Best Shots Advance Reviews: WEIRDWORLD #1, STARBRAND & NIGHTMASK #1, JUDGE DREDD #1

IDW December 2015 cover
Credit: IDW Publishing
Credit: Marvel Comics

Weirdworld #1
Written by Sam Humphries
Art by Mike Del Mundo and Marco D'Alfonso
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's Mike Del Mundo's Weirdworld, and we're just living in it.

Despite Marvel pulling out their biggest guns with Secret Wars, it was Jason Aaron and Mike Del Mundo's Weirdworld that stood above its peers, with vivid, otherworldly art style fleshing out its anything-goes premise. Thankfully, Marvel has recognized this superior artistic talent, and enlisted Del Mundo on a second tour of this strange land. It's a good thing, too, as Weirdworld's run-of-the-mill script is elevated by Del Mundo's gorgeous artwork.

Writer Sam Humphries is more naturalistic with his characterization in Weirdworld #1, but his protagonist, Becca Rodriguez, doesn't have much that sets her apart from plucky heroines such as Gwen Stacy, Cindy Moon or Lunella Lafayette. (Even Becca's personal tragedy - which is surprisingly dark, even for a book like this - isn't quite as sketched out, compared to the heartbreak behind Spider-Gwen.) Unlike Jason Aaron's story, which had the barbarian Arkon hacking and slashing his way through Weirdworld's bizarre landscape, Humphries drops Becca right in the thick of things, as her plane is completely consumed by demonic monsters. Unfortunately, even Arkon seemed more affected by this strangeness than the all-too-human Becca is, as she seems pretty darn collected in the face of wizard slayers, otherworldly sorcerers and demon cars.

Yet for those who aren't as well-versed in the rapidly expanding rank of superheroines in the Marvel Universe, there's also plenty to like here. Humphries is channeling a sense of whimsy that Aaron didn't have in the original Weirdworld series, and he and Del Mundo's crazy designs and iconography evokes Walt Disney or Studio Ghibli films. Characters like Goleta the Wizardslayer, the sharp-toothed wizard Ogeode or the sorceress Morgan Le Fay are beautifully designed, and each have a superb voice behind them. (Ogeode bragging that "all you other wizards can suck myyyyy" before getting sliced in half is a great moment.) But while there's a lot of imagination here - largely enhanced by Del Mundo's designs - there isn't a lot of direction to the actual plot. We've seen ordinary kids landing in a magical world and being tracked down by evil queens since the days of Narnia, and no amount of garnish will change the taste of this very familiar story.

Well, perhaps that's not true. Mike Del Mundo is absolutely the main draw of this book, and his work is so spectacular that you may want to put down money for this book just to see him strut his stuff. I don't think the Big Two have had a talent this profound since J.H. Williams III, but whereas Williams has a knack for switching up styles and layouts, Del Mundo's masterful use of color and shapes are what make Weirdworld stand out. There are so many great images to this book, like Morgan Le Fay sitting on a giant demon cat, or Goleta knocking back some ale after chopping a wizard in two. (Goleta's demon car is probably the most fun bit of self-indulgence in this book, and it's absolutely because of Del Mundo's designs.)

Without Mike Del Mundo on this book, I might say that Weirdworld would be dead in the water, considering the sketchily plotted storyline doesn't stand out amongst the rest of Marvel's prolific output. But man, is this artwork something special, and it gives Humphries the time he needs to throw out as many crazy ideas to see what will stick. We might not have a strong sense of who Becca Rodriguez is or what Weirdworld is all about, but artwork this good may convince you to take the scenic route.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Starbrand and Nightmask #1
Written by Greg Weisman
Art by Domo Stanton and Jordan Boyd
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Everyone loves a good buddy comedy. From Tango & Cash to 21 Jump Street, audiences have laughed and thrilled along with two mismatched partners for ages. Starbrand and Nightmask #1 looks to fill the buddy comedy gap in Marvel’s current lineup of titles, but unfortunately, it doesn’t carry the same energy has the aforementioned films. Writer Greg Weisman, no stranger to team-based stories from his work on Gargoyles and Young Justice, finds a fun rapport between the book’s two leads, but not much of a plot just yet. The aimless direction coupled with some rushed-looking artwork for series penciler Domo Stanton keeps Starbrand and Nightmask from becoming the true buddy blockbuster that it surely means to be. The potential for greatness is there, but unfortunately, this debut issue doesn’t come anywhere close to tapping into it.

Starbrand and Nightmask #1 starts us off with a quick glimpse into the heroic lives of our leads - namely, filling in for Iron Man by taking down B-lister Blizzard at the Great Wall of China. If there is one thing that Greg Weisman does well in this debut, it is the selling of just how powerful these two characters are. Both were introduced as major players in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run, but were unceremoniously shuffled into the background in favor of other characters and plotlines. Weisman, though in full quippy mode here, really sells Starbrand and Nightmask’s powerful abilities with the help of some kinetic panels from artist Domo Stanton along with the vibrant colors of Jordan Boyd.

After the colder-than-usual cold open, Starbrand and Nightmask #1 gets to its real hook - the heroes attending college together. It is here that that book starts to lose its way. While the idea of two insanely powerful beings attending an Earth college together is a fun idea, Weisman doesn’t do much with it during this debut. While the reasoning for Nightmask and Starbrand to attend college is there, no real content shines through in this debut issue, even as villains Graviton and Nitro battle our heroes to an explosive cliffhanger. While Weisman has the voices of the characters down pat - in particular, I liked Nightmask's reasoning for the two attending college, in order to strengthen Starbrand's bond with his homeworld - he hasn’t quite figured out exactly what to do with them. Hopefully once Starbrand and Nightmask gets rolling we will be treated to some classic Marvel drama, but this debut is all set up and no execution.

While the script lacks momentum, the artwork of Domo Stanton doesn’t fare much better either. Aside from the book’s action beats, most of Stanton’s panels look either too rushed or too condensed to really make an impression. The condensed nature of the artwork is at its worst in the character designs of the title, making each character look either too boxy, too distorted, or not defined enough at all. Take for instance the cold open, in which Stanton displays a knack for action blocking, but when it comes time for our heroes to make their big debut, they look sketchy and are in generic poses, almost as if this was a first pass at the pencils that never got a proper second look. That half-finished feeling continues throughout Starbrand and Nightmask, hindering the character work that Weisman is building through this debut. While I understand that not every title has to look absolutely pristine, Stanton’s style isn’t honed enough to really get away with looking this loose, which is a shame because Jordan Boyd’s colors gives this book the manga-inspired energy that it feels like Stanton was going for. It's just too bad that both artists couldn’t mesh as well together as they should.

Starbrand and Nightmask has all the trappings of a classic Marvel story. It has two ultra powerful leads trying to lead a normal life along with their superhero careers, attempting to live and love as they do battle with evil doers. While Greg Weisman taps into some tried-and-true Marvel storytelling beats, the unanchored nature of the plot along with the less-than-stellar artwork makes Starbrand and Nightmask #1 more of a bust and less of a boom. Hopefully further down the line that scale will start to tip more toward the latter.

Credit: IDW Publishing

Judge Dredd #1
Written by Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas
Art by Dan McDaid and Ryan Hill
Lettering by Chris Mowry
Published by IDW Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Even as a reaction to a particular point in British political history, the character of Judge Dredd has remained popular in his various forms on both sides of the pond for almost forty years. The aim of this “reboot” (of sorts) is provide something fresh for those long-term fans of the series, but at the same time provide a jumping-on point for new folks. While this might be an odd point to join Dredd if you’ve never laid eyes on the man, it definitely provides a new spin on the familiar.

Without any warning, Dredd finds himself in what appears to be either at the birth of humankind or amidst the ancient ruinous decays of a civilization. It’s far too lush to be the Cursed Earth, and far too sparse to be any of the Mega-Cities. Finding some familiar structures, but a plethora of creatures that conjure up no memories at all, it rapidly becomes obvious that whatever he is standing in was once (or will be) the site of Mega-City One. He must face the possibility that the home he once knew is gone.

In many ways, this is an interesting jumping-on point for new readers, even if it is in strange territory. Those readers with a passing fancy in the character, either through reputation or the films and compilations that have come out over the years, will know the fundamentals that writers Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas are playing with here. In fact, it may help not being overly familiar with the character as it discombobulates you immediately, shifting the focus from a totalitarian future to an indeterminate time period where the huddled masses gather around a monolith waiting to dispense them with sustenance. So it seems that a certain George Miller film, in turn inspired by the original 2000AD designs, shares a little DNA with this outing as well.

The (future) shock to the system will mostly come in seeing Dredd in such lush and green surrounds, almost as if he is the Warlord dropping into Skartaris. Dan McDaid’s work here is a little rougher around the edges than we’re used to seeing from the artist, but perfectly in keeping with the theme of the book. Where the book works best is in seeing a twist on scenes we may already be accustomed to, including a decrepit interior of Mega-City One. Dredd’s design is imposing, although somehow also awkward when compared to the “natives.” It’s terrific to see a Dredd not entirely sure of himself.

What this rebooted Judge Dredd represents is a mystery, albeit one not everyone is going to want to solve. Dredd as a fish-out-of-water is always an interesting concept, and there is plenty here to pick apart going forward. Yet those in the market for a more traditional Dredd story may do well looking elsewhere, as this is less about enforcement and more about exploration.

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