Best Shots Advance Reviews: STAR WARS: VADER DOWN #1, HUCK #1, More

Dark Horse December 2015 cover
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Star Wars: Vader Down #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Mike Deodato and Frank Martin, Jr.
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Three squadrons of starfighters. A battalion of troopers. And the might of the Rebel Alliance. They're all converging on the planet Vrogas Vas - and they're all gunning for one man.

But when their target is Darth Vader, the Rebel Alliance just might be bringing blasters to a lightsaber fight.

In many ways, Star Wars: Vader Down #1 is something altogether different from the previous installments of Star Wars and Darth Vader, even aside from the obvious comic book-crossover appeal. Previously, Marvel's new Star Wars stories danced between the continuity raindrops of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, bringing the same flavor of the original movies but never bringing anything that might affect the general structure of the holy trilogy.

But Vader Down #1, on the other hand, feels big - big enough to potentially be a major milestone in an already massive mythology. And given the sheer scale - Darth Vader single-handedly taking on the entire Rebel Alliance - how could it not? Working from a story he developed with Kieron Gillen, Jason Aaron effortlessly weaves in threads from Gillen's ongoing Darth Vader series, as the Dark Lord of the Sith tracks down his long-lost son, Luke Skywalker, on the planet of Vrogas Vas - and winds up landing right in the middle of a Rebel base. It's a great premise, one that subverts the man-against-the-world tropes that we typically see in most superheroic fiction. Instead, Aaron and Gillen have given us a compelling reason to root for the bad guy - while the numbers alone might make this seem like an unfair fight, Vader Down is a spectacular opportunity to show just how powerful Vader is as a villain.

And this opening salvo is striking enough. Aaron redeems Vader's lost honor at the end of A New Hope, reminding us that he's just as deadly with a TIE Fighter as he is with a lightsaber. The ensuing space combat is wonderfully written, with some particularly superb one-liners: "I am a Lord of the Sith," an ice-cold Vader says to the worried Doctor Aphra. "They are the ones who should be running." While the tail end of the book sags a little compared to the action-packed beginning, Aaron makes Vader Down's opening gambit one to remember, particularly the way that Luke and his father solve who is truly the best fighter pilot in the galaxy. By the time Vader crash-lands on the planet, with hordes of Rebel troops converging upon him, Aaron gives us just a taste of the savagry that is to come.

Regarding the artwork, Mike Deodato is a great fit for Vader Down, which his ominous shadows lending a real sense of tension and danger to this storyline. Deodato actually pulls a smart trick here, making Vader look expressive despite his impassive mask by using shadows and reflected lights to play up his emotions. You can sense when Vader feels confident, or the look of surprise on his face when he realizes he's going head-to-head against his own son. Colorist Frank Martin Jr. also does a spectacular job at establishing mood, especially with his use of cool reds and blues inside Vader's TIE Fighter or the warmer oranges within Luke's X-Wing. The one downside for the artwork, however, is Deodato's spaceships, which often feel static or distorted - in particular, there's a shot of the Millennium Falcon that feels surprisingly flat, which winds up hampering the space-based sequences.

Considering how difficult it is to make event books truly soar, let alone a tightly controlled licensed property like Star Wars, it's difficult to call Star Wars: Vader Down anything other than an unqualified success. Aaron gives us a quickly paced, action-packed introduction to this Skywalker vs. Skywalker rematch, and the sheer scale and stakes of this audacious book make it one that feels instantly compelling. Darth Vader may be a force of nature in his own right, but can even he stand before the rage of the Rebel Alliance? Perhaps that's Aaron, Gillen and Deodato's finest success - no matter who loses, we win.

Credit: Image Comics

Huck #1
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Nate Piekos
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

One of Mark Millar’s superpowers is in finding the ordinary in the outlandish, and vice versa. His self-referential spins on the superhero genre have ranged from the profanity-laced, hyperkinetic street brawls of Kick-Ass to the globe-trotting spin on spy flicks with The Secret Service. Yet one of his most touching and poignant pieces still remains Superior, about a boy with multiple sclerosis who literally escapes his own life as the titular superhero, finding a kind of inner peace in the process. Huck immediately distinguishes itself from Millar’s other work by beginning in this place of inward-looking meditation.

Every small town has its secrets, and Huck is one that belongs to this quiet seaside locale. When things go missing, they have a habit of turning up the next day thanks to Huck. He works in a garage, but could easily haul the trucks by hand if he needed to. Despite his considerable bulk, he’s a quiet soul. Some see him as none too bright, while local Mrs. Taylor simply refers to him as “special.” Yet when a newcomer to town lets the media know about Huck, things are going to change quite rapidly for the small town hero.

Riffing on the familiar Superman mythology, Millar answers the question of what would happen if the Man of Steel one day realized that he had the powers of a god, but had no corresponding sense of his own importance. Millar posits Huck as something of a Forrest Gump character, a gentle giant who makes lists of the good deeds he can perform for his neighbors. In a topical twist, he spies a group of 200 schoolgirls being kidnapped by fundamentalist militia and thinks nothing of going to rescue them. Unlike Millar’s Dave in Kick-Ass, he is not performing good deeds out of a misguided sense of comic book justice. He’s not suddenly thrust into the life like The Secret Service‘s Gary London or embittered like Superior’s Simon Pooni. He simply acts because it’s the right thing to do, making him one of Millar’s most honest and tender creations to date.

We’ve seen some amazing artwork from superstar Rafael Albuquerque over the last few years, showcasing his versatility in such diverse offerings as Eight and American Vampire. The art here is stunning, as expected, but it is nevertheless a very different style for the artist. The virtually wordless first five pages visually tells us everything we need to know about Huck, from his extraordinary powers to his straightforward view on life. Dave McCaig bathes everything in warm and nostalgic earthy tones, with the exception of the fairly stark final page signaling a major change for the character. Quite simply put, Huck is visually beautiful.

If Huck was simply the story of a warm-hearted hero with superpowers in a small town, it would already stand as one of the more original creations of the year. Yet Millar also gives us something of a mystery in the identity of Huck, telling us only that he was abandoned as a baby and pinned with the note “Please love him.” It’s been a crazy and devastating week around the world, as violent acts showcase the hatred and fear of a small number of people. If Huck’s message is that unconditionally passing on love and being kind to one another creates heroes from the most unlikely of places, then he might also be the most necessary hero of the year as well.

Credit: Archie Comics

Jughead #2
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Erica Henderson
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

"Pal, once you figure out the game, life is easy."

So sayeth Forsyth Pendleton Jones the Third - or as you probably know him, Jughead. And while Archie Andrews might be popular amongst Betty and Veronica, it's Jughead that's quickly taking the crown for most likeable guy in Riverdale. Thanks to Chip Zdarsky's smart, wacky script and Erica Henderson's energetic and colorful artwork, this sophomore issue shows that Riverdale's hungriest high schooler might also just be its savviest.

For longtime readers of Archie Comics, this might come as a bit of a shock. Jughead has always been known as a voracious dunderhead, a guy who thinks with his stomach and conveniently misses out when poor Ethel tries to put the moves on him. But not to Chip Zdarsky, who recognizes (perhaps from personal experience?) that being a goof doesn't mean you're also a dunce. In the cases of both Jughead and his writer, it's actually the opposite - this is a guy who can sweet-talk Kevin Keller into buying his milk shakes while subverting school rules so he can sell hamburgers to his fellow students. "I believe rules do not apply to me, so I'm always on the lookout to circumvent them," Jughead says with a grin and a shrug. He's gone from being a single-minded idiot to someone more three-dimensional and carefree.

And it's that depth that also lets Zdarsky throw Jughead into literally any situation. There's a wild, Silver Age-y swerve of a B-story in this issue, as Jughead is enlisted by the Riverdale of the Future (Riv3rdal3) to become Jughead: Timecop. It's a ridiculous side plot, but it's one that Zdarsky ultimately swings back to apply to the main storyline - watching Jughead convincingly argue about how to subvert the laws of time travel is immensely entertaining, and it doesn't hurt that we also have vikings, dinosaurs and killer robots (one of whom actually just wants to talk through their differences) to make this story 100% crazier.

Zdarsky may go for a crazy story, but it's funniest because he gives his wild concepts the respect they deserve. Artist Erica Henderson follows suit, showing that Jughead absolutely believes in what he's doing, whether its running away from a dinosaur or huffing and puffing through laps in his brutal gym class. Not only does Henderson make her character look expressive and hilarious, with wide-eyed reaction shots and easy-going smirks, but she's able to switch gears just as fast as Zdarsky, making present-day high school look every bit as evocative as the insane future of Riverdale. Combine this with some bright, powerful colors, and Jughead has more energy than half a dozen superhero books.

While Jughead's cleverness might rub some people the wrong way - the name "Smughead" might be such a sick burn because it's more than a little accurate - but ultimately, it's a matter of whether you buy into Jughead's new status quo as the precocious savant of Riverdale or not. For me personally, I think this twist gives this book a world of depth to plumb. There's more to Jughead than just hamburgers, and ironically enough, that gives him way more meat as a character.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1
Written by Caitlin R. Kierman
Art by Daniel Warren Johnson and Carlos Badilla
Letters by Nate Piekos
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Hell isn’t what you expect, at least not for Dancy Flammarion. After a sorted monster killing career, Dancy now finds herself dead and occupying her own personal hellscape in a place beyond death. But, of course, even the best monster hunters aren’t safe from their demons, as old enemies start to make major plays back on Earth. Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1, the latest in the Alabaster, may be short on plot, but it more than makes up for it in mood and hardened Coen Brothers-esque dialogue. Writer Caitlin R. Kierman makes this new debut issue feel like the latest installment of her long running series, yet doesn’t rely on those connective threads to fully carry the experience. The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1 may be the latest Alabaster series to hit shelves, but this first issue has more than enough going for it to suck new readers into this fascinatingly rough world.

Dividing time between the stark white of Dancy’s personal hell and a criminal transaction at a run down highway diner, Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1 brings readers along into Alabaster’s supernatural noir-inspired world with a heavy amount of narration and tantalizing hints at the past and future through dialogue. Kierman’s protagonist, Dancy, provides the narration which switches from quotes from her past to ruminations on the labyrinthine nature of her own white hell; all of it intensely engaging and well-written. These scenes culminate in yet another face-to-face meeting between Dancy and a seraph, who periodically shows Dancy her death and allows her the chance to renounce herself and her mistakes and be granted a second chance. Of course, this being a true noir, Dancy refuses, sticking to her decision to remove herself from the horror of her former life. Even if you haven’t read the previous Alabaster installments, Kierman’s handling of these scenes, supplemented with the flashback and the call backs in the narration, makes Dancy’s decision feel earned. But as the story continues, we see that it might not be Dancy’s decision for much longer.

While Dancy’s imprisonment provides The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1 its pathos and insight into its main character, it is the scenes back at the diner that give this debut its wicked charm. Back on Earth, two masked hoods are meeting with a local kingpin by the name of the Bailiff. All of these new players to the issue have had dealings with Dancy and the past and the two masked hoods, evoking images of Hazel and Cha-Cha from Dark Horse’s Umbrella Academy , wish to confirm that their former foe is truly dead and buried. While the scenes in Dancy’s white hell are thoughtful and narration heavy, Kierman completely switches gears with the scenes between the criminals. These scenes pop with acerbic interactions between the masks and The Bailiff, all three posturing and needling as they remember their fallen foe and carry out their clandestine business. It is an interesting and entertaining juxtaposition that’s in play all throughout this debut and one that keeps Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1 firmly entrenched in the genre that inspired it, while still remaining wholly singular.

Adding to Alabaster’s singular feel are the pencils of Daniel Warren Johnson and the colors of Carlos Badilla. Looking much like a rougher version of the works of Chris Burnham, Warren Johnson switches effortlessly between the dreamy visuals of Dancy’s hell and the sun baked dealing back on Earth. While the art team doesn’t get much to do in terms of action during this debut, each page still completely commits to the visual tone set by the artists. The stark white of the scenes beyond convey Dancy’s melancholy and every time something else pops up in the void (a map of Theses’ labyrinth, high walls blocking her travel, or the seraph), Warren Johnson and Badilla treat it like a major visual event, breaking the monotony of the whiteness. The scenes in the diner, however, are exercises in how to make three people talking look visually interesting. Johnson and Badilla achieve that feat by playing with multiple points of view as well as a muggy, Southern feeling set of colors. Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1 effortlessly floats between the fantastic and the mundane, setting a high visual bar for the issues to come.

While readers familiar with this world and character will get the most out of this debut, Alabaster: The Good, The Bad, and The Bird #1 is a book tailor made for fans of books like the Anita Blake series or old school Vertigo Comics fare. Writer Caitlin R. Kierman walks a fine line between new issue and latest installment, delivering a debut issue that gives new readers just enough to come back for more, while surely pleasing long time Alabaster fan. Combine that with the vibrantly two-toned visuals from Daniel Warren Johnson and Carlos Badilla and you have a debut issue that is sure to get people talking.

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