Best Shots Reviews: JLA - THE RAY: REBIRTH, MIGHTY CAPTAIN MARVEL #1, HORIZON VOL. 1

Image Comics January 2017 cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Justice League of America: The Ray - Rebirth #1
Written by Steve Orlando
Art by Stephen Byrne
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Grant Morrison’s Multiversity reimagined the Freedom Fighters as heroes for a modern era and in the process, revealed that Ray Terrill (a.k.a. the Ray) was an openly gay man. Writer Steve Orlando runs with that idea as he brings the character into "Rebirth" complete with an altered origin that speaks to the experiences of a lot of queer people across the globe. And that’s really exciting. We’ve had characters’ sexualities retconned or vaguely danced around, but it's rare that we get to see a creative team embrace that narrative directly. Stephen Byrne stays in his lane with his art. There’s an almost animated series vibe to it that makes sense considering that the character will soon be featured on TV as part of The CW’s animated offering . It’s a clever turn by editorial to offer up something that synergizes a bit elsewhere while not negatively affecting the story on the page.

A silver lining to the times we’re living in is that, more than ever before, we’ve seen artists unafraid to unabashedly be themselves. DC’s writing staff alone features multiple queer folks who are outspoken about what that facet of their lives means to them and their work. So it makes sense to have Orlando, openly bisexual himself, handling a coming-out story. The Ray’s origin works as a metaphor because the character is literally trapped. He’s told that going outside will kill him. He’s told that his light powers are dangerous. And while the average reader probably doesn’t explode into bursts of light when they go outside, there’s a definite connection to queer and trans folks who feel like they have to hide a part of themselves.

The issue is a little shmaltzy and veers a little bit into afterschool special territory as Ray tracks down his former best friend who he blinded accidentally as a child. But there’s a truth to that desperation for connection. There’s power in the idea of the character who can turn invisible wanting to be seen. Ray’s “coming out” as a superhero allows him closure for what happened with his friend and while the stakes don’t seem to b very high in the issue, it’s a sweet reminder that not everything has to be a doomsday scenario to work. Some stories are small. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary.

Stephen Byrne’s work is about as clean as you could possibly ask for. It’s not quite the polished (perhaps overly so) cartooning of someone like David Marquez or Sara Pichelli but it does look ready-made for TV. Some of these pages have quite a few panels but Byrne uses fairly modular layouts to keep things from getting confusing. He’s not taking many chances here, but he doesn’t have to. This issue is an intoductory one for the new status quo of a character. Narrative needs to take precedence over flashy art. That’s not to say that Byrne doesn’t have some big moments. The Ray’s powers lend themselves to fiery displays, and Byrne is able to strike a good balance of action and narrative storytelling across the issue.

It remains to be seen if the Ray will resonate with readers, and it’s still unclear where he fits in the DCU. The aspects of his character are similar to many that we’ve seen before but that shouldn’t be limiting, instead it should open up the possibilities. Orlando’s script is a little saccharine but it still accomplishes its goals. This is an introduction to a character that hasn’t exactly existed in this form before. Byrne’s a good fit for an issue like this, but it would behoove DC to find a an artist who doesn’t fade into the background as much moving forward. While Byrne’s work is bad, it does fail to really ignite any excitement. It’s utilitarian in nature - a great fit for an issue that has a job to do - but not necessarily something readers are going to tune into month in and month out especially when they’re getting a similar vibe from the TV series. The Ray is a solid introduction for a character that fills a need for a DC line looking to keep diversifying.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Mighty Captain Marvel #1
Written by Margaret Stohl
Art by Ramon Rosanas and Michael Garland
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Carol Danvers is in dire need of an image overhaul. Unfortunately, her new solo title Mighty Captain Marvel doesn’t quite achieve that goal, but the potential is there. Novelist Margaret Stohl, writer of the recent Black Widow YA books, adapts well to Carol’s cool-as-a-cucumber voice as well as the voices of her supporting cast, which again includes Alpha Flight and Carol’s wry best friend Jessica Drew. But while Stohl's characterization soars, she quickly becomes bogged down by trying to do too much, too soon in terms of plot as Carol’s new status quo is clumsily introduced in a set of vignettes.

As for the artwork, penciler Ramon Rosanas sets aside the stylish, kinetic styles of the previous titles and renders this debut in a naturalistic, almost Steve Dillon-esque set of pages that highlight the emotions, costuming, and body types of the characters featured. Colorist Michael Garland brings it all together by a darkly vibrant set of colors that keep the same spikes of colors the Carol Corps are used to seeing like the deep reds and yellows of Carol’s costume along with a dusky early evening setting drenched in pale purples and autumnal reds. Captain Danvers has been knocked down as of late, and Mighty Captain Marvel #1 does little to raise her up to her former heights, but if I know anything about the good captain, it's that you can’t keep her down for long.

To me, when it comes to comics, character is king, and in that regard this debut issue is successful. Margaret Stohl, in her first comic work, nails the personalities of the entire cast, in particular Carol. Her Carol is still the self-assured, take-no-lip U.S. Air Force vet that grabbed readers not so long ago, but there is a new air of responsibility to her new debut title. Stohl, using the recently wrapped Civil War II as a foundation but smartly just touching on it instead of fully pushing it, takes Carol slightly off-balance, streaming red tape around her position and allowing her frustrations with it shine through. Stohl’s attention to character also extends to Carol’s friends like Puck and Jessica Drew who provide well meaning, but smarmy co-stars for Carol to bounce off.

But while Stohl's takes on the characters are impressive, her overstuffed plotting prevents this debut issue from being the kind of antidote Carol needed after the long and brutal civil war. Though still the head of Alpha Flight, Carol is now contenting with a flood of alien refugees, a hackneyed television show based on her life which is now a fundraising venture for Alpha Flight, and a cabal of Marvel heavyweights who now act as her governing board. As if that wasn’t enough, a shapeshifting alien bounty hunter is kidnapping Kree children. Though the latter gives the issue a nice bit of personal connection to Carol’s origins, none of these plots really gel into something compelling and are introduced and then dropped quickly in favor of the main thread with the bounty hunter. While this overstuffing of plot gives Stohl plenty of things to explore further into the run, their introductions are anything but smooth and weigh down the issue before it can fully take off.

Though the plot leaves something to be desired, the artwork of Ramon Rosanas and Michael Garland starts this new series off on an impressive note visually. Setting aside the usual science fiction trappings that has marked recent Carol centered titles, Rosanas keeps the visually relatively grounded, allowing Carol and the rest of the cast to be the focus, calling attention, but not in a leering or sexualized way, to the powerful stature of Carol and her simple yet in character civilian costuming. Rosanas also displays a knack for neatly blocked action as Carol chases and then faces down the alien bounty hunter with rigid, but effective panel construction. Colorist Michael Garland also packs a nice visual punch thanks to his dulled, but eye catching color choices. While not nearly as sunny as the Elizabeth Torque cover, Garland’s colors gives this debut a somber tone but one that avoids being dour as he accentuates Rosanas’ tight pencils and the overall tone of duty put forth by the script.

Not quite a disaster but also not exactly a blockbuster, Mighty Captain Marvel #1 stands somewhere in the middle as a clumsy debut, but one that is still fun in its own way. Margaret Stohl, Ramon Rosanas, and Michael Garland throw a lot of stuff at the wall in this first issue and unfortunately not all of it sticks. That said, their love and respect for the Captain and her cast is there and that, at least, gives me hope that they can rise above their less than auspicious start. The world needs Carol Danvers and hopefully in later issues, this series can truly be called a mighty achievement.

Credit: Image Comics

Horizon Vol. 1 TPB
Written by Brandon Thomas
Art by Juan Gedeon and Frank Martin
Published by Image Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Horizon is a mature series. That is neither a condemnation nor comment on the level of violence on the first six issues collected into a trade. While it is a violent and multi-hued bloody affair, the violence is padded with fast-moving, plot-heavy scenes. It's mature because writer Brandon Thomas is clearly uninterested in overwhelming the first issue with lengthy exposition or with catching up new readers on an issue-by-issue basis. Horizon is a story about invasion, identity and military aggression that refuses to hold the reader's hand through the ordeal. Co-creator Juan Gedeon's artwork and Frank Martin's colors give an already unique story an extra layer through a steady stream of interesting visuals, each panel of which contributes to thematic elements of the story.

Narratively, Horizon occupies a strange interstice of extra-terrestrial-focused science fiction and cyberpunk. Commander Zhia Malen from a planet called Valius infiltrates Earth early in the story in one of the most memorable sequences of the entire series. Rather than playing this straight and having her as a harbinger of an invading force set on conquering Earth, she is actually acting in retaliation to Earth's plan to occupy her planet. Zhia has sacrificed 30 years of her life and potential neurological issues to receive surgical implants that, among other benefits, allow her to track down Finn, her horrifically imprisoned love interest. The implant and it's after effects are played in decidedly cyberpunk tone and aesthetic, but to see that on a blatantly extra-terrestrial character is extremely interesting, as is the subversion of the invasion story as the central plot. Thomas' dialogue feels natural and further exemplifies his trust in the audience. There is no blatant author mouthpiece, and not a single character is responsible for unnaturally spewing plans or plot directly to the audience. At times while reading, you might not know exactly what is happening, only to understand in a few pages when you see the payoff.

There's something really interesting happening in the background of Horizon Vol. 1. It's subtle at first, but about fifty pages in it becomes apparent, and it's something that is only possible because Brandon, Gedeon, and Martin are so in sync and focused on the comic as a whole. Everything that might initially seem foreign, such as protagonist Zhia Malen or the flashbacks to her own planet of Valius, ultimately end up feeling more familiar. Certain aesthetic aspects of the characters and locations are certainly, for lack of a better word, alien to the reader, but it's grounded in a real sense of humanity and home that is conspicuously absent from the scenes on Earth and the humans opposing Zhia. They feel murkier and their locations are flooded with shadows. As opposed to soothing and pleasing blue palettes of electricity that accompany Zhia and company, human forces are frequently depicted alongside harsher bolts of red matching gunshots, oppressive computer monitors and even the invasive bombs surgically implanted on Finn. Because of how consistent this is written, drawn and colored, watching any of the main characters bleed their blue blood feels as jarring and emotive as any other comic would with a human bleeding red. We are conditioned by decades of science fiction to equate non-red blood as foreign and therefore something we are desensitized toward. Horizon flips that and makes it mean something to the reader.

The artwork is consistently one of the best aspects of the series. Even just casually flipping through the paperback it's apparent that you're seeing something unique. It has passing similarities to Jim Mahfood's work, particularly on the Miami Vice Remix series, Batman Beyond's overall aesthetic, and the art style of Samurai Jack. Despite the harsh edges, Gedeon smooths everything just enough to be easily digestible and never overly jarring. Martin's use of color is exemplary and often standout. As mentioned, it contributes towards an overall theme and gives the series a refreshing internal consistency.

Despite sometimes becoming confusing and occasionally becoming overly gray with its own sense of morality, Horizon Vol. 1 is a strong and thoroughly unique book. Structurally, the plot is fantastic. Even sequences that feel unexpected at best or detached at worst ultimately connect to existing threads in the overall story. The artwork could arguably be the selling point here, as Gedeon and Martin's collaboration has made something that visually stands out. There is a lot in these collected issues for science fiction comic book fans to love.

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