Best Shots Advance Reviews: ARCHIE #2, WELCOME BACK #1, KING #1, More

"King #1" cover
Credit: Jet City Comics
Credit: Archie Comics

Archie #2
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Fiona Staples, Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

How do you follow up a wildly successful debut? By not reinventing the wheel. Archie #2 is yet another funny yet down to earth tale from Riverdale that employs a classic Archie structure and recontextualizes it for a brand-new audience. Mark Waid, along with art team Fiona Staples, Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn, take a tried-and-true set-up - Archie needs money to fix up his junker of a car - and present it as if it was brand new, allowing the charm of Archie and his friends to shine through. Archie #2 might not have the same shiny novelty that the debut issue had, but it shows that this new series isn’t just a flash in the pan.

When we pick up with Archie Andrews this month, he is desperate for cash as well as an invite to his now ex-girlfriend Betty’s birthday party. Mark Waid effortlessly presents both storylines by splitting the issue into clearly defined chapter markers featuring Archie and Betty. There isn’t much overlap with these recent exes this month, but Waid still manages to inject some hefty romantic tension between the two even if they don’t share a panel together. (Waid even does us one better by detailing the sad origins of Jughead who at one point, was the richest kid in town.) This all may sound like a lot to process for a second issue, but Waid structures it all in easy-to-digest scenes along with some hilarious montage pages detailing Archie’s cartoonish bad luck at his new job - bad luck that may turn around with the appearance of a strikingly beautiful new brunette in town. Waid doesn't show his hand too much when it comes to Veronica Lodge, but her flirtatiousness shows that she's going to turn quaint Riverdale upside-down.

While its no surprise that Mark Waid turned in another entertaining script, Archie #2 has another not-so-secret weapon in the form of Fiona Staples. Archie #2 is yet another example of her keen eye for character movement and expression, but what we really should be talking about it her ability to block scenes and render characters in the funniest way possible. For example, Betty’s first chapter, aptly titled “One of the Guys,” finds her heeding the advice of her friend Sheila and attempting to embrace her femininity with new clothes and make-up. What follows is a mostly silent two pages of Betty subjecting herself to a rigorous beauty regime complete with garish fake nails and gooey eyelash glue. Even before this hilarious and relatable montage, Staples’ firm handle of body language and facial expressions deliver some of Archie #2's biggest laughs. Staples’ even one ups herself with a Mr. Magoo-like sequence of an oblivious Archie nearly killing himself and others as he bumbles through a construction site aided by his friends. All this hilarity is held tightly together by colorists Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn, who drench Archie #2 in rich pop art colors that perfectly compliment Staples’ visuals.

Archie #2 may not be groundbreaking, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Waid, Staples, and the rest of Team Archie don’t seem at all concerned about the minutiae of the rebooted title, and instead seem only concerned with making us care about Riverdale and its teen inhabitants. Archie #2 takes the energy and look of the debut issue and expands it ever so slightly to include new characters and to further the romantic tension between Riverdale's one-time power couple, as well as ever so slightly hinting at the dark-haired new girl that will surely throw a wrench in everything. This new Archie isn’t a fluke, and this second issue shows that it still has more laughs and heart to deliver.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Welcome Back #1
Written by Christopher Sebela
Art by Jonathan Brandon Sawyer and Carlos Zamudio
Lettering by Shawn Aldridge
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Immortality and reincarnation have served as fruitful fodder for creators of speculative fiction in all mediums, as living forever remains (to the best of our knowledge) an impossibility. Welcome Back, Christopher Sebela’s latest original work, not only plays with the idea of carrying on the work of past lives, but combines it with the single-mindedness of Highlander and Ridley Scott’s debut, The Duellists.

The action opens in 1281 C.E., on an ancient battlefield, and runs as a dual narrative across time for two distinct characters. Yet for the most part, we spend our time in 2015 with Mali, the stepdaughter of a convicted serial killer who is trying her best to disappear from her former life. Hounded by ‘fans’ of her father’s work, she simply tries to exist through life, allowing few into her world and drowning the rest of her sorrows in medication and booze. Plagued by nightmares, some of them start to come to life when she realizes her true destiny is that of a reincarnated warrior, destined to fight the same person down through the ages.

On one hand, Welcome Back is a deftly told high-concept yarn that cleverly introduces itself through suburban life juxtaposed with stylized action and bloodletting. On the other, Sebela infuses what could have been a one-note story with well developed characters and a terrific sense of environment. In a way, it’s a unique coming-of-age story as the confused protagonist tries to find her place in the world, feeling connected to all the lives she has lived in the past, but unable to connect with anyone around her. As such, we get a musing on anxiety and depression as well, refreshingly dealt with in a way that is neither dismissive nor feeling anything like tokenism. There’s a certain tragedy to Mali’s story, as the only kindred spirit she has on Earth is someone who is destined to fight her to the death. At least, that is, until the final kink in the tale is revealed in the last panel.

The artwork swings about as wildly as the alcohol fueled Mali, with Critical Hit’s Jonathan Brandon Sawyer showing the same knack for strong female characters that he did in the “Gestation” short for IDW’s In the Dark anthology. Similarly, he has a flair for action (as we saw in his contributions to the Imaginary Drugs collection), her showing a remarkably versatile hand at multiple time periods and styles. He’s seemingly kept the character models fluid, suggesting they are in flux, with color artist Carlos Zamudio experimenting with various levels of texture and graininess to draw us into the world. Mali’s fight with a would-be attacker is lithe, acrobatic, and brutal, while her opponent is stylish without being overtly exploitative.

Welcome Back is an arresting debut, taking a concept that could have been worn out from the start and injected it with a much-needed dose of humanism. The twist in the final page hooks us in conclusively for the next month, although it wasn’t a hard sell when the story is as good as this one. With massive scope for endless stories that could legitimately take us far into the future, this is one to watch.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Book of Death #2
Written by Robert Vendetti
Art by Robert Gill, Doug Braithwaite, David Baron, Allen Passalaqua and Brian Reber
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There are few superheroic tropes as enduring as hero battling against hero, but it's to Robert Vendetti's credit that he makes Book of Death feel as engaging and accessible as it is. Thanks to some strong characterization and easy-to-follow action, this sophomore outing feels like a fun way to tear Valiant's heroes apart.

For those who haven't been reading this series, the Eternal Warrior has been charged with protecting the young elemental known as the Geomancer - unfortunately, when natural disasters seem to point directly at the Geomancer's involvement, the Eternal Warrior has to fight alone against his former colleagues in the supergroup known as Unity. As far as high concepts go, Vendetti isn't reinventing the wheel here - but unlike schisms with A-list superheroes like Captain America and Iron Man or Wolverine and Cyclops, Vendetti is also playing with a largely blank slate for many comic book readers out there. The fact that he's able to take these heroes and bring us up to speed so quickly is a strong selling point for Book of Death - the Valiant-verse has a strong sense of history that he's able to mine, but the storytelling is never contingent on continuity. Instead of punishing readers who don't possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Valiant's books, Vendetti is able to use these characters' pasts to inform their present characterization. You know - the way it should be.

It also doesn't hurt that Vendetti brings the fireworks - in some cases, literally. This is a fight comic at its heart, and why wouldn't you want to watch these characters go head-to-head? In certain ways, Valiant's stable feels like riffs on already established superheroic archetypes - Ninjak is basically Batman meets James Bond with a sword, X-O Manowar is Conan wearing Iron Man's armor, the Eternal Warrior has shades of Thor meets the Highlander - but that actually gives plenty of room for Vendetti to play around. Vendetti choreographs his fights using a blend of technology and good old-fashioned fisticuffs, and he plays into each of these characters' high concepts to find a fitting way to beat them up. But most importantly of all, Vendetti keeps it simple - he's not trying to reinvent the wheel or come up with some crazy convoluted fight sequence. This book is easy to follow, and doesn't feel like it's trying too hard to keep escalating.

If there's one thing that slightly holds back this book, though, it's that the artwork can be a little inconsistent with some of the finer details. Artist Robert Gill has the compositions and sequential storytelling down pat - indeed, when he's at his best, he has an almost Kubert-esque flow to his fight sequences, particularly with a great panel where the Eternal Warrior stabs X-O Manowar through the arm. But Gill's inking seems a little scratchy and brittle, which detracts from the flagship nature of this book. Once the book transitions to Doug Braithwaite, however, things get very ominous and moody, as the artist does a great job at showing off a bleak future filled with dead superheroes. The trio of colorists on this book also look particularly striking - I love the energy the daylight sequences give the Eternal Warrior's fight, especially as we watch X-O Manowar bounce across the desert, thrown like a ragdoll thanks to some exploding mines.

Still, it's to Vendetti and company's credit that while the world at large might not automatically know the deal behind characters like the Geomancer or Ninjak, titles like Book of Death are as fun and accessible - perhaps even moreso - than its caped counterparts over at the Big Two. Here's hoping that Vendetti can keep his momentum going.

Credit: Jet City Comics

King #1
Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art by Bernard Chang and Marcelo Maiolo
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by Jet City Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a karate robot bear spray knockout gas from his nipples. In a world where all the nightmares have come true, and the commute to work will literally kill you, it’s not the strangest thing you’ll see in King either. Deconstructing myths and legends in stories that presuppose they all have a basis in fact is not the exclusive domain of comic books, but it’s a medium that has gotten very good at it over the last few decades. As Fables wraps up its historic run, Joshua Hale Fialkov - a man who has dealt with vampires and other fantastical creatures in his past runs - tries his hand at a new spin on those legends for Amazon Publishing’s Jet City Comics imprint. Like many stories of this ilk, though, it definitely relies on a formula.

Set somewhere in the future after a great cataclysm has caused the darkest dreams of the world to come to life, the titular King is still trying to deal with rush hour traffic in Los Angeles. The difference for him is that his journey to work at the Los Angeles Department of Reclamation is filled with hybrid creatures that are trying to eat him, mutants, and the occasional elder god from ancient lore. Humans in this world, especially the “pure bred” kind, are a rare commodity.

Some remnants of the old world survive as their own myths, and the way they play out here is quite fun. King seeks out mythical objects of genuine power, while other quests may make the mundane seem legendary. Stories from days gone by of a cat who had everything but hated Mondays persist, and happily sit alongside beasts and technology that is wholly unfamiliar. What is familiar is the setup, for while Fialkov’s execution is sometimes inventive, this is essentially a play on something we’ve seen in Men in Black, R.I.P.D, Fiction Squad and other similar setups. The difference here, of course, is that King operates out in the open, but the fundamentals - from bizarre coworkers to unappreciative bosses - remain the same.

Bernard Chang’s art is energetic and fun, bringing us screeching into this world with wide shots of an L.A. bathed in an unearthly glow that matches the sheer variety of creatures that he has created for this debut. It’s pleasing to see that the art team have been able to bring all of these creations into the light, rather than shroud them in darkness and drab colors as is often the case with post-apocalyptic scenarios. Fialkov’s I, Vampire collaborator and colorist Marcelo Maiolo adds his trademark flourishes to the art, including punctuating action panels with a color scheme made of only red and white. Of course, the aforementioned karate robot bear is a standout centerpiece, with Chang drawing on manga influences to sell the nutty reality of it all.

There are some seriously awe-striking moments in King, and the basic premise is unquestionably a lot of fun. So while it feels complete weird to say this in relation to a book that has a bruiser of a leather-bound biker duck and pterodactyl in a Lakers jersey, there’s still a vague sense that we’ve been down part of this road before. Fialkov and his terrific art team have defined the parameters of this strange future world, and what they do with it next will be of particular interest.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Giant Days #6
Written by John Allison
Art by Lissa Treiman and Whitney Cogar
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Box
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

We're halfway through John Allison's confidently off-kilter take on university life, so it's about time he ratcheted up the stakes. Artist Lissa Treiman continues to visualise John Allison's world through rubber-faced characters and a tight focus on expression, whilst Allison's humor-heavy script adds in a dash of intrigue and adventure to Giant Days, introducing some of the trademark Scooby-Dooery of his webcomic Scary Go Round.

Allison has always been incredibly fond of good ol' fashioned evil-doers, and so he flexes his characterization muscles to paint a truly dastardly foe for Susan, Esther and Daisy, as they answer an S.O.S. call from the closed-off Susan Ptolemy. Another strength of Allison's script is its accessibility. Allison writes a fulfilling single issue as good as any by modern Morrison; focusing on mostly self-contained stories with character development that doesn't alienate new readers nor seem like trodden ground for the initiated.

That said, there's a certain whimsically British tone to Giant Days #6 that won't be everyone's cup of tea. This is a comedy book after all, and even though the underlying drama behind the laughs ring true, not everyone will be able to stomach panel after panel of Allison's peculiar brand of humor.

In a welcome break from the norm, there's a lot less of the comedic emotional drama that Allison tries to focus on with the Giant Days crew and a lot more action and intrigue. Fans of Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy will feel at home here, as the gang battle a nightclub-owning family and their phony faith-healing daughter with an axe to grind. It's silly stuff, and Allison plays well within the boundaries of his own universe; no one gets murdered and the whole thing is resolved rather politely.

Visually, Treiman brings an elasticity to Allison's world that he is unable to render in his own stiffer style. Exaggerated body poses and an enormous variety of facial expressions are the order of the day here, illustrating the students' overwrought and overtly dramatic thoughts through their emotive faces. This allows Treiman to jump at Allison's numerous reaction shots with an enthusiasm and ability that allows his jokes to properly hit home.

Finishing off the book's look, Whitney Cogar's colors are simple and to the point. The gothic Esther has an equally pallid complexion, whilst Cogar's sickly yellows and mournful blues set the dreary tone that only life in Northampton can establish. Cogar helps Treiman's often empty backgrounds along by block-coloring less detailed panels with appropriately eye-searing hue that reflects a particular brand of turmoil for each particular panel.

The world that Allison and Treiman have created here is real. The relationship webs weaving in and out of Giant Days feel tangible, their connections believable and endearing. This is a contemporary and forward-thinking comic book, for anyone who enjoys the vibe that Stewart, Cloonan, Tarr and Fletcher bring to their fledgling Batgirl-verse. Allison and Treiman are both at the top of their respective games here, and with that in mind, Giant Days #6 recieves a perfect 10.

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