Best Shots Advance Reviews: LAZARUS #1, UNCANNY #1, More

Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Lazarus #1
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Michael Lark and Santi Arcas
Lettering by Michael Lark
Published by Image Comics
Review by Vanessa Gabriel
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

What would you do for your family? What if your family was among the few who had possession of one of the world’s most valuable resources? What if you are tasked with protecting that resource for your family? That is the charge of Forever Carlyle. She is her family’s Lazarus.

The stakes are extremely high in the dystopian future of Lazarus. The government is moot and limited resources are king — so are the families who hold possession of these resources. Everyone else is exploited. Everyone else is Waste. The first issue of Greg Rucka’s parable of the rich man and the beggar taps into the fear that this could be our world.

If Rucka’s goal was to engage the reader with plausibility, he succeeded. Not only is this world plausible, it’s downright chilling to consider how easily our current state could slide down to the far end of the slope of extreme elite ruling a desperate populace. With technology ripped straight from the today’s headlines and violence that is a stone’s throw from reality, Lazarus #1 jars you into paying attention.

The strong visuals of Lazarus #1 that does much of the world building are tempered by the subtle emotion of the dialogue. Without being obvious, but also without being coy, Rucka gives you an immediate sense of the soul of the characters presented here. Except for our protagonist, Forever. But that’s not a bad thing.

Forever is physically strong from the scientific advantages bestowed upon her by her station. She moves through the issue with purpose, but that purpose is external. Beyond the imperative of being the Carlyle’s Lazarus, we don’t yet know what motivates her internally. With furrowed brow and deep stares, it is clear she is thoughtful — I am dying to know what she is thinking about. I am infinitely curious to know what she is feeling.

How did Rucka manage to make me care so much about a character in the first issue? Careful dialogue, sure-footed pacing and a story that was given great care.

Michael Lark imbues the same intention into his art. Almost immediately you are faced with the kind of unsettling image that makes you hot around the neck and remains imprinted on your mind for the rest of the issue. Forever Carlyle sprawled out on the floor in a violent pool of her own blood is as disturbing as it is compelling. The same feeling Lark’s exquisite cover of Lazarus #1 elicits.

Santi Arcas uses color sparingly through the heavy shadows of blue and black. The bright orange of a gunshot or the severe red of blood creates a visual pacing that compliments the story. The intentional use of color combined with Lark’s powerful perspectives creates suspense. The movement is dynamic in such a way that you can feel the raw heat of hand-to-hand combat. It’s fantastic.

Where Rucka’s dialogue is drawing you in, Lark creates an emotional layer of “dialogue” in the eyes of their characters - desperation, shock, fear, deceit, judgment, purpose and doubt. While the flicks of emotion create curiosity, Lark’s background detail brings a dense gravity to the story.

As Forever thoughtfully assesses the security of the restricted area of her family’s compound, it is reminiscent of an X-Files confidential evidence storage unit. Cold and sterile, but the compartments are labeled. In this small detail you see what it is that the Carlyle family holds so dear, and the paradigm of value and power is shifted. Few creative teams are this thought-provoking.

Masked in science fiction, but inspired by the devastatingly increasing amount of lack in the world, Rucka and Lark have begun an important story. With haunting images and a compelling narrative - I am certain that Lazarus will take its place among the ranks of the comic elite and lay waste to the rest.

Credit: Dynamite

Uncanny #1
Written by Andy Diggle
Art by Aaron Campbell and Bill Crabtree
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Weaver is a gambling man with a power that makes him a natural at the card table. When his luck runs out though, he’ll need his wits-and a bit of help-to make it in this fast-paced new series that shows writer Andy Diggle back at the top of his game.

I first became a huge fan of Diggle when he was writing The Losers, but recently, I’ve cooled on his work, as it had lost its edge and much of its pacing. The things that make his writing top notch are here in abundance, however. We begin with a con man who appears to be one of Diggle’s typical anti-heroes, but quickly learn he’s far more as the story plays out. Weaver-if that is his true name-can take on the memories of those he touches and use it to get his way. It’s clearly something he’s practiced at by the time we meet him, which we learn by his effortless use of the power, stealing from person to person as the pages fly by at a breakneck pace.

The problem for Weaver is that he runs into a man who can block his abilities. By his own admission, in an intro that sets the stage for what is to come, Weaver has gotten soft. Trapped in his own web, Weaver now is a man on the run facing someone who knows what he can do. Improbably saved by a person with their own agenda, in a short period of time we’ve gotten so much I can’t wait to read the next issue.

That’s the kind of premise that grabs a reader’s attention, with a protagonist that is compelling because he’s got cards yet to play that the reader hasn’t seen yet. Diggle is a master of revealing things at just the right moment, which I think hindered his work on Daredevil. There’s only so many surprises you can pull with a character who has nearly 50 years of history. With Weaver, he can do as his wishes, and I look forward to seeing how the character gets out of the mess he finds himself in.

While I really enjoyed the plot of Uncanny, what makes it sing to me is the return of Diggle’s razor-sharp dialogue skills. Whether it’s Weaver trying to cover for his credit issues or a female character telling him his sexism is unwelcome, the banter is both natural and appropriate. It flows with the story and doesn’t distract from it, enhancing the overall quality of the comic.

It’s a bit strange reading an Andy Diggle story without Jock along for the ride, but I think it might be a good thing in this case. Jock’s visuals can really carry a story, but sometimes writers need to move on to new collaborations to rejuvenate themselves. Campbell’s work relies less on creating amazing set pieces that take advantage of shadow, drawing angles, and other artistic tricks. Instead, his work is straightforward and hyper-realistic, just skirting the edge of photo-realism. Weaver and his antagonists look like they could be staring out at you from the cover of a magazine for the latest caper movie. The detailing is intricate, whether it’s the lines on a person’s suit, the buttons of Weaver’s jacket, or the zipper of a woman’s outfit. (Yes, you can actually count the teeth of the zipper.) It’s George Perez-level detailing, but couldn’t be further from his style artistically.

The only problem is that the “staring out at you” that I mentioned earlier happens a bit too often for my taste. Campbell maddeningly has Weaver looking out at the reader over and over again, as do many of the other characters. I get that Weaver’s power is in his eyes, and seeing him stare at us from the page a few times makes sense. Unfortunately, after several times, it makes me wish the characters were more engaged with each other than with me.

A bit more fluidity in the art is the only misstep in this excellent debut issue. If you’re a fan of caper comics with compelling characters, great dialogue, and an intriguing mystery, grab a copy of Uncanny this week at the store or on your favorite digital tablet. You won’t be disappointed.

Credit: Image Comics

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray #4
Written by Frank Barbiere
Art by Chris Mooneyham and Lauren Affe
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

For those who haven’t read the first three parts of this miniseries, most of this issue won’t make sense. Fans of the series, however, are going to find a lot to like in this issue as some questions are answered while still others are left in the balance.

The issue picks up with Fabian facing his test as he fights to master the spirits of the dreamstone shards embedded in his chest. This issue consists of his facing four of five tests – one for each of the ghosts. However, the fifth and final ghost — that of Count Dracula — is saved for the end. Admittedly, the tests seem a little hurried as with their means of resolution; however, the entire process that Barbiere constructs for Fabian to experience is a really intriguing one, and it fits well within the tradition of Western mythologies. This is rather appropriate given the literary ties woven throughout the series. Additionally, the overall story arc is ambitious, and it is clear Barbiere is working to set up the world of Fabian Gray for future, on-going stories, so these tests really cannot afford to take up more than one issue no matter how interesting it might be to see them expanded. Pacing a rich and action-packed story is difficult, and overall, this team does deliver a solid comic reading experience.

Meanwhile, Zhang Guo stands guard as Iago arrives mounted on a flying dragon and a ferocious battle ensues. All the while, Fabian’s spectacled partner, Sebastian, does little more than offer a “shocked Robin pose” in various panels. Admittedly, I found this kind of funny (collectors of Golden Age Detective Comics and Batman will get this reference). That said, there’s nothing funny about the conflict that's taking place outside. The stakes rise as the maddened Iago prepares to confront Fabian in the final act, and in true pulp fashion, readers are left on a cliffhanger until the next issue.

Chris Mooneyham and Lauren Affe’s combined efforts on the art and colors continue to demonstrate the visceral and raw aesthetic found so often in independent comics that many readers today find so appealing. The uneven lines that sometimes appear frayed work well in a story where the lines between the mystical realms and the real world are also fraying. Moreover, the color palette fully complements these shifting environments allowing Affe to reinforce the otherworldliness of the pages Mooneyham drafts.

It’s hard not to like this miniseries, and as it prepares to draw to a close with the next issue. There is a lot of momentum being built behind this story, and hopefully Image will make the right call and green light this creative team to put forth either a second miniseries or even an on-going title altogether. In any event, make sure to pick this book up if you’ve been following the series; if you haven’t, go find some back issues and get caught up.

Akaneiro #2
Written by Justin Aclin
Art by Vasilis Lolos and Michael Atiyeh
Lettering by Michael Heisler
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Lindsey Morris
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Things really start falling into place for our main character Kani in the penultimate issue of this series. Origins are explained and shrouds of mystery unveiled as we follow her on her quest to become a red hunter. The unique combination of European fairy tale and Japanese folklore continues to work its magic, transporting the reader into an unfamiliar and wondrous world where demons roam freely and hunters give chase.

This installment opens with a short history of the Order of Akane (aka Red Hunters) before segueing into a depiction of the death of Kani's mother, reinforcing the issue of the tenuous balance between the worlds of humans and yokai demons. Kani continues her training, learning both how to fight and when to be merciful. Without knowing it, she is becoming what she was always meant to be - a fulcrum between worlds upon which balance can be achieved. Things get a little hairy by the end of the book when she sees her trainers for what they really are, and finds her rage in the process.

Justin Aclin delivers another veritable tapestry of a script, weaving themes of folklore, RPGs, and fables into a cohesive story. The appropriation of Little Red Hiding Hood is once again barely noticeable during reading, and only upon closer inspection is it clear that this is a re-telling of the classic tale. It is impressive that after two issues of a three issue series, the pacing still feels natural. Nothing has been rushed, and care has been given to develop the characters as fully as possible in the allotted time. The way he presents Kani in this issue as a discerning and capable female lead, is a welcome and refreshing departure from story this comic is based on. This time around, Red Riding Hood doesn't need a huntsman to save her - she is the hunter.

The inks of Vasilis Lolos are once again a worthy addition to this series. His grizzled (and at times puffy) characters have a distinct Frank Quitely influence. These craggy faces convey emotions wonderfully throughout the book, and make the slower scenes really engaging. The new yokai seen in this issue have wonderful design, with line-work recalling the woodblock prints of Japan. The colors by Michael Atiyeh are heavily centered on blues, reds, and greens in this issue, keeping the palette simple but powerful. Whole panels, and even whole pages, are saturated with a single color, which really brings the comic as a whole.

While Akaneiro is not a break-through comic of the ages, it is an interesting concept that continues to be executed at a high level by a talented creative team. Here's to hoping this strong, female-driven story ends on a similarly high note with the final issue. Judging by what I've read so far, all signs point to success.

Credit: Archaia

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, Vol. 2 #1
Written by David Petersen, Stan Sakai, Nick Tapalansky and Ben Caldwell
Art by David Petersen, Stan Sakai, Alex Eckman-Lawn and Ben Caldwell
Published by Archaia Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

In late 2010, David Petersen opened up his creator-owned Mouse Guard series to his fellow independent writers and artists to offer them the opportunity to help contribute to the depth and character of this literary world of valiant mice. Each storyteller or creative team would get one short story to tell in which the character of their choice or creation would spin a yarn within the context of a tall tale-telling contest in mouse-populated tavern. The sum of these individual short stories created Legends of the Guard: Vol. 1. Almost three years later, Petersen once again invited friends and fellow creators to “join him” at the June Alley Inn for another round of tale telling in this second volume.

Petersen provides the art and narrative frame for this multi-issue anthology. Where he previously garnered critical praise for his detailed line work, from his highly personalized animal cast of characters to his extensively meticulous backgrounds, he again reminds readers just how good he is at his craft. However, it’s not just his skill with the pencil where he his ability as a storyteller shines through. Petersen is able to imbue these mice with a depth of character in just the snippets between stories that many other comics failed to do over the course of a full issue. Moreover, there is something to be said for the editorial “chops” he demonstrates in his ability to bring together a group of highly talented creators to produce a work of this quality. Legends of the Guard, Vol. 2 #1 is not only an enjoyable book to read that respects its audience, but it’s one that is also appropriate for all ages – a true rarity it seems in comics these days.

Stan Sakai provides both the story and artistic contributions for the first part of this issue in “Autumn Tale.” His cartoonish style is quickly identifiable, but it is his use of colors that arguably stands out most as each page possesses a sort of warmth and vibrancy that emanates from within each panel. I was impressed with the fact he was able to fully convey his narrative — both plot and tone — without using a single word in the first four and a half pages. To me, this speaks of the strength of a visual storyteller. And I think most will find the ending touches upon a level of emotional depth that elevates this beyond that of being only a children’s book.

“Leviathan” was written by Nick Tapalansky and art provided by Alex Eckman-Lawn in what is perhaps less of a tale about the Mouse Guard as it is an introduction to another anthropomorphic guard. Where Sakai provides readers with a charming and vibrant domestic tale, this creative pair tells a story of far more epic proportions. As such, they adopt a more realistic depiction of their cast of characters — although it is still identifiably fantasy — and apply a more serious tone to the story. I was really impressed with the subtle shift in color palettes connoting the change from land to sea. This is one such example of the careful attention Tapalansky and Eckman-Lawn demonstrate in crafting this tale of one mouse’s journey to a greater understanding of his place in the world.

Finally, Ben Caldwell provides the final tale of the issue with “A Bone to Pick.” I really liked this story even though it takes a decidedly lighter overall tone and uses a more cartoonish approach. In many ways, Caldwell’s story felt like it would have fit in perfectly alongside lesser-known (but arguably far more enjoyable!) Disney classics such as The Sword in the Stone and the adaptation of the novel, . Yet, this story is very much of Caldwell’s making couched firmly in the world of the Mouse Guard. The little female mice who strive to save their town from the dastardly predators are both fun and brave characters that many readers will no doubt enjoy following as they see the young girls’ daring plan unfold and their plucky determination rewarded.

As a parent of two small boys who believes in the value of a well-written, age-appropriate comic as a viable source of entertainment and personal development, this book hits all the right spots. Yet, I also have to say that this series continues to prove it is equally enjoyable for adult readers as well — not as a “guilty pleasure reading,” but as a series of stories that are rich and thoughtful in the topics explored in each issue.

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