Best Shots Advance Reviews: VIOLENT LOVE #1, WWE - THEN NOW FOREVER #1

"WWE: Then. Now. Forever #1" variant by Frazier Irving
Credit: Frazier Irving (BOOM! Studios)
Credit: Image Comics

Violent Love #1
Written by Frank J. Barbiere
Art by Victor Santos
Design by Dylan Todd
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Frank J. Barbiere, Victor Santos, and Dylan Todd take us through the heartbreaking genesis of a criminal in the debut of Violent Love. Inspired by true events, the creative team divides their time between Texas in 1987 and California, in 1969 as a retired lawman recounts the tale of beautiful and doomed Daisy Jane, one half of the title’s pair of murderous lovers. Though the cover advertises a more Bonnie and Clyde-like story, Barbiere’s sole focus on Daisy paints her as a compelling victim of circumstance thrust into the world of crime due to tragedy.

Clearly inspired by the dusty crime movies of yesteryear, artist Victor Santos provides stylish humanity-infused artwork as designer Dylan Todd injects a cinematic feel to the proceedings with opaque title cards. With a tone more akin to intimate character study Violent Love #1 begins this series on a note full of slickness and pathos.

With a title like Violent Love readers can probably infer what kind of story this is going to be, and thankfully writer Frank J. Barbiere pulls no punches with this debut. Framed by the action in 1987, Barbiere delves into the life of Daisy Jane and presents a seemingly normal girl who is unfortunately gripped by revenge thanks to her bloody brush with a crime boss. As the retired Lou tells his young charge Penny in '87, not all stories have happy endings, and this one is no exception.

But while Barbiere reveals very early just how Daisy and her lover Rock’s spree comes to an end, it doesn’t make this debut any less engaging. In fact, it makes Daisy’s inciting incident and subsequent turn all the more gut wrenching. Though the easy way to recount a story like this would be to jump right in the middle of the crime and the killing, this debut takes a much more singularly focused track, allowing the reader to fully understand Daisy, her past, and her circumstances instead of instantly casting her as the gun toting criminal that the cover features. This laser focus makes Daisy a compelling and wholly human lead and works to justify her turn to crime, instead of excusing it, giving Violent Love a beating heart beneath its pulpy and blood-soaked surface.

As Barbiere focuses on Daisy’s origins, artist Victor Santos provides this debut strong New Hollywood-esque visuals that gives the title an inspired look that sets it apart from the usual grim and gritty crime comic fare. Along with subtle, but striking design choices from Dylan Todd, Santos’ heavily inked and expressive artwork fully sells all the emotions at play throughout the issue as well as the consequences of the violence featured throughout.

Santos also makes great use of single- and double-page splashes during this debut, using certain ones to clue readers in on the woman that Daisy will be become, surrounding her with wanted posters and dressing her in a wild fur coat and knee-high boots. Santo uses other splash pages to highlight the high cost of violence in this world, showing just how hard and how far the title’s antagonist Johnny Nails is willing to go to hammer home a point, quite literally in his case. Invoking a specific era and visual look, both Victor Santos and Dylan Todd make Violent Love #1 look like the best Robert Evans production we never got.

Usually when readers see the word “crime” on a cover of a comic book, the image of dingy alleys, rain soaked trenchcoats and flying bullets instantly pops into their heads. However Violent Love #1 offers a much sunnier and much more humanist take on the genre, focusing on the person before the taint of crime and allowing readers to fully understand one of the leads before the dam breaks. Frank J. Barbiere, Victor Santos and Dylan Todd take things slow, but not slow enough to make this debut a durge. While we know where the story ends, they work to make the journey to get there as vibrant and as affecting as possible. Not all stories have happy endings, but Violent Love #1 starts this one off on the right foot.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

WWE: Then. Now. Forever. #1
Written by Dennis Hopeless, Ross Thibodeaux, Rob Schamberger and Derek Fridolfs
Art by Dan Mora, Rob Guillory, Rob Schamberger, Daniel Bayliss and Derek Fridolfs
Published by BOOM!
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It’s safe to say that the overlap between comic books and wrestling fans is substantial enough that a successful licensed comic book should be an easy pitch, but despite frequent attempts by WWE, no single book has ever seemed to catch on for long. But BOOM! Studios has built a strong name for itself with licensed properties in recent years, and WWE: Then. Now. Forever. is a great introduction to two engaging ongoing tales that could break WWE’s losing streak in the comics publishing game.

This week’s issue is a super-sized one-shot that sets up next year’s WWE on-going and collects the one page stories initially offered at Comic-Con International: San Diego as part of WWE and Boom’s initial announcement. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, anyone who’s spared half a glance for WWE merchandise in the last few years will recognize most of the faces featured in WWE: Then. Now. Forever.. Writer Dennis Hopeless’ story follows the break-up of one of the biggest wrestling factions in modern WWE history, the Shield: Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, and Seth Rollins, the architect of the Shield who betrayed them all.

Hopeless does an excellent job managing the “real but not quite” world of wrestling’s on-screen canon, called 'kayfabe,' and treats this issue as a behind the scenes look at events long-time wrestling fans have seen revisited on screen again and again. Reigns, Ambrose, and Rollins have been main event players in the WWE in one way or another since their debut almost four years ago, but the nature of wrestling broadcasts leaves something to be desired when it comes to the deep-dive character building made possible by other mediums. WWE: Then. Now. Forever. fills in those gaps with ease, revealing the uneasy nature of the camaraderie between the three with in-ring dialogue and private moments that offer a depth to the Shield that should give the storyline a fresh feeling even the most die-hard marks can appreciate.

Hopeless and artist Dan Mora dive headfirst into a world dominated by over-the-top characters and outlandish plot twists and make it their own, reveling in wrestling’s absurdity with big comic beats as much as they embrace its capacity for compelling emotional storytelling. Mora makes every effort to accurately reflect the superstars fans know and love in his art without turning them into caricatures or making every body look roughly the same. Action sequences move swiftly and pack a big punch without dominating the book, never letting us forget this is a tale of men who fight for a living but reminding us they’re more than just fighters. Mora’s faces in particular shoulder an impressive amount of the storytelling burden with ease: Rollins’ exasperation and unease with his choices are clearly evident and elevate Hopeless’ dialogue, and even panels with few words are heartbreaking thanks to Mora’s work.

WWE: Then. Now. Forever. is unapologetically for wrestling fans, but if you like fraught stories about best friends and betrayal, Hopeless does a great job of capturing the essence of these characters in broad enough strokes that anyone who’s a little curious could pick the book up and find themselves invested in the story. Ross Thibodeaux and Rob Guillory’s back-up story The New Day’s Optimistic Odyssey will be an utter delight for all comers as well.

The New Day - Xavier Woods, Big E Langston, and Kofi Kingston, also known as your WWE world tag team champions - are some of the most popular stars in the WWE right now, and with good reason. With incredible moves and impressive comedic timing, the trio are perfectly suited to a time-traveling adventure in Guillory’s off-beat style. Thibodeaux and Guillory shuttle the camp counselors through the timestream on a mission to restore positivity to the WWE in a tale that will be perfectly believable to longtime fans and can be taken at face value by anyone dipping their toes in the wrestling waters. Aside from the time-travel, of course; sorry to expose the business, but nobody really time travels in wrestling except for in Chikara (but that's another story).

WWE: Then. Now. Forever. is a solid foundation for its 2017 on-going to build on, and a great value for an oversized issue - all of the one-shot tales are solid offerings, from Rob Schamberger’s tale about the inspiring journey of women’s superstar Sasha Banks to Derek Fridolfs’ charming Popeye-styled Tugboat tale. BOOM! has found writers and artist who have a true passion for wrestling and for stars through the ages, and that passion shines through from the full length tales to the single-page shorts - if you’re a wrestling fan and the Dusty Rhodes hard times page doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, I don’t know what to tell you. No screwjob jokes here: Then. Now. Forever. embraces the characters fans love and the world WWE has created and gives them a new depth, proving their partnership with BOOM! was absolutely the right call to make.

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