Best Shots Advance Reviews: ANGELA: QUEEN OF HEL #1, BLACK MAGICK #1, UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL #1, More

"Black Magick #1" cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Angela: Queen of Hel #1
Written by Marguerite Bennett
Art by Kim Jacinto, Israel Silva and Stephanie Hans
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Angela: Queen of Hel #1 has drawn much attention as one of the few Marvel comics to feature LGBT characters post-Secret Wars. Fortunately, Marguerite Bennett has made her new solo run with the character a strong one, somehow turning Marvel’s convoluted Asgardian mythos into an emotionally charged tale that has the grand scope and drama of a Gothic romance. Angela: Queen of Hel #1 features Angela as a sort of Orpheus, traveling through Hel to seek out her slain lover Sera, though Angela’s tale seems to end on a less tragic note (in case you missed the title). Despite appearing to begin the story at its end, Bennett manages to keep the plot fresh with some unusual twists that keep the flashback framing device from feeling trite.

Framing the tale as an extended flashback does make the narrative difficult to follow at times. The transition from “present” to “past” is straightforward, but the introduction of an extended memory experienced as a vivid hallucination by Angela adds a jarring Inception-style moment of confusion as you work out that this is both a flashback within a flashback and a memory being lived again by Angela in the “present” of the story Sera is trying to tell.

But Bennett is a strong storyteller with a keen eye for drama and a deft hand for writing genuine and compelling relationships. The tension between the couple throughout Sera’s tale is palpable, both romantic and otherwise. Stoic and reserved Angela and the snarky Sera have forged a strong bond through their adventures regardless of their muddied pasts. Her rich dialogue through the flashback-within-a-flashback pairs with Stephanie Hans’ almost dream-like artwork to invoke moments of touching vulnerability between the two of them. Both women feel like fully-developed characters, and despite their supernatural origins Bennett makes the story feel contemporary and relatable for readers with references like Sera’s playful invocation of Beyonce.

Hans’ color work is impressive, leaving Angela’s relived experiences feeling soft around the edges with eerie, dark-washed colors. Kim Jacinto and Israel Silva, the main storyline artists, do an excellent job establishing a visual solid that makes Hel and Angela feel solid and substantial against Hans’ dreamy B-story artwork. The creative team’s artwork carries the action through several pages of sparse dialogue through body language and subtle changes in expressions. Jacinto and Silva’s final page in particular is a standout, managing to make Angela look physically vulnerable and intimidated against a Sera illuminated with magical power.

Bennett’s emotional beats build to a heart wrenching crescendo in this final panel with a startling confrontation between Angela and Sera that will leave you desperate to know what’s coming. Though we already know Angela will find herself poised to take the throne from Hel’s current queen Hela, with Sera by her side, Bennett has left room for considerable twists and turns in the build up to this still uncertain conclusion. If you’ve been curious about Angela but missed Asgard’s Assassin or her 1602: Witch Hunter Angela outing, this is an excellent place to start. You may find yourself slightly spoiled for previous stories, but you don’t need any extensive knowledge of Angela’s past with Marvel to immerse yourself in this new tale.

Angela: Queen of Hel #1 plays to Bennett’s strengths with a character-driven story tinged with horror and hints of sweeping romance. She handles sensitive moments with a delicate hand, and hones in emotional punches other writers might miss such as Sera’s “where they called me by another name” as she confronts Angela. This may seem off-hand, but Bennett giving this line to a trans character haunted by nightmares of her past makes it especially poignant and jarring. Angela: Queen of Hel #1 has a strong creative team and an intriguing story that will certainly please fans of Angela’s previous books, and will quickly hook curious newcomers.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Howling Commandoes of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1
Written by Frank J. Barbiere
Art by Brent Schoonover and Nick Filardi
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

Oh, this is a howler, all right.

Debuting in the pages of S.H.I.E.L.D. #9, "Dum Dum" Dugan's Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. made all the right impressions. Al Ewing and Stefano Caselli introduced a gruff but tortured leader who was literally a ghost in the machine, and delved deep into Marvel's monster mythology, including new additions with a wink, a smile and some next-level artwork.

Unfortunately, the ongoing version of Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't quite have that same appeal. Hampered by a by-the-numbers plot and a downgrade in art, this Halloween-themed comic book unfortunately is dead on arrival.

On paper, there's a glimmer of potential for Dugan and his S.T.A.K.E. Commandos, thanks to a few interesting character concepts. Dugan, for example, has learned that he is an electronic consciousness that pilots an armada of Life Model Decoys, making him the team "Frankenstein," while longtime S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell has returned as a shambling zombie. Combine this with Universal-style monsters like Manphibian, Vampire by Night and Warwolf - not to mention Marvel Z-listers like Man-Thing, Orgo and Hit-Monkey - and you've got yourself a decent team (even if you have a little bit of a visual overlap between Manphibian, Man-Thing and Teen Abomination).

The problem, however, is that Frank J. Barbiere doesn't put them in any sort of situation that makes them seem exciting or different from the other number of teams that Marvel is pumping out on a regular basis. Pitting the Howling Commandos against a boat full of plant zombies is almost beat-for-beat the exact same plot as Jeff Parker's Justice League United, and while Barbiere introduces each member of his cast efficiently, he leaves out any reason to like or even remember them. It's all just a dull fight sequence that you've seen a million times before. Warwolf, Manphibian and Vampire by Night are all completely forgettable, while Hit-Monkey and Man-Thing feel grating and forced as the team's big guns. The only member of the team who winds up with any sort of interesting spark is zombie Jasper Stillwell, who provides some great comic relief as a human vegetable who isn't afraid to point a rocket launcher in the wrong direction.

It also doesn't help that Brent Schoonover is not the right artist for this book. Barbiere has a lot of action going on, and a wide cast to cram in, but Schoonover's panels feel extremely cramped - in particular, the big comedic moment of Stillwell firing his rocket launcher backwards is almost completely flat-tired, since you can't tell what on Earth Stillwell actually hit. Additionally, for a book like this, design and style mean everything - and unfortunately, Schoonover does not have a great handle on these new characters, with their overcomplicated yet completely interchangable black S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuits. There's no sense of scariness or style with these Howling Commandos, and Nick Filardi's washed-out colors don't add much in the way of energy here. And unfortunately, the buck really stops with the art - Barbiere's script has its rough spots, but there's no question it would have been better received with some more striking artwork.

Marvel has tried to revamp the Howling Commandos as its own personal in-house monster mash on several previous occasions, but these attempts have always been doomed to fail - and unfortunately, this iteration doesn't feel much different. While there's definitely a ton of potential for "Dum Dum" Dugan and Jasper Sitwell, the rest of this cast feels woefully underdeveloped, with this team just feeling like a threadbare retread of the wildly successful Avengers formula. Combine this with some very ill-fitting artwork, and you have a book that may be creaky and kooky, but not altogether spooky.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1
Written by Ryan North
Art by Erica Henderson, Joe Morris and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Out of all the characters in the Marvel Universe, Doreen Green is in a class of her own - and Ryan North and Erica Henderson explore an integral part of her quirky character in the all-new, all-different, second #1 of 2015 for Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Yet while it falls under Marvel's post-Secret Wars revamp of their entire line, there's something that feels altogether familiar about this new #1, providing new readers a chance to fall under Squirrel Girl's spell.

At first, you might think that Ryan North is placating the hardcore fanboys with this issue, as Squirrel Girl dives into some surprisingly meat-and-potatoes superheroing, as she and a group of her furry friends dive into a burning building to rescue the hapless tenants within. Of course, the dark colors of Rico Renzi are quickly upended with Squirrel Girl's hilariously quirky attitude: "Why are we still making buildings out of wood? It's the only material most famous for burning really well." It's that sense of humor that shows just how relatable Doreen is, even though she has a teleporter in her closet and happens to be a New Avenger ("We avenge all the new stuff") or whatever. She might have a costume and (squirrel) powers, but she also is super-awkward, hasn't unpacked her boxes for her new apartment, and oh, by the way, has forgotten her lunch date with her mom.

Her mommmmmmmmmmm. You know how people say that can't hate anyone once you know their story? I defy you to dislike The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl once you've met her mom.

From the get-go, Maureen Green makes perfect sense as a character. She is absolutely her daughter's future image, and North totally nails that kind of awesomely embarassing mother, who tells cringeworthy childhood stories to Doreen's BFF Nancy, not to mention gives some great motherly advice when it comes to superheroing. Despite what the first sequence might make us believe, North doesn't play in the typical superheroic tropes, and that's what makes Unbeatable Squirrel Girl such a breath of fresh air. It's funny that Maureen has baby pictures that have bright bushy tails. It's funny that Maureen is apparently totally used to her daughter picking her up and leaping across town with her. It's funny because this sort of stuff is so much more relatable than Peter Parker running around hoping his Aunt May won't notice the spandex onesie in his closet. Combine that with a super-nihilist robot shouting out some "mega unkind" disses, and you've got yourself a super-charming book.

It also doesn't hurt that artist Erica Henderson gives so much character to her characters (pun intended), just by the sheer goofiness of their expressions. Like I've said before, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl isn't a book that follows the typical superhero rules - there's tons of dialogue, and sometimes the action is as sketchy as it gets, but ultimately the punching isn't the draw here. It's watching these characters as they go about their lives, whether its Doreen hiding her face in her hands or Maureen's wide smile (you totally know where Doreen got it from). That said, there's a little bit of an energy drain here with Rico Renzi's colors - there's a lot of blues and grays used here, which tamps down on the sunny optimism of the first volume.

If there's another slight hiccup with this issue, it's that it feels very similar to some of the other stories that North has written - while it's very cool that Squirrel Girl isn't the type of superhero to punch somebody into unconsciousness, the idea that she constantly has to empathize with her supervillains can be a little overdone. (Since she's done similar things with Kraven, Galactus, Hippo, etc.) But that said, North does tack on a very interesting epilogue, as he asks, "Do you remember the person you were ten, even five years ago? Could you imagine being forced to be that person forever?" It shows that through all its goofiness, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl might be a deeper read than most of its costumed peers.

Credit: Image Comics

Black Magick #1
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Nicola Scott and Chiara Arena
Lettering by Jodi Wynne
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Black Magick has been gestating for a number of years now, with collaborators Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott finally getting a chance to work on project together. Conversations reportedly began as early as half a decade ago, circling around a project that eventually became Rucka’s Lazarus with Michael Lark. For Scott, Black Magick represents not only her first major work since officially parting ways with DC Comics last year, but her first foray into the world of creator-owned comic books after almost a decade with the publisher.

From the austere beginnings of Black Magick, wherein a group of witches gather in the woods for a non-specific ritual, Rucka sets this up to be a book about a clash of cultures. The very staid introduction is interrupted by a cell phone, a comedic beat that teaches us to expect the unexpected early on, although in many ways it is a false signal. We never get anything close to that levity again. Called away from the incantation to her day job as a cop, Detective Rowan Black is specifically requested as the negotiator on a hostage situation in a burger joint. Her two lives begin to clash in unexpected ways, which is where the hook is meant to lie in this fledgling series.

As with the first issue of Lazarus, Rucka’s script manages to keep us at arm’s length for much of this debut. He also plays with incredibly familiar concepts, importing a part-time witch and full-time detective into a trope that has been filled by mediums, doctors, OCD sufferers and even zombies. The intriguing twist sits entirely around the edges of the main story, hinting at Rowan’s true name and the hostage taker being “one of them.” The problem is twofold, and primarily comes down to that distance Rucka tends to create between the work and the audience. Granted, the neo-noir nature of the narrative is such that it requires a certain aloofness from its leads, although that does make it incredibly difficult to become invested in something like a “real name” when all we don’t know much about the character beyond the name we were presented with only a handful of pages before. More concerning is the exploitative way that Rucka and Scott unfold these nuggets of proto-truth, literally stripping down Rowan to her underwear on a flimsy premise and keeping her that way for the duration of the scene.

Scott takes a markedly different approach to her art in Black Magick, with audiences used to seeing her hyper-realistic designs on the characters of the DC Universe. Here she quite consciously departs from that style, picking up a different set of tools for watercolors and ink brush effects. The murkiness of the style is a stark contrast with the clearly defined lines of her previous work, using a subdued color palette to add to the noir visage. Indeed, the book is largely in black and white, with splashes of strategic color. A beautifully shocking moment comes when a spark is lit, engulfing two splash pages in a magical mixture of flame-filled tones.

There’s more than a little of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips in the DNA of Black Magick, a connection that Rucka has readily copped to during interviews, and how far that develops is yet to be seen. There’s a planned thirty issues to this series, so it sounds like there is an end goal in mind. By the end of the first issue we are left with a mystery, and despite all the clues and hints and something more supernatural at play, there is very little but ephemera to make us want to pursue that any further.

Credit: Image Comics

Chew #51
Written by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory
Lettering by John Layman
Published by Image Comics
Review by Vanessa Gabriel
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Ding dong, The Vampire is dead.

Poetic vengeance for the death of Toni Chu has been exacted, and Chew #51 is the psychedelic after-party. Red Fox, Tupac Shakur and Richard Pryor make an appearance. Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan were invited, too. It’s a hell of a good time in heaven, and a whole lot of fan service.

After four years in hot pursuit of that sadistic cannibal of a villain, I’d say it is certainly time for a celebration. Chew #51 takes that beat. Colorfully. Hilariously. Indulgently. What it does not do is tell much of a story.

After 50 issues, we love the characters, and we are invested. So, of course, visiting Toni in heaven is awesome. She’s her usual exuberant, cheerful, sex-positive self. OK. I added that last part because she’s totally getting hers behind those pearly gates. It is incredibly gratifying to see Toni running heaven like a boss.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. It does not advance the plot.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re supposed to just enjoy the kaleidoscopic parade of Olive’s future escapades forged by her incomparable skill at wielding a chocolate machete. That’s a mouthful, I know. It’s an eyeful, too. And sure, Olive’s dry directness, admirable ambition, and that badass scar make her a remarkable character in almost any comic book. But by the end of the issue, the direct-to-video pacing left me feeling about as full as a newly converted vegetarian.

Toni and Olive are fan favorites for sure, and who doesn’t love a comic book with not one, but two Asian-lady leads? My fangirl had fun and all, but it feels like canned resolution. The pay-off comes too easy when you compare it to the quality and cleverness of narrative that came immediately before this issue, and has graced so much of the entire Chew run.

But where the story lacked in purpose, it allows artist Rob Guillory an opportunity to goof off in full glory. Chew #51 features sardonic splash pages primed for the bedroom wall of a teenager living in 1985 (or the office of a 36-year-old woman living in 2015 who frequently likes to giggle). The art is wildly vivid, ornery as hell, and full of Guillory’s signature style and references.

His future versions of Olive channel the angst and order of her father (only better), the ninja prowess of Mason Savoy and dutifully alludes to Beatrix Kiddo and Vincent Vega. All of these fantastic visual character elements shine bright, and tell a story to those who know and love these characters. Still, for those who've never read an issue, it reads like a commercial catalog of awesome Chew art that’s trying to hawk some swag.

Chew #51 is eloquently absurd, and maybe that is writer John Layman's signature dark humor just messing with us because he can. It is a playful middle finger to structure and pacing to indulge in fan-favorite characters, but the issue plays like a montage with no movie. There’s only nine issues remaining in the series, and we’ve still got a chicken conspiracy to figure out, damn it. Like Toni said, “There's not much time left for our beloved characters.” Chop chop.

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