Best Shots Advance Reviews: MICRONAUTS #1, 4 KIDS WALK INTO A BANK #1, More

Dark Horse April 2016 cover
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Credit: Black Mask Studios

4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Tyler Boss, Clare Dezutti and Courtney Menard
Lettering by Thomas Mauer
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The charming coming-of-age story of four young children who find themselves mixed up in a wacky heist caper, 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 is what happens when you edit The Goonies into Reservoir Dogs. Writer Matthew Rosenberg’s latest outing for Black Mask Studios is a surprisingly engaging tale (surprising if “tiny cussing felons” was not something you ever thought you wanted in your comics) that delights from start to finish and will leave you itching for the second installment of the five issue series.

4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 pulls from a long history of “ragtag kids find adventure” tales and wisely wastes no time trying to reinvent the wheel: while the overarching path of the story and the archetypes the kids evoke will undoubtedly feel familiar, the book is made fresh by Rosenberg’s clever, heartfelt dialogue and artist Tyler Boss’ off-beat style. Every visual detail is impressive and filled with intent, right down to intricate wallpaper backgrounds designed by Courtney Menard: Boss and flatter Clare Dezutti’s work with color and the muted palette used throughout evoke a sense of nostalgia that makes the book feel like we’ve been dropped into a memory as it’s being shared, perhaps by Paige, the leader of the four kids in question.

Though it would be difficult to recommend you read 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank with the children in your life, the writing and the artwork manage to make it feel surprisingly youthful. Our plucky protagonists are introduced in the midst of a dramatic Dungeons & Dragons session. We meet them first as their characters, but as the scene collapses in a clever transition from Boss that blends their fantasy realm with Paige’s dining room, we find out their characters are startlingly true to life. Paige is visibly full of Sir Manly’s fighting spirit, Walter is as shy and retiring as the princess you suspect he was assigned to play, Berger is every bit as mouthy and filled with blue humor as his troll Crotch the Moist, and dungeon master Pat “Stretch” remains as physically imposing a presence as the even-keeled if somewhat know-it-all dragon whose rampage he was narrating for the crew.

The introduction of the kids is one of the most impressive scenes for the book, in part because of the humor but largely because of the tone the 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 team invokes. This is a book about children involved in things most adults very wisely avoid for their entire lives, but the premise works because we meet these kids knee-deep in a fantasy land as they envision themselves as the kinds of valiant (or, in the case of Berger and “Crotch the Moist,” chaotic neutral) heroes who can vanquish any foe no matter the scope or the consequences. That’s who many kids like to be: small adults who can do anything, and who bristle at being told there are things they simply cannot handle, as Paige does when her father advises her to forget about the four men who turn up at their door and pick a physical fight (yes, with kids, but the kids win).

This issue’s weakest moments are the ones where the dialogue tips into things that are almost too precocious and vulgar. 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 is obviously a book about kids, but not for kids, and that in and of itself isn’t an issue. But while it’s easy to read the issue as an slightly exaggerated retelling by a young kid looking to hype themselves up, scenes such as the one where Paige rips into a bully with a very inventive insult about his mother, or a later scene where the kids are on ham radios and interrupted both by Berger’s mother and a suitably skeevy drug-dealer, begin to border on a little too much - outlandishness for the sake of it, that doesn’t move the story in any meaningful direction.

“I wish none of that had just happened,” Stretch laments at the end. I wouldn’t go that far; the scene with Paige and the ham radio scene on their own are funny, but there’s a slow build of precociously vulgar dialogue from the kids that threatens to tip the scale from funny to excessive by the end of the book. Precociously vulgar kids are kind of funny, but age does not allow them to escape the risk of becoming as commonplace as any regular, vulgar adult. To its credit, though, 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 makes no bones about tipping more to the Reservoir Dogs side of things, and just as that film is a matter of taste, so too are tales about cussy pre-teen thieves.

Its small stumbles aside, the team behind 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 have put together an intriguing and fun take on the ragtag adventure kids genre that spares no effort for even the smallest of details. Tyler Boss and Clare Dezutti are a strong artistic team, and Courtney Menard’s background design is a perfect touch to set the tone early on. Rosenberg is a strong and thoughtful writer capable of countless small touches that elevate the book in unexpected ways, littering the kids’ interactions with innocent exchanges -- such as none of them batting an eye when Walter winds up the D&D princess -- that remind you these are good kids whose greatest sins are some cusses and fighting kids who maybe deserved it. You might wind up liking them too much to want to follow the dangerous twists and turns a heist book can take, but you’ll definitely like 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 enough to want to know how their story ends.

Credit: IDW Publishing

Micronauts #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by David Baldeon, Fico Ossio, Max Dunbar, Jack Lawrence, David Garcia Cruz, Joana Lafuente, Thomas Deer and John-Paul Bove
Lettering by Tom B. Long
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Some toys are just better left off in the box.

After an acclaimed run at Marvel and brief stints at Image and Devil’s Due, Micronauts make their return this week at IDW. But if you’re looking to get in on the ground floor of this would-be franchise, you’ve got another thing coming — with its confusing script and inconsistent art, this debut issue is about as user-unfriendly as it gets. Unless you are incredibly well-versed in the various moving parts of the Micronauts universe, plenty of assembly is still required to make this book accessible to a general audience.

Writer Cullen Bunn drops readers into the deep end of the pool quickly with this space opera, as we meet Oz, a Pharoid rogue with a humanist streak, and his band of mercenary Micronauts. If you’re seeing a distinct Guardians of the Galaxy streak here, you wouldn’t be wrong, but these characters don’t quite have the effortless personality that Peter Quill and his band of misfits possess — while characters like Acroyear have a certain archetypical toughness to them, other roles, like Space Glider Phenolo-Phi or security agent Larissa, don’t feel particularly fleshed-out. (Oz’s nav-bot Microtron, meanwhile, has literally a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him kind of introduction.) Additionally, because we’re dropped into the thick of conversations almost immediately (and often without the benefit of names), it’s already difficult to tell who is important and who isn’t.

The other issue with this debut is the plotting feels a little underdeveloped. From the nebulous energy wave threatening everything to the you-had-to-be-there drama surrounding villain Baron Karza, the stakes don’t feel particularly high for this book, and most importantly, there’s no X-factor to set Micronauts apart from more established sci-fi universes like Star Wars or Transformers. To compound this, the overall plot gets bogged down by an overload of information, when at its core the premise is pretty run-of-the-mill — the Micronauts have been called in for a job, but after dodging enemy fire, they realize the the heist isn’t exactly what was advertised.

The artwork in this book, on the other hand, has the potential for greatness, but with one layout artist, four finishers and four colorists credited, it’s not a surprise that Micronauts’ visuals change in quality and tone on a page-to-page basis. Layout artist David Baldeon has some decent expressiveness to his characters, but his panel layouts struggle to fit in Bunn’s packed script — there are a lot of pages that he overextends himself with establishing panels, while the other panels on a page have to cramp in to fit. Baldeon excels when it comes to splash pages, however, with Acroyear’s introductory splash page looking as cool and action-packed as it gets, and Baron Karza looking particularly menacing in his space station. But on a panel-to-panel basis, having four finishers credited doesn’t do Micronauts any favors — sometimes the linework is cartoony and fluid, while other times it takes a sketchier, grittier edge. Any of these looks would be fine, but having them all clash together doesn’t establish this book’s tone.

Ultimately, if you look at a book like Micronauts and only service a nostalgia market, you’re short-changing your licensed property tremendously. You cannot simply preach to the converted, especially when you can’t tie into any of the major characters or mythology that the classic Marvel series created. If you tried to give Micronauts #1 to someone unversed in the lore of the original toys or comics, they would likely not be able to make heads or tails of this without some serious online sleuthing — not a good sign for a book that should be the ground floor for anyone even remotely curious about this franchise. What makes the Micronauts such a beloved property? That’s the question that Bunn, Baldeon and IDW need to answer if this series is ever going to make it off the ground.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Aliens: Defiance #1
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Tristan Jones and Dan Jackson
Lettering by Nate Piekos
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Of all the big franchises of the 1970s and 1980s, the Alien stories perhaps most lend themselves to an expanded universe of stories. The seemingly omnipresent Company of Weyland-Yutani has gotten its grubby mitts into xenomorphic collectibles across the galaxy, and the hows and whys of their extensive knowledge and influence are always lingering threads at the end of every major cinematic entry. Preempting the first sequel Aliens, arguably the point where the series solidified its world-building, writer Brian Wood and artist Tristan Jones’ Aliens: Defiance doesn’t shock us with the new so much as it gives us a slightly different perspective on the world as it exists.

Set between Alien and Aliens, it focuses on Colonial Marine Private First Class Zula Hendricks, who is sent on a mysterious and dangerous mission alongside synthetic humanoids. Hendricks is immediately distinguishable from Ripley as a lead, coming in as a fully-trained (albeit rookie) marine. Yet she is no less the passive player than Ripley was initially, a pawn at the hands of whatever it is Weyland-Yutani is up to. What does come as a surprise, however, are how the synthethics around her react to their new predicament, with Wood offering this character trait as his hook for this series.

Wood’s world is an incredibly authentic one, which partly works in the book’s favor. Yet if Wood’s story sounds familiar, it’s because it is, following a familiar pattern of a working grunt betrayed by company machinations, resulting in a fight for survival against a sea of xenomorphs. Indeed, there’s a gratuitous cameo early on in the issue that is merely tipping its hat to the clear influences the cinematic universe has on the story, and for better or for worse, Wood sticks to a tale that doesn’t try and contradict or retcon anything that has gone before. Which is where Aliens: Defiance becomes a little vague in this debut issue, giving us an atmospheric setting that, beyond some new faces, doesn’t offer a distinctively strong narrative thrust.

Tristan “T-Rex” Jones — best known for his haunting art on Silent Hill Downpour: Anne’s Story, Ghostbusters and most recently Mad Max Fury Road: Furiosa — offers the book’s genuine point of difference. The blank white eyes of the characters in the first few panels have us asking the right questions off the bat, and you can almost feel the agony through Jones’ depiction of Hendricks as she strains to walk upright on some pages. Jones has a bang-on interpretation of the Alien landscape, shaped by the original film’s style with a little bit of James Cameron thrown in to suit the in-between period. The scenes in which the titular Alien attacks are all too brief, but bathed in red by Dan Jackson’s formidable colors, Jones’ choice to use the "man in a suit" portrayal from the first film is no less terrifying for its knowing wink at the reader. The height of tension is actually reached as a Davis synthetic explains the threat to Hendricks, with Jones using a rapid-fire series of panels through the lens of surveillance footage to deliver a gruesome horror movie montage.

In many ways, Aliens: Defiance feels like a greatest hits package from the first two Alien films, which is going to suit some just fine. At a planned 12 issues, it represents the longest planned Alien title from Dark Horse as well, the Predator crossovers notwithstanding. So bearing this in mind, this first issue only represents a small fraction of a larger whole. Even so, it’s hard to see the unique spin that the series offers just yet, but the final page at least offers some enticing hints as to why we should follow the next few steps.

Credit: Heavy Metal

The Doorman #2
Written by Eliot Rahal and Daniel Kibblesmith
Art by Kendall Goode and David B. Cooper
Letters by Kendall Goode
Published by Heavy Metal
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The Doorman #2 takes the buddy cop formula to new distant galaxies. Writers Eliot Rahal and Daniel Kibblesmith take a tried-and-true story structure and breathe new, sci-fi infused life into it, along with a hefty dose of humor, tension, and one extra zany final page. As Detective Flower and our Earth’s last surviving Doorman attempt to sway Flower’s tough-as-nails chief with hard evidence, the title’s philanthropic antagonist, Moongale, advances his plan with extreme prejudice. Rahal and Kibblesmith’s script not only delivers a clever deconstruction of the last good cop story, but also gives us more of the same wacky world building and humor that made the first issue so entertaining. Coupled with Kendall Goode and David B. Cooper’s cartoonish, yet kinetic artwork, The Doorman #2 is a rollicking and satisfying sci-fi comedy romp.

Picking up directly after last month’s devastating cliffhanger, The Doorman #2 hits the ground in a dead sprint and doesn’t let up until the final page. After recovering from a laser blast to the head, thanks to her distributed dinosaur brain, Detective Flower and Henry take their grisly evidence, a severed arm of a would-be assassin, directly to her chief in order to receive backup. Of course, things aren’t that simple as Moongale has everyone in his pocket, including Flower’s chief. While the debut issue was all about introducing Flower, Henry, Moongale, and the rising action of the title, Rahal and Kibblesmith keep this second issue moving at a very fast clip in order to keep the reader just as off balance as Flower and Henry as they race to find someone they can trust in a galaxy filled with people on the take and actively working against them.

That fast-paced style proves to be a major asset, as Rahal and Kibblesmith jam as much as possible into each page. Whether it is quick exposition from Moongale, detailing his plan to destroy the Doors and secure his new spaceway contract, or a tense scene of Henry finally accepting his call to adventure by calling a bluff on a desert planet, Rahal and Kibblesmith jam The Doorman #2 full of story and character moments, but in such a way that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rahal and Kibblesmith’s world-building, characterization and plotting engage in a way that feels familiar, mainly because we have read plenty of stories like this, just never in this kind of galactic and planet hopping fashion. The Doorman #2 is exactly the kind of story you would expect from a publisher like Heavy Metal and from the looks of this month’s final page, its only going to get crazier from here.

While The Doorman #2‘s story may feel and read familiar, its visuals take a wholly unexpected, and entertaining, direction. Artists Kendall Goode and David B. Cooper render this title like an exaggerated version of Robert Wilson IV’s style with rounded faces, smooth linework, and subtle and literal sound effects. For example, as Flower and Henry are attacked by her corrupt chief and during the ensuing laser gun battle, instead of employing the tried-and-true woosh! or the like, Goode and Cooper detail them as plaintive block letter regular words like a hilarious dive! as Flower leaps over a table for cover. Little details like that heighten the cartoonish nature of the artwork, as well as the quasi-satirical tone of the title as a whole. But while Goode and Cooper bring the jokes, vibrant colors, and alien cityscapes, their character work really pops from the page, making Flower and Henry feel like real people, instead of just characters on the page. Making an alien, even one as human looking as Flower, feel and look like a real person is no easy feat, but Kendall Goode and David B. Cooper achieve it, not only with Flower but with Moongale and the rest of the alien cast as well. Giving us characters that we want to follow is one of the hardest thing for an artist, but The Doorman #2 has plenty of them to spare in its ever growing cast of characters.

Heavy Metal is known for being out there, but The Doorman #2 takes a tried and true genre and then blasts it into the far reaches of space with great effect. Eliot Rahal, Daniel Kibblesmith, Kendall Goode and David B. Cooper carefully build their story, along with engaging world-building centered around this society and keep the action and humor building to a crazy cliffhanger that is sure to hook readers that weren’t fully sold before. Heavy Metal may have not been in the monthly comics game for long, but The Doorman #2 shows that their publishing division has more than a little potential behind it.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Creepy Comics #23
Written by Peter Bagge, Jose Bea, Dan Braun, T. Casey Brennan, Rachel Deering, Jai Nitz, and Fred Ott
Art by Auraleon, Peter Bagge, Jose Bea, Joshua Boulet, Richard Corben, Federic De Luca, and Andrea Muttie
Lettering by Nate Piekos and Peter Bagge
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

One of the reasons that I love Creepy Comics as a series is that it serves as an important reminder of what comic books were historically. While super heroes have become the focal point of the modern comic book industry, pulpy, sensationalist comic anthologies were a culturally significant fire that roared under the surface of 1950's Americana, inspiring nationwide moral panic over comic-inspired juvenile delinquency. The strength of Dark Horse's Creepy Comics in general and the three strong stories of Creepy Comics #23 in particular comes from the understanding of this particular form of narrative's place within in the medium, while simultaneously modernizing components of it. An anthology is ultimately going to be as good as the sum of its parts, and while two of the contained stories are genuinely good, two of them contain missteps.

After a brief masochistic introduction by a lovingly tortured Uncle Creepy, the issue begins with a story written by Jai Nitz and drawn by Andrea Mutti. "The One With The Sand" has one of the more promising starts in the book, and the artwork is solid throughout the first half of it, but it ends up being, of all things, a God of War rip-off with a Friends-esque title. Nitz has a knack for world building, and does a good job generating an investment in a nameless protagonist, a warrior from a desert tribe who must stand against the Roman Empire. The warrior seeks the aid of a necromancer in a strikingly rendered and compelling sequence, with Mutti's artwork at its peak. Great detail is given to certain aspects of the panels, while some of the backgrounds become vague and amorphous. It makes the night desert appear as strange, surreal, and ultimately frightening as it truly is. After this scene, however, the story falls apart with the inclusion of a redundant twist. While these stories are notorious for their Rod Serling-y endings, the finale of "The One With The Sand" is lacking the campiness of those Twilight Zone endings, and misses the full effect of a dramatic twist. All of this is to say that I believe Nitz started with a good story but did not know how to properly conclude it.

After a surreally portrayed comedic interlude, Jose Bea's "The Picture of Death" follows and immediately rejuvenates the issue as an heir to the sensationalist comics of the past. This auteur short has a lot to offer. The story tells of Herbert Wilson, a highly educated skeptic in desperate need of a room for the night. The only one that he is able to find just happens to be adorned with a haunted portrait. There is a risk in building up qualities of certain artwork within another work. In-universe hit songs or famous portraits are often underwhelming. The titular picture hanging on the wall is appropriate grotesque and avoids this trapping. The nightmarish logic and art that flows throughout the backend of the story is the high point of Creepy #23 and solidifies "The Picture of Death" as the best story contained within. Bea's art blends the Victorian-inspired realism with a noir-reminiscent harshness of shadows. Some of the panels even appear to have a mixture of digitally rendered and handmade art. While I assume everything in the story is digitally drawn, the contrast of appearances is noteworthy.

Following an Incan edition of "Creepy's Loathsome Lore," the comic goes into the second best tale it has to offer. "A Taste of Eternity" is Rachel Deering's interesting take on a vampire story, featuring art by Federico De Luca. In terms of both narrative and art, it is dripping with gothic imagery. It becomes clear early on that we are dealing with a vampire story, but manages to subvert reader expectations in a few interesting ways. A man of God is attacked by a beast with "hellfire in its eyes and… sulfur on its breath." The reader knows, thanks to a cleverly inserted bible passage, that he was most definitely attacked by a vampire. We assume that he will immediately have a volatile reaction to the cathedral in which he is now hiding, and be overcome immediately by an insatiable bloodlust. This doesn't happen, and had me questioning for a few pages if I was actually reading a vampire story at all. In a lot of ways, "A Taste of Eternity" is a werewolf story about a vampire. The demonic aspect of the main character is implied for a large portion of the narrative to be a completely separate entity from the man who is narrating the story. Apart from the one page splash of Tony Guaraldi- Brown's "Hastur: The King in Yellow" at the end of Creepy #23, a few of De Luca's panels are the best in the comic.

"The Night the Creatures Attacked" is adequate. Fred Ott's recount of a close encounter of the third kind in Hopkinsville, Kentucky is kept interesting by it's grounding in an allegedly real event. While Auraleon's artwork is a letdown in terms of making the extra-terrestrials frightening, it is effective at juxtaposing the otherworldliness of the encounter with the rural life of Kentucky. It feels like a very interesting blend of comic book and newspaper, even going as far as specifically citing the exact newspaper article where you could find the original story. In many ways, "The Picture of Death" is a good set-up to "The Night the Creatures Attacked." The former warns us of the dangers of skepticism while the latter presents us with an allegedly true and unexplained event. It lends a sense of credibility to the Sutton family's encounter.

You will know the second you pick up Creepy Comics #23 if it's for you. Horror anthologies like this are really welcoming to new readers, but also manage to surprise longtime fan expectations. With some solid talent in terms of both plot and artwork, the comic is a world of morbid fun. The meat of the issue is stellar, it just happens to be sandwiched between some weaker additions.

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