Best Shots Reviews: KINO #1, THANOS #13, ABOVE THE TIMBERLINE

Marvel Comics November 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Lion Forge

Kino #1
Written by Joe Casey
Art by Jefte Palo and Chris Sotomayor
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Lion Forge Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Much of the exposition for Lion Forge’s Catalyst Prime line was taken care of with their Free Comic Book Day title The Event, leaving room for the #1’s of each series in the line to delve directly into characterization and giving readers a real sense of who these characters are. Kino #1 doesn’t have much in the way of characterization of its protagonist, but what it does have is an incredible establishment of tone and interesting themes that make it hard to not be excited about the title’s future.

Of the Catalyst Prime titles, Kino #1 feels the most like a straightforward science fiction story, and one of the interesting ideas that it plays with is present initially. Large shadowy organizations are powerful in real life, but most superhero comics write off geopolitical behind the scenes interactions, and in particular the sway that intelligence organizations have over real-world affairs. Because of this, the opening scene of MI6 Agent Gilmour and Foresight CEO/Catalyst Prime big bad Lorena Payan sparring over the body of British astronaut Major Alistair Meath seems convincing and refreshing. Intrigue builds when readers learn that the opening scene was a ruse to buy time for Gilmour’s associates to retrieve Meath’s body and fly off in a helicopter. The helicopter gets shot down by Payan’s forces and the comic jumps to what is undoubtedly its strongest scenes, both visually and narratively.

A shadowy figure initiates a virtual simulation and suddenly the comic book changes. In this Golden Age-style simulation, Aturo Assante, who we learn is the shadowy scientist using the simulation on Meath for the purpose of creating a hero, is the mad scientist who uses some of the vague and endearing jargon of Atomic Age comic books to create a being called Creeping Death. Creeping Death looks nearly identical in design to Kino, who we learn is Meath’s superhero alternate identity in the simulation. The art style, the dialogue and narration, the wordiness and thought-bubble dependence, even Todd Klein’s lettering all shifts into the format of a Golden Age superhero comic. Most instrumental in this shift is Chris Sotomayor’s coloring, which abandons the shine and polish of the rest of the issue in favor of a more muted, pulpy aesthetic that makes the entire page seem aged. (It isn’t just the coloring within the panels, either. The page surrounded the panels suddenly becomes off-white and the reader is experiencing the simulation as a throwback to a bygone era of comics.)

This stretch is also a really unique way to give the readers an understanding of Kino’s power set. It makes sense that the issue would explain and display Kino’s powers over kinetic energy in these scenes because in the context of the comic, this is within a simulation seemingly designed to imbue Kino with the information for how to properly use them. We learn them alongside the character, but in a way that allows writer Joe Casey to speak to the reader directly. Thematically, this section offers a lot to mull over, as Assante is very clearly trying to create a hero by giving Kino these simulations in which he creates a villain, but one which looks exactly like Kino. We are the results of our stories. Our heroes are the results of the older stories of heroes, and modern superhero comic books have an obsession with repaying some kind of debt to those stories.

Unfortunately, getting from the helicopter crash to the simulation isn’t as graceful as the rest of the issue, as little context is given as to how Aturo Assante came into possession of Meath’s body or what his affiliation with either the British government or Foresight. It doesn’t take away too much from how thematically interesting the Golden Age simulation is or how visually striking Palo and Sotomayor make the scene, but it does rob the issue overall of some cohesion. The first half of the book is good, and the second half is great, but it feels like a bridge in the middle could have elevated the whole affair.

Kino #1 is a strong contender for best opening in the Catalyst Prime line, and one that’s a unique and visually interesting story that can appeal to readers looking for something different. The series is going to live and die by how interesting the titular character is when he wakes up, but this book does a stellar job of setting up the world that he is going to wake up in. Casey mentions in a back-up interview in the issue that he was aiming for the balance between the scientific and the psychedelic, and with how unusual and enjoyable the back half is, it’s easy to see this dynamic playing out in spectacular fashion in the coming months.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Thanos #13
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Geoff Shaw and Antonio Fabela
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

He’s courted Death. He’s wielded the Infinity Gauntlet. He’s faced down gods and titans.

But it wasn’t until this week that Thanos truly won… and he’s got Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw to thank for it.

For those of you who had high hopes when Marvel signed Cates to an exclusive deal, well, get ready to see that potential be met - while Cates’ first issue of Doctor Strange started as somewhat of a slow burn, Thanos packs in all the craziness you might expect from the writer of Interceptor and Atomahawk. While the House of Ideas has swung and missed with the Mad Titan numerous times since his cameo appearance in 2012’s Avengers film, Cates and Shaw finally score a home run for Marvel’s scourge of the spaceways.

From the jump, Cates paints a picture for his readers before we ever even see Thanos on the page - from the introductory scene featuring the Avengers and the Inhumans fretting over the Mad Titan’s inevitable victory to the uber-metal descriptions of the Chitauri homeworld, Cates has a gift for evocative narration that doesn’t just leverage mighty Marvel continuity, but actively brings flavor to it. From the Chitauri’s Eclipse-drive attack skiffs to the frozen gladiator blood droplets known as 'war snow,' Cates follows in the footsteps of Grant Morrison and Jason Aaron with his wild imagery, which goes on to serve another purpose: namely, showing just how badass Thanos is when he effortlessly takes over the entire planet.

While it’d be easy to write Thanos off as just a genocidal maniac, there’s an existential dilemma at the heart of the character that’s helped him last the test of time since 1973 - namely, that he’s a creature defined by his own thwarted ambitions. In Cate’s story, humbling a warrior empire like the Chitauri isn’t a test of his almighty power, but a five-hour diversion, a petty squabble that does nothing to ease the sting of being forsaken by Death or the gnawing ache of not having an opponent worth his time. But that’s where Cates arguably steals his own show - while Thanos often plays the straight man to Cates’ crazy narration, his introduction of a futuristic Galactus-herald Ghost Rider is far and away the most insane, awesome thing I’ve seen in a long time. Wielding a broken Time Gem and burning chains forged from the bones of Cyttorak, Cates’ Ghost Rider almost feels like a mission statement of what I hope his time at Marvel represents: pure, wild, unfettered imagination.

Having seen his work with Cates on God Country, I have to say I was shocked by Geoff Shaw’s work looks in this book - and I mean that in a good way. Shaw in God Country had scratchier lines, heavier inks, more traditional layouts - it was like watching a proto-Jerome Opena or Leinil Francis Yu at work. So it’s pretty incredible to see how much more refined Shaw looks here just a few months later in Thanos - particularly in the way that he has transitioned from the ordinary people and Jack Kirby-esque super beings of his previous work to the over-the-top spectacle of the Marvel Universe. Shaw’s Thanos looks moody and menacing as he sits in his new throne, while Shaw’s introduction of Ghost Rider looks absolutely amazing - aided by some superb letterwork by Clayton Cowles. The secret ingredient, I’d argue, has to be colorist Antonio Fabela, who pushes back against Shaw’s inks to keep the whole issue looking energetic and balanced.

Honestly, the simple fact of the matter is, I’m not exactly the target demo for Thanos. I’ll be even more honest and say I haven’t clicked with any of the Mad Titan’s previous series. But Cates and Shaw have the goods here, and this first issue shows that maybe Marvel wasn’t crazy for giving this guy an exclusive right out of the gate. If you’re looking for a wild dive into Marvel continuity that shows there’s still plenty of kick to the House of Ideas, look no further than Thanos.

Credit: Gregory Manchess (Saga Press)

Above the Timberline
Written and Illustrated by Gregory Manchess
Published by Saga Press
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Somewhere in the curious middle ground between a novel and a graphic novel lies Above the Timberline, a sort of sci-fi twist on adventure tales like My Side of the Mountain that marks artist Gregory Manchess’ authorial debut. Above the Timberline tells the tale of pilot-adventurer Wes Singleton’s trek through a wintery wasteland to rescue his missing father against the backdrop of a polar shift that has left the world blanketed in snow and much of our past buried under miles of unexplored ice. It’s the mysteries beneath the ice that have stolen Wes’ father, famed adventurer Galen Singleton, back into the wastes, and as much the mystery of what his father was chasing as it is his father’s absence that drives Wes to pursue him.

What makes Above the Timberline remarkable is Manchess’ incredible artistry: the tale is rendered in more than a hundred and twenty full page oil paintings, each one absolutely stunning and startlingly detailed given the volume of the work Manchess has done and the visual monotony of the snowy wastelands Wes treks through for the bulk of the book. Manchess makes the snow and ice gleam and manages to capture subtleties in the landscape that keep Wes’ journey interesting.

There’s a warmth to the characters and an expressiveness to their faces - even the band of bears that join Wes for much of his trek - that will surprise readers (like myself) who are not particularly well-versed in the world of fine art. Manchess’ craftsmanship and skill with these illustrations is impeccable and impressive, particularly his consistency across a work of this scope. There’s not much in the way of traditional panel layouts here, but Manchess has a keen eye for moments that need more detail, or pages that will have more pop with more prose and a smaller illustration.

Manchess’ prose doesn’t quite match up to the quality of his pages, unfortunately; Above the Timberline has kernels of compelling sci-fi elements that get lost amidst a less innovative adventure story occasionally featuring tropes that might be nice to leave behind. Most of the characters of color come from “mysterious” tribes that spend their time in the Wastes, that in journal entry’s Wes’ father makes very clear he respects far more than his stuffy racist colleagues. It’s not bad, Manchess sails far above the low bar for inclusiveness and sensitivity in his work set by the adventure tales Above the Timberline seems inspired by. There are a few eye-rollingly cliched moments though, particularly with the villainous tribe leader Solon Kai.

Above the Timberline is a visually stunning book with a story that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its art. The sci-fi mystery subplot loses steam when the Singleton men are reunited; there’s no real explanation of what they were pursuing, or what they’ve discovered, or what impact it could have on the frozen world humanity has clawed survival from. It’s unclear by the end whether there might be a sequel or follow up work at all, and if there had been less focus given to this mystery - fewer hints about Wes’ destiny, or grander schemes at play - the final act might seem less rushed and more cohesive. But Wes and Galen uncover something so fascinating, a place illustrated with such intricacy and care, that as the book wound close I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d missed a big expository moment earlier in the novel.

For its weaknesses, though, Above the Timberline’s stunning art and the scope of Manchess’ work on this undertaking - a 100+ page novel, all in oil paint - is well-worth the $30 cover price and features gorgeous spreads that bolster the moments of weak prose. Manchess’ artistic skill is unquestionable, and there are moments of intrigue in Above the Timberline that leave me hoping he will continue to write and hopefully explore more stories in this world - especially with Linea and the bears.

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