Best Shots Advance Reviews: SOUTHERN BASTARDS, FAITH #1, AMERICAN MONSTER #1, More

"Faith #1" variant cover by Colleen Coover
Credit: Colleen Coover (Valiant Entertainment)
Credit: Image Comics

Southern Bastards #13
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

There's good comic books. There's great comic books. And then there's Southern Bastards, a series that is so spectacular - so visceral an artistic statement - that it stands in a class all its own. Wedding spectacularly rough-hewn artwork with bleak, nuanced characterization, Jason Aaron and Jason Latour deliver a gripping dramatic tale through the trappings of good, old-fashioned high school football.

If there's any easy way to describe Aaron and Latour's latest arc, featuring the villainous Coach Boss as he crosses his own personal gridiron Rubicon, it would be Friday Night Lights meets the Sopranos - there's something dark, twisted and sinister going on behind the sidelines, as Boss witnesses what could be the end of his long-standing political empire. Aaron wisely knows that football isn't just a game to people, especially not in the down and dirty underbelly of Southern Bastards - it's an empire, and one that only survives through winning.

This issue also continues the surprising about-face that Southern Bastards took upon the death of original series protagonist Earl Tubb. At that point, Coach Boss was seen as a villain on par with the best of Frank Miller's Sin City work - but now, Boss has easily surpassed Miller's work, and it's because of the nuance and thoughtfulness Aaron and Latour have brought to the character. We've seen Boss grow up, and now we're seeing him on the political ropes - if the Craw County Runnin' Rebs can't beat their unstoppable rivals, the Wetumpka County Warriors, it could be curtains for Coach Boss. It's surprising how deftly Aaron is able to turn his readers' loyalties - a character we once loved to hate, now we hate to love. We feel for Coach Boss, and the tension is palpable, now that we know there are plenty of worse denizens of Craw County lurking in the shadows.

And speaking of those shadows, Jason Latour continues to show the rest of the industry how its done, injecting rage and tension and emotion into every page of this book. There's a hard angularity to all of his characters that shows just how twisted everything is in Craw County - in particular, it's great to watch Coach Boss contort as he shouts to his losing team to fight harder. The fact that Latour does his own colors is downright shocking, because it all looks so great - there's a level of control here that really pops, with the blues and greens playing nicely off the Rebs' blood red uniforms. Once Latour goes to his flashbacks, he adds another layer of color and shadows to the mix, and it looks dirty, washed-out and menacing, almost evoking a bit of that Frazer Irving style.

Football may rule the bars and pubs on Sunday, but in Aaron and Latour's hands, the gridiron takes on a level of sadness and desperation that feels more appropriate for a Greek tragedy. The deliberateness and artistry brought to Southern Bastards continually makes this series one of the best - if not the best - currently on the stands, and watching this Craw County icon try to ward off defeat makes for a striking read. Coach Boss's future might be in trouble, but Aaron and Latour are making all the right plays here.

Credit: Jelena Kevic-Djurdjevic (Valiant Entertainment)

Faith #1
Written by Jody Houser
Art by Francis Portela, Andrew Dalhouse and Marguerite Sauvage
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Representation matters and Faith #1 is here to give a voice to the plus-sized men and women that comic books rarely feature. Transplanted in a new city and eager to find her place in the world, Faith Herbert is now flying solo and looking to build a life for herself both as a hero and as a civilian. Writer Jody Houser takes it slow with this debut issue, building Faith’s new normal from the ground up. While Faith is itching for some superheroics, she also has to contend with noisy neighbors, her Buzzfeed-like job, and someone who is kidnapping incognito psiots for surely nefarious purposes. Along with series artist Francis Portela, guest artist Marguerite Sauvage and colorist Andrew Portela, Houser starts Faith off on a solidly charming foot that details just enough of Faith’s new personal life to get us interested and ends on a note so classic that you can almost hear Faith squeeing at the tried-and-true action comic trope.

Right off the bat, there has never been a character in comic books like Faith Herbert. Unfortunately, larger characters are usually treated with derision at best and as a straight up punchline at worst. However, while Jody Houser is making a big leap forward in terms of plus-sized representation with Faith, she seems wholly uninterested in using that as a narrative crutch, which is the best possible way to approach a debut like this. Houser treats Faith like a person, first and foremost, thus revealing this debut’s strongest selling point: Faith Herbert herself. While her fledging solo career as a superhero gets some attention in this debut, it is Faith’s civilian life that gets the most page time, and proves to be the most charming part of this debut issue. Houser takes the time to spend as much time with Faith out of costume in order to get readers invested in who she is as a person showing her at work interacting with her diverse co-workers and by showing how she is adjusting to life on her own. All too often, larger characters are ridiculed by other characters or treated as second-class by the story that they inhabit, but Faith #1 side steps all that unpleasantness simply by treating its lead character like a person with hopes, wants, and interests. That is Faith #1's real strength, though the superhero stuff isn’t exactly hurting it either.

While Faith’s civilian life gives us a strong sense of who she is, this debut’s plot gives us more to chew on besides a strong characterization. The issue opens with a tense scene in which two bald people dressed in hospital scrubs and with some sort of device attached to their wrists are fleeing from some unseen pursuers. Later on, Faith is made aware that someone is making undocumented psiots disappear, thus laying her first big case as a superhero squarely in her lap. Jody Houser doesn’t give us much to go on as to the antagonists in this debut, but just based on their shadowy introduction, I am sure Faith will be put through the ringer by the time her first arc is done. Also, pitting Faith against someone or a group that is capturing psiots gives Faith a personal feeling enemy to face off against. All too often, heroes have to face some sort of external force that they either happen upon or run afoul, but Faith #1 keeps its narrative personal throughout, giving it a more intimate feel than most cape comic fare.

While Jody Houser’s script starts us off on the right foot, the art team of Francis Portela and Andrew Dalhouse seems to be standing on less stable ground. While slickly rendered, Francis Portela’s pencils never quite gel as well as I wanted them too, mainly due to the fact that everything he draws looks too clean. Clean, smooth artwork isn’t usually something you hear as a negative, but Portela’s work could use a bit more detailing in later entries in order to avoid making Faith looking too cartoonish or simplistic. Andrew Dalhouse’s colors however capture the sunny vistas and light drenched office spaces of Los Angeles perfectly, adding a colorful dimension to Portela’s smooth, blemish-free pencils. Though the artwork for Faith could use some improvement, it doesn’t take away from just how bright and charming the whole of this debut really is. While comic books have been taking a decidedly darker turn as of late, Faith #1 stands as a bright and shiny alternative to all the grim 'n gritty fare.

2015 was year filled with books aiming to make an impact in terms of representing people of all races and creeds. Now 2016 has Faith #1, and while it may not act and read like an important moment, it most certainly is. Jody Houser could have turned this debut issue into a sort of "lesson of the week" series, making the story insist upon the reader how important it was. Thankfully, she didn’t and instead turned in a propulsive, character centric story that gives us enough to leave us wanting to hang out with Faith and her diverse co-stars more. Though the art team stumbles, Faith #1 still soars, both as a story and as an example of the shifting comic book landscape.

American Monster #1
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Juan Doe
Published by Aftershock Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

A brand-new comic book publisher boasting recognizable talent on both the creative and editorial side? That’s a rarity these days. But Joe Pruett and Mike Marts’s Aftershock Comics is looking to make a splash, take a chunk out of Image’s readership and maybe pick up where Vertigo left off. As opposed to Image’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks (or gets a TV deal)” model, Aftershock has carefully curated their line to only include top-flight talent in an effort to ease readers over. Brian Azzarello is one of the biggest names in comic books, and while Juan Doe isn’t exactly a household name, he’s no slouch on the art side. The problem with giving creators such free reign is that sometimes, like in the case of American Monster, you end up putting the cart before the horse. Sure, it’s great to have Azzarello’s name in your solicits and press releases but is the idea worthy of the name recognition? Unfortunately, American Monster’s rumination on how we treat veterans and the monsters that America makes sounds like a better pitch than it actually reads.

The most damning thing that Azzarello has said about American Monster is that’s the book is “not about the plot, it’s about the people.” Character-driven work is always a harder sell than something with a more easily digestible plot, but usually those works are driven by particularly memorable characters. Azzarello forgot this. There are some themes and ideas at work, but you have to squint to really make sense of Azzarello’s Frankenstein's Monster analogy. I think the creator feels like he’s hitting a lot of themes in broad strokes, but there’s very little binding these little vignettes together, so the book ends up coming across as unfocused and disinterested in telling any sort of story. There are characters, sure - like Theo Montclare, the book’s hulking, scarred protagonist - but they ultimately feel unfinished. They’re rough outlines of characters with nothing to grab readers outside possibly the perverse tragedy of their lives. That’s not even to say that characters need to be likable. Much the opposite - but even characters that you don’t like have to have a hook. Without impactful characters, the book becomes an amorphous amalgam of tone, setting, and outlines of characters.

That said, Juan Doe’s work is really, really strong, and probably saves this book from being a complete loss. Doe has a great sense of composition that plays well with Azzarello’s script. While Azzarello shows us repeated examples of monstrosity across the book, Doe’s strong linework and consistent character renderings help brings things together. Doe might not really be able to throw a lasso around all of Azzarello’s ideas, but he is able to herd them into something with some structure and some sense of pacing. I do like the character designs a lot. Doe has always been a great cartoonist, able to sell readers on an entire world of story rather than being concerned with presenting things in a realistic light. He brings readers into his world instead of trying to appeal to theirs which makes his work appealing to a broader audience and allows him the flexibility to give characters a variety of looks without it seeming out of place.

Azzarello has a track record miles long. A lackluster debut issue could be long forgotten by the time #2 rolls around. The art side of this title is what will keep me coming back in hopes that book lives up to its pedigree at some point. Fans of Azzarello’s other darker creator-owned work will see some similarities here, but for me it hews a little closer to stuff like Southern Bastards. The difference is in the creative decisionmaking to emphasize plot or characters (or neither). American Monster looks to be a slow burn, but right now it’s barely flickering.

Dead Man’s Party, Vol. 1
Written by Jeff Marsick
Art by Scott Barnett, Sandra Hogue and Katelyn Amacker
Lettering by Erica Schultz
Published by Darby Pop Publishing
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

An elite assassin, millions of dollars, a group of headhunters, and a plot to bring them all together in a flurry of blood and bullets. Its a Dead Man’s Party - who could ask for more? Collecting the first five issues of the Darby Pop Publishing series, Dead Man’s Party Vol. 1 is a nasty little yarn starring Ghost, a top-tier assassin tricked into putting a price on his own head by an old foe. Writer Jeff Marsick, who cut his teeth slinging reviews as one of the earliest Best Shots writers, keeps the bullets flying and the twists coming throughout this collection, never letting his lead or the audience gain a firm handle on the plot or those behind it until he is absolutely ready for us to. Aided by some hazy yet engaging artwork from Scott Barnett, Sandra Hogue, and Katelyn Amacker, Marsick delivers an indie crime saga with one hell of a hook and a pitch black sense of humor that is sure to garner the attention of comic and crime fans alike.

Ghost is a man who has it all figured out. He isn’t flashy or needlessly destructive. He simply gets in, gets out, and gets paid. However, a botched job from early in his career comes back to haunt him in an unexpected way, sending him on the run and looking for answers. After a completed job, Ghost is informed by his doctor that he has aggressive cancer and has only months to live. Wanting to go out on his own terms, Ghost invites his fellow killers to a dead man’s party in order to give himself a death worthy of his position. Basically, Ghost puts a bounty on his own head and allows fellow assassins to RSVP to it with both his life and amassed fortunes as the grand prize. That’s what kicks off this deadly tale but its nowhere near the extent of it.

Jeff Marsick, clearly a fan of the crime genre and other hard-boiled comic books, sets up one hell of a hook with the dead man’s party, but kind of loses the thread of it once the bullets start flying. As Ghost murders his way across the globe, more and more revelations come to light and the actual hook of the story is replaced by multiple double-crosses and a more conventional crime yarn involving revenge and a former CIA love interest. While the actual story that Dead Man’s Party delivers ends up being fairly entertaining and fast-paced, it would have been much more satisfying to see Ghost have to deal with his own kill order, having to outwit and outlast various former colleagues. Marsick lays a whale of a gimmick in front of us in the first issue, but seems more interested in using it as a stepping stone for the larger narrative in play in this first volume. Thankfully, the end result is a tough, action and twist heavy tale that keeps the audience on their toes until the very end.

While Dead Man’s Party’s hook is undeniably cool, it is Scott Barnett, Sandra Hogue, and Katelyn Amacker’s artwork that truly sets it apart from the usual crime comic book fare. Rendered in an almost dream-like state throughout, Scott Barnett employs a charcoal-esque look to the pages of this first volume, drawing comparisons in my head to the work of an artist like John Bolton. Though not nearly as polished as Bolton, Barnett’s pages convey the violence as well as the rough and tumble tone of the book, while still keeping it stylish and kinetic when the script calls for it. Also keeping in lock step with the tone are colorists Sandra Hogue and Katelyn Amacker who easily adapt to the book’s globe trotting settings by drenching the page in sunlight when Ghost hops to exotic locales and employing heavy greys and bright reds when things get heavy or violent. The crime genre lives and dies by the style in which in presents its stories and Dead Man’s Party, Vol. 1 has style to spare as it spreads its story out in front of you.

Though it never makes the most of its killer hook, Dead Man’s Party, Vol. 1, much like its professional lead, gets in, wrecks up, and gets out as fast as possible. Marsick, Barnett, Hogue and Amacker all commit to the genre they inhabit and show no fear when the story gets tough or bloody. When most crime stories are satisfied with aping what came before or engaging in shameless referencing of other works, Dead Man’s Party, Vol. 1 stands as a confident original work that makes the genre work for it, instead of working for the genre.

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