Best Shots Reviews: STAR WARS #23, HELLBLAZER #2, JOSIE & THE PUSSYCATS #1

"Josie & The Pussycats #1" variant by Robert Hack
Credit: Robert Hack (Archie Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Star Wars #23
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jorge Molina and Matt Milla
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

After a daring raid and an even more daring capture of a Star Destroyer last issue, Star Wars #23 provides some context for why the main trio’s mission requires such a vessel -  in addition to bringing the arc down from high gear to cruise control to spend some time with a familiar character pairing as well as a new one. Unfortunately, this too-long respite hampers the rising action and tension the arc has built thus far, hobbled by familiar conversational and narrative patterns and an action scene which runs its course before the characters involved get to where they need to be.

The familiar band of rebels are now in control of the Harbinger, a Star Destroyer they successfully commandeered from the Empire with some key strategic plays, but the issue jumps back in time to explain the reason for this takeover. Turns out the Harbinger is designed to be a battering ram rather than a Trojan Horse. The scheme the Rebels devise does a good job of illustrating how despite destroying the Death Star, they’re still vastly underpowered compared to the authoritarian regime they’re looking to take down. However, much like every plan a scrappy underdog has, it’s just so crazy it might just work.

With the Harbinger now running on a skeleton crew, Aaron can focus on the core of the Original Trilogy. Aaron has been consistent in portraying Han and Leia as this pair which bicker non-stop, grow closer and pull away before the tension reaches fever pitch. Here their conversation has a similar trajectory and proves he has a handle on their dynamic, but the action sequence which follows brings this segment down simply due to how long it runs for. There’s a lot of literal ground covered, but what starts as a sprint swiftly becomes sluggish.

Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO provide some the standard comedic beats which leaves Luke and Sana to work together. As a new character to the canon, she hasn’t had much time to interact with the main cast outside of Han due to how Aaron has normally run an A- and B-plot which remain separate until the end of the arc. Not only does this segment of the issue push the plot of the arc forward, but it digs into thematic ideas about leaving home for the stars. It’s a brief conversation, but it has the appropriate pacing to it allowing it to take enough time to breathe without it becoming an indulgent inhalation which brings everything to a halt. Sana’s had a presence in the book since her introduction, but she’s been primarily designated to conversations with Han for the most part, so it’s great to see her become more fleshed out.

When it comes to Molina’s art, it certainly captures the Star Wars aesthetic. He gets to draw a wide array of rooms in the Star Destroyer and it looks like one does in the movies and depictions in other forms of media. There’s even a startling amount of detail when it comes to the exterior of the vessel. When it comes to the Leia and Han conversation, there’s some nice push in for the frame as the tension reaches a high and there’s certainly a sense of motion in the sequence that follows. If there’s an issue, it’s that his faces are inconsistent. They’re by no means bad - and it’s important to stress that - but Molina follows artists like Stuart Immonen who are able to capture the most minute of emotion. Here the expressions and facial features aren’t as clear as they could be, which makes it hard to settle on the tone of voice the dialogue should be read with.

Due to this, the issue certainly looks like Star Wars when it comes to the settings and familiar beats like Han and Leia arguing do as much as they can to reinforce this, but the main action of the issue feels out of place. It would certainly be appropriate should Aaron being writing a Firefly book, substitute River and Kaylee into the scene and it feels perfect. This could be down to Star Wars material usually not having as much as downtime in a narrative as this issue provides, but the rest of the issue still works. Hampered by a change from the high gear of last year to cruise control and some inconsistent art, Star Wars #23 is certainly enjoyable, but finds it impossible to shake the idea something doesn’t sit right.

Credit: DC Comics

The Hellblazer #2
Written by Simon Oliver
Art by Moritat and Andre Szymanowicz
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

”I believe you are correct in referring to him as a ‘total wanker,’” muses Swamp Thing. “But I also believe that you underestimate his intentions at your own peril.”

If the whole notion of "Rebirth" is about bringing back aspects of characters that were misplaced during the "New 52," then it is it hard to think of a more back-to-basics approach than a Constantine story that involves Swamp Thing, a tenure in the United Kingdom, and an overt reference to Sting lyrics in the text. While many may still be lamenting the rounding of the edge that got sanded off when the Hellblazer left the Vertigo line, there’s still authenticity to the current run.

After a brief introduction setting up a B-story in which Swamp Thing and Abby visit the Rot, John Constantine is introduced reading the tabloid press on the bog with a smoke hanging out of his mouth. Taking us straight into the heart of London, an amusing series of vignettes with Chas “getting the hump” with the antihero serve no purpose other than character reestablishment, and writer Simon Oliver utilizes much of this issue in doing just that. In fact, the lion’s share of the issue is in Clarice Sackville’s never-ending dinner party under a satanic altar, and extended conversation between her and John is merely setting up the intrigue of things to come.

As we approach the cliffhanger conclusion to the issue, it’s evident that Oliver has structured his narrative around something resembling a spiral. Each pub, club or seedy establishment leads us deeper down the rabbit hole, leaving us one step behind the eight ball perpetually, which is exactly where even the astute Constantine is for much of this issue. If anything, Oliver appears to be setting up the Hellblazer for a massive comeuppance, especially after several cocky victories he’s experienced in the last year or so.

Moritat’s art brings an air of otherworldliness to proceedings, especially coupled with the unearthly glow colorist Andre Szymanowicz gives to the opening sequence with Swamp Thing and Abby. Moritat’s grand low-angle shots of the streets of London and opulent Victorian inspired clubs and libraries add a touch of grandeur, consciously desaturated by Szymanowicz to give a drab post-war notion of color to London. Curiously though, the art works best when it is at its most intimate. This includes John posturing in his underwear as bulldog Chas grimaces at Constantine’s lack of awareness, contrasted with the sensual series of close-ups of John and Clarice engaging in witty repartee. Here Szymanowicz bathes everything in orange under-lighting, punctuated further by the perpetually re-lit cigarette in Constantine’s mouth.

If the "Rebirth"-ed run of The Hellblazer had to be summed up in just a handful of words, it would be a “pervading sense of threat.” Oliver is still playing his cards fairly close to the chest on this one, hinting with quoted passages from William Blake that there is some great calamity to come to knock the cocksure magician off his perch. There’s also continual indications that the darker members of the DC Universe are being drawn back together, and it will be great to see this happening within the reframed context of "Rebirth." Yet it’s still early days, and Oliver and his art team are off to a cracking start.

Credit: Audrey Mok (Archie Comics)

Josie and the Pussycats #1
Written by Marguerite Bennett and Cameron Deordio
Art by Audrey Mok and Andre Szymanowicz
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

“New Riverdale” gets a delightfully meta new addition in the form of Josie and the Pussycats #1. Taking inspiration from the original comic series and the 2001 cult film, Marguerite Bennett and Cameron Deordio deliver a debut issue focused on female friendships, coy jokes, and a fun sense of a self-awareness toward its own content and the world in which it occupies. Artist Audrey Mok also impresses, thanks to her manga-inspired expressions and tightly constructed panel layouts that highlight her eye for physical comedy. With a cheeky script that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors and page after page of gorgeous visuals, Josie and the Pussycats #1 is a worthy return for Riverdale’s premier rock group.

Right off the bat, Marguerite Bennett and Cameron Deordio let the reader know that Josie and the Pussycats is first and foremost a comedy title. Working within the same joke rate as Chip Zdarsky and Derek Charm’s Jughead, Bennett and Deordio’s script keeps the quips and gags coming all throughout, and even better, 90 percent of them hit their mark. From Pepper’s saltiness with a unruly bar patron in the opening scene to Melody’s adorable dimness that provide some of this book's most hilarious lines, Bennett and Deordio provide plenty of laughs to sustain this debut.

But more than that, the pair also add a clever metatextual element to this debut issue. Much like the 2001 film, Josie and the Pussycats #1 is very aware of itself and how to make that work. For example, once the girls actually come together to perform for the first time for a benefit for the local animal shelter, Bennett and Deordio fill the peanut gallery with lines comparing them to the Scooby-Doo gang. The pair also throw in a truly hysterical lettering joke given life by stalwart letterer Jack Morelli as Alexandra gets up to her old tricks, trying to tear the band apart before they even get started. Instead of allowing Melody to just full-on curse, a sticker featuring an alternate word is placed over her speech bubble, as if it was caught after printing and corrected. Couple this meta-storytelling with some well placed and truly great bits of queer inclusiveness and you have a debut that can play well to a diverse audience without talking down to them.

Also keenly aware of the tone of the series is artist Audrey Mok and longtime Archie Comics colorist Andre Szymanowicz. Mok, whose style is a cross between magical girl manga and the rounded pencils of Babs Tarr, is a perfect fit for Josie and the Pussycats thanks to her focus on emotions and her page construction. Throughout this debut Mok displays the action in either character focused panels or stretched out across double page splashes that guide the reader’s eye across each page with ease.

This art team also leans into the inherent comedy of the series with plenty of physical comedy to go along with the script’s. Mok’s exaggerated character expressions provide plenty of cuteness and chuckles throughout, like Melody’s Flash-like bouncing as she fawns over a number of pets and Valerie’s siren-like singing, which Mok renders like silky ribbons floating through the air. The only thing not exaggerated about Josie and the Pussycat’s artwork are the naturalistic colors of Andre Szymanowicz, who gives this debut a muted, down-to-earth color scheme through the majority of the scenes, turning it up with neons or florescent colors only when Audrey Mok’s pencils call for it. It is this combination of the mundane and stylized that gives this debut issue a set of pages that go right along with its sharp script.

By keeping a firm handle on its tone and by employing the same kind of wit and inclusiveness that has made “New Riverdale” such a delight thus far, Josie and the Pussycats #1 succeeds on more than a few levels. Marguerite Bennett, Cameron Deordio, Audrey Mok, and Andre Szymanowicz all meld together to deliver a fun and focused female-led title that not only respects its characters and audience, but also takes elements of what came before and uses them to the title’s advantage. Though it just started, I predict that Josie and the Pussycats will rock Riverdale for a long time to come.

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