Best Shots Advance Reviews: AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #4, VEIL #1, More

Credit: Archie
Credit: Archie

Afterlife with Archie #4
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

So Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa just broke my heart. And he did it in six pages.

I'm not even mad. Because Afterlife with Archie #4 isn't just good. It's perfect. It's the best issue the series has produced thus far, and that's after an electrifying first chapter. Leaving behind the rest of the Riverdale gang was exactly what the doctor ordered, as Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla focus on Archie Andrews as he ventures back into town. The result is a horrifying yet heartfelt story that shows not just blood and guts, but the human cost of a zombie apocalypse.

Whereas previous issues veered a bit towards shock value and subversion for subversion's sake, that's far from the case with Afterlife with Archie #4. After escaping from the (relative) safety of Veronica Lodge's mansion, Archie Andrews has snuck back into zombie-infested Riverdale on a quest to find his parents. Using Archie's dog Vegas as a touchstone, Aguirre-Sacasa takes a refreshing angle on the threat of the undead - it's not just the visceral fear of being eaten alive, but the fear of losing someone you love... or worse, dispatching someone you've known and loved all your life. Aguirre-Sacasa uses some very smart narrative techniques to introduce us to Vegas, including theme, flashbacks, and a very endearing way of even getting inside Vegas's head.

And it's Francesco Francavilla's best work, too. I'm not talking about just for Afterlife with Archie - I'm saying that this issue might be the best work I've ever seen Francavilla do. Not only is his panel layouts exquisite, as he uses subtle angles to vary up the pages and heighten the reader's suspense, but his use of color is amazing, particularly the way that he uses the color orange to signify Archie and his mother's hair.

People have discussed Francavilla's sense of design before, particularly the clean, expressive way he draws his characters, and that's no different here - but where Francavilla really levels up is the way he breaks down the storytelling. His use of the nine-panel grid is already impressive enough, as Archie squares off with a zombified Hot Dog, but the way a series of panels twists and turns when a zombie falls down the stairs is almost vertigo-inducing. And there's a 15-panel page at the end that is absolutely devastating, one that moves from brutal violence to a lifetime's worth of love and memories. It's Aguirre-Sacasa that might set up the premise, but it's Francavilla that shows the sheer tragic scale of Afterlife with Archie.

As somebody who reads an enormous amount of comics every week, you can sometimes get jaded by the endless deaths and cheap shocks needed to make an "event" worthwhile. But that makes comics like Afterlife with Archie #4 all the sweeter. Under the horror and shambling corpses, there's a moving character piece lurking beneath the surface. And perhaps that's the most surprising lesson that Archie Andrews has to teach us: that it's the heart, not the hordes, that'll really kill you. But when it comes to Afterlife with Archie #4, it's a testament that even the greatest heartbreak still feels oh-so-sweet.

Art from Veil #1
Art from Veil #1
Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Veil #1
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Toni Fejzula
Lettering by Nate Piekos
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Greg Rucka holds a lot back in the debut issue of Veil but it only adds to the air of mystery surrounding his lead character, Veil, a female amnesiac who wakes up surrounded by rats in a filthy subway tunnel. Rucka and artist Toni Fejzula let Veil lead the story, resulting in a style of storytelling that feels expansive despite it’s minimalism. Where many creative teams would opt to really set the stage for the book, Ruck and Fejzula instead set only the tone, the feel, the intangible, unsettling unknown.

At the urging of Dark Horse editor Scott Allie, Rucka finally brought his concept for Veil to the page. A mix of horror and mystery, Veil messes with some early preconceived notions. Opening with a few almost unrelated images, we’re soon introduced to an attractive, naked young woman. But instead of launching into a voiceover and letting us in, Rucka keeps us at bay. The woman is nonsensical. The words on the page almost echo what the reader is thinking as they scan each panel. It’s frustrating and exhilarating.

And in Veil’s intrinsic vulnerability, Rucka finds strength. With Veil representing a seemingly virginal, pure naivete, it’s easy to fill in the world around her. She’s the ultimate foil and lines can quickly be drawn as to who are the good guys and the bad guys, assumptions can be made about the world and suddenly Rucka has enveloped us in this place in a genius way. rather than tell us the facts, he gives us an opportunity to draw our own conclusions. The conclusions that we draw will affect how we enjoy the story moving forward. It’s a risky but fascinating bit of misdirection.

Toni Fejzula is the reason that Rucka’s experimental approach works so well. His panels almost comes across as individual paintings. The way he uses light seems to reveal things about a characters’ personality. Our villains in this issue are given harsh shadows on their faces, leading them to look more like ghouls than human beings. Dante and Veil’s lightning is softer, more natural and friendlier. And Fejzula doesn’t skimp on details. from the architecture of the city to even the knobs on Dante’s TV cabinet, he presents us a whole and complete vision of the space these characters occupy. His color work is not quite as dark as one would expect from a horror title, but the washed-out color palette lends itself to the story’s creepy vibe.

Veil #1 is an exciting series debut. This issue raises a lot more questions than it answers, but Rucka and Fejzula’s approach promises that we are only seeing the seeds of a great story being planted here. Fans of Dark Horse’s other forays into the horror and mystery genres would be remiss to pass on this one. Rucka is pushing the comic book medium into new and invigorating territory and he has an excellent artist in Toni Fejzula, along for the ride with him.

Credit: Image Comics

Starlight #1
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Goran Parlov and Ive Svorcina
Lettering by Marko Sunjic
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Old soldiers never die; they just fade away. This is Duke McQueen’s life; a slow and painful fading away, all while trying to keep a firm grasp on the memories of his past glory. Thus we are introduced to the world of Starlight, the first book in a proposed expansion of the Millarworld Universe and just one of the many new creator-owned offerings from Image Comics. Though the premise may sound all kinds of pulpy, the comic that is presented behind the gorgeous John Cassaday cover is completely different than what we expect. What we see may be high-concept camp, but what we get is a muted character study that serves as a promising yet restrained start to this new series from one of comic’s most polarizing scribes.

Starlight follows ex-Air Force test pilot Duke McQueen, who in his glory days flew his plane through a wormhole and landed on the distant planet of Tantalus. It was here that McQueen played the part of John Carter and toppled a intergalactic dictator to save the world. Yet instead of staying behind, he elected to return to Earth to live out his days with his wife. The story picks up years later, and McQueen’s wife has just passed, leaving our hero disconnected and aimless. This comic is a truly remarkable work of creative restraint on the part of Mark Millar. Millar, whose name has become synonymous with over-the-top storytelling, really shows a range long unseen in the pages of Starlight. Here he lets the story on Earth take center stage while McQueen’s high adventuring on an alien world is mostly told in sparse flashbacks, giving us only the smallest hints of his daring do. Its a hard 180 degrees from the blood-spattered hijinks of Kick-Ass and Nemesis and a wonderful change of pace for Millar.

The comic is quiet and thoughtful when it comes to its protagonist, instead of losing itself in overwrought dramatics and action sets pieces. It presents us a man trying to deal with not only the twilight of his life, but with an ever-increasing distance between himself and his family, and in larger part, the world around him. The woman that he rejected a kingdom for is gone and he is lost. What do you live for when the person that you love the most is gone? Where do you go when you have nothing around you worth staying for? Its heady stuff indeed, and something that I honestly would have never expected Millar to tackle in a comic that was sold to me as “Buzz Lightyear meets Unforgiven,” yet I am pleased as punch that he took the creative direction that he did with this first issue. This first issue puts character and mood first, while playing its larger story direction very close to the chest, offering us only small glimpses into the story that lies in wait for Duke beyond the stars. Millar and his team seem to be very concerned with letting the reader get to know Duke and his mindset before blasting off into the universe and that’s all well and good, but I have a feeling that some readers will be disappointed at the largely quiet and deliberately paced story found in Starlight #1. It's a very well made first issue, but those looking for ham-fisted space adventure need not look here.

Mark Millar also makes another smart choice in the presentation of Starlight #1 and that is allowing the amazing Goran Parlov and his team to carry the lion’s share of the storytelling which results in more than a few emotionally arresting scenes. Parlov’s lean lines carry the style and emotions of early Tim Sale while Ive Svorcina continues a streak of incredible colors that was started in the pages of Thor: God of Thunder. Its a very difficult thing for some artists to strike that balance between high action and emotion without making one feel more refined than the other, but Parlov handles it gorgeously by treating the tone of both types of scenes with the same amount of attention. He even mixes both tones in one of the comic’s most emotional scenes. In one wordless sequence, Parlov sets up a stark comparison between Duke’s mundane Earth life and his youthful days of swashbuckling on Tantalus. It's a powerful scene and a very telling bit of characterization that informs the readers in ways that mere narration couldn’t hope to touch.

While this may not be a perfect start to the Millarworld Universe, it is certainly an unexpectedly thoughtful entry into Mark Millar’s canon and and welcome change of pace and tone from the man who gave us The Ultimates. Science fiction is a genre in which you can tell a myriad of stories, ranging from cosmic horror to explorations of class, yet who could have guessed that Starlight would be a thoughtful mediation on age and one’s place in a world that has moved on? Duke McQueen may be fading on Earth, but still has a chance to re-ignite his spark beyond the stars.

Credit: Oni Press

The Auteur #1
Written by Rick Spears
Art by James Callahan and Luigi Anderson
Lettering by Rick Spears
Published by Oni Press
Review by Brendan McGuirk
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

To be fascinated by art, largely, is to be fascinated by creativity.

The more invested we become in the production of creativity, the more intrigued we are by the process. Appreciating, we discover with time, is a creative endeavor of its own.

As awards season illustrates with such clarity, celebrity culture, the cottage industry once perceived to be a mere complimentary piece to mass-market creativity, is, if we're being kind, of roughly the same cultural import as artistic expression. For all the millions of high-minded connoisseurs who would tell you that it should not be this way, the fact is that more people have heard of Adele Dazeem than have Idina Menzel. We can throw as many “Rue!”s and “Fie!”s at it as we want, but we can't deny it.

Instead of fighting against this pervasive mass-media cultural tide, The Auteur, from Rick Spears, James Callahan, Luigi Anderson and Oni Press, defiantly surfs head-on into the break. It tells the story of down-to-his-last-strike super-producer Nathan T. Rex, whose last feature was the kind of mega-flop that folds studios and leaves people getting their cement shoes wet. T-Rex, as he's known, is already hard at work at his reclamation project, a schlocky slasher flick called “President's Day,” that, at best, will prove nothing but Rex's ability to turn turnips into mildly digestible turnip juice. He has vision, though, or, after consulting one of showbiz's finest drug dealer/shamans, is at the very least having visions, and he will follow those visions through until his greatness, glory, and ego are all restored and validated in the very public eye of his life.

The first issue of The Auteur is a madcap sprint through a hyper-realized, surrealistic Hollywood. Rex is all over the place; the circumstances of our introduction suggest that he's something of a hack, but as we meet his contemporaries and adversaries it becomes clearer and clearer that he's far from the worst of his bunch. He's just more desperate. He articulates his goals with pretty strong clarity late in the issue, just before his mind is cleaved, mid-hallucination, by the savage revelation he believes will save his picture (and career). His entire identity is riding on the world's approval of his work, which, at its most primal level, might be the beating, insecure heart of all creativity, regardless of craft.

And that's the secret of Spears and Callahan's story; for all its colorful bluster and farce, it is actually about something very real. It's an exploration of commercial creativity and ownership and input and process and pervasive cultural cynicism. Rex is trying to make things, low-brow and crappy though they may be, and you can't help but admire the manic, frenetic drive he exhibits in his attempt to outpace failure. He is trying, after all.

There's a lot of promise to this first issue. Everything from Rex to the take on L.A. to the frontal-lobe-attacking imagery is so wildly unpredictable that setting an expectation for the story feels pointless. It's ultra-engaging on a visual level. I wasn't sure if I was imagining a Nicktoons-y, Klasky Csupo quality to Callahan and Anderson's work until I saw what I'm sure was Reptar in a crowd shot, when the association cemented itself. The colors are vibrant, the character work is as funny as the situations, and the storytelling is clear. There's a lot of conversation around hackery in the story, but this one is utterly cohesive.

With hallucinations and delusions and grandeur, creatives Rick Spears, James Callahan and Luigi Anderson reveal themselves to be every bit as in control as Rex isn't with their unforgiving assault on Hollywood. They themselves are chasing something very raw.

There's something Rex's eye, gorily vaulting out of its socket on the issue's cover, is dying to tell you:

The Auteur has vision.

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