Best Shots Advance Reviews: NINJAK #1, BILL & TED'S #1, SOUTHERN CROSS #1 And More!

Art from Bill & Ted’s Triumphant Return by Jerry Gaylord
Credit: BOOM! Studios

Hello ‘Rama Readers! This is Pierce Lydon standing in for our Best Shots crew chief, David Pepose, with this week’s advance review column. We’ll kick things off with a review of Ninjak #1 from Oscillatin’ Oscar Maltby!

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Ninjak #1
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Clay Mann, Butch Guice and Ulises Arreloa
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Ninjak is possibly the single most nineties comic book character ever. Ninjas are cool, right? And so is neon purple? What if we throw a K on the end there; undoubtedly the coolest letter next to X? Although that original run stands as an embarrassing reminder of another era, the revived Valiant Entertainment has been working over-time since 2012 to rehabilitate its dated stable of characters, re-energising these dusty but potentially exciting heroes and redressing them for the 2010's. Now, after a few tantalising appearances in X-O Manowar and a major role as part of super-team Unity, Ninjak's got his own ongoing series, which opens with this flashy yet slightly unambitious first issue that offers some serious bang for your buck.

Colin King is Ninjak, the world's foremost spy and assassin who works closely with MI-6 to take down the world's fiercest and most exotic criminals. His latest mission is to infiltrate Weaponeer, a shadowy boutique arms dealer, in order to uncover the identities of its leaders; the bluntly-named Shadow Seven. As far as comic books go, it's fairly standard stuff that triumphs under Matt Kindt and Clay Mann's very capable hands.

Writer Matt Kindt understands that, at his core, Ninjak is every 12 year-old's dream hero. Kindt perfectly melds the British charm, political intrigue and monetary excess of James Bond with the fluid action and gymnastics of Asian cinema to create a first issue with a strong awareness of its silly premise. (“There's actually a Ninja-A?” asks Ninjak incredulously as he peruses a secret MI6 file whilst sipping tea at his castle.) Kindt writes a fast-paced first issue here, letting Colin King's previous appearances bear most of the introductory brunt whilst using frequent and brief flashbacks to add flavor. These little snippets of insight into King's past seem to be purposefully analogous to a certain Bruce Wayne's privileged childhood, only King's parents are merely absent and his butler is no kindly guardian, but is instead an abusive mountain of a man who rules with an iron fist and a heavy belt. Kindt manages to establish King's lonely past and motivation for his super-heroics in just five pages scattered throughout the issue, with the rest of the page-count mostly dedicated to exposition and action.

Clay Mann's pencils have a chiselled, Jim Lee quality to them that emphasises muscle and sinew as it struggles under taut clothing. He tends towards massive panels that stretch either across the page or vertically down it, elongating an already-larger than life cast. Atop Mann's pencils, colorist Ulises Arreola isn't afraid of busting out the primary colors, rendering Ninjak's world in Sega-esque blue skies and brilliant sunshine.

But it doesn't end there. Realizing that 22 pages is rarely ever enough, Valiant have stuffed a back-up story at Ninjak #1's end, an 8-page look at an inexperienced Colin King as he undergoes MI-6 training entitled "The Lost Files." Butch Guice's pencils swaddle Kindt's short story in the tension and abrupt violence of noir, depicting furrowed brows in the dead of night lit only by street-light. Kindt heavily narrates this story, sometimes with whole paragraphs per panel, plunging us deep into the thoughts and worries of the young Colin King. Arreola also shows his flexibility here, switching from bright and bold to dark and subtle, making careful use of light sources to establish a moody world of blues and blacks. "The Lost Files" is a moody little palette cleanser that only adds to Ninjak #1's overall value.

As is expected from Valiant, Ninjak #1 is a first issue that is the very definition of “rock solid”. Clay Mann's classically super-heroic artwork combine with Matt Kindt's well-rounded script to make for a decent take on one of the most serious victims of 90's xxxxtreme.

Art from Bill & Ted’s Triumphant Return by Jerry Gaylord
Art from Bill & Ted’s Triumphant Return by Jerry Gaylord
Credit: BOOM! Studios

Bill and Ted’s Most Triumphant Return #1
Written by Brian Lynch, Ryan North
Art by Jerry Gaylord, Penelope Gaylord, Whitney Cogar, Ian McGinty, Fred Stressing
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

It usually takes a few decades to shake out the loose scraps from a decade and decide upon what the bits worth keeping are. The dream of the ‘90s is alive as BOOM! takes another dip into the decade of the fluro pants and hypercolor t-shirts, with the Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter vehicles Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey finally receiving a long-awaited sequel. Almost 25 years later, it’s difficult to convey just how huge this unlikely success was, spawning multiple video games, an animated TV series (and a short-lived live action one), a musical and even its own "A Most Awesome Breakfast Adventure" cereal. That’s totally non-bogus.

It’s this spirit of nostalgia that infuses this first issue in the new Bill and Ted’s Most Triumphant Return debut. This isn’t the first time the lads have made their way into the world of comics, with Marvel’s Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Comics by Evan Dorkin having previously continued the story from the end of Bogus Journey. This issue picks up at almost the same point, or “Five seconds after San Dimas Battle of the Bands, 1991” to be precise. As the boys struggle with their almost instant fame, and the pressure of having to write a second song, they decide to skip ahead and see how it all turns out.

While the original films could never be accused of being narratively complex, Brian Lynch’s script really enjoys its meandering through the nostalgia. Indeed, the first third of the book is spent literally opening doors on familiar faces from the first two films. Things really only get moving in the last part of the the issue, although there’s no real sense of urgency or clear opposition to the schemes of Bill and Ted, besides a vague sense that De Nomolos doesn’t really like them. The secondary story, by Ryan North and Ian McGinty, in which Bill and Ted attempt to erase spam from their robot counterparts, is more episodic in nature, but its self-contained brevity gives it the motivation the primary tale lacks.

Jerry and Penelope Gaylord’s art is an appropriate throwback to the 1990s style, a cartoon carnival that would not seem out of place alongside the animated series or the original comic book adaptations. The Whitney Cogar colors are straight out of the era too, and it’s interesting that this bold set of tones seems to have come full circle in the last few decades. McGinty takes a different tone for the secondary tale, with an even more animation influenced style that borrows from the chibi school. Yet the two styles marry quite well, and despite being separate tales, they make the issue feel like a whole.

Given that the story has no real drive to get to the next stage, it’s difficult to say whether this is worth coming back for a second outing. Fans will enjoy the stroll down memory lane, and it’s fun enough that a monthly outing in this world wouldn’t be without merit. Yet it may also benefit from being a one-shot, as there just simply isn’t enough substance here to warrant a series.

Credit: Image Comics

Southern Cross #1
Written by Becky Cloonan
Art by Andy Belanger and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Serge LaPointe
Published by Image Comics
Reviewed by Kelly Richards
‘Rama Rating 9 out of 10

Steeped in mystery and filled with suspense, Southern Cross is reminiscent of any number of science fiction movies set in very bleak, very 1980’s, visions of the future. Posited to be a strong return to creator-owned work for Becky Cloonan, Southern Cross blends sci-fi with aspects of horror and noir to great effect.

Although #1 seems to focus more on world building than narrative, questions are definitely raised as we follow our protagonist, Alex Braith, aboard the Titan-bound tanker to retrieve her sister’s remains and belongings. Aside from this, the reader is given very little information as to Alex, her sister, or any of the passengers aboard the Southern Cross. Left guessing as to the secrets of which they are in possession, it becomes clear that Cloonan is keeping the majority of her cards close to her chest.

The book plays out at a steady pace and looks to be something of a slow burner. Cloonan’s script is gritty and engaging, giving very little away as the story unfolds. The dialogue is authentic and natural, as each character is afforded their own distinct voice. While much of what we learn of our protagonist comes from her inner monologue, it is the awkward interactions with those around her that point the reader towards her true nature. At times the tension between Alex and those she encounters is almost palpable, the exchange with her cabin mate, for example, punctuated with the drip of a broken faucet and is almost uncomfortable to witness.

Andy Belanger’s artwork is wonderful and goes a long way to set the tone of the book. His character design does not stop at those aboard the Southern Cross but expands to include the ship itself. The double page spreads which show the ship in its entirety are particularly impressive. Not only for their attention to detail but also the illusion of depth and movement he has created. The same can be said for the interiors, more akin to a submarine than a spaceship and made of seemingly endless corridors hung with pipes and cables. The layout is, at times, somewhat unconventional. For example, at one point, the text zig-zags down the page as we follow Alex to her room, however Belanger is able to lead the reader’s eye through the maze of the ship so as not to disturb the narrative.

Lee Loughridge’s flat colors and cool palette lend themselves perfectly to Belanger’s artwork and serve to accentuate rather than overpower. Muted pinks, purples and greens inspire a feeling of claustrophobia while an almost neon blue highlights the vast expanse of space. In contrast, the bright yellows of the gravity drive seems almost out of place when sat amidst the more subdued colours of the book, however this only serves to convey its importance, though what that is has yet to be revealed.

Beautifully executed, Southern Cross is every bit as anxiety inducing as expected. The suspense builds ever so slowly throughout the issue and, assuming the rest of the book didn’t grab you, the very last page will leave you desperate for answers and #2.

Credit: Image Comics

Casanova: Acedia #2
Written by Matt Fraction and Michael Chabon
Art by Gabriel Ba and Cris Peter
Letters by Dustin K. Harbin
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

There is nobody cooler than Casanova Quinn, and now that is starting to ring true for every reality. The return issue of Casanova gleefully jettisoned its own continuity to great effect. Now, even if you hadn’t followed Casanova since his first trip into the ether of the multiverse, you had a clear entry point into Cass’ crazy new life. Casanova: Acedia #2, using its new status quo, starts to bring Casanova’s past into focus not only for the new audience but for the character himself in the form of a super slick and defty written superspy story. Matt Fraction, having burned everything to the ground in the previous arc, slowly weaves elements of Casanova canon into this new, wholly engaging tale set in Casanova’s new reality culminating in a second issue that takes full advantage of the debut’s energy while still standing apart as its own story. Casanova: Acedia #2 is Casanova Quinn like you have never seen him before and that is the best thing about it.

The comic opens on a sepia-toned flashback to a huge moment in Casanova canon, and one barely mentioned in any arc previous, the forming of E.M.P.I.R.E., the black ops unit at the center of Quinn’s existence. In this scene we are treated to teasing glimpses of characters that we have seen before in previous arcs either working with or against Cass, as well as some heavy implications as to the whereabouts of Casanova’s father. This short but sweet cold open is a nice touchstone to the previous arcs from Fraction as it sets up this photograph, in the possession of Casanova a.k.a. Quentin Cassiday’s new employer, as a sort of MacGuffin for Acedia. Quentin Cassiday has no memory of his former life or reality nor does his employer, but as this second issue will show us, that is all just a house of cards waiting to topple.

Fraction is open to showing us glimpses of the old in Acedia #2, but he isn’t concerned with spending too much time on them. Directly after the opening, we are treated to a surprisingly tender scene between Cassiday and his employer, Emil Boutique, about the “weird cult s@$t” Cassiday encountered in the previous issue. I say tender because Casanova has never been a book that I would have described as tender until Acedia #2; manic, nihilistic, and darkly funny maybe, but never tender. That said, with Acedias new, somewhat grounded setting Fraction is allowing his characters to deal with their issues and grow in ways I had never thought possible in previous issues. I mean, an interdimensional flock of black crows still shows up at the end of this issue, but at least all the people around it feel like real, if not slightly damaged human beings. The interaction between Cassiday and Boutique is played like a father kicking back with a son after he returns home from the job. Fraction does a fine job of hinting at this being an actual possibility without every making it feel heavy handed or obvious. Fraction’s dialogue has always been one of his biggest strengths, and in Acedia #2 it plays better than ever.

Fraction’s aptitude for dialogue and characters also carries through into the real meat of the comic; Cassiday’s hunt for an actual sorcerer supreme to make sense of all the craziness following him. This help comes in the form of Thelonious Godchild, a street magician with a penchant for bilking tourists out of their cash with illusion. The scenes with Godchild find Fraction once again slowly layering in elements from the previous incarnation of Casanova into this new arc with relative ease; this time in the form of Kaito and McShane, two of Cass’ field operative friends in a past life, now hard-ass vice cops in this reality. For long-time readers, this is a welcome return for two fan-favorites, but for new readers, these are just two really fun characters that will end up paying out huge narrative dividends later on in the series. Matt Fraction has now reached Jonathan Hickman-level story layering and it suits him just fine.

The back half of the issue, starting from Godchild’s introduction and culimating in a confrontation between Cassiday and the woman who looks eerily similar to Casanova Quinn’s murderous sister, is where artist Gabriel Ba really shines. Ba’s work has been synonymous with Casanova from the very start, but this new mundane setting has allowed Ba to deliver some truly striking stuff without all the flash and huge set design of the previous incarnation. To use an example, Acedia is more Daytripper than Umbrella Academy. Gone are the palatial sets and spy-fi set dressings of the previous arc and it its place are tight panels or reaction shots and steady establishing shots of dialogue being delivered. Colorist Cris Peter even colors Acedia down a bit, to match Ba’s grounded renderings. Everything is presented in drab hues that never skew toward the stylish or outlandish like before. Cass’ new world is painfully boring, despite the invading craziness, and Ba and Peter are bound and determined to present it that way.

This isn’t to say that Gabriel Ba has stuffed himself into a box and is unable to deliver a few out there visuals; far from it, in fact. One of Acedia #2s final scenes, the aforementioned interaction between Cass and his possible sister, is a solid bit of tension building with a hell of a punchline in the form of a terrifying smoke creature. As Cass and his quarry trade verbal barbs, Ba keeps shifting the focus of the panels from in front of the glass with Cassiday to behind the glass with the woman and back and forth until the creature eliminates the glass altogether and poses the question “Who is Casanova Quinn?”. It is an effective bit of visual storytelling that more than ups the tension in the scene and leads the reader into a satisfying conclusion for this second entry.

And so, the eternal question is once again posed; “Who is Casanova Quinn?” and more over, why is he such a temporal hassle in every reality? Casanova: Acedia #2 and its hilariously pertinent back up story from Michael Chabon doesn’t even come close to answering that question but it more than baits the hook for readers to come back next month to find out a bit more. Acedia has been an interesting beast so far in that it both feels like something brand new from Matt Fraction as well as the logical progression of the insanity that is Casanova. As a reader, you could always sense that Casanova was something special to the creative team, but Acedia, so far, has shown that they don’t feel it is sacred enough to no try new things with it. That’s what makes this arc feel so exciting; it is everything you loved about Casanova previously filtered through an entirely different, more grounded lens. Casanova Quinn may not fully know who he is just yet but Acedia #2 makes damn sure that comic book fans know his name.

Kaijumax #1
Kaijumax #1
Credit: Oni

Kaijumax #1
Written, Art, and Lettering by Zander Cannon
Published by Oni Press
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Take Orange is the New Black and replace the likes of Boo and Piper with kaiju monsters and you have the premise of Kaijumax. Presented by the one-man show of Zander Cannon, we're whisked away to the K-Max, the ultra prison that houses all sorts of kaiju. And just like any prison film, escape plans are in the works, and cliques are formed. Kaijumax is no different.

Kaijumax reads like a love letter to the monster movies of Japan mixed with other staples of their pop culture like Ultraman for good measure. This is sort of the opposite of Pacific Rim where the kaiju aren't brainless monsters out for destruction, they're simply misunderstood and given distinct personalities. Mecha-Zon, King of the Mecha Nation, (an obvious ode to Mecha-Godzilla) speaks in a more robotic tone and considered the "weirdo" of the group. The Creature from Devil's Creek is milder and even a bit timid, but you can feel for him when he's tested to fight back and his face is singed with fire. The emotional core of the book is especially evident with Electragor, the main monster of the story, who was captured while getting food for its kids.

Cannon's designs are the real highlight of the story with a few or so characters left unnamed, but you can't help but wonder what their story is. Favorite design so far is easily Ape-Whale, who is exactly what you think it looks like. Cannon sprinkles in creatures that are homages to Koopa Troopers and a Xenomorph for little laughs as well.

It's a monster book for all ages and Cannon's cartoony style doesn't slack on the action or emotion of these creatures. He's added a sympathetic tone to the monsters here, which is a nice spin instead of them assaulting the world just because they can. Kaijumax is perfect for those looking to get something for a little monster of their own, or for the kaiju fan who doesn't feel like waiting for Pacific Rim 2.

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