Best Shots Advance Reviews: WE STAND ON GUARD #3, TOIL & TROUBLE #1, PLUTONA #1, FIGMENT 2 #1, More

"Aliens/Vampirella #1" cover
Credit: Dynamite Entertainment
Credit: Steve Skroce (Image Comics)

We Stand On Guard #3
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Steve Skroce and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Science fiction works best when it is holding up a mirror to our own society, taking individual or governmental behavior to its extreme as a warning or sometimes just as a discussion point. The excesses of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan were sometimes uncomfortable, but the heightened satirical nature of it was a knowing wink to the audience. Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's Y: The Last Man pitched it perfectly, removing half of society to highlight the underrepresentation of women in countless industries. In We Stand On Guard, Vaughan and Skroce's musing on war - and in particular the United States‘ aggressive foreign policy - has led us to a commentary on torture. It’s one that will completely divide the audience in the process.

After leaving us on a sort of cliffhanger last month, this issue opens in traditional Vaughan fashion with a flashback. Learning a little more about Amber and her brother a decade earlier helps fill in some of the gaps on how this war between Canada and the U.S. came to be, but it’s all a delay tactic to slow us down before we get to the meat of the issue, which is the torture of the captured Canadian rebel Vic “Chief” McFadden. Torture of the future is literally all in the mind, with virtual reality devices allowing repeated pain without breaking the skin. It doesn’t take a 500-page executive summary to imagine the possibilities of where this kind of mechanism could take the human mind.

Which is what makes Vaughan’s narrative choice not just disappointing, but pushing through the bounds of good taste as well. In what is sure to be a talking point well beyond the in-house Threepenny Beavers letter column, “Chief” is tortured by fire and then confronted with a representation of her late father, who finally elicits information out of the female combatant with the overt threat of incestuous sexual assault. It’s a troubling scene on the face of it, more so when taken in the context of a pop cultural trend towards perpetuating a rape culture. Apart from the obvious triggers this scene represents to readers, we have to ask ourselves as responsible consumers of the product if scenes like this - couched as they are in political commentary - have stepped far beyond the rampant and disproportionate depowering of female characters as a plot device that resulted in the “Women in Refrigerators” movement almost two decades ago.

It’s even more disturbing given that the book largely uses the scene purely for shock value in an otherwise uneventful outing. We Stand On Guard hasn’t truly given us the same connection to the characters yet that Vaughan’s previous works have done. Amber has scarcely formed her own definition yet, and it is difficult to see Vic used as anything but grist for the narrative mill. Vaughan has shown us in Saga that he isn’t afraid of going to some dark places, yet both that series and Yorrick’s infamous assault in Y: The Last Man were at least in the context of character development. At this midway point through the mini-series, we simply don’t have that connection, and can only latch onto those scenes for what they represent in the moment.

Steve Skroce’s art, on the other hand, is beautiful and restrained. The European-styled machinery is where he excels, and there are several key sequences in which giant ships and mechas emerge to show off his unique talents. The airships alone put him in contention for some of the top art of the year, and the Moebius-by-way-of-Frank-Quitely character designs are striking. Colorist Matt Hollingsworth is the perpetually perfect companion in the color department, matching the muted landscapes of wintery Canada and the equally cold machinery that runs through it.

Not to labor a point, but some may not get beyond the confronting elements of this issue, while others may just rightfully feel that after three issues we are yet to connect with any of the principal characters. The beefing up of the single-minded antagonist promises to push the momentum forward rapidly, although this issue may just be indicative that We Stand On Guard is struggling to find its own identity.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Toil and Trouble #1
Written by Mairghread Scott
Art by Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews
Lettering by Warren Montgomery
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Kelly Richards
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The decision to adapt or reimagine the works of William Shakespeare is not to be taken lightly and definitely not one for the faint of heart, but with Toil and Trouble, Mairghread Scott, along with sisters Kelly and Nichole Matthews, have switched the focus and turned the narrative on its head to great effect. Ambitious, well-written, and beautifully illustrated, Toil and Trouble does not disappoint and should satisfy any Shakespeare fans with its intelligent take on a classic.

By opening with the witch Smertae returning to Scotland after a mysterious nine-year exile, Toil and Trouble starts as it appears it intends to go on, shrouded in intrigue but still incredibly compelling. In what is essentially a retelling of Macbeth, Toil and Trouble is set apart by its focus. Unlike earlier retellings and reimagining’s of the Scottish play, Toil and Trouble is told from the perspective of Smertae, the previously unnamed third witch, and her sisters Cait and Riata, as they conspire to influence a war and the man will take the throne in its wake.

In skewing the perspective and allowing the reader to experience a story from a voice that has previously been unheard, Mairghread Scott has breathed new life into a classic. This decision, along with Scott’s choice to move away from a classic Shakespearean manner of speech and dialogue, will allow those who are maybe unfamiliar with the original text to approach and engage with what could be considering an intimidating text from a new angle. Much like its source material, Toil and Trouble is driven by rich character portrayals and the politics and relationships in which they are involved. The most poignant of these relationships present within the first issue is that between the three sisters. While it appears strained at best the relationship between Smertae and Cait specifically seems amiable and good natured, however as the narrative progresses even their exchanges become increasingly guarded.

With art from Kelly and Nichole Matthews, Toil and Trouble is filled with delicate line work and soft colors that show a clear Celtic influence. The designs for the witches are particularly interesting as each is based around the aspect of Scotland with which they are associated. Smertae, who we see come from the sea has ridges of shells along her body and blue woad tattoos. Cait, who represents the land, has antlers, knotted hair, and saplings pushing out from her hips. Riata, who emerges from the sky and later transforms into an eagle, is lithe and elegant, and looks to move as though she weighs nothing. By choosing to depict the witches as young women with varying appearances and attitudes, rather than as stereotypical crones, Kelly and Nichole have given readers characters with whom they are far more likely to be able to relate to and sympathize with.

The sprawling green landscapes that sit behind the action are true to the location and period, and the cloudy, water colored skies look ready to open. The blue washes used for flashbacks and memories stand in stark contrast to the multi-tonal palette that is present throughout the rest of the book and allow the panels to stand detached from the story, lacking the emotion they so clearly evoke in the characters. The highlight with regards to the use of color comes during the scenes set during nighttime. When indoors Matthews bathes everything in the yellow glow of candle light while the outdoor scenes are rich with the deep purples of a moonless night.

Toil and Trouble is a book with great potential, both as a reimagining and as a story that could stand apart from its source material. How far it will eventually stray from the original is yet to be seen but Shakespeare purists need not be disheartened by its liberal interpretation because what is lost from the original text is made up for with beautiful art, strong writing and a captivating narrative.

Credit: Emi Lenox (Image Comics)

Plutona #1
Written by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox
Art by Emi Lenox and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

I love seeing creators do riffs on superhero stories that wouldn’t necessarily fly at the Big Two, but they have to strike a certain balance. The concept has to be good enough that the story can be compelling even with off-brand heroes, but also subversive enough that it’s entirely understandable why Marvel or DC might pass on it. The strength of using characters that have been around for decades is that they can stand as a shorthand a larger idea. Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox doesn’t have that luxury in Plutona, so they take a different route, focusing on a group of kids instead. The result is a cross between Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming'sPowers and Stephen King’s Stand By Me, but the characters are not wholly strong enough to carry it even with Emi Lenox’s strong artwork.

At his best, Lemire can turn out a script that communicates the complicated feelings of humanity, mixed with the hallmarks of whatever genre he decides to play in. And much of Lemire’s work has focused on growing up and the extremity of adolescence, making it almost instantly relatable. Plutona lives in that space. There are practically no adult characters, save for the brief moments where Lemire and Lenox shows us what each kid's relationship with their parents is like. (Think the scene in The Breakfast Club when each character is dropped off at school.) This forces readers to see the world from the kids’ perspectives, and gives some vague insight into how each character views their world.

I mentioned Stand By Me and Powers before for good reason. Lemire and Lenoxtakes a few pages to introduce us to the cast and it’s immediately clear which characters they has a better handle on. Capespotting enthusiast Teddy is the standout amongst the group, which includes spoiled brat Mie, people-pleaser Diane, loner Ray and tagalong Mike. Lemire and Lenox have no problem fleshing out their group dynamic and in a way, it feels really familiar. (The dynamic in The Breakfast Club comes to mind.) But with Teddy’s capespotting obviously a large part of the hook of this series, I can’t help but feel indifferent about the other characters.

And that brings us to the Powers connection. The plot isn’t all that different from the very first arc, “Who Killed Retro Girl?” except that this time a group of kids are tasked with figuring out the mystery rather than an ex-superhero cop. That’s not a bad concept on the surface, but it definitely feels like we’ve seen this before. The biggest strength of the story right now is that we have no idea where it will go. Powers used a crime-noir/police procedural approach to inform its plot. Plutona doesn’t have a clearly defined genre at this stage, and that might be enough to keep readers hanging on.

Emi Lenox and Jordie Bellaire’s art, however, is wonderful. Lenox’s line work is like a cross between Becky Cloonan and Bryan Lee O'Malley. Her characters are very unique and well-designed. They all have a signature look that can help readers draw their own assumptions about them without the book relying on overused caption boxes to introduce his characters. Lenox does a decent job of mixing up panel layouts to distract from the fact that the characters spend a lot of time just standing around. But I think this might have symptomatic of the script. It’ll be odd if they are so static moving forward. Bellaire’s coloring is simply sublime. The coloring allows the narrative to take a distinct tonal shift at the end of the title that informs the direction of the book. It’s a masterclass in how important coloring is to the overall product.

I want Plutona to surprise me in #2, and I think it will. Lemire, Lenox and Bellaire have put a lot of really good pieces in place, even if they are a little bit familiar. The key will be in turning readers’ expectations on their head in subsequent issues. For a five-issue miniseries, this is paced about as well as I could have hoped, I’m just hoping that there’s more to the characters than what we’ve seen here. For now, we’ve got a fairly by-the-numbers set-up with a chance to deliver big.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Figment 2 #1
Written by Jim Zub
Art by Ramon Bachs and Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

He's a man out of time. A man with powers that will test your imagination. A man who, after fighting to save the world, winds up emerging decades later, in a world that's passed him by.

We're not talking about Captain America here. We're talking about Blarion Mercurial - the Dreamfinder - and his imaginary pet dragon, Figment. Following up on the first Disney miniseries, Figment 2 starts off with a surprisingly cerebral concept, as the Dreamfinder stumbles onto a legacy of his own making. While there's some potential here, there's not quite enough visual bang for the buck for this fantasy series to really grab young readers.

Following the conclusion of the last miniseries, Dreamfinder and Figment are no longer in their steampunk-infused world, but instead have dropped into a far different realm: our present. Writer Jim Zub lays out an interesting premise here, as Dreamfinder - once the most brilliant man alive - is suddenly left way behind in the dust, as he's confounded by everyday technology like smartphones and energy generators. Landing at the Academy of Scientifica-Lucidus, there's a world of possibilities, but unfortunately, with this dialogue-heavy introduction, science just doesn't seem as fun as the eccentric Dreamfinder might expect. Instead of crazy visuals featuring exciting technology, this school is a world of responsibilities and bureaucratic red tape rather than reckless, bold discovery. There's a decent cliffhanger here that adults might recognize, but for a single issue, kids might be wondering where the fun of Figment went.

Artist Ramon Bachs has a ton of potential - his designs are wonderfully cartoony and fun, and in particular, his take on young inventor Capricious Harmony is instantly endearing. Teaming up with colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu, these pages could really get kids interested in comic books, with some particularly lovely and energetic colorwork. That said, while his characters look solid, Bach's page layouts still could use some work. The first double-page splash, for example, feels positively underwhelming, as the redesigned academy just feels a little too distant to feel exciting. So many panels in this book feel too tight, and there are so many missed opportunities to add some visual panache to the story, especially considering this is supposed to be about pushing the limits of imagination.

Yet there clearly has to be something to Figment 2, as Marvel and Disney likely wouldn't keep pursuing this property - or keep this writer attached - if it wasn't hitting some sort of expectation. There's a lot inherent to Figment as a concept that kids will likely enjoy - who doesn't like the idea of having their own flying machine, or a talking pet dragon sidekick to accompany you on your adventures? Unfortunately, this particular installment has a bit of a slow start - fans of the original Figment will likely have the strength to be patient, but readers who missed the original series might not get what the hubbub was all about.

Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

Aliens/Vampirella #1
Written by Corinna Bechko
Art by Javier Garcia-Miranda and InLIGHT Studios
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment and Dark Horse Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

H.R. Giger and Dan O’Bannon's famous Xenomorph has always been susceptible to the all-star crossover. From Batman to Superman, The Terminator to WildCATS, the biggest and baddest in comic books and cinema have all come face to face with the eponymous drooling biomechanical beasts at some point, all stemming from the inspired Vs. Predator franchise. Which brings us to Vampirella. Vampires drink blood. Aliens have acid blood. This is a match-up with immediate and obvious potential, but a subdued start and a strict adherence to the traditional Aliens formula means that Aliens/Vampirella #1 isn’t quite as thrilling as it should be.

Writer Corinna Bechko opts for the traditional slow-burn here, mimicking the “what are these things?” set-up established by every other piece of Aliens-based media ever. The motley crew of Mars Base One discover ancient catacombs below their base. There’s a jokey one, a stoic leader, a stereotypical southern one; Bechko’s got her slasher archetypes covered. After discovering petrified vampire corpses melded into the catacombs’ walls, they enlist Vampirella to solve the mystery behind their macabre discovery. So far, so Aliens. Crossovers like this always lean towards having a “dominant” property that makes up the bedrock of the story, and Vampirella is definitely the guest-star here, literally a visitor in the Xenomorphs’ nest.

Bechko’s script is adequate. Her characters all speak in their own distinct and clear voices, and the issue makes sure we’re introduced to the important elements of each franchise. The problem here, especially from the Aliens side, is that we’ve seen all of this before. Bechko sticks rigidly to formula, and whilst the execution is technically solid, the result struggles to grab the reader’s interest.

The issue open with a solid sequence of horror-tinged action, and the final splash page is suitably gruesome, but that's all she wrote for splatter. The rest of the book is surprisingly reined in. Bechko and Javier Garcia-Miranda keep Vampirella covered up in a flight suit for the issue's duration, making for a bold and welcome rebellion against the character's cheesecake-smeared origins.

Elsewhere, Javier Garcia-Miranda's bold and rounded designs lend themselves well to the alien shape of the Xenomorph. His two splash pages here are delightfully lurid, and his close-up of a drooling Facehugger is almost pornographically explicit. Garcia-Miranda favours page-wide panels that echo the Xenomorph’s cinematic origins and gives both action and conversation room to breathe. For his less disgusting subjects, he renders the members of Mars Base One with big friendly eyes and impossibly pointed chins.

Atop Garcia-Miranda’s work, InLIGHT Studios tackle coloring duties with enthusiasm, unafraid to splash vivid reds, greens and yellows across the grey-blue environs of Mars Base One. It’s a bright and busy color palette that adds color and light to what could have been an overwhelmingly monochrome issue.

Aliens/Vampirella #1 is a primo example of a writer who chose to play it safe, much to the issue’s detriment. Javier Garcia-Miranda’s solid pencilling wrings the best out of Corinna Bechko’s safe script, especially in the issue’s opening and closing pages. Vampires vs. Aliens is an absolutely killer concept for a horror book, but this first issue barely scratches its multi-fanged surface.

Credit: Image Comics

Self-Obsessed
Written and Illustrated by Sina Grace
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

"Is this autobiographical?" "Isn't everything?"

They say that everyone is the hero of their own story. So why is the telling of that story considered such an act of self-indulgence? With Self-Obsessed, cartoonist Sina Grace tackles these questions head-on with his irreverent and deeply introspective autobiography. The result is something potent and engaging, something that proves that you can't help but feel strongly about a person once you know their story.

Similar to Asaf Hanuka's The Realist, Grace's comic isn't so much a story as it is snapshots of someone's life. This is the portrait of an artist as a young man, as Grace shows his the evolution of his interest in comic books, as well as his evolution as an artist in his own right. In many ways, Grace upends every rule you might have when it comes to what is considered "good" comics, because he never stops reminding us that this work is personal. Inserting his rough early comic book work, such as his Christmas gift zines complete with his loopy, hand-written lettering or his sardonic strips where he literally "buries the hatchet" in an ex-friend of his, shows that even at a young age, Grace was an artist with a ton of passion and personality. It's a passion that grows with Sina as he develops into his talent, particularly with a powerful strip that deals with depression, suicide and Amy Winehouse, as well as another where he literally falls into the void after confronting his absent father.

Of course, if you're going to write an autobiographical comic, it's probably apparent that you're an overthinker, and that quality is ultimately what gives Self-Obsessed its voice. Grace as an artist - and a de facto character - is summed up by both crippling doubts as well as a seeming laser-focused self-assurance when it comes to his career. He's self-effacing when it comes to relationships, and absolutely refuses to flinch when it comes to showcasing his own personality flaws, such as his manipulative tendencies when it comes to his mother or his shortcomings when it comes to maintaining relationships. (Grace has a more complicated relationship when it comes to himself - in one strip, he talks about how self-conscious he was about his body, while in another, he's able to shake off his artistic doubts through the power of taking an epic selfie with his mirror reflection.) But what ultimately hooks readers is that so much of this stuff is universally relatable - everyone has dated someone who's not right for them. Everyone has unresolved issues with their parents - even if those parents are absent. Everyone has "that" friend like Smorgasboard.

Yet whether he's musing on his own history or just riffing on pop culture, there's a technical expertise here that cannot be ignored. Grace is a gifted cartoonist, one who, depending on his mood, channels people like Cameron Stewart and Jason Latour. (There's a great strip in here where he actually goes over the various permutations of his self-portraits, before deciding on his more streamlined, cartoony look.) Grace understands composition and the use of heavy blacks and negative space, such as a particularly evocative strip where the tails of a woman's dress slice across the page. But thanks to the constantly changing visuals, as well as the use of interviews and photography, readers are always kept on their toes, forcing them to continue to engage - and thus, drawing them into this story even further.

"I am not Carrie Bradshaw. I am not Kurt Hummel. I am not Stan Lee. I am not a Boy Wonder. I am not Lana Del Rey. I can only be me." By the time you've finished reading Self-Obsessed, readers will finally figure out what that means for Sina Grace. Yes, this book is absolutely self-indulgent, particularly with the post-comic book flurry of photos and dedications - but honestly, this comic is less of a sequential story and more of a personal statement, an artistic work that proves comics can be deeper than most of what the monthly crowd takes them for. This is not a blockbuster, wide-appeal comic, but instead something that's textured and altogether unique. It may be self-obsessed, but that doesn't make it any less fantastic.

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