Best Shots Advance Reviews: ASSASSINISTAS #1, QUANTUM & WOODY #1, JUNJI ITO's SHIVER

Valiant Entertainment December 2017 cover
Credit: Valiant Entertainment
Credit: IDW Publishing

Assassinistas #1
Written by Tini Howard
Art by Gilbert Hernandez, Rob Davis
Lettering by Aditya Bidikar
Published by IDW
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Meeting your son’s boyfriend, prepping for the birth of your second child, dealing with a rogue ex-coworker returning from nowhere to steal your son from his bed in the middle of the night: Assassinistas #1 explores the full range of midlife crises, from the mundane to the explosive. Edited by Shelly Bond and published under her curated Black Crown imprint, Assassinistas features an all star team with writer Tini Howard, artists Gilbert Hernandez and Rob Davis, and letterer Aditya Bidikar.

The series follows former assassin(ista)-turned-kidnapping insurance saleswoman Octavia “Red October” Price as she pays a visit to her former teammate (and now yuppie mom/cold call mark) Charlotte “Scarlet” La Costa to congratulate her on second child. Hours later, Octavia finds herself calling her young son Dominic home from college to help her with “one last job” chasing after long-lost teammate Rosalyn “Blood” Diamond … with Dominic’s boyfriend Taylor in tow. The concept is compelling enough, and Howard’s dialogue is solid — there’s an especially charming exchange between Rosalyn and Charlotte towards the middle of the book that showcases Howard’s strong sense of timing and humor. There’s a lifelessness to the art, though, that sucks the urgency out of the book’s climax and takes all the punch out of the series debut.

Assassinistas #1 is the aesthetic of the original Charlie’s Angels with the edginess of the modern film reboots and then some, at least in theory. Artist Gilbert Hernandez and colorist Rob Davis deliver a ‘70s aesthetic with strong lines and a minimalist aesthetic — the lines and shapes are simple, the colors flat and straightforward. The concept is interesting, but the execution is a bit lifeless; everyone has the same long, gangly frame, from Octavia to her son Dominic to very-pregnant Charlotte — though Charlotte does have a comically round belly, the sort your kid might get when they stick a ball under their shirt to joke around. Not everyone “looks pregnant,” and pregnant folks don’t all “look pregnant” in the same way, but Charlotte’s boxy front-facing design and exaggerated profile view underscore the homogenous nature of all of these characters.

In silhouette, barring haircuts, almost everyone who turns up in this book would be indistinguishable; between this and the very mellow palette (barring Blood Diamond, easily the most eye-catching character in the book’s “modern” pages), Assassinistas #1’s art is a bit lifeless in a way that’s disappointing for a book with such a punchy premise. There’s a timeless quality to the art style that would be more interesting in a book meant to be timeless — while Assassinistas isn’t set in any particular time period, the book features modern devices and features flashbacks that are largely marked by a tiny lettered “THEN” and “NOWISH” box and subtle background details that are harder to pick up in a digital, single-visible-page reading experience. There are some character design cues, but the overall style makes it tough to discern at a glance whether these are scene changes within the same time period or flashbacks to Octavia’s youth.

Assassinistas #1 is a stylistically unique book, and a well-written one, which makes reviewing it difficult. It seems well-executed but despite its quirky style, I just don’t think it’s particularly interesting, which is absolutely subjective but seems like a significant flaw for a book with a premise as eye-catching as “former assassin mom takes on her son and his boyfriend as interns.” Other illustrators have used that same sort flatness and simplicity to great effect — Assassinistas just doesn’t seem to be the right fit for it.

Assuming future issues feature more action and drama, will they be just as flat, or will Hernandez punch up the volume? With an intriguing premise and big names attached, Assassinistas #1 has had a high bar set for it since it was first announced — tomorrow’s debut issue doesn’t quite live up, but it’s done well enough that if you’re a die-hard fan of any of the creators attached, you’ll still likely get your money’s worth. If you’re just hearing about the title for the first time, you might want to wait an issue or two to see how things shake out.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Quantum and Woody #1
Written by Daniel Kibblesmith
Art by Kano
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“This is just the thing to bring back the dying print industry!”

Who are Quantum and Woody? Uh… you’re probably gonna need to read another comic if you want to find out. So what do you get instead with Valiant’s don’t-call-it-a-threeboot with the worst superhero duo ever? Laughs, action, and some surprisingly thoughtful character dynamics anchored by some awesomely designed artwork. While this new #1 might not be the new reader-friendly jumping-on point you might expect, writer Daniel Kibblesmith and artist Kano bring their disparate strengths together with a resounding “KLANG!”, making Quantum and Woody #1 another strong Valiant debut.

“Uh, Eric, no offense, but I thought black kids were supposed to be cool.” It doesn’t take long for Kibblesmith to wholeheartedly embrace Quantum and Woody’s envelope-pushing sense of humor, as he quickly cuts to this superpowered odd couple as kids, one of them as a rebellious foster kid and the other as the nerdiest straight arrow you’ve ever seen. But Kibblesmith absolutely zeroes in on the best frenemy status that many close siblings have, particularly as he jumps ahead in time for a fast-paced, if obligatory, action sequence. There’s something eating away at Quantum and Woody’s relationship as brothers, and as Kibblesmith teases it over the course of the issue, we get to see some very real reactions as Quantum keeps trying to reach out to his sulking partner, showing us that while Quantum may claim to crave the quiet and stability of a government job, there’s some part of him that’s clearly missing the wild chaos of his brother Woody.

What’s so interesting about this first issue, however, is that it’d be easy for Valiant to have paired Kibblesmith with a so-called “cartoony” artist, someone who would be play up his comedic chops with funny expressions or slapstick. But like Quantum and Woody themselves, this book is about opposites coming together and striking up sparks. While in someone else’s hands, Kibblesmith’s script might have come across as loose or unstructured, Kano brings order to the visuals, which are as deliberately paced as anything I’ve seen from David Aja or ACO. Rather than go from a traditional panel-to-panel layout with the storytelling, Kano revels in using inset panels to draw the readers’ eyes, particularly during a chase sequence where we see the horrified expressions of the bystanders in traffic, or a very funny Easter egg where we see young Woody spontaneously squirt blood out of his nose the moment he sees a pair of breasts in Quantum’s D&D manual. Given how most comics operate on a five-to-six panel maximum a page, the fact that Kano can seemingly effortlessly slap together a 10-panel sequence and still have room in the margins is pretty incredible.

With this book possessing these kinds of strengths, it’s easier to overlook some of Quantum and Woody’s quirks. One thing that may irk sticklers is Kibblesmith’s time jumps, which bounce from time period to time period at a speed that may give you whiplash — additionally, once he starts introducing new characters to the mix, he inherits some of the original Quantum and Woody’s indulgences, such as a giant hedge known as… Thedge. Even Kano isn’t able to always patch up some of the rougher edges to this issue, such as with the flat villain known as Negative One, whose design doesn’t help make her any more memorable than her characterization.

Some of this, however, just stems from the expectation of a new #1 issue in today’s day and age — there’s an expectation for creators to swing for the fences with their all-new, all-different take on a character, designed to give us all the sufficient exposition as well as a bold direction on a property. If that’s what you’re looking for with Quantum and Woody #1, yeah, you might be a little disappointed — but what Kibblesmith and Kano do deliver is a solid introduction to two incredibly dysfunctional do-gooders, showcasing some sharp technical proficiencies and refusing to hold anyone’s hand along the way. Zigging where you might expect it to zag, there’s tons of potential to Quantum and Woody — it remains to be seen if this book’s chaotic spirit can keep readers invested, or if the world’s worst superheroes wind up being at the receiving end of their own punchline.

Credit: VIZ Media

Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Short Stories
Written and Illustrated by Junji Ito
Lettering by James Dashiell and Eric Erbes
Published by VIZ Signature
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

As I tried to sleep last night, I was tormented by dreams by an impossibly tall and Edward Gorey-like woman who only had two facial expressions — one was focused, leering indifference, and the other was an impossibly large smile that revealed rows and rows of blood-slicked teeth. I suppose getting nightmares is the highest possible compliment one could pay Shiver, a new collection of short stories handpicked by the infamous horror manga artist/writer and published by VIZ Media’s Signature imprint.

This nine-story hardcover anthology gives those unfamiliar with Ito’s work a skin-crawling crash course in his down-to-earth-until-it-isn’t storytelling style as well as a healthy dose of his creature design, both of which should keep your stores of nightmare fuel good and stocked throughout this holiday season. If you have always wondered what the fuss was about when it came to Ito’s artwork or just need a new dark fix of the kind of creepy that only he can supply then Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Short Stories is the book for you, you big weirdo.

Right from jump, Shiver is not a book for the faint of heart. And you would think it would be because of Ito’s consistently off-putting and grotesque creature design, right? Well, this anthology does have plenty of that, starting from the intensely creepy cover to the terrifying woman mentioned above whose image made me wake up in a cold sweat (*shudder*), but the book’s real creepiness lies in the pervasively heavy dread that rolls like a thick, unnatural fog through its stories.

We all know the monsters are coming, but Junji Ito makes actually getting there carry just as much weight as the creature reveals or the body horror that radiates from some of the tales. The closest analogy I can give is the recent Channel Zero “Creepypasta” anthology series that airs on SyFy. In the lead up to both seasons, the producers let the audience know that they were going to see monsters, but once the episodes started airing, we followed the cast through seemingly mundane story arcs with dread because we knew the creatures were coming, lurking in the fringes of the narratives; sometimes even leering at them from out of focus in expository scenes.

Junji Ito pulls this same kind of feint, imbuing each story with a benign, deliberate normality that never quite feels as safe as it should. In story after story, he plays the same hand, just with different set-ups, but each time I was still white-knuckling my way even through scenes like a woman visiting a record shop or a group of film students holding auditions. That kind of palatable dread, a fear that reverberates through even the most innocuous of scenes, is something sorely lacking in horror comics today, but with Shiver, Ito proves that he not only can do it once, but it can do it nine times, adding up to an emotionally draining, but thrillingly macabre experience.

Much of that aforementioned dread also comes across so well thanks to Ito’s signature style, which stands as some sort of unholy offspring of the work of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark artist Steven Gammell and Generation Gone’s Andre Lima Araujo. Heavily washed in deep black inks and inset into sparsely set dressed backgrounds, Ito’s characters and monsters seem to inhabit a world that only surrounds them, calling to mind the look and staging of black box theatre productions, which purposefully angle perspective onto the actors and little else.

This consistent point of view make the scares feel intimate to the point of invasiveness as Ito cracks through the facade of normalcy to deliver stunningly weird and shocking displays of surrealist, David Cronenberg-esque body horror. If you thought The Walking Dead was scary, just wait until you see displays like sentient weather balloons made of dead people’s faces, a disease that bores porous coral like holes into the body, and finally (I can’t believe I’m about to type this) a man who has grafted the skulls and brains of his hundreds of ancestors onto his own like some kind of disgusting segmented brain-millipede.

Like I said, Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Short Stories isn’t for everybody, but is an experience unlike anything else nonetheless. Oozing with heavy Lovecraftian dread and chock full of literal nightmare inducing imagery, Junji Ito has unleashed a new crop of horrors onto store shelves this week with Shiver, and I cannot wait to see what else that madman has in store for us on the horizon.

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