Best Shots Advance Reviews: BABYTEETH #1, MAGNUS #1, UNHOLY GRAIL #1

"Magnus #1" cover
Credit: Dynamite Entertainment
Credit: AfterShock Comics

Babyteeth #1
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Garry Brown and Mark Englert
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by Aftershock Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Being pregnant at 16 is enough of a struggle, but what do you do when your newborn son turns out to be a real little devil?

Donny Cates is three for three with strong debut issues this year. Babyteeth #1, co-created by Cates and artist Garry Brown, introduces Sadie Ritter, a teenage girl who finds herself trapped in a web of supernatural intrigue and danger by an unexpected pregnancy. Cates’ writing keeps the narrative focused on Sadie as a young mother and the unexpectedly disastrous effects Clark’s birth has on the world around them, wisely avoiding dragging the story down with moralizing about Sadie’s age or her decision to keep her son.

Not to say that Babyteeth #1 steps around the issue entirely; Cates touches on Sadie’s efforts to hide her pregnancy from her classmates, and Brown does an excellent job drawing a Sadie as a kid whose youthfulness is emphasized by the thick layers she bundles herself in to hide her growing belly. But when one of Sadie’s classmates uncovers the truth, Sadie’s older sister steps in to put a stop to his harassment and shut him up when Sadie unexpectedly goes into labor - it’s refreshing to know that Sadie has a strong familial support system around her, giving her a loving sister and father to lean on when an already traumatic experience is compounded by contractions that cause earthquakes. Babyteeth #1 is the story of a new mom dealing with a devilish infant, who happens to be a teenage mother, rather than the story of a pregnant teenager, whose baby is incidentally the Antichrist.

Brown's inks and Mark Englert's colorwork go a long way to emphasizing the book’s grim focus, particularly the eerie red filters and hand-drawn sound effects that punctuate Sadie’s labor. Thick red strokes make everything seem out of focus with each tremor Sadie’s labor pains cause, and the unholy yellow glow Englert gives Sadie during her first contraction is deeply unsettling and drives home Sadie’s narrated explanation that her new baby is undoubtedly the cause of the destruction rattling the world around her. “The entire world shaking with each step you took towards it,” Sadie says, in a neatly lettered box for her recorded “voice-over” that contrasts starkly with her pained yelling in the moment - a scream that stretches the borders of Taylor Esposito’s otherwise neat and orderly speech balloons.

Babyteeth #1 is an impressive visual story by Brown, Englert, and Esposito that elevates strong, concise writing from Cates. Though Cates uses Sadie recording a video for baby Clark to frame the tale and set up the larger mysteries surrounding her new son, Sadie’s monologue never overwhelms the artwork. There are no pages full of dialogue for Brown and Englert to work around. Instead, Cates keeps the verbal portion of Sadie’s tale simple and straightforward, allowing his collaborators to explore the depth of her emotions and the slow, impending dread of her son’s birth with clever, deftly colored layouts and clear shots of her sister and father’s affectionate faces when they see Sadie with her new son for the first time.

Sadie comes across as a smart, if slightly naive young girl thrust into maturity unexpectedly, plagued by grim omens illustrated with blood-curdling eerieness that emphasizes the supernatural turn Sadie’s life has taken. There are hints from Sadie’s monologue of new characters and mysteries to come, enough to tease but not enough to ruin the coming surprises, and the spooky vibe Englert and Brown have given the book with their art is a strong portend on its own that Babyteeth is a book to follow in the coming months.

Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

Magnus #1
Written by Kyle Higgins
Art by Jorge Fornes and Chris O’Halloran
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Just because Dynamite lost the “Robot Fighter” title, doesn’t mean Magnus can’t land you squarely on your ass. A concept that has bounced from publisher to publisher, from relaunch to failed relaunch, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t expect much out of Kyle Higgins and Jorge Fornes’ latest take on the character.

But you’d be wrong. Completely and utterly wrong. Having jettisoned the awkward “Robot Fighter” moniker, Higgins winds up weaving together a story that’s equal parts The Vision, Blade Runner and hard William Gibson sci-fi, resulting in a high-concept debut with some wonderful production values.

In a world of artificial intelligence and ever-present android assistants, Kyle Higgins makes for a surprisingly human take on Magnus’s far-flung future, as robots everywhere are starting to snap under the pressure of their cybernetic depression. It’s a smart take that instantly refreshes an otherwise esoteric premise, and it also recontextualizes our title character - no longer a karate-chopping man, but a cyber-surfing female psychiatrist for robotkind, who also happens to moonlight as a bounty hunter when things get too tough. (And they do get tough, as one robot worker winds up perpetrating a chilling double murder on his abusive employers.)

This new status quo offers Higgins a lot of space to work with, whether its Magnus talking self-actualization with an A.I. in the astral realm of cyberspace, or her sparring with her ex-boyfriend over dinner about whether she’s more compassionate to robots or humankind. Spending her nights drinking wine alone with her cat, Magnus is too human for robots and too robotic for humankind - she’s the ultimate outsider, bridging two worlds that seem to shun her in equal measure. Combine that with some sensational world building on Higgins’ part, and you’ve got a comic you can’t put down.

But perhaps more impressive is not just Higgins’ deft remixing of the hokey Magnus tropes, but by how well artist Jorge Fornes is able to keep up with him. The opening pages, featuring a robotic husband on his last day of work, provide a gut-punch of a swerve that’s every bit as creepy as The Vision, which feels like this book’s spiritual godfather. Fornes is also gifted with the small details - while most comic books demand a big introduction to their main character, Magnus actually appears slowly, as she reassures one of her clients. As we get closer, you can’t help but like her - she’s got a calming, emphatic look, and given how most people feel about machine rights, you have to admire her fighting for the little guy. Colorist Chris O’Halloran at first can take a little bit of getting used to, but his color schemes wind up evoking both nostalgic older comics as well as an off-kilter future world that seems to exude pathology at every corner.

There will be some who feel that Higgins’ story might end a bit abruptly - that we spend so much time building up Magnus’ character that we don’t actually get to see her in action. But at the same time, one can’t say that he uses his page count unwisely - there’s never a wasted page, every scene either builds up Magnus or her world magnificently - and it doesn’t hurt that Fornes is clearly swinging for the fences with every panel. With this many relaunches, it’d be easy to discount Magnus, but this reboot is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Credit: AfterShock Comics

Unholy Grail #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Mirko Colak and Maria Santaolalla
Lettered by Simon Bowland
Published by AfterShock Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The virtuous King Arthur, the wise, mercurial wizard Merlin, and the daring Knights of the Round Table - this is not that story. Unholy Grail #1, the latest horror jaunt from Harrow County and The Damned scribe Cullen Bunn, takes the key players of Arthurian legend and promptly upends them, forging the heroes into a much different, much darker versions of those we enjoyed in films like Excalibur and in comic books like Camelot 3000.

Bunn, aided by the horrifyingly beautiful pencils of Mirko Colak, recently seen on shelves as the artist for Greg Pak’s Kingsway West, and the luminous Mike Mignola inspired colors of Maria Santaolalla, drops readers in the thick of a ruined Camelot, one closely resembling the closing pages of the original King Arthur legend. But as we quickly realize, things are so much worse than the romantic tragedy of the folktale and we now inhabit a new eldritch world of magic and monsters.

Those who are not exactly scholars in Arthurian folklore need not worry, as Bunn quickly affirms that he is merely using the centuries-old tale as a foundation for something much weirder and much, much meaner. Unholy Grail #1 is unabashedly grim, and therein lies its real driving force. Instead of just giving us a rote retelling of the King Arthur story with some vague horror trappings, Bunn commits to his own premise, altering the legend and sending the implications of the change spiraling through the English mythos.

After a bloody cold open detailing the return of Percival of Wales to the ruined kingdom, given a beautiful desolation and richly visceral colors by Mirko Colak and Maria Santaolalla, Bunn rewinds, showing the reader just how we got to this place with one murderous deviation. As the legend goes, Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, lay dying on his bed while Arthur is still in the wilds, unaware of his royal heritage. Then the good wizard Merlin gave counsel to the king, who decreed that his son should inherit the kingdom with the wizard of many names as his closest confidant.

But as I said, this is not that story, and instead of a mysterious wizard, Uther is visited by a demon who has “slipped free from Hell,” killed the real Merlin, and now wears his face in order to bend Camelot to his own evil intentions. It's all presented in blunt and simplistically laid out panels by Colak and Santaolalla, the latter injecting a real English countryside lushness in the surrounding grassy knolls, standing rock formations, and the pale blue sky who looks on indifferent to the murder of the mage. With this foundation in place, Bunn drops a honking big stone into the river of this legend and then gleefully details the ripples.

From there, the rest of this debut hits the beats of the early days of King Arthur, in particular his interaction with the Lady of the Lake, which now drips with Lovecraftian moodiness and dread. Gone is the ethereal beauty of that story and in her place is a hunched, looming monstrosity that rises from the murky depths, all tentacles and teeth, wearing the “original” Lady, detailed almost like a parody of the “virginal” waif, like a morbid chest piece. Cullen Bunn has proven a few times that he understands the conventions of horror and how to conjure up a tactile feeling of dread, and Unholy Grail #1 is just the latest example of this morbid talent. Though readers might be turned off by just how powerfully grim this debut is, it is still nice to see a writer writing a check and then cashing said check in pointedly gory style.

Cullen Bunn, who has been enjoying a real hot streak when it comes to the horror genre, keeps it alive in a big way with the merciless and relentlessly entertaining Unholy Grail #1. Along with the rugged, craggily engaging pencils of Mirko Colak, whose stock is steadily rising the more work he takes on, and the murky, alluring, and downright creepy colors of Maria Santaolalla, Bunn has amassed a fantastic team to guide us through this new decidedly darker take on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. AfterShock Comics may not be a household name like other third-party imprints, but if they keep producing titles like Unholy Grail, that kind of notoriety may be coming sooner than we could have imagined.

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