Best Shots Advance Reviews: WE STAND ON GUARD #1, CHEW #50, THE SPIRIT #1, More

'The Spirit #1' Preview
'The Spirit #1' Preview
Credit: Dynamite
We Stand On Guard #1
We Stand On Guard #1
Credit: Image Comics

We Stand On Guard #1
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Steve Skroce and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Eventually, something’s gotta give, right? Brian K. Vaughan has had one of the most enviable careers in comic book history. Hit titles such as Saga, Ex Machina and Y:The Last Man have allowed him to eschew the Big Two sandbox to focus solely on creator-owned work. And his work has been continually praised for having a tight narrative structure, compelling characters and grand emotional arcs. So what’s the deal with We Stand On Guard? The title imagines a sort of new War of 1812 between the United States and Canada, but this time with giant mechs patrolling Canada’s snowy landscape. Artist Steve Skroce makes a rare return to comic books here, and his work is as strong as it’s ever been. Clear and efficient inking (and maybe borrowing a little hyper-detail from Doc Frankenstein collaborator Geoff Darrow) enables Skroce to deliver some really big moments in the script that perfectly capture the scope of this story.

This book reads like the cold open and first 15 minutes of an hour-long TV pilot and frankly, that’s not enough for a 36-page book. The concept is made very clear, very quickly - two siblings, Amber and Tommy, lose their parents in an attack on Canada by the U.S. and must make their own way. But Vaughan skips the kid angle and jumps right to Amber as a 17- or 18-year-old, making this book a “teen girl against the world” that can work, we’ve just seen it a few times in a few different contexts. What the book lacks is the immediate humanity and emotion that helped ground series like Saga and Y:The Last Man. You want to feel for Amber, but she’s kind of a blank slate. The freedom fighters that she comes across are similarly hollow, and through it all, you’re left wondering where Vaughan’s big hook is. But it never comes. At least, it’s not in this issue, and failing to provide a hook in the debut issue is a mark of a bad script.

But this is the nature of Vaughan’s work - if everything is planned for such a large arc, we might not even get the hook until the end of the first one. I think the main problem is that with Vaughans frequent 60-issue approach to his titles, he’s become such a known commodity that even a script that doesn’t work can’t be entirely written off because it will inevitably somehow pay off later. But that doesn’t (always) make for great single issues of comics, and that’s what we’re talking about here.

Steve Skroce is no slouch, though, and Matt Hollingsworth lends a helping hand. I don’t think that this title has the same “wow” factor that a book like Saga did upon first read, but Skroce’s art rewards multiple looks. His mech designs, based on animals that you’d find in the Canadian wilderness, are definitely infused with a bit of that Geoff Darrow influence that gives the figures a lot of weight by showing their every intricate detail. His narrative pacing is really solid, as well, allowing him to deftly balance the action scenes with smaller moments between the Two-Four and Amber. I don’t love his lack of backgrounds in some panels in favor of Hollingsworth’s color palette but that’s because I think Skroce does excellent background work .But given that they’re in a snowy forest, it might be distractingly similar from panel to panel anyway.

Skroce’s character design and expression work is something that other artists should aspire to. When he draws children, they actually look like children, and when drawing Amber 12 years later, her look is consistent with her younger self. Skroce understands anatomy and chooses his angles well as to never give his figures an otherworldly look that doesn’t fit the realistic tone of the title.

We Stand On Guard might get really good. After all, the creative team has a track record for making really good comics. But Vaughan has buried his hook maybe an issue or two down the line, and the concept that we see in play here isn’t that enthralling. Skroce’s artwork might be enough for former fans to want to pick this one up, but Vaughan fans who lack the context for why Skroce’s involvement is exciting may be left a little disappointed. We’ve come to know Vaughan as something of a modern master of comic book storytelling, and part of that is in his ability to immediately give the readers something of value from issue to issue while still playing the long game in terms of an overall plot. It’s odd to see a debut script from him that doesn’t do much to try and forge an emotional connection. But for all we know, that’s still coming.

Credit: Image Comics

Chew #50
Written by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

For the past 50 issues, Tony Chu has had a destiny - and now, in Chew #50, he finally meets that dinner-date with destiny head-on. Pitting our hero to break bread (and break heads) with the villainous Collector, John Layman and Rob Guillory put together a surprisingly effective action comic book that hits all the right notes, even as it leads readers to the home stretch of this creator-owned success story.

For the past few arcs, you might have been surprised by Chew's turn into seriousness and violence, as we've seen plenty of surprise deaths and dismemberments, including the vicious takedown of Savoy, Caesar, Applebee and Olive thanks to the Collector's prodigious foodie skills. But here, Layman not only allows Tony to avenge his family, but he actually lends meaning to the deaths of everyone from clairvoyant sister Toni to even the finger-lickin', ass-kickin' mecha-chicken Poyo.

With Tony bringing everything he's got to the Collector, this also provides a chance for Layman to pull out all the stops. The singular strength to Chew has not just been its sense of humor, but the sheer inventiveness Layman has brought to the table in terms of food-based powers, which could easily fuel another 60 issues of stories if he so chose. But with the Collector having dined on dozens of superhuman foodies over the years, Layman peppers us with power after power after power, ranging from French toast razor claws to rabbit-induced super-speed. It's oftentimes funny and always pretty incredible, and just adds a ton of tension to this already tense battle.

Perhaps most surprising in this comic book is the artwork of Rob Guillory, who proves to be one of the most flexible artists in the industry today. Guillory's over-the-top designs are tailor-made for comedy, so it's even more surprising when his exaggerated characters wind up feeling this dramatic. Watching a bruised and bloodied Tony try to pick himself up off the ground, for example, just looks painful, and the Collector moves with a speed and fluidity that belies his larger size. Sure, Guillory adds in little comedic notes that seem often for his own edification than anyone else's, like hat tips to Jeff Goldblum in a NASA station, but what is so impressive is that he is able to use dramatic execution with cartoony figures, often to spectacular results.

With a solid hook at the end to launch readers into the last 10 issues, this may be the most satisfying issue of Chew in quite some time. Layman and Guillory wrap up all their loose threads as Tony has one last score to settle with the Collector, and there's just enough of a tease to keep readers coming back for more. Five years ago, the idea of a food-based detective comic might have been insane for most readers, but Layman and Guillory's Chew proves to be a rare medium well-done.

Credit: Image Comics

The Wicked + the Divine #12
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Kate Brown, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

After the explosive – I’m sorry, is it still too soon? – conclusion of The Wicked + the Divine #11, it was hard to imagine that Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie had anything left to give. Between Inanna and Baphomet’s deadly brawl and the stunning addition of Laura to the pantheon (however short-lived), The Wicked + the Divine #11 drove the "Fandemoneum" arc to a staggering climax that seemed impossible to top.

It’s good, then, that The Wicked + the Divine #12 doesn’t try to top anything. This month is like breathing room, giving us the opportunity to process our own feelings to these recent shocking events as the Pantheon (in particular, Kanye-in-Residence Baal) works through their own reactions.

We open this new arc, ominously called "Commercial Suicide," Cassandra’s fired intern Beth leading a new team to fish up new footage of Laura to sell in the wake of her death. Beth has all of Cassandra’s dogged interest in filming the Pantheon, but less charm given she has no pretense of academic interest to temper her paparazzi tendencies. She also sets up the primary storyline of the issue, interrupting Baal as he reflects on the ashen debris of Laura’s old home to give him the identity of Baphomet’s partner-in-crime: the Morrigan.

Callous as it may be to demand an exclusive interview of a man in mourning in exchange for information, Beth’s questionable behavior provides some of the most heartfelt pages of the issue. At his most emotionally vulnerable, Baal opines that, “There’s a next life. That’s what I keep telling myself. But that’s a long time away, and right now … I’m here alone.” Baal discussing his reaction to Inanna’s death is easily his most humanizing moment of The Wicked + the Divine to date, and highlights Gillen’s ability to make us identify with even the most outlandish characters or turns of events.

They were young adults once, and still are sometimes. The Pantheon was thrown together under fantastic but terrifying circumstances and forced to learn to coexist in relative harmony or risk the likes of Baphomet’s ill-conceived assassination plot. As outlandish as the Pantheon seems to civilians, their relationships are genuine and relatable (for better or worse) even if their abilities outstrip our own. Gillen makes it clear that they genuinely care for one another, and this issue serves as a reminder that they’re out not only to save their own skins, but to ensure the survival of their lovers or friends.

Guest artist Kate Brown provides a visual breather as well; her colors seem washed out compared to McKelvie’s usual bold choices, but they complement her more youthful style. Her art looks the way the day after such a traumatic local tragedy can feel - soft around the edges as you’re forced to revisit familiar places and faces in a different light, with a new perspective. The change is jarring in the first few panels, but her style suits Gillen’s work and after eleven issues it’s interesting to get a fresh look at these characters. Brown is a solid start to the five guest artist issues of "Commercial Suicide," and sets a high bar.

The Wicked + the Divine #12 is certainly less emotionally fraught than is immediate predecessors. Scenes like Baal’s interview and a rather one-sided fight later in the book flow naturally from the emotional punch of previous issues. Gillen gives us space to process recent staggering turns while clearly building to yet more surprising revelations. His skill with managing narrative arcs makes The Wicked + the Divine a consistently compelling tale rather than one so jam-packed with emotional blows that it gets too exhausting to follow. For regular readers, #12 will almost be a relief in the wake of last month’s deaths. (Though if you’re anything like me, Baal might still make you cry.)

'The Spirit #1' Preview
'The Spirit #1' Preview
Credit: Dynamite

The Spirit #1
Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Dan Schkade and Brennan Wagner
Lettering by A Larger World Studios
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Like TNT knows drama, Dynamite Entertainment knows pulp, and they just landed the Cary Grant of pulp heroes. It has been two years since the denizens of Central City have seen hide or hair of the Spirit, their masked protector, but that hasn’t stopped the city from moving on without him. Writer Matt Wagner, no stranger to the pulps, revives The Spirit not as the punchy, retro pop art that has carried other reboots, but as a thoughtful and deliberate tale of loss centered around the Spirit’s co-stars. Wagner’s script coupled with the fluid pencils of Dan Schkade and bold colors of Brennan Wagner make Dyanmite’s The Spirit unlike any other take on the character.

The Spirit #1 starts off with a newspaper headline for the ages; “Who Killed the Spirit?” adorns the top of the Central City Gazette and thus, this debut issue presents its gargantuan hook.The Spirit, long the protector of Central City, has been missing for two years without a trace and no one has any leads. Matt Wagner, instead of getting straight to the domino masked darring do, opts instead to start off this new series with Denny Colt firmly out of the picture so his long suffering supporting cast can finally be developed beyond their roles as sidekicks and love interests.

The Spirit #1 smartly and engagingly brings the Dolans and former kid sidekicks Ebony White and Sammy Strunk into the foreground and makes them the leads of this debut, framing them around the mystery of the missing crimefighter. The Spirit #1 takes a road less traveled but the journey is still satisfying, especially after seeing these characters grow finally after literal years of stagnation. Ellen Dolan now finds herself occupying a seat on the city council, while her father Commissioner Dolan is living out his last days in the position, supplanted by a new, penny-pinching upstart. Sammy and Ebony, however, are attempting to fill the void that Denny left in his absence by setting up shop as private detectives. Denny Colt is barely featured in this debut as an actual character, but his presence hangs heavy over the entire issue, allowing us to see his friends and loved ones dealing with the loss and attempting to make a life for themselves beyond the Spirit. Of course its only a matter of time before Colt bursts back onto the scene, but for the time being, the supporting cast is more than enough to keep readers interested until next month.

The Spirit #1 isn’t just all retro turns of phrase and characters dealing with loss, however. This debut also comes with page after page of dynamite visuals, thanks to series artist Dan Schkade and colorist Brennan Wagner. Schkade and Wagner absolutely lean into the film noir visuals, lantern jaws, and high fashion of the '40s era, but the duo also gives readers a small taste of their eye for action in the issue’s retconned origin for Denny. As Denny dons the suit for the first time and goes head-to-head with the villainous Cobra, Schkade frames the encounter as a blockbuster single page splash which would be right at home as its own cover. The splash then gives way to a heartbreaking four panels, which hits all the emotional bases from Denny’s selfless heroism to his sacrifice and, finally, the sadness of his first death. Dan Schkade never reveals Denny’s unmasked face during this scene, and keeps the momentum throughout, but it's the quieter moments at the grave side that pack the most punch, thanks mostly to colorist Wagner’s greyscale color choices. Will Eisner, Darwyn Cooke, and Paul Smith are big shoes to fill but Dan Schkade and Brennan Wagner deliver an issue that displays just the tip of their artistic talents.

And so, we are off and running with Dynamite Entertainment’s newest pulpy gem and The Spirit #1 is a gem in every sense of the word. Matt Wagner, Dan Schkade, and Brennan Wagner turned in an issue that not only celebrates the legacy of the Spirit but translates it through a modern filter for a new set of readers. The Spirit can be much more than just flirting with vixens and punching out hoodlums and this debut displays that effortlessly. The Spirit #1 is every inch a Spirit tale, just starring those closest to him instead of the actual man himself. This shift in focus gives The Spirit a pathos that we haven’t seen before and will surely keep readers coming back for more until the time for flirting and punching comes again.

Credit: Black Mask Comics

Transference #1
Written by Michael Moreci
Art by Ron Salas and Tamra Bonvillain
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Sometimes all it takes is one change to turn the world upside-down. It works for life, and it works for comic book high concepts. Sometimes you don't need to have an ultra-complicated hook to make for a compelling read - and Michael Moreci and Ron Salas' Transference is a prime example, utilizing a simple premise and making for a taut, tense "spy-fi" story.

You ever wish you could do it all over again? Ask Coulton, a member of an elite spy unit that can go back in time and make small but effective changes - if the price is right. Moreci's high concept, in a lot of ways, reminds me of Nick Spencer's Existence 2.0, in the fact that he takes a simple premise - changing history - and reminds us that it can be a huge, game-changing high concept.

Now imagine how things might go wrong.

From the very first scene, Moreci throws plenty of twists and turns at us, as Coulton's team's plans are completely blown to hell - not something that's very comforting when you literally have the benefit of hindsight to carry you through. But that's the thing about Transference - every little action has a big reaction coming down the line, whether its a lovesick high roller whose physician ex-wife has helped save the country by proxy, or Coulton realizing that his enemies can take far more from him than he realized.

Yet much of what lends Transference its credibility has to be the artwork of Ron Salas, who riffs off artists like Chris Mooneyham or Roger Robinson with his angular, shadowy lines. There's a quiet intensity to the way that Salas has designed his characters, particularly with the tough-as-nails look to Coulton's eyes. Colorist Tamra Bonvillain also does spectacular work here, particularly in the opening sequences, where time travel almost seems to have lent an eerie sheen to the world. The last page almost serves like a movie poster, setting up the scene and really ramping up the tension for new readers.

If there's anything that holds up Transference, right now it's that the main characters still feel a little too familiar - this is something that likely would have been smoothed out in a medium like television, but the pacing of comics means we don't have as much time as we'd like to really get to know Coulton and his team, which robs this book a bit of its opportunity to surprise. Still, as a concept, Transference is a simple but superb read, one that takes a relatively small idea and shows us just how big it really is. This is a strong debut, and definitely a series worth watching.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

The Spire #1
Written by Simon Spurrier
Art by Jeff Stokely and André May
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Hot on the heels of the popular reinvention of Six-Gun Gorilla, Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely offer up The Spire #1, an ambitious, Studio Ghibli-esque tale of class and racial prejudice, wrapped up in a fantastical murder mystery.

Rising out from the middle of a harsh desert stands the Spire, an unending vertical city built up of many tiers. The elite, of course, live on top of the Spire, whilst the mutant-esque “sculpted” eke out a pitiful living at the bottom As both commander of the city watch and one of the sculpted, protagonist Shå battles against prejudice as she valiantly attempts to keep the Spire safe. Murder and crime are rampant and common-place, but when a string of murder victims with connections to the newly-crowned Baroness turn up, it's up to Shå to solve the mystery and bring them to justice.

Simon Spurrier has built an immediately immersive world here. He wastes no time on explanatory text, instead choosing to flex his distinctively British voice to introduce an array of bewildering and imaginative concepts. Spurrier's dialogue has always been his strong suit, and here it shines. Everyone speaks in their own incredibly distinctive voice; from the rhyming poetry of a foppish mugger to the boorish strings-of-conscience of the shrivelled and grotesque Garg. It's absorbing stuff that maintains the readers attention as they journey through this disorienting new world. Plot-wise, Spurrier confidently sets up his dominoes; giving us a very clear sense of our main characters as well as the tumultuous social idiosyncrasies of the Spire. There's a supernatural element here that is left completely unexplained, which may prove unsatisfying for some but functions to provide a tantalising hook for future issues.

When Jeff Stokely's good, he's excellent; as evidenced by a dramatic murder sequence and some of his more grotesque and outlandish designs. However, when it comes to a simple human face, Stokely's pencil struggles for consistency. It's as if he simply lacked interest in some of the more ordinary panels and so rushed through drawing them to get to something a little more wild. Characters have a tendency to lose proportion for a panel or two, with disrupted facial features and stiff posing that, at its worst, brings to mind the bowels of DeviantArt. A powerful and dynamic opening splash page shows the best of what Stokely has to offer, even if he only shows his true potential for a few brief moments.

André May's coloring is simple but effective. His palette of greens, reds and yellows reflects the desert back-drop, the sickly and violent underworld and the pomp and circumstance filled higher tiers; with each hue carrying a wildly different tone dependent on its place in the Spire.

Steve Wands seizes the stage with expressive lettering which fades out in tone, growing and shrinking in size depending on how loudly or quickly a character is speaking. The aforementioned flamboyant criminal even speaks in a looping, Shakespearian font that adds to the level of immersion that Spurrier achieves with his busy script.

The Spire #1 is an impressive first issue. This is not a comic book of plot, but one of atmosphere and character that reaches out to ensnare you into its world. Yet, despite a solid script and firm direction, The Spire #1 doesn't always look as polished as it should; with certain panels looking downright unprofessional. If you can forgive the visual roughness, this is Simon Spurrier's best work yet and a worthwhile addition to the BOOM! Studios lineup.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Barb Wire #1
Written by Chris Warner
Art by Patrick Olliffe, Tom Nguyen and Gabe Eltaeb
Lettering by Michael Heisler
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

“Welcome to the twenty-first century, Granny,” quips one of Barb Wire’s companions in the debut chapter of this revived series. Yet this issue of Barb Wire is firmly rooted in the 1990s, where the character begun her life in the short-lived series from creators Chris Warner and John Arcudi. Finding questionable fame in the Pamela Anderson starring film of the same name, the titular bounty hunter has been in arrested development since the handful of specials and mini-series that came out in the wake of that Razzie award-winning box office flop. Now co-creator Warner has returned to the character, although he has stalwartly transplanted most of the originating decade into this book.

The city of Steel Harbor still stands as a hotbed of gang skirmishes, “decay, violence and hopelessness,” although a new mayor plans to clean the city up - even if it is a little unclear as to whether this is to be seen as a bad thing or not. As is the way of all latter day bounty hunters and bar tenders, Barbara Kopetski’s alter ego is being followed about by a cable camera crew. It’s about the only thing that feels updated in this comic, and the fact that fans of the original comic book’s vibe could happily see the straight line-through is a mixed blessing. Shirtless and dreadlocked gang leaders face off against familiar tropes of the hatted variety, while Barb struggles to make ends meet and please the local law enforcement. It’s almost as if the issue was working off a set list.

Barb Wire pays lip-service to current the social media obsessed decade. Unlike some of the more recent youth-centric comics, most notably DC’s Batgirl where entire story arcs are driven by ubiquitous connectivity, here it is a an excuse for hackneyed dialogue along the lines of “Jeah! Hashtag Barb Wire kicks ass!” Much like the lead character, the book has a vague awareness that these elements of society exist, but doesn’t fundamentally understand how or why they work. Indeed, the producer/director/agent that delivers most of these clunkers, in a relationship that is never clear, adds nothing to the narrative beyond providing this tenuous connection to a motif that rarely works. It’s not to say the book isn’t in on some of these jokes, because it clearly is poking fun at itself sometimes, but more often than not takes itself far too seriously.

Yet the bigger concern with the issue is not doing anything with these familiar character types beyond the surface sheen. A blind bartender is alluded to being in recovery for addiction, which is quite literally the only time anybody is seen as anything more than a figure on a page. Veteran Patrick Olliffe, who would have been illustrating Warlock and the Infinity Watch around the time of the original Barb Wire run, struggles valiantly with these clichés. Costuming choices are questionable at times, albeit a massive step up from the objectifying poses of the earlier run, but continually surprises with the subtlety of a pleading look or the slickness of what is otherwise and office scene with dialogue. Ironically, it is here that Tom Nguyen’s inks and Gabe Eltaeb’s colors shine, adding tone and depth to characters that have not displayed either otherwise.

Barb Wire is undoubtedly targeted directly at a specific demographic, and perhaps will work best for those who have been patiently waiting for the last two decades for more adventures with the lead. Otherwise it remains something of a bubble in time, a glimpse of what would happen if the dream of the '90s never died, but had to grudgingly accept the passing of time.

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