Best Shots Advance Reviews: ALL TIME COMICS: BULLWHIP #1, QUANTUM TEENS ARE GO #1, More

Quantum Teens Are Go #1
Credit: Black Mask

We're on the verge of another Wednesday, which brings another round of new comic books to the stands. However, we here at the Best Shots team have the gift of premonition, and are using it to once again provide advance reviews of some of the new comic books on shelves this week. We'll kick things off with a review of All Time Comics: Bullwhip #1 from Sauntering Scott Cederlund!

Credit: Fantagraphics

All Time Comics: Bullwhip #1
Written by Josh Bayer
Art by Ben Marra, AL Milgrom and Matt Rota
Lettering by Rick Parker
Published by Fantagraphics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer wasn’t a dream. It is a real, honest-to-goodness superhero comic published by Fantagraphics. And, even more surreal, it was only the opening salvo in a superhero line by the notoriously curmudgeonly publisher who now follows it up with All Time Comics: Bullwhip, featuring a whip-wielding superheroine who has to fight villains who are into a little bit of S&M, as well as vampires from the future who are trying to ensure their own existence by jump starting it in the present day. Josh Bayer, Ben Marra and Al Milgrom’s All Time Comics: Bullwhip contains multitudes, featuring a strong female character whose schtick is that she’s a bit of an obvious dominatrix, done in the style of a third-rate superhero comic from years ago.

All Time Comics: Bullwhip is a really different beast than the Bayer and Marra’s first go-round of this book. Where Crime Destroyer felt like it was trying to channel some of the best of characteristics of the Bronze Age, Bullwhip seems to be aiming in a slightly different direction. Bullwhip herself is an odd character. She’s presented as the “strong female character,” fighting for the safety and honor of women everywhere, but any feminist agenda in the character seems more akin to disco-era Dazzler than white-jumpsuited Wonder Woman. There is a surface level and thin veneer of sisterhood in the book.

Far more interesting than the superheroine are the villains that she fights in this comic. The more imminent threat is from a vampire from the future who’s trying to ensure the birth of the vampire empire. By far, the most intriguing character in this issue is the villain The Misogynist, a rather doughy middle-aged-looking guy whose power is that his “vitriolic words” are turned to energy blasts through his wristbands. He may be a founding member of the He-Man Woman Haters club but he’s also kinky enough that the idea of getting whipped by a woman excites him. As he’s fighting Bullwhip, he wants more of it, thinking, “Now that she’s off my back, she can whip me again! It feels so good!” It’s a background joke from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen brought to four-color life as he lashes out at the “Femin-Fascists” but secretly desires the feel of their leather and boots on his back.

It probably takes a lot of good production to make a comic look this cheap. Once that could have been achieved by a limitation of tools and technology, but now it takes real work on the computer to create the really garish colors of this comic. Marra and Milgrom’s flat artwork and Matt Rota’s faux cheap-marker airbrushed colors create something that looks more like a knock-off of a third-rate Marvel comic than a lousy Marvel comic itself. And that probably sounds like a harsh criticism of the book, but it’s this dedication this lo-fi aesthetic that makes this comic a lot of fun. As we get so used to the slick and packaged superhero comics from the modern Marvel and DC that we barely notice it anymore, Marra, Milgrom and Rota’s art is a reminder of the charm of a time when the artwork of comics didn’t look as polished or as sophisticated as modern comics do.

From a slightly-perplexing and contradictory villain in The Misogynist to the throwback artwork, All Time Comics: Bullwhip feels slightly less than its predecessor All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer but still feels as much of a past time as the first book did. It’s telling that in launching a comic book line, Fantagraphics, Bayer, and Marra aren’t aiming to imitate Brian Michael Bendis or Geoff Johns but are instead recreating comics of the past. By embracing a narrative and visual approach that feels more at home in comics that were found on an old newsstand instead of in the modern comic shop, All Time Comics: Bullwhip serves as a reminder of just how far comic storytelling (both of the superhero and non-superhero variety) has come while also showing us just how much of the charm of comics have been lost as they’ve become more a technological production.

Credit: Black Mask

Quantum Teens Are Go #1
Written by Magdalene Visaggio
Art by Eryk Donovan and Claudia Aguirre
Lettering by Zakk Samm
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

“Mad science is the punkest s#$% there is.”

Tomorrow’s Quantum Teens Are Go #1 lives up to the bold proclamation of its initial solicits, introducing readers to the rough and tumble punk rock world of underground quantum physics as teen protagonists Nat and Sumesh scramble to perfect their DIY time machine. Magdalene Visaggio and Eryk Donovan have created an utterly surreal and strangely grounded world where nobody seems to bat an eye at heaps of advanced technology in their family garage, even as they struggle to cope with more straightforward challenges like school grades and tumultuous family relationships.

Quantum Teens are Go introduces us to Nat and Sumesh, your average American teenagers who moonlight as amateur scientists breaking into abandoned factories to scrounge up the final pieces for an application project they hope will launch them to the next level of their scientific careers. From the start, Donovan’s art and Claudia Aguirre’s colors give Quantum Teens a rough and stylized punk rock feel that suits the book to a tee — Aguirre’s warm tones keep the book grounded in reality as pops of vibrant, neon colors emphasize the strange nature of Nat and Sumesh’s after-school hobbies. Magdalene Visaggio, fresh of a nomination for her Black Mask debut Kim & Kim, does a stellar job blending outrageous sci-fi with the more mundane aspects of teenage life. Nat, Sumesh and their high school friends feel like authentic and relatable teenagers, pivoting from gossiping about Nat and Sumesh’s quantum exploits to tittering as they joke about a garden-variety bully looking like a potato.

Nat and Sumesh have faced down murderous robots and, reminder, built what may be a fully-functional time machine in Sumesh’s garage, but being talented thieves and teen geniuses isn’t enough to spare them the struggle of rough familial relationships. Sumesh, currently living with friends of his parents, hints at difficult circumstances and a distant relationship with his foster family. His conversation with his foster brother offers no details about the fate of his parents, but the brief suggestion of his loss offers a fleeting glimpse of what may motivate his passion for finishing his and Nat’s time travel machine.

More straightforward in this issue is Nat’s transition, which Visaggio handles with a thoughtfulness that’s hard to find in comics today. Nat’s mother misgenders her and uses Nat’s old name in an accusatory way that Nat bristles under that feels both authentic to the experience of many trans folks as much as it does relatable to anyone who remembers their parents’ lamentations that “their little baby” would never behave so badly, once upon a time. Childhood photos of someone who could be Nat prior to beginning her transition litter the staircase of her home, creating a stifling environment that may drive Nat's scientific endeavors the way Sumesh's family may drive his.

Quantum Teens Are Go #1 is a weird and fun book, and this week’s debut hints that it may be a tale about family loss and transition as much as it is about punk rock teens who mess around with theoretical physics in their spare time. Visaggio and Donovan’s storytelling is impressively subtle despite its bombastic premise, giving its diverse cast a compelling level of depth in this debut issue. They’re kick ass kids with a penchant for mad science and murky motivations, and the questionable judgment of your average teen. The book ends with a bang as they throw the switch on their finished product — and the looming question of whether their youthful exuberance will lead them to meddle with time to fix their tumultuous home lives makes Quantum Teens Are Go a series to follow for now.

Credit: Image Comics

The Belfry #1
Written by Gabriel Hardman
Art by Gabriel Hardman
Lettering by Gabriel Hardman
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Taking some time out from his regular gig on Invisible Republic, Gabriel Hardman’s one-shot does it’s job immediately by grabbing readers by the unmentionables. With an onomatopoeic collision of words and art, Hardman literally plunges the reader face first into the abyss and keeps a hand on the throttle the whole time. This is horror comics at their most visceral, the kind that have a rich history in a pre-Wertham tradition of scaring the bejesus out of readers.

In a wonderfully simple set-up, an airliner crashes into a remote jungle, and is rapidly set upon by winged bat-like creatures. Everybody walks away without a scratch, but it soon becomes evident that escaping their jungle surrounds is an impossibility. There’s also the small matter of the bite marks and the transformations that are slowly occurring.

On one hand, Hardman’s plotting and script may appear to be a disjointed mess. Lurching from one scene to the next, the single-shot format crams in an awful lot in a confined space. Yet this is precisely what makes the story so compelling, with the book’s claustrophobia mirroring the experience of the hapless souls on the page. Hardman’s tightly controlled pacing ensures that moments leap out you from inside a panel, with the same scalpel-like precision of a well placed filmic edit.

Hardman’s innate sense of horror traces its roots back to the earlier days of scary cinema, with cited influences including Val Lewton’s RKO classics Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. There is a character in The Belfry who has been impaled through the eye socket with a branch, and his casual conversation is as unnerving as any of the creatures that emerge from the dark places to terrorise and transmogrify our fair-weather heroes.

Hardman’s near-sepia toned artwork brushes right up against being black and white, in a visual tribute to his cinematic influences. Hardman’s style is akin to witnessing the terrifying acts and sketching them down as they happen. It’s almost as if Hardman has a propinquity to the events, recalling a nightmare rather than creating one. The naked and distended creatures are etched into the page as if it were wood carving, bursting straight out at the reader during key moments in a flurry of visual noise. If it were a film, it would be a short form music video, where the editing and the visual language (literally writ large in a series of ‘AAAGHs’ and ‘WOOOSHes’) drive the narrative.

Perhaps the only major issue with The Belfry is that there simply isn’t enough of it, ripping us out of the world as quickly as it thrust us into it. In the short time that we spend with Hardman’s creations, we get the sense that we have seen the tip of the iceberg of a much larger story. It’s a deep guttural scream from the pit of the stomach, or the place under the bed where the really nasty monsters hide. In other words, it’s a terrific example of what happens when the language of comics is used to maximum effect in close quarters.

Credit: Archaia

The Power of the Dark Crystal #1
Written by Simon Spurrier
Art by Kelly and Nichole Matthews
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by Archaia
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

In the years between the start of middle school and the end of high school, budding theater kids, scenesters, queer kids, and everyone else across the teenage spectrum were put into two very rigid categories, you were either a Labyrinth Kid or you were a Dark Crystal Kid.

Now, Dark Crystal Kids can rejoice, for Archaia has delivered something not even the movies could; a worthy sequel to most people’s second favorite Jim Henson production. Simon Spurrier, working from two unproduced screenplays, presents a bold leap forward for the franchise as he returns us to the world of Thra 100 years after the Crystal was healed and the Skeksis’ evil banished from the land. Though Spurrier is still working with the same lyrical tone of the film, the story is refreshingly original and introduces new stakes and characters with ease.

This sequel is also benefits greatly from the art of Toil and Trouble team Kelly and Nichole Matthews. The pair’s opaque pencils and richly luminescent colors make the reborn Thra look majestic and intricately designed, taking the tarnished and grimy world of the original film and blossoming it into something beautiful to behold. Though I had my doubts about the quality of the story going in, The Power of the Dark Crystal #1 will convert even the staunchest of Labyrinth Kids and delight Dark Crystal Kids of all stripe.

When we last saw Thra, it was a world just touched by magic, thanks to its Gelfling heroes. Now, though prosperity reigns and citizens from all corners of the planet come to receive the Crystal’s healing, the magic that sustains it is starting to wain. This is just one of the many interesting narrative wrinkles Simon Spurrier introduces into this jam-packed debut issue. Though he is working from two unproduced screenplays, one by writer Craig Pearce and the other by duo Annette Duffy and David Odell, Spurrier’s voice still shines through. He is in full high fantasy mode here, adapting well to the slightly stuffy, off-kilter tone of the film and again working in a genre he is comfortable with. Think of this as his recent work The Spire, just with muppets.

But Spurrier isn’t one to rest on voice alone. After establishing the new prosperous Thra and its power structure, led by the shady Crystalline Eminence, cranky astrologer Aughra witnesses the coming of a stranger, a being made of pure flame named Thurma. She is a Fireling, a race of beings that live deep within Thra, and their magic is dying, too. Thurma was sent to the “outer sphere” to seek the Gelfling heroes and return with a shard of the Crystal in order to save her people.

The second and third “acts” carry a heavy narrative weight to them thanks to Spurrier’s new characters, and as readers reach the moral quandary he presents in the final pages, all that weight is dropped at the reader’s feet in a cliffhanger with planetary consequences. And though the heroes of the original film, Jen and Kira, are only featured in the final scene, Spurrier’s return to the restored Thra and his framing of the first movie’s events as a legend Thurma is chasing to save her people allows this debut to sustain itself on new ideas, or at the very least new angles on the film’s action, instead of nostalgia and rehashing.

Giving the reborn Thra life are the art team of Kelly and Nichole Matthews, and their pages are absolutely filled to bursting with life and beauty. The closest comparison I could make would be their work here looks similar to that of Christian Ward’s, but while his work is usually detailed by some sort of inking work, the Matthews Sisters here look completely unmoored by conventional visual storytelling. Each scene looks like a delicately assembled stain glass display infused with glowing colors backlit by the lighting of each individual scene, with the exception of the flaming recap of the original film that takes up a striking double page splash in the issue’s center. It might be a bit gauche to say, but you kind of have to see it to believe it, as Kelly and Nichole Matthews show a command of the story’s visuals that won’t disappoint.

Leave it to comics to completely knock out of the park the long gestating sequel to a beloved Jim Henson production. Though being attached to a well known IP certainly doesn’t hurt, the work that Simon Spurrier and the Matthews turn in here are teeming with new ideas and new visual designs that are informed by the original movie but not chained to them. By melding both the new and the recognizable, The Power of the Dark Crystal #1 is a bold experiment that could very well turn into a bold hit.

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