the main story. Chabon’s writing is playful as he tries to be Fraction-level clever but it comes off as slight and meaningless in its first chapter because there’s no solid foundation to it. It’s full of characters who barely matter with no connection to anything to give the story context. Ba’s art dances along with the story, going where Chabon leads. It provides the glitz and glamour to a story that doesn’t have much else behind it yet.

At this point, Casanova: Acedia #1 may not be as cute or playful as Sex Criminals or as formalistically invigorating as Hawkeye, but it contains Matt Fraction’s best writing as he continues to build upon themes that he began years ago. The view of Casanova as a continuum that began in 2006 shows a book and a writer who has continued to grow and it has become something very different than it was almost nine years ago. The questions of identity and authority have been there from the very beginning but Fraction and Moon approach them in completely new ways as they begin this new series. By placing the reader and Casanova on somewhat equal footing, they write and draw the perfect first issue of a series hitting it’s midway point. Giving the character the mystery of discovering who he actually is gives us room to find out who Casanova is as well. Who is Casanova Quinn? I guess we’ll find out at the same time as he does.

Credit: DC Comics

Gotham Academy #4
Written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Karl Kerschl, Msassyk and Serge LaPointe
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Gotham City seems to have room for more than one detective, as the children of Gotham Academy do a little bit of sleuthing of their own. While the clues might not always stack up as Olive Silverlock and Maps Mizoguchi figure out the truth behind the mysterious ghost of Millie Jane, the humor and superb artwork make it worth it until the book’s satisfying conclusion.

To their credit, Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher have their characterization down pat, as Olive and Maps act as a precocious dynamic duo, flitting about the outskirts of the Batman universe. (Indeed, aside from a cameo by Bruce Wayne and a very surprising set of final pages, this could easily be a boarding school in England rather than DC’s roughest city.) While Olive plays the straight woman to this team, it’s Maps that steals the show, particularly when they play good cop-bad cop on a pitiful art student. “You can’t call me off! I won’t be called off! I want information!” Maps shouts. It’s a great little beat, and it’s Maps’ energy that might even be more of a hook for new readers, rather than Olive’s soap operatic love story with Maps’ brother, Kyle.

What doesn’t quite work, however, is the actual detecting in this story. Cloonan and Fletcher bounce their heroines across the school, looking up strange symbols and art classes and more than one run-in with the art student Eric, but ultimately, these pieces don’t seem to lock together easily. Indeed, the way that Olive solves the case feels more like it was dropped into her lap, rather than her risking life and limb the way she has in other issues. That said, however, the conclusion may be more satisfying than the set-up, particularly when Olive has a heart-to-heart over the mastermind behind the ghost. And without giving too much away, the final three pages of this book are absolutely pitch-perfect, raising the stakes to brand-new heights.

But what hasn’t changed is how incredible the artwork is. Karl Kerschl is a gift to DC Comics, with his expressive, cartoony style, and on paper he’s still the biggest draw for Gotham Academy. There is a ton of energy to his characters, and so much thought in the designs, particularly with the Snape-like Headmaster Hammer. Kerschl also knows how to crank up the energy even for some innocuous beats, like Olive falling down the stairs, only to be caught by the mysterious Tristan Grey. The color work by Msassyk and Serge LaPointe is also on point, giving this book an animated quality that is unmatched by the rest of the DC pantheon.

For many, I can understand why Gotham Academy is a tough pill to swallow — the tie-in to Gotham is tentative at best, and without that, the hidden passages and old legends may seem old hat to people who have grown up with the wizardry of Hogwarts. But with this issue, I feel that Olive Silverlock is beginning to embrace her role as a member, however distant, of the Batman family. Combining that with some fun characterization and some sublime art, and this may be one of the best issues of this series yet.

The Dying & The Dead #1 cover by Ryan Bodenheim
The Dying & The Dead #1 cover by Ryan Bodenheim
Credit: Image Comics

The Dying and the Dead #1
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Ryan Bodenheim and Michael Garland
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Jonathan Hickman has long been a writer who’s been defined by his decompressed structures almost as much as his hyper-complex narratives. But in The Dying and the Dead, he corrects one tendency even as he doubles down on the other, creating an introduction clocking in at a whopping 60 pages of story. Yet even while he lingers to showcase Ryan Bodenheim’s spectacular artwork, this story is Hickman at his simplest, as he introduces us to a man who would do anything to save his wife — even if it means turning to some friends in very high places.

The Dying and the Dead is ultimately two stories smashed into one, as Hickman sets up a very simple theme. Namely, that love is precious, but that it’s also fleeting, subject to the whims and tragedies and hardships of time. The first half of this story has the action-packed hook needed to bring readers in, as we meet the clone armies of Bah a’Sharur, but it’s the second half that really sells the point home — the story of Colonel Edward Canning, who is drawn into a world of angels and demigods as his wife is stricken with cancer.

In many ways, it’s Canning’s story that’s the most interesting here, both because of what Hickman has to say, and the way he says it. I’ll be blunt — even though he has 60 pages to tell his story, Hickman really only includes about a regular issue’s worth of story progression here. But what he does is teases out his moments, sometimes with shocking degrees of excess, like a double-page spread of a car driving through a desert. It’s a matter of confidence in his artist, and a matter of confidence in his own writing — sometimes Hickman will draw out a conversation for pages and pages, alluding to the history between Canning and this ivory-white beings or just showing off how little Canning thinks of them. But what’s important is that at the end of the day, this story is shockingly easy to grasp, especially for one as esoteric as Hickman. It’s a call to action, pure and simple, with Canning taking plenty of time to consider. Of course, what exactly that action is is still up for debate.

But like I said before — a lot of this also has to do with being confident in your artist. Bodenheim is taking a risky move with a comic like this, but it pays off magnificently. He reminds me a lot of Steve McNiven in terms of how carefully rendered his style is, and how sweeping much of his layouts are. Sometimes it feels self-indulgent, the things that Hickman has Bodenheim draw — like a first page that is literally just three vertical panels of bubbles under the water — but other times it’s downright beautiful, like the sweeping architecture of an angelic city, down to a sparkling tree of life. He brings that same level of care to his characters, down to every crack and wrinkle on Canning’s face. In particular, the way Bodenheim has his characters “act” is great, including the way the Bishop gestures from within the shadows.

In many ways, comic book writers have been unfairly compared to television and film writers, and have adjusted their stories accordingly, working off cinematic conventions in order to truly maximize the visual side of the medium. Yet for comics, space equals time, and for most books, you only have a limited amount of space to work with. But by expanding his page count, Jonathan Hickman has taken a valiant crack at restoring the balance, creating a world full of atmosphere with The Dying and the Dead with 60 beautiful pages. It may occasionally feel excessive, and you may get the sense that Hickman isn’t always the most frugal with this freedom, but he and Bodenheim’s efforts are beautiful to behold.

Bitch Planet #2 cover by Valentine De Landro
Bitch Planet #2 cover by Valentine De Landro
Credit: Image Comics

Bitch Planet #2
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Valentine De Landro and Cris Peter
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

There are so many different bits of pop culture that you could claim to pick out in Bitch Planet, and it’s to Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s credit that they have refused to surrender where their story is going yet. Instead, Bitch Planet continues to be a rare breed of comic that survives based on tone, characterization and execution, as DeConnick and De Landro continue to tease out where their narrative is headed.

The first issue of Bitch Planet was sort of a place-setting, a way to set the stage, but now that we’ve been introduced to this violent world of institutionalized misogyny, DeConnick is able to get to the real heart of the matter. In this dystopian future, peace comes only from bloodshed — and directing it towards spectacle and entertainment rather than towards the establishment. With that new spin in mind, DeConnick slowly transitions toward a new status quo — women in prison as the new spectator sport.

Yet that might be looking at this book too simply. This isn’t just a riff on Rollerball or women in prison movies like Chained Heat. There’s bit of Orwell’s 1984 in this book, particularly when Kam is locked in a holographic confessional module. (Letterer Clayton Cowles absolutely nails this sequence, having the tails of his balloons criss-cross Kam like barbed wire.) There’s also a little bit of a prison escape story starting to gestate, like Escape From Alcatraz, and even the trope of misfits turning into a well-oiled machine that you’ve seen in almost every sports movie from Dodgeball to The Bad News Bears. Suffice to say, there are so many different bits you could focus in on, and none of them are invalid — it just proves how multilayered Bitch Planet is as a reading experience.

The artwork by Valentine De Landro doesn’t hurt, either. I love the Mignola-esque way that De Landro’s characters are hard and angular, as if prison life had chiseled them out of angry rock. De Landro also knows when to distort his characters, not just creating a diversity in body types and looks, but even playing up the scariness of holographic confessors. (And even the humorous bits, like watching some of the inmates fighting with the guards in the backgrounds of the panels.) Colorist Cris Peter electrifies this book with hot pinks and yellows, and especially utilizing white spaces to make the pages pop.

For those who may have dismissed Bitch Planet #1 as throwaway hype, DeConnick, De Landro and company have defied the concept of a sophomore slump with their second issue. If anything, this series actually continues to improve as its narrative focuses in, giving us a tough-as-nails protagonist and an insidious system for her to rally against. The biggest crime would be for you not to pick this book up.

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