Best Shots Advance Reviews: DESCENDER #1, BIG MAN PLANS #1, THE BIG CON JOB #1

Descender #1 variant cover by Nate Powell
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Descender #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Dustin Nguyen
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Whether he is putting his own spin on the headlining archers at both DC and Marvel, taking a look at the darker side of the Justice League or dealing with something more personal like depression in The Underwater Welder, Jeff Lemire has always written straight from the heart. With Descender, a book that already has a swirling maelstrom of hype around it thanks to a movie deal before the first issue even hit the stands, he returns to a more personal kind of storytelling that we’ve seen in tackle in the quietly epic Sweet Tooth, but also continues a thread of inner and outer exploration that was woven through this diverse range of mainstream and indie releases. For even though this might have all the trappings of a sci-fi epic, it is still ultimately about the individuals at the heart of a potentially massive story.

LIke Trillium, Lemire uses twin narratives that seem immediately destined to come together in some spectacular way. In the wake of a giant holocaust that befell the galaxy a decade prior, Doctor Jin Quon is struggling to put the pieces back together when he is given a second shot at salvation. Across the other side of the divide is TIM-21, a child companion robot who may just hold the secret to the giant world-eater robots that devastated the entire system all those years before. Like Quon, Tim has also lost those close to him, but scarcely comprehends what has transpired in the stars around him while he slept. Unlike Trillium, those stories do not coalesce immediately, and one of the joys of this series will be seeing how the individual parts play out to form a cohesive whole.

Descender is the darker side of Steven Spielberg’s wonder, filtered through the science fiction eyes of a Stanley Kubrick. It’s unsurprising that there’s something of the cold innocence of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the duo’s only cinematic collaboration, in both Lemire’s storytelling and Dustin Nguyen’s art. This is the sci-fi of Isaac Asimov in many ways, and like the Foundation series, it is giving us the small grains that will expand as the series goes on. Right now it is about two people who have suffered loss, something that Lemire has been dealing with elegantly at least since Essex County. Yet it against a backdrop so expansive and already so well built, that the possibilities at this stage are quite literally boundless.

Nguyen has developed a well-deserved reputation across a number of (mostly DC) titles, but has mostly become known in the last few years for his Li’l Gotham series. Adopting here a similar watercolor style, Nguyen exchanges the cuteness of the diminutive DC figures for something viewed with eyes full of wonder. From the opening pages, his distinctive colors fill the worlds that teem with life, and he almost immediately pulls that away in the wake of destruction, only to gradually return it as the action begins heating up. The reveal of Tim’s non-human heritage is one of the most effective pieces of suspense, horror and adolescent adventure rolled into one. Other sequences, such as Quon’s subjection to lengthy exposition, are almost entirely devoid of any colors but white and grey.

From the vantage point of the end of this first issue, we have every reason to be excited about the subsequent chapter in this series. That there’s already a cinematic quality to this book is probably indicative of why it has been optioned for a film, but it well and truly stands on its own legs. Taking familiar elements from genre stories and beyond, the combination of Lemire’s character-driven narrative and Nguyen’s coolly optimistic art makes this something truly unique.

Credit: Image Comics

Big Man Plans #1
Written by Tim Wiesch and Eric Powell
Art by Eric Powell
Lettering by Eric Powell
Published by Image Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The result of a personal in-joke between the Eisner Award winning Eric Powell and his comic-book writing and one-time house-mate Tim Wiesch, Big Man Plans #1 tells the origin of one very troubled man, stripped of his humanity until there's nothing left but pure anger. Beautifully drawn yet cruder than a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving, Big Man Plans #1 is not a very nice comic book, but it definitely is a quality one.

Born with dwarfism, Big Man's had a rough life. His mother walked out on him. He saw his father burn to death in a barn, and the orphanage ate him alive. Utterly broken and with nowhere else to turn, the U.S. Army enrolled him in an off-the-books project to help the Vietnam War effort. He soon became adept at his job: flushing out Vietnamese soldiers from their underground fortifications. After the project was shut down, Big Man came back home, where he screwed and drank his way through life, until he receives a letter that changes everything...

Eric Powell and Tim Wiesch's script is equal parts amusing and revolting. The gallows-style sense of humor that Powell perfected in The Goon is here in full-force: from the opening scene involving a mug of chocolate milk and a slyly placed grenade to the sequence where a half-naked Big Man beats a guy with a tire iron. Powell and Wiesch work overtime giving the reader insight into why Big Man is the way he is; he's a despicable human being, but that's all he's ever really known. Big Man narrates the book in classic noir-style, full of melodramatic and near-suicidal despondence, which would veer towards generic if not for the unique nature and skills of Big Man himself. Indeed, it's definitely refreshing to see an often-ignored minority portrayed in a major American comic book, even if it is through a decidedly dodgy character.

Eric Powell's artwork here is wonderfully old-school; his lug-headed characters looking like Alfred E. Neuman's rougher relatives. Powell doesn't shy away from explicitness either, depicting both horrific gore and full-frontal nudity several times in just this first issue. Powell's dynamic angles always keep us in Big Man's perspective: from the cowering and bloodied boy of the past to the bearded maniac standing tall at the issue's end.

Coloring his own work here, Powell bathes Big Man Plans #1 in sepia, cementing its story as a period piece. Sparse backgrounds give way to blocks of red, orange and pink during scenes of strong emotion and action, providing immediate visual shorthand for fear and anger as Big Man becomes overwhelmed by the dark side. When it comes to coloring, Powell's characters are chameleons; their faces reflecting the tone and texture of their surroundings. The yellowish-green tinge of the hardware store soaks through to the elderly woman who works there, and each scene of pages and panels is grouped in its own unique aesthetic. It's evocative stuff, and every facet of the artwork and script work towards that grimy tone of blackly comic tragedy.

The quality of Big Man Plans #1 shines through its every off-putting page. Eric Powell and Tim Wiesch are truly a terrible twosome, crafting their own unique spin on the hard-boiled crime drama. It's not big, and it definitely isn't clever, but Big Man Plans #1 is a solid read for those who can stomach its lurid content.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

The Big Con Job #1
Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Matt Brady
Art by Dominike Stanton and Paul Little
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by Boom Studios
Reviewed by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The Big Con Job #1 takes a lot of pot shots – it pokes fun at zealous fans, takes a look at the harsh reality of genre work, and pulls the curtain back on the convention circuit. It’s a fun and painful read that has a lot of heart and great visuals, and which proposes a pretty cool scenario involving a heist and the biggest convention known to comic and movie fans alike.

What makes The Big Con Job such a fun read is its characters. They’re sci-fi has-beens, actors in hit television shows and movies that have since faded into the past leaving the stars clinging to the only bit of fame they experienced. It’s a definite nod to Star Trek and Star Wars, with a bit of Galaxy Quest thrown in for good measure – people who made their mark in Hollywood by starring in a science fiction movie that garnered the attention of many people, but which never helped most of the actors move beyond a singular defining role.

The story follows former action stars Danny Dean, bombshell blonde Blaze Storm, and scientist extraordinaire Poach Brewster. Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Matt Brady craft histories for these characters so much so that you instantly like them. Danny is the real heart of the issue. He loves his connection to “Buck Blaster,” his on-screen alter ego, and his fall from grace hits hardest especially because we spend so much time with him. The dialogue is punchy and hilarious, especially when the actors are confronted at conventions, but when Palmiotti and Brady show us the person lives of their stars, the series takes on a deeper and more personal level.

Because not only do these actors not have professional lives, but their personal lives are messes as well. It’s a bit heavy-handed at times, but it makes the set up for the climax all the more potent. We’re rooting for these characters by the end of the issue, and watching them struggle to make even measly amounts of money is painful to the point that we just want them to succeed, even a little.

The one misstep in the comic is the shift from Danny to Poach. It’s jarring and unexpected, and after getting so used to the narrative focus being on Danny in particular, we don’t get to know Poach enough the way we did Danny. Sure, Poach has his share of problems, but Danny is so likeable that his exit is painful and the transition to a new narrative focus a little uneven.

But the constant is Dominike Stanton’s bubbly, stylish art. There’s a cartoonish nature to the visuals which works well on every level. The empathy we feel as readers is conveyed through the emotion of Stanton’s visuals. He’s great at using facial features to show apathy, frustration, suspicion, and most importantly, sadness. There’s a few pages in the comic where Danny’s world comes apart, and they’re rendered with such heart that you can’t help but feel for the character.

The Big Con Job #1 succeeds on many levels. It’s a great introduction to a great group of characters, and the plan proposed at the end of the issue is both unique and exciting. I can’t imagine a bunch of has been actors pulling off the gambit they’re planning, but given Palmiotti and Brady’s superb ability to inject humor and heart in conjunction with Dominike Stanton’s visuals, I think we’re in for a great show.

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