Best Shots Reviews: FIRST STRIKE #4, KILL THEM ALL, BRIGANTIA, More

"Brigantia" art
Credit: Melissa Trender
Credit: IDW Publishing

First Strike #4
Written by Mairghread Scott and David A. Rodriguez
Art by Max Dunbar, John Wycough, and Ander Zarate
Lettering by Gilberto Lazcano
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The forward momentum of First Strike slows down a bit this month in the character-focused fourth issue. Though Scarlett and her team have finally made it to Cybertron’s surface, they find themselves instantly mistrusted by the Council of Worlds and impeded from pursuing Joe Colton and his new villainous allies. To make matters worse, Colton and his baddie brood intent to blow up the core of Cyberton thus ending the Transformers race for good. While the decreased pace of the script makes issue #4 feel like a dreaded “table-setting episode” in parts, Mairghread Scott and David A. Rodriguez continue to present these characters as actual characters and not action figure like facsimiles of such. Artists Max Dunbar, John Wycough, and Ander Zarate also succeed by keeping the cast center stage, sprinkling stylish flourishes and flashbacks throughout the expository scenes to make up for the lack of real action. First Strike #4 will never be called the most exciting of comic books, but it still keeps this big, crazy Hasbro train on the rails with genuine character and heart.

Step one of Scarlett’s plan has been completed, her and her team have made planetfall on Cybertron, but the Council of Worlds is making step two, getting to Joe Colton, more difficult than it should be. Mistrust and doubt are everywhere on Cybertron and in the eyes of Elita One, the only good human is a dead human and she imprisons the Joes, as Colton and his band make their way into the planet, picking apart it’s defenses. Mairghread Scott and David A. Rodriguez continue to do a great job of juggling the large and getting larger cast of this event, always providing in character points and counterpoints in their point of view as to the threat and how best to deal with it. However, after three issues of epically vehicular battles, it is hard not to be disappointed by this new exposition heavy installment. Half of the fun of the previous issues was Scarlett’s drive in getting her people on Cybertron so, you can imagine my disappointment when almost as soon as she gets there she is sidelined by Cybertronian politics.

That said, the foundation of what and who Mairghread Scott and David A. Rodriguez are working with is still rock solid. As the bad guys get most of the snappy banter this issue, Scott and Rodriguez settle into some substantial character work anchored by Scarlett and Optimus Prime. As arguments flare in Council chambers, Scott and Rodriguez give Prime and Scarlett an unexpected common ground in their quest to redeem someone who may past redeeming. It is this kind of eye for character work and pathos that elevates First Strike, and a lot of IDW’s Hasbro books on the whole, beyond being comics just about cool robots and ridiculously dressed villains (although those certainly don’t hurt).

Artists Max Dunbar, John Wycough, and Ander Zarate unfortunately don’t have a lot to do this month, but the intimate ensemble scenes gives them a stage for more smaller scale, almost theatrical, scene composition. For example, as Scarlett lays out the profile of Colton to the council, the team renders it like a kind of test dummy simulation with Scarlett’s head in profile at the top right of the page and a blocky, neon colored infographic spread out on the page below detailing the possible extinction level event that Colton plans on bringing to Cybertron.

Dunbar, Wycough, and Zarate even amplify one of the issue’s more affecting scenes with just a panel. As Optimus and Scarlett talk and bond, discussing Scarlett’s need to “save” Colton or at least make him explain his new genocidal direction, Optimus plainly states that “she would not be the first to risk everything to save someone long past redemption.”. As he says this, we are shown a tight close up of his warmly glowing eye and chromed face, as the leering face of Megatron, heavily shadowed with yellow eyes blazing, looms over his shoulder.

First Strike so far as ticked all the boxes for a comic book event; it’s had big action, big personalities, and big stakes. And now it is has ticked another one with issue four in that it now has a contained, expository issue where nothing much happens, biding time until the plot’s second wind kicks in. First Strike #4 didn’t do much this month, but at least it did it with heart.

Credit: Oni Press

Kill Them All
Written by Kyle Starks
Art by Kyle Starks, Luigi Anderson, and Dylan Todd
Lettered by Kyle Starks
Published by Oni Press
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Kill Them All is the latest graphic novel from cartoonist Kyle Starks, and follows in the vein of 2015’s Sexcastle which was a loving send-up of 1980’s action cinema, loving being the operative word in that description. Outright hilarious, it poked fun at the genre and its tropes, but the one-liners, characters and violence contained within were period accurate and could only come from someone with a deep reverence for them. Kill Them All jumps a decade ahead, styled after 1990’s action cinema - the time of Die Hard sequels, Hard Boiled and The Matrix – and none of those qualities get lost in translation.

As the cover indicates, this is the story of an ex-cop, his partner and a deadly assassin. Starks introduces the first two of the trio in the first two pages, with a sense of brevity that won’t surprise anyone familiar with Starks’ other work. Mason Iruka is the ex-detective, Khan is the partner and their conversation, which establishes Iruka’s occupational issues while still delivering (at least) six overt jokes, more than a couple of tropes and Starks’ cartooning still has the space for a two-panel cutaway to a TV without the pages feeling crowded. It’s a screwball sensibility, fast-firing storytelling that can only come from someone throwing themselves into it head first, and the fact that it packs so much into these couple of pages alone is an indication of how meaty the full book is.

The other character of the trio is the Tiger’s Daughter, a former assassin (who was a pretty great one at that), who’s about to break up with her boyfriend, Mark Newsmeyer, the soon-to-be antagonist of the book. This is where the action starts, soon after they start fighting it turns into an actual fight where the pair are trading blows. She and Iruka (with Khan reluctantly in tow) will eventually converge on the same location – her looking for revenge and him looking to enact one heck of a righteous fury on some crime – a skyscraper with fifteen floors to fight their way up. One can call it Die Hard in reverse, a more contemporary reference point being The Raid: Redemption, with no shortage of goons being sent to stop the trio.

There is a remarkable sense of storytelling economy to Starks’ work. A multi-hyphenate in the industry, working as writer-artist-letterer, each page feels packed. With regards to narrative, he burns through story beats in a way that’s the perfect counterpoint to the decompression of more serialized, monthly comics. Each floor of the tower in the story presents an opportunity for even more to be thrown at the characters, and when compared to Sexcastle, he’s working with a greater number of protagonists, but handles the three of them in dexterous fashion. Similarly, his art generally consists of three-panel tier pages, but when the fists start flying, when the knives come out and when the guns go off, he occasionally breaks them down further. It seems impossible considering the swiftness of the story at the centre of it all, but this gives the sequences an even quicker sense of motion, without sacrificing the overall pace of the graphic novel, as it avoids lingering on anything longer than necessary.

Regardless of whether he compresses his pages further, or makes use of a splash panel, they feel full of energy all the same. An extension of lampooning the genre, contained within are many outlandish sequences – like shooting the trigger of a gun with another gun – yet the art is demonstrably sequential with clean visual storytelling illustrating how the impossible because plausible within the conceits of this heightened world. When it comes to his lettering, many of the same plaudits apply. With characters monologuing as villains tend to do or going back and forth like they belong in a screwball comedy, it all flows and serves the art, rather than dialogue taking greater precedent in the storytelling. A vibrancy springs forth from Luigi Anderson’s colors, giving the book additional flair beyond the style that comes from Starks’ work, some fights given a blistering aesthetic of reds, yellows and oranges, others a more neon-tinted look.

The fact that Kill Them All looks this good, while retaining thick borders between panels and around the pages shows exactly how much has been squeezed into the book. That density doesn’t bog the book down, but gives it a driving momentum that keeps getting upped. Starks doesn’t purely tip the hat to the action movies of the decade, but uses the hat as a lampshade; the pointing out of tropes and trappings coming from someone who wants to raise them up rather than tear them down. It's a blast, and like the most beloved of 1990’s action cinema, something that you’re sure to go through, or even just skip to your favorite parts, over and over again.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Misfits of Avalon, Volume 3: The Future in the Wind TPB
Written and Illustrated by Kel McDonald
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Misfits of Avalon is, in its own word, a series about magical girls who are jerks. A fun shoujo twist on Authurian legend, Misfits of Avalon: The Future in the Wind sees the misfits’ adventures come to a startling and heartbreaking conclusion - though thankfully not as fatal an end as many Authurian tales seem to end with.

Written and illustrated by Kel McDonald, Misfits of Avalon weaves together British legends with common shoujo tropes, right down to the talking animal sidekick - in this case the mysterious and inscrutable Cú Sídhe, the 'fairy dog' (literally, as that’s what his name means) who gifts Morgan, Elsie, Kimber, and Rae with the magical powers they need to put a stop to a mysterious figure summoning monsters around town. Misfits of Avalon is a little more Madoka Magica than the more uplifting and chipper tilt of PreCure, though, and McDonald’s gift is bringing together a crew of profoundly unlikeable teens and spinning a deeply relatable tale of young struggle in the face of adversity, both supernatural and the more mundane hassles of troubled home lives.

McDonald’s artistic strong point is her character design - Elsie, Morgan, Rae, and Kimber are visually distinct with their own clear body language and expressions, with four different body types and even subtle differences in each of their magical costumes. It’s refreshing to read a comic where haircuts aren’t what make a cast of characters distinct; even in silhouette, it would be obvious which girl is which. McDonald excels in quiet, emotional conversations between characters or moments with little visual distractions. She struggles a little with Cú Sídhe, though his off-kilter proportions may be chalked up to being a spectral hound. The consistency throughout the three volumes is impressive though, and Elsie remains one of the most visually charming and expressive characters I’ve seen in a comic book in a while. McDonald draws her with a vibrancy that’s contagious, and with a character as quick to anger and laughter as Elsie, anything less than McDonald’s illustrations would make the book quickly fall flat.

For new readers, the first volume of Misfits of Avalon may be an exasperating read, but catching up on the series in one big binge is worth it for The Future in the Wind. Here, McDonald offers character development and startling plot revelations in heaping doses that never feel forced or rushed and bring the entire series full circle. In a parallel of the four chapters of the opening volume, McDonald delivers four chapters from the shifting perspectives of each of the girls; through the final issue, the murky moral foundation of their magical mission has crumbled beneath them, but for the most part, the misfits are left with a newfound understanding and appreciation of both each other and the circumstances they’ve found themselves in.

Misfits of Avalon: The Future in the Wind doesn’t necessarily end with a strong sense of closure, but it does end with a sense of openness and emotional satisfaction - through three volumes of watching four troubled teens squabble and talk around each other, to the detriment of themselves and a mission none of them understand, these girls have been exhausting. But The Future in the Wind is a heartwarming delight; McDonald shows each girl coming into their own, for better or for worse, and from Elsie’s kindness to Kimber’s confidence, their growth as characters will leave you with a smile on your face by the end of the series.

Credit: Melissa Trender

Brigantia #1
Written by Chris Mole
Art by Melissa Trender
Lettering by Nikki Foxrobot
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

When an old goddess finds herself thrown through time into a new world that has largely forgotten her, where does she turn to find her way back home? Brigantia #1, out now on comiXology, explores Britain’s rich mythological history in the context of the modern world through the eyes of the titular Pagan goddess Brigantia. Self-published by co-creators Chris Mole and Melissa Trender, Brigantia #1 is a beautifully illustrated debut issue that offers considerable worldbuilding but a somewhat flat cast in its debut issue.

Chris Mole, the writer, goes to considerable lengths to make Brigantia’s long history accessible and understandable to readers who may be largely unfamiliar with the Pagan pantheon. His work with Pagan consultant Limnaia Areia does wonders to keep the book from becoming too dry or academic. Mole’s ability to deliver a great deal of mythological background without becoming pedantic is absolutely a gift, and makes Brigantia #1 worth checking out just for the mythology lesson.

It’s artist Melissa Trender’s work that makes the issue shine though. Her bold lines give a sense of power and purpose to the entire book. Brigantia’s design is at once warm and authoritative. Trender gives her a stern, strong face with broad features befitting of a goddess who may share roots with the likes of Minerva, but Trender doesn’t shy away from making her look disheveled and haggard. Trender’s use of shadows in her color work emphasize Brigantia’s power but also the toll her responsibilities and her current plight have taken on her. She may be supernatural, but Trender takes care to keep her vulnerable and relatable in emotionally fraught moments.

The action sequences at time become a bit frenzied and difficult to follow - dramatic motion is overlaid on a page like a photograph in a scrapbook, but throws off the sense of perspective. On one page in particular it takes the drama out of Brigantia crashing through a window, making her fall look as if it’s only a few feet (which, while certainly still painful, seems like small potatoes for a goddess). Pages with more straightforward panel layouts are impressively done though, and Trender’s use of color is stunning throughout - particularly her work with shadow and the ghostly, strange greens she uses to indicate magic at work.

We know much about Brigantia, but she knows little of the Britain she’s been thrown in to, and ultimately when the issue closes neither do we. Pravin Khan, the mortal historian who presumably will serve as her guide in the mortal world, feels more like a vehicle for exposition than Brigantia’s narrative equal amongst the cast, a casualty of the amount of information Mole and Trender needed to deliver to introduce Brigantia and her nemesis Veteris in the series’ debut.

Brigantia #1 flirts with common superhero tropes with an unusual subject but doesn’t necessarily turn them on their head - it’s hard not to take in the final page, beautifully rendered by Trender, and feel a strong sense of deja vu. It’s a respectful homage to be sure, but feels premature; there’s a reason we typically see these moments at the end of a long arc or film, after a hero has suffered in the midst of, and often on behalf of, the population of the city they’ve sworn to protect. There’s an emotional punch to seeing a hero renew their commitment to serving as the anonymous protector after an hour of two of sharing emotional and physical battles with them, but Brigantia #1 is missing what makes the moment work. Despite its stumbles, Brigantia #1 is a strong enough demonstration of Mole and Trender’s skills to make it a series to add to your Comixology wish list so you can binge-read down the line.

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