Best Shots Advance Reviews: TOKYO GHOST #1, PAYBACKS #1, JEM & THE HOLOGRAMS #1, VOLTRON: FROM THE ASHES #1

"Jem and the Holograms #7" cover by Emma Vieceli
Credit: Emma Vieceli (IDW Publishing)
Credit: Image Comics

Tokyo Ghost #1
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

After years rising to the top of their field, how does a champion level up?

That's a question I kept asking myself as I read Tokyo Ghost #1, a book that by most measures will likely be a success over at Image. Just from the credits page, you've got some heavy hitters and high rollers, with Rick Remender teaming up with Sean Murphy - two A-list creators if I've ever seen one. Yet with this frenetic techno-dystopian thriller, I couldn't help but wonder - is that all there is? Many readers will still love the sheer voice and execution that Remender and Murphy bring to this book, but given the truly amazing back catalog these two have amassed, this team-up doesn't make me marvel at what they've delivered, but instead makes me wonder about what could have been.

That's probably not the most fair assessment of a comic book, I know. (And note the 8 out of 10 score - while I've got some thoughts about this book, for the majority of readers, this is going to be perfectly spectacular.) But I'm not only someone who's read a lot of comic books in his life - but I feel like I know a bit about Rick Remender and his evolution as a writer. I've devoured his work from Strange Girl to Uncanny Avengers, I've interviewed him in-depth over his process, and over the years I've become more and more convinced that, more than almost any other creator in the business, Remender has the technical skills as a writer to produce superior work. Sean Murphy, meanwhile, is an artist who is known for singularly amazing work with Joe the Barbarian and The Wake, but beyond that, he's a savvy figure who has never been afraid to speak out about the state of the industry, or to take risks to keep innovating.

So with all that said - why does Tokyo Ghost feel so damn familiar?

Set in a world where people are literally hooked to their television sets, Remender and Murphy start this series off simply, as Debbie Decay and her boyfriend, the hulking Constable Led Dent, track down a killer who can hack into anyone around him. Remender and Murphy's world is super-detailed and fully realized, from "psychopathic narcissist and Millenial nostalgist" Davey Trauma having a classic NES controller built into his arm or Debbie passing out six grams of synthetic self-esteem to pay off a cyborg club bouncer. While there's a little bit of a detective story framework here, as Debbie and Dent try to pull off "one last case" to bring this techno-hooligan to justice, Remender has put the pacing on fast-forward, pouring on the action quickly to ramp up the stakes.

From the get-go, Tokyo Ghost's influences are immediately apparent in both the writing and the art - you see flashes of Frank Miller's Ronin, a ton of influence from Jason Pearson's Body Bags, the taciturn brute hero from Judge Dredd, the video game philosophy of Nonplayer, and even a little bit of that dysfunctional romance from Harley Quinn. None of this may be intentional, but despite its fast pace and futuristic setting, you can't help but feel like Tokyo Ghost is a book written for a different time - that this book might have been showstopping material in the '90s, but in the mid-2010s, after this creative team's daunting resumes, it doesn't feel particularly revolutionary or game-changing. And when you have a team with this much creative juice, you can't help but be a bit disappointed when sparks don't fly.

Underneath the video game veneer, however, there's still plenty of potential. While his characters still feel a little bit shallow after this first issue, Remender has a ton of different messages that he's throwing out here, ranging from the public's desensitization to violence to the addictive nature of technology (and how relationships can suffer as a result). But what will likely sell Tokyo Ghost as a book has to be the artwork - Murphy gives this futuristic world just the right amount of shadow and grit, producing some amazingly kinetic action sequences as Dent races across the sprawl on his bright orange motorcycle. His level of detail is striking, even with some of the cartoonish levels of gore as Dent smashes a killer's face against a brick wall, leaving his teeth shattered and an eye dangling from its socket. Yet in terms of his actual designs, like I've said before, this book still feels depressingly familiar - while Murphy clearly has put a lot of thought into his background characters, the setting still feels like too close of an homage to Frank Miller's Ronin or Katsushiro Otomo's Akira (or, if I'm being honest, even Murphy's previous Punk Rock Jesus).

Much of this review might feel backhanded, or as though I'm damning Remender and Murphy with faint praise - and that's far from my intention. Bringing these two together should be a masterstroke, and chances are, most people will probably still say that Tokyo Ghost is a masterpiece. But for me, I always feel these sorts of collaborations should yield more than the sums of their parts - and despite the seeds of some very interesting themes, this first issue feels shockingly retrograde. Tokyo Ghost #1 is beautiful, it's action-packed, and yet it feels surprisingly hollow. Perhaps it's the video game subject matter, or perhaps it's just two creators looking to have fun and collaborate, and screw what the critics might say. (Remember, 8 out of 10 isn't a bad score, people!) Maybe I'm overthinking it, or maybe I'm just asking for too much. But for two creators like Rick Remender and Sean Murphy, you can only hope that they'll continue to grow and innovate - because as thoughtful and talented as this duo is, I refuse to believe their experience has been maxed out.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

The Paybacks #1
Written by Donny Cates and Eliot Rahal
Art by Geoff Shaw and Lauren Affe
Lettering by Michael Heisler
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

If you stop and think long enough about any comic book mythology, none of it makes sense. As Grant Morrison once wrote, how superheroes can achieve their powers or how Batman can run a company by day and be a vigilante at night has a simple answer: it’s not real. The oft-repeated line of Morrison’s is not summoned here without cause either, as The Paybacks not only runs amok in the deconstructionist playground that the British author calls home, but it also dares to ask the question of how heroes can afford to conduct their business.

Under the leadership of Emory Rains, the Paybacks are a super-repo team made up of formerly bankrupt heroes. In Donny Cates and Eliot Rahal’s world, heroes take out loans to afford all of their expensive equipment and lairs, but when they default on those loans, then it’s up to the titular team to repossess. London’s nocturnal protector Night Knight, a kind of mix of Morrison’s Knight and Batman, with a healthy dose of Moon Knight for good measure, protects his city with the aid of his trusty unicorn. Yet he is about to receive a visit from the Paybacks.

As with Buzzkill, the creative team is interested in convention superhero tropes within unconventional scenarios. What could have been a straight-up parody, or another trip over familiar territory, is instead a joyous celebration of comic books. Both members of the Paybacks, especially the stoner Driver, and Night Knight have elements of their characters that are both familiar and extraordinary, with the latter being presented pragmatically. The Driver enters a perpetually changing pocket universe inside of his “not” van, one that recalls the gigantic offices of Men in Black or R.I.P.D.. Yet the ensuing chaos has a comedic matter-of-factness about it that avoids being overly burdened with the familiar. More to the point, Night Knight rides beside his unicorn, not on it, and an exchange with his steed later in the issue may make you pause for a cackle or two.

Artist Geoff Shaw is no stranger to the fantastic, and his designs here are delightful. The team itself could not be more diverse, looking for all the world like they’ve been cobbled together from the most eclectic costume pieces of more familiar heroes. Shaw plays with the excesses of modern comic book, from the collection of beat-up cops left behind from Night Knight’s foe (The Reflector), the increasingly chaotic bloodbath the Paybacks’ Miss Adventure is fighting her way out of, to the elaborate cave the London knight has built with his borrowed riches. There’s also a hipster twist on Doctor Strange, and an incredibly kinetic car ‘chase’ sequence.

The Paybacks succeeds where similar outings have failed by maintaining its sense of humor for the duration. There’s almost too much happening, but rarely does it every feel overly packed or squished. Cates and Rahal throw a lot of information at us at once, but gives the reader plenty of reason to trust in their storytelling, from the wickedly funny moments to, well, more of the same but with dinosaurs and unicorns.

Credit: Emma Vieceli (IDW Publishing)

Jem and the Holograms #7
Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Emma Vieceli and M. Victoria Robado
Lettering by Shawn Lee
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

New arc, new art, new villains: this week IDW’s Jem and the Holograms #7 kicks off a new storyline with a new guest illustrator, as Emma Vieceli joins the team for “Viral! Part One.” After Jem and the Holograms showed up the Misfits at the battle of the bands, Jerrica and her sisters are struggling with their newfound notoriety. If Jem and the Holograms #7 is the first single on a sophomore album, it’s a strong start: writer Kelly Thompson has found her stride with these new iterations of the Holograms and the Misfits, and deftly moves the story past its introductory arc to focus more on the girls and their day-to-day struggles as bands.

Thompson has pulled some very familiar faces from the original show to take the Misfits into a new direction, introducing Eric Raymond as the Misfits’ new manager with his lackey Techrat in tow. As the Holograms take advantage of Synergy’s infinite power to set up a new website, the Misfits’ label hands them over to Raymond in hopes of getting their behavior and bad press back under control. But the Holograms gate-crashing the band battle has taken its toll on two of the Holograms in particular. Prepare to get your heartstrings tugged by Kimber and Stormer, as Jerrica prepares for a little drama of her own when she discovers just what Rio’s journalistic endeavors will mean for her band.

Thompson manages to keep the heart of the show’s conflicts without feeling like she’s simply retreading old territory with a few outdated references replaced. Eric’s not here because he was in the show, he’s here because the first arc made it clear the Misfits needed a guiding hand. She’s done a stellar job rehabilitating the show’s very frustrating male lead, Rio, giving him a clear direction and a much more interesting conflict with Jerrica. As a music journalist rather than someone directly involved with the band, his lack of knowledge about Jerrica’s alter ego finally makes sense. There are moments that seem a little too on the nose (a new development with Shana in particular, this month) but the new depth Thompson brings to relationships like Kimber and Stormer more than make up for it.

Emma Vieceli is an excellent fit for the Jem and the Holograms team. There are subtle differences - Vieceli’s faces seem more detailed, and her panels feel fuller, like close-ups where Campbell may have drawn with wider framing. Visually, she keeps the characters consistent with Campbell’s original designs, and her attention to finer details ensures this still feels like a Jem story. She doesn’t draw with quite the same exaggeration (close-ups with Pizazz in later pages are probably the most obvious differences, given the incredible faces Campbell has managed to give Pizazz in the past) but Vieceli clearly understands the characters.

M. Victoria Robado’s color work is as strong as ever. A full page scene of Stormer working on a song is a stand-out this month from Robado, Vieceli, and letterer Shawn Lee, and highlights how well the team manages to express these characters’ musical voices on the page. Aja and Pizazz in particular will catch your eye throughout the issue, brought to life beautifully in Campbell’s absence through Vieceli’s careful attention to faces and body language.

Jem continues to be a fun, all-ages friendly musical romp and one of IDW’s strongest showings these days. Vieceli’s ability to maintain Campbell and Thompson’s designs and aesthetic is a positive sign for her three-issue guest arc, through #9. As with any licensed property, Thompson and the Jem team’s greatest struggle is maintaining the spirit of the original without seeming to simply reuse cycle whole plots and dialogue verbatim. The introduction of one of the show’s most recognizable names, Eric Raymond, is a big step, but the strength Jem and the Holograms #7 bodes well for the team’s ability to walk the fine line between truly refreshing a property for a new audience, and simply recycling old tales with a new look.

Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

Voltron: From The Ashes #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Blacky Shepard and Adriano Augusto
Letters by Rob Steen
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Voltron: From The Ashes #1 has all the makings of a great debut issue, which is all the most surprising when it transforms into a shockingly bland comic book. It's written by Cullen Bunn, a writer known for his big ideas and inherent weirdness. It has some truly fantastic monster designs from art team Blacky Shepard and colorist Adriano Augusto. Lastly, it's based on a beloved property from the '80s that is more then due for its time in the sun. Unfortunately Voltron: From The Ashes #1 never clicks like it should, despite having a wealth of talent behind it. Dynamite Entertainment has a treasure trove of properties at its disposal, but this Voltron series so far feels like a misfire.

While Voltron: From The Ashes #1 never truly clicks, it does have a fantastic hook behind it, as we see what might be the original Voltron Force's last battle in space. While this desperate battle is one hell of a hook, Cullen Bunn writes the rest of this debut issue fairly straight, as we meet the new team that's hoping to fill the original Voltron Force's boots. The classic Voltron team gets the most page time, but their voices are still intact and ringing true of their original cartoon counterparts. Their successors, however, get a pretty short shrift. Their hotheaded leader, Jayce, shoulders much of their scene, and doesn’t come across very well at all. A prototypical headstrong lead, Jayce gets his team disqualified from the trials after he deviates from the plan and improvises his way to a stern talking to from the elders. Voltron: From The Ashes #1 firmly keeps its Mystery Box under wraps, but unfortunately, it doesn’t have the cast to keep it supported just yet.

While the script flounders with its lead characters, the art team does deliver some great action and monster designs. Haggar’s dream of a great stuggle is filled to the brim with fantastic monster designs from artist Blacky Shepard and colorist Adriano Augusto. The classic Voltron design is still alive and well in the pages of this debut, but it is the horde that it's fighting that steal the spotlight. Shepard and Augusto throw a lot of strange and weird-looking creatures onto the page, and they all land a lot better than the actual human character designs. The original Voltron Force fares a bit better thanks to their iconic costume designs and the choice to show them mostly in dramatic close-ups, but the same can’t be said for the new Force in training. Jayce’s histrionics end up shouldering most of the unsteady pencils, making him look less like a lead character and more like a unfinished design, especially when shown in close-up. Adriano Augusto’s colors are the only thing that really come across well throughout as they are vibrant when called for and muted when needed, like the scenes during the training exercise and in the expanse of space. While Voltron: From The Ashes #1 is billed as a debut, reading it feels like an incomplete experience.

Debut issues are always tricky, but Voltron: From The Ashes #1 seems to stumble more than it stands on its own. Despite having a fantastic hook and some great monster designs, this #1 needs to learn to walk before it can run. The talent is all there as well as the name recognition of being based on a well known property, but its legs can’t stop shaking underneath it to deliver a satisfying experience. While the course could be corrected come next month, Voltron: From The Ashes #1 perhaps should have stayed buried.

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