Best Shots Reviews: MIDNIGHTER & APOLLO #6, MOON KNIGHT #12, RIVERDALE #1, PAPER GIRLS #12

Image Comics March 2017 cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Midnighter and Apollo #6
Written by Steve Orlando
Art by Fernando Blanco, Romulo Fajardo, Jr. and John Rauch
Lettering by Josh Reed
Published by DC Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Neron is vanquished, an unpowered Midnighter is a bruised and bloody mess, Apollo is lost in the depths of Hell, and the enchanted candle that gave Midnighter entrance into the underworld is moments away from burning away the last of its inky black wax. Their freedom and Midnighter’s life are on the line, but even though the stakes in last Wednesday’s Midnighter and Apollo #6 should feel higher than ever, this series finale lacks the urgency and emotional punch of the series on the whole.

The small cast and laser focus on Midnighter and Apollo’s relationship gave Steve Orlando the opportunity to create an emotionally gripping look at the nature of their relationship and the ways both men have changed since the events of Midnighter, an expansion of Orlando’s Midnighter character study that began with his debut last year. This leaves few loose ends for Orlando and Fernando Blanco to tie up in the previous issue’s finale, but makes the issue the most straightforward and predictable of the series so far. Blanco’s art and beautiful color work by Romulo Fajardo Jr. and new addition John Rauch offer the most impactful moments of the series, particularly a lushly colored full-page scene when Apollo and Midnighter are reunited in the "real world" that would make a stunning print.

Though the specter of the book’s mythological source material loomed large over the early issues, it becomes clear quickly that there is little chance Midnighter and Apollo will meet Orpheus and Euridice’s tragic fate - a turn that deflated the book’s intensity even as I breathed a sigh of relief for the approaching happy ending. What follows is a series of near-falls that may offer the same brief jolt as the sharp drop of a rollercoaster you’ve ridden before, where most of the fun is found in knowing you’re going to make it to the end of a fun ride safe and sound. The fleeting moments of Apollo rescuing Midnighter in their final moments in Hell are fun, Apollo’s godly namesake and the implications of his name have been invoked so many time in the series that the fleeting moments of their role-reversal only seems to highlight that a book titled as a team-up only gave one of its leads much opportunity to shine.

Still, Midnighter and Apollo #6 isn’t a bad issue by any stretch of the imagination, and though it lacks the impact of its predecessors as a stand-alone impact, it closes the miniseries in a way that will make it satisfying as a binge re-read in the future. Orlando is a skillful writer with a strong sense of pace who does an excellent job making the most of precisely the number of pages he’s been given for an issue or a story arc. Romulo Fajardo’s colors perfectly complement Fernando Blanco’s style - the softness of Blanco’s illustrations are made gruesome and eerie by Fajardo’s work during the last moments in Hell even as Fajardo complements the tender, emotional expressiveness of Fajardo’s faces in intimate, private moments between Apollo and Midnighter once they’re both safe. Apollo in particular is a visual highlight throughout, made untouchable and strangely relatable at once through otherworldly glow and his warm and inviting expressions.

Things have changed in recent years, but in the vast history of comic books, it’s rare to see gay superheroes at all, and rarer still for a writer to be given the chance to explore those characters or their relationships so thoroughly. Midnighter and Apollo delivered on those promises in almost every way. Midnighter and Apollo #6 may be one of the weaker issues of the series, but Orlando, Blanco, and Fajardo set an exceptionally high bar for themselves from the outset. This finale lacks punch, but offers sweet and much-needed closure, and as with its predecessor will leave you hoping for more of the 'World’s Finest Couple' (an Apollo solo series to round out the trilogy, perhaps) as they move out of the underworld and back into the light where they belong.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Moon Knight #12
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Captured and about to be sacrificed, Marc Spector must turn to the only person he could count on: himself. In a continually mind-bending series, Moon Knight #12 continues the beautiful twists and turns as writer Jeff Lemire, artist Greg Smallwood, and color artist Jordie Bellaire show off just how much teamwork can pull off, not only in the narrative, but the creation of the pages themselves.

Writer Jeff Lemire’s script here presents a number of twists and turns as Marc is saved from his impending doom by an unlikely ally: Moon Knight. The story has constantly called into question whether or not both Marc’s alternate personalities, as well as his conflict with the Egyptian gods were real, and Lemire provides a clear answer in this issue: they are both real to Marc, and that is all that ultimately matters. The reunion of Marc with his different aspects gives the issue a triumphant tone - here is a man working not to control himself, or rid himself of the parts he views as unnecessary, but simply with himself.

While the previous arc in the series had a host of talented guest artists, Greg Smallwood shows why he is perfect for the title here. His layouts call back to Egyptian architecture with triangular panels and visual triptychs evoking pyramids and temples. These layouts provide an additional layer to the supernatural side of the story and are juxtaposed nicely with the more realistic flashbacks.

Stellar layouts wouldn’t mean quite as much if the artwork within them was lackluster, however, and Smallwood’s spectacular line art doesn’t disappoint. Whether it’s the hieroglyphics in the Egyptian pyramids or the run down shacks in modern Cairo’s underbelly, Smallwood gives each location a level of detail and attention that you just don’t see in many comics. This attention to detail extends to the characters as well, especially when Marc’s other personalities show up to help him in the fight. Steven Grant is much more clean-shaven than the other iterations of Marc Spector, reflecting his more cordial personality. These small details go a long way to visually building a narrative, making Moon Knight #12 an engaging read at every level.

Color artist Jordie Bellaire gives the book another level of atmosphere, working beautifully with Smallwood’s artwork. While the starry cosmos backgrounds are perhaps the most eye-catching pieces in the book, the way the blues, pinks, and purples of those backgrounds contrast with the hero’s stark white attire is what makes them mesmerizing. The scenes in Cairo are given naturalistic browns mixed with grays, blues, and olive green to create a dingy world that feels as muddy and rundown as Marc’s character during his career as a mercenary.

Moon Knight #12 is what happens when a book’s creators are all working at the top of their game in a cohesive manner. Artists Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire are fantastic visual storytellers, and writer Jeff Lemire’s script presents many opportunities to show off their talents. At the same time, the narrative here continues to build upon previous chapters, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see Spector’s alternate personalities prove an aid to him in his time of need rather than a continued hindrance. The final page shows the next target in this creative team’s sights, and it will be interesting to see if they can give one of Moon Knight’s primary antagonists as much depth as they have the hero.

Credit: Archie Comics

Riverdale #1
Written by Brian E. Paterson, Britta Lundin, James DeWille and Will Ewing
Art by Elliot Fernandez, Thomas Chu, Jim Towe, Glenn Whitmore, Thomas Pitilli, Andre Szymanowicz, Alitha Martinez and Bob Smith
Lettering by Thomas Chu, Janice Chiang and John Workman
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Archie Comics’ latest foray into serialized television gets an appropriately moody prequel anthology in Riverdale. Translating the sexy and mysterious world of the show well into comic books, a stable of talented writers and artists, including World of Wakanda breakout Alitha Martinez, give us neat slices of life focused on the “Big Four” of the Archie-verse: Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead. These vignettes show exactly where our cast was moments before the deadly events of the pilot episode and though the only real revelation to be found is the first canon appearance of the show’s incarnation of Hiram Lodge, the creative teams still manage to sync their scripts and artwork nicely to the pulpy source material. Riverdale can be comfortably called a gulity pleasure and now, with the Riverdale #1, it looks to spread its trashy fun to the medium that spawned it.

Working from plots generated from showrunner and Archie Comics Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, each writer adapts well to their assigned character and gives the audience a nice bit a context for their actor and actress counterparts. Each story gives a retelling of events leading up to the murder of Jason Blossom but focused on a specific character. The scripts run the gamut from endearing, yet steamy, like Brian E. Paterson’s recount of how the bumbling Archie got hot and became entangled with Miss Grundy, to heartbreaking, like Britta Lundin and James DeWille’s respective looks at Betty and Veronica’s roller coaster summers.

The secret ingredient, of course, is pulp, and this one-shot has plenty of it, but like the show, this one-shot finds a steady support in the easy comedy and immutably endearing characters. All four of our favorite cool teens are still the same characters we first connected with in supermarket check out lines and stuffy libraries just filtered through a modern lens. That foundation has been one of the great things about the recent television show and its nice to see that we can expect the same from its comic counterpart.

Though each story carries its own charm and emotion, none of them embody the show’s new tone and voice better Jughead’s. Thanks to a sharp and cheeky script from Will Ewing, the town’s resident burger chomping true crime enthusiast (or Murderino for the My Favorite Murder fans in the audience) is treated to a tense, stirring showcase; one that falls right in line with the plots and characterization Juggy is enjoying on TV.

This one-shot is armed with a few dramatically beautiful artistic flourishes, like Thomas Pitilli and Andre Szymanowicz’s close up dominated arrest of Hiram lit with exploding fireworks and Jim Towe and Glenn Whitmore’s montage of Betty finding herself in Los Angeles that looks like it was pulled straight from a Spider-Man comic book focused on Gwen Stacy. But Alitha Martinez steals the show with her take on Jughead, just like she did on World of Wakanda.

Given a fine dimensionality by the inks of Bob Smith and a muted, but engaging color scheme from Andre Szymanowicz and Thomas Chu, Martinez walks the fine line between classic Archie hijinks and the more darker tone of Riverdale by focusing on Jughead’s hectic and lonely life as a drive-in attendant. In the one-shot’s stand out sequence, she bounds back and forth from comedy to pathos as she presents him spinning all the plates from concession to ticket taking and finally casting himself into the movies he projects in order to feel connected to something again. The sequence itself is a tightly moving panel grid, moving from his work, to his trademark day-dreams, and then memories of his once strong friendship with Archie only to bring it all crashing down around them as the deadly Fourth of July rocks their sleepy town. Its a great showing from Martinez, Smith, Chu, and Szymanowicz, but more than that, its one that understands how to have the best of both worlds when it comes to Archie adaptation.

Even as someone who genuinely loves Riverdale, I am the first to admit to its divisive nature. But this Riverdale one-shot comes correct when it comes to the beloved characters and aims to be recognizable to both readers and recent fans drawn in by TV’s scandalous new hit. It isn’t often that you find an adaptation that draws strength from both its original material and new ideas, but Riverdale stands as just that.

Credit: Image Comics

Paper Girls #12
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Kat Calamia
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Paper Girls #12 slowly unravels the world’s mystery while building a relationship between the girls and their new environment. This issue reminds readers why this series is a true coming-of-age story that should be immediately put on your pull list if not there already.

This issue of Paper Girls separates the four girls once again with Tiffany and Erin learning more about the young mother introduced last issue, but the strongest development comes from the scenes between K.J. and Mac. The last issue of Paper Girls was used to flesh out K.J.’s character more after she was missing in the previous arc. The developments in that issue are quickly used to make a powerful scene this chapter, where K.J. saves Mac from drowning in a river, overcoming her fears of swimming since her cousin's death. As Mac reacts to K.J.'s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by calling her a “perv," this near-death experience is a reminder of Mac’s close expiration date, but also makes for a fun back-and-forth between two characters we haven’t seen much panel time between. This could lead to an interesting friendship or romantic relationship between the girls.

Even though Tiffany and Erin are a bit sidelined in this issue, Paper Girls #12 gives the reader the opportunity to learn more about the new characters introduced last issue: the young mother and futuristic-looking woman, Dr. Braunstein. Erin, and Tiffany figure out a way to communicate with the mother, and this helps the girls dig deeper into the religious allusions presented throughout Brian K. Vaughan’s narrative. The young mother represents the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, but these three “wise” men aren’t giving gifts to this mother like their biblical counterparts. Vaughan makes a connection to these two very different women through the “wise” men characters. When we first see the men they have symbols on their chest representing buttons you would see on any music device: a play button, a stop button, and a power button. This connects the religious and technological themes Vaughan has been weaving throughout his narrative.

The ending of Paper Girls #12 has an interesting interaction between K.J. and Mac where the reader is reminded that this series is a coming-of-age story following the lives of four young girls. The weird world the girls are stuck in becomes an analogy of the awkward stage K.J. is going to have to encounter without the help of her parents. This is an important stage in a girl’s life that most writers would be afraid to write about, but Vaughan captures this significant moment perfectly.

Vaughan uses Paper Girls #12 to slowly explore the new world the girls have become stranded on, and Cliff Chiang’s pencils give some great visuals to help unravel Paper Girls’ mysterious world. For example, it was an interesting contrast to see the futuristic Dr. Braunstein and the more primitive looking “wise” men in the same scene, but then Chiang makes these characters feel more connected by showing technological audio buttons drawn on the “wise” men’s chests. The strongest aspect of Chiang’s pencils is his use of facial expressions, especially in the scenes between K.J. and Mac. Vaughan does a great job at establishing this relationship, and Chiang’s pencils allow the reader to connect to the characters through their facial expressions and posture.

This new arc of Paper Girls has a necessary slow burn to help the readers learn more about the two new female characters, and to examine the deeper relationship forming between the girls. Our main characters are stuck in a weird, mysterious world, and Vaughan uses this physical setting to explore the next stages of their adolescent lives.

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