Best Shots Reviews: JESSICA JONES #1, HE-MAN / THUNDERCATS #1, ANGEL CITY #1, More

"Shade the Changing Girl #1" preview
Credit: DC Comics / Young Animal
Credit: Marvel Comics

Jessica Jones #1
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Michael Gaydos and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Cory Petit
Review by Matthew Sibley
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

This industry talks about gamechangers a lot. Solicitation copy is filled with variations on “things will never be the same again” and message boards argue about who revitalised publishers or altered how comics were made. Alias did change the game by being the impetus for the MAX range where the team listed above were able to run wild with a noir take on the standard Marvel universe where characters swore, screwed and did unspeakable things that didn’t need the mask of allusion and metaphor. This new Jessica Jones series didn’t need to be a gamechanger - there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when the prototype’s been built, tested, and fitted for production. It just needed to be direct in getting back to what made Alias so very special. And it gets directly to that within four pages.

This book has been a long time coming, verging on a year since the show premiered, but considering Marvel was able to get the original team back together it’s completely worth it. The book starts in medias res and sprinkles plot points into the issue which don’t tell a full story just yet, but would easily allow you to set up a pin board to link all the threads just like a private investigator cracking a case. Jessica Jones finds herself being released from the Cellar where she’s imprisoned for unknown reasons and an indeterminate duration. The first few pages put her back in the classic attire, throws her into a situation that fits with the sadly-go-unlucky style she’s come to expect and puts her back in the Alias investigative office. It’s a common thing to pick at Bendis for his use of decompression, but he rebuilds the world by the fifteenth panel.

While that approach may not work for cosmic books like Guardians of the Galaxy, here it conforms with the expected tone and style of a street level book where Bendis cut his teeth at the start of his career. It’s noir, the details linger in the moments an untrained eye doesn’t spot, but a private eye does. By putting the logo at the top of the page, Bendis and Gaydos create the aesthetic defined back in the '40s by movies like The Big Sleep which would push in the office to put us in the moment. It also manages to exist in a corner of the Marvel Universe, there’s a panel of the younger Avengers which is framed as if the camera is a bystander to the grander stuff in this world. This is to say nothing about the familiar faces of Jess’s supporting cast that’s been built up across her appearances - one of these in particular may cause you to do a double take in thinking that Krysten Ritter herself is somehow involved, but this also highlights how Jess is still Jess; this isn’t here just to cash in on the MCU’s success on Netflix. While it feels as if it could be Alias #29, Bendis appears to have crafted a story that’s pushing Jess forward instead of bringing her backwards. There is one particular element of the book which could bring her backwards though, but to specify is to spoil a hook of this first issue and even then it’s not expanded upon enough to receive judgement just yet.

His dialogue also feels more polished and appropriate than it has on other books from the recent years of his career. It sufficiently captures the naturalistic manner of speaking that deservedly drew comparisons to David Mamet’s dialogue when Bendis first appeared on the scene. It’s fast-paced as the characters’ scramble to find the metaphor that supports what they mean or how people talk when they don’t have the answer and need the time to think of one without relinquishing their control on the conversation. Meanwhile Michael Gaydos crafts a two-page spread that establishes the scene, uses the patented shot/reverse shot and still finds the time to cut wide to mess with the axis of action which succeeds in making what’s being said at the time feel suspicious. Hollingsworth succeeds in using the muted tone he established back in Alias without making the book feel bland. Even when the colors are ever so slightly saturated, the varied amounts cause panels to pop in a world where things are grey.

Alias #1 set the tone for this world. The seedy underbelly of New York where people dropped f-bombs instead of gamma bombs, characters were repulsed by the abhorrent tendencies of the villains instead of blasting the villains with repulsors and where a hero could take a moment away from the public eye, but find themselves in the gaze of a private eye. Jessica Jones #1 reestablishes this world and it’s aesthetic before setting the scene for an intensely personal conflict for Jessica Jones. This issue by no means gives you all the information, but it certainly gives you enough to get hooked all over again.

Credit: Freddie E. Williams II (DC Comics)

He-Man / Thundercats #1
Written by Rob David & Lloyd Goldfine
Art by Freddie E. Williams II
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

With the exception of an Saturday Night Live skit, He-Man and the Thundercats have never had a crossover before this 2016 series. This is, in many ways, a double-sided Sword of Omens for writers Rob David and Lloyd Goldfine. It can be reasonably assumed that neither Third Earth nor Eternia will be irreparably changed over the course of the crossover, and there is an astronomically small chance that any of the heroes or villains from either series will wind up dead. The animated series for both are nostalgia gospel, so nothing can be done that either invalidates or drastically changes the context of those shows. On a positive note, the writing team has the freedom invoke any number of callbacks between both series, which is honestly expected by the target audience of He-Man / Thundercats. The issue itself is inconsistent in terms of both art and storytelling, but both manage to have a handful of hopeful moments.

The Spirits of Evil are disappointed with Mumm-Ra's consistent failures with regards to Lion-O and the Sword of Omens, so they have a new plan for their undead figurehead. They tell him of another sword on a planet called Eternia, and how that could be his ticket for defeating the Thundercats. After what can only be described as a Jonathan Hickman-esque Incursion, Mumm-Ra and his minions invade Eternia. The Ever-Living hones in on Adam as the complete and utter absence of evil, and decieves him into giving up his sword. After a truly visceral sequence in which Mumm-Ra disguised as Sorceress rams the Power Sword through Adam's chest, Adam grabs the sword and just manages to transform into He-Man. The two resume combat and appear to be evenly matched. Mumm-Ra is then teleported from Eternia back to Third Earth, where the Spirits of Evil betray him and bequeath the sword to our narrator, revealed in a twist to be Skeletor.

The logic here is a little iffy. If the Spirits of Evil know about Eternia and the Power Sword and have at some point forged an alliance with Skeletor, wouldn't they also be privy to the fact that Skeletor has just as abysmal of a track record with defeating heroes and claiming mystical swords as Mumm-Ra? And wouldn't Mumm-Ra's success in claiming the Power Sword not only validate him in the all-seeing eyes of the Spirits but also prove to them objectively that he is a stronger being than Skeletor? Realistically, most fans of the original material reading this book will be able to whistle past this particular graveyard, but if the central premise falls apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny, it doesn't bode well for the series, no matter how much you may have liked to smash your action figures together growing up. Still, the choice to begin this narrative from an almost exclusively villain standpoint is interesting, and Mumm-Ra winds up sympathetic when undercut by the likably sarcastic Skeletor.

Both He-Man and Thundercats have a notably idiosyncratic aesthetic. It is a combination of science fiction and arcane fantasy that has been underexplored since, but that works so well in a world with mystical swords, undead sorcerers, and spaceships. The writers, along with artist Freddie E. Williams II, have transitioned the aesthetic in proper fashion. Jeremy Colwell's colors add a lot to the mix, and the artwork, in general, has a unique look. In calmer scenes, it works well, and in action sequences with one or two characters, it works beautifully. Mumm-Ra's transformation and fight with He-Man are noticeably the artistic highlights of the issue, along with the obligatory Sword of Omens "sight beyond sight" panel. Where the art fails is inadequately depicting chaos. Chaotic scenes can be a visual feast when done right, but the Incursion-like melding of Third Earth with Eternia is not only difficult to follow, but often painful. What could have had some tension-inducing build-up and explosive release amounts to not much more than a underexplored set piece.

Many licenced nostalgic trips wind up being happiness-inducing fun for fans of the source material, and while there are unquestionable highlights with David and Goldfine's first issue, it just never gets off the ground. The plotting and artwork work against the title at the times when it is absolutely crucial that everything works perfectly. It's going to be interesting to see where a Power Sword-equipped Skeletor goes when facing off against Thundercats that will undoubtedly beat him. And even though it can be safely assumed that the status quo of both Third Earth and Eternia will be restored, it will be interesting to see them mingle. Overall, this first issue feels like a swing and a miss, albeit an inoffensive one. It just really needs to course correct with #2.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Champions #1
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba and Edgar Delgado
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Review by Matthew Sibley
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Deciding your elders have no idea what they’re doing is kind of a rite of passage for a teenager, even more so when they're a costumed superhero. While Kamala’s decision to split from the Avengers isn’t as explosive as Kitty Pryde yelling “Professor Xavier is a Jerk!”, it’s heart-breaking to see her lose faith in people who were once icons to her. Instead of being a rebel without a cause, however, she keeps her principles held in high regard and puts a team together who can care about the people instead of their large-scale squabbles. The issue spends a little longer than is ideal on assembling the team, but once there’s a mission to undertake, Waid and Ramos deliver a group of teens which already seem in sync as if they’ve been fighting for years.

Kamala works well as the leader of this team. Not only has she been the character in the book who’s been at the forefront of the Marvel Universe after taking the comic industry by storm, but she’s also had a startling amount of development across the numerous titles she’s starred in since her introduction in 2014. As a former protégé of Carol Danvers, she’s got a head on her shoulders that is able to manage others and while she may be stubborn in some of her ways, she’s fully invested in helping people as the job demands just like her number one idol. She, Miles and Sam already have an existing dynamic after All-New All-Different Avengers, but the new additions - Amadeus Cho and Viv Vision - are able to find a place in this book from their introduction. Viv works well as a straight woman to the wackier moments, while Cho is an even bigger powerhouse than Nova and just as fun-loving as Kamala. But this team composition means more than that - it’s diverse in terms of race, not just power levels. In a time when the industry is looking to attract new demographics, a book like this which shows a multi-cultural set of characters doing what heroes are meant to do is appreciated and the end to the book reflects on this notion. Everyone needs heroes, and it’s even better when those heroes are there for them.

Some of the dialogue and banter falls flat, but most of the time the characters spend talking is propelling the plot forward so it’s less of a problem here than it would be in a book where the team’s enjoying a break and relaxing. Because of the team’s ages, it feels a lot like an inclusive shonen manga, and Ramos’ art works well for a book with that tone. A flashback early on in the issue seems exaggerated with regards to the adult heroes’ proportions, but once the story gets underway, the character’s faces are expressive and their movements draw focus in the panel. During action it feels big and conveys the idea that the characters are moving over the idea that a particular panel is freeze framing an action. When the action gets large from props being involved, Ramos is still able find the character in the fray and focus his camera on them - this is very much a book about good ol’ heroics so it’s a smart choice to put the heroes front and centre in every possible moment. A similar thing can be said for Olazaba’s colors - during the flashback, the panels seemed drained of light and creates a strong contrast with the rest of the book if it’s taken to be a stylistic choice to show the downbeat nature of the scene. In the present day, the characters all have vivid palettes, while feel just as bright as the book’s tone.

The Marvel Universe has undertaken a lot of changes in recent years - that much is undeniable, regardless of how you felt about said changes. Champions very much reflects that, but remembers what Marvel did back at its start -classic superhero stories with bright and expressive artwork. Waid knows this, and combines with the sense of belonging that X-Men books have made people feel for decades to create an issue that takes a while to get into the thick of things, but when it does, creates a new team doing what you expect from heroes, only difference being there’s someone here for everyone to look up to in some way.

Credit: DC Comics / Young Animal

Shade the Changing Girl #1
Written by Cecil Castellucci
Art by Marley Zarcone and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettering by Saidia Temofonte
Published by DC/Young Animal
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

DC’s Young Animal imprint gets another solidly strange debut in the form of Shade the Changing Girl #1. Though much more straight forward than the recent Doom Patrol reboot, writer Cecil Castellucci still leans into the dreamlike storytelling of Shade while also touching on all too relatable themes of teen belonging and one’s purpose in life. Artist Marley Zarcone and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick also revel in the madness, presenting a cinematic, yet bizarrely beautiful debut; one that very much invokes the feeling and look of the Chris Bachalo Vertigo years. Expectations were high for Gerard Way’s grand experiment, but with Shade the Changing Girl #1, the imprint can now confidently stand as the go to home for all the weirdness fans have been clamoring for.

While the madness coat and the franchise recognition that comes with it is certainly the hook of this debut, Shade the Changing Girl is really a story about two girls struggling to grasp their own identity. Lightyears away on the planet Meta, Loma is an avian alien girl, obsessed with the mad poet Rac Shade and his battles with the madness back on Earth long ago. In order to be closer to her idol, she steals the coat of madness and soon finds herself on Earth and inhabiting the body of a comatose girl named Megan. Megan, by all accounts, was a true 'mean girl' and the leader of a clique of synchronized swimmers more concerned with partying than their own well being.

Though the similarities between the two aren’t expressly explored in this debut, Cecil Castellucci offers an interesting contrast between the two girls and exposes the strong narrative heart of the title amid all the visual craziness provided by Marley Zarcone and Kelly Fitzpatrick. Both of them, in their own ways, want to escape their own existence and be more than who they are at the time. Megan wants to do this through control of her social circle while Loma wants to branch out of her own humdrum life by connecting to her idol Shade. It is an interesting way to go about this title and one that resonates strongly not only for the legions of teens on the verge of finding themselves that will read this, but also an unexpected touchstone to the original Vertigo title. Back then Rac just wanted to escape, and now his legacy is alive and well as Megan and Loma begin their journey to find themselves.

But while Castellucci tempers the out there science fiction with genuine emotion, artist Marley Zarcone and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick go full-tilt crazy with the visuals of this debut, keeping the title’s reputation for insane visuals and blazing colors very much intact. Providing hazy and widescreen like panels throughout, Zarcone packs each page throughout with tiny details that morph into full-on set pieces as the story goes along, hearkening back to the days of Bachalo where the reader was never quite sure what was real and what wasn’t as they read.

For example, in the issue’s opening, Loma awakes on Earth with a simple pink and blue halo over her head as she gets up from the hospital bed. However, as she walks, all manner of insanity follows in her wake like stuffed animals given life and orderlies turned into skeletons wearing scrubs, screaming wordless screams as she coyly asks for water at the nurse’s station. Zarcone also has the perfect partner in madness in colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick. Her neon inspired color schemes heighten the stylized wake of the title as a whole and Loma’s madness constructs, giving this title the exact kind of visual spark and mood it needed to truly succeed.

Though its approach to its story is much more direct than expected Shade the Changing Girl #1 keeps Young Animal’s 1990s Vertigo approach to comic book going with another strong debut. More than that Cecil Castellucci delivers a very real and respectful female focused debut that cuts to the heart of issues that readers could be dealing with. Couple that humanist approach with Marley Zarcone and Kelly Fitzpatrick dynamic visuals and vibrant colors and you have another high point for the fledgling imprint. Being a teenager is rough no matter what world you live on and as Shade the Changing Girl #1 shows, sometimes you have to embrace the madness in order to find who you really are.

Credit: Oni Press

Angel City #1
Written by Janet Harvey
Art by Megan Levens and Nick Filardi
Lettering by Crank!
Published by Oni Press
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Los Angeles, the Golden Age of Hollywood. A young woman is found dead in a dumpster behind the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and even worse, nobody seems to care. This is where writer Janet Harvey starts our journey in Angel City #1, a moody and powerful noir that flips the conventions of the genre on its head with fantastic results. Aided by the cartoonish, but expressive pencils of Megan Levens and the sunny colors of Nick Filardi, Harvey delivers a powerfully feminist deconstruction of the usually hard-boiled genre, making this debut all the more engaging and surprising. While the story of a woman chewed up and spat out by Hollywood is a sadly familiar one, Angel City #1 goes out of its way to be anything but.

As early as page one, Janet Harvey is already playing with reader’s expectations and the conventional noir format. Opening on the grim reveal of the crime scene with terse narration, Harvey introduces us to Joe, a lowly news photographer and one of the few people who actually gives a damn about the woman’s death. As the scene progresses, Harvey continues the narration and lulls readers into thinking that we are hearing Joe speak, only to pivot and reveal the real protagonist, Dolores Dare, Joe’s former friend and the reason the victim, the unfortunate Frances Faye, was in Hollywood in the first place. This narrative shell game might seem like a small thing, but in the realm of noir, it is a huge deal, and one that sets Angel City apart from the usually male-driven stories instantly.

Harvey’s gleefully feminist upending of noir tropes doesn’t end there. As the debut continues, we learn that Dare isn’t just some glamorous actress or Hollywood It Girl, she is a hard-knuckled mob enforcer, and a good one at that. Eventually she is drawn into the web of solving the case of her murdered friend, but even before that Harvey has already ensnared readers. With the debut’s two well-executed reveals, Harvey has both subverted and played into noir conventions; once with with bait and switch of Angel City’s real lead and then again by making the usually male enforcer a woman with all the same attributes, but with much, much better style. It is a bold gambit from Harvey but one that makes the story and subtext of the story all the more rich. Angel City #1 could have been a perfectly serviceable story with a man at the center, but by gender-swapping the lead and still playing in the same hard-boiled sandbox, Janet Harvey adds a whole new layer of thematic richness to this already engaging plot.

Also playing with conventions, but on a visual level, are artists Megan Levens and Nick Filardi, both of whom divorce this debut from the usually dour and darkened visual language of the genre. Though the opening scene and flashbacks to Dolores and Frances’ early days in Hollywood are cast in the hues of black and white that are usually associated with noir, most of Angel City’s visuals are blazingly colorful thanks to Filardi’s wide array of Los Angeles-inspired colors. These bright colors match Megan Levens’ smoothly stylish pencils to the letter and even though she is rendering Dolores strong arming shop owners and beating handsy men with a cigarette tray, her style is more Saturday morning cartoon and less Sin City.

And I do not say that as a slight against this art team. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is Filardi’s bright colors and Levens’ specific style that furthers this debut’s originality. By eschewing the usual grim and gritty visual style of the genre, this first issue stands apart as a wholly original visual take on noir much like Harvey’s script goes out of its way to present the story and conventions in a new way. If you enjoy the genre but wish it would go in a different direction visually, then Angel City #1 is the book for you.

With its subversion of a well-known genre and its powerful female lead, Angel City #1 is a boldly entertaining debut for the new Oni Press title. Janet Harvey, Megan Levens, and Nick Filardi take what readers love most about noir and filter it through an unapologetically feminist lens with fantastic results. Armed with both hard knuckles and soft emotions, Angel City #1 is a noir tailor-made for today’s progressive reading audience.

Credit: Stephanie Hans (DC Comics)

Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love #1
Written by Sarah Vaughn
Art by Lan Medina and Jose Villarrubia
Lettering by Janice Chiang
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

An inherited mansion... A tortured writer... A woman haunted by ghouls only she can see... Sarah Vaughn and Lan Medina inject the Gothic back into horror with Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love #1, a lavish 50-page jaunt through the archetypal haunted house, inhabited by none other than Boston Brand: Deadman. “Atmospheric” is the word of the day here, as Vaughn and Medina use their double-sized page count to slowly but surely draw the reader into a world of classic dread, interlaced with innocent romance that lends the whole book the feel of a classic fable of fear rather than a supernaturally-tinged superhero story.

Sarah Vaughn uses all the tropes of the creaky haunted house story to set up her take on Deadman. A dark and stormy night: check. A cobweb saturated mansion with a murky, tragic history: check. A brooding heroine with the ability to see the supernatural: check. Vaughn immediately introduces the ghostly inhabitants of Glencourt Manor; Berenice first witnesses Deadman flying above the mansion's grounds before she even sees the house proper. It's a spectacular sight, but not for a protagonist eternally dogged by the damned. Vaughn's ghosts are a constant, underlying presence that clouds Berenice's thoughts and judgement. These creatures are not especially lurid or hideous, but instead a constant black source of anxiety. For Boston Brand, a woman who can simultaneously see and ignore him is unique, not to mention frustrating. Vaughn keeps a slow but steady pace as we journey from room to room, watching Boston desperately try to beat back a malevolent force and gain some acknowledgement from Berenice. In classic Gothic fashion, everyone has their own tragedy; from Berenice's ghost troubles to Nathan's headaches and struggle to complete his book. Then there's Sam, an avid antiques dealer who often seems a third wheel to Berenice and Nathan's relationship, a devoted friend who offers vital support to Berenice through dark times.

Despite its strong establishment of tone, the majority of Sarah Vaughn's script is carried through narration boxes, compartmentalizing her characters' thoughts and feelings in little boxes at the head and foot of each panel. Although this approach certainly adds to the almost period feel of the issue, it reduces some important points to mere exposition, excess words that feel redundant when the visuals are more than equipped to carry that narrative load.

Visually, Lan Medina's richly-detailed studies of busy gothic architecture and realistic faces lend a real weight to Vaughn's emotionally charged script. Medina keeps a tight focus on his characters' expressions, carrying the intent behind Vaughn's words and intensifying them through his strong grasp of the subtleties of expression. Deadman's blank pupils are especially effective here; turning from fierce and determined to heartbroken then back again in the span of three panels. Medina's panels often run wide across the length of the page, making use of the book's bumper-sized page count to fill each page with detail. Colorist Jose Villarrubia contributes equally impressive colors, using a painterly style with deep texture and tone to delicately add life to Medina's pencils. Villarrubia coats Glencourt Manor in a relatively light palette of greys, blue and beiges, offering contrast to Berenice's pink shirt and the regal crimson of Deadman's trapeze costume.

Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love #1 successfully combines the classic haunted house tale, traditional romance and the tragic super-heroism of Deadman to create a disquieting portrait of the living and the dead trapped together in a hundred year old mansion. Although Sarah Vaughn's script sometimes falls foul of excessive narration, she effectively establishes relationships between three very different characters, pitting them against supernatural forces of malevolent and benevolent nature. Lan Medina and Jose Villarrubia's evocative visuals ascend Vaughn's atmospheric thrills, making Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love #1 one ghost train you wouldn't want to miss.

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