Best Shots Advance Reviews: ARCHIE #3, JEM & THE HOLOGRAMS: OUTRAGEOUS ANNUAL #1, More

"From Under Mountains #1" cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Archie Comics

Archie #3
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Fiona Staples, Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

It was only a matter of time before Veronica turned Riverdale upside-down. With the debut of comic books' sassiest socialite, Archie #3 is not only Mark Waid’s funniest script to date, but ends artist Fiona Staples' tenure in Riverdale on a high note. Taking the tried and true love triangle tropes and running with it, this new Archie does something the classic series never did: it allows Veronica to be a living, breathing character with foibles and faults all her own, independent of her possible romantic involvement with the title character.

Archie #3 already injects more life into Archie and Veronica's dynamic, as our hero puts the nre student on a pedestal, schlepping her books across campus even as her limo almost smears him across the pavement. Archie as the new Lodge manservant offers up plenty of choice comedy, especially when paired against the ultra-privileged Veronica, who wonders out loud if her new school smells of crack. That said, it is Waid's retooled trickster Jughead who winds up stealing the show, as he pokes and prods at Archie for his newfound position and as he attempts to get Betty up off the bench in an effort to shake him out of his Veronica-inspired stupor.

But Archie #3 isn't just all quips and slapstick. Waid also injects some relatable pathos into Veronica’s first day at school, as she suffers an unfortunate gastronomical accident thanks to Riverdale’s famous sloppy joes. Understandably mortified, she retreats into the bathroom and calls her father. “They’re always staring and they either love me for no reason or hate me for no reason!” she sobs into the phone. As she cries, Betty, who was in the bathroom during this whole ordeal, silently wets a paper towel and begins to help her clean up. It is such a simple moment between the two girls, but still resonant all the same. Of course, the rivalry is sparked by the end of the issue, but in that moment they are just two girls sharing a moment of empathy in the unlikeliest of places.

Speaking of simple but effective storytelling, Fiona Staples, once again, turns in some fantastic panels in her final issue of Archie. The most potent example of Staples’ talent is the issue’s only double-page splash - the cringeworthy moment right after Veronica’s lunchtime incident. With all the denizens of Riverdale present, Staples’ talent for facial expressions is on full display here, but even more so, she more than captures the feeling of abject adolescent horror and embarrassment in one splash page. Colorists Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn bring it all together with the same vibrant color scheme that made the previous issues pop, giving Fiona Staples' last hurrah in Riverdale the same fantastic energy that she started with.

Archie #3 was the last comic book I expected to give me a strong case of the feels, but all the same, I am glad it did. While still funny and fresh feeling, Mark Waid and the Archie art team present the classic Archie/Betty/Veronica love triangle in a way that feels relatable and avoiding of cliches. Teenage embarrassment is often an easy source of comedy for comic books, but Archie #3 understands that its never funny for the people involved and used that to inform Veronica’s debut and turn her into more of a character and less like a romantic ideal. Though we will miss Fiona Staples in Riverdale, Archie’s first installments prove that this new series will continue to be entertaining and resonant moving forward.

Credit: Agnes Garbowska (IDW Publishing)

Jem and The Holograms: Outrageous Annual #1
Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Amy Mebberson, Arielle Jovellanos, Josh Burcham, Rebekah Isaacs, Joana LaFuente, Jen Bartel, Agnes Garbowska, Lauren Perry, Sophie Campbell, and Victoria Robado
Lettering by Tom B. Long and Shawn Lee
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Kelly Richards
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Straight off the battle of the bands and featuring five self-contained stories from series writer Kelly Thompson and a host of artists, Jem and The Holograms: Outrageous Annual #1 is as impressive visually as it is narratively. Through excellent storytelling and the exploration and creative utilization of a trope that is often maligned by readers, Thompson has, with the support of an incredible team of artists, found an interesting way to bring each character to center stage without compromising the narrative.

Kelly Thompson has done something quite smart within the pages of Jem and The Holograms: Outrageous Annual #1 that has not only allowed each of the Holograms to shine but also given readers a chance to explore each character’s feelings, anxieties and motivations in more depth. By inviting readers into the dreams of each character, Thompson has, save for the nod to classic ‘80s cinema, laid their psyche all but bare. What is particularly noticeable throughout the various stories is each character’s willingness to put their family before themselves, even if it is to their own personal detriment, and the counterintuitive belief that they must see through their problems alone. Problems which range from self-esteem to secret romance, all of which will resonate strongly with many readers, particularly the younger ones.

It can be difficult for books to read comfortably when utilizing more than one artistic team, but by a fairly uniform color palette and by framing the story with art and colors from Amy Mebberson, cohesion is not an issue for this annual. Each artist or art team’s style matches the already established personality of the character that the story focuses on and then reflects the genre in which they dream. For example, Shana Wars, illustrated and colored by Jen Bartel, has the polished and sleek look that many readers will associated with science fiction movies, whereas Teen Jem, which features art from Arielle Jovellanos and colors from Josh Burcham, is far more in keeping with teen comedies with its style.

Well-written and each with a slightly different tone, the stories featured in Jem and The Holograms: Outrageous Annual #1 feel incredibly personal but not so much as to make the reader feel uncomfortable. By setting each story against a beautifully rendered, cinematic backdrop, Thompson allows them to become fantastical rather than emotionally draining, which when considering the target audience of the book is an important and well-measured decision on the part of the creative team.

Jem and The Holograms: Outrageous Annual #1 is a lot of fun and tackles the dream sequence trope with its tongue firmly in its cheek. While the nods to some classic cinematic favorites may be lost on younger readers, those of a certain age will definitely enjoy the riffs on Teen Wolf, Mad Max and Star Wars. Consistently amongst IDW Publishing’s strongest offerings, Jem and The Holograms: Outrageous Annual #1 is a great example of what an all-ages comic books can be.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Book of Death: Fall of Harbinger #1
Written by Joshua Dysart
Art by Kano
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Oscar Maltby
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Valiant hasn’t always been the most consistent with their Book of Death: Fall of... series of one-shots, with several creative teams being hit-or-miss in their efforts to tell credible and satisfying deaths for each of their key heroes. Yet the publisher has ended this experiment on a high note with Joshua Dysart and Kano's Book of Death: Fall of Harbinger #1, an artistically striking book that clearly envisages an appropriate and cathartic end for Peter Stanchek and Toyo Harada and finally fulfils the potential behind this troubled series of one-shots.

Master psychic (or psiot, in Valiant lingo) and genius megalomaniac Toyo Harada once achieved world peace through conquest, before realizing that his power was becoming unstable and world-threatening. Harada promptly left Earth, leaving Peter Stanchek; Harada's arch-nemesis and psiot for good, in charge of it all. Now Harada returns, and surely the entire world will burn with him. Writer Joshua Dysart had a slightly easier task than other Fall of... writers, as the catalysts behind the last moments of Harada and Stanchek's lives were inevitably going to be each other. Still, Dysart throws an effectively terrifying late-stage swerve into the mix to prevent the reader feeling as though they had foretold the obvious.

Closure is the central theme of this issue, and Dysart takes care to tie together the loose ends of the Harbinger corner of the Valiant universe; focusing on each of Stanchek's original crew to allow them their final farewells. The other main difference between this book and the less effective Fall of... one-shots is that Stanchek is well aware of his impending doom, and so the comic builds momentum through his preparations for the end.

Visually, Kano's artwork is an assault on the senses; a series of highly saturated primary explosions that aim to burn spider-webs of psionic energy through the readers' fragile retinas. For the human form, Kano's lines are fragile and wonky, artistically interpreting old age with a shaky hand. There's no such thing as a muted tone in Kano's color palette, which screams futuristic without going down the route of the eternally brown dystopia or the Tron-esque black-and-neon which usually dominates the artwork of stories like these.

Although Kano's underlying pencils are technically solid, his heavy-handed inking borderline ruins it. Every nuance of his portraits are treated equally under Kano's inking hand, giving his faces unflattering and unnecessary marker-pen makeovers.

Although his ordinary scenes verge of the ugly, Kano's penchant for the surreal and the psychedelic lifts the issue's final act into something unique. As Stanchek is absorbed by the unrestrained Harada mind, Kano renders a genuinely breathtaking marbled solar system of blood red atop sea greens and blues. Dysart's late-stage curveball takes the form of a translucent cross between a spider and a jellyfish that is as enchanting as it is repulsive.

Book of Death: Fall of Harbinger #1is the lone shining star in an otherwise weak summer event. Although Kano's standard humans look a little wonky, his surreal scenes of mind and monster are so gorgeous that they more than make up for it. Story-wise, Dysart's written a thoughtful script here that feels like a respectful and tender funeral for the entire Harbinger concept. If this were truly the end, it wouldn't have been the worst way to go.

Credit: Image Comics

From Under Mountains #1
Written by Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland
Art by Sloane Leong and Brandon Graham
Lettering by Ariana Maher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Brandon Graham seems determined to carve out his own corner of the comic book multiverse. Already creating his own miniature line of comics with 8House, a science-fiction/fantasy miniseries that takes place in a world ruled by eight houses, From Under Mountains spins out of the lands explored in Arclight, Kiem and Mirror, giving us a different point of view on this shared universe with Sloane Leong, Marian Churchland and Claire Gibson.

From Under Mountains begins steeped in mysticism, as something ancient is summoned from beneath the crust and bound in blood. The setting quickly changes locale to the city inside the walls at Karsgate, where we alternate between two women: street-rat Tova, who owes money to “half the merchants and lenders in Karsgate,” and the noble born Elena, who yearns to see the outside world. If there was a magic carpet and a genie, you’d expect to hear the opening chords to “A Whole New World” strike up at any moment, but Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland’s script is far more earnest than that.

If you are new to the world of 8House, or aren’t that invested in it yet, then From Under Mountains #1 will potentially feel disjointed and frankly confusing at times. It is assuredly a self-contained tale, but there is either some assumed knowledge or a very light narrative that results in very little depth on this initial outing. Beyond the provocative invocation in the opening pages, Tova is the most intriguing of the characters we meet here, casually gender flipping the Aladdin archetype with hints of a past that extend well beyond this issue. Yet the rapid-fire cutting between a series of characters never gives us a chance to really grip onto any single one, only leaving a vague vibe of something mystical and otherworldly.

From the opening pages, it is clear that this book is going to be a visually driven piece, and it is in the visuals that the book soars. The colors are ancient and earthy, a mixture of orangey brown and purple that firmly sets the creature being summoned in a separate plane to our own. The art inside Karsgate is the polar opposite in its light and optimism. As Tova scales the walls of the Keep surrounding it, the light shifts towards the former tone, demonstrating an effective use of color on the part of artist Sloane Leong. As the two visual worlds intersect, it’s a lyrical union, and the ability of Leong to so effortlessly flip between the two is commendable.

It is far too early to see exactly how this is going to turn out, and the pieces don’t all fit together quite yet. This is possibly a good thing, as there isn’t a sense of inevitability just yet either. Brandon has undeniably built an intriguing world from each of the entries so far, and there are enough hooks to enable some further digging, even if none of them are particularly robust by themselves at the moment. Either way, Graham’s big picture thinking is something that is refreshingly welcome, and a positive sign of things to come.

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