Best Shots Advance Reviews: THORS #1, RUNAWAYS #1, SQUADRON SINISTER #1, THE FICTION #1

Marvel June 2015 Solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Thors #1
Thors #1
Credit: Marvel

Thors #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Sprouse, Karl Story and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

What happens when you combine the tight structure of a police procedural with the majesty of Thor? You get Thors #1, a stellar Secret Wars tie-in from current Thor mastermind Jason Aaron. Presented like an hour-long detective show, Thors #1 follows Ultimate Thor and his partner Beta Ray Bill as they hunt down a serial killer who has been killing women across the kingdoms of Battleworld. Aaron, alongside Tom Strong alum Chris Sprouse, presents tight Law & Order-esque take on the God of Thunder that is unlike anything we have seen before. Gone are the legendary adventures beyond the Nine Realms that we are used to seeing and in their stead are crime scene investigations, witness interrogations and the classic self-destructive behaviors of a homicide detective. Thors #1 puts the audience smack dab in the field, alongside Thors from every corner of Battleworld, and the view may be dirty, but it's never unappealing.

“This is what it like to be Thor,” Ultimate Thor grimly states as Thors #1 starts. A body has just been discovered in the wilds of Weirdworld, the latest in a week-long string of murders that span through five different kingdoms. Ultimate Thor, who earned the name after closing one of the Thor Corps many red-ball murders and rounding up a gaggle of Hulks singlehandedly, is given a deceptively simple objective: close this case and close it fast, before Doom Almighty takes notice.

Jason Aaron, a writer no stranger to writing crime and criminals thanks to his work on Scalped and Southern Bastards, fully commits to this procedural premise and mines it for all its worth. Aaron’s take on Ultimate Thor and Beta Ray Bill is straight from the pages of the buddy cop handbook. They both bust chops, tend to lean toward unhealthy habits and yet still never take their eyes off the job. Thors #1 is almost like watching Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland from The Wire hitting the beat once again. Except this time, the beat is a patchwork quilt of weird landscapes, and Jimmy and Bunk never had magic hammers.

But Aaron doesn’t stop at just the buddy-cop dynamic in this debut. He goes whole hog with his crime story-take on the Thunderer with a gruff police chief in the form of Old King Thor, from his Thor: God of Thunder run, who reliably gives our leads the business about their progress in the case complete with a “get the Hel outta my office!” Aaron also cheekily adds cameos throughout like a Groot-ified version of Thor, Storm as the Goddess of Thunder, and Throg as the Thor Corps' forensic pathologist. Even the Lord of Lies, Loki, makes an appearance as a street dwelling snitch that Beta Ray Bill has employed in the past in order to bring a difficult case to a close.

While Jason Aaron’s script toes the line between crime fiction and high fantasy, artist Chris Sprouse, along with inker Karl Story and colorist Marte Gracia, keeps the action planted firmed in the realistic with photo-real renderings of Ultimate Thor and his partners. Employing almost static panel layouts and generous two-shots, Sprouse and his team render Thors #1 more like a man on street documentary and less like a superhero comic book. Each scene is painfully mundane even though the frame is populated with anything but. This realist approach gives Thors #1 yet another layer of familiarity beyond the trappings of police dramas. These are all Thors that we know and have spent time with, and so Chris Sprouse doesn’t go over the top with his character design. He simply presents the character and their actions in the most recognizable way possible and goes from there.

Aiding in that feeling of familiarity are the flat colors of Marte Gracia. Gracia doesn’t over-color anything here or drench the page in bright, eye-catching finishes. Instead, he commits beautifully to the art direction and keeps in line with Sprouse’s realistic take on the Gods of Thunder. Each page is colored beautifully, but never in a way that distracts. Thors #1 both reads and looks like a modern police hour-long and while in other books that would be a hindrance, here it proves to be a badge of honor.

Thors #1 is every bit a Thor book simply wrapped around the tried-and-true conventions of a police procedural. While that may not sound like much on paper, Jason Aaron and Chris Sprouse make the absolute most of it by merely playing it as straight as possible, casting Ultimate Thor as a put-upon workaholic faced with a seemingly impossible investigation. After their enigmatic introduction in Secret Wars #2, Aaron and Sprouse cut to the bone of who exactly the Thor Corps are and how they operate through Battleworld with really interesting results. The last thing I expected when I cracked open Thors #1 was a tightly constructed police story, but after reading it, it makes all the sense in the Nine Realms.

Runaways #1
Runaways #1
Credit: Marvel

Runaways #1
Written by Noelle Stevenson
Art by Sanford Greene and John Rauch
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Lumberjanes writer Noelle Stevenson made her Marvel debut back in February’s Thor Annual #1, and she’s jumped into the Secret Wars fray with the return of the fan-favorite Runaways. But as with every Secret Wars tie-in, this book isn’t exactly what you bargained for. Stevenson and artist Sanford Greene take us on a Divergent-esque adventure that borrows as much from recent YA fiction as it does from superhero comics. The team remixes the familiar elements well enough that the book’s setting and style mostly feels new, but considering the perils that many of Marvel’s teen heroes have been in before, some of the plotting feels lacking.

Runaways is a very beloved franchise for many reasons, but the most common one (and something that goes for most fiction that features young people) is that the trials and tribulations they face are treated with the same nuance and understanding that “adult” problems are. We’ve seen that in the character dynamics and plots of titles like Avengers Academy, Avengers Arena, countless X-Men titles from New Mutants to Young X-Men, and of course, Young Avengers. There’s a legacy of strong teams of young characters at Marvel that is impossible to ignore.

Stevenson recognizes that and quickly sets all the pieces in motion, introducing the young heroes in a Saved by the Bell-style scenario at Doom’s School for Gifted Youngsters, making it easy for readers to understand how these characters relate to each other and their world. That’s her biggest strength as a writer, the ability to quickly establish the characters and allow them to almost automatically takeover. Readers won’t feel like they’re being written to. The characters are all very natural.

The problem is that this school begins to feel too familiar and the plotting stagnates. Stevenson and Greene borrow a similar hand signal salute to the one featured in The Hunger Games. The characters at one point are shown sparring in outfits that resemble a mix of Tron and Divergent. And perhaps most disappointing, the characters don’t do much of anything in the issue. The big action scene is a flashback and in the focus on creating a base, we never move forward. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, but given that Stevenson introduces the characters so well in the opening, it’s unfortunate that we don’t get to move forward with them and see them reaffirm and reestablish their dynamics while also pushing the plot forward.

Sanford Greene’s artwork is a lot of fun. Some readers might be put off by his loose lines and haphazard obedience of the laws of physics and perspective but the energy inherent in his work is undeniable. Greene builds on Stevenson's characters with lively expression work that is entertaining as it ebbs and flows from straighter realism to more cartoony work. But Greene doesn’t seemed concerned enough with setting. Most pages are bereft of backgrounds, making the setting seems oddly empty and failing to give the book or the story any sense of scale. When having to sell a whole new world to readers, those backgrounds would usually contain details that clue us in to how the world at large works. As a result, Stevenson’s script has to tell us more that Greene might have been able to show (or at least reinforce) with a few background details.

Runaways definitely has a unique voice and style when put up against many of the other books spinning out of Secret Wars, but in a grander scheme, it’s not all that original. The book will live and die with its characters and Stevenson’s ability to make the readers care about a plot that they’ve seen over and over in Hollywood in the past five years. and for all his great character work, Greene will need to pick up the slack in terms of building out the world. Comics are a collaborative medium and this team isn’t synced up just yet but if they do, watch out. Runaways has the DNA to be one of Secret Wars’s best books.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Squadron Sinister #1
Written by Marc Guggenheim
Art by Carlos Pacheco, Mariano Taibo and Frank Martin
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

It may be good to be bad - but no one ever said that'd be easy. With the Marvel Universe split up into a patchwork Battleworld, it's perhaps no surprise that we'd see the Squadron Sinister, Marvel's evil pastiche of DC's Justice League. The problem with that is that between Forever Evil, New Avengers, and even seminal texts like JLA: Earth 2, this series feels bereft of an original spark before it even begins.

And that's a shame. Writer Marc Guggenheim isn't even necessarily at fault here - you see that from the first page, as Hyperion vaporizes his much more interesting counterpart from J. Michael Straczynski's Supreme Power, as the Squadron Sinister begins its latest invasion of their neighbors. From the get-go, you sense that Guggenheim's Squadron is almost preternaturally evil, conquering simply for the sake of bloodlust. Guggenheim also adds in a few decent twists here, as not only are alliances called into question, but the clock is ticking after their local Thor is found dead in their conference room.

So with all this potential in mind, what's wrong with Squadron Sinister? Part of the problem is that without a group of Avengers to square off against - essentially having Marvel literally defeat DC in a form of meta-propaganda - there's very little being said about this team of archetypes. The Squadron can be, in many ways, a critique on the nigh-unlimited power of DC's demigods, or even commentary on what deeper characterization might do to twist these characters. These characters come across as not just flat, but a little too familiar - tonally, this book absolutely feels like a retread of Grant Morrison's JLA: Earth 2, down to the posturing Hyperion and the deadly Whizzer.

The other thing that brings this book down fast is the art. On the one hand, artist Carlos Pacheco can't be blamed for the Squadron's so-retro-it-hurts designs - it's hard to be scared of Nighthawk when he looks like he's dressed like a weird bat-chicken, y'know? (And admittedly, it also is a little jarring that almost every single person in this book is a white guy.) But ultimately, Pacheco's artwork also doesn't feel particularly moody or dynamic - from the get-go, the brutal slaughter of the Squadron Supreme feels anticlimactic, all zoomed out and bright with little in the way of blood or brutality, and that feels like it's at cross-purposes with the tone of the characters and Guggenheim's script. Some of this also is due to colorist Frank Martin, who adds a wonderful depth to Pacheco's art, but never really brings in that dark focus to the story.

Part of Squadron Sinister's issues is that sometimes its too little, too late - Guggenheim serves up two interesting twists by the end of the book, but without the requisite set-up, it's hard to get invested. And with so many other quality reinventions doing on during Secret Wars, it's getting harder to justify giving a second chance to a non-starter. Here's hoping that now that they've established their characters, Guggenheim and Pacheco can give their bad guys more of a twist.

 
Credit: BOOM! Studios

The Fiction #1
Written by Curt Pires
Art by David Rubin and Michael Garland
Lettering by Colin Bell
Published by BOOM! Studios
Reviewed by Kelly Richards
‘Rama Rating 8 out of 10

The Fiction is a well-crafted young adult fantasy that is not unlike a modern day fairy tale, as writer Curt Pires and artist David Rubin play upon the juxtaposition between reality and fantasy. With a script that is witty and engaging, and a cast of characters who are strikingly nuanced in the way they relates to others and the world around them, Pires has succeeded in giving a new spin towards the cliché of getting lost in a book.

Cutting smoothly between the past and present, The Fiction is a story about how a group of friends lose their innocence. It all starts with their encounter with the Fiction, a series of books that allow you to travel to the worlds within them when read aloud. But after the disappearance of one of their closest friends to these worlds, Tyler, Kassie and Max break contact and try to move on with their lives. When Tyler is again confronted with a copy of the Fiction and disappears inside, Kassie and Max must put aside their past grievances and re-enter the world that lies within the Fiction if they have any hopes of finding their friend and discovering what really happened all those years ago.

The writing style of Pires feels perfectly suited to the fantasy genre. While the characters and settings are for the most part grounded in reality, the addition of voice overs and inner monologues allows for the introduction of more fantastical elements while maintaining a sense of reality. The dialogue and emotional responses of the characters feels fairly natural, especially as each has a voice that is recognizable their own. Kassie, for example, even when being forceful or aggressive does not possess the attitude or perpetual sarcasm that Max exhibits as even when he is offering to help, he cannot do so without first asserting that Kassie “Is doing it all wrong.” The Fiction moves forward at a pace that is quick but not rushed and feels appropriate for the length of the series. As such, Pires leaves the reader with just enough questions to keep them interested but not so many as to leave them frustrated at the lack of answers.

David Rubin’s relaxed artistic style and use of consistent line weights balance the tone of the story somewhat, allowing Pires’ writing to venture toward the darker side of all-ages material. Rubin creates expressive and dynamic panels without overloading them with unnecessary details or background clutter. The inclusion of references to classic fairy tales and fantasy stories within the realm of The Fiction is more than a little tongue in cheek especially his take on Geppeto and his workshop. The way Rubin frames certain scenes definitely helps build and maintain the tension, for example, pulling away from the doorway that leads to the parents and then zooming in to the door which the children are behind. This, however is not always the case and some panels fall flat, feeling static and awkward.

The placement and design of the sound effects is incredibly charming, and much like the artwork, they help balance the tone and remind readers that this is in fact an all-ages book. Letterer Colin Bell raises a smile with the insertion of one line of text between panels. It can’t help but feel like a hint that you should have been reading between the lines and will leave you wondering what you may have already failed to acknowledge.

Meanwhile, through the use of contrasting palettes for the flashback, and present day sections of the story, colorist Michael Garland has created an obvious and effective visual divide between the two parts of the narrative. The panels which show the characters as children seem soft and bathed in light, while those focusing on their adult lives use a palette made of red and purple tones that remove all of the initial sense of whimsy. The change in colour is effective in highlighting the loss of innocence that occurs between those pages.

It would be easy to draw parallels between what has so far been revealed of The Fiction and stories like The Unwritten, or The Inkheart Trilogy. However, while these assertions would not be unfounded, they would be a little reductive, as while the narrative may feel familiar, it is the differences that make The Fiction such a compelling read.

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