Best Shots Advance Reviews: MISFIT CITY #1, REGRESSION #1, More

"Regression #1" cover
Credit: Danny Luckert (Image Comics)

Excelsior, 'Rama Readers! Dutiful David Pepose here, bringing back the Best Shots team to take advance looks at some new releases hitting shelves this week. To start things off, we've got a look at Misfit City #1 from rowdy Richard Gray.

Credit: Naomi Franquiz (BOOM! Studios/BOOM! Box)

Misfit City #1
Written by Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith and Kurt Lustgarten
Art by Naomi Franquiz and Brittany Peer
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Nostalgia has gotten much better than it used to be. Revisiting our collective childhoods is evident in the plethora of franchise adaptations and reboots that populate our cinemas, but also in the inspired original concepts behind films like Super 8 and the ready-made meme Stranger Things. Novelist and screenwriter Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith (Legally Blonde) and Kurt Lustgarten join forces for Misfit City, a meta-project that thankfully falls into the latter camp.

The sleepy Oregonian town of Cannon Cove was once the filming location for the ‘80s cult classic The Gloomies, a rough analogue for the actual adventure film The Goonies. Wilder is sick of her hometown and the fanboys that regularly invade the cove looking for artifacts from their favorite film. Fortunes change when her friends stumble across a centuries old treasure map, and more than one party is after it. In a case of life imitating art, her small band is off on an adventure of their own.

"It’s not just straight white boys who yearn for adventure,” Smith remarked in an interview recently. What Smith was tapping into is that everything from Explorers to Stranger Things were primarily boys-only adventures, and with Misfit City she and Lustgarten present an engaging group of young women in a female-driven story. The writing duo doesn’t simply rely on tropes either, and while their characters draw some intentional parallels to The Goonies, the truly impressive feat of this first issue is in crafting well-rounded and engaging leads that we actually want to spend time with.

The energetic art from Franquiz and colorist Peer similarly captures those nostalgic references without straight-up aping it. Inspired by the Pacific Northwest backdrop, or what Franquiz calls the “misty/mountain forest aesthetic” in the book’s back-matter, it’s a rare comic that takes the time to give us slice-of-life snapshots of the distinctively PNW landscapes. Her lively character designs capture the quirky dialogue, and actually inform the way that the characters are presented. Similarly, Peer’s color design emphasizes the retro vibe of the issue. Take, for example, the way the dusty browns and yellows of the museum sequence contrast with the sharply modern purples and blues of the final scene’s call-to-action.

Smith has commented that the heavy references to The Goonies are not coincidental, and that the frequent references will be essential to book as the series progresses. This kind of intertextual dialogue is not uncommon in retro-inspired works, but this self-awareness also speaks to what the reader brings to the book. No work is ever created in a bubble, but what Smith has done here is take a concept that could have been a simple old-school adventure and instead created something that will hopefully inclusively inspire a new generation, along with hooking us in for the next issue.

Credit: Danny Luckert (Image Comics)

Regression #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Danny Luckert and Marie Enger
Lettering by Marie Enger
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Drawing from writer Cullen Bunn’s past as the son of a professional stage hypnotist, Regression #1 proves to be a solid, if short, introductory issue whose true magic draws from the visuals from up-and-coming artist Danny Luckert. Leaning primarily on gross-out horror and slasher scares, the art may hook readers in just enough to give the story a chance to flourish.

From the very beginning of the book, Bunn’s everyman protagonist Adrian is seeing things. Disturbing things. Corpses filled with maggots. Cockroaches skittering across his friends’ smiling faces. Worms writhing out of a bottle of cold beer. It’s these visuals that show that Bunn is fully prepared to drop his readers into the deep end of the pool early, skipping the niceties of world-building and instead slaking horror fans’ bloodthirst early on. In certain ways, this approach reminds me a bit of Gail Simone’s Clean Room, in that Bunn’s story rests on tone over plot progression — characters like Adrian or his friend Molly are still pretty sketchy, although one can’t help but think their characterization and dynamic might evolve in issues to come.

But where Bunn’s story really starts to pick up is when he delves into his own past, as he introduces the titular idea of regression — of using hypnosis to explore blocked-off memories or, if you subscribe to the idea, even past lives. While Bunn’s two-page spread of Adrian being held under is cagey and disorienting by design — after all, he has the rest of his series to unfurl this mystery — there’s a specificity to Adrian’s conversation with the hypnotist Sid that makes these scenes stand out far more than the standard table-setting of the rest of the book. Given his level of expertise in the subject, I can only hope that Bunn will dig further into his hypnotist bag of tricks to give Regression its own unique flavor among the crowded horror landscape.

While Bunn’s story feels a bit decompressed, this slow burn is sustained through the artwork of Danny Luckert, who readers should be keeping an eye on for the future. I mentioned Clean Room as a tonal parallel to Regression earlier, and it’s in part because Luckert — whose style sometimes feels like a streamlined Tony Harris — revels in the grotesque, lovingly detailing bugs and gore pouring out of orifices and toilets. But paradoxically, Luckert’s characters are streamlined and uniformly gorgeous — while Bunn doesn’t flesh out Adrian’s friend Molly, for example, you immediately trust her, thanks to Luckert’s use of body language, while Adrian himself elicits some sympathy thanks to his put-upon expressiveness. If the first thing that makes or breaks a comic is the artwork, Bunn has done well for himself by having Luckert as his partner.

Ultimately, Regression might not be a grand slam for the prolific Bunn, but there’s still a decent amount to like here, thanks in part to the quick descent into violence and viscera portrayed by Luckert. There’s some potential to this hypnotism-themed horror, and one only hopes that Bunn uses his unique ties to the practice to build up his characters after this debut. As it stands as a debut, the beautifully rendered Regression might not lure you under its spell completely, but it certainly has enough pull to draw you in for another session.

Credit: Titan Comics

Dark Souls: Tales of Ember #2
Written by Tom Williams, George Mann, Dan Watters and Cassandra Khaw
Art by Alan Quah, Komikaki Studio, Piotr Kowalski, Brad Simpson, Caspar Wijngaard, Andrea Olimpieri and Mattia Iacono
Lettering by Tom Williams
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The embers of the Dark Souls game franchise may be fading, but Titan Comics is keeping the spirit, tone and brutality of the games alive in the blazingly entertaining final issue of Dark Souls: Tales of Ember. Written, drawn and colored by a murderer’s row of talent, Tales of Ember #2 again takes readers through the horrifying world of Dark Souls spinning epic yarns of humanity’s hubris, resolve and insanity.

Anthologies are always a strange beast to try and wrangle one into a review, but when they are as tightly produced as Tales of Ember, it makes it a lot easier. Armed with a cleverly macabre and beautifully rendered bookend story in the form of “The Shrine,” in which a wayward knight is waylaid by a human hating murderous cat, this finale issue makes great uses of the tone, voice and action language of the games without making it feel like a cannibalization. Even without the instantly recognizable dodge rolls and two handed fighting that the artists render throughout, this second issue taps into what makes this game series such an irresistible thing for the gaming community thanks to its commitment to horror and humanity.

This is best illustrated in the stories “Shattered Mirror” and “Pound of Flesh,” arguably two of the best Dark Souls stories Titan has produced so far. In the first, writer Dan Watters makes an entire story out of the game’s invading mechanic, in which a rival player only can “invade” your game world and, depending on your skill level, completely knock your dingus into the dirt. A knight, who bears a striking resemblance to the Looking Glass Knight, stands atop a lonely hill locked in a constant battle with invading spirits from his broken mirror shield. Though the action is tightly, brutally blocked by artist Caspar Wijngaard as well as colored with scorched yellows and reds that capture the third game’s look well, it is Watters’ knight’s stalwart narration about standing, even if the world isn’t that perfectly captures the grit players have to accrue in order to progress through this world that has moved on.

The issue’s other standout, “Pound of Flesh,” also takes this more humanity focused approach, but instead of offering the thrill of victory, it aims for a much, much darker place and will chill readers right to the bone. Writer Cassandra Khaw and artists Andrea Olimpieri and Mattia Iacono offer a tale of two royal sisters, one resplendent and destined to rule and the other cast aside and tortured for her sister’s amusement. But then the Blight came and now they have fused into one of the game’s weapon wielding horrors, but the sister’s revenge is sweet for sometimes she gets to see her sister die by a hero’s hand or even when she is felled first, her body slowly necrotizes her sister and claims her life again for the cycle to start again. Though a much more horrifying showing from Khaw, it still reveals a new deeper human layer to this game, showing the audience that the monsters have stories and just how deep this already bottomless well of lore is for Dark Souls and its tie-in comics.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned the classic Twilight Zone-esque freak out “Behold, Townsfolk!” from George Mann, Piotr Kowalski and Brad Simpson that looks like a shared fever dream between Dave Gibbons and Bilquis Everly. But, honestly, I don’t have to as Dark Souls: Tales of Ember #2 speaks volumes for itself and stands as an instantly accessible, undiluted look into the horror and heart of Dark Souls. Anthologies are a tricky business and adaptations are doubly so, but thankfully, Titan Comics’ Dark Souls offerings got gud early on and provided stories that both fans and newbies could enjoy by the warm light of a Blighttown bonfire.

Credit: Scout Comics

Heavenly Blues #1
Written by Ben Kahn
Art by Bruno Hidalgo
Lettering by Kathleen Kralowec
Published by Scout Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Where does an angel go to find a team to steal from Heaven? Straight to Hell, obviously. Heavenly Blues #1 reunites the team from Shaman for a genre-bending supernatural heist tale featuring Depression-era gangsters, mouthy kids, and the heist of an afterlife time. Writer Ben Kahn blends a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards philosophical tropes with an undercurrent of emotional turmoil to create an underworld of engaging, relatable characters that make the outlandish circumstances seem surprisingly grounded.

The debut issue of Heavenly Blues introduces Isaiah “Tommy Gun” Jefferson, a Great Depression bank robber who landed in Hell after a heist gone wrong, and “Wicked” Erin Foley, a soul who died young and forged a friendship with Jefferson after “welcoming” him to the afterlife. Jefferson and Foley are a curiously endearing buddy comedy duo; Jefferson, introduced in the early pages through a grave philosophical monologue introducing a new soul to hell, plays the straight man to Erin Foley’s foul-mouth and quick-witted teen instincts.

Erin has been trapped in Hell for years longer than Isaiah, and Kahn explores the unusual dynamic to their friendship with subtle turns that acknowledge both Erin’s relative youth and Isaiah’s tendencies towards introspective self-pity. Erin feels ageless and incredibly young all at once, driven both by a bitterness deepened by centuries in Hell and a youthful impulsiveness it seems she never had the chance to grow out of on Earth. Kahn offers a morally gray perspective on life that acknowledges both Isaiah and Erin may have, at heart, been kind and good people, without totally absolving them of some of their darker tendencies. Isaiah may describe himself as a pussycat, but his thievery in life seems driven by a quest for bigger hauls and more glory, and while Erin Foley may have gone to hell in part for actions she took to protect herself, she’s portrayed up front as a nasty kid with a vicious streak who delights in hazing new arrivals to Hell.

Illustrator Bruno Hidalgo does stellar work creating a slightly stylized vision of hell that feels miserable and empty without appearing cartoonish. The underworld is a mishmash of architectural styles and design esthetics, from an old western saloon to a pool hall that feels ripped out of the 1980s. As spirits come and go, they leave their mark on the landscape, buildings that reflect their efforts to find purpose in an endless string of empty days. The violent touches -- glimpses of blood and brain -- are gruesome and ff-putting in a way that suits a book about Hell without making it too gory to read. Even small touches are impactful, like the subtle glow and modern clothes on the angel who comes to chat with Isaiah and Erin that mark him as decidedly out of place in the underworld.

The lettering work from Kathleen Kralowec is absolutely a visual high point and a perfect complement to Hidalgo’s style. Panels of gunshots are perfectly punctuated with sound effects that change in font and size with the type of gun and speed of the gunfire, and the opening panels featuring a soul being dragged to the underworld feature unique and clever lettering that perfectly capture the desperation of suddenly finding yourself denied entrance into heaven. The coloring of the effects often serve as a perfect punctuation to the entire panel, particularly blood-red gunshots against black and white flashbacks detailing the end of Isaiah’s life.

Heavenly Blues #1 is a beautiful and cleverly-written book blends dry humor and supernatural elements into an intriguing heist tale. Kahn’s pacing makes the first issue feel like the opening chapter in an exciting serialized radio drama, a talent that’s surprisingly rare to find in a medium based on monthly issues. With an engaging and surprisingly relatable cast and beautiful illustrations, the debut issue is a must-read. Heavenly Blues #1 is out July 26, and can still be ordered through shops with the code MAY171769 through May 18.

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