Best Shots Advance Reviews: THE FADE OUT #1, THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #3

Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

The Fade Out #1
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The modern masters of noir, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, are back with a Hollywood-tinged murder mystery, and it’s hard not to fall back down the rabbit hole with them again. These two creators have been churning out these types of stories for years, and their continued success is a testament to their reverence for the genre but also a desire to take it in new directions. By tweaking common conventions and speeding up the pacing to suit the tastes of a more modern reader, The Fade Out is able to provide an experience that is a throwback to a different era of fiction writing and a suitable primer for new readers and old fans alike.

Credit: Image Comics

The plot itself isn’t a world-changer. Brubaker sticks to a pretty tried-and-true formula in that regard - a Hollywood writer finds himself in a situation with a dead starlet and we get to watch as he navigates his world with the knowledge that things aren’t exactly as they seem. Where Brubaker really excels - where I think any writer needs to excel to sell this kind of story - is with his characterization, not just of the major players in the book but of the setting itself.

Hollywood is much more fast and loose than it is now. People with money ran the studios and sometimes the people with money happened to be criminals. Brubaker peels back a layer to expose some of the seediness that lurks beneath the surface. And Charlie Parrish, our protagonist, has mostly been on the outside looking in. He’s kind of nebbish. He’s a writer. He’s heard about all the stuff that goes on behind closed doors, but he doesn’t get involved. As he slowly pieces together his drunken night, some of these revelations are disturbing... and others are actually kind of funny. There’s the play. While the story is serious and the setting is unsettling (particularly when you consider the politics of women and people of color at the time), Brubaker is still able to a few light-hearted character moments. In a genre that can be overly serious at times, it’s a welcome respite and keeps the book very even-keeled in its approach.

Credit: Image Comics

Sean Phillips continues to be the first name I think of when anyone says “noir” and “comics” in the same sentence. There’s an acute understanding of his setting, both time and place, in his work. The attention to detail is akin to the “Mad Men” crew’s dedication to providing a very period-specific experience. Anachronisms might take an astute reader out of the story and so Phillips never gives them that chance. Some of Phillips’s best work comes when Parrish is desperately trying to remember the events of his night. The blank faces he sees in his memory extend in horrifying maws. A simple smear of lipstick sends his mind into a purple haze of smoke and sex appeal. It’s these moments where Phillips really gets to stretch his muscles and change up the expectations of the visual language of the book. It would be easy to do something more straightforward. It’s a crime noir story. They tend to have a specific look, but with the addition of Elizabeth Breitweiser on colors, Phillip’s takes the opportunity to surprise us, and he does so with aplomb.

The Fade Out is already looking like another highlight in the prolific partnership between Brubaker and Phillips. It’s always fun to have creators that so consistently work together and turn out a great product. This book might be a bit lighter than some of their other noir but there are plenty of openings for it to take more violent and unexpected twists and turns. The Fade Out is a master class in art and writing. And it’s definitely a book worthy of your dollars especially if you’re looking for a break from the usual slog of the monthly spinner rack.

Credit: Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine #3
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Beneath all of Jamie McKelvie's gorgeous artwork and Kieron Gillen's pop-legend-infused spectacle, The Wicked + The Divine is, at its heart, a detective story draped in religious scripture. It preaches to the followers even if it comes off as difficult - perhaps even nonsense - to the nonbelievers. Even with the premise of pop stars as living gods, this isn't a "leisure" comic, but an actively challenging read. Between the deep, rich mythology and the beautiful but occasionally flawed artwork, this is a comic that'll require some deep rereading. But that doesn't mean it's not worth it.

Credit: Image Comics

Kieron Gillen's central conceit reads a bit like something Jonathan Hickman might write, as 12 gods are incarnated as ultra-popular music stars with just a two-year lifespan. Unfortunately, this society is thrown into turmoil when the Bowie-inspired Lucifer is framed for murder. In this third issue, Laura, an ordinary fangirl, travels deep into the abyss to find the Morrigan - or at least what's left of her. If you're not at least a little well-versed in mythology, you may want to fire up your Wikipedia engines, as Gillen swarms us with names like Baphomet, Baal and more. Gillen's opening is shocking and outre - a talking decapitated head screaming puns and talking about tattooing women's birth canals is about as counterculture as it gets - and while it's tough to get your head around on first read, it's a jarring but altogether fitting setup to a clash between gods.

Speaking of the divine - if cleanliness is next to godliness, then it might be time to canonize St. Jamie McKelvie. His artwork has a smooth, almost porcelian feel to it, with every character looking deliberate and perfectly put together. A lot of people use the word "beautiful" to describe artwork, but McKelvie's characters are literally too pretty to be human. But McKelvie isn't just about immaculate character design, as he absolutely outdoes himself in a two-page spread as the Morrigan's violent personality known as Badb, who delivers some of Gillen's most filthy dialogue, flies into the sewers as a flock of crows. (Don't ask what they're going to do to Baphomet's eyes. It's gross.) Perhaps most interesting is the use of color and full-on blacks to create mood - Matt Wilson has a great page of an officer on psychedelic fire, and the two pages that are drenched in black are a great way to make the reader as disoriented as our protagonist.

Credit: Image Comics

That said, there are a few hurdles to jump through here. The biggest problem with this book is that one of the central conceits of the first half - namely, the multiple personalities of the Morrigan - is difficult to catch on the first (or third) read. Even a transitory shot of a body transforming would have been enough for us to get the message, instead of having a complete shift between panels. Additionally, the second half of Gillen's script sets up the continued mystery but at the cost of the madcap momentum he set up near the beginning - it's largely dialogue, as Lucifer rules out the various gods who framed her. McKelvie makes it look great, and admittedly the dialogue is fun, but it's not a particularly visual way to establish any of these other characters, and after the effort of parsing through the first half, it might turn some readers off.

Still, the sheer spectacle of Jamie McKelvie's artwork makes The Wicked + The Divine worth reading, and if you're willing to put in the time and the brainpower towards cracking Gillen's massive, byzantine storyline, it's doubly rewarding. Admittedly, this book probably isn't going to bring in new believers - if you're not into the sort of pop deconstruction that Gillen is selling, well, the dense mythology and over-the-top dialogue probably isn't going to change that. But there is a lot of creative energy that is crackling off the pages for The Wicked + The Divine, and this third issue continues this with an almost religious fervor.

Credit: Dynamite

Justice, Inc. #1
Written by Michael Uslan
Art by Giovanni Timpano and Marco Lesko
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when pulp’s greatest heroes found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, Justice, INC #1 was formed... and it was kind of a mess. On paper, a team-up involving Doc Savage, the Avenger and the Shadow sounds like a match made in newsstand heaven, but after reading few pages into Justice, Inc. #1, it might send you scrambling for other pulp team-up books that Dynamite has to offer. It isn’t that legendary producer and famous pulp fanatic Michael Uslan wrote an unreadable comic, it's just that he seems to have written a needlessly overstuffed comic, involving time travel and near-constant historical name dropping, instead of just cutting to the chase and delivering on the promise of seeing three of the greatest pulp adventurers teaming up to take down a common enemy. Justice, Inc. #1 never shakes off the chains of its own self-importance.

Justice, Inc. #1 starts us off in present day as Doc Savage, nestled in the safety of his Himalayan science facility, aims to break the walls of time itself using his own privately funded super-collider. Inspired by H.G. Wells, the first of many of Justice, Inc.'s clunky historical references, Doc hypothesizes that he can travel back and forth through time using the collider to smash sub-atomic particles in order to produce something he calls the Wells Particle. Naturally, it all goes pear-shaped, and Doc is forced into action to rescue a commercial jet that is sucked into the vortex and deposited into 1939, ironically enough, on the same day that Doc and Albert Einstein were due to fly to his fortress of solitude to start work on the project.

If all of this seems a bit much, you are right. And this is just the first five pages of the issue. Uslan, a true scholar of comics and pulps, packs so much science fiction into the first pages that the issue is already off the rails before it even begins. It is baffling to me that he chose to use a time displaced Doc Savage as the lead, instead of following the 1939 version of Savage that is already operating and aware of other heroes. Speaking of the other heroes, if you weren’t aware that this was a team-up book from the gorgeous Alex Ross cover, you would never think it was actually reading Justice, Inc. as the Avenger and the Shadow really only show up in extended cameos, as if merely to show their faces and then disappear until the next issue.

We do get a nice little emotional beat involving Richard Benson and his family and a goofy introduction to Kent Allard, the Shadow’s print alias, along with Howard Hughes, but Justice, Inc. is still very much the Doc Savage show, making this issue feel less like a team book and more like an issue of Doc’s solo series. Certainly Uslan needs to set up his wonky time travel science, but from where I’m sitting, it seems like the easiest thing in the world to set up any number of reasons for three legendary pulp adventurers to come together and take down evil - and none of them require as much page-chewing exposition. I was excited to read Justice, Inc. because the promise of this kind of team up was too good to resist, but instead I got another sci-fi tinged issue of the Doc Savage solo series under a different title.

Taking more than a few cues from the Doc Savage solo series is artist Giovanni Timpano, whose panels look eerily similar to those of Bilquis Everly, regular artist over on Doc Savage. Timpano’s panels are a bit more static looking and his character’s more wild eyed than Everly’s but the similarities give Justice, Inc. and Doc Savage a bit more visual connective tissue than anyone could have expected and I’m still not sure if that is the best thing. Timpano’s panels and layouts look great, especially during the issue’s thrilling airliner set piece, but it is never a good sign when someone reading your book is constantly being reminded just how much it looks like a separate book. Rounding out this series art team, and nailing the time hopping tone of each decade it depicts is colorist Marco Lesko. Lesko effortlessly handles the steely science fiction of the scenes in the present day as well as the yellowed look of yesteryear in 1939, nimbly rendering both the modern era and they heyday of pulps with ease.

I was pretty excited for Justice, Inc. #1. Dynamite Entertainment has been consistently knocking it out of the park with their vast line of pulp titles and I just assumed that this would be yet another check mark in their win column. But, as they say, you can’t win them all, and there isn’t much about Justice, Inc. #1 that could be considered a win. Michael Uslan certainly has a great pulp book in him. Hell, he has written several great ones already, but this first issue isn’t one of them. My fingers are crossed that Uslan and Timpano have some truly great issues in store for us that will send this dream team up into the world with the kind of storytelling that we expect from them if only to make me forget how overstuffed and clunky this first issue was, but, until then, only the Shadow knows what narratives lurk in the heart of their writer.

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