Best Shots Advance Reviews: KAPTARA #2, NINJAK #3, VALHALLA MAD #1

Valiant May 2015 solicitations
Credit: Valiant Entertainment
Credit: Image Comics

Kaptara #2
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Kagan McLeod, Becka Kinzie, Mike Faille, Chelsea Watt and Jonathon Rivait
Production by Drew Gill
Published by Image Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

I confess that the main interest of this book for me is, by and large, Keith’s sexual orientation. It’s not often we see creators can introduce a gay lead and seamlessly continue the narrative, but that’s exactly what writer Chip Zdarsky does. Although that superficial fact was the reason that initially brought interest to Kaptara, this issue marked a nice emotional growth for Keith’s character and finally gave us a reason to root for him and become more invested in the story.

Zdarsky picks up a little after where Kaptara #1 left off as we get a glimpse into the daily routing of Keith’s new life. This was the smart choice for two reasons: first, it gave Zdarsky an opportunity to show where Keith is at emotionally; and second, it gave artist Kagan McLeod the opportunity to continue showing us around this new world. McLeod has a real talent with making things look both intricate and easy to follow. Some of his best work is during the times when there are crowds on the page: it gives us a good glimpse at the diversity of the city, the kind of culture this new place has, and what kind of situation Keith has actually found himself in. The actual characters we get to see more of, like the Queen and Manton, become more and more interesting and likeable. The weakest link of the cast of characters so far is the Prince, who the Queen admits is “as bright as a black hole.” While his interjections were humorous to start, they quickly became irritating and lacked substance; most likely, towards the climax of the story, the Prince will save the day in some unlikely manner. Until then, however, he remains simply an annoyance.

The plot progresses fairly organically, as Zdarsky uses Lance’s old belongings as the catalyst for Keith’s change. Sometimes, it’s only a picture that can move people to change their mind, as is the case in Kaptara #2. Lance’s death is still fresh on our minds, as well as Keith’s, which is why the moment is so poignant. McLeod does wonders with the breakdowns here, as the page preceding this discovery is fraught with a large number of panels and as the emotional denouement progresses, the panels become larger and longer, giving us an indication as to how much time has slowed and how big of an impact this moment is on Keith.

The main thing that detracts from the story is the fact that we don’t, as readers, fully understand the stakes at play in Kaptara. We know that Skulthor is headed to Earth to destroy it, but without knowing much about Skulthor, we can’t determine whether or not this is a credible threat or if the Earth will repel him no problem. Moreover, the dramatic irony Zdarsky creates by showing us Skulthor’s minions that plot to kill the Queen, Keith, and everyone left in the city doesn’t make us feel anything significant because we don’t care enough about these characters. The loss of life is tragic, yes, but it’s unclear how this will majorly affect the story, especially because we know that there’s no way Keith will die.

The end of the issue marks a good transition into the next one, as Keith and his guide She-La are captured by what appear to be an unaffiliated third party. At this point, Keith’s life is very much in danger, and since Keith is the most likeable character of them all at the moment, his uncertain fate will make people want to pick up the next issue. Overall, Zdarsky hits the right beats in the story to make us care about Keith by the time the issue is over, enough to make us want to see what happens next; ultimately, that’s a success.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Ninjak #3
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: 6 out of 10

Valiant Entertainment’s rollicking reboot of Britain’s favorite ninja continues with Ninjak #3, an issue with some vivid and fluid artwork, bogged down by an infallible main character with an addiction to narration.

After drugging big bad Kannon at the end of last issue, Ninjak must steal his identity and fortune, eliminate his goons and conceal his handiwork all before Kannon wakes up. Blimey. Kindt and Mann open the issue with another classified insight into Ninjak’s gear and mind, this time focused around his Battle Boots. There’s something wonderfully toyetic about these opening pages. They provide an interesting insight into the nuances behind Ninjak’s weaponry and mental state, whilst also maintaining the title’s G.I Joe-esque nature. You can just imagine Ninjak fighting alongside Snake-Eyes and company, and you can just as easily imagine this page on the back of the official action figure.

Into the main meat of the issue, Clay Mann’s detailed artwork excels during busy and dynamic scenes. The opening action sequence depicts Ninjak’s unceremonious exit from a skyscraper; the fast-approaching enemy reflected in countless window shards as he helplessly plummets. Ulises Arreola’s colors complement the artwork, lending Mann’s lines a liberal dose of color and depth that makes each panel positively pop. Close-up shots of Ninjak’s panicking blue eyes provide a unique platform for Arreola’s talent, capturing realistic light reflection and the streaked color patterning of the human iris.

Matt Kindt’s script has the same strengths and flaws of past issues. His characterization is strong, especially in the few pages showing Colin King’s unorthodox childhood, but any serious conflict has zero tension as a result of Ninjak’s omnipotence. His internal monologue is seemingly unending, even as he approaches terminal velocity.

“Haptic gloves pre-programmed with basic hack-routines move my fingers for me,” narrates Ninjak as he deletes security camera footage of himself, in the best example of something meant to illustrate Ninjak’s awesome spy skills that actually just makes the whole book seem as stupid as a Michael Bay flick.

Kindt also seems to lack faith in Mann’s ability to tell a story, using entire sentences of narration to explain simple actions that are obvious. It’s frustrating stuff, because the core story is solid as hell.

Away from the bombast and bluster of the main event, Matt Kindt tells a classically James Bond style spy story in "The Lost Files." Alongside Butch Guice’s more sedate and moody pencils, Kindt paints a picture of Colin King’s first missions with MI6. Pre-Ninjak Colin is an insecure young man, still grappling with the fundamentals of espionage whilst becoming romantically entangled with his handler, Angelina. Ulises Arreola also takes up coloring duties here, but has appropriately adapted her style to the back-up strip’s more subdued tone, using a palette of purples and browns to color Brian Thies’ thick and moody inkwork.

With Ninjak #3, Kindt and Guice’s back-up story threatens to upstage the main feature, mostly due to the fact that a flawed Ninjak is more interesting to read about that an impossibly perfect one. Clay Mann’s artwork is as gorgeous as ever, and Kindt’s slow reveal of Colin King’s difficult childhood is becoming more intriguing with each new issue. As a blockbuster-style spy comic, and if you can forgive its occasional groanworthy moments, Ninjak #3 performs admirably. Don’t expect anything more than that, though.

Credit: Image Comics

Valhalla Mad #1
Written by Joe Casey
Art by Paul Maybury
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The first thing that comes to mind in the opening pages of Valhalla Mad #1 is how similar it feels to Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thor. They’re remarkably similar: otherworldly Viking-like beings come to Earth and there’s a culture shock. Whereas Thor had other things to do, this group of characters - consisting of the Glorious Knox, Greghorn the Battlebjorn, and Jhago the Irritator - look like they’re here to throw down and party. This makes for a rather uninteresting and dull first issue.

Writer Joe Casey makes a vital mistake in the first issue: he spends too much time elaborating on what these characters are and not who they are. We know from the interactions these three have with the people of New York that they’ve been here before, fight in wars to keep the peace, and generally cause a lot of destruction. Unfortunately, because we already have popular stories that have explored these tropes, there’s nothing to hook the reader into the story. By the end of the issue, we really don’t know much about what makes these characters tick or - frankly - why we should care about their journey through Gluttonalia, the great indulgence.

Most of the issue takes place at the first bar, Riley’s, which shows us that these characters have gone on Gluttonalia here before and that it appears to be little more than an extended Viking bar crawl. The interactions they have with the populace feel cliché and overdrawn: Casey makes it painfully clear that the people who remember them don’t like their presence and adds to an ominous foreboding feeling throughout the issue that something is going to go wrong. There’s no indication by the end of the issue as to what that may be, nor does the ending give us a reason to feel invested in the story enough to continue. A major reason for that is because Knox and company know infinitely more about what’s going on than we do. Although Casey uses the bar to give us some exposition on where these characters come from, it gives us no indication as to what Knox’s ulterior motives might be or where this story could possibly be headed. Instead of making us feel intrigued, that lack of information stops us from caring about the situation.

Despite the fact that Casey created a different origin for Knox and his friends than simply being Norse Gods, the artwork betrayed that interest. They’re from a realm called Viken, which seems to be an amalgamation of Asgard from Thor and New Genesis from DC Comics. While Paul Maybury does a cool job rendering what Viken might look like, the attire of these characters is too reminiscent of Norse mythology - especially Knox’s hammer - to let Casey get away with creating this flimsy backstory. At many points, Maybury’s panels feel repetitive, especially when he foregoes making backgrounds and goes with solid colors. While this might put the focus solely on the characters, it makes it feel like the story is going on removed from the world in which it’s taking place.

The more I read this book, the more I came to the conclusion that this story doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be yet. It has elements of humor and drama, but it’s hard to tell exactly what the point of this story is largely because of all the information Casey’s withholding from us. There’s potential in each avenue, and the grandiose language Knox and his companions use when they talk about their peacekeeping indicates that there’s probably something more going on at play, but we can never figure out exactly what.

Overall, Valhalla Mad seems like a good concept, just a poorly executed one. There’s an interesting story here, one that Casey is fully aware of but didn’t translate completely onto the page for us. There’s just not enough of the characters or their motivations in the issue - they all remain one-dimensional from start to finish - and that ultimately fails to make us feel invested in their quest (whatever that actually is).

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