Best Shots Advance Reviews: LOBSTER JOHNSON, DREDD, More

Howdy 'Rama Readers! Your regular host David Pepose has the day off, so you'll have to deal with me, George Marston, for a little while. We're going to start a look at this week's upcoming Lobster Johnson: Caput Mortuum one-shot before handing things over to our man in Canada, Zack Kotzer, for an early look at Dredd and a number of small-press reviews.


Lobster Johnson: Caput Mortuum

Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi

Art by Tonci Zonjic and Dave Stewart

Letters by Clem Robins

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by George Marston

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Lobster Johnson: Caput Mortuum knows what it wants, and it grabs it right by its stinkin' ratzi throat. In this swashbuckling done-in-one tale, Mike Mignola's two-fisted vigilante The Lobster takes on a group of Nazi terrorists in the days prior to WWII. It's energetic and fun, but too often trades characterization for tropes.

Caput Mortuum wastes little time establishing its premise. A group of scientists from the rapidly rising National Socialist party plan a zeppelin lead airstrike on New York City with a chemical compound that causes people to, well, melt. Naturally, the Lobster can't let that happen, and he takes to the skies to put a stop to it. One problem with the breezy nature of this story is that it's entirely unclear exactly how the Lobster knows about the plot, or how he actually gets on board the zeppelin, but it quickly becomes clear that those concerns are far less pressing than scenes of Lobster shouting “Justice!” and “Feel the claw!” as he defenestrates German expatriates.

It's no secret that Mignola and partner John Arcudi are master storytellers, so the story reads beautifully. Tonci Zonjic's blocky, fun style, complemented by Dave Stewart's pitch-perfect use of atmospheric colors make for a wonderfully fun single issue story in the style of an old adventure serial. Unfortunately, It's that stylistic drive that makes for both this issue's biggest strength, and it's greatest weakness. It certainly captures the atmosphere and energy of those old saturday morning serials, but it also traps itself into not going beyond that flickery, hazy style to give us any insight into the characters at hand, or any depth of field beyond "bad guys do bad stuff, they get to feel the claw."

On the other hand, it's almost freeing to read a story that still has so much inherent entertainment value even when it's not focused on much beyond the immediate experience. That quality certainly speaks to the power of the creators. While the story may not be the best place to enter the world of Hellboy and the BPRD – there's little of Lobster Johnson's personality, or the supernatural world these characters inhabit – those looking for a high-octane, beautifully told story that compromises a little bit of substance in the name of style will find exactly what they're looking for in Lobster Johnson: Caput Mortuum. 



Directed by Pete Travis

Written by Alex Garland

Distributed by Lionsgate

Rama-rating 5 out of 10

Review by Zack Kotzer

Judge. Jury. Executioner. Political commentary. British satire on American machismo. Violence incarnate. Gun shooter. Stallone vehicle. Blank slate. Dredd. Judge Dredd and the scum of Mega City One have lasted decades and, despite being a quilt of American iconography, has remained the UK's poster-brute for 2000 AD comics. It isn't subtle, but Dredd is also a guns blazing response to security state mentality and Thatcher-era ideology towards hooligans, which has served as an undertone since conception. In Dredd (3D), Vantage Point director Pete Travis and Sunshine, 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go writer Alex Garland take on the authoritarian anti-hero with modernized cinematic sensibilities. By which I mean they aimed for The Dark Knight and made Dredd a concrete, humourless drag.

America (or, `Merica, the first word grumbled in the film) is a wasteland, the only vestige of its civilization live in Mega City One, which stretches from Boston to Washington DC. The city is a panorama of slums and brutalist Mega Towers serve as small cities within. The judges, Mega City One`s full package police force, are losing their battle against crime, but the tides could turn when the force learns that an underqualified rookie, Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) possesses psychic powers. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is tasked to see if Anderson has the guts to match the potential, starting with what appears to be an innocent triple homicide at Peach Tree Tower. Instead, the two judges stumble in on Mega City One`s biggest drug op, and must fight tooth, nail and gun to escape it.

Karl Urban certainly pulls off the acceptable amount of scowling and growling for Dredd, while Thirlby introduces the film to pathos with quivering and passing compassion. The short film isn't starved for characters either, with memorable bouts from Wood Harris (The Wire's Avon Barksdale) as a smug right-hand to the cartel, and Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter's Bill Weasley) as a snivelling techie. Lena Headey, as our chief enemy Ma-Ma isn't much more than a loot bag of mean, evil things a person can do.

Many smug cinephiles have already rushed to the web to point out the glaring similarities between Dredd and the recent cult hit, The Raid. Because the production of the films overlap, and it`s unlikely Travis` team was eavesdropping on an unassuming Indonesian set, this can be chalked up to unfortunate coincidence. But it can spark some interesting comparisons. Both films are grim apartment climbing killing sprees, with cops bleeding baddies floor by floor, but people will gush over The Raid and glaze over Dredd because The Raid brought new things to the action table (unwincing cinematography, smooth pacing and pencak silat fighting) while Dredd is formulaic (Dredd is essentially trialed with meaner things to shoot him scene-by-scene) and reductive of other action films, even its own source material.

One of the things that has stayed endearing about the hyperviolent comics, and has certainly bled into its imitators since, is that its violence pushes into parodic grounds. Guns come in big to huge and cause bewildering damage. Dredd`s world, Mega City One, is an assault to the senses, a nauseating cyberpunk metropolis built on filth and irony. It was terrible, but even the Stallone Dredd film had a slight grasp on that. Dredd`s production design decisions are interesting, in a reinterpretation/fan art kind of way, but in action it's a feature length drag, missing the bulk of the point in 2000 AD's long-running universe.

In a world occupied by A-Teams and Expendables, the stone-faced bullet blister is becoming exceedingly rare, which makes it all the stranger that the newest entry years is one based on something so historically satirical. All the smirks are limited to smarmy posturing, literally violent juxtaposition, and one-liners, which you'd get in any movie. Rooting worked for The Dark Knight because Batman is a character that's adaptable to more familiar architecture. Mega City One is all about extremes, and to just turn it into a sprawl of present-day slums is a drab, unenthusiastic environment, never mind stuffing the entire film in one, narrow passage building. Still, it's weird that a high-conceptualist like Alex Garland rested on a narrow plot. With fleeting things going for it, Dredd is guilty of being a mediocre action movie, composed of slow-motion debris, fast-cuts of walls getting powdered by bullets and a routine structure. This crime is punishable by life in the bargain bin.


Tyranny of the Muse #1

Written by Eddie Wright

Art by Jesse Balmer

Self Published

‘Rama Rating 7 out of 10

Review by Zack Kotzer

Art is a cruel bitch. Birthed from a cluttered world and, historically, often from the minds and fingers of uncanny outcasts. When it comes peacefully, the world is happy. When it doesn't, oh when it doesn't, that world can fall apart in a riptide of torn dreams and shredded paper. Sometimes that search for art is art in itself. Based on his story, Broken Bulbs, Eddie Wright's Tyranny of the Muse is about Frank Fisher, an artist who has literally become addicted to inspiration, now suffering calamitous withdrawal.

To my knowledge, this is artist Jesse Balmer's first standalone, long-form release. He has collaborated with Jonny Negron on the rusty lush jungle horror Demon God Goblin Heaven, and submitted to small anthologies (I'm especially fond of his Usagi Yojimbo-like short in Chameleon). In comparison, Balmer's work seems a little cramped. Rougher, denser than usual, in other work I enjoyed the floating sense of space around his swollen characters. But it is interesting to see Balmer's evolution, he's showing some obvious infiltration of his own influences. I'm going to guess he's been reading a bit of King City, and maybe some of Mickey Z's work, but I'd bet the farm that Balmer's been on an ongoing Jim Woodring kick (even before spotting an adorable signage shout out to the sophisticated weirdo).

All that said, Balmer and Wright do fly together. There's a captivating sequence in a diner where Fisher begins fantasizing about the ‘muse' sitting across from him, and it resonates as adaptation of our sloppy human emotions overlapping, pancaked with a ton of sleep deprivation. For their first collaboration, they are a talented pair with a lot of promise.

Tyranny of the Muse will fit right in to a certain galaxy of underground comics. Phobia flavored, black magic realism, a sweaty freak-out familiar to Charles Burns readers (given the subject matter, especially X'ed Out). It's where Wright is pulling his cards from, and he's got a full hand, but he's not playing them in the most flattering way. For a first issue, Tyranny of the Muse is lacking a narrative hook, the concept of the story nearly naked from the start. This first chapter is a bit too scrawny to stand alone, but the complete package should prove itself to be freakishly inspired.


Lose #4

Art and story by Michael DeForge

Published by Koyama Press

‘Rama Rating 9 out of 10

Review by Zack Kotzer

DeForge leads the pack of a lot of the underground cartoonist ideals. He's the most popular of the anthology-hopping, small release familiars who moonlight on Adventure Time (it's a surprisingly large category of artists). For many, he broke on to the scene with his first issue of Lose, a surreal bit of manifesto, framed on one anxiety, followed by three other tomes of paranoia. The newest and largest segment of the Lose series continues the whirlpool, but flows into even further, unexplored corners that should keep his clan of admirers plenty appeased.

Three main meaty stories surrounded by extras, Lose #4 is the hunkiest package of the series. Deforge is reeling in a lot of his personal universe in to this one, both thematically and stylistically. Those who liked DeForge's Kids in the Hall vibe jabs at Canadian docu-somethings in Spotting Deer will be glad to know there's a spiritual sequel within “Canadian Royalty,” which absurdly mocks the Canadian relationship with the ol' royals in a way even the South Park crew wouldn't resort to. “Someone I Know” is the newest flavour and most memorable of the issue. A Cronenbergian body horror (Well, DeForge often plays with body horror, this one's just more Cronenbergian than usual), it's the Videodrome and Tetsuo of twenty-somethingdom, prodding at contemporary new-bar fixations with a mysterious talked about dive, the Grand Room, for which the hype is spreading like a literal virus. The symptoms are freakish, S&M body dysmorphia. The hilarity of genetic plagues is also explored in the final story, “The Sixties,” about a town where everyone resembles the same girl.

His stylistic reeling feels cumulative. There's a lot of the wavy, gooey, noodle horrors all the way back from the first lose, some of the dusty, grimy details he's been hammering out recently (check out his story "Exams" in Terrible/on Study Comics) but a la-la-la-lot of the defamiliarized cutesiness that often makes his work all the most sinister. DeForge's influence on Adventure Time is becoming more obvious, (I've noticed plenty of shadow blobby demon adversaries) and his Adventure Time tenure has a stronger effect on DeForge's art. Fans for both properties are only going to be continuously weirded out by the spill-over. The cover, which points to the “Canadian Royalty” segment, is a lavish red flag.

DeForge earns his hype upkeep. His brain tangents are delightful, some more than others, this issue fitting under the former. Still not quite the consistency of the ice-breaking Lose #1, but one hell of an ensemble.


Counter Balance #1

Created by Adam Canhorne & Jonathan Forrest

Written and illustrated by Adam Vanhorne

Published by Nipplefactory Inc.

‘Rama Rating 8 out of 10

Review by Zack Kotzer

I finally visited a new store in Toronto, The Comic Lounge, which opened while I was away and scurried up the stairs into the once-space of a gallery/club I really like. I asked if they had any small press items, just to see what their slate was like. The owner pulled out a small shelf with a few small zine-fares and one, big sleeve-wrapped red ruby of an issue. “I actually have a good feeling about this one,” said the owner, “I think it'll sell.” I didn't have the heart to tell him I already had a review copy at home, but I think we agreed that there's some bold stuff to come out of Adam Vanhorne and Counter Balance.

A tale of desert wanderers in garish garb, Counter Balance wears its influences on its sleeve. Fist of the North Star slipping The Holy Mountain the tongue, our tall hat-hero has fought his way out of a bar, and ended up with a smug luchadore to accompany him to some place across the wasteland called Kangaroo Castle.

Counter Balance is found in a very good, weird place. Vanhorne utilizes the best of manga, creating a tone of whimsical silliness, drenched in blood, without falling too far to either kind of grotesque. The end result is something with a lot of leg room, and the door's open for any weird thing to justify itself, akin to the fun of Heavy Metal magazine. There's a lot of substance in Vanhorne's style as well, promise beyond warm nerd homage. The first glimpse of our primary, mysterious nomad is particularly striking, and a tell that Adam Vanhorne knows how to properly drift around negative space.

The first issue doesn't exactly spell out what will be on the horizon for the reader, which is so slight it really is the book's biggest flaw. But Counter Balance does bait enough calamity to promise it'll likely be worth the trek through the wasteland. Or at least to a comic store with a hidden indie pile.

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