Best Shots Advance Reviews: ACTION MAN #1, JAMES BOND #7, SHE WOLF #1

Dynamite June 2016 cover
Credit: Dynamite Entertainment
Credit: IDW Publishing

Action Man #1
Written by John Barber
Art by Paolo Villanelli, Chris Evenhuis and John Paul-Bove
Lettering by Neil Uyetake and Shawn Lee
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Action Man: the eagle-eyed spy with the distinctive scar, not to mention his mustachioed arch-nemesis Doctor X, occupies a very warm place in the hearts of British guys and girls of a certain age. Although he was originally a mere repackage of ’60s G.I. Joe toys by British company Palitoy, by the mid-1990's Action Man had grown into its own original Hasbro property. And yet, aside from a few teasing references (NY Comic Con 2011 exclusive one-shot; UNIT: E, I'm looking at you), Action Man has been MIA for the better part of a decade. Until now. IDW and the creative team of John Barber and Paolo Villanelli resurrect 'The Greatest Hero of Them All' with Action Man #1, a bright, accessible and contemporary take on the character that sits alongside Valiant's Ninjak as a thrilling re-energization of a relatively unloved property.

Writer John Barber has decided to resurrect Action Man by, well... killing him off. Expanding the mythos to turn Action Man into a symbolic moniker for the best of the best, Barber opens with the title character's noble self-sacrifice, paving the way for Agent Ian Noble to take up his mantle. This is Action Man by way of Kingsman, firmly rooted in Britain with the story hinging upon an unorthodox and inexperienced heir to the throne. Ian Noble is the lens through which we view A.M.'s world of Hank Scorpio-esque villains and espionage, and his witty insecurities help to build up the Action Man mythos for those completely new to it. For the uninitiated, Action Man has a lot in common with Bruce Wayne: He's the master of everything. Barber's choice to kill off the original and replace him with a younger and less assured new model pokes fun at the infallibility of the character and gives Ian Noble a degree of relatability.

Make no mistake, Barber's script is very English. Men are blokes, bollocks is a legitimate swear word and Action Man runs rampant over real-world locations like Shepreth Wildlife Park. Although using words that'll be wholly inoffensive to the American market, the script's use of colorful British language somewhat detracts from the book's otherwise all-ages feel. While we're used to naughty words and gore from more prominent Hasbro properties like Transformers and G.I. Joe, Action Man has never had an adult-focused reboot before, and for the most part it seems like Barber and Villanelli were going for a relatively accessible reboot. Tonally, Action Man #1 is a breezy book filled with humor and bright artwork with a slight manga influence; it screams all-ages, with the exception of its filthy mouth.

The beauty of Action Man as a concept, and the classic G.I. Joe that served as A.M.'s original jumping-off point, is his chameleon-like quality. Over the years, he's been everything; and as such, there's no one quality past his cheek scar that would pigeonhole him in any one recognizable look. Artist Paolo Villanelli opts for a sleek modern black jumpsuit for Action Man's default garb. It's a simple uniform that feels contemporary and can be illustrated with great economy. It's not the most visually exciting costume design in the world, but it allows Villanelli to focus on anatomy as Action Man bounds across the page. Style-wise, there's a slight manga influence to Villanelli's lines here, with wide eyes and exaggerated body language that effectively tells the visual side of Barber's story. Villanelli's style isn't the most detailed in the world, opting for animation over realism. His backgrounds are clean and sparse, giving colorist John Paul-Bove loads of room to work with. Paul Bove's primary palette of reds, blues and oranges really makes Villanelli's line-work pop; making for one clean and attractive comic book. The issue's introductory pages are carried by the capable Chris Evenhuis, whose very simple lines lend an almost cell-shaded quality to the issue while still retaining the same amount of expression as Villanelli's artwork.

Action Man #1 is a welcome introduction and a successful refresh of one of Hasbro's lesser known properties. John Barber's punchy and snappy script whizzes us through the basics and sets up a compelling new status-quo with loads of room to build from, even if it is marred by a handful of rude words that detract from what is otherwise a decidedly all-ages offering. Visually, Paolo Villanelli's clean and minimalist artwork carries a subtle manga influence that effectively communicates both action and emotion. All in all, Action Man #1 is a fantastic new start for Britain's favorite 12-inch super-spy.

Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

James Bond #7
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Masters and Guy Major
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

As fans around the world wait for word on which actor and director will take over the film franchise, Dynamite Entertainment’s James Bond #7 once again delivers a stellar Bond experience. Codenamed “Eidolon,” writer Warren Ellis along with artists Jason Masters and Guy Major kick off this second arc in style with an accessible story packed with wit and brutal action that rewards consistent readers, but doesn’t push away newcomers. Though Ellis’ aloof, episodic style might prove a hindrance later on as it did during the first arc, James Bond #7 still stands as confident evidence that if you want true James Bond thrills, then you should stop waiting on press releases and rewatching old films and start looking toward comic shop shelves.

James Bond #7, though a product of Warren Ellis’ grimly funny and tightly-plotted sensibilities, adheres much more to the format that Ian Fleming put forth in the original novels; starting with a grim cold open, threading plot and character into Bond’s mission, and ending with a chapter closing cliffhanger. Ellis used this format in passing during the first arc and most aggressively during the debut issue, but this issue finds strength in this familiar structure, using it for as long as it is useful before quickly moving onto bigger things. Opening with a skin-crawling introduction for Mr. Hawkwood, this arc’s new big bad, rendered with uncomfortable intimacy by Masters using close-up panel grids, Ellis is quickly onto the meat of this issue, the continued rumination on Britain’s Hard Rule and Bond’s mission to Los Angeles.

The Hard Rule — the edict that keeps British spies from carrying weapons on sovereign soil — is a prime example of how James Bond #7 is both for regular readers and not at the same time. Ellis reintroduces this idea through a pithy scene of the head of MI5 taking a meeting with the Permanent Undersecretary of States that flatly states what the Hard Rule is and why MI5 and MI6 have been at odds over it. For continued readers this serves as both reminder and development for the narrative runner, but for new readers, its an interesting new wrinkle in Bond’s life as a spy. The best part? Neither are wrong. Ellis doesn’t present the idea as something new or unfamiliar, nor does he reduce it to bald exposition. It is a quick bit of world-building that must be touched on and a nifty springboard for a well-constructed visual gag from him and the art team. Though James Bond’s detached narrative format is a hard sell for some, this issue shows that Ellis can make it work for the narrative, satisfying those that have been around since #1 and those who are taking a chance on it for the first time this week.

Which brings us to Bond’s sojourn to the Colonies, where he’s tasked with extracting an agent of MI6’s Diplomatic Wing before the Turkish secret service can intercept her. It’s telling that while Bond starts off by complaining about how pedestrian this mission is, Ellis quickly ratchets up the tension with a harrowing action sequence. After a quick and bloody escape from danger, Bond and the asset, forensic accountant Cadence Birdwhistle (another incredible and ridiculous Bondian name), are soon stranded in L.A. with no money, no weapons, and no back-up as gun thugs close in, the word “Eidolon” on everyone’s lips. That said, certain readers may be left cold by #7‘s abrupt ending, but it’s this pulply format that keeps this comic in lockstep with the original novels’ structure. And Ellis realizes he’s playing for the old-school Ian Fleming novel fans as well as Dynamite fans, particularly the way he introduces Felix Leiter, tying him in with the antagonist of Ellis’s first arc, Slaven Kurjak.

As for the art, Jason Masters and Guy Major make James Bond #7 sing with tight and gory focus. Masters and Major’s accurate L.A. landscapes and researched LAX interiors are a nice bit of stylish realism from the team, continuing their streak of delivering vibrant, but not exaggerated real world settings. However, it is their action scenes that once again steal the show in this seventh issue, beginning with the startling introduction of Mr. Hawkwood and ending with another dazzling display of Bond dispensing cold violence. With Masters’ clean lines and even cleaner action beats, highlighted by Major’s stark single-colored backgrounds, James Bond #7 has a few truly violent moments, but the pair never glorify it or present it as exploitive bloodletting, instead framing each bloody beat as borderline sickening, even when they are carried out by our hero.

Deftly avoiding a sophomore slump, Dynamite Entertainment’s James Bond #7 makes another stylishly confident case for being the James Bond book for a new generation of readers, one that preserves the energy of the novels and sheds the dated elements while still standing as its own entity. Warren Ellis, Jason Masters and Guy Major dispense with the groundwork that they were required to lay in the first arc and return to shelves with a fully realized spy yarn that welcomes both new fans and old with a issue that functions like a first episode of a new Bond BBC limited series with high production values. While the format and unexplained connections to the first arc may prove too much for some readers to fully engage with, there is no denying that James Bond #7 delivers, proving that the perfect Bond experience doesn’t always have to be on the silver screen or in the yellowing pages of a vintage novel.

Credit: Image Comics

She Wolf #1
Written by Rich Tommaso
Art by Rich Tommaso
Lettering by Rich Tommaso
Published by Image Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The disparity between the sum of She Wolf #1's parts and the comic as a whole is staggering. The surreal horror series is written and drawn by Rich Tommaso, and few artists' styles lend so effortlessly to the nightmarish aesthetic that Tommaso aims for. Narratively, it manages to be genuinely scary in its strongest moments, but ultimately not enough is done throughout the comic as a whole to make what is at stake really matter. In the process of establishing its own eccentricities and setting up its scares, the plot and characterization suffer tremendously. The biggest thing that She Wolf #1 has going for it is ambition. As refreshing as it is to see a title with a desperate need to say something, it's disappointing to see it struggle to convey its ideas and losing its story in the process.

Comics written and drawn by the same person have the benefit of depicting scenes entirely as intended by the writer. Somehow She Wolf #1 feels as though it was written and drawn by two different people with different ideas for the material. Tommaso effortlessly establishes the unsettling tone that the series calls for, but Gabrielle, the vaguely witchpunk protagonist, spends 95% of panels with the same open-mouthed shock, and the other 5% as a wolf. The depiction of her wolf form is among the more successful elements of the comic. Limbs are elongated and exaggerated, but manage to stick out amid often exaggerated backgrounds. The strange cosmic dreamscape that follows Gabrielle as she (I assume) uses the "Bloody Mary" incantation to teleport between mirrors is the best art in the issue and the cleverest idea.

Tommaso clearly trusts readers to engage with the material and not expect to have everything explained to them – a welcomed change from most comics. Unfortunately, this subtle approach leaves the story difficult to parse. It opens on Gabrielle as she tries to protect a werewolf classmate, Brian, as he gets shot and killed by local police. Before he dies, he scratches her face. Strange things happen as she visits a local beach and growls at a nice dog. Before the comic ends, it becomes clear that Brian was likely transformed into a werewolf by a spell that Gabrielle cast. It's not clear why Gabrielle does anything she does; she is woefully undeveloped.

Right before the strange Bloody Mary scene, Gabrielle, and by extension the reader, are witnesses to a deeply disturbing scene in which a large wolf rips an old woman apart in an unsettlingly sexualized context. While this is happening, Gabrielle is wearing a red hood. This simultaneous incorporation and subversion of classic fairy tales is reminiscent of Angela Carter's work, particularly The Bloody Chamber. Where She Wolf #1 falls flat is in its difficulty in justifying its own scenes. Why is this scene included? Because its weird and references Red Riding Hood. Why is it referencing that? It's tough to say. This is a microcosm of the primary issues with the narrative of this comic. There are very clever ideas and sequences that feel too deliberate to be arbitrary, but that never actually make their reason for inclusion known. The comic is disorienting, and often feels like a series of vignettes instead of one cohesive narrative.

Ultimately it's that lack of clarity that is hurting this issue most. Few mediums lend themselves to surrealism like comic books do. Breaking away from realism can be a real strength in this context, and it is abundantly clear that Rich Tommaso knows this and wants to capitalize on it. In the process, the comic never has a firm foot to stand on. There are so many things that it wants to do that it has a really hard time telling a story. Some people might find more here. What one person finds borderline incomprehensible can be rich in meaning to another. That being said, flashy art and playing loose with reality isn't enough if there's nothing tying it down. A comic can't get by as a series of quirky horrors.

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