Best Shots Advance Reviews: MEN OF WRATH #1 Another Hit for Aaron, FADE OUT #2, More

Men of Wrath art
Credit: Marvel/ICON
Credit: Marvel/ICON

Men of Wrath #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Ron Garney and Matt Milla
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Marvel/ICON
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

You'd be forgiven if you see more than a few similarities between Men of Wrath and Jason Aaron's other creator-owned series, Southern Bastards. Hell, he sees them, too.

The reference in the beginning of Southern Bastards, where Aaron mentions his great-great-grandfather stabbed a man over an argument about sheep? It's the inciting incident to Men of Wrath. A gristled old warrior as a taciturn hero? Both got 'em. The idea of violence being passed along like a cursed birthright ties the two stories together thematically as well as aesthetically, giving Aaron a recipe for gritty, powerful stories.

But where Southern Bastards is a methodically paced work of pure unholy artwork, Men of Wrath doesn't have time for such niceties. Instead, Aaron and artist Ron Garney cut to the quick, weaving together what looks to be an action story draped in Alabama pathos. Whereas Southern Bastards feels decompressed, Men of Wrath jumps into the mix early, even if it's at the cost of the atmosphere. There's not a lot of heart to Men of Wrath just yet, but Aaron goes back to some time-tested themes just enough to keep you interested.

Yet for all the talk I give about similarities, maybe what stands out the most are the differences. Ira Rath, to steal from True Detective, is a Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch - he's a Southern hitman who doesn't just stop at killing thieves, but even throws babies into the mud pits with their dead parents. It's dark, but is almost included as a throwaway gesture - which might make you fume at Aaron just as much as his character. But I think that banality is what represents Men of Wrath - violence is a sickness, passed down from father to son, from the moment that Isom Rath stabbed a man in the neck. Ira's a character who's basically irredeemable, unlike Southern Bastards' tortured soul Earl, so you almost don't feel anything when he's diagnosed with cancer. But Aaron wisely gives even this unrepentant murderer a chance for some redemption, and that makes for this issue's more interesting twist.

The artwork by Aaron's Wolverine partner Ron Garney is also much more straightfoward than Southern Bastards' Jason Latour, going more for dynamic realism than dramatic color shifts and split panels. In many ways, Men of Wrath feels more cinematic, particularly the way that Garney frames Ira as a shadowy specter of death. It's pretty rare for Ira's eyes to be shown, and with some of the superheroic poses that Garney perhaps subconsciously gives him, he almost looks like a skeleton. Fitting for a dead man walking. Granted, Garney doesn't get to cut loose with his high-caliber action sequences just yet, but Aaron goes way beyond Chekhov's gun here - a panel of Ira sitting in a room stocked with automatic weapons means that things are going to be hitting the fan sooner rather than later.

There's always a question of commercialism versus "art," and which will be more popular. Do you give the people what they want, and play to expectations? Or do you test the boundaries and create an arguably richer experience, but at the cost of a smaller audience? Jason Aaron is one of those rare writers who gets to do both, channeling his complicated feelings for the South in a number of different stories, dating all the way back even to Scalped. Faster and less complicated than its Image Comics counterpart, Men of Wrath is just the latest on Aaron's musings about his heritage, and it's streamlined and potent thanks to Ron Garney's art. For me, I might argue that Men of Wrath's major weakness is that it doesn't go far enough, and thus feels just a little bit light. Still, while it's not a definitive work about the area - it's not even Aaron's definitive work about the area - there's plenty of potential here.

Credit: Image Comics

The Fade Out #2
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Lettering by Sean Phillips
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It is safe to say at this stage in the game that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have cornered the market on modern noir. The Fade Out has cracked open the oft explored seedy underside that was Hollywoodland of the late 1940s, a time when the famous sign that graces the hills was itself in dire need of repair, soon to lose the fairytale quality that those last four letters of the sign provided. Using a suspicious death as a catalyst to expose the nest of secrets that runs through the City of Angels the sign overlooks, the award-winning team of Brubaker and Phillips let loose with a instantly classic piece of intrigue.

Major film sets are usually filled with dozens of people madly scrambling around to make the people on screen look good, and this was never more true than in the height of the Hollywood system. With starlet Valeria Sommers dead, the film is left without a leading lady a gaping hole that people are filling in their own ways. Screenwriter Charlie Parish knows there is something more to Valeria’s death than he is letting on, and after sharing the secrets with his friend and blacklisted writer Gil Mason, that same hole threatens to pull the both of them in.

In the second issue, The Fade Out confidently steps away from any comparisons with the similarly themed Satellite Sam and forges its own intrinsic path. What it does share with Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin’s book is a strong sense of character, and this too is where is manages to play with our preconceptions about noir tropes. Charlie is ostensibly our everyman, a semi-classic blend of anti-hero and knight in sour armor that keeps with the conventions of the genre, a figure who sees the world for what it is but is powerless to do anything about it. Traumatized in the war, his metaphoric impotence is hammered home in this issue, with the revelation that Gil is working around his House Committee on Un-American Activities ban on working by ghostwriting for Charlie. In a handful of panels, our perception of both characters has irreversibly changed, and it is just one of the surprises this book has in store for us.

Sean Phillips, who has been arguably drawing deadbeats since his Hellblazer work in 1990, completely nails the styles, colors and fashions of the late 1940s. Faces are imbued with character, with shifts in expressions far from the melodrama on screen in the film-within-a-comic, which is something else that he also manages to monochromatically replicate on panel. Angles and ‘shots’ are carefully chosen to seemingly replicate the cinema of the era, not just for the aforementioned ‘film’, but throughout the book as well. Take for example a cemetery scene, all long shadows and light, and Gil is first glimpsed as a figure skulking around the corner of a tomb. Were it not for Charlie’s narration, he would almost be one with the shadows. Elizabeth Breitweiser’s color shifts subtly to indicate whether the scene is occurring in the present or is filtered through memory, allowing for almost imperceptible time jumps between individual panels. It’s a testament to both the artists and the writer that these transitions work so seamlessly.

In any other story, leaving the lead battered and bruised in the final panels would be a shocking cliffhanger. Instead, here it is a kind of catharsis for both Charlie and Gil, albeit one that leaves both characters and readers on a downer. That itself is indicative of where this series is headed. “It’s another betrayal to add to the pile,” notes Charlie, projecting Gil’s thoughts. “He’s sure it won’t be the last.” The Fade Out hasn’t taken us all the way down the rabbit hole yet, but we’re only just desperately clinging onto the edges of it.

Fiction Squad #1 cover - the next Fablewood story
Fiction Squad #1 cover - the next Fablewood story
Credit: Paul Jenkins, Ramon Bachs

Fiction Squad #1
Written by Paul Jenkins
Art by Ramon Bachs and Leonardo Paciarotti
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Something’s rotten in the realm of Fablewood. Children’s stories have always been filled with hidden violence and darker sides masking social tides, whether it’s witches pushed into ovens or beautiful young maidens being fed poison apples. In this sequel/spin-off to Fairy Quest, both products of a successful Kickstarter campaign, Paul Jenkins extrapolates on every piece of childhood fiction, puts it all into a comedic melting pot and parodies hard-boiled detective pulp in the process.

Rather than being a straight follow-up to the previous volumes, Fiction Squad takes a few pages out of its own storybook and branches off in a different direction. When Humpty Dumpty has a great fall, and Jack and Jill take a tumble, detective Frankie Mack suspects foul play at the hands of the mafia-like Witches and Queens. A refugee from a dime-store crime novel, he struggles against an idiot partner (Simple Simon), a corrupt Mayor (who is, after all, a Crooked Man) and just about every hand of cards and tea party gunning to give Frankie a shakedown. When a house lands on a familiar set of legs, things take a turn for the worse.

Fiction Squad is Fables without the mature readers label, and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheekery to boot. Jenkins doesn’t so much poke fun at the familiar characters as pummel us with puns, with nary a panel going by without a deliberately cringe-worthy jibe coming at us. Cornered by a deck of cards, Frankie quips “You know me, boys -- I only play games I can win.” Naturally, they later reply “Seems like you ain’t playing with the full deck, Frankie”, and the tone is pretty much set from there. It’s reminiscent of some junior comedy fiction of the ilk that remains a mainstay at your local public library, and it could happily be recommended as an all-ages read were it not a tad too wordy (not to mention the plethora of busty maidens) for that label.

The art of Ramon Bachs, reteaming with Jenkins after previously collaborating on Civil War: Front Line, adds to this youthful quality. You can imagine the rubber bands that hold together the cartoonish qualities of the angular figures and wide-eyed expressions in this melting pot of storybook favourites. As with the text, it’d be a Saturday morning cartoon were it not for the darker shades and suggestive violence of the town. Leonardo Paciarotti’s colors add a Victorian “Gothic Revival” (or more aptly, “jigsaw Gothic”) to the landscape. Yet the tone never feels anything less than jovial, winking at its audience while cushioning them with familiar cultural touchstones.

Fiction Squad is unmistakably fun, even if it is treading some more than familiar ground in the process. It’s not a wholly original take on the genre, but given the nature of the material Jenkins is playing with, it doesn’t have to be. Indeed, it flat out recognizes that all stories are borrowing elements from similar tales, so the comedy of recognition is something that it tries to work in its favor. It’s the kind of concept that tends to work best in short bursts, and while this is solicited as a mini-series, it will be interesting to see if the narrative can sustain its core pun-damentals over the course of an entire series.

Credit: Oni Press

Brides of Helheim #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Joëlle Jones and Nick Filardi
Lettering by Crank!
Published by Oni Press
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's only been a few months since writer Cullen Bunn and artist Joëlle Jones finished the first arc of the critically acclaimed series Helheim. But for the residents of the war and witch scarred land, many years have past. And while the physical symptoms of that witch war have all but subsided, the myths and legends remain to frighten the believers. The moment you opened the first page in the original story, you had an understanding of what these creators were trying to accomplish. Being a fresh take on the classic Frankenstein myth, using Viking warfare and mysticism as the backdrop. Still, beyond that wonderfully visceral image, there were themes of emptiness and sadness that can only come from lost love that's as barren as the battle-scarred landscape Rikard and and his people call home. Like all good sequels, Brides of Helheim needs to tap that familiarity while standing on its own.

Where the first arc presented Joëlle Jones' skill in revealing the beautiful and harsh landscape to set the tone, Brides of Helheim #1 goes in the opposite direction. There is a sense of claustrophobia as the reader is introduced to our newest characters, the spirited Sigrid and her loyal, if slightly shaken friend, Brand. Together they seek out the myth of the undead draugr in order to slay a new monster terrorizing the a village. Although the opening pages are heavy with smaller panels, Bunn still provides plenty of room for Jones to sell this story. It would have been easy to present Sigrid as the cliched tough daughter, and while that still may happen, for now we have a character filled with depth (and danger). Jones' clean lines hint at a regal sensuality, but detail paid to facial expressions, particularly under the eyes and around the mouth show the tortured years this character has endured.

Nick Filardi on colors also takes a cue from Jones' pristine line art and eases back on the shades, letting an open palette fill the area. Doing so goes a long way in setting this new story apart from its predecessor, which lived within the shifting colors in its opening issues. While the land is still harsh and horrors wait in the shadows, the day to day life is a bit more cut and dry. At least until Sigrid and Brand face Rikard and ask for his assistance. Once the cursed hero and his now adult witch companion enter the scene, both Jones' lines and Filardi's colors twist and turn. As if the very presence of these unearthly creatures infect the story. It's a great partnering that is truly the highlight of this book.

That's not to say Cullen Bunn is a silent partner in this comic. Indeed, Brides of Helheim reveals Bunn's understanding of classic horror and how it can still be used effectively. Like the films from which this series draws some inspiration, Brides of Helheim has moved beyond the Universal Horror of the 1930s and into the technicolor Hammer films of the 1960s. Bunn writes a Rikard with far more depth than the rampaging agent of vengeance of before. While his witches, undead and otherwise, slowly begin to reveal their true goal. While by no means an insult to Bunn's writing, he wisely takes a step back to the visuals in regards to exposition and design. Instead letting the art and dialogue drive both the reader and the story along.

Brides of Helheim #1 does not have the explosive opening fans experienced in the first series. In that way, it may distract a few fans. However, there is enough here to fully hook a new reader looking for something different, but still want some blood and gore in their fantasy comics. That being said, Bunn and Jones already proved they can hook us with the violence. With Brides of Helheim #1, the creators are merely asking the reader to sit back and let the darkness slowly work over you. It's a request I'll happily accept.

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