Best Shots Advance Reviews: NAMELESS #1, CLUSTER #1, IMPERIUM #1

Art from Imperium #1
Credit: Valiant Comics
Credit: Image Comics

Nameless #1
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

At this moment, we live in a world where there are three different Grant Morrison comics coming out each month. Over at DC, we’ve got the victory lap that is Multiversity. Legendary is putting out his and Frazer Irving’s sci-fi art-house romp Annihilation. Those two books alone give fans and annotators reams of material to work through. To add to those two books, Image has now released Nameless #1, Morrison’s action/adventure story done with his Batman Inc. cohorts Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn. With dangers existing in the far corners of our world and even bigger dangers hurtling at is from space, a man with no name may be the only person who can save us. Morrison and Burnham take us on a journey that may not have the mind bending metaphysical concepts that we're used to from the writer but that gives Burnham more room to get his own visual Morrisonian madness on. Nameless isn't the mind bender we would expect from this writer. Instead it's a high octane adventure like only Burnham and Morrison could produce.

As Burnham has subdued his Geoff Darrow influence over the past couple of years, his still detailed but somewhat jittery art plays great with Morrison's paranoia-inducing stories. We saw this in Batman Inc. as Burnham proved that he's an artist more than capable of keeping up with Morrison. Maybe it's Morrison who has to keep up with Burnham in Nameless #1. Opening with a trippy sequence of our nameless hero trying to obtain a dream key, Burnham switches easily from locale to locale. Following some kind of dream logic, Burnham's artwork effortlessly keeps us disoriented but never lost. With Fairbairn's intense coloring, Burnham keeps Morrison's story on the shaky ground where it belongs. The colors seem hyper-real. Burnham shifts effortlessly from one place to another, all within the same sequence. Even the signs on buildings are off just enough to make you wonder what you are looking at.

It’s fascinating to watch Burnham here and Irving over on Annihilation working within Morrison’s frameworks in completely different ways. Irving takes you on an acid trip with the characters, distorting reality almost to the breaking point. Burnham makes Morrison’s plots adventurous. Like some of his best writing in The Invisibles, Morrison quickly shifts the scenes from panel to panel, forcing you to question what you’re looking at. For a lot of his artists, this has been something they’ve struggled with but Burnham embraces it, taking you from moment to moment but giving you enough visual clues to always ground you in the here and now.

Morrison is basically doing his best Steven Spielberg here but it’s by the way of David Lynch. It’s only the end-of-the-world type stuff going on in this comic… you know, Morrison’s usual genre. With an opening taken from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morrison’s story is fairly straight-forward. Trying to find a mysterious object, our nameless hero is recruited by shadowy organization to try to save the world. That’s the story; cue up the music and the “to be continued” caption at the end of the issue. But this isn’t just a set-up issue. Morrison build a plot that plays into Burnham’s strength. This feels like the best parts of Batman Inc. where Morrison and Burnham synched perfectly to build the mysteries of the plot. That’s what they’re doing here as Morrison gives Burnham space to visually tell the story.

It may take a reading or two to decipher but this is really one of Morrison’s least convoluted stories. Since he can let Burnham do a lot of the heavy, psychedelic maneuvering, Morrison’s plot in this issue is one that can be easily boiled down to one or two snappy lines, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting than Morrison’s best reality-bending stories. It even allows him to include lines like “Welcome to the real world,” and it works perfectly as Burnham effortlessly shifts you from one reality to another and you need to be grounded by Morrison’s words. Morrison actually acts as the straight man in this creative team, setting up the story and plot to let Burnham and Fairbairn knock it out of the park. Nameless #1 gets to be the comic where Grant Morrison is only the second or third strangest element of the creative team while Burnham and Fairbairn get to mess with your mind in strange, mysterious and delicious ways.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Cluster #1
Written by Ed Brisson
Art by Damian Couceiro and Michael Garland
Lettering by Ed Brisson
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Letterer-turned-writer Ed Brisson is back with a new creator-owned title that sees him team up with Sons of Anarchy collaborator Damian Couceiro to some interesting effect. Unlike the world of Sons of Anarchy that’s set in a fictional version of modern times, Cluster takes the practices of today’s military to intergalactic heights. Coincidentally, that leads to an early set-up that’s akin to another creator-owned comic set in a women’s prison, but the similarities end there. Cluster’s thematic focus is on crime and punishment. Brisson explores what trading your prison sentence for military service means, especially when the war you’re fighting is a cosmic one.

We meet our lead character, Samara, in the aftermath of a drunk driving accident that she causes. Brisson wastes no time getting to the premise of the title, and Samara is quickly thrust into a prison/military complex that promises her freedom after 15 years of service. But the details that come to light make her motivations interesting. Samara quickly becomes a complex character and Brisson makes great use of ancillary characters like the mohawked Grace, to give her more depth. The book is well-paced providing a good balance of action, world-building and character development. By the end of the book, Brisson either has his hooks in you or he doesn’t, and it isn’t for lack of trying. Cluster is a sci-fi book that features a lot of moving parts and raises a lot of questions about crime and punishment as part of our society.

Damian Couceiro is a welcome sight here as well. Early interviews pegged Couceiro with having created much of the world of Cluster with very little direction from Brisson, a working relationship that we, the readers, clearly benefit from. Couceiro’s great work with shadows gives the book a lot of atmosphere and helps communicate how dire this situations is. The cool palette used by Michael Garland for the prison sequences is a great contrast to the oranges and yellows of the desert planet. The skylights of the prison almost taunts the prisoners, a reminder that freedom is so close to them and yet it is a twisted, deformed notion of what freedom really is. Couceiro’s character designs are very effective as well. Our main characters have distinct visual signifiers and even the expression work serves to differentiate the brooding Samara from the more excitable Grace and others. Cluster is a strong debut that looks to get even stronger. There’s a renaissance of sci-fi storytelling across many mediums right now and comics are no exception. Brisson and Couceiro’s sci-fi meets The Dirty Dozen approach provides an easy entry point for this story. The world building is interesting as well offering up just as many questions as it answers and setting the table for the creative team to take the story in unexpected directions. Cluster #1 might be lacking in any real "wow" moments, but it is a well-told debut that provides a solid foundation moving forward.

Art from Imperium #1
Art from Imperium #1
Credit: Valiant Comics

Imperium #1
Written by Joshua Dysart
Art by Doug Braithwaite, Brian Reber and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"Every bridge has its toll."

It's natural to feel skeptical of a new #1 issue, particularly with a company that's growing as swiftly as Valiant, especially with a premise as seemingly insular as Imperium. But you'd be wrong to dismiss this comic, as Joshua Dysart, Doug Braithwaite and copmany produce a clever first issue that shows that the most terrifying bad guys aren't mercenaries for hire - they're the true believers.

In a lot of ways, it's frustrating to review Imperium #1, because you want to avoid spoilers so badly. So I'll talk about what I can talk about. Dysart opens this comic with some beautiful utopian fiction, brightly realized by Braithwaite, Brian Reber and Dave McCaig. It's really more fantasy than out-and-out story, with little in the way of conflict or stakes. Instead, it's more like exploration, as Dysart shows us a planet of Psiots, with people experiencing the gifts of flight, teleportation and telepathy. Bit by bit, Dysart starts to reveal what he's really getting at here, but for now, it's great to just enjoy the trip - there's one bit where Darpan-Sama eases a dying woman with the memory of her child's birth, and it's about as stirring and heartfelt as you might expect.

Of course, even paradise has its limits, and the way that Dysart transitions to the bloody main story is about as effective a storytelling technique as I've ever seen, and it shows the kind of antihero that Toyo Harada truly is. In many ways, he's as imposing as an inscrutable, unknowable executive, but we also get to know him by proxy via his team of Psiots. They're true believers, but their eyes are so on the prize, they already do some unthinkable things to see out Harada's plans. The most insidious kind of cult is the one you don't recognize is a cult, and it's that hook that makes Imperium an interesting read.

The artwork on this book is also eye-popping and energetic. Brian Reber and Dave McCaig make the beginning of this book so inviting with their bold blues and verdant greens, so much so that it takes a bit to notice the wispier linework from Doug Braithwaite. (Letterer Dave Sharpe even gets in on the color action, making all of his narrative captions a bold red that plays well off sky blue.) Braithwaite, meanwhile, has a real muscular sense of composition and design, really digging into the geometric designs of the opening sequence. While occasionally some of his facial expressions come off as a little too wide, he brings a cinematic sense of scale to his page layouts, which really builds up the grandeur of what Dysart is describing here.

That said, once Dysart throws us his narrative curveball, the rest of the issue - and the series - feels a little in question. His fight choreography featuring Harada and his team feels a little bland, and it ultimately feels like it's because he's cramming in a little too much in too few pages. (Braithwaite tries to fit it all in, and while he's able to spin together some interesting panel compositions, like the team leaping out of a jet and getting shot at by rockets, there's other pages where he's forced to jam in a bunch of characters all blasting and hitting people in one crowded panel.)

I'll be honest - I'm not sure where Imperium is heading, particularly since Dysart took such a gamble by having such a long prologue to Harada's saga. But first issues aren't just a place to tell your premise, but also a place to show readers the strengths of the creative team, and I think Dysart, Braithwaite and company have absolutely accomplished that. There's a sense of mystery to Imperium that's admirable and gutsy, and they've earned at least one more issue to see if this gamble will pay off.

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