Best Shots Advance Reviews: PRETTY DEADLY #1, SAMURAI JACK #1, VELVET #1, RAT QUEENS #2

Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Pretty Deadly #1
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Vanessa Gabriel
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

"And the end of the world began when Death fell in love."

From the platform of the town square gallows, the girl with a vulture cloak and her blind beggar companion tell the poetic tale of Death, Beauty and the Mason. The hauntingly conspicuous Big Alice interrogates the ginger known as Johnny Coyote. The Dog and his pack of cowboys poke a bear. The sharp-shooting Sarah and her sons aid an old friend fleeing across the desert from danger. And Bones Bunny and the Butterfly narrate this deliberately paced tale about Death's daughter.

Pretty Deadly is the waking dream of Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire. The first 24 pages of this story are imbued with a passionate heart and a bizarre soul that challenges you to open your mind and travel to the edge of your notions of what comics should be. With a non-linear narrative and loosely placed panels, it is a valiant effort in what comics can be.

Through brief glimpses into the emotions of her characters and colloquial dialogue, DeConnick hints at a palpable driving force, but keeps her cards close while she sets the stage for what is to come. There is a peripheral sense of doom that leaves an aftertaste of curiosity.

Rios works in tandem with this mystery, creating elaborate panels that feel like pieces of a puzzle placed sparsely across the table, leaving the reader to ponder the possibilities. The longer you stare at the page, the more nuanced each panel becomes. Rios's turbulent strokes weave together with DeConnick's eclectic ideals, creating a dense tapestry of surrealism.

As Rios guides your eye to a close-up of a lizard's foot, to a panorama of a Western horizon, to a feather fallen from the vulture cloak, to the curious eyes, one blue and one brown, of a young girl; Bellaire carefully balances warm and cool colors that create a tone of two worlds - the corporeal and the spirit. The inspired art of Pretty Deadly emanates from the page with a rose-colored haze, and it is beautiful and interesting, but also overwhelming.

The inclination to casually breeze through a comic should be abandoned. Pretty Deadly is not meant to be rapidly devoured. It is meant to be savored, allowing time to ruminate upon the symbolism, stare at the deluge of lines and color, and be swallowed by the depth of each character's stare.

The amount of thought and care that DeConnick and Rios have poured into Pretty Deadly could fill a library, making this story worthy of many re-reads. While it may be plenty worthy of the effort, it also requires it. In doing so in the first issue, Pretty Deadly #1 runs the risk of being suffocated by the weight of its own gravitas and complexity. But like a swift drop of a spur to a skull, I suspect the story will crack open and pour out when the reaper of vengeance arrives. Just give it a little more time.

Credit: IDW

Samurai Jack #1
Written by Jim Zub
Art by Andy Surian
Lettering by Shawn Lee
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Samurai Jack is a property deeply ensconced in the memories of many twenty and thirty-somethings. Created by animation auteur Genndy Tartakovsky (Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory) in 2001, Jack was a cartoon that used 70s kung fu and Akira Kurosawa as a starting point for its hero’s journey even though it frequently featured dinosaurs and robots. The results were brilliant, garnering Tartakovsky and his team multiple primetime Emmy awards during their 52 episode run. Nine years after the final episode aired, IDW Publishing has revived the property with writer Jim Zub (Skull Kickers, PAthfinder) and artist Andy Suriano (who was a character designer on the original show). They remain dedicated to their source material making, probably, the best Samurai Jack comic one possibly could.

Like many other cartoons-turned-comics that we’ve seen in recent years, IDW opted to keep the familiarity of the cartoon by translating the art direction almost directly from screen to page. Andy Suriano worked on the original cartoon, so he’s familiar with the ins and outs of Jack’s world and the way he navigates his world. Reading this book is like reading storyboards from a new episode of the show and that a total credit to Suriano.

But while the linework is wonderful, the coloring in the later half of the book left me wanting. As Jack enters a darker location, some of the day-glo starts to look muddy next to the darker blues and blacks. Additionally, some of the texture work for the background of a few of the pages is baffling. There are others pages that forgo a textured background for pure white background which adds some stark contrast to the action. Using a digital texture gradient seems odd in a book that doesn’t use digital effects consistently.

Jim Zub is no stranger to adapting properties. His work for UDON and Bandai-Namco speaks to that. A self-proclaimed fan of the Samurai Jack since its first episode, Zub picks up where the series left off. Jack is a man out of time. His relentless pursuit of a way back to the past to defeat Aku continues to drive him. He hears about the Threads of Time, mystical artifacts that hold the power of time travel, and obviously goes on a quest to find them. But the book gets a little thin. Upon reaching the first location, a battle ensues and the action sequence is solid but it lacks the nuance and intensity that some of fight scenes in the show had. The change in format from cartoon to comic book is what makes this suffer.

On the first page, Jack slowly rises over a ridge, and it’s evident that Zub and Suriano know what they are doing. By combining their reverence for the source material with a strong desire to move it forward, they’ve created a new beginning for a character with a considerable history and made it an excellent jumping on point for new and old fans alike. They’ve done a good job translating what was once animated to a static format but they’ve left a lot of room to grow and I suspect they’ll only get better at it. Samurai Jack is more than just a trip down memory lane. Zub and Suriano may be nostalgia surfing, but they’re also shredding new and exciting waves.

Credit: Image Comics

Velvet #1
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Steve Epting and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Ms. Moneypenny was a James Bond character you never really thought about that much until the last Bond film Skyfall. She was the flirtatious eye candy that Sean Connery or Roger Moore smiled and winked at on his way to his meetings with his boss. What's the career path that works a person up to being the personal assistant (or in the series’ setting of 1970s parlance - secretary) of the head of all British spies?

Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Velvet #1 is about Ms. Moneypenny’s counterpart in another British super secret spy organization, Velvet Templeton of ARC-7. She’s been around a while, bedded a few of the spies, and propped up her boss in the ways that a good assistant does without ever getting the glory or credit that she properly deserves. She probably runs ARC-7 without anyone really realizing it. She’s also not a woman that you should underestimate.

When the death of an agent looks like an inside job, all of ARC-7’s resources are tasked with finding the killer. Looking through such mundane things as his expense reports, some missing pieces of information jump out at her so that when an old, retired agent is pegged as the killer, something doesn’t sound right to Velvet. Brubaker and Epting take the Ms. Moneypenny role from the Bond stories and question who she is and why she is where she is. Brubaker twists the Bond story from being one strictly about espionage into a murder mystery. He and Epting introduce any number of shadowy figures that could be the murderer. Unlike Bond films where everyone, often including the femme fatales, are who we think they are, Brubaker and Epting don’t easily lay out the good guys and the bad guys in Velvet #1. We don’t even know who the secretary in this story really is.

Epting brings an old fashioned sensibility to modern storytelling. His artwork here simultaneously recalls Al Williamson and Bryan Hitch with his cinematic approach that is firmly grounded in crisp, clear and perfectly paced images. He’s telling his story from the shadows here, drenching the characters and London in an obscuring haze. With Elizabeth Breitweiser’s warm, glowing touch on the colors, Epting plays with our lack of knowledge of these characters to create suspicion in everyone. This is going to be a story where we have to learn about Velvet, her boss and the secret agents to discover just what game is being ran here but Epting doesn’t give us any hints. Every character could be a hero or could be a villain.

This isn’t an espionage story; it’s a mystery, a whodunnit set in a world of spies. As Velvet tells us, “The Agency where every mission is a Black Op… and every dollar of funding is hidden…” These are people whose very lives are secret and off the books. Brubaker and Epting create the best James Bond comic in Velvet #1 by murdering James Bond and then leaving the secretary to be the one who has to find the killer. They’re playing with the toys of a spy story while changing the game up by recasting familiar cliches of the genre to transmogrify it into a whodunnit.

Credit: Image Comics

Rat Queens #2
Written by Kurtis Wiebe
Art by Roc Upchurch
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

After the first issue of Rat Queens opened with a raucous bang, the question I found myself asking in the following weeks was whether or not Wiebe and Upchurch would be able to deliver an equally fun and foul-mouthed follow up in their second issue? Although the element of surprise over the colorful cast of characters is removed from Rat Queens #2, the sense of fun remains firmly in place.

While reading this issue, I found Wiebe uses a tried and true storytelling trope of a group of adventurers seeking justice after discovering they've been set up to be killed off. Because he does not deviate from this approach, it could be seen as a stereotypical plot device – especially for those readers well-versed in the traditional TSR Dungeons and Dragons modules of old.

However, it can equally be argued that this approach to the hero's journey – or heroines', as is the case here – is well suited to the nature of the story Wiebe is telling. Moreover, it provides readers with an opportunity to better experience the conflicted dynamic of this very atypical band of not-so-merry mercenaries. What I really enjoyed about the character interactions is that they felt spontaneous and unscripted – no small feat since there was clearly someone penning the script. It also brought me back to some of the bickering that took place on those Saturday nights when my brothers and our friends would sit at the dining room table and enjoy some D&D – and by enjoy, I mean bicker and fight over who caused the other person's character to be maimed, burned, killed, or turned into something … unnatural.

I continue to enjoy Roc Upchurch's artwork in this series immensely. He demonstrates the right balance of line weight with clean, clear penciling to appeal to a more mainstream aesthetic all the while keeping his characters from falling into the trap of depicting his female heroines as scantily clad Barbie Dolls from Middle Earth. Where Wiebe provides variety in the personalities of his characters, Upchurch delivers an assortment of visual representations of women. Regarding balance, Upchurch's colors do a really fine job of bringing his art to life with his vibrant color palette, all the while eschewing a sensory overload for the reader, particularly during the action sequences.

Overall, Rat Queens #2 is a fun story that, while likely predictable for many readers, does more than just serve as a "filler issue." Instead, it creates additional space for readers to better appreciate the characters whom they will likely follow on many more adventures to come.

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