Best Shots Advance Reviews: GROOT #1, NONPLAYER #2, AGE OF REPTILES: ANCIENT EGYPTIANS #1, DEAD DROP #2

"Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1" cover
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Groot #1
Groot #1
Credit: Marvel

Groot #1
Written by Jeff Loveness
Art by Brian Kesinger
Lettering by Jeff Eckleberry
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

That least talkative member of the Guardians of the Galaxy begins his own eponymous series, as Groot proves to be not just a fun character for Marvel diehards, but actually proves to be a strong all-ages performer as well. Writer Jeff Loveness brings plenty of jokes to this first issue, and teaming up with Disney artist Brian Kesinger, this is the perfect opportunity for this goofy character to - ahem - branch out.

In a lot of ways, Groot #1 reads as a spiritual cousin to Marvel's Rocket Raccoon series, as Loveness opens with Groot and Rocket getting into trouble in the far reaches of space. But whereas Rocket Racoon had a sharper, smartass quality to it thanks to Skottie Young and Jake Parker, Groot is less of an action book and more of a straight-up comedy, one that will appeal to younger audiences even more than adults. There's a lot of funny gags here, whether its Groot happily hitch-hiking to have a vacation on Earth, or a very, very funny send-up of another famous comic book alien's origin story. It's a little scattered, jumping from scene to scene, but ultimately the jokes all land - they just feel aimed a little younger than you might expect.

But I'd say that just like Rocket Raccoon before it, Groot is absolutely defined by its artist. Brian Kesinger has clocked in 16 years at the House of Mouse, and it absolutely shows with his expressive, lush renderings. It's not as sketchy as Rocket Raccon, which I think skews more towards traditional comic book fans - this is very clearly an animated take on Groot, and is a big reason why any of Loveness's jokes work in the first place. Rocket, for example, says so much with a scowl, while Groot himself is largely grinning from ear to ear, excited by the adventures he's on. Kesinger's sense of color is also spectacular, with a wonderful blend of purples and oranges that lend a real warmth to this book.

Ultimately, if there's any one thing that might bring down Groot #1, it's what I've been saying throughout this review - namely, that it's tough to get beyond comparisons to Marvel's Rocket Raccoon series. While younger fans will love Eckleberry's art, his style might not be a big draw for more traditional comic book fans, who expect a certain sketchiness to their artwork. In addition, Loveness's script has a lot of echoes from Rocket Raccoon, particularly the mysterious bounty hunter searching for our heroes -- just in reverse.

Still, even if some of this issue might feel a little bit familiar, there's a lot to love about the execution behind Groot #1. In particular, editors Nick Lowe, Sana Amanat and Devin Lewis make a strong case for solid, all-ages-appropriate comics with Brian Kesinger's bouncy artwork, and Jeff Loveness delivers a lighthearted, funny script. While Groot #1 might surprise fans who were expecting darker fare, the only thing serious about this comic is just how seriously fun it is.

Credit: Image Comics

Nonplayer #2
Written by Nate Simpson
Art by Nate Simpson, Jiyoung Lee and Matt Harding
Lettering by Nate Simpson
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

In 2011, Nonplayer hit comic book stands like a bolt of lightning. It sold out almost immediately, had its film rights picked up just after the first issue came out and left fans eagerly awaiting the second issue. Except it never came. Creator Nate Simpson was involved in a cycling accident, and then life just got in the way. But four years later, Simpson has returned to the title and made good on his promises to continue it. The second issue takes on a bit of a different tone than the first, but it proves that we’ve only seen a fraction of the world that Simpson has built and reminds us why Nonplayer was such a hit in the first place.

I’ll admit, Nonplayer #2 is kind of a rough read without rereading #1. The debut introduced us to Dana Stevens, a delivery girl by day and elite assassin in her favorite video game by night, but she’s largely absent here as this issue stands to expand the world and show some of the fallout of her actions. The interesting part of Simpson’s narrative that evolves here is the idea that beings with artificial intelligence have rights and that the non-player characters in the massive multiplayer online game Warriors of Jarvath are somehow more real than we’d been led to believe. So Simpson's book, which seemed to be about escapism from everyday life, spirals into something larger with shadowy figures and underhanded organizations.

There are a lot of ideas at work but it’s a little hard to keep up. There’s not as stark a contrast between fantasy and reality as in the first issue and there’s no real protagonist to latch onto. This issue is plot driven through and through but without a main character to really ground it, it almost plays out like a bunch of random scenes in a row instead of something with pacing and narrative flow. I have no doubt that it will make a lot more sense once it’s sandwiched between issues one and three but for now, it’s providing backstory and answers to questions we didn’t have just yet.

On top of a promising narrative, Simpson’s art was always a huge draw to this title. His clean lines and intricate detailing make him something of a cross between Jamie McKelvie and Geoff Darrow. With so much of this issue taking place in a real world setting, the art understandably comes across as less imaginative and exciting. Simpson is a master of character expressions and detailing and those skills allow him to create truly unique characters that feel fully realized right on the page. But the fantasy setting was his real bread and butter so it’s unfortunate we don’t get more of it here.

The biggest knock on the book that I can tell is the coloring. The color palette fluctuates greatly from scene to scene, leading to certain scenes forcing painful fluorescents on the reader and other panels that are almost too dark to read. While a color palette might work for a scene, it doesn’t flow with the rest of the title. (I should mention that I read this on a lit screen, not on paper, so hopefully this problem is a digital one alone.) The method for creating Nonplayer #2 was much different than the debut which utilized Photoshop and featured over 150 layers on some pages. While the original method was more time-consuming, it definitely led to higher quality work.

Nonplayer #2 isn’t as exciting as it’s debut but its existence means that we’ll soon see more of this world. This issue lacks a real anchor character to help guide us through but with the context of the debut, it isn’t that hard to put together. Simpson is playing with a lot of themes and ideas that hopefully won’t weigh down the narrative but instead enrich and enhance the reading experience as it continues. For now, we’ll wait with with bated breath for #3.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1
Written by Ricardo Delgado
Art by Ricardo Delgado and Ryan Hill
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Ricardo Delgado's bold and unique take on the comic book returns in Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1, an alienating but memorable comic book that could equally claim a home both in the natural history museum and on the racks of your local book shop.

Beginning in 1993 with Tribal Warfare, artist and writer Ricardo Delgado has received two Eisners for his work on this completely silent collection of mini-series, which chronicles the lives and times of history's most majestic beasts: the dinosaurs. In the teeming swamps of Cretaceous Africa, a harsh ecosystem of warring dinosaurs battle for survival; each one adapted to serve a specific purpose on a blood-thirsty planet. The protagonist of this particular tale is the catchily-named Spinosarous Aegyptiacus, a semi-aquatic beast with a more than legitimate claim to the crown of Dinosaur King.

The overwhelming silence that permeates Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1 takes a while to get used to. Without narration boxes and dialogue, Delgado truly forces the reader to scrutinize the actions of each character in each panel. Delgado emphasizes drama and emotion through close-ups of the creature's eyes, and also through their general designs. Huge Apatosaurus-like creatures have furrowed brows and the hanging jowls of well-fed older gentlemen, whilst light-green Velociraptor analogues have wide, circular eyes and the cheeky demeanors of hyper-active toddlers.

Pacing-wise, Delgado approaches Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1 methodically. He slowly but surely sets the scene through frequent panels that each show a new perspective on the issue's landscape, which lends a cinematic feel to the atmospheric story. With a format like this, Delgado has no choice but to tell his story in broad strokes, but the single-minded and feral nature of the issue's stars ensures Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1's unique appeal.

Delgado's artwork is detailed and rich in character whilst remaining loose and sketchy. His style brings to mind the work of a biologist in the field, hastily rendered but with great attention to detail. Atop Delgado's particular penciling, Ryan Hill colors in broad strokes, evoking to mind the dinosaur books of our youth. Delgado and Hill have not committed themselves to total accuracy, and as a result Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1 feels like the perfect example of dinosaurs as fantasy. Creatures are depicted more like the Victorians originally envisioned them during the Bone Wars of the late 1800's, rather than leaning on more modern discoveries. Hill's palette is lurid and vibrant, filled with deep sea blues, deep and lime greens, as well as sun-bleached red and dusty beige. It's a palette firmly steeped in that fantasy world, which highlights the surreality of the completely silent issue.

It's difficult to rate Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1 alongside more orthodox comic books. Ricardo Delgado has put his heart and soul into this quiet yet dramatic book that feels more like a nature documentary than a standard comic. It would be easy to blast through Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians #1 in 3 minutes and blast it as overly simplistic, but you'd be missing the point. There's a subtle elegance to Delgado's tale of battling beasts that demands you spend a long time poring over its every nuance. Your mileage may vary.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Dead Drop #2
Written by Ales Kot
Art by Adam Gorham and Michael Spicer
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"I guess you're even more lost than I am, white boy."

Superhero comics, by virtue of their very nature, can sometimes take on some troubling political connotations, sometimes unintentionally leaning into a very conservative, might-makes-right kind of mindset. While there have always been anti-establishment heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men who have shown that sometimes morality isn't as black-and-white as people would like for it to be, by and large, modern comics have stuck to their guns: there is good and there is evil, and the distinction is not difficult to make.

Which is where Dead Drop, and Valiant Entertainment in general, come in.

Ales Kot's chase comic, featuring former cultist Archer chasing after a vial filled with an alien virus, is one of those comics that flips the script on superheroes - and fulfills a trend that we've been seeing an increasing amount of from Valiant nowadays. While Kot's pacing and sense of humor make this book run fast and feel engaging even for new readers, what's most interesting to me about this book is that very early on, Kot makes you question our hero, and exactly why he's doing what he's doing. Archer's past in a religious fundamentalist group has made him a fish out of water, prone to following orders for a greater good - but within four pages, we're wondering what's really going on, as Archer's quarry shouts, "Whatever you think you're doing, you have it backwards."

Of course, not only does Archer have it backwards, but we do, too. Kot keeps his audiences in the dark as he jumps around from future to past to present, showing why Archer is in hot pursuit without any pants on, or how Reiko and Jon swerve through traffic, trying to keep this would-be superhero off their backs. What makes this chase comic crackle is that both sides are resolute in what they're doing, and they refuse to let the other side stop them - what Lajos Egri referred to as the "unity of opposites." But in the end, Kot is too smart to have his heroes settle things through fisticuffs - that'd be too easy - but instead leans on that time-honored trope of misunderstood intentions.

One thing that cannot be missed, however, is how sharp Adam Gorham and Michael Spicer are as artists. Gorham's angular work has echoes of regular Kot collaborator Michael Walsh, but there's a surprising amount of expressiveness to his wide-eyed, innocent Archer, whose determination in the face of lacking pants makes this comic more chuckle-worthy than expected. Yet just because he's funny, don't think Gorham slacks off with the action sequences - in particular, the brief car chase sequence, as Reiko and Jon race down the road, only to have Archer leap down shouting, "For common good!" (What can I say? Just because he's a superhero, doesn't mean he's necessarily good at it.)

And these sorts of questions about black-and-white heroism really make me enjoy books like this. To me, Dead Drop #2 isn't just a fun read because of the fast-paced chase involved or the evocative artwork - but instead, it reflects a growing anti-authority vibe that's starting to turn the Valiant Universe on its head. At first, Valiant trusted power, with super-spy Ninjak or the monarch X-O Manowar being seen as trusted, if flawed, authority figures. But now with books like Imperium or Divinity, Valiant has slowly begun to flip the script, showing that absolute power often does corrupt absolutely. What does the future hold for the direction of the Valiant Universe? Chances are, we'll start to see the moral cracks begin to widen not in the big events, but in small, street-level stories like Dead Drop.

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