Best Shots Advance Reviews: HADRIAN'S WALL #1, THE GREATEST OF MARLYS, More

"The Greatest of Marlys!" cover
Credit: Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)
Credit: Image Comics

Hadrian’s Wall #1
Written by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel
Art by Rod Reis
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Image Comics’ Hadrian’s Wall has all the makings of a classic murder mystery except for one slight difference: it takes place in the deep recesses of space. Mixing the tropes of film noir, Victorian mystery fiction, and lived-in science fiction, writers Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel deliver a strong opening issue that focuses on a damaged detective as he takes this seemingly simple case. At the same time, Higgins and Siegel also give us a look at the victim and the suspects as they ever so slightly complicate things for their pill-popping lead. Artist Rod Reis provides a hefty amount of Ridley Scott-inspired style for the title with his smooth pencils and grimy colors. All in all, Hadrian’s Wall #1 is a solid start for the sci-fi mystery and a great example of genre bending at its best.

While some attempts at this level of genre storytelling can come across as tacky, Hadrian’s Wall #1 makes it look easy. Occupying mainly science fiction with its holo-screen-adorned new Seattle and deep space crime scene, Higgins and Siegel quickly let the reader know that is going to be the only facet of their story that they will develop. After a grimly stylish cold open from the pair and  Reis, we are introduced to our lead, Simon, who is every inch the run-down noir hero. Desperate for pain killers and licking his literal wounds from a bad break-up, he is offered the chance for an open and shut case in deep space for some quick cash in order to further his habit. But, of course, nothing is ever that simple.

After the introduction of Simon is when this debut truly starts to open up. The Ridley Scott influences are clear in this first issue, with the spacesuits and tarnished version of working-class space travel presented being the most obvious examples. But, like I said above, this first issue isn’t just about science fiction trappings. Once Simon arrives on the ship the noir and closed room murder mystery influences start to really shine, all thanks to Simon and the writing duo’s approach to the crime.

Right off the bat we know that Simon isn’t really welcome here — nor does he have any intention of making himself so — as he gruffly confines all the crew to their quarters in order to start questioning. He also starts to butts heads with his ex-wife who is stationed on the very ship and was involved with the deceased. Though the questioning will be saved for the next issue, it is a classic Victorian detective move and one so archaic, its refreshing, especially since its taking place on a freaking spaceship. By straddling the line between genres and providing an unexpected setting for classic story beats, Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel breathe new life into what could have been a very rote feeling story.

While Higgins and Siegel are making use a wide range of influences, artist Rod Reis does the same, albeit with a bit more focus on the Ridley Scott visual influence. Opening with a tense and horrifying scene detailing the inciting incident for the whole story, Reis settles into character focused and slick set of pencils for the rest of the title’s page count. Though not giving much to do by way of action aside from the bloody cold open, Reis still wows with his attention to detail, expressive characters, and tone heavy colors choices throughout. Though he may not get to stretch his legs as much as I would have liked, Rod Reis still makes Hadrian’s Wall #1 look like the multi-million dollar films it takes its inspiration from.

We now have our suspects, our body, and our self-medicating detective, all that is left now is to put the pieces together. While not the most explosive of debuts, Hadrian’s Wall #1 lays out its cards on the table teasingly and with genre-hopping style. Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis do an fantastic job making use of certain aspects of certain cherry picked influences and meld it all into a moody and fresh feeling debut issue that is sure to delight mystery fans of all stripe. They say that in space no one can hear you scream, but as this #1 shows, the crew of the Hadrian’s Wall needs to be much more concerned with the audience seeing them sweat.

Credit: Veronica Fish (BOOM! Box)

The Backstagers #1
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Rian Sygh and Walter Baiamonte
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Box
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Speaking from personal experience, the stage crew is one of the most underappreciated elements of any major production. As with most jobs focused on logistics, the best stage hands are the ones you don’t notice — but we’re an interesting bunch, and James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh’s new all-ages book The Backstagers #1 does a perfect job bringing the quirks and foibles of an often overlooked crew into the spotlight.

The Backstagers #1 is a delight from start to finish, a fast-paced introduction to a charming ensemble cast and a very fun premise. Tynion’s dialogue is pitch perfect from the opening panels: the book opens on the protagonist Jory as he’s knee-deep in teen anguish over his first day at a new, all-boys preparatory school. Jory’s genuine distress and slight overreactions are as authentic and relatable as his mom’s gentle admonishments. Tynion’s ability to capture distinct voices in dialogue is heightened by artist Rian Sygh’s distinct visual style, and together they give each new character they introduce a memorable look and "sound" that gives them surprising depth in the span of just one issue.

This week’s debut issue follows Jory’s adventures in attempting to join the St. Genesius Preparatory High School drama club, and Tynion’s own background in backstaging becomes readily apparent the moment Jory sets foot in the auditorium. Though most drama club meetings may have lacked the playful, shojo anime inspired visual effects offered up by Sygh and colorist Walter Baiamonte, characters like leading men the McQueen twins will feel very familiar, as will the dismissive way they shuttle Jory off to investigate backstage for the first time. It’s a fun way to upend the broad jock/geek archetypes that pervade a great deal of YA or all-ages literature, and the full sequence of panels that introduces the twins encapsulates what works with The Backstagers #1: quick pacing and fun dialogue, visually distinct characters, and an artistic style - both in lines and colors - that emphasizes the somewhat ethereal, magical nature of the world Jory is journeying into for the first time.

The rest of the primary cast of The Backstagers as quickly developed as the twins and, thankfully, much more likeable. As Jory ventures backstage for the first time, the layout of the panels and the dark coloring gives the sense of a vast and mysterious space even as Jory flips on lights and gives the rooms "real" dimensions. Tynion, Sygh, and Baiamonte give the impression that there’s always something more lurking on the edges of the page as Jory stumbles across more Backstagers one by one. Visual gags keep the effect more mysterious than threatening — it’s hard to be intimidated by a room featuring a Doge poster, but they never let you forget there’s something big going on around these kids.

Tynion and Sygh’s cast is delightfully diverse, and full of characters that will feel immediately familiar and relatable. These characters are regular kids who look like regular kids you’d see hanging out at any drama club meeting. There’s tiny, adorable Sasha and his even tinier, less adorable Friendo, a rat of mysterious origin; Aziz, the straight-laced friend you either were or definitely remember being gently nagged by (out of friendship, obviously); flirty, pink drill-wielding Hunter; and Beckett, an absolute wizard with technology who fellow theater geeks will remember getting onto you for getting too close to a lighting board at least once. Together, they’ve forged friendships strong enough to overcome the frustrations of being somewhat overlooked by their on-stage counterparts, and discovered a stunning magical realm that being “out of sight, out of mind” means they get to explore all on their own.

This is a book heavy on positive and affirming friendships, a light-hearted read that will leave you with a smile on your face at the end. The first issue is a fun and fairly self-contained story that hints at spookier goings-on in future installments, and offers up a surprisingly thorough introduction to a large cast and unique premise for just one issue. Tynion and Sygh are an incredible team, and it’s evident that this is a labor of love for both of them. BOOM! Box has done a great job giving original all-ages titles a place to shine, and Tynion and Sygh have absolutely delivered them another strong showing with Backstagers #1.

Credit: Titan Comics

Triggerman #1
Written by Walter Hill and Matz
Art by Jef
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Jeff Marsick
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

If you’re a fan of hardboiled crime and noir, then the paperback offerings with pulpy dime-store era covers from iconic Hard Case Crime pulp line should be familiar. With titles from such masters in the craft of crime writing as Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, David Goodis, Christa Faust, and Stephen King, the Hard Case library has a wide breadth of both reprinted work and award-nominated original content, all of which is richly deserving of comic book treatment. Triggerman is the debut in that direction, a collaboration between Hard Case and Titan Comics.

Written by legendary screenwriter and director Walter Hill (The Warrriors, 48 Hours, Red Heat, and The Getaway) and French writer Matz (Archaia’s The Killer), Triggerman is a Prohibition-era yarn about a button man, Roy Nash, whom the mafia springs from Joliet Prison in the fashion of Final Escape or Edmund Dantes to complete an assignment for them. The thing is, Roy’s still pining for an old flame, and this is his chance to rescue her from an impending danger. Although it’s the first chapter, the reader can pretty much suss the players who will ultimately collide at the crossroads of obligation and betrayal.

From the opening splash page of a Rolls Royce Phantom II delivering Nash to a dusty gas stop of a town in 1932 Arizona to each subsequent panel tracking closer to the characters and the action, this is less just a comic book than a movie in storyboards, devoid of wasted real estate or extraneous content that weighs on the pace. Hill and Matz eschew the first person narrative convention typical of these tough guy tales, a breath of fresh air that allows us to ride shotgun on Nash’s journey without having to wade through the overlay of chatty voiceover.

It helps to have such a capable artist as Jef, whose sharp line work and attention to details deliver a grim realism that defines the hardboiled genre, with muted colors and dull tones helping sell the era’s bleakness and hopelessness. Especially impressive is the use of sound effects as something of an omnipresent character, boldly accentuating in some places, while in others serving to subtly signal a shift in mood. For instance, when Nash pressures a bartender in that lonely Arizona town, the lilt of blues emanating from a turntable lazily wanders from panel to panel in the background, but when it suddenly changes in color from yellow to red and the font size doubles, it’s like hearing a movie’s soundtrack crescendo into a pivotal moment.

Triggerman #1 is a beautiful book, with an enigmatic protagonist caught in the web of someone else’s game. This first issue delivers on several levels, and it portends well for future series from Titan’s Hard Case imprint. 

Credit: Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)

The Greatest of Marlys!
Written by Lynda Barry
Art by Lynda Barry
Lettering by Lynda Barry
Published by Drawn & Quarterly
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The life and times of Marlys began with one of Lynda Barry’s childhood memories of her and her cousins getting sick after gorging themselves on hot dogs at a carnival. In the foreword to The Greatest of Marlys!, Barry describes the experience of discovering Marlys in her drawings; “When I make a comic strip, I let these sorts of images lead and combine as I move my pen. I try to let one line lead to the next without plan. The only thing I have to do is stay in motion. That’s what I was doing when I first saw Marlys.” In four panels of kids barfing and teasing each other about it, Barry began chronicling the experiences of Marlys, her cousin Arna, her brother Freddie and sister Maybonne, and their childhoods. But over the 14 years of comic books represented in this new collection, Barry never tells children's’ stories as she tells stories about children. Marlys and her cousins may be kids but Barry’s stories for them creates these wonderful lives for all of her characters.

Marlys’ stories run the gamut of confrontations with teachers and parents to fun catalogs of her own creative understanding of the world around her. There are times when Barry wants to tell a full story with her characters and then other times where she wants to just try to see the world through their eyes. The image of childhood that Barry draws shows a world where adults and grown ups are an intrusion into the world of the kids. In many ways, her cartoons are as much a reflection of her childhood in the 1960s and 1970s are Charles Schulz’s Peanuts stories are reflections of his years as a kid in 1920s and 1930s. And in both of these views of childhood, the children don’t really perceive any difference between themselves and their parents or teachers. In fact, if anything, the children’s experiences are more important because they are all fresh and new.

As Barry’s characters experience things like love and disappointment for the first time, her comic books give us a reopened window into our own childhood. Some things in The Greatest of Marlys! are trapped to a particular point in the 20th century (who ever thought that candy cigarettes were a good thing to sell kids?), but the day-to-day experiences of these kids, the scary uncertainties and unbridled joys, take you back to the days when you probably didn’t have the needed experiences to be able to mentally or emotionally frame them. Everyday was something new and something important. But tomorrow is going to be new and important too and Barry’s comics capture that unending pursuit of discovery and continuing synthesis of experience with knowledge. And sometimes it gets all a bit jumbled, and Barry perfectly depicts that in the strips where Marlys’ imagination sometimes gets in the way of what really is.

In a giant compilation like this (almost 250 strips drawn between 1986 and 2000), it’s fun to see all of the different ways that Barry tells her stories. There’s the simple four-panel stories, which feature the set up, the conflict and the resolution all in one page and then there are multi-page stories that are exhilarating and heartbreaking. She uses Jack Kerouac-like rhythms in her prose sometimes and some strips are crudely drawn, imitating the ways a kid would draw their first comic book. The variety of life that Barry is telling stories about extends all the way to the methods that she utilizes to tells these stories.

Childhood may be innocent but it’s never simple. That’s probably the biggest lesson anyone can take away from Lynda Barry’s The Greatest of Marlys! As we see the world through the eyes of Marlys, her brother, and her cousin, Lynda Barry crafts children’s stories without ever resorting to telling childish stories. Barry perfectly captures the innocent complications of childhood that resonate in all our hearts, whether we’re young or old.

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