Best Shots Advance Reviews: DRIVE #1, BOOK OF DEATH: THE FALL OF NINJAK #1, ZODIAC STARFORCE #1

"Book of Death: The Fall of Ninjak #1" preview
Credit: Valiant Entertainment
Credit: Antonio Fuso (IDW Publishing)

Drive #1
Written by Michael Benedetto
Art by Antonio Fuso, Emilio Lecce and Jason Lewis
Lettering by Frank Cvetkovic
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It’s difficult not to hear Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” as you crack open the first issue of Drive, so strong is the soundtrack that was attached to the 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn film of the same name. Both, of course, are drawn from the same source material of James Sallis’ 2005 novel, and share a similar outlook on the alienating landscape of Los Angeles. It’s perhaps fitting that this makes the transition to comic book, with the long and lingering moments punctuated by sudden violence a natural fit for the sequential format.

Going back to the original novel, rather than being an adaptation of the film, there is very little fat or embellishment so far on Michael Benedetto’s script. The Le Samouraï figure of the Driver is a shadow in the heart of L.A., keeping to himself and living the dual life of stunt driver for Hollywood and wheelman for gangs with the right price and attitude. His precise instructions and self-discipline keep his clientele selective in both jobs, and he allows few distractions. Until one comes into his life in the form of an attractive neighbor.

It is often hard to know what to make of licensed adaptations, especially ones that have been made into nearly impeccable films. Yet Drive is undeniably a slick piece of work, taking the novel and keeping just the essential narrative and dialogue to push the story along. In a handful of scenes, we know everything we need to know about the Driver. The opening negotiations for a would-be heist, a short and brutal response to a gang messing with his ride, his insistence on doing a re-take on a film stunt that nobody else would notice, and a brief interaction with his neighbor in the hall. In just four short scenes, Benedetto has laid out all the important bits of Sallis’ world.

Artist Antonio Fuso is no stranger to adaptations, from a plethora of G.I. Joe issues to his work on the back two parts of the graphic novel versions of Stieg Larsson "Millennium trilogy" of crime novels. Car movement is often difficult to pull off in still art, yet Fuso manages to convey the graceful motion of his vehicle. His human lead still feels as though he is being formed, as if even the visuals can’t fully comprehend him yet, aided by his perpetual half-shadow Emilio Lecce’s inks and Jason Lewis’ color art. Fuso keeps his panels appropriately uncluttered, while Lewis treats us to a Los Angeles just as the lights go down, with rich purple hues.

One of the biggest drawbacks of this kind of adaptation is getting something that is already whole in piecemeal chunks, and it is easy to believe that this may have been better served as a singular graphic novel release. All the other elements are here though, with rich visuals, a compelling narrative, and a non-linear story to draw us in for the trip.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Book of Death: The Fall of Ninjak #1
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Trevor Hairsine, Allen Passalaqua and Ryan Winn
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Matt Kindt has only just begun unravelling Ninjak's future in one of Valiant's standout ongoing titles, and now his final moments are foretold. Valiant's Book of Death event rolls onwards with The Fall of Ninjak, an imaginative but unwieldy one-shot with some appropriately mottled and moody pencils by Trevor Hairsine.

Kindt's elderly Ninjak is a fun spin on the character. Living at the center of a nuclear hellscape without his precious gadgets to aid him, Colin King looks inwards, becoming a Jedi-style monk who keeps the bones of his own dismembered arm attached to his body by sheer willpower. Enlightenment's a good look on an elder version of a character defined by his inner turmoil. Here, Colin King is a man who's finally sorted his own ethical quandaries, who can happily bestow his newfound sense of balance on an entire generation willing to learn from him, all without that nagging voice in his head whispering “you know this is wrong.”

The main threat, concerning a revived version of Ninjak's ex-Unity teammate Livewire and her plans to rocket Japan into the stars to become an orbiting colony, never really gets out of the starting blocks. Physically frail but mentally stronger than ever, the elderly Ninjak immediately dismisses Livewire's villainous scheme and reveals that he is already well-aware of it, robbing the issue of any real conflict. As a result, Ninjak's inevitable self-sacrifice to stop Livewire rings hollow. Maybe Kindt's intention here was that Ninjak's ascetic lifestyle meant that the end of his physical body is of little consequence to him. But if the title character doesn't care about his own death, why should we?

Kindt's busy script also suffers as a result of its far-future premise. There's a hell of a lot to establish here, and Kindt's characters have to awkwardly remind each other of the past with the classic “hey, remember that time when...?” All this remembrance bogs Kindt's otherwise solid dialogue down and ruins the plausibility of what should be a thrilling final encounter between two founding members of Unity. This is the brute force approach to plot; simply shoving in back-story and character without any regard for pace or subtlety. As a result, the book stutters along, randomly shifting gears from past to future to with little regard to overall cohesiveness.

Visually, Trevor Hairsine labors to depict every furrow, scar and sweat-bead on Ninjak's brow, unafraid to depict characters as ugly and broken-down. The stark contrast behind the Ninjak here and Clay Mann's chiselled Adonis in Kindt's Ninjak ongoing really helps to sell the “100 years later” element of Kindt's script. Ryan Winn's careful and intricate inking brings out the best of Hairsine's broken-down cast, underlining their many battle-scars and making backgrounds pop with life.

Atop Hairsine and Winn's work, Allen Passalaqua colors their pock-marked illustrations in a predominantly blue palette. His work runs the gamut from clear sky blue to the deep purple of Ninjak's trademark tunic, lending the whole issue a muted and bittersweet look that reflects the tone of Kindt's script.

Book of Death: The Fall of Ninjak certainly is an end for Valiant's gentleman ninja, but it's the case of a great character stuck in a poorly told story. “The elderly monk of ultimate enlightenment” is a great look for Colin King, but it isn't utilised to its fullest here. Visually, this is a solid title, but Hairsine, Winn and Passalaqua's work can't quite save Kindt's script. This isn't a worthy death for Colin King, but it is a good-looking one.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Zodiac Starforce #1
Written by Kevin Panetta
Art by Paulina Ganucheau
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

From the opening page, Zodiac Starforce is an action-packed take on traditional magical girl shows like Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura. Writer Kevin Panetta throws us headfirst into the action, which may be Zodiac Starforce #1’s biggest flaw: trying too much, too soon. Zodiac Starforce is committed to building a fully-fleshed world in one issue. While it’s a world genre fans may feel right at home in, the story may be too dense on exposition and light on development for newcomers to make an immediate connection.

Zodiac Starforce #1 introduces the Starforce Cadets, a team of “semi-retired” high school girls from Alexandria, Virginia who are empowered with mystical abilities based on the western Zodiac. When we open on Starforce’s leader Emma (Starforce Cadet Gemini), she’s cramming for her final exams and seems to believe she’s out of the monster game for good. In the grand tradition of “retired” superhero stories everywhere, a wild monster appears to drag her back into active duty. Fellow Cadet Kim (Taurus), who doesn’t quite seem to grasp the “former” in “former superhero,” arrives in the midst of an amateur missing persons investigation and puts it on pause to help Emma save the day.

Panetta and illustrator Paulina Ganucheau take on a big task in their premiere issue: introducing the team, their current situation, their old situation, and teasing the overarching story. Even two or three extra pages might have been a huge benefit here. At times the expository dialogue makes pages feel cramped, as in an early conversation with Kim and Emma after their monster battle, or the first ill-fated “reunion” of the Starforce Cadets later in the book. While Panetta succeeds in invoking broad archetypes for the team, the packed story doesn’t allow for much emotional depth.

Introducing this team with two years of off-camera history to juggle is a big lift, and Zodiac Starforce #1 suffers from what seems to be an effort to get all the surface-level exposition out of the way quickly. This may not catch genre newcomers on the first read, but the world Panetta and Ganucheau are teasing will make you curious enough to stick around. And weighed against the amount of storytelling Panetta manages to fit in, the overall “origin story” is well-paced with a conclusion that lends itself to less frenetic issues later. With that the “who, what, where, when, and why” firmly established, the exposition can give way to fleshing out the relationships between these characters.

And they are endearing characters, in the short glimpses we get: Emma is sensitive and sweet, and doesn’t hesitate to jump back into battle to protect Alexandria despite the strong emotional toll being a Cadet has taken on her. Kim, the muscle, sees the Cadets as her best friends and wants nothing more than for them to relive their glory days. Molly (Cadet Aries) on the contrary wants to leave those days behind, while Savi (Cadet Pisces) seems most intent on finding a balance between their past and a future as real friends in their civilian identities.

These are teenagers carrying the literal weight of the world on their shoulders, who are at varying stages of being able to cope with what they’ve had to do and readjust to a normal life. But Panetta does an excellent job keeping the characters feeling young in their dialogue and reactions, with a significant boost from Paulina Ganucheau’s gorgeous art. She is a perfect fit for a magical girl book, and for Panetta’s writing. Even minor details on faces are hugely expressive in her art - an eyebrow arched in contempt, or just the set of Kim’s mouth despite her bangs obscuring her face. The Starforce Cadet uniforms are a stylish, functional modern take on traditional magical girl fare, and her backgrounds are a love letter to the genre, dotted with cameos that fellow aficionados will have a blast picking out.

For genre fans, this book will be a perfect introduction to a new squad of magical heroines you’ll quickly fall in love with. For new audiences, this book may feel rushed or overloaded at times. But it’s a fun read, and Panetta and Ganucheau have a clear vision for this world. They just don’t seem to have enough space to flesh it out in a meaningful way in one issue. With luck, the heavy exposition is merely a first-issue hiccup, and the Zodiac Starforce team can focus more on giving the team more emotional depth as the story unfolds.

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