Best Shots Advance Reviews: JUDAS #1, MONSTRO MECHANICA #1, GIANTS #1

Dark Horse Comics December 2017 cover
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Credit: Jakub Rebelka/Colin Bell (BOOM! Studios)

Judas #1
Written by Jeff Loveness
Art by Jakub Rebelka
Lettering by Colin Bell
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Bible’s “great betrayer” gets a gorgeous and lyrical solo adventure through Hell in the debut of Judas from BOOM! Studios. Captioned with poignant Bible verses and laser-focused on the man himself, writer Jeff Loveness turns what could have been a depressive durge through Bible history into a living, breathing, and poetic look at depression and alienation, turning a stock character from religion into an actual person. Amplified by artist Jakub Rebelka’s stained-glass-by-way-of-Christian-Ward pencils and digitized charcoal colors, Judas #1 is a meditative triumph that truly makes the “Bible come alive” better than most historically-minded Elseworlds takes on the story of Jesus.

“Did you know it would be me? From the beginning?” laments Judas from Colin Bell’s yellowing, Papyrus-esque captions in the opening pages of this first issue. That is one of the great questions of the Bible, isn’t it? If Jesus was omnipotent, why didn’t he stop his betrayal? The bigger question, however, is if he was the Son of God, then why did the world continue to suffer even as he walked the Earth? That doubt is the burning thesis of Jeff Loveness’ plaintive and evocative script. Starting from Judas’ betrayal and subsequent suicide, Loveness dives down deep into the psyche of the Bible’s greatest villain as the character himself awakens in the deepest down below, Hell itself.

But this isn’t some Spawn-like Heaven and Hell fanfiction or a paltry, half-assed character study that only focuses on the betrayal itself. No, Loveness is playing a much larger, and much more intriguing game by backtracking slightly as Judas makes his way through the Stygian wastes, recollecting the exact moments his faith was affirmed and then broken by the man who he blindly followed to find meaning in the randomness and cruelty of everyday life.

This is a very interesting direction for the script to take, one that not only gives us clear motivations for Judas but also presents him as a relatable lead, one who followed for faith, but was undone by his own logic and desire to square the reality of Christ with his preachings. This attention to presenting Judas’ drive make the tragedy of his choice hit all the more heartbreaking as he realizes that he may have been a tool of both Heaven and Hell from the very moment of his birth. Heady stuff for a first issue to be sure, but Loveness’ script scaffolds itself nicely with well-placed Bible verses and a real thoughtfulness that lets Judas rise above being just “the Betrayer.”

But while Judas succeeds mainly as a character study, this debut issue delivers visuals that are a dynamic mixture of modern horror sensibilities and old-school Franciscan religious artwork, making everything old new - and terrifying - again. Pulling double duty as penciler and colorist, artist Jakub Rebelka really guns it throughout this debut, shifting his hard-angled, Daniel Acuna-esque pencils from the dusty, henna-colored real world of the Middle East to the cold, gray Hell with ease. Clearly inspired by works like Dante’s Inferno and the brutal religious artwork of the Late Middle Ages, Rebelka leans into that kind of ugly and terrifying awe for the issue’s most gut-wrenching set piece, a confrontation between the “beast of four sides” from Ezekiel and the denizens of Hell. As Judas makes his way forward, the beast chases and devours everything it can see in a half-page panel that might make even an accomplish visualist of violence like Geoff Darrow beam with pride.

With a strong foundation in character and impressively dark artwork throughout Judas #1 has its sights set on being more than just another forgettable “Lost Tale of the Bible.” Jakub Rebelka and Jeff Loveness take one of the most universally reviled humans in all of history and respectfully and thoughtfully present his point of view, complete with consistently engaging art and colors. For my money there will never be another story about Judas and Christ’s relationship as good as the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, but Judas #1 comes real damn close.

Credit: Chris Evenhuis/Sjan Weijers/Paul Allor (AfterShock Comics)

Monstro Mechanica #1
Written and Lettered by Paul Allor
Art by Chris Evenhuis and Sjan Weijers
Published by Aftershock Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

He’s a pioneer of anatomy, a ruthless manipulator, a veritable Sherlock Holmes, and he’s even built his own wooden automaton capable of defeating a platoon of soldiers.

And did I mention he paints?

Writer Paul Allor and artist Chris Evenhuis take some liberties with the life of Leonardo da Vinci in Monster Mechanica #1, but their sci-fi-tinged slant on Renaissance Italy truly pays off, with some gorgeous artwork and a compelling heroine making this a comic worth reading.

At first, Allor’s script starts off fairly unassumingly, with the master inventor crumpling up a discarded sketch before making his way into the night. But when da Vinci is then kidnapped by the forces of the Papal States, who are eager to use his genius to build war machines - or at least, they would have, if not for the intervention of da Vinci’s apprentice Isabel… and their unnamed wooden machine, who tears through the men with barely a scratch. As far as high concepts go, it’s an imminently solid one, allowing Allor to have his cake and eat it, too, playing off da Vinci’s interesting life while also letting him tap into hyperreality by stretching the limits of Renaissance-era science.

It’s also here that Allor really picks up the pace, juggling action and political intrigue with sharp character dynamics - while the robot might be the thing that catches your eye in terms of Monstro Mechanica’s marketing, there’s very much a Holmes and Watson relationship between da Vinci and his protege, as the two bicker and challenge one another in a way that can’t help but make you invested. There’s a lot of ground that Allor winds up covering thematically in 28 pages, bouncing from politics to gender inequality to the ethics of artificial intelligence, and does so in such a way that doesn’t feel grating or ham-fisted - instead, it feels perfectly organic, given this world of scientists and philosophers, to explore these kind of big-picture ideas.

Yet while Allor’s script is thoughtful and surprisingly wide in scope, the real MVPs have to be artist Chris Evenhuis and Sjan Weijers. To say that they work together beautifully is an understatement - this might be the best-looking Aftershock book I’ve seen since Animosity. Evenhuis has such a cleanliness to his character designs and a real readability to his page layouts, evoking a Barry Kitson sort of style - Isabel, for example, is an eye-catching lead without trying to play up sex appeal or to titilate an audience, while you can see the complexity behind da Vinci’s decidedly chaotic neutral alignment just from one look at his face. Weijers also deserves special credit for his colors, which perfectly buoy Evenhuis’s linework with both weight and energy, while never dragging down any of the pages or making the visuals look muddy.

Despite a somewhat slow beginning, Monstro Mechanica really does acquit itself nicely as you delve into its story - it’s a real testament to Allor’s thoughtfulness and Evenhuis and Weijers’ undeniable skills that even though there’s so much high concept for them to lean on, this debut winds up being a more satisfyingly character-driven affair. It’s likely that this is the kind of book that might fall under readers’ radars, but if you’re interested in dipping your toe in the Aftershock pool, there’s few places that are better to start than with Monstro Mechanica.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Giants #1
Written, Illustrated and Lettered by Carlos Valderrama and Miguel Valderrama
 Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Touted as the American debut of Spanish brothers Carlos and Miguel Valderrama, Giants is the latest entry in the current western revival of the giant monster in fiction. Known variously as the kaiju genre, in honor of the Japanese name for the “strange beasts” that have been toppling their cities since the 1950s, the Valderrama brothers don’t simply pitch new creatures at an unsuspecting populace, but instead focus on the ambitious human survivors at the heart of the story.

In their vision of the future, some kind of disaster has frozen the Earth and driven the world’s population underground. Warring gangs the Bloodwolves and Grim Bastards still battle for supremacy in this post-apocalyptic landscape, intent on securing the rare fuel source known as ambernoir. However, in order to obtain more of this powerful substance, young teens Gogi and Zedo must travel to the surface, not only facing the cold conditions but the enormous clashing Giants.

Which is the focal point of the Valderramas’ narrative: the notion that even in the harshest of conditions, the raw ambition to rise above one’s station is bigger than fear itself. While it treads similar thematic ground to its genre stablemates, including everything from anime sources to Kurtis J. Wiebe and Riley Rossmo’s Debris over at Image Comics, it’s this singular story thread that serves as the hook for much of this exploratory first issue.

What they manage to do in this brief introduction is lay out many of the parameters of the Giants world. In creating this lived-in environment, the brothers wear their stylistic influences on their sleeves, combining several Japanese (and western) icons in his designs. The faceless and horned kaiju that dominate the opening pages could have stepped straight out of Pacific Rim or the mind of Wayne Barlowe. Yet they are also merely backdrop for the expressive characters in the front and center of the panels.

Sitting somewhere between Katsuhiro Otomo and Michael Dialynas, the red jackets and Band-Aid spotted faces of Gogi and Zedo remind us strongly of Akira as they mug and speed-line their way through a highly stylized apocalypse. There’s a particularly energetic sequences where the duo hang off the side of a building as debris and explosions sound around them, with a tangible impact that almost rattles the Ben-Day Dots right off the petite bad guy.

There’s clearly a lot of passion for the medium from the brothers Valderrama, who pour their love of all things monstrous into the pages of Giants. While it may not revolutionize the genre (at least not yet), that’s really not the point. Instead, the incredibly talented team take tiny steps towards making the people in the kaiju’s playground a little bit more human. As the first issue in a limited series, this looks like it will be one worth sticking around for.

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