Written by Brandon Thomas
Art by Juan Gedeon and Frank Martin
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
The world truly is a scary place. As the news headlines of the past two years begin to read more and more like exposition to a dystopian epic, it can be frighteningly easy to feel you've become foreign to a dying world. Brandon Thomas channels that notion in a stellar debut in which every panel exudes confidence, from both a story and art perspective. All promotional information for the comic has been about its twist on an alien invasion storyline — but instead of extraterrestrials invading Earth, this is a story about Earth is invading a planet named Valius. Introducing our protagonist, Zhia Malen, as she crash-lands on the planet and begins her infiltration of our society, Horizon is a story that is clear about its epic intentions, but ultimately focuses itself on how events on an interstellar scale affect the individual.
One of the most impressive aspects of Horizon #1 is the way that it establishes the scope of the story. When establishing a narrative that has an epic range, it can be really easy to turn multiple pages into exposition dumps, to tell the reader how grandiose the story is and how deep the world-building goes. Thomas has constructed his plot that puts enough faith in his audience to do none of that. This is a story about extra-terrestrials and space invasions, but we never get the splash page of the cosmos with clunky narration about how things are. We stay securely in Zhia Malen's perspective, and while there are a handful of flashback panels, they are never dedicated to exposition, but instead to build intrigue and cultivate atmosphere.
Thomas’ outright disdain of handholding trickles down to individual scenes. One of the most memorable sequences in this issue happens early on, as the recently crashed Zhia makes her way through a shopping center. Any language that she overhears is garbled nonsense. We are deep into her point of view. An interplanetary visitor shouldn't be fluent in English, and it is interesting to see how this plays out. While this is happening, there is an implication that she is siphoning money from the bank accounts of people she passes by in order to pay for supplies and a place to stay for the night. The way that this is all handled is brilliant. As Zhia walks through the shopping center, account balances are bubbled above the heads of passersby. As the panels go on, her own account balance goes up. It’s some strong and subtle storytelling.
Later, when Zhia gets her translator implant repaired, she is able to understand and speak English. Her use of the language is a little clunky, but without being a giant flashing sign that says, "I don't understand Earth things.” When she wakes up from a nightmare / flashback, the guest of the room next door comes over to check on her. She responds, "Everything is fine. Your concern is unnecessary." And when she sees something unfamiliar in the distance, she asks, "What in the hells is that?" It is just off-kilter enough to reinforce that she is foreign to this place. This creates some striking and memorable moments, but it also highlights the one flaw of an otherwise incredible comic book. Zhia has interesting character moments, but she is never fully characterized. This is a minor gripe, and one which many debut issues share. When you finish Horizon #1, you know a little about Zhia's personal history, you know a little more about the state of Earth, and you have a strong sense on the tone that the story utilizes, but you don't really know much about who Zhia is as a character, or what she is like. That said, I’m confident that this will be explored further in later issues, and that her motivations will become clear.
In the same way that the narrative exudes confidence, there is a self-assured quality to the artwork as well. Visually, Judan Gedeon shares a lot in common with fellow Image release Saga. The sketch-like quality of some panels gives the comic a greater sense of urgency and immediacy. Gedeon does his best work when he is putting the alien against the backdrop of the Earthly. Likewise, Frank Martin's coloring finds its strongest moments when it juxtaposes cosmic lights with familiar darks. He and Gedeon are completely in sync when portraying Chicago as an overcrowded Neo-Tokyo-esque near-future city. It does what great comic art should do, and contributes perfectly to the mood that Thomas establishes.
A lot of first issues show potential; Horizon #1 shows pure strength. It is clear that there is a strong understanding of pacing and telling a longer story at the heart of the comic. Thomas is playing with a number of interesting thematic elements and has several components in place for telling an elaborate and grand science fiction narrative. With a strong art team behind him, the story is given adequate space to explore its own world in a steady and subtle way. It will be interesting to see if and how the comic widens its scope and sheds more light on its own planetary conflict, but it is just as intriguing to learn more about its central character as she exists now and the history that created her.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina #6
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Robert Hack
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
Ever since The Walking Dead, horror has yielded big business in comics, with gore and slasher fare such as Wytches, Nailbiter and Harrow County all receiving critical acclaim. But while it’s easy to get your pulse pounding under the threat of fictional violence, there’s something much spookier when it comes to the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a genuinely unsettling read that’ll evoke memories of childhood ghost stories told over an open fire.
Titled “Familiars,” writer Robert Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Robert Hack hit pause on Sabrina Spellman’s ascendence into witchhood to focus on the otherworldly creatures living in her midst. From the child-like opening narrative featuring a mouse meeting its untimely end thanks to a pair of deadly cobras, Aguirre-Sacasa knows how to set a sinister mood — he and Hack also are in perfect balance with one another, with the almost-whimsical prose providing just the right amount of pop for the shadowy and occasionally grotesque art. (Even a silhouette of the mouse being torn in half is enough to make you feel queasy.)
Yet Aguirre-Sacasa isn’t content to just settle with brutality — he seems to have instinctively keyed in on how creepy talking animals might actually be in the real world, and spins together two stories that could only be called, well, chilling. The first tale, focusing the aforementioned cobras, reads like a dark fable from Aesop, with Hack perfectly punctuating each page with an unsettling image, including the blood-stained lips of the cobras themselves, or a double-crossing tutor’s features subtly warping with malevolence.
While the cobras’ story, which plays on universal themes of royal intrigue and patricide, takes a clever turn near its conclusion, the creative team outdoes themselves with the origin of Salem, Sabrina’s talking housecoat. Going back to the colonial era preceding the Salem Witch Trials, this story has enough resonance in the cultural imagination to bring up memories of Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Hack sets such a bleak and oppressive tone for this story, with his brown and muddy color palette proving to be exactly the right fit for Massachusetts in 1962. Aguirre-Sacasa portrays Salem as both a selfish boor but also a victim of a scorned witch, a clear-cut case of the punishment being disproportionate from the crime — and without giving too much away, Hack portrays a sequence with a goat that is truly nightmarish.
Horror is huge in comics today, but because it’s a static medium, it’s easy for the industry to rely on visual tricks like gore and graphic violence to get the scares across. But Chilling Adventures of Sabrina #6, despite barely having its title character in the book, takes the harder road, and succeeds because of it. With its ominous storytelling working hand in hand with its eerie visuals, this book takes no shortcuts to spook you, and as a result, might be the most effective horror comic in ages.
Rick and Morty: Lil’ Poopy Superstar #1
Written by Sarah Graley
Art by Sarah Graley, Mildred Louis and Marc Ellerby
Lettering by Crank!
Published by Oni Press
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Though not as uproarious or as emotionally affecting as the previous issues, Rick and Morty: Lil’ Poopy Superstar #1 is still a worthy addition to Oni Press’ adaptation canon. Written and illustrated by Sarah Gradley and colored by Mildred Louis, this miniseries debut stars the inexplicable fan-favorite character Mr. Poopybutthole and the underused Summer as they embark on a secret mission to Poopybutthole’s homeworld. While not a joke a minute affair, Gradley and Louis deliver a solid debut issue that captures the tone of the show while still standing as its own as a singular experience.
Picking up after Mr. Poopybutthole’s last canon appearance Lil’ Poopy Superstar finds the ridiculously named side-character enlisting Summer for some kind of shady excursion to steal Rick’s portal gun and wrap up some unfinished business. Sarah Graley, an accomplished writer/artist of webcomics like Our Super Adventure and Pizza Witch, adapts well to the ridiculous world of Rick and Morty thanks to her dry, yet absurd sense of humor which she displays in scenes like Summer coming up with a “reeeeeeel good” disguise for Mr. Poopybutthole that is simply her putting a different tiny hat on him and drawing on a mustache. Graley even carves out some pathos for this debut thanks to her focusing the story on Summer.
Summer is a character that I love but one that hasn’t been utilized to her full potential by the comics or TV show just yet. Thankfully, Graley takes some big strides with her even before she is roped into Mr. Poopybutthole’s adventure. Graley’s Summer is sick of being left on the sidelines while Rick and Morty gallivant across the multiverse and rub her face in it once they are home. Naturally she jumps at the chance to have a secret adventure all her own with the chipper Poopybutthole, even though she may be getting in over her head.
Graley handles both characters well, especially the goofy cadence of Mr. Poopybutthole who straddles the line between endearing and annoying, but it is her Summer that proves the real star of this debut. In just a few short panels Graley illustrates Summer’s frustration, disappointment, and eagerness to prove herself, making her a fully rounded character, accomplishing a feat that the show was still struggling with through its second season. While it doesn’t reach the crushing level of emotionality that the main series has, Sarah Graley continues the streak of tempering the comedy with genuine heart here.
As for the artwork, Graley’s rounded pencils along with Mildred Louis’ colors and stylish background effects capture the look of the TV show while offering visuals that stand this debut apart from the more conventional look of the main series. Fans of Graley’s webcomics will find her style here very much on par with what they are used to, but here she takes it a step further with some keen visual gags, like wispy legions of ghosts leaving a broken camera, a lil’ ribbon announcing the arrival of a lil’ bowler hat, and cameos from show creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland on Mr. Poopybutthole’s homeworld. Colorist Mildred Louis keeps Graley’s pencils in step with the TV’s show’s look with flattened color choices, but also distances it when she can with bright backgrounds that highlight certain panels like a panel of blue shining stars when Summer and Poopybutthole high-five and a magenta anime-esque explosion of emotion when Summer is asked to tag along as a companion. Though Oni Press has done a great job of keeping its Rick and Morty comics looking like what fans expect, it is nice to see that they are allowing creative teams to move outside of that established look a bit with this debut issue.
Though the gallows humor and frank emotion of the main series are absent here Rick and Morty: Lil’ Poopy Superstar #1 is still a treat for fans and a confident start for the title’s first spin-off. Sarah Graley and Mildred Louis, along with a backup story drawn by series regular Marc Ellerby, take two well liked side-characters and poise them as stars with their own adventure armed with plenty of heart and visual gags. We still don’t know what Mr. Poopybutthole’s whole deal is, but Lil’ Poopy Superstar #1 makes me very curious to find out.