Best Shots Advance Reviews: A&A #1, 3 DEVILS #1, TURNCOAT #1, More

"Goodnight Punpun, Vol. 1" cover by Inio Asano
Credit: Inio Asano (VIZ Media)
Credit: Valiant Entertainment

A&A: The Adventures of Archer & Armstrong #1
Written by Rafer Roberts
Art by David Lafuente, Ryan Winn and Brian Reber
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Valiant Entertainment has a wealth of characters at its disposal; From wise-cracking British ninjas to nigh indestructible warriors, the blooming line has you covered no matter what you want to read. This week, two of Valiant’s most beloved characters return to shelves in grand, hilarious fashion. A&A: The Adventures of Archer and Armstrong reintroduces the company’s gruesome twosome in a new #1 that could charm the whistle from an evening train. While Archer and Armstrong have faced countless adventures together, nothing can prepare them for venturing into Armstrong’s magic bottomless bag. Writer Rafer Roberts hits the ground running with this first issue and never once slows down, keeping the jokes and the action coming in rapid succession. Series artist David Lafuente, along with inker Ryan Winn and colorist Brian Reber, also contribute heavily to the fun with sketch-like panels and tight page layouts. Whether you are a long time fan or a first-time reader, there is a ton of fun to be had with A&A: The Adventures of Archer and Armstrong #1.

Our story begins with a cold open set in the way back year of 1953. Writer Rafer Roberts shows us another strained partnership of Armstrong’s, long before Archer became entwined in his orbit. After seeing that Armstrong's tendency to get into wacky adventures isn't exactly a new development, Roberts gives us teasing glimpses of exactly why Armstrong would even need to venture into his magic bag and how far he is willing to go for his friends. But, this is only the cold open, and things are about to get even weirder.

Cut to present day and our immortal lead is looking over the obituary of his former friend. Feeling guilty for some sort of falling out, he decides to set things right and that serves as the impetus for Armstrong’s trip into his magic bag to “set things right again.". What follows is the best kind of crazy. As Armstrong disappears into his bag, the unaware Archer is forced to contend with the insanity that spills out of it, like TV-obsessed lizard people and an irate Davey the Mackerel. While the comedy is a big selling point of A&A, I was struck by how the whole story is anchored with pathos. In the scene before Armstrong decides to go into the bag, Roberts, along with his art team, really sell Armstrong’s sadness and listlessness. As he sits on a ratty hotel bed, shirtless and surrounded by empty bottles, you can really feel his sadness and his strong sense of right and wrong, even through the booze. While this debut issue brings the funny, and brings it well, it is nice to know that Rafer Roberts is putting character and emotions first for this debut.

While the action outside the bag is fun enough, A&A #1 truly kicks off after Archer decides to venture after his boozy friend. It is also here that the art team of David Lafuente, Ryan Winn and Brian Reber start going bugnuts crazy. While the blocky, stylized pencils of Lafuente hammer home the emotions and character interaction of the scenes top side, when Archer heads into the bag itself, Lafuente, Winn, and Reber start delivering even more craziness, starting with a twisting labyrinth of impossible stairs. Archer then has to contend with hostile gremlins, Armstrong’s obsession with finding a specific bottle, and this first arc’s unexpected big bad, the god Bacchus, who has been planning his escape from Armstrong’s bag for thousands of years. It is also in the bag that Lafuente, Winn, and Reber deploy their flashiest visual trick for this debut; a tight 24-panel grid in laid over a splash page of our heroes fighting tooth and nail against a legion of gremlins. Its a simple move on the part of the art team, but one that really sells the chaos of the set piece and also highlights the highly detailed work of inker Ryan Winn. It may have been a while since Archer and Armstrong were on shelves, but this debut issue brings them back to shops in chaotic and dynamic style.

As a recent convert from Valiant newbie to full-tilt fan, A&A: The Adventures of Archer and Armstrong #1 is exactly the kind of book I want as a reader. Though the duo have been a staple of Valiant’s line for a long while, this new #1 presents them almost as brand new characters, unmoored from their own continuity. Rafer Roberts, David Lafuente, Ryan Winn, and Brian Reber show those unfamiliar with the characters exactly what their world is like and why their dynamic has stood the test of time. Valiant Entertainment may have a slew of heroes under their umbrella, but A&A #1 shows why these two knuckleheads are two of their most popular and entertaining characters.

Credit: Bo Hampton (IDW Publishing)

3 Devils #1
Written by Bo Hampton
Art by Bo Hampton and Jeremy Mohler
Lettering by Bo Hampton
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The last few years have been a bit of a goldmine for enthusiasts of the western genre, from the surrealist take of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos’ Pretty Deadly to the equally twisted tale from Brian Schirmer and Claudia Balboni in Black Jack Ketchum. By comparison, 3 Devils seems positively traditional in its 1873 setting, but its mixture of mysticism and monsters from the opening pages sets it aside from the generic gunslinging tales, and more in line with the Weird West genre.

A family of Romani (or “Gypsies,” using the racially charged language of the book and era) are set upon by a mysterious white man and his cohorts while traveling, and only the young daughter Tara survives the assault. Taken in my the mysterious ex-slave Marcus Cornelius, seemingly possessed of his own supernatural powers, the duo sets out on a journey that has no particular destination just yet. This is just one of the appeals of this new character-based piece from writer, artist and academic Bo Hampton; a creator known for his work both in comic books and the commercial and television worlds. This flexibility translates well into this debut issue, one that relies on the tropes of westerns in comic books and films alike.

Using a familiar setup, Hampton immediately gives us reason to invest our interest in the wayward Tara. There’s immediate mystery around the identity of the monstrous White Man, not to mention the contents of the “treasure” box she is carrying throughout the issue. Marcus‘ presence immediately brings a sense of relief to the reader, but his haunting powers and apparently close proximity to the world of the dead never leave us on complete safe territory. There’s a certain amount of comfort to be found, of course, in the orphan and drifter archetypes, the indulgence that Hampton allows himself in order to not drive immediately into hyper-weird territory.

Hampton is the primary artist on his script, and it’s clear that it’s a labor of love. He lingers on Tara’s eyes in the opening pages, windows to the soul of the story and more reason for us to instantly invest in this apparent victim. All other figures, including Marcus Cornelius, are drawn half in shadow, indicative of the fugue state Tara walks in after her initial trauma, along with a massive amount of foreboding for the nightmarish nasties that await her down a’ ways. Mohler’s restrained color choices create the right mix of EC Comics retro horror and uneasy moodiness, so when the lights do come back on, it’s all the more surprising to see the true horror emerge. The highly stylized art may not be to all tastes, but it’s a perfect accompaniment to Hampton’s script.

In many ways, 3 Devils is an ideal first issue, putting all the pieces in place to bring the two protagonists together and literally send them off down the road for their next adventure. It’s also somewhat safe in its characterization for the moment, but nevertheless suggests that both of these characters are more than they initially appear. While Hampton only gives us the barest of hints as to what might be coming next, he does convince us that the focus of the book will be on the characters going forward, taking them from the familiar to something entirely new.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Alex Paknadel and Artyom Trakhanov's Turncoat #1
Written by Alex Paknadel
Art by Artyom Trakhanov and Jason Wordie
Lettering by Colin Bell
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Noir detectives have always been about drawing out the secrets creeping in the darkness - but what kind of sins can fester in the aftermath of an alien invasion? Alex Paknadel and Artyom Trakhanov take the tropes of Chandler and Hammett and processes them through the blender of crazy sci-fi, leading to a debut that's big on voice and even bigger on atmosphere.

The best noir P.I.s are flawed, broken people, and when it comes to Marta Gonzalez, she's no different. When the aliens known as the Management came to Earth, she wound up as a cop working to police her own people - that is, until she grew a conscience and helped the resistance take the world back. Unfortunately, five years later, that means plenty of people are still looking to hold a grudge, making Marta the least popular person in the Big Apple - and across two different species, no less. And Paknadel knows that Marta's defection came at a cost, even more than the gaping blaster wound she got across the abdomen in the last days of the war. "My day begins with an absence," she says, as we wake up to a post-Management world. "Just a...gnawing that calls me back to shore." At least with the Management, she could claim to have a purpose - but without them, what does she have keeping this crazy world spinning straight?

Like a dog chasing a car, the answer is that Marta needs a problem to solve - and true to noirish form, it all starts with a dame walking into an office. But unlike Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon, Paknadel has something more interesting on his mind than just pure sex appeal. On the contrary, Turncoat takes a particularly grungy spin on the typically clean-cut tropes of classic noir - this takes place in a city dingy and overrun with alien spores. This is a city filled with conspiracies and long-buried secrets tied to the war. And even when there are standard staples of the form, like getting information in a seedy bar, Paknadel gives a more sci-fi twist to the mix, with Marta having a swashbuckling brawl with a former partner. Admittedly, Paknadel's pacing means that this story winds up running a little bit over the page count cliff just as a big reveal is made, but I think that's just symptomatic of the confines of a single issue - if anything, I think it's going to read even more slickly in trade.

But ultimately, the guys who sell Turncoat better than anybody else has to be artist Artyom Trakhanov and colorist Jason Wordie. Trakhanov's style looks like James Stokoe or Dan Hipp if they had just spent the night playing around in the dirt - there's a wonderful, scratchy style of inking here that makes this city and its denizens look like they've all seen better days. Trakhanov not only gives this book a ton of atmosphere, but he's so economical with his layouts - no pages ever feel too cramped or lacking in detail (Lord knows there's a ton of detail here), and he pulls a nice page out of the David Aja/Andrea Sorrentino playbook by zooming into key moments with circular inserts. It's buoyed nicely by Wordie's colors, which are surprisingly light and pastel given the book's brooding tone. Honestly, it might be the most gorgeous-looking book I've seen out of BOOM! Studios in quite some time.

Drawing from two robust wells of narrative possibilities, Turncoat delivers a striking debut to fans of both detective fiction and post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Paknadel and Trakhanov are definitely the team to beat here, giving what could be a by-the-numbers series a world of depth and uniqueness. Definitely make sure to give this book a read.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Miracleman: The Golden Age HC
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Mark Buckingham and D’Israeli
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Superheroes have pretty much become a ubiquitous presence in our entertainment spheres that it’s hard to imagine a world without them on our movie and television screens. But think about it a different way-- imagine what it would be like if golden gods and vile fiends with the powers of life and death really walked among us. Think about how different everything would be if Superman or Iron Man really did fly through our skies. It would almost be an unrecognizable world. In the 1980s, Alan Moore wrote his Miracleman story that ended with the heroes building a new Olympus on the remains of bombed-out London. After that, Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham began the now collected Miracleman: The Golden Age, telling the story of the ten years following the gods' ascension and humanities conflict over accepting these new gods into their everyday lives.

After the condition that Alan Moore (a.k.a. “the Original Writer”) and John Totleben left London and the world after their run on Miracleman, Gaiman and Buckingham have the unenviable job of rebuilding that world on a much different foundation. The world they have left to build from has been emotionally and physically scarred by the revelation of god-like men and women with powers we have only ever been able to dream about in the past. Sure, Miracleman saved London (and by extension the world) from a murderously maniacal Kid Miracleman. And as these gods/heroes try to recreate the world in their own image, Gaiman and Buckingham have to ask just how do you try to pretend that the world is normal when you’ve seen that the supernatural exists.

Gaiman reveals this post-superhero world through the stories and lives of normal but unsettled men and women. Miracleman: The Golden Age isn’t the continuing adventures of Miracleman and Miraclewoman, even if their stories are small parts of this new world, but Gaiman shows us a man whose daughter is slowly dying, a spy in a world that doesn’t allow for spies anymore, a woman who is watching her family crumble before her eyes, an artist who doesn’t know what art is in a world where an alien can reanimate the dead, a man who falls in love with one of those gods, and other people whose existences are turned upside down when the world is revealed to be something completely other than what they thought.

The ever-changing art by Mark Buckingham and colorist D’Israeli gives Gaiman’s story a wonderful and exciting canvas to be told on. Shifting between cartoony, abstract, child-like, shadowy and jubilant styles, Buckingham doesn’t define this new world of gods as simply as good or bad. The shifts in the art create a world of possibilities and shades. There’s no way to label the new world under Miracleman and Miraclewoman because each and every perception of it is different. Even if the basic fibers of an earthly existence seem disrupted by the revelation of these powers, Buckingham’s art provides wonderful context by helping to define these different lives as still unique and vibrant things in a new world of wonders and miracles.

Working with that visually diverse world, Gaiman’s writing recalls some of the best issues of The Sandman where Gaiman didn’t focus on the large, grand story but more on that the impact of the powers-that-be on the lives of men and women who inhabit that world. It’s that fascinating way that Gaiman writes about myths but frames them in ways that are intimate and personal. Playing with genre like Buckingham plays with artistic styles, Gaiman’s short stories about a supposed golden age leave a lot of room open for interpretation about what it is that makes this age so “golden.” Seeing the aftermath of the revelation of superheroes, Gaiman’s characters still struggle with their own small lives as if they were untouched by the new world order they now live in.

It’s easy to think that the world would have changed after the revelation that gods and demons walked and fought amongst us but Gaiman and Buckingham show just how steady and constant humanity is as their stories focus on such human qualities as love, hate, fear, and uncertainty. The gods may try to give mankind a utopia but humanity's own restlessness in Miracleman: The Golden Age shows just how unwilling we are to understand or accept the gifts of gods. Gaiman and Buckingham show a world in turmoil, not over war but over mankind’s own place in a world where gods now walk.

Credit: Inio Asano (VIZ Media)

Goodnight Punpun, Vol. 1
Written by Inio Asano
Art by Inio Asano
Published by Viz Media
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Being a kid sucks.

In Goodnight Punpun, Vol. 1, Inio Asano doesn’t pull any punches about just how much it sucks and in doing so, his views of childhood are equal parts nostalgia and psychological horror. Trying to grow up as an average kid in an average town, Punpun has his share of real life to try and deal with. His parents don’t necessarily love each other anymore. His own mother seems to view him more as an obligation than as a loving son and his father has many anger-management issues to work through. As a kid, trying to deal with all of that is hard enough but then throw on top of it having to figure out the changes you go through when you finally fall in love for the first time. Punpun is a good kid going through some of the toughest times in his young life as Asano tries to make sense the turbulence of growing up.

While his world and his friends are drawn as realistically as possible, Asano draws Punpun and his family as these slightly abstract, wingless bird-like creatures. There’s no detail to them other than a blob-like body, spindly legs that end in something like chicken feet, two eyes, and a beak. It doesn’t take long to realize that this is how Punpun sees himself. Asano never comes out and has Punpun say anything as obvious as “I’m a chicken,” but the story places us so deeply into Punpun’s thoughts that it is understandable to see that Punpun (and almost all of the other kids) sees himself as something unremarkable. Punpun’s self-image is even reflected on this mother, father, and uncle that Punpun identifies his whole family as being these simple, almost unnoticeable creatures. With the level of detail that Asano puts into the rest of his drawings, sometimes it’s quite difficult to even find Punpun in a panel even though he’s the center of this whole story.

If Punpun views himself as an undetailed blob of humanity, his vision of God is that of the average gregarious kid that’s probably a bit closer to what Punpun would look like. His God, usually a giant, floating, smiling face with a great head of hair, pops up now and again to offer Punpun guidance, encouragement, and commentary on what’s happening. Punpun’s uncle taught him a short chant to use to talk to God as a small comfort for the scared child, but Punpun’s vision of God is as unique as he really is. And to show that Punpun isn’t really all that different or damaged than the other children, all of the kids have their own peculiar idiosyncrasies and their own ideas of the world and God. One of the kids pictures God as a man with a pile of poop for a head. Punpun is Asano’s focal point but the manga-ka does everything he can to show that everyone else in this book, child or adult, is as messed up as the titular character is. With them all being messed up in their own ways, Asano also shows us how normal it is for all of us to have our own point of views and fears about the world around us.

Asano’s honest story portrays the universal challenges of being a kid. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Japan or the United States, the experience that Asano is relaying in Goodnight Punpun, Vol. 1 shows just how small of a world it is and that the troubles and tribulations of being a kid are universal. While the story veers off into a slightly sensational subplot of Punpun and his friends trying to find proof of a murder, that plot just reinforces a child’s lack of knowledge of the dangers of the world as a dare is enough to push these kids into a really dangerous situation. There are some things that we’re too dumb about not to realize the danger of the situation.

In Goodnight Punpun, Vol. 1, Inio Asano shows a really scary and terrifying world through the eyes of a child. Punpun is an unformed kid who’s going to be shaped by his experiences but his self-image may unfortunately already be damaged enough that he’ll never picture himself as anything other than a cartoon character. And while Punpun may not have an accurate idea of who he is, Asano does an excellent job of defining the character by his actions and experiences. Punpun may think he’s some loser or freak, trying to hide himself from his friends and the world, but Asano does a real service of showing that the lead character is an average kid in an average town having an average childhood. Punpun’s childhood may seem like it sucks but it’s really just childhood (his, mine and yours) that all suck. It’s part of growing up.

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