Best Shots Advance Reviews: JAMES BOND #1, KLAUS #1, MONSTRESS #1

"Monstress #1" cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

James Bond #1
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Masters and Guy Major
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Dynamite Entertainment’s James Bond #1 is not a Bond that you are accustomed to. While the Bond of the films is debonair, quick with a quip, and reliant on his gadgets, the Bond of this comic book bares little resemblance to his cinematic counterpart, owing instead far more to the original Ian Fleming novels. This Bond is an aloof, blunt tool for her Majesty’s Secret Service, meting out violence with a stone face and an even harder heart. While that may come close to describing Daniel Craig’s blockbuster take on the character, Dynamite's James Bond is still worlds more ruthless than anything we have seen on the screen thus far. While this might not be the Bond you are used to, that doesn’t make it any less compelling of a read. In fact, the Warren Ellis, Jason Masters and Guy Major debut is a slick and mean introduction to the original novel-centric Bond for a whole generation. Fleming’s man of mystery has gone through many incarnations, but James Bond #1 is purest crystallization of the character we have seen since the original novels.

James Bond #1 wastes little time distancing itself away from the breezy adventures of the films. We open in the snowy streets of Helsinki where an unnamed hood is running like a bat out of hell from an unseen pursuer. Shots ring out as the chase reaches its endgame inside an abandoned construction site and a cement block catches the man square in the back. He turns, and a kind of sword fight breaks out, but instead of rapiers, the men battle with shovels stolen from the site. The fight reaches a gristly conclusion with Bond taking off the man’s fingers as he reaches for his weapon and finally revealing why he has landed himself in Bond’s sights. The man laying bleeding at Bond’s feet killed 008, and Bond now comes to collect his revenge.

Framed much like the iconic cold opens of the films, the opening of James Bond #1 is a violent shaking off of an audience’s expectations. Warren Ellis, Jason Masters, and Guy Major, though working with many of the same mechanics of those openings; the withholding of Bond’s face, the gun barrel-esque circle around Bond, and the sudden burst of action, the character starring in the cold open is nothing like the Bond we have seen on screen, with the possible exception of Daniel Craig’s rough and tumble take on the character. Ellis’ Bond in this cold open in a force of violent nature, fighting dirty and willing to be more than a little cruel as he chases his prey. Even the title card, the dead hood, lying dead with a bullet in his head as the title of arc stretches across the bottom of the page, is a bloody reminder of James Bond #1's distance from its filmic counterpart and a stark mission statement for the debut as a whole.

Speaking of mission statements, Jason Masters and Guy Major deliver one hell of one here. Displaying a tight grip on visual storytelling with the cold open, Masters and Major downshift with the exposition heavy second half the comic book, which we will get into later, but that doesn't make it any less fantastic looking. Masters' pencils remind me of a craggier Jamie McKelvie with his straight-laced take on characters and Google Street View-inspired takes on Helsinki and London. Masters also renders Bond almost exactly how Fleming describes him in the novels, black hair falling over one eyebrow, a cruel mouth, and cold eyes. While that also may look and sound a lot like the crass Sterling Archer, be reminded that there is a very good reason why Bond is iconic. Aiding Masters are the slick but muted colors of Guy Major, who gives James Bond #1 just the barest hint of a shine, but not enough that the book looks metallic or stylized. Both Masters and Major work in tandem to make James Bond #1 look as realistic as possible, but not photoreal enough that the book doesn't have any flair.

The rest of the debut hits all the notes of a classic Fleming opening gambit. Beautifully rendered in Jason Masters’ rougher-edged but photorealistic pencils, Bond returns to MI6 and told by M that he must now take on 008‘s caseload, which sets him on the trail of a new designer drug. As Bond interacts with classic characters like the aforementioned M, Moneypenny, and Bill Tanner, Ellis gives us quick glimpses of the drug’s path through England and even a tantalizing glimpse at Bond’s adversary for this first arc, a silver templed man by the name of Mr. Masters, who is unable to feel pleasure. Ellis, a writer known for his abundant ideas and subversion of classic comic structure, works comfortably within Fleming’s pulpy structure, starting us off with a globe trotting cold open and then bringing us back into England’s borders before sending us off with a cliffhanger.

That said, Ellis does manage to sneak in a bit of subversion in James Bond #1. While Fleming’s books were filled with troubling racial and sexual politics and stereotypes, James Bond #1 deftly sidesteps all that by making two of the most important people in Bond’s life people of color. When we first see Moneypenny, she is sitting at her desk, cleaning her gun with her bullets neatly lined up on the edge of the her desk. Ellis treats us to a very fun tete-a-tete with Moneypenny before dropping the hammer on 007 by way of a stern talking to from M, who is now a black man. It probably isn’t a secret, even to an audience largely unfamiliar with the novels, but Fleming’s Bond was a bigot, and an unashamed one at that. But Dynamite's James Bond doesn’t display any of that troubling behavior, and by making M a man of color, Ellis, Masters and Major make a bold statement that while they are dealing with an icon, they are more than aware of his intensely un-PC past.

The race swapping of M and Moneypenny might not seem like much to a casual reader, especially since Skyfall already did this with Moneypenny a few years ago, but in the canon of James Bond especially one that is pulling directly from the Fleming novels, this is a huge deal; one that makes the title feel all the more vital to today’s comic reading audience. I can’t speak to whether or not this was a change marked specifically in the script or one that Jason Masters happened upon during the penciling phase, but I am over the moon that it is one that the creative team of James Bond #1 had to the balls to carry through.

James Bond #1 might piss off the staunchest purists out there, but to me, a longtime Bond fan, this debut from Dynamite Entertainment is everything I could have wanted in a Bond comic book. Warren Ellis, Jason Masters and Guy Major confidently differentiate themselves away from a largely familiar canon and deliver a hard-hitting, fast paced, and well-crafted debut that only hints at what’s to come for James Bond. This debut gives us the goods but not all of them at once. James Bond #1 starts the series off on a high note that demands your attention and leaves you wanting more, which is the best kind of debut. James Bond #1 might not be the Bond that you are used to, but it makes a very strong case for a Bond that will send you looking beyond the films.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Klaus #1
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Dan Mora
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Saint Nicholas. Sinterklaas. Father Christmas. Santa. Versions of the myths and legends have existed for centuries, with modern versions combining several of these representative symbols together to form the jolly bearded fat man that we are most familiar with. Last year, Brian Joines and Dean Kotz took a comedic view of the Secret Society of Santa Clauses in Krampus, skinning the surface of how many versions of the story there actually are. This confluence of mythologies is the space that writer Grant Morrison thrives in, and his new series Klaus acts as a kind of “Santa Claus: Year One.”

Drawing principally upon the Scandinavian traditions and settings, Morrison casts his Klaus as an outsider “wild man” in the town of Grimsvig. The town is an unhappy and unwelcoming place, thanks largely to Lord Magnus and bratty young Master Jonas who demand all the resources they gather or produce. Toys are banned except for those that go to the young Jonas, and the villagers chase the stranger Klaus out of town for simply being an outsider. The fact that he hunts with a massive white wolf isn’t doing him any favors with the suspicious crowd either. It’s a bold move from the start, casting the would-be hero, beloved by children the world over, as a tough-as-nail badass who can take an arrow to the shoulder and keep on ticking.

While this may not be as unapologetically mean-spirited as Morrison’s last Christmas outing (the sublimely surreal Happy), there was very little chance this was every going to be a Rankin-Bass claymation outing. “Year One” is an apt description on a number of levels, and as strange as it sounds there are certain parallels between Jim Gordon (or Bruce Wayne) in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One story and Morrison’s Klaus. Both stories see soon-to-be-mythical figures enter a corrupt town and instantly find themselves embroiled in the protection of the innocent at a personal cost. There is a sequence of symbolic mystical awakening, at which point the totems of Klaus’ destiny are displayed before him. This is a symbol just as powerful as the bat in the making of another costumed figure. Which is where Morrison sees the Klaus of this story: as a legendary hero in the making.

From the epic opening double-page spread of a frozen landscape, Klaus standing like a Mad Max figure of the wasteland in its wake, Dan Mora immediately makes a strong impression. The Hexed artist brings the grace of a historic painting and the grandeur of an interactive open world environment to the page. Every other page is seemingly a startling splash, with a bustling village square quickly following the snow-capped opening, and an amazing sequence of the wild Klaus bringing down an elk alongside his giant wolf. Yet most impressive is the aforementioned awakening sequence, a synesthetic explosion of color that is like a rainbow oil slick on the surface of water brought to life and set to music.

It is early days yet in this six-issue mini-series, leaving us with a key moment in the origin story of Santa. Like many of Morrison’s works, this first issue presents us with a series of puzzle pieces. We know roughly what it is supposed to look like by the end of the run, but the joy of getting will be in seeing how he fits all of these disparate threads together and wraps them up in a bow.

Credit: Image Comics

Monstress #1
Written by Marjorie Liu
Art by Sana Takeda
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Majorie Liu is getting back to her novel-writing roots with Monstress, a book with deep world-building and almost lyrical prose to go along with its magically-enhanced reality. Yet while Liu and artist Sana Takeda definitely stretch themselves artistically with this 66-page behemoth of a first issue, there's such dense mythology here that it'll be difficult for non-diehards to keep up.

Inspired at least in part by Liu's grandparents, who survived World War II in China, Monstress immediately drops readers into the deep end of the pool, as we meet Maika, a magical young girl - an "arcanic" - who is the latest item in a dark bidding war. Yet as Liu peppers us with new vocabulary - a witch group called the Cumaea, Cyclopses, and satyr-esque children with animal organs are just in the first three pages - we only get the barest glimpses of who Maika really is. Part of this comes from Liu's expanded page count, as she takes her time to give details about Maika's quest - it's a pretty slow burn for what is ostensibly a prison break, with even the flashbacks to Maika's past not giving much in the way of explanation of what her goals are.

Yet with all these magical terms being thrown around, Monstress' largest potential lies in its implied history. The battle of Constantine is a milestone that is mentioned over and over again, and as Liu mentions in her afterword, real-life racism and biological experimentation are two big influences on this fictional world. (When Maika is taunted in her prison cell by a sadistic guard who threatens to sodomize her with a cattle prod, you can't help but think of Nazi-esque flashes.) Even Maika's recollections of her time starving in the wilderness evoke a desperation and horror that most wartime comics can't match.

But as I said earlier, there's a fleetingness to Liu's plotting - her work has a choppy finality to it from scene to scene, reminding me of individual chapter breaks in a novel - that can make this extra-large debut issue a little tougher to swallow. There's a lot going on here, with scenes like Maika's bidding feeling like they have a bit of fat to them, and when you have no less than three action beats in one issue, they eventually start to blend together, while Maika's backstory involving war, her mother, and some sort of magical heritage can be difficult to hack through. Additionally, given the magical tone of this comic book, there are occasional bits of dialogue that wind up taking you out of the story, with almost Elizabethan-style dialogue clashing against very anachronistic F-bombs.

While I've spent plenty of time discussing the writing, ultimately, the most intriguing bit of Monstress #1 might be Sana Takeda's artwork. Acting as a one-woman band with pencils, inks and colors, you'd be forgiven if you didn't think this was the same artist who was working on Ms. Marvel not too long ago. Takeda leans in deep with her manga-influenced style, and her detailwork really adds a superb atmosphere to this book. While there's of course some melodrama in the visuals here - watching Maika deal with a cackling, scarred former friend of her mother feels a little jarring, even if that's a recurring trope in plenty of other works. Takeda's monster designs are probably the most spectacular part about this book, with a horned, three-eyed ghost god providing an unforgettable visual.

The problem being, that ultimately all these visuals and bits of magic are the garnish, rather than the true meat of a story. Monstress may look beautiful, but even at 66 pages, I still feel like there's something missing here - ultimately, that this lead character isn't quite as compelling as the sprawling magical world around her. There is a ton of potential to Liu's story, particularly as she draws in more and more real-world examples of the hellishness of war and the traumas that come in its aftermath. But until we have a strong point of view character to guide us, all the spells in the world won't make this book truly fly.

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