Best Shots Advance Reviews: WWE #5, SOLID STATE

Image Comics July 2017 cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: BOOM! Studios

WWE #5
Written by Dennis Hopeless and Ross Thibodeaux
Art by Serg Acuna, Doug Garbark, Rob Guillory and Taylor Wells
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Dennis Hopeless takes us back behind the scenes of Extreme Rules this week in WWE #5, picking up immediately where Seth Rollins’ triumphant return left off in last month’s issue. With Seth’s introductory arc wrapped up, Hopeless turns his attention on WWE’s “lunatic fringe,” the off-kilter brawler Dean Ambrose, in an endearing introduction to a version of Ambrose wrestling fans don’t usually get to see week to week.

The strength of Hopeless’s storytelling skills unfortunately highlight the weakness of his characterization in this issue, however, as the dialogue he pens for Dean never seems to come quite as naturally to Hopeless as Seth’s opening arc in the series. The work Hopeless does crafting a relatable and realistic background for Ambrose, whose actual difficult upbringing is well-documented through his pre-WWE career, is impressive and continues to skillfully tiptoe the real-but-not-real line Hopeless and Acuna have created for the unusual kayfabe world WWE’s superstars inhabit.

Ambrose on screen is a rambunctious and unpredictable brawler with a penchant for comedic pratfalls at odds with his dogged, petty mean streak. As with Rollins, Hopeless turns Ambrose from a broadly-painted archetype to a real person with understandable motivations as a wrestler and interests outside the ring that he holds as passionately and obsessively as his WWE career goals.

And, as a Dean Ambrose mark myself, it’s fun to see Hopeless introduce new friendships and motivations for Dean in the lead up to last year’s eventful Money in the Bank pay-per-view. We may never get a Banks/Ambrose buddy comedy road trip on screen, but that’s what Hopeless teases here, making coworkers with similarly ambiguous loyalties into a reluctant but light-hearted team. Banks’ confrontation with Charlotte Flair and Ambrose’s with the Beast, Brock Lesnar, and his advocate Paul Heyman, are cleverly paralleled and solidly set the stage for the next few issues.

The pages with Ambrose and Lesnar are some of Acuna’s best action scenes of the series as well — Acuna focuses on huge impactful moments punctuated with emotional lines of dialogue to created one of the best-executed fights of the series to date. Banks and Ambrose are an unlikely pair of pals, and even though Hopeless doesn’t seem quite as home with mostly-good guys in the wrestling world as he does with mostly-bad guys like Rollins and Flair, this introductory issue still promises an interesting arc.

Justin Thibodeaux and Rob Guillory return in tomorrow’s issue as well, bringing the Power of Positivity back with another installment of “The New Day’s Optimistic Odyssey.” The sound effects in this tale are some of the visual highlights, and the biggest problem with their back-up story is that it’s simply too short. How could only a page of Big E Langston facing off in rock ‘em sock ‘em robots with a beefed up unicorn be nearly enough? It’s a delight to see Thibodeaux and Guillory’s surreal time-travel adventure back in WWE #5, and though the Wyatt and Balor tales were certainly compelling as well, the brief New Day story will leave you hoping we get to stick with the fan-favorite trio for a few issues longer.

Credit: Image Comics

Solid State
Written by Matt Fraction and Jonathan Coulton
Art by Albert Monteys
Lettering by Barbaink
Published by Image Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Solid State is an unusual book. Matt Fraction’s companion piece to Jonathan Coulton’s 2017 concept album of the same name is a modern tale of the social media soft apocalypse, following the journey of two men who share a name and not much else — Bob of the future, a Boojitropoplex drone who wakes himself from the all-controlling haze of the fascist state around him, and Bob of the past, a self-absorbed software genius whose journey to empathy and self-discovery comes perhaps too late.

The book marks satirist illustrator Albert Monteys’ longest work to date, and his visual style gives the book a timeless quality that evokes the simpler, more straightforward character designs of yesteryear with an eye-popping update through the bright pinks and yellows of Boojitropoplex’s palette. Monteys does an excellent job distinguishing between past and future, dreams and waking life through the use of color — Future Bob’s world is vivid and strange and too friendly, while Past Bob lives in a more grounded color palette that pops with hints of verdant green glimpses of nature that are suspiciously absent in Future Bob’s day to day life.

In the spirit of its square-packaged musical sibling, the Solid State graphic novel is printed as a 10” x 10” bound book, and its square proportions are maintained in the digital copy and employed by great effect by both Monteys and Fraction, and with Barbaink’s lettering. Solid colors in the opening pages zoom bout into abstract shapes and cheery magenta blobs you later realize may be blood, the opening lyrics of Solid State the album’s opening track Wake Up overlayed with a blocky face that takes time to pick out against the insistent “wake up, wake up, wake up.”

There are few full page scenes in the book, and even pages without panel borders are laid out in such an orderly fashion that the moments where a character or scene takes up more than a small fraction of the page are made all the more impactful by their sudden looming perspective. The consistent use of four-, eight-, and 16-page panel layouts plays a visual trick on the eyes that will force readers to be more thoughtful about the way they consume each page, reprocessing a 16-page layout into eight to match vertical speech bubbles with their speakers.

Despite the impressive visuals, though, the narrative of Solid State never packs quite the same emotional punch. Coulton has said that one of the driving concepts of the album was the idea that “the Internet sucks now,” a concept Fraction explores in broad strokes by invoking pressing issues like corporate conglomerations of user data and personal Internet security issues like doxxing without ever giving any clear concept of the ramifications of either.

Antagonist Ray, the elderly founder of the company Booji that later turns into the savior of “everybuddy” by founding Future Bob’s aggressively friendly surveillance state home Boojitropoplex, wants to know too much about everyone, and has made his fortune collecting everything he can about the users of his product for purposes we never really uncover. Presumed protagonist Past Bob sets the data free, but despite the incredibly justified horror of his coworkers and partner Ana, never seems particularly remorseful for his actions or the very real emotional physical and emotional harm he’s thoughtlessly enacted on others. What Past Bob has done is “bad,” but does he know why? Does he apologize? Eventually he has friends again, and starts a family with Ana, so he’s been forgiven — but for what? And why?

Though the character arcs are nebulous at best, Fraction does do an impressive job spinning the loose arc and themes of the album into the curious future of Boojitropoplex. The moments spent with Future Bob, and the relationship between him and his robot buddy, are some of the most compelling of the novel. Fraction makes Future Bob’s world seem so intensely pleasant as to be eerie.

Everyone is a buddy — your friends, your enemies, your buddy with a smile or your buddy with a knife behind their back. When it counts, Fraction makes it easy to distinguish between the sweet friendship of Future Bob and his robot buddy as they become increasingly more curious about themselves and the world around them, and the thoughtless “buddy” of a neighbor or coworker who doesn’t really care that much. Fraction’s dialogue is littered with emoji but not so heavily that they lose meaning — when Future Bob’s colleagues begin downvoting his whistling en masse, there’s a sense he’s being dogpiled, instead of making their responses seem like mindless babble.

Social media in and of itself is portrayed as relatively value neutral: people want to share things quickly with the world around them, and it’s the intent of the users behind the screen or the corporate entities providing the software that are the focal point of the series. Instead of offering another clever take about “millennials glued to their phones,” Fraction and Coulton suggest that “because I can” isn’t enough of a reason for a company to hoard your personal data, or for a person to pick fights on the internet at all hours of the night as Past Bob seems wont to do. The deeper concepts hinted at by Past Bob’s exploits are never investigated deeply enough to give Solid State the emotional depth the idea of a “post-emoji apocalypse” necessarily deserves, but Monteys’ beautiful artwork, and the tale of Future Bob and his nebulous but strangely hopeful end, are enough to make the graphic novel worth picking up and Coulton’s companion album worth checking out.

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Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Panther #14
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Wilfredo Torres, Jacen Burrows, Terry Pallot and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

T’Challa’s search for the missing Wakandan gods and the source of the mysterious snake-men leads him to an old foe in Black Panther #14. Ta-Nehisi Coates expands on the Wakandan mythos by returning characters to the fold like Queen Divine Justice and the sorcerer Zawavari, while at the same time adding a classic Marvel villain to T’Challa’s rogues gallery.

For longtime Black Panther fans, these guest appearances are welcome additions to the story, but for new readers, these additions to the cast may seem out of left field. This is particularly true in the case of Asira, formerly known as Queen Divine Justice. A mainstay of Christopher Priest’s run, her sarcastic attitude may seem out of place to readers unfamiliar with her and some readers may confuse her for a former love interest (she isn’t). While it certainly isn’t necessary for Coates to provide an encyclopedic breakdown of her character, a stronger introduction might have better defined Asira’s character and role in the story.

The place of the new villains in the story is much clearer. The larger plot regarding the Wakandan gods will undoubtedly provide physical tests for the story’s hero, while Doctor Faustus provides a link to the psychological challenges from the previous arc. Coates uses Faustus as a bookend for the issue, which help maintain a sense of mystery as to just what he is planning. At the same time, Zawavari provides human link to the supernatural element in the story.

In an issue that introduces plenty of new characters, the issue’s strongest sequence is the one between T’Challa and the former Black Panthers. While the “King of the Dead” title initially appeared in Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four run before being developed in New Avengers and Secret Wars, this is the first time that the other Black Panthers have been given any serious characterization. After their use as a deus ex machina in the last “season,” it’s nice to see Coates flesh them out and use their knowledge and history to further define the challenge T’Challa faces now.

The artwork in Black Panther #14 is more of a mixed bag than it has been in previous issues. Nothing here is awful, but at times the quality dips between panels. Wilfredo Torres and Jacen Burrows both handle penciling duties this issue, and while their styles aren’t completely disparate, the change in hands only highlights the inconsistencies in quality. This is most noticeable in the quality of the figures in the issue. At times characters seem to change in size and shape without an appropriate change in perspective. Laura Martin’s color art however, remains sublime, gracefully balancing the mystical and natural elements in the story.

Black Panther #14 continues the nice change of pace set in the previous issue. For a character who has been through some serious deconstruction over the past seven years or so, it’s nice to see Ta-Nehisi Coates give the king a more fantastical adventure for his second arc. This issue is hampered by inconsistent artwork and uninspired introductions to characters who are likely unfamiliar to readers who began with Coates’ run. This isn’t a complete story-killer, so long as Black Panther #14 remains an outlier.

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