Best Shots Advance Reviews: TRANSFORMERS vs. VISIONARIES #1, SECRET WEAPONS #0, More

Star Wars: Forces of Destiny - Leia #1
Credit: Elsa Charretier (IDW Publishing)
Credit: IDW Publishing

Transformers vs. Visionaries #1
Written by Magdalene Visaggio
Art by Fico Ossio and David Garcia Cruz
Lettering by Gilberto Lazcano
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Might, magic, and intrigue collide in the debut of Transformers vs. Visionaries. Taking loose threads from First Strike and sprinting off with them, writer Magdalene Visaggio effortlessly brings the Visionaries cast into the fold of Cybertron. Of course, their inclusion is not without complications, fueling the “vs.” in the title. But I am happy to report that this debut isn’t just an empty fight comic. Instead, Visaggio takes the political machinations and heavy undertones of duty and responsibility that run through titles like Till All Are One and Optimus Prime and neatly grafts them onto this title. This gives the overall story - as well as its shocking losses - a hefty weight to balance out the fun, in-character banter of her script. Couple that with kinetic, expressive, and consistently gorgeous pencils and colors of Fico Ossio and David Garcia Cruz and Transformers vs. Visionaries #1 stands triumphant as a daringly pointed start for IDW’s 2018 Hasbro output.

The Transformers haven’t had an easy go of rebuilding Cybertron, and now magic is here to gum up the works further. Burrowed deep under the surface of Cybertron stands New Prysmos, home of the Visionaries and their powerful magics. But while animal-based motifs were the hook of the Visionaries action figure line, writer Magdalene Visaggio is playing a much more intimate and personal game with her “playsets” in the debut. Instead of just instantly smashing the characters together in splashy set pieces, Visaggio draws readers in with carefully thought-out and well-crafted political stances for both camps.

As she makes her introductions to the main cast, which includes Lady Virulina, Leoric, and fan-favorite Autobot Kup, she meticulously presents both sides' arguments and allows the readers to choose for themselves. On one hand, you could see why the Transformers are concerned that wild magic is now sifting through their still-unsteady planet. But on the other, you might also feel sympathy for the Visionaries' plight, as they attempt to secure some kind of home not only for themselves, but for their entire race. Who says comic books about action figures can’t have something to say?

Furthermore, Visaggio sets up both sides in the conflict as mirror images of one another, with the Transformers having made peace with their warring internal factions and the Visionaries at least attempting to find some sort of common ground with themselves and their new “hosts.” Though the Decepticon/Autobot dichotomy has been a thing of the past for a bit now, Visaggio still makes great use of that lingering rift and allows it to inform the motivations of the Visionaries, who are just taking their first steps toward mending the Darkling and Spectral Knight divide. To be quite honest, I knew very little about the Visionaries going into this debut, but afterward, I felt a real sense of understanding toward the characters and their positions in the oncoming conflict and I really feel that others will too. Though Visaggio’s trademark wit and humor are ever present throughout this debut, especially through the super awkward but well-meaning Kup, it is her attention to this story’s narrative foundation that makes it truly shine.

And speaking of shine, artists Fico Ossio and David Garcia Cruz bring plenty of it to the interiors of this debut, mixing both tech and the mystic arts in eye-grabbing displays all throughout this debut. Though not as detail heavy as Kei Zama’s work on Optimus Prime or as inventive in its layouts as Sara Pitre-Durocher’s Till All Are One, Ossio injects a real personable punk rock energy into the artwork by keeping most of the action focused on the characters, but inlaying them into well-designed “sets” - of particular note are the scenes taking place in the interior of New Prysmos, which looks like if Ultron decided to redecorate the Sanctum Sanctorum. These fine mixtures of expressiveness, technology, and arcanca made complete by the screamingly bright colors of Cruz. The best possible comparison I could make would be to say their work threads the same needle that penciler Eva Cabrera and colorist Claudia Aguirre did on Visaggio’s Kim & Kim, except on a much bigger scale and with established Hasbro leading men, women, and bots.

The Visionaries might be unwelcome on Cybertron, but they make a stirring and engaging return to shelves in Transformers vs. Visionaries #1. Tailor-made for new readers and long-time fans of both properties alike, Magdalene Visaggio, Fico Ossio, and David Garcia Cruz really make the most of this debut issue. They not only make it fun to read, but also give it a heft and point of view that is largely missing in books with the word “Vs.” in the title. If you have been missing the adventures of the Spectral Knights or if you just want to give these 'Visionary' characters a shot, then Transformers vs. Visionaries #1 is the main event you have been waiting for.

Credit: Valiant

Secret Weapons #0
Written by Eric Heisserer
Art by Adam Pollina and David Baron
Lettering by A Larger World Studios
Published by Valiant Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

2017’s Secret Weapons was one of the most effective instances of character-based storytelling of the year, with many readers feeling more attachment and understanding of the central cast in four issues than most comics can manage in a full year. With that in mind, it’s comforting to see that Secret Weapons #0 combines what worked so well with the previous miniseries while adding a level of experimentation to show writer Eric Heisserer isn't just resting on his laurels. Meanwhile, artist Adam Pollina and colorist David Baron stay close to Raul Allen and Patricia Martin’s established Secret Weapons house style while making a number of interesting choices to keep the comic visually engaging and distinctive.

The prequel one-shot follows the aptly named Nikki Finch, a psiot with the ability to communicate with birds, for a full calendar year. The comic picks up on the day that Nikki is first contacted by Toyo Harada for the purpose of activating her latent psionic abilities. In the main series, Nikki’s actions were often as indebted to her skills as a gymnast as they were her abilities as an ornipath, and it’s nice to see that story element consistent here. Harada contacts Nikki as a result of a gymnastics video online, and through her dialogue in one panel we learn that gymnastics is what she sees as her inherent gift that was halted at the hands of a paternal figure, something that recurs later in the issue when her inherent gifts as a psiot are deemed not good enough as she is shuffled off to Oklahoma City.

The one-shot lays a lot of emotional groundwork in the opening pages, but before Nikki strikes out on her own, they also feel the least interesting. The dialogue around her helps to establish the starting point of a character on the cusp of a tumultuous year, but makes the periphery characters flat. It’s hard to care about Nikki leaving despite her friend’s objections when her friends have mostly unlikable dialogue designed to reinforce that Nikki is young and naive. Once she gets activated by Harada’s surgeons in a grisly page, the story gets a second wind and a pace that it never loses. Readers see Harada Global Conglomerates throwing everything they can at the young protagonist to figure out precisely what has been activated inside her. It’s genuinely comedic, but Heisserer should be commended for never letting the character beneath the funny sequences get overshadowed. The comic is funny in those moments, but the cut to Nikki crying alone in her room never feels jarring because we never lose sight of what everything means to her.

It’s hard to talk about this comic book without being upfront about the bold stylistic choices it makes. Every single page consists of four panels stacked vertically, with entire days often being conveyed in the span of a single panel. With one exception, Nikki is in each panel. With the core series, Allen and Martin showed an aptitude for deliberate panel construction helped establish action within a sense of space. Pollina’s task as an artist is very different, and he instead has to focus most of his energy on establishing a sense of time. Locales are often completely different on a panel-by-panel basis, but the focus is often the same - Nikki Finch in the same or a similar pose, and almost always occupying the same space within a panel.

In film, it’s often encouraged to adopt a relentless adherence to placing the focus of a shot into the same space of a different shot to keep a scene from feeling disjointed. With comics being an inherently different medium than film, obsessively focusing the action to a single spot within a frame can make the comic feel tedious or repetitive, but a constant jump of focus and location can be disorienting. Pollina’s frequent switches to uniquely detailed backgrounds while maintaining a consistency in Nikki’s placement in the panels allows him to have his cake and eat it too by keeping the comic book evolving visually in terms of the background, while also giving us an image of Nikki that allows readers to latch onto an gradually changing (and occasionally gut-wrenching) image that feels completely unique to comics as a medium.

When the comic book deviates from this established form, it does so with purpose. The first panel where Nikki is not dead center is one that emphasizes her loneliness and feelings of failure at not finding her latent psionic abilities, with the center of a bench taking the focus of the frame as she is off to the right. A few panels pass with that dead space in the middle, lingering before it gets filled with the dialogue from the pigeons that Nikki can now converse with, her newly discovered power literally filling the lonely void on the page.

The one panel that does not contain Nikki also breaks from the established form with purpose, instead showing readers Nikki’s perspective when Owen Cho finds her in a trash heap right before the comic ends. After following Nikki so closely and seeing her change over the course of a single book in such a way that genuinely feels gradual, it becomes easy for readers to slip into her point of view, and the familiar face of Owen is one that instantly sparks the memory of the dynamic chemistry that the team had in last summer’s limited series.

Superhero comic books often play it so narratively and aesthetically safe that an issue that experiments so directly with the medium feels so refreshing, and while the comic’s intent to play with the form is enough to draw readers to it, the emotionally-rich storytelling from Heisserer and the expert use of framing by Pollina make this a superb comic for kicking off 2018. While it would be an easy joke to call this issue the most memorable comic of the year so far, the truth is that this was unique enough and so well-executed that it likely will be one that readers remember 12 months from now.

Credit: Elsa Charretier (IDW Publishing)

Star Wars: Forces of Destiny - Leia #1
Written by Elsa Charretier and Pierrick Colinet
Art by Elsa Charretier and Sarah Stern
Lettering by Tom B. Long
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

As the billion-dollar cinematic Star Wars outings become increasing dark and complex, it’s nice to know that all-ages stories haven’t been relegated to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. IDW have already had some success in this field with last year’s fun Star Wars Adventures anthology series. Now Star Wars: Forces of Destiny - Leia represents the first of five weekly comics spinning out of the animated micro-series of the same name, each focusing on the female heroes of the universe.

Like the “Beasts of Echo Base” episode, this issue focuses on the adventures of Leia just prior to the Rebels fleeing Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Leia, Han, and Hera are riding Tauntauns across the landscape in search of a key component to the power generator. In order to do this, Leia must not only find her own inner strength but also rely on being able to control her Tauntaun in the harsh conditions of the frozen planet. You thought they smelled bad on the outside.

Despite the all-ages tag, Elsa Charretier and Pierrick Colinet use a sophisticated non-linear narrative to emphasize Leia’s inner strength. Alternate scenes count forwards from 48 hours prior, showcasing the series of problems her worshipfulness has encountered on the way to her goal. The central one of these is an encounter with a Wampa, before a literal avalanche tries to keep Leia from completing her mission. The simple moral message for young readers, and specifically young women, is clear. The world is going to keep throwing things at you, but it’s “okay to feel tired. It’s okay to feel weak. It’s okay to fall… but they’ll share the tale of that last time we got back up and stood. For good.”

Charretier also serves on art duties, alongside color artist Sarah Stern, was recently seen on Marvel’s short-lived The Unstoppable Wasp. Her distinctive style lends itself to adapting an animated series, and there are moments when it’s almost as if the late Darwyn Cooke has returned to illustrated the Star Wars universe. Sterns clean color background choices highlight the bold lines and inks of Charretier’s characters. The combination keeps the action fluid and light without being too scary for the younger readers, even when Darth Vader pops up for a cameo.

The remainders of the issues - focusing on Rey, Hera, Ahsoka/Padme, and Rose/Paige respectively - will be released each week throughout January. This is a wonderfully positive way to start the year, and hopefully the beginning of more retro fun from this enduring franchise. “The story of how, together, we resist,” the narration tells us, is also “how, as one, we can’t be stopped.” It may be speaking broadly about the Rebellion against the Empire, but as the first issue of a female-driven, all-ages series released in 2018, it’s a powerful new hope.


Credit: Irene Koh (Vault Comics)

Cult Classic: Return to Whisper #1
Written by Eliot Rahal
Art by Felipe Cunha and Dee Cunnife
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by Vault Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Cult Classic began as an ashcan at New York Comic Con that twists expectations on the idea of a shared universe - rather than cater to capes and tights crowd, Cult Classic won’t have a superhero in sight, instead offering a group of stories inspired by 1980s horror. Return to Whisper is the first title in the line and it has the unenviable task of being many folks first exposure to the brand - there’s a lot of foundation that has to be laid. Eliot Rahal and Felipe Cunha work very solidly within their “Goonies gone wrong” premise, but they do stumble a little along the way.

As Stranger Things has proven, ‘80s nostalgia is in full force. But stories about groups of kids banding together to overcome an obstacle are nothing new. And while Rahal and Cunha’s story uses that basic premise, it isn’t interested in looking all that far back. This isn’t a sepia-toned nostalgia trip. And that’s one of the biggest strengths of this debut - it acknowledges the tropes it's playing with but moves forward. But in moving forward, it doesn’t always serve its characters or the world of its story. Rahal’s main cast is huge, starting with nine characters, which is necessary when there’s some expectation that more than a few will die, but it can be unwieldy. Rahal bounces back and forth between 1997 and the present to show us how characters have changed, but most of their new status quos aren’t that exciting (one character is a hard-drinking cop, two others are unhappily married and on the road to divorce).

But the set-up does work, and there’s a lot of potential in the work that Rahal does here. The premise is simple - a bunch of kids steal a treasure and bury it, promising to unearth it 10 years later, but just before that date is supposed to arrive, one of the group is found dead. By having the narrative play out in two time periods, Rahal gets to explore both of these journeys and how the past affects the decisions that the same characters are making in the present. Using a horror anthology TV show called Cult Classic as a framing device is a lot of fun and provides an easy avenue for some of the more fantastical elements of the plot. (Plus, its a familiar callback for fans of Goosebumps, Tales from the Crypt and Are You Afraid of the Dark?)

Felipe Cunha provides the artwork, and I’m a little bit split on it. While Cunha’s visual storytelling is solid and he’s able to get us through the plot points without any trouble, his character designs are maybe a bit too simple. There’s very little that makes these characters memorable from a visual standpoint - something that’s echoed on the cover (a great piece by Irene Koh) were four of the nine characters share fairly similar features outside of a hat or hair color. That makes them a little hard to track and doesn’t make their older counterparts immediately recognizable, either. But Cunha’s expressions are solid and that plays well with Rahal’s script. Some of Cunha’s page layout choices are odd (like using vertically aligned panels to show what's happening on a TV screen), but they shouldn’t hinder readers’ enjoyment of the book.

While the Cult Classic NYCC ashcan did a better job showing the larger story potential of this new shared universe, Return to Whisper does exactly what is sets out to do in showing readers how creators will put their own twists on their favorite cult classics. Think of it not as reinventing the wheel but instead putting it on a different vehicle - the function is the same but the results are sure to be somewhat different. Teens! TV! Terror! That’s what Eliot Rahal and Felipe Cunha’s newest outing promises, and for the most part, it delivers.

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