Best Shots Advance Reviews: PHONOGRAM: IMMATERIAL GIRL #1, THE BEAUTY #1, AMERICATOWN #1, NO IVY LEAGUE #1

The Beauty #1
The Beauty #1
Credit: Image
Credit: Jamie McKelvie (Image Comics)

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jaime McKelvie, Matthew Wilson, Sarah Gordon and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Music and magic come to the forefront in the new series by Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie, Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1. The third Phonogram series, this debut is still welcoming to new readers thanks to an engaging protagonist and an intriguing premise.

Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie start the story as a young girl named Claire watches music videos and becomes enthralled in the experience. It’s a good way to begin a story; most people remember the first time they were enraptured by a music video, and so it’s easy to buy into the story even as Gillen and McKelvie introduce the magical elements of the story. As Claire watches the screen a supernatural being known as the King Behind the Screen reaches out to her and makes her an offer: sell half of your personality and gain access to magical powers through music. Needless to say, she eventually takes the deal.

What follows is a sequence in which Claire, now calling herself Emily Asther, goes to an exclusive gathering where people like herself are forming a coven based around the music they enjoy. This sequence really demonstrates how strong of an artist Jaime McKelvie is. His work in Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine demonstrated his ability to capture realistic characters without using a photo-realistic style and his approach continues to succeed here. A lot of this comes down to character design, with many of McKelvie’s figures taking on uniquely human characteristics. From the heavy cheeks of the coven leader to Seth’s narrow frame and thin neck to Emily’s more pointed chin, the figures in Phonogram share a naturalistic quality, and McKelvie’s penchant for crisp lines makes the characters pop from the background. McKelvie’s style also means that when the supernatural elements enter the story, they feel hauntingly correct for the world being created. This is especially true of the issue’s climax, when the tables are suddenly turned on Emily as a loophole in her contract comes to light.

Matthew Wilson’s color art throughout the issue is fantastic. The washed out colors during the opening flashback sequence not only tells the reader that the scene is in the past, but also they also emulate the faded color quality of older television models. In the coven scenes, every color takes on a deep hue that gives a moody quality, while the scenes set in Emily’s office use a more natural lighting that is appropriately mundane before the supernatural events of the climax. An underrated quality of both McKelvie and Wilson is their strong fashion sense. From McKelvie’s clothing design to Wilson’s color choices, each outfit fits both the character that wears it and the setting it’s for.

In addition to the main story, Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1, also contains two back up stories that add to the texture of the issue. The first back up is illustrated by Sarah Gordon while the second is handled by Kelly Fitzpatrick and Clayton Cowles. While their stories don’t add to the main plot, they brilliantly supplement the issue’s tone. They also help to emphasize writer Kieron Gillen’s strong character work. Gillen’s captions do a great job of blending into his artists’ work, providing great insight into the characters without drawing attention to the writing itself and that balance is key to the success of his work.

As a reader new to Phonogram, I had concerns that this debut would be inaccessible. Thanks to the series having a strong protagonist in Emily, the story itself is quite easy to get into, but there are places where Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl is a little more cryptic. This is largely due to my own taste in music not overlapping with the many references in the story. Fortunately, Gillen has anticipated this need and created an entertaining glossary in the back of the issue. Other than that, most readers should be able to find something to enjoy Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1, and those looking for a more in depth understanding of the characters can retroactively visit the previous two collections of Phonogram.

The Beauty #1
The Beauty #1
Credit: Image

The Beauty #1
Written by Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley
Art by Jeremy Haun and John Rauch
Lettering by Fonographiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

If The Beauty’s tale of a sexually transmitted disease that makes people beautiful sounds familiar, it’s because it originally came out in 2011. Jeremy Haun and Jason Hurley’s book was the winner of Top Cow’s Pilot Season several years ago, and Newsarama ran the entire comic in full. Haun has, of course, had his hands full in that time, providing art duties for the likes of Batwoman, Wolf Moon, and The Darkness. Now finally returning to the idea for an ongoing series, we get to see the full potential of this fascinating concept.

The disease that has been making people “beautiful” has also divided the world, with the “have nots” turning their anger against the people with flickable hair and flawless skin. Try to imagine a sarcastic conversation over the fashion magazines in your workplace kitchen, but on a global scale. The hook to the premise is that there are anti-beauty factions have turned violent, with bombings a not uncommon occurrence. A pair of detectives, one stricken with the Beauty, investigate what is ostensibly a hate crime, but turns out to be something much more sinister.

There is something comfortingly familiar about The Beauty, where even new readers will feel as though they know exactly where it is going. Yet this allows for casual world exploration and character building right off the bat, from the seedy beauty sex clubs to the tension between the police department and government officials further up the chain. It’s bordering on the cliché at times, but it suits the form as a shorthand way of introducing us to this world that’s scarily not so different from our own.

Very little has changed visually from the 2011 version of the book, save for some slightly deeper-looking coloring and fresh lettering and caption boxes for the narrative dialogue. Otherwise Haun’s visions remains the same, a cold and sterile world where perfection is the ultimate goal for many. The use of shadow gives it the feel of an edgy investigative drama, distinguishing itself in its restraint, such as a sex scene in silhouette, and similar framing for the aforementioned clubs.

Those who have been waiting four years to see how the cliffhanger at the end of this issue plays out might be sorely disappointed that this issue ends on the same note, although this time we have the assurance in the back-matter that the next few issues are already completed. As compelling a setup as it was during its initial victory, The Beauty gives us a myriad of possibilities of where it will go next.

Credit: JMC Aggregate

No Ivy League #1
Written, Illustrated and Lettered by Hazel Newlevant
Published by JMC Aggregate
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Hazel Newlevant won the 2013 Prism Comics Queer Press Grant for her work on the absolutely stellar If This Be Sin, but No Ivy League is a different kind of animal. Her latest effort is an autobiographical comic about facing culture shock as a teenager and just how uncomfortable that can be. Presented in lush ink washes, Newlevant touches on a few different subjects to get her point across and readers will be right there with the protagonist for her rollercoaster of emotions.

Sometimes autobiographical comic books have a tendency to be a bit insular and if they don’t break into more universal territory, they have a tendency to fall flat with a larger audience. Newlevant avoids the most of the pitfalls. Newlevant’s main character, Hazel, is likable enough from the start, and as she begins to open up to her coworkers she starts to feel more fully formed. This allows Newlevant to add in some poignant character moments that works exceptionally well. Hazel speaking to a coworker about hip-hop is a great moment that brings to light just how tone deaf we can be in certain situations. Jayden feels like Hazel is looking for a pat on the back for liking hip-hop even though she’s white and while that’s not her intention, it says a lot about the way people’s perceptions influence our interactions with them.

The problem with Newlevant’s narrative isn’t it’s message or characterization, it’s in the pacing. Over the course of 32 pages, it feels like space is wasted giving us information that could be delivered more organically. (For instance, we’re introduced to the entire cast during an icebreaking exercise, but they don’t all really play into this chapter of the story, so an entire page doesn’t really need to be dedicated to this.) That’s a byproduct of the format, though. With Hazel as a main focus, there’s no opportunity to cut away and check in on another character so you are forced to slog through even the more dull parts of her day. It’s not untenable, but it definitely drags the book down at points.

Newlevant’s art is fantastic, though. There’s a simplicity to her character work that reminds me of Jeffrey Brown, and she is able to every effectively convey setting through her black and white painted backgrounds. There’s a remarkable balance in her work that makes it easier to get through the stilted pacing while also underlining the scenes that have more tension. I love the efficiency of her page design as well. While previous works have seen her experiment more with panel layouts, the modular structure of this one allows the emotional narrative to shine though. It’s almost a documentarian approach in the way that the camera is always focused on Hazel even during the times she would probably rather that it wasn’t.

Overall, No Ivy League is a solid first chapter in this story and one that allows the artist’s strengths to really shine through. Hazel Newlevant is a cartoonist on the rise who has a deft understanding of how to make a reader care about a character. The pacing issues that have cropped up in this issue are sure to be smoothed out as we get into the meat of this miniseries in the final two issues, but readers that can overcome them will see that there’s a lot to like here.

Credit: Mike Choi (BOOM! Studios)

Americatown #1
Written by Bradford Winters and Larry Cohen
Art by Daniel Irizarri and Matt Battaglia
Lettering by Shawn Aldridge
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Refugee migration in the wake of global turmoil and economic collapse is a issue that remains fiercely topical in almost every country in the world. From Australia to Europe and the United States/Mexico border, what remains a debate for some is a way of life and a very real struggle for millions of people around the world. As of the beginning of this year, Turkey alone hosts an estimated 1.7 million Syrian refugees, and that trend is growing worldwide. Screenwriters Bradford Winters (TV’s Oz and Boss) and Larry Cohen (Borgia) try to bring this problem a little closer to home for U.S. readers, and by turning the tables.

Due to economic collapse in the not-too-distant future, America is now a diaspora of legal and illegal immigrants abroad, its citizens gathering in enclaves like “Americatown” in Buenos Aires. Not that you would necessarily pick that up from this issue, which involves Owen trying to make his way back to his family that are split between the U.S. and the enclaves. Much of the story centers on him, and the increasingly frantic group of smugglers trying to bring him and a small group into the South American township.

One of the things Americatown captures really well is the dehumanizing process of being a citizen without a country. There’s also a reasonable balance between refugee and smuggler perspectives, albeit the latter still coming off as a wee bit evil at times. More importantly, Winters and Cohen have taken the course of simply throwing the reader into this world, almost dragging us over the borders with the refugees. This gives us a constant sense of motion, one that the writers deal with incredibly successfully, but in a medium that often works best with a “show, don’t tell” approach, the duo often forgets to do either.

Daniel Irizarri’s art is the real star here, from the opening cinematic shots of the ocean to the claustrophobic feel of the safehouse they occupy for most of this issue. Owen’s wide-eyed terror is the focus of the first few pages, and the slow introduction of unfamiliar technology throughout this book is congruous with the rest of the issue. Battaglia’s colors are extraordinary, often filling entire panels and pages with variations on a single color, predominantly purples, blues, and browns. These unearthly glows ironically ground the book, and add to the immediacy of the story.

Americatown is an incredibly important story, and a one that is told at a cracking pace, but it doesn’t always orient the reader in the process of world-building. For example, one never really gets a sense of the importance of the titular townships, how far the problem has spread or even enough information to fully comprehend the refugee’s plight. Even the cliffhanger feels as though there was an intended significance that simply doesn’t translate to the reader. So the trade-off between rapid-fire activity and exposition means the latter sometimes comes off second-best, but that’s all the more reason to stick around and see how this turns out.

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