Best Shots Reviews: NINJAK VS. THE VALIANT UNIVERSE #1, THE FLASH #38, THE WILD STORM: MICHAEL CRAY #4, GHOST STORIES

Valiant Entertainment January 2018 cover
Credit: Valiant Entertainment
Credit: DC Comics

The Flash #38
Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Scott Kolins and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

?Joshua Williamson’s post-Rebirth run on The Flash has been marked by his ability to marry character-based stories within a continually escalating narrative. While creating new icons like Godspeed to ticking off classic touchstones such as his double-whammy of the Reverse Flash and the Negative Flash, he has managed to continually remind us why the Scarlet Speedster has long remained at the heart of the DCU — and with this issue, Williamson brings all those elements together for a satisfying climax of sorts.

Picking up immediately where we left off last issue, “A Cold Day in Hell” sees a Captain Cold giving the Flash an old-fashioned beat-down in the cell blocks of Iron Heights. As Kid Flash races towards a potentially lethal surprise across town, Williamson shows us that he has a few surprises left up his sleeve, in a perfect about-face that stays true to the core of the character.

While this issue is ostensibly an action finale, some of its best moments come out of Williamson’s mastery of finding small moments of connection between broken individuals. Indeed, the biggest act of rebellion in this issue comes not from fists or feet, but from the words of a reforming villain. A powerful scene in which Godspeed/August Heart and Barry talk about what it means to forgive is disarmingly earnest in its simplicity, and a fitting culmination of the ups and downs the Flash has been on the last year or so.

Nevertheless, the Scott Kolins and Hi-Fi revels in the first act’s carefully paced action sequence. After bathing the hero and his surroundings in a frosty blue for several pages, Kolins and Hi-Fi joyously unleash the victorious hero in a splash-page montage of flying fists, fiendish faces, and vivid color. Similarly, as Barry and Wally race to stop explosives in another part of the story, the respective speedster’s actions are as gorgeously fluid and dynamic as you’d want from the fastest men alive.

The art duo match the dramatic moments with equal measure, adding a series of clever layouts in the final act of the drama. Following a series of thin vertical panels that wrap up various loose ends, Kolins and Hi-Fi focus on Barry’s face in a nine-panel grid that’s straight out of a Dave Gibbons or Steve Ditko playbook. We watch Barry’s face Kübler-Ross its way from pure anguish through to his final acceptance and maybe even happiness. It’s the kind of simple but effective visual storytelling that only comic books can achieve.

If this arc has been about anything, then it is about redemption. As The Flash prepares to celebrate his 700th issue next month, this finale comes back full circle to the first Williamson Rebirth arc by giving August a second chance. Yet Barry is shown his own path towards self-forgiveness too. In all of his various forms, Barry Allen has a penchant for turning his feelings inward, so it’s with some degree of cheer that Williamson manages to round out this particular tale on a note of hope. That’s a pretty nice anniversary gift for the character and readers alike.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe #1
Written by Eliot Rahal
Art by Joe Bennett, Belardino Brabo and Ulises Arreola
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe #1 is the first issue of a comic miniseries designed to build up to the first Valiant online video series of the same name. It’s a tie-in comic for a streaming-exclusive show that doesn’t exist yet, that leans heavily on the few elements we’ve been introduced to in the teaser trailer that’s been floating around for a year. Much like the build-up to the online series — which still has no solid release date beyond “early 2018” — Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe #1 is an interesting concept with an aimless execution that feels a bit like an ouroboros. Is the comic an adaptation of a live action series that doesn’t fully exist yet, or a miniseries designed to make the live action show feel like an adaptation in retrospect?

This question wouldn’t haunt Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe #1 so intensely without a full-page letter from publisher Fred Pierce that opens the book, describing the cast of the series and what the comic book is supposed to represent: he says it’s an expanded version of the digital series, but how do you expand what viewers are only seeing for the first time?

Outside of the “chicken and the egg” question unintentionally raised by Valiant’s lofty goals for Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe, Wednesday’s debut issue is a solid enough introduction to some Valiant mainstays from writer Eliot Rahal. In short, Ninjak has been unwillingly recruited to commit treason against queen, country and compatriots, and his superhero handler Neville has to enlist the superteam Unity to take him down. Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe #1 is a decent narrative introduction to some of the bigger names in the Valiant superhero milieu from recent years, featuring heroes like Livewire and Archer and Armstrong, and of course the likes of the Eternal Warrior and Bloodshot (who will be played by Power Rangers’ Jason David Frank in the digital series, if, like me, that’s your jam).

Rahal’s script is one of the stronger elements of the series — based on the trailer, the comic does seem to provide some additional context to what we know of the plot of the digital series, but it’s hard to tell how much Rahal has to pull from so far and how similar the two mediums will turn out to be in the long run. To artists Joe Bennett and Belardino Brabo’s credit, the art never quite falls into uncanny valley territory — the characters resemble their live-action counterparts, but not so closely as to make the comic seem wholly lifeless or repurposed from the source(?) material. You can see Jason David Frank in Bloodshot, but not to the severe degree that the Bloodshot of Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe will be unrecognizable from his counterpart in other books.

Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe #1 is not a particularly innovative comic, nor very visually distinctive from its counterparts at larger publishers. However, as a standalone comic for Valiant’s ambitious shared universe efforts, the art does a solid job of bridging the gap from the minimal footage available so far to the rest of Valiant’s books. There are issues with inconsistent perspective and certainly some of the same slightly off-body positions and proportions (particularly women) that haunt capes comics across the board (case in point: Ninjak’s hair color inexplicably being the same color as his blue suit).

For newcomers to the Valiant universe, Ninjak vs. the Valiant Universe #1 delivers just enough content and context to give you a jumping off point for the rest of their books. Valiant is a relatively easy publisher to navigate, in terms of picking up trades, and the first issue of this series offers enough sense of its characters that you’ll easily be able to pick out who you think is interesting enough to check out in other books. But with a book that’s largely just okay, it may be worth waiting til the live-action series is available instead.

Credit: DC Comics

The Wild Storm: Michael Cray #4
Written by Bryan Edward Hill
Art by N. Steven Harris, Dexter Vines, Andy Owens, Dearbhla Kelly and Larry Hama
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by DC Comics/WildStorm
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

“Here’s the part where I talk about the crazy stuff.”

But the crazy stuff is everyday life for the cast of The Wild Storm: Michael Cray #4. Offering this universe’s nightmarish version of the Flash as irresistible bait, writer Bryan Edward Hill displays more of his easy-going world-building and rich character work, packaged in yet another cooly confident character showcase. But unlike the previous issues, which either focused on the mission or the characters behind it, Issue #4 bridges the gap between both, making it feel like the most complete experience of the series thus far.

Picking up directly after last month’s meeting-of-the-minds cliffhanger, this issue finds Cray and a paranoid, homicidal Barry talking as equals. Or at least that’s what Cray wants him to think. But as Bryan Edward Hill quickly shows, the two aren’t really that different, as they both grapple with respective voices inside their heads: Barry with his Reverse Flash-esque “dark passenger” telling him to kill and Cray’s malignant brain growth, which may have a mind of its very own.

It is with this reveal that Hill neatly connects his plotting with his character work. As Cray and his team have another tense standoff on how to handle Barry, Hill slyly peppers in more information about Cray’s budding Deathblow powers, directly intertwining them with his emotional state. This provides him common ground with Barry, something that both compliates Cray’s strict moral code and fans the flames of his conflict with Trelane, who is speaking to him more and more like a blunt tool rather than an actual person.

Better still, Hill continues to deepen both the connection and divide between Cray and certain members of his support team, finally providing them agency in the story. While the previous issues have either traded on the novelty of the plot or dug solely into Cray as a leading man, Michael Cray #4 makes the best of both worlds, finally making the whole cast feel in a cohesive unit while also delivering more of the luridly entertaining thrills that the title made its name on. Though I can understand some readers’ frustrations at the lack of focus on Cray as the Deathblow persona and the slow trickle of information about his powers, Hill is moving at a very deliberate pace, one that, if you have the patience for it, will keep you on the hook and wanting more even as he delivers less.

Michael Cray should also be commended for its visual consistency, thanks to the ever-steady pencils of N. Steven Harris, inks of Dexter Vines, Andy Owens, and colors of Dearbhla Kelly. Though this issue is provided breakdowns from celebrated G.I. Joe artist Larry Hama, Harris and the rest of the art team continue to provide the same focused yet fragmented pencils and subdued colors throughout.

Keeping things locked tight in panel grids or cinematic widescreen panels, the art team keeps the characters or character blocking in tight focus. But while the rest of the issues did much the same, Issue #4 takes a more poetic approach, letting particular character tics give the story some visual flair. Examples from this issue are the way Barry Allen holds a coffee cup, how support team member Leon holsters his gun, or Cray standing amid flames in a particular as to not get burned. Though this may not seem like much to the average reader, it is nice to see the Michael Cray art team starting to take steps to keep pace with its more cinematic companion series.

The Wild Storm may be all about big moments and big ideas, but Michael Cray #4 continues to find strength in the smaller moments along with its killer hook. A hitman with a code isn’t exactly groundbreaking when it comes to comics, but The Wild Storm: Michael Cray #4 continues the title’s streak of being more than just a sum of its own parts with grace, grit, and a consistent focus.

Credit: Rosarium Publishing

Ghost Stories OGN
Written and Illustrated by Whit Taylor 

Published by Rosarium Publishing
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Whit Taylor’s Ghost Stories is an engrossing autobiography interwoven with a series of shorts about loss and recovery. Taylor is given the chance to visit with three of her idols — one day with each person, a historical figure long dead. In the course of these conversations, Taylor explores her own past and the impact each person’s work has had in shaping her to be the person she is over the course of her life, and in the final and most surprising encounter, she’s finally afforded a measure of closure over a difficult event that helps her come to terms with the person she is in its aftermath. Content warning — the full OGN contains non-graphic but emotional discussions of assault.

Taylor keeps the pages of Ghost Stories simple and uncluttered. The bold lines and uncomplicated colors of her work bolster the emotional impact; Taylor’s style is evocative even in stories without dialogue or narration. “Wallpaper,” a short story interspersed with full-page illustrations of the home decor discussed throughout, captures the confusion and fear of a young person faced with loss for the first time through Taylor’s concise writing. A full page of beige paint is bland, but bland in a way that means something; Whit Taylor has a keen eye for when to let something simple and straightforward speak for itself.

‘Makers’ is personally the most compelling story of the collection, however. Taylor follows the childhood friendship and rocky path to adulthood of Tessa and Hope. Taylor explores the complicated nature of growing up — working out who you want to be and what you can do with the cards dealt to you, and working out who you want to have in your life … if they want to have you there. Taylor does an excellent job tracking the changes through the years, through hairstyles, decor, and fashion choices, capturing the sense of melancholy that comes with the realization someone you held dear has drifted away from you. “Makers” is also the most traditional paneled comic of the book, though, and the narrow confines of the layout make Taylor’s careful hand-lettering difficult to decipher at times.

For those looking to explore a wider variety of comics and graphic novels in 2018, Ghost Stories is a wonderful place to start. Larger publishers make their bread and butter off traditional capes comics, but Taylor’s skill and her clear emotional investment in her work capture so much of what makes comics such an incredible visual medium for so many artists. Ghost Stories is a deeply personal, but extremely relatable work from Whit Taylor that may not be as spooky as the title implies, but will haunt you nonetheless.

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