Best Shots Advance Reviews: THERE'S NOTHING THERE #1, ALIENS: DEAD ORBIT #1

Dark Horse Comics April 2017 cover
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Credit: Black Mask Studios

There's Nothing There #1
Written by Patrick Kindlon
Art by Maria Llovet
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Atmosphere is a tricky thing to get right when it comes to comic books. When it comes to art based completely on the written word, authors can focus on stringing together sentence after sentence to imbue the mood that they want to be the focus. With purely visual art or film, the often solitary dedication to visuals allows for an effect where the audience is utterly bathed in ambiance. Comic books often have a difficult balancing act of visuals to dialogue and panel layouts that can often break the immersion required for atmospheric horror to be truly effective in comics. In the case of There's Nothing There #1, however, its finest moments capture nightmarish ambiance in a way that most horror comics dream of. While an undeniable portion of this stems from writer Patrick Kindlon's storytelling, Maria Llovet's frequent swings between easily-digestible panels and panic-inducing art make this a comic with a vivid sense of danger.

This issue follows a young New York starlet named Reno attending an ritualistic orgy party in Long Island (as one does), and dealing with the immediate hallucinatory aftermath (as one does). After gazing upon a thematically relevant statue of the binding of Isaac, Reno leaves to hook up with one of the party’s many naked hostesses. When she does, the partygoers gather around to the statue for a sermon and to partake in a ritual for “conception,” leading to the strongest art and writing of the comic. Following this, Reno begins seeing otherworldly people surrounded by floating eyes. When her friends look, there’s nothing there. Pretty clever.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that this issue does is in the way it handles its rampant depictions of sexuality, and the distinction it makes between the types of sexuality it shows. There is a really interesting juxtaposition between a hookup that Reno is having in the mansion’s slave quarters and the detached, grotesque opulence of the orgy happening outside. Any scene depicting the orgy lacks a sense of focus, and the repetitive nature of the sexual acts particularly in a wordless two-page 32-panel stretch makes graphic sexual acts never appear sexualized. There is no gratification in those images, and indeed they fill the reader with an uneasy feeling. There is a palpable quesiness that the writing and the art in particular drive into the reader. The scenes of Reno’s hookup, however, are sharper, and the presence of only two subjects in the panel and the more intimate framing of them gives their scene a sense of intimacy that, when paired with the unyielding onslaught outside, radically increases the sense of dread throughout the comic.

Llovet’s art is an absolute treat both in terms of the sequential artwork itself and the color choices throughout. It’s always uneasy and when the story calls for the surreal the art style lends itself to that perfectly, but it never goes so far as to be inscrutable or pretentious. Even the framing within each panel is expertly crafted and makes the entire book memorable. Subtle touches in the hues under varying degrees of shade also make the art stand out. When Llovet appears to be flexing in the more blatantly surreal sequences she is absolutely at her best.

Where There's Nothing There #1 falls short, however, is the execution of the thematic ideas that it seems to hint on. It is clearly a comic book that wants to say something substantial about celebrity culture and the way that young women are often the fuel for the fetishistic and voyeuristic aspect of it, but it never does as much with those ideas as it clearly wants to. With the title alone being an obvious play on both the apparitions that only Reno can see and the hollow nature of celebrity culture, the narrative and dialogue seem less focused on delivering criticism of that culture. The comic’s most obvious thematic relatives are Jim Zub’s Glitterbomb comic book and Nicolas Winding Refn’s film The Neon Demon, and while it plays with the components of society that those works played with, it hasn’t yet delivered subversive commentary in the way that those works have. Perhaps that is the direction that the comic will take with the subsequent three issues, and perhaps merely hinting at these elements is the intention, but it feels like a story that wants to say more than it actually says. It is also hindered slightly by the distance it keeps us from the characters. We know that Reno is young and famous and that she doesn’t like rich boys, but that is largely where her characterization ends as of now. Again, this could be something elaborated upon in later issues, but with all of the work establishing mysteries that this book does it loses a little of its character work.

Overall, There’s Nothing There #1 is a strong opening act of a confident story. While some of the characters don’t feel completely fleshed out as of yet and there seems to be a holding back of social commentary, the queasy and pervasive dread throughout the issue and the stellar art make this a comic worth checking out. With three issues on the horizon, the comic does a good job of setting up its primary pieces. The mysteries at the heart of the issue will ultimately be what draws and keeps readers, and while that will be made or broken in the following issues, the artistry and skill with which everything is established makes this a genuinely exciting comic experience.

Credit: Dark Horse

Aliens: Dead Orbit #1
Written, Drawn, Colored, and Lettered by James Stokoe
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

How does one properly celebrate a momentous holiday like “Alien Day”? Well, if you are Dark Horse Comics, you throw James Stokoe into the cold void of space and let him go a bit nuts with full autonomy. What you end up with is a book like Aliens: Dead Orbit, a paranoid and highly detailed potboiler that captures both the isolation and dread of the beloved franchise.

Stokoe, working with full creative control of this mini-series, leans into the tone and design of the landmark films, introducing us to a crumbling space station and its hard-worked interior as he sets the stage for a deadly cat and mouse game between the xenomorph and our blue collar lead, Wascylewski. Though this debut only features a few scant pages of the titular killing machine, Aliens: Dead Orbit #1 is still a moodily engaging debut from one of our modern working masters.

Right from the jump, Stokoe lets you know that this experience isn’t going to be a pleasant one. We open with a nearly wordless introduction to our crumbling orbital stage, the Sphacteria, brought to you by the good people at Weyland-Yutani. From these cold, heavily shadowed pages, Stokoe lays down a lot of narrative real estate. As our grizzled and emaciated lead heads to deal with a proximity alarm, Stokoe gives us grim looks at Wascylewski’s life behind the barricades on the bridge of the station. Each hallway is blocked off by piled cargo boxes in order to seal off the bridge from the deep structural damage the station as sustained and also, as we know, something far worse than just a mere hole in the wall.

Though these scenes and the subsequent flashback to when the station and its crew were whole, Stokoe fosters a real sense of dread throughout Dead Orbit; a hallmark of the films, but something somewhat missing in the xenomorph’s comic appearances. We know the Alien is lurking somewhere in the present and we know something absolutely horrible is going to go down in the flashback, matter of factly delineated by a sketchy “Before” hanging quietly among the stars and above the pre-shattered station. But that just makes the read all the more skin crawling in the best possible way. Though die-hard fans will be disappointed in the distinct lack of xeno-action, Aliens: Dead Orbit #1 cuts to the quick of the core Alien experience and conjures a suspense than you will hope will last until the bitter end.

But while Stokoe gets the tone of Alien, he also understands the visual language and design of the franchise and meticulously assembles that design and its grimey feel onto the page very well. After the chilly opening, Stokoe expands his color scheme, tempering the dull grays of the station’s equipment with dusky red uniforms of the doomed crew, pale yellow display screens that throw soft light over the textured consoles, and a horrifying and claustrophobic sequence in which the Sphacteria crew start their road to ruin standing in the pale purple cryo-hold of a derelict space ship. I’ll give you three guesses on how that turns out, and the first two don’t count. Stokoe’s bulky and detail-oriented style is perfect for the Alien franchise and with him working as the entire creative team Dead Orbit is only going to get crazier and bloodier as the story progresses.

It may not be a national holiday, but “Alien Day” is still worth noting, and I can’t think of a better way to ring it in than with Aliens: Dead Orbit #1. Bringing the same sort of respect for franchises and their make up that enriched Godzilla: The Half Century War and his contributions to Moon Knight, James Stokoe comes correct in his mini-series’ debut, dredging up the primal, paranoid fear the movies evoke in people while also keeping his art well in line with the blue collar “space trucker” vibe of the series. Could this book have used more actual aliens? Absolutely. But fear is and can be more than just monsters, and I believe that as it goes on Aliens: Dead Orbit will prove just that.

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