Best Shots Advance Reviews: CHRONONAUTS #1, FRANKENSTEIN #1 and THE REALIST

Frankenstein Underground #1 preview
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Chrononauts #1
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Sean Gordon Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Love him or hate him, there's nobody in comics quite like Mark Millar. A brash showman with a knack for the high concept, Millar's not only written some of Marvel's most popular and enduring series, but he's now gone four for four in Hollywood, with his creator-owned books Wanted, Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2 and The Secret Service hitting the cineplexes. A (self-)promoter we haven't seen since the likes of Stan Lee, it was only a matter of time before the imminently bankable Millar went after one of the most enduring tropes of science fiction: time travel. The result is Chrononauts, but like most Hollywood first acts, we've really barely begun to scratch the surface of the narrative - instead, this first issue relies on Millar's two cocky, bromantic leads, as well as the dynamic artwork of Sean Gordon Murphy. It perhaps goes without saying that as far as first issues go, your milage will almost assuredly vary.

Millar wastes zero time introducing us to the hook of his story, as handsome bachelor Doctor Corbin Quinn discovers an F-14 Tomcat in an ancient Turkish temple. Millar is quick to extrapolate what would happen next - satellites into the past, broadcasts from the American Civil War, and skin-tight time travel suits bridging the gap between science and sexiness. But ultimately, this introduction almost comes across as too fast - instead of focusing on the brave new world opened up by time travel, Millar focuses more of his time on his two leads, Doctor Quinn and his BFF, Doctor Danny Reilly. Let's just say that these two take the cockiness of Tony Stark and crank it past 11, which may make it a little tough to like these characters, even with the injection of a sad divorce looming over Quinn. (There is one very funny sequence where Reilly is making out with a lab tech on his way out on his first mission: "I swear to God I'm going to marry that girl when I get back," he says. "You've known her precisely five days," Quinn sighs. "I didn't say it was going to last.")

Yet there's something about these characters that doesn't quite hold up, not when you're competing against a ton of other "lost in time/space" books like Black Science or Ei8ht. Beyond a few of the funnier exchanges and the surprisingly physical palling around between Quinn and Reilly - an interesting twist by artist Sean Gordon Murphy, who I'll get to in a bit - these characters still feel a little flat. Why do they want to go into time, other than the fame and the line of co-eds? Or more important, what sets this time travel story apart from other time travel stories? For now, we've seen woefully underprepared explorers attacked by warriors from the past, but that's nothing new. Considering time travel is the new frontier, it's a shame that we're already revisiting some very well-tread ground.

With that all in mind, my favorite part of Chrononauts has to be the artwork. While Millar is creating a slow burn when it comes to his story, Murphy isn't in a position to hide the goods - his characters all look gorgeous and animated, and it's kind of an interesting way to go against type by making these two uber-scientists also look like the most handsome rogues this side of Han Solo. Murphy plays up a lot of physicality to this story, cranking it up in true MillarWorldmanner, whether its a guard suddenly pulling a gun on Reilly when he tries to rescue Quinn from a time travel accident, or Reilly gleefully flipping that same guard the bird when he's given actual clearance to leave. Colorist Matt Hollingsworth surprisingly saps the energy of this book with some too-cool colors throughout, but on the plus side, it does give plenty of added weight to Murphy's linework.

Considering the time travel high concept of Chrononauts, it is a little disappointing that this story doesn't cut to the chase a little faster. To be fair, plenty of people will still buy this book, if only to keep up with Mark Millar's oeuvre - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Millar is a proven commodity in comics, and he's one that's not afraid to put his own stamp on things - even if that means it occasionally gets a little broad. With him and Sean Gordon Murphy's exquisite artwork, Chrononauts may be the safest bet on the stands this week - it's just that it might be a little too safe for some.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Frankenstein Underground #1
Written by Mike Mignola
Art by Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Nobody understands monsters like Mike Mignola. Throughout his illustrious career, Mignola has reveled in the occult, the weird and the monstrous to bring us sweeping tales of creatures attempting to acclimate themselves into the world of men. Who better to take on a tale starring possibly the most famous literary monster of all time? Frankenstein Underground #1 isn’t your typical Frankenstein story. The Creature in this story isn’t some hulking action hero or tortured mute mindlessly puttering around while a story happens around him. Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart have crafted a tale that is equal parts singularly strange and emotional, casting the Creature as a constantly hunted yet loquacious immortal who only seeks solitude. But, like all the best Mignola tales, nothing is quite what it seems and the Creature may be simply a pawn in a much larger game involving occultists, Victorian vampires, and stirring old gods. Frankenstein Underground #1 is a creature feature of the highest order and fans of both horror and horror comics should take notice.

Frankenstein Underground opens in 1956, deep in the dense forests of Mexico. An old woman silently pays her respects in a darkened and abandoned temple when suddenly a hulking form pockmarked with bolts and bleeding from a gunshot wound in his chest stumbles across her silent reflection and collapses. The woman, disturbed but unafraid, tends to the Creature’s wound with simply a touch of her hand, and then we are off and running. The opening is typical Mignola fare with the setting and characters deliberately placed in order to gradually reveal just who they are and where they are through the course of the issue. Mignola, handling scripting duties, covers a lot of narrative ground in these first few pages but never does it feel rushed; simply compacted in order to hook an audience quickly. After the Creature’s first meeting and eventual healing at the hands of the unnamed witch, we are treated to a quick and concise flashback of the Creature’s flights from humanity throughout the ages. Mignola, never one to waste panel space, doesn’t spend much time exploring these glimpses into the Creature’s past, nor does he have to. Mignola, an artist himself, knows when to get out of the way with his script and let the art speak for itself, allowing his stellar art team mine as much pathos as possible from their teasing glimpses of the Creature's plight.

Mike Mignola’s script takes a few interesting turns in Frankenstein Underground #1, twists that include hints at the Creature's role in the machinations of the old gods as well as an introduction to a magnus with all manner of monsters under his sway who means to add the Creature to his collection. Frankenstein Underground #1 doesn’t flaunt these twists or arbitrarily lay them at the feet of the reader, quite the opposite, in fact. Mike Mignola gradually layers these developments into a solid debut experience instead of the usual “throw stuff at the wall” approach that some horror comics take. Horror comics of late have taken a more grindhouse approach to the stories and visuals and while, from time to time, that is fun to take in, the deliberate, classic film approach that Frankenstein Underground presents is a welcome change of pace for the horror genre. Frankenstein Underground #1 is more James Whale than Eli Roth, and it is so satisfying to take in.

Above I stated that Mignola is more than willing to get out of the way of his art team, but when your art team consists of people like Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart, it is easy to see why. Mignola’s classic EC Comics-like script is heavy with a classic film tone, but the moody, inky black renderings of Stenbeck coupled with the cold spookshow color choices of Stewart do the lion’s share of establishing a classic matinee look for Frankenstein Underground #1. Stenbeck and Stewart, both longtime collaborators of Mignola, go above and beyond with their visuals, but it never skews into lurid creature feature fare. Stenbeck’s Creature isn’t the flat-topped, green skinned Creature that readers are used to seeing. Instead, Stenbeck presents this book’s version of the Creature as a noble monster, complete with vivid yellow eyes and covered with staples and bolts. The Creature is a classic Mignola hero, shunned and hated by the world around him, and Stenbeck renders him as bent, but never broken by the cruel world around him.

Bring it all together is Dave Stewart, drenching each page in heavy, brooding colors that fits in perfectly with the classic movie tone of Frankenstein Underground #1. Stewart colors the Creature in a pale gray that keeps him standing out amid the blue-blacks of the ancient temple and always drawing the audience’s eyes to our monstrous hero. Stewart even throws a nice bit of narrative coloring into the issue, casting each of the issue’s flash backs in different hues; the first few starring the Creature are set inside a standard sepia tone, but the others run the gamut from a swampy green tone to a luminescent purple. Dark Horse Comics has always been an imprint that has found value and style in the horror genre and Frankenstein Underground #1 is another gorgeous looking jewel in their crown.

Frankenstein Underground #1 won’t be for everyone, and I will be the first to admit that, but even if it isn’t, even the most cynical among us couldn’t deny a curiosity about exactly how one of our modern monster masters would tackle one of the most famous horror icons. Mike Mignola, of course, doesn’t take the easy route toward a straight adaptation of the Frankenstein tale. Instead, he and his outstanding art team deliver something odd, emotional, and more than welcome in the pages of Dark Horse Comics, a company that made its name with the horror genre and the works of Mike Mignola. Frankenstein Underground #1 is a satisfying throwback to the creature features of old and is sure to impress both stodgy purists and modern horrorhounds alike.

Credit: BOOM! Studios / Archaia Press

The Realist
Written and Illustrated by Asaf Hanuka
Translated by Jessica Cohen, Sari Cohen and Tomer Hanuka
Lettering by Deron Bennett and Asaf Hanuka
Published by Archaia
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

With Convergence, Secret Wars, and The Walking Dead dominating the comicsphere, it's easy to overlook books that don't fit into the high-concept sensibilities of Marvel, DC or Image. But in certain cases, there are low-key, down-to-earth books that are so personal, so powerful, so important, that overlooking them would be a crime.

The Realist is one of those books.

Collecting and translating the weekly webcomic of Israeli artist Asaf Hanuka, The Realist is a graphic novel that really pushes the limits of what can be done on a comic book page, channeling sequential art legends like Will Eisner, David Mazzucchelli and Darwyn Cooke. Spinning off of Hanuka's all-too-ordinary life, there's a poetry and a pathos to The Realist that demands your attention, as this masterful artist ponders art, family, politics, and the challenges of everyday survival in the middle class.

From the very first page of The Realist, we're treated to Hanuka's existential dread - namely, that his family's apartment is being sold, and he's got three months to find a new place to live. That's a daunting problem in any circumstance, but when you're an artist trying to support a wife and a toddler, what are you going to do to make ends meet? In that regard, The Realist is an ironic title, as the moody Hanuka broadcasts all his anxiety and fears through the lens of visual metaphor - he sees himself as an astronaut toy, weeping over the loss of his spaceship home, or as a small child zipped up in the "suit" of an adult, just wanting to get back to his markers and draw. Occasionally, Hanuka's thoughts drift towards the more apocalyptic - he equates a possible missile strike from Iran as the same as a possible move out of the city, and in one memorable page, he portrays the "deconstructing" of his artistic process as a literal (and bloody) act of self-destruction.

Not only is Hanuka incredibly inventive with his imagery, but his style is just incredible, the latest of a long series of artistic coups from Archaia. His style is lush and expressive, reminding me at times of a more controlled Tim Sale or Fiona Staples, and his deliberateness with his colors makes the entire book just crackle with energy. (Longtime Archaia fans might also notice plenty of similiarities to Luc Jacamon of The Killer, and they wouldn't be wrong, not with Hanuka's ultra-deliberate layouts and bald protagonist.) Every page of The Realist is a puzzle, in a way, as you race to catch up to the punchline from this artist's razor-sharp wit, like a particularly funny sequence where Hanuka's young son learns the righteous fury of demonstrators thanks to a shortage of pudding sprinkles, or the blood and guts pouring out of his now-irreparable car. While translators Jessica Cohen, Sari Cohen and Tomer Hanuka deserve special praise for their thoughtful translation, the irony is that much of Hanuka's visuals would have spoken for themselves.

Yet the most potent sequences of this book aren't the comedic gags, but the pages that come straight from the heart - the cover image, featuring a beat-up Hanuka and his young son strapped with some boxing gloves, is especially poignant once you see the original title: "Second Chance to Win." Make no mistake, like all the great artists out there, Hanuka is a haunted man, constantly wrestling with his marriage, his job, his duties as a father and his complicated relationship with his homeland as an Israeli of Iraqi descent. It leads to a much more textured, nuanced narrative - Hanuka can mourn for the then-captured Gilad Shalit, draw a haunting sequence where he and his son watch missiles flying overhead, but can also come up with a sequence where he's interrogated and beaten by Israeli officials, as he's forced to say through cracked teeth and bloody lips, "We have a wonderful country." It's a part of Hanuka, just like anyone else's hometown would be a part of them, but it's hardly his defining characteristic - Hanuka is just as content philosophizing about his twin brother, the literalized boxing match between he and his wife, or the eerie green techscape that might be his son's future.

There's a moment in The Realist where Hanuka reminisces about reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, and how repeated readings over different points of his life have revealed new things about the seminal superhero text. In many ways, The Realist shares that kind of deliberateness and layered approach to storytelling - but instead of the lengthy narrative of Moore and company, Hanuka's approach is atomized, broken down day by day, page by page, thought by insightful thought. If I could give this book higher than a 10 out of 10, I would - it's a career-making collection, and the kind of auteur effort that shouldn't be ignored. There's a sequence in this book that I think sums up The Realist perfectly - a scene where a Hollywood slick-talker rips out Hanuka's heart in the name of entertainment. In many ways, Hanuka tells us, you have to bleed for your art. But after reading The Realist, I think the real message is clear - few artists have a heart quite like this one.

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