Best Shots Advance Reviews: SWITCH #1, ASSASSIN'S CREED #1, SEX CRIMINALS #13

Switch #1
Switch #1
Credit: Image Comics

Greetings, 'Rama Readers! The Best Shots team is back with advance reviews of some of this week's biggest titles, including video game tie-in Assassin's Creed #1, and the latest issue of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdasrky's Sex Criminals. We'll kick things off with a review of Switch #1 by team leader David Pepose.

Switch #1
Switch #1
Credit: Image Comics

Switch #1
Written, Illustrated and Lettered by Stjepan Sejic
Published by Top Cow
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Sixteen years ago, Marvel took a chance on then-unknown writer Brian Michael Bendis to redefine one of their flagship characters with Ultimate Spider-Man. Gone were the overcomplicated plots and stunt storytelling, as Bendis streamlined the Spider-Man mythos and updated it for the 21st century. And with Switch, Top Cow seems to be following suit, as Stjepan Sejic reimagines the Witchblade saga for a brand-new audience. While sejic's writing has its awkward bits, his artwork and overall concept make Switch a book that's well worth your time.

A gifted artist in his own right, Sejic has used the cachet he's built up with Witchblade, Sunstone and Rat Queens to write this story, as we meet teen misfit Mary, who becomes the latest in a long line of powerful women to wield the Witchblade, an artifact of unimaginable power. While Sejic's dialogue can be clumsy - with many of his jokes about zits or Internet forums falling with a thud rather than a chuckle - his story works on a conceptual level, largely because it avoids many of the pitfalls Top Cow fell into during the heyday of the '90s. Instead of delving deep into the mythology of the Witchblade, as well as its parents, the Angelus and the Darkness, Sejic keeps things simple - there are two sides fighting for dominance, and the Witchblade happens to be the wild card that pops up generation after generation.

While Sejic's high schooler protagonists are charming and easy to follow, he also has some nice moments for fans that are more familiar with the original Witchblade series - in particular, this iteration of the Witchblade is a de facto sisterhood, with Mary forging a bond with Una, the cavegirl who first wielded the mystical blade, as well as the mysterious Twilight Empress. He also leans into audience skepticism, as Mary is not anything like Sarah Pezzini was before her - she's an awkward loner who doesn't even think she deserves the Witchblade herself, after such a long and illustrious history. "You eat enough steak, and after awhile you'll find yourself craving a burger," she guesses. Tony Estacado, the teenage wielder of the Darkness, also has a strong hook as a supporting character, as he's basically a prisoner in a black magic-funded ivory tower. Despite some clunky dialogue, it's the hard concepts that makes Sejic's writing still feel strong - he's giving some very esoteric comics properties new context by bringing them into some familiar tropes, providing a fantastic entry point for new readers.

Ultimately, though, it's Sejic's art that seals the deal with Switch. His linework is super-sketchy but also charming and energetic - seeing a splash page with samurai, Viking, cowgirl and Egyptian Witchblades gives this series a real sense of wonder early on. His characters in general have a wonderfully animated quality to them, and you can't help but like Mary as you see her roll her eyes and scowl at some of the high school in crowd. Sejic also adds in some wonderful fight sequences here, particularly when Mary links with Una, the First Witchblade - watching them fight in tandem is the most visually dazzling bit of the issue, and it gives the Big Two a run for their money in terms of fight choreography. Combine that with some beautifully organic color work, and you've got yourself a masterful looking book.

Granted, Switch might not be for everyone - there will be those who require a bit more depth to their storytelling, and who won't be as impressed with Sejic's artwork to let his rough scripting slide. But for those who have enjoyed Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man or G. Willow Wilson's Ms. Marvel, I'd strongly recommend checking out Top Cow's Switch. It takes a complicated mythology and simplifies it in a great way, opening up the Witchblade saga to any reader who might have overlooked it for its T&A beginnings or its overcomplicated end. Either way, if this first issue of Switch is any indication, the crown jewel of Top Cow is back, and looking better than ever.

Credit: Titan Comics

Assassin's Creed #1
Written by Anthony Del Col and Connor McCreery
Art by Neil Edwards and Ivan Nunes
Lettering by Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Titan Publishing teams up with video game Goliath Ubisoft for Assassin's Creed #1, the first issue in a new ongoing series chronicling the worldwide, old as time, cloak and dagger secret war between the shadowy Assassins and the villainous Templars. To further complicate matters, each installment of the series is played out inside the Animus; a Matrix-style headset that allows average people to relive the memories of their Assassin ancestors. Co-written by Anthony Del Col and Connor McCreery, Assassin's Creed #1 is an accessible and enjoyable slice of action-oriented science fiction marred by sloppy coloring and gratuitous inking.

For the uninitiated, the Assassins are the good guys. Sworn under the namesake's creed, “Nothing is True: Everything is Permitted,” the Assassins fight for independence against the tyrannical New World Order of the Templars. Assassin's Creed #1 introduces us to Charlotte De La Cruz, a frustrated bank-teller with a rebellious streak and nothing to lose. Anthony Del Col and McCreery's script runs at a fair clip, throwing Charlotte out of a disappointing job interview and straight into the thick of the fight.

Despite its far-fetched premise, Anthony Del Col and Connor McCreery's script is firmly rooted in the troubles of modern life, drawing from everyday stresses like money problems and job dissatisfaction. Charlotte De La Cruz's world is our world and her struggles are immediately relatable, even as the backdrop of a mundane financial job gives way to crashing through windows, grotesque knife-related injury and virtual reality time travel. Del Col and McCreery have kept a firm grasp on accessibility here, making sure every facet of the rich Assassin's Creed universe is adequately explained. Luckily, Charlotte is pretty short on information, so expository dialogue doesn't ruin immersion or disrupt the issue's pace.

On the visual front, though, Neil Edwards' artwork is a mixed bag. For close-up facial shots, his lines look overtly static and pre-posed; potentially a casualty of photo referencing. Edwards inks his own work with an incredibly thick line, turning dimples into divots and realistic skin creases into elderly wrinkles. On a more positive note, his panel composition is dynamic, fluidly leading the reader's eye through clear and impactful action. He definitely has an eye for staging drama and fight sequences, even if everything atop the raw pencilling detracts from the overall effect. Compounding the problem, Ivan Nunes' harsh and flat color palette fails to bring out the best in Edwards artwork. Beige, yellow and blue dominates Nunes' pages, washing all nuance out of Edwards' illustrations.

Assassin's Creed #1 is an enjoyable origin tale set in a well-worn and imaginative universe. Protagonist Charlotte De La Cruz is a fully realised and likeable character, while the world she inhabits is recognisable with a thick dollop of action and fantasy. Visually however, this book is a mess. From heavy-handed inking to soft and simplistic color-work, Assassin's Creed #1 is far from a feast for the eyes, despite Edwards' excellent grasp of visual storytelling. If you can handle the problems in the artwork, there's a rock-solid foundation for a compelling ongoing series here.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1
Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1
Credit: Image Comics

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #3
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Christian Wildgoose and Andre May
Lettering by Clayton Cowles and Katie West
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"Oh my, the page turns are awkward."

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture as the old saying goes. But in the latest issue of Phonogram, Kieron Gillen and company might just have figured out a way to say something about how we relate to music. Phonogram has always been concerned with the iconography of pop music (in all its forms), its legacies and how it is understood by the people who love and hate it. There’s an element of finding one’s identity inherent in the pop culture that one chooses to interact with. For Phonogram’s lead, Emily, this issue is about trying not to lose that identity and subsequently taking us on a journey through her psyche that shows the reader how we’ve gotten here in the first place.

Emily uses markers of her past (in this case, old record covers) to transport herself back in time and send her younger self a message that will hopefully help her avoid selling off half her personality in the future, but that plan goes awry. I think more than Gillen’s other work, there’s a deeply personal message at the heart of this volume of Phonogram. There’s an idea that you don’t get to cut out parts of yourself that you don’t like. You have to struggle with them. The person you are is made through that constant pulling between the version of yourself that you like and the one that you hate. And that sometimes when you try to step back and see how you got to be the way you are, you don’t necessarily remember it all correctly.

After being banished by her younger self, Emily says, “I can’t believe we used to be someone like her.” The essence of humanity is self-discovery, and Gillen taps into that and relates the idea to us the best way he knows how - through music. The records that you loved at certain points in your life can just as easily be forgotten or reviled later in life, and vice versa. There is no standard path for personal growth, and because of that, sometimes we don’t always remember how we got to be the way we are or how we ever were someone else entirely.

And none of this would be possible without the unstoppable art team of Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson. With each issue, McKelvie is really pushing the boundaries of what we can expect from comic book artwork. Emily’s journey through her scrapbook has a freeform approach to its layouts but McKelvie is still able to expertly guide the reader’s eye and make the experimental layout easy to read. McKelvie’s character work has been his calling card since he came onto the scene but it’s gotten even better. It’s the been the evolution of his expression work that helps a book like this succeed. The snarling, evocative faces of the characters give the words on the page more weight and they make the, admittedly odd, proceedings of the plot a lot easier to swallow. For his part, Matthew Wilson’s coloring and textures really help bring the book to life. The script requires him to switch gears on a dime and he does so with aplomb, going from the muted tones of “Parallel Lines” to the bombasticity of the “Total Eclipse of the Heart” homage.

The longer and longer this creative team works together, the more their brilliance crystallizes. It’s amazing to see a team work this in sync with each other. This volume of Phonogram is bar far the weirdest and most ambitious yet and the whole team is up to the challenge. There’s a lot about this book that might turn people off. It’s joyfully weird and unapologetically silly sometimes. And for the people that doesn’t work for, I’ll point you to the back-up story in which David gets a girl to leave him alone by unabashedly enjoying something he loves (in this case, My Chemical Romance). Gillen and company aren’t going to change. They’re exploring the reasons that we are the way we are and doing it the only way they know how - with no guilt or shame about how much of the stuff they love they can cram into a comic book.

Sex Criminals #13
Sex Criminals #13
Credit: Image Comics

Sex Criminals #13
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky and Spencer Afonso
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Sex Criminals has never been afraid of touchy subject matter. From the very start Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s raunchy little book has aimed for the heart along with the funny bone, tackling the subjects of relationships, depression, and sexual politics. Sex Criminals #13 might be the most pointed issue of the series to date as our leads are sidelined and Fraction and Zdarsky deliver the story of Alix, a young woman struggling with her asexuality and her own version of her powers. Asexuality is something rarely talked about in popular media, and even more rarely seen in comics, but Sex Criminals #13 handles it all with grace, respect, and above all, a healthy dose of humor.

While Jon and Suzie are mostly absent from Sex Criminals #13 this month, Fraction and Zdarsky still hit an emotional home run with the story of Alix, a new player with a different, yet familiar set of powers. Told through flashbacks throughout the issue, we follow Alix as she navigates a tumultuous childhood and even rockier adolescence, desperate to understand exactly what is wrong with her and why she doesn’t fit into the neat little boxes that her peers do. Matt Fraction handles Alix’s story with a deft touch and emotional intelligence, presenting this rarely seen (and even rarely understood) sexual identity as something not abnormal, but something beautiful unto itself. This beauty comes in the form of Alix’s self-actualization and goes a step further in her manifestation of her powers, in which she jumps, unaided, off bridges and buildings, only to be caught in a net made of the same wierd energy that makes up Jon and Suze’s post-coital world. Sex Criminals #13 is a heartfelt story that is expertly handled, and more over, will surely be important to a whole slew of people that are going through the same struggle that Alix experiences within its pages.

While the subject matter of Sex Criminals #13 might be heavy, the way in which its presented is decidedly on brand for Fraction and Zdarsky’s series. Aided by Fraction’s script, Chip Zdarsky delivers some truly gorgeous, and hilarious, visuals to go along with it. Starting off with a soaring cityscape splash page to truly kick off Sex Criminals #13, Zdarsky shifts into intimate purple-shaded panels as Alix attempts to make sense of her own identity. Sex Criminals #13 also continues the title’s hot streak of hilarious visual jokes. Shifting into a 16-panel grid, Zdarsky delivers a hilarious look at oral sex from the perspective of someone who doesn’t get it at all, nor does she want it. The grid itself, as a whole, is hilarious, but as a reader, it builds and builds to an even funnier punchline that eviscerates the “it hurts if you don’t do it” argument that garbage teens have been using for years. The humor in Sex Criminals #13 even extends to the creative team’s recent Harvey Awards drama. As Jon and Suze spin their wheels in a coffee shop, eagle eyed readers will spot Zdarsky enjoying the spoils of his Harvey win, while the lowly Fraction dutifully rubs his feet. A panel later, Zdarsky is giving throwing his hot coffee in Fraction’s face, surely as punishment for getting his order wrong. It is a quick joke, but it is refreshing to see a creative team willing to poke fun at themselves while still delivering a solid issue.

Sex Criminals #13 is a great comic for a lot of reasons, like the fantastic artwork and the sharp script, but its importance to asexual representation this month cannot be overstated. Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky have never shied away from incendiary or rarely discussed topics, but Sex Criminals #13 scratches a very specific itch that has gone long un-addressed in pop culture. Representation is important, and Sex Criminals #13 finally shines a tasteful light on an often overlooked, and misunderstood, section of humanity.

Credit: Image Comics

I Hate Fairyland #1
Written by Skottie Young
Art by Skottie Young and Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Lettering by Nate Piekos
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The ubiquity of Skottie Young’s Marvel variant covers is such that he might be labelled with a singular brush. Yet his diversity is evident from his insanely good Eisner award-winning work on the Oz adaptations with Eric Shanower, to his talents as both writer and artist on Rocket Raccoon. Which is what makes I Hate Fairyland both a logical progression and a complete mindfreak of a departure for the creator at the same time. This decidedly not all-ages outing parodies some of the very things he has become known for.

Mashing up a variety of popular fairy tales, Young wastes no time in transporting a reluctant young Gertrude into Fairyland, a messed up remix of all things Oz and Neverland by way of whatever happiness the Yo Gabba Gabba! people are ingesting. If the bloodied axe-wielding child in a field of anthropomorphic mushrooms on the cover wasn‘t a clear sign of Young’s departure from cutesy, Gertrude’s undignified landing in Fairyland is. Queen Cloudia, Ruler of Fairyland, sends her on a quest to find a mystical key while a battered Getrude still has a bone protruding from her arm, which might explain why 27 years later the adult in a child’s body is on a psychopathic rampage throughout the land, still no closer to finding it.

If it weren’t for the graphic nature of the violence, which is admittedly a potential barrier for some readers, there’s something close to the kind of cheeky darkness that could be found in Roald Dahl’s narratives here. Instead, there’s a (not unwelcome) vulgarity that Young absolutely revels in, as a berserker Gertrude bites the dripping flesh off the mushroom police that she gleefully refers to as “dickheads.” This provides even more impetus for a psychedelically fractured fairy tale, complete with a vaguely hip hop spin on Alice in Wonderland’s hookah-smoking caterpillar. Pig’s do fly in this book, and they are the getaway drivers.

It’s difficult to separate a discussion of the art from the narrative in Young’s creator-owned work, as both feel like a stream of consciousness slit open at the artery and left to pump with undiminished viscosity. The design of Gertrude is like the antagonist of Nick Cave’s "The Curse of Millhaven" brought to life. If Young got to shake loose with his Rocket Raccoon stories, here he cuts the cord and runs around the field sans trousers. There’s something akin to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo stories in the look of certain objects and scenarios, most particularly Gertrude’s interactions with the moon and stars, at least until she splatters their innards across the sky. Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s hyper-vivid color scheme keeps the sense of this being a cartoon running throughout, but more likely an Adult Swim variety than the Saturday morning kind.

There’s almost too much of a good thing in this first outing, with Gertrude’s post-mushroom “puking rally” potentially where readers will be at by the time they hit the last few pages of this debut. Being this unrestrained is a double-edged sword: on the one hand there’s never any sense that Young has compromised his vision, but we do get a lot of that vision all at once. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to love in I Hate Fairyland, and with the world now set up with a healthy sense of "anything goes," Young has the makings of a cult favourite on his hands.

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