Best Shots Advance Reviews: ETERNAL, BLACK [AF], STAR WARS: ROSE & PAIGE, HUNGRY GHOSTS #1

Dark Horse Comics January 2018 cover
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Credit: Black Mask Studios

Eternal OGN
Written by Ryan K. Lindsay
Art by Eric Zawadzki and Dee Cunniffe
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“When you murder magic, you make problems.”

In Eternal: A Shieldmaiden Ghost Story, viking warrior Vif finds herself in more trouble than she can handle after she takes down a supernatural foe in the defense of her village. A collaborative effort by writer Ryan K. Lindsay and Eric Zawadzki, Eternal follows the fate of a quiet village of women left behind after the men in their village meet an unknown fate on an endless expedition. Under the guidance of Vif, the women of Hvallatr become legendary warriors in their own right, provoking the ire of an increasingly dangerous series of foes — and setting in motion a series of tragic events that threaten to trap Vif in an endless struggle against an evil so powerful not even the legendary warriors of her village may be able to stop it.

One particularly notable trait about Eternal is its size — at just about 70 pages, it’s more of a novella than a novel, a little closer to Black Mask’s quarterly Last Song. As a publisher Black Mask has shown itself to be one of the more flexible publishers in the direct market, allowing creators to explore new schedules and unconventional lengths that serve the individual narratives creators are trying to build, rather than pushing them to cut or add to fit printing guidelines. As Lindsay notes in the backmatter, Eternal started out as a single 24-page script, and in collaboration with Zawadzki, the two expanded it to give them more space to explore the world of Hvallatr.

Eternal benefits from the added breathing room, particularly Zawadzki, whose art along with Dee Cunniffe’s soft, earthy colors give Eternal a pervasive sense of loneliness. There are ghostly elements, but the ghosts haunting Vif are largely of her own creation. Left with a young ward meant to take up the mantle of her village, Vif seems keenly aware (though not particularly bitter) that her de facto leadership of Hvallatr is a matter of circumstance and potentially temporary. Zawadzki gives her a fierce urgency and unsettling, piercing intensity that suits the slow building drama of Lindsay’s writing; as the story progresses, Vif is consumed with not just protecting her village but freeing herself and her shieldmaidens from the gendered expectations that seem to have made them a target to so many.

Lindsay’s slow, thoughtful pacing keeps the story feeling eerie and unsettling, as a proper spooky ghost story ought to feel, and though the villain of the piece does not feel especially threatening through the early pages, Lindsay builds Eternal to a startling climax that’s unexpected without feeling jarring or out of place. There’s a line or two that feels anachronistic — comic writers, if nobody ever cusses in your comics, it doesn’t make them any less adult — particularly in an otherwise reasonably well-researched and authentic-feeling period piece, but Eternal is exactly what it says on the tin: a shieldmaiden ghost story, well-written and beautifully illustrated. Too often the concept of comics is wrapped up in the idea of big monthly superhero stories, but as the Lindsay, Zawadzki, and Cunniffe demonstrate, there’s room for substantially more books like Eternal in the market — a single story given exactly as much space as it needs to tell the stories creators want to tell.

Credit: Black Mask

Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart OGN
Written by Kwanza Osajyefo
Art by Jennifer Johnson
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

While many people have rightly praised Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3 and Jamal Igle’s Black for its tackling of race and superpowers in today’s society, Osajyefo, Smith and artist Jennifer Johnson prove there’s also a wonderful flexibility to the concept, as they reach for younger readers with Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart. And honestly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a debut more charming than this — following 15-year-old Eli Franklin on her path to fame and superheroism as the star-spangled Good Girl, this graphic novel evokes series like Ms. Marvel, Supergirl: Being Super and even seminal works like Ultimate Spider-Man and Superman: Birthright to deliver a powerful feel-good punch.

“Dad’s mad I beat up the tractor.” Isn’t that the way every teenage story goes? But when you’re a super-powerful alien from another planet, it really sucks to keep your light under a bushel. But that’s the sweet but also subversive take that Osajyefo takes with America’s Sweetheart — Eli is not only a black teenager adopted into a white family, but her superpowers also reinforce her parents’ instinct to protect her from a society that might try to kill her… even if she can leap tall buildings in a single bound. (Or perhaps especially so.) But Osajyefo’s take on Eli is very reminiscent of the best of Clark Kent — sure, her Montana farm upbringing might have something to do with it, but at the end of the day, Eli is also just a really warm, selfless protagonist, far more interested in going out and doing good in the world. And sure, even Eli can’t help but check what people are thinking of her in the comment sections — but honestly, wouldn’t you?

What’s most interesting to me reading America’s Sweetheart is that in so many ways, Osajyefo does approach his story through the lens of power, race and privilege, but in a way that I think might creep up on readers. Take, for example, the first issue of Black, where Kareem is almost immediately shot by Bed-Stuy police — until his superpowers were revealed, he had no one watching out for him in a society which was harrowing and adversarial. Which makes America’s Sweetheart such an interesting counterpoint — Eli does come from a place of privilege, both in terms of her upbringing, her government handler dad, and her god-level power set, and watching her meet Kareem for the first time is an enlightening moment for those who have read both series. Osajyefo walks a real tightrope with Eli as a character — because unlike the more revolutionary characters of the original Black, Eli is raised in a way that would make her trust society, that would make her fight for the status quo. Because through it all, as Osajyefo so deftly puts it, she’s often saving people from fear before it curdles into hatred.

Much of this tonal shift also comes from artist Jennifer Johnson, who is as much a revelation as I’ve seen in the industry. Johnson’s work evokes a lot of awesome styles, from Babs Tarr’s cartoony characters to Phil Noto’s painterly and angular style — and when the action kicks off, I even see bits of Dark Knight Strikes Again-era Frank Miller. Whereas the original Black took much of its more forboding tone and indie sensibilities thanks to its black-and-white artwork, America’s Sweetheart is the type of bright and colorful that pops off the page. Indeed, for the book’s first few pages, Osajyefo is able to take a surprising risk with his scattershot introduction of Eli and her world, but Johnson pulls it off flawlessly, making us fall in love with the character as we get to see her first crib (destroyed by super-strength), her childhood birthday cake (blown over by super-breath), or even an early haircut (as her mom makes due with a pair of hedge clippers). But Johnson always seems to key in on the sweetness of Eli and her world, from the smile on her face when she gets her father’s approval to the way she pulls two gunmen out of a hostage situation by their ears.

If there’s anything that slows America’s Sweetheart down, it’s that once Osajyefo and Johnson finish digging into Eli’s character, you can see the tropes unfolding with the final third of the book. As soon as you see Zion, a mysterious woman trouncing the heck out of the U.S. military, you’ll probably get a sense of where this book is headed — and while Osajyefo does an effective job at quickly fleshing out Zion’s backstory and giving her a compelling reason to fight the status quo, the overall battle between her and Eli feels not dissimilar to Superman versus Zod in Man of Steel, particularly when Eli’s eventual status quo is held in doubt even after the book ends. In this regard, I can’t help but wonder if an expanded page count might helped here — if Eli had a chance to go more than one round against Zion, she’d not only have more of a challenge to overcome, but more opportunities to learn about herself and further define her relationship with the powers that be.

But that said, if the biggest critique I can level is that I wish there was more, I think it’s safe to say that America’s Sweetheart is still a major win for this creative team. Because at the end of the day, Osajyefo and Johnson bring such a sterling level of characterization to this book that it’s difficult not to like it — and it’s difficult not to want more stories of Eli Franklin, effective immediately. And that’s a real victory here — Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart shows that this concept has a flexibility and versatility that I think many people might have overlooked. Definitely don’t miss out on one of the best debuts I’ve seen in quite some time.

Credit: IDW Publishing

Star Wars: Forces of Destiny — Rose & Paige
Written by Delilah S. Dawson
Art by Nicoletta Baldari
Lettering by Tom B. Long
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Tico sisters get some much-deserved spotlight in the beautifully uplifting Star Wars: Forces of Destiny — Rose & Paige, the finale of IDW’s Forces of Destiny miniseries. Drawn and colored like an old-school Golden Book children’s fable, this one-shot, while hampered slightly by a thin plot, is heavy with heart and an infectious optimism that radiates both from Delilah S. Dawson’s script and Nicoletta Baldari’s emotive charcoal-like pencils and colors. Though it will never be touted as essential reading for the new Star Wars comic canon, Star Wars: Forces of Destiny — Rose & Paige is, however, a wonderful all-ages comic, one that gives a warm, intuitive Disney Princess like spotlight to two new fan favorite Star Wars characters.

The Resistance needs raw materials for the war effort, and Rose Tico has the ideas to make that happen. Unfortunately, her anxiety and fear of failure keeps getting in the way. Luckily, she has a big sister like Paige to help her through the dark times. Therein lies the main crux of the entire plot of this one-shot, but the sheer altruism and premium put on self-worth displayed through the script and the artwork cannot be denied.

A far cry from her steely and intriguing Phasma novel, Dawson’s script brings the sister’s relationship to the forefront of this story, highlighting both Rose’s ingenuity and Paige’s confidence in relation to each other and their dynamic. This not only reinforces the clear through line of feminine power that has coiled through the series, but sets this one apart thanks to its focus on sisterly relationships and anxiety despite one’s talents.

What also sets it apart is the gorgeously vintage inspired art and colors of Nicoletta Baldari. While other issues have traded on kineticism or more dreamy visuals, Baldari slows this one way, way down, giving each page, panel, and bit of character blocking clear intention and emotional focus. This comes at the cost of certain detailing and panel backgrounds to be sure, but the clear heart on the sleeves of Rose and Paige and a cameoing General Leia is a real treat to behold and gives the one-shot an extra layer of visual charm on top of Dawson’s heartfelt script.

But like the best Pixar offerings, it isn’t just the heart that carries the story, it is also the humor, which thankfully this finale issue has plenty of as well. After building two-wheeled transport trucks for the mineral gathering, Rose and Paige take them out for a spin... and get seperated in the process. As Rose searches the forests of D’Qar for her sister, she befriends a flock of long-necked, ostrich like aliens she names the “Squonks” after the adorable noise they make upon meeting her. Edging into the porg’s territory in terms of pure cuteness, Dawson and Baldari smartly use the Squonks for easy humor and avatars of the Ticos’ compassion when it comes to their mission’s impact on the environment. While the overall plot is fairly simple and easy to digest, it is refreshing to see that comics like Forces of Destiny has no problem layering in complex emotional ideas on top of creature based comedy and planetary adventure.

All-ages comics often get a bad rap for being too simplistic or for catering to a corner of the market certain readers don’t like to acknowledge, but when they are as inspiring and as beautifully rendered as Rose & Paige is, it is difficult not to take notice. Though it will certainly be hounded and cursed through the dark corners of the internet, this one-shot ends the Forces of Destiny mini with another much needed female driven story of heroes that are flawed, but hopeful; ones that stand as beacons for the thousands of little girls who are just so excited to see more girls just like them on the frontlines of this franchise and making a difference. Star Wars: Forces of Destiny — Rose & Paige may not be for you, but it is certainly for somebody and that is what comics, and Star Wars, really should be about.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Hungry Ghosts #1
Written by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose
Art by Alberto Ponticelli, Vanesa Del Rey and Jose Villarrubia
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The unlikely combination of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and novelist Joel Rose brought us Get Jiro a few years back. Their latest collaboration is just as esoteric, and once against draws upon a Japanese tradition of storytelling. The start of an anthology series based around a series of kitchen nightmares, the creators eyes may have been bigger than their stomachs in this less-than-satisfying degustation of tales.

Inspired by the Japanese Edo period game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, in which a group tells increasingly twisted ghost stories, a Russian oligarch gathers a group of chefs around him to tell food-inspired horror yarns. The first of the two tales in this issue involves a ramen chef who doesn’t want to feed a beggar. The second sees a sex-starved pirate ship bring aboard a beautiful woman, but it isn’t their desires that will be satiated by the time she is done.

This first issue does not get off to a good start, spending the first third of its page count explaining and then repeating the kaidan concept. Indeed, the first of the two main stories in this issue (“The Starving Skeleton”) is actually shorter than the setup for it, rushing its simple morality narrative without any sense of foreboding or anticipation. It might be based on tradition stories, but the retelling does little to bridge any gaps that may be lost in translation.

With its striking Vanesa Del Rey art, roughly hewn out of sea and wood, “The Pirates” seems like it will be the more captivating of the two stories. It certainly spends more time creating mood, crafting a timely tale of male entitlement and swift emasculation. It’s a cheeky tale that will certainly garner different reactions depending on which part of the audience demographic you land it, but it too feels like an idea unfinished.

The remainder of the issue, including the linking story, is illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli. The heavily inked figures are often cloaked in shadow, adding a tangible if stylized weight to the backgrounds. His best moment comes in the first story, where a giant red-framed skeleton looms over the diminutive ramen chef. Jose Villarrubia’s grounded color palette not only matches the shades of Edo Period art, but adds stylistic consistency across the vignettes.

“I was under the impression our stories were to involve food,” quips the Russian before the issue abruptly ends. It certainly seems set up to carry on that way, but that would also paint this potentially captivating series into a corner. Rose speaks in the back-matter of the extensive research he did for the issue, and while some of that comes through in the nature of the stories, it never comes across as anything more than re-appropriation for the sake of aesthetics. This is simply a reheated version of someone else’s dining experience

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