Best Shots Advance Reviews: GODZILLA IN HELL #1, BOOK OF DEATH #1, DEATH HEAD #1

"Book Of Death #1" preview
Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Greetings ‘Rama readers! Pierce Lydon here! Our usual Best Shots captain, David Pepose, is off visiting Ultimate Captain America’s least favorite country and so I’ve got the latest advance review column for you. We’ll take a look at Valiant’s summer event offering Book of Death #1 and Dark Horse’s latest horror book, Death Head. But first, Ossiferous Oscar Maltby digs into IDW’s all new Godzilla in Hell #1!

Credit: IDW Publishing

Godzilla in Hell #1
Written by James Stokoe
Art by James Stokoe
Lettering by James Stokoe
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Godzilla in Hell. Sometimes a concept just doesn't need explanation. James Stokoe takes the reins for the first instalment of IDW's most imaginative and ambitious take on everyone's favorite nuclear lizard to date. Godzilla media has always been predominantly human-focused because, at his core, Godzilla has more in common with an earthquake than Fin Fang Foom. Luckily, James Stokoe realises this, pitting The Lord God-King of all Kaiju against an equally symbolic force: the armies of Hell.

Taking cues from Zdzis?aw Beksi?ski,, Dante Alighieri and Ricardo Delgado, Godzilla in Hell #1 is a silent dose of the beautifully surreal. There are 10 words to Stokoe's dialogue here, and three of those are “Godzilla in Hell”. The remaining 7, the classic “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” are summarily destroyed by Godzilla in the issue's opening pages; cementing the entire ethos of this miniseries.

Here's the sticking point. Despite being obviously influenced by Delgado's Age of Reptiles series, Godzilla in Hell lacks the nuances of storytelling that makes Age of Reptiles so compelling. If you're a plot-fiend, this isn't the comic book for you. This is metal album cover art in comic book form, which will either be the greatest recommendation or most damning criticism. There's great passion behind Stokoe's artwork; he knows his way around the kind of quaking chaos that Godzilla is famous for.

Still, narrative simplicity doesn't detract from the quality of this issue's story. Godzilla must be a perplexing foe for Lucifer, as his strength and simple nature mean that hell's trials of body and mind have little effect. Still, he tries; offering up a gelatinous, malformed creature who emerges from a nuclear tower, followed by a cloud of human bodies and a creature which initially seems a clone of Godzilla himself, before revealing its grotesquely daemonic form. The symbolism of these three foes are obvious, and Stokoe has carefully created foes that reflect Godzilla's own transgressions and obstacles. Stokoe avoids overt esotericism or blunt exposition, but creates a book that transcends language and yet is still filled with meaning.

James Stokoe's artwork is intricately detailed, laser-honed to display every facet of hell. From the Mars-esque mountains of crumbling red rock to the Clive Barker-esque heap of tortured bodies, Stokoe's hell is a worthy representation of the Christian underworld; its every opponent representing a reason why Godzilla found himself down there in the first place. Godzilla is impossibly textured and ridged, and his surroundings even moreso. The tiny little glimpses of hell's interior are filled with character and beg further scrutiny. Stokoe colors his own work with the shades of a charred desert; it's all reddish sands and beige structures that crumble like terracotta under Godzilla's foot. The underworld is predominantly lit with an equally earthy red, reflected by highlights on Godzilla's leathery skin. Stokoe colors hell's daemonic entities in a blood red that seems slick and wet. It's a limited palette, but an effective and appropriate one.

Between Godzooky and the much-maligned 1998 movie, Godzilla has always been a popular if poorly utilized character in the west. Godzilla in Hell #1 marks the most successful integration of Godzilla into western cultural canon, leaning heavily on the Christian concept of hell. Restrained in narrative but expertly realised in artwork, Godzilla in Hell #1 is a perfectly pitched single issue. Each instalment of Godzilla in Hell will be helmed by a different creative team, needless to say, the next team has quite an act to follow.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Book of Death #1
Written by Robert Venditti
Art by Robert Gill, Doug Braithwaite, David Baron and Brian Reber
Letters by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Valiant’s big summer event kicks off in Book of Death #1 and it does little more than get the ball rolling. Typically, event books are good jumping on points for new readers but for characters without the ubiquity of other more established characters, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. The high concept is simple: a girl from the future has a book that predicts the world’s end and our heroes are divided on what should be done about it. But Venditti doesn’t get a chance to really dig into these characters to give the book the weight it needs. It doesn’t help that artists Robert Gill and Doug Braithwaite don’t consistently render the characters which leads to an end product that reads as wholly uninspired.

When your main superhero team is called “Unity,” the inevitable divide is easy story fodder. I like Venditti’s concept a lot but Valiant characters don’t have the same cachet with casual fans which makes them a little more dense. So unfortunately, some story pages have to be dedicated to setting up character dynamics. Venditti doesn’t do enough of that here and so the face-off between X-O Manowar and Eternal Warrior lacks any intensity unless you really understand their history. Similarly, there’s nowhere to fit the history of the Unity squad in this narrative so their potential dissolution doesn’t have the same weight that it might otherwise.

But while context is important, it’s not the only thing that holds the issue back. Venditti fails to set a compelling tone. The book opens with a couple of straight-up horror scenes but falls back on the Book of Death’s own prophecy to provide a narrative backbone. The prophecy shows us a lot of what might be but there’s not much to be gained from eight whole story pages that essentially repeat the same idea over and over. And it doesn’t help that some of the dialogue is atrocious, as if no one read it out loud in order to help vet it.

The art holds the issue back as well. There are a few really great pages, specifically the splashes tend to have strong characters, good composition and great line work. But panel to panel, Gill and Braithwaite waver on any sort of consistency. The result is a book that tends to lose the reader’s focus because of a jaunty angle or an odd expression. The lack of detail in certain shots was alarming as well. I understand that a character’s face might not be in high definition in a mid shot but it should be more than two dots with a line for a mouth. Gill and Braithwaite don’t place a priority on their expression work unless it’s a close-up and that means that book loses some depth of feeling. The characters are cold and motionless in the panels. There’s nothing to endear you to them and if the art can’t evoke some emotion, the script has no hope of salvaging that.

Book of Death #1 is a rough beginning but maybe not one the creative team can’t come back from. The lifeless and bland nature of the art is a letdown, considering this is supposed to be Valiant’s main event for the summer, but there are a few bright spots for them to build on. Venditti’s concept at the core of the title is one that can work in the Valiant Universe, it’s just going to take a little bit more time for the individual pieces to gel. Die-hard Valiant fans will be excited by the premise but likely disappointed in the execution and new readers will just be a bit lost.Overall, there isn’t too much for anyone here except the hope that it gets better.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Death Head #1
Written by Zack and Nick Keller
Art by Joanna Estep and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Letters by John J. Hill
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partidge, III
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

There is something inherently creepy about a plague doctor’s mask. It doesn’t matter if it is actually being worn or just sitting idly by on a shelf, the sunken eyes, complete with an unnaturally long nose, carve a creepy image that one isn’t soon to forget. It’s this image that is the predominate source of dread in Dark Horse Comics’ new horror title Death Head #1, a character-centric yarn that aims to place the plague doctor mask alongside some of horror’s most iconic face wear. Following four characters along separate story paths, writers Zack and Nick Keller offer up a low-key debut that barely scratches the surface of the evil hiding behind the titular mask. Though low on outright scares, Death Head #1 still manages to be a compelling, if a bit dry, first issue that should whet the appetite of horror hounds of every stripe.

Death Head #1 offers up not one, but three classic horror film set ups. Justine and Niles are soon-to-be parents taking a “babymoon” into the dense forests of Shadowmoon National Park.They come across a seemingly abandoned township complete with a church filled to the brim with thousands of Death’s-Head Hawkmoths. The rest of our cast is rounded out with Maggie, a rebellious teen who is struggling with her own budding sexuality in the face of the rigid staff of the Catholic school she attends and Bee, a bullied child who is forced to face a local legend that sounds suspiciously like our titular ghoul. The Kellers hop back and forth between each set of characters, sometimes not as smoothly as one would like, but most of these scenes are treated as little more than groundwork to be laid before the real screaming starts.

While the transitions between each of these characters are a bit jarring, Zack and Nick Keller display a tight hold on dialogue and mood as each scene is played out like their respective horror scenarios. The only one truly devoid of terror are the scenes with Maggie, but the Kellers inject those with a much more existential dread, contrasting to the jump scares of the Justine and Niles pages or the creepy ghost story vibe of Bee’s entry. Maggie is the wild card here in Death Head #1 as her plot has yet to display any real connection to the Plague Doctor, but the story of a person on the cusp of adulthood struggling with their identity is a universal horror we can all relate to. But while Maggie’s story is played in the macro, both the couple and Bee’s pages are fit to bursting with more conventional horror troupes. Justine and Niles are thrown from the safety of their trip into the literal fire when they stumble upon the Plague Doctor’s lair and Bee, after facing down a group of bullies, is pushed into a sewer system that is said to be one of the Plague Doctor’s killing fields. While all of these plots are kept miles apart for the time being, I wouldn’t be surprised if this time next month these character started facing down horror together.

Handling the interiors on Death Head #1 is the grounded one-two punch of penciller Joanna Estep and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick. Estep renders this debut as a no-frills human drama with only hints at the supernatural elements in the ghostly friend that Bee encounters and the blood red eyes of the Plague Doctor hidden in the deep black of his coat. While Estep keeps everything firmly planted in reality, colorist Fitzpatrick takes a bit more liberty with her color choices, particularly in the hazy, blue hewed flashback during the scene where Bee is told the legend of the Plague Doctor and the fiery reds and yellows of Justine and Niles’ incinerator death trap. Surely this art team has some truly striking horror visuals in store for us, but Death Head #1 ends up looking fairly mundane as it lays the structure of the series down in relatively simple style.

Every great slasher has a gimmick. Freddy has his glove, Jason his machete, and now, the Plague Doctor has his mask. Death Head #1 isn’t perfect and often comes across disjointed, but the hook of an interesting villain design as well as a firm grasp on its own tone is more than enough for a compelling debut issue. The Kellers, Joanna Estep and Kelly Fitzpatrick are playing everything down right now, but all the pieces are in place for Death Head to deliver some choice slasher movie action in future issues.

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