Best Shots Advance Reviews: AVENGERS & X-MEN: AXIS #1, SABRINA, WYTCHES, More

Marvel previews for October 8, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Axis #1
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Adam Kubert, Laura Martin, and Matt Milla
Letters by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Axis #1 may be Marvel's biggest dud in a long string of unrelentingly mediocre crossovers. While Rick Remender has sufficiently laid many of the seeds for this, the seeming culmination of several long running plot lines from Uncanny Avengers, the events of Axis #1 still find ways to feel unearned and completely ephemeral, thanks to choppy, hard to follow and harder to like storytelling, and a sense of brevity that feels remarkably inappropriate. With art from Adam Kubert that is adequate at best, and a script that reads like all the dross cut from other comics Remender has written, Axis#1's most redeeming qualities are the glimmers of hope for the changes to the status quo that it portends.

From the get go, Remender's script is littered with puns and quips that seem designed to capitalize on the ridiculousness of the Avengers feeling even marginally threatened by the likes of Plantman but which, in practice, come off a little desperate and obnoxious, like the script was written by someone's kid brother. Remender has a strong sense of humor, and an even better track record for dialogue, making the fact that so much of this issue is as tedious and uninteresting as it is even more tragic. Bits of hand-waving dialogue, and the dissection of non sequitur plot points seem designed only to get from point A to point B, add to the defiant lack of story logic, leaving behind a script that barely holds water, let alone any of the weight is must be meant to carry.

There are bright spots poking through the dark curtain of untenable dialogue and half-baked twists; the reunion of the X-Men, and the hints at a resurrection of Professor X, or at least of his dream are the definite silver lining to this cloud. Xavier's psychic message to Rogue is the highlight of the book, even if Rogue herself, much like her usual foil Scarlet Witch feel thrust into the exact same roles they have occupied in all of Remender's Unity Squad stories.

And that's really the issue. It's hard to feel excited about a story that feels like so much retread. While these threads have been dangling for sometime, simply scooping them up and balling them together feels like a poor excuse for actually tying them off. Adam Kubert's art does the book very few favors in that department. Though it would be a stretch to call his work objectively bad, it is at least uninteresting and even somewhat dated. Kubert's inks feel rushed, leaving his characters often distended or warped, a fact exacerbated by his remarkably strong layouts. Kubert's art isn't the book's downfall, but it certainly isn't helping Axis feel like more than the sum of any of its parts.

It is very hard to feel optimistic about any major crossover these days, especially one that comes so hot on the heels of another remarkably lackluster event, and Axis does very little to relieve anyone's event fatigue. The problem is, we all know the inevitable return to status quo that will follow, and while superhero comics these days are far more about the journey than the destination, even the window dressing in Axis feels like gears simply grinding to the next stop, with no care for how the story arrives at its foreordained objective so long as no one falls off the cart on the way there.

Credit: Archie Comics

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina #1
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Robert Hack
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Erika D. Peterman
’Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Something wicked this way comes The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a dark and utterly compelling new series from Archie Comics. Make that several somethings, because writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has packed Issue #1 with ominous events that add up to a grand debut.

Just like Afterlife With Archie, in which Aguirre-Sacasa is doing masterful work along with artist Francesco Francavilla, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” upends everything you thought you knew about familiar characters and creates an alternate universe that perfectly suits the story. From the very first panel, a scene of bare-limbed trees, a full moon and a house straight out of a bad dream, you’ll know you’re about to be taken on an unexpected journey.

Sabrina’s origin story provides the first shock, and it would be a shame to give it away here. All you need to know is that it explains how she came to be raised by her aunts, witches Hilda and Zelda. She’s surrounded by magic – not the sweet, bibbity-bobbity-boo kind, either – and learns to use it early. However, being half human sets Sabrina apart from the other powerful beings in her world, and she is palpably lonely and melancholy without her parents.

One of Aguirre-Sacasa’s most interesting choices is setting the comic in the past. Sabrina becomes a teenager in the era of Beatlemania, and it absolutely works. Artist Robert Hack’s work captivates from start to finish. Each scene is rich with detail. The character presentation, from Hilda’s haughty cheekbones to high school heartthrob Harvey’s perfect, golden hair, is just plain striking. Hack’s use of orange and brown tones in the background gives sparingly used, bright colors extra impact. Jack Morelli deserves credit for his clean, unobtrusive lettering work as well.

I’m eager to see how Aguirre-Sacasa explores the consequences of using magic. Sabrina’s companion, the scene-stealing, dryly funny cat, Salem, suggests they can be considerable. Sabrina seems to be a good kid, but what teenager wouldn’t use her kinds of powers to make adolescence more bearable? What could possibly go wrong?

Speaking of Salem, he and Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose, punctuate the second half of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina with sharp, funny dialogue. Salem frowns upon “glamours” to make oneself more attractive, but Ambrose disagrees: “It wasn’t for vanity, Salem, it was for protection. You’ve never been to high school, but I have. It’s as dangerous and frightful a place as hell on earth for mortals and witches alike.”

If this first issue is any indication, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is going to be right up there with Afterlife With Archie in the suspense and surprises department. High-quality storytelling, gorgeous art and plenty of chills cast a strong spell.

Art from Wytches #1
Art from Wytches #1
Credit: Image Comics

Wytches #1
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jock and Matt Hollingsworth
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The premise behind The Wytches is that they exist, even if they take on a more terrifying form than the human version we understand them to be. The idea of subverting reader expectations is made clearer as the spelling of the term is changes and the issue starts with a textbook definition of "witch" being scratched out by a clawed wytch hand. But don't expect to see these monsters redefined right away. The first issue takes its time establishing its characters along with introducing a key plot element involving everyday people pledging one another to the wytches in exchange for some yet-to-be-named promise. We meet Sailor Rooks and her family who recently relocated due to the teenaged-girl's highly publicized involvement in the accidental death of a girl who was bullying her. Not surprisingly, this traumatic experience is one that has strained the family in a variety of ways and provides the jumping on point for this story.

Readers who have regularly followed Snyder's work in and out of the superhero genre will find there are darker and more horrific elements in this story than the depths explored in The Wake or the monsters in American Vampire. While Image identifies The Wytches as a fantasy horror comic, I'm not sure I fully agree with this label. Although Snyder anchors his new series firmly in the horror genre, the fantasy element seems no more dominant than the personal drama that he has made himself known for crafting. The events unfolding in the opening pages are made more disturbing not by the monsters' appearance but by the interactions between mother and son. The flashback scene between Sailor and Annie is largely free of the supernatural, but once again, the human interactions between the meek young girl and her sadistic tormentor will send shivers down readers' spines. It's a ghastly scene, but the worst part is recognizing the possibility of events like this actually transpiring – and no supernatural elements are even needed at this point to elicit such tremors.

Of course, it's when those horrific and fantastical elements are introduced that Jock and Matt Hollingsworth flex their creative muscles. Horror in a comic can be difficult when compared to the real-time medium of film, as the latter has the ability to dictate the pace to its audience and shock them. Meanwhile, comics can be slowed down, held back at arms' length, and digested at the pace and comfort of the reader thereby removing some of the "teeth" of the genre. Yet this artistic team side steps this quagmire through drawing out and depicting elements from many readers' early childhood fears of the woods and night – the fear of the unknown lurking in the dark. Jock often eschews finer details when depicting those scenes in the woods, and instead, applies his signature roughly-hewn and heavier inks to those panels, which creates a more brooding, ominous tone.

Likewise, Matt Hollingsworth makes use of a cooler and somewhat darker color set when in the presence of the wytches that helps bring out Jocks art all the more. This is especially true in the final pages while Sailor is in her room preparing to go to sleep, as the blue tones create a sharper contrast for the shadows Jock creates in which his horrors hide. Although our exposure to the wytches is limited, it's a smart decision to rely on the murky corners of the reader's imagination to fill in those gaps for the time being - an effective technique for building tension as the story comes to a close.

However, I do want to hedge my recommendation for this comic for readers who are of a more sensitive nature as this comic does delve into some emotionally charged areas. This is especially true for those readers who've been subject to extreme forms of bullying. On the other hand, one can see Sailor's story as giving voice to those same people, but it's worth noting all the same. Additionally, it is important to understand that this will not be a "one-and-done" issue. Snyder and Jock are telling a story that will span over multiple issues – something Snyder is well-known for – so it's worth recognizing this issue is but a piece within a greater narrative. No doubt later issues will clarify certain elements of the story that don't feel fully explained at this point, such the strange animal behavior or the connection between the father's line of work and the rest of the greater story. Be patient and let the narrative develop.

Overall, this issue does a number of things well from introducing readers to characters who "feel real" and are sympathetic to playing upon both the fears of the reader in addition to drawing upon our collective knowledge of the terrible things mankind is capable of doing to one another without the use of infernal powers. In all, Wytches #1 is off to a strong start, and like many Image firsts, it's compelling narrative and visual appeal will make it an immediate fan-favorite.

Credit: Image Comics

Punks #1
Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art by Kody Chamberlain
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

A dog, a fist, a skull and Abraham Lincoln share an apartment. It sounds like the set up to a terrible joke, but it’s actually the premise for Joshua Hale Fialkov and Kody Chamberlain’s wonderfully bizarre and irreverent Punks, a book that takes the cut, paste and photocopy aesthetics of old punk flyers and injects them with something resembling a plot. It might sound threadbare, but through it all Fialkov and Chamberlain are able to provide insight into the medium itself. If punk bands were often so bad that they were good, maybe Punks is so dumb that it’s actually smart?

It’s refreshing to read something that doesn't take itself so seriously. There are no origin stories here. There are no explanations. We join an existence already in progress and the dynamics of these roommates are pretty quickly laid out. Dog is the unwilling butt of everyone’s jokes. Lincoln is constantly reminding everyone that he’s 200 years old. Skull and Fist are kind of violent and angry. Punks exists somewhere between something like Reality Bites and SLC Punk, but with a healthy dose of absolute absurdity. Fialkov has no reason to make you want to like any of these characters and without that pressure, he can pretty much do whatever he wants with them. So Dog ends up killing gnomes. They all participate in some group misogyny as soon as a woman is present (which Fialkov plays for a laugh by being self-aware instead of offensive!). Fist “speaks” through signs because he doesn’t have a mouth. It’s gleefully stupid. But it always is Fialkov making some cutting critiques.

I guarantee that you won’t see anything else that looks like this on the shelves of your local comic book store. That’s because rather than take a traditional approach, Kody Chamberlain’s work more like a collage than anything else. (Something that’s especially evident in the reprint of an old story that essentially features an entire five dollar bill for Abraham Lincoln’s head.) It looks like the old show flyers from the ‘70s and ‘80s and for a book that leans heavily on the punk aesthetic, it’s a welcome change of pace from “regular” comics. Even when Chamberlain goes really heavy into design work, as he does with the “Wunderpants” section of the book, it’s still grounded in the fumetti style that’s on display throughout the issue.

The beauty of Punks is that it doesn’t take itself seriously. There’s a story called “Depression” with a very quick reference to Morrissey, because of course there is. At one point, Abraham Lincoln straight-up tells the reader that the next story will be split in two just so that they have to buy the second issue, a hilarious nod to the way comics are traditionally formatted - and this one is clearly anything but. Image Comics has always been standing in front of the rest of the comic book industry shouting “Let creators do what they want and it’ll work out.” Punks is an obvious testament to that.

Credit: IDW

The October Faction #1
Written by Steve Niles
Art by Damian Worm
Lettering by Robbie Robbins
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

And you thought your family was weird. Steve Niles smashes together horror and superhero aesthetics with his slick and atmospheric new book, The October Faction. Think of the Addams Family meets Abraham Van Helsing, and you've got The October Faction, a book that juggles family and fright with equal aplomb.

From the get-go, the best word to describe The October Faction might be "creepy." Or "creeper," it's hard to decide. There's definitely a sense of not just scare-mongering, but outright off-putting weirdness to the Allan family. Take Geoff, for example, who deals with a high school bully by siccing the ghosts of DUI victims on him. Or Vivian, who has horrifying visions of her classmates as fat blobby messes. The mother, Doloris, is having an affair, and even the patriarch, Professor Frederick Allan, has a secret - namely, that he was once a monster hunter. It's like a Wes Anderson movie, but with more of the undead.

Steve Niles' big success with The October Faction, similar to Mystery Society, is that he uses family dynamics to draw us in quickly. The kids are precocious, the parents are distant, and there's a sense of foreboding coming. That's the good news. The one downside, however, is that this issue ends just when it's starting to warm up - Niles is betting that if we are intrigued enough by the main characters, it won't matter that the main story has yet to unfold. (Doloris especially gets the short end of the stick, as we only get to see her from afar.) It's textbook decompression, and you can't help but feel a little bit disappointed that we can't see this oddball family cut loose.

The artwork by Damian Worm is one of the things that gives The October Faction its unique flavor, and it will ultimately make or break this book. Think of Fiona Staples meets Tim Burton - there's a jagged simplicity to Worm's character designs that is them submerged under his gloomy color palette, which almost reads like we're looking at this book through an old film or murky water. It's downright spooky, particularly when he's introducing settings like the Allan house or their blood-red living room. That said, it's very outre fare, especially when his brief action sequences feel distant and blurry. Regardless of hiccups with the page layouts, however, Worm is a great fit for this book.

Niles has a great tagline for this book, saying that "Sometimes crazy is the glue that binds a family together." I'm not sure if "crazy" is the right word for The October Faction, as much as downright spooky or twisted. There's a lot of flavor to this comic, thanks to Niles' characters and Worm's evocative artwork - that said, this comic doesn't quite hit a home run, instead hoping you'll stick around next month to watch the story unfold. It's a gambit, one that I think will likely be rewarded. Like the old saying goes, you can't pick your family - but you can pick up this one.

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