Best Shots Advance Reviews: INFIDEL #1, TWISTED ROMANCE #1, More

BOOM! Studios February 2018 cover
Credit: BOOM! Studios
Credit: Image Comics

Infidel #1
Written by Pornsak Pichetshote
Art by Aaron Campbell and Jose Villarrubia
Lettering by Jeff Powell
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Beginning with its provocative title, Infidel is a comic book that straddles the line between horror and politics in a way that'll both frighten and enlighten. Former DC editor Pornsak Pichetshote makes the jump to writing with a deserved assuredness in this debut issue, as his script is elevated by some truly terrifying work from artist Aaron Campbell. There's a lot that could have gone wrong with an unorthodox book like this, but Pichetshote and Campbell's skills are enough to earn both their scares and their social awareness.

From the few first pages of Infidel, Pichetshote and Campbell do an excellent job of scaring the crap out of their readers, as we meet our hero Aisha, who has recently moved in with her boyfriend, his mother, and his daughter in a dingy apartment building with an ominous past. It's here that Campbell does a superb job at making a good first impression, as you can't help but shudder as we see Aisha be straddled by some twisted, misshapen creature, all unsettling elbows and fangs.

But from there, Pichetshote, Campbell and colorist Jose Villarrubia work in concert to provide a much more subtle sense of tension and claustrophobia to the mix - from a Sarlacc pit cake to Aisha's boyfriend Tom suddenly lashing out at his mother, we're never given the chance to find our footing after the disturbing cold open, which makes readers all the more susceptible to further scares down the road. Campbell in particular deserves plenty of praise for the way he switches his styles up when needed - for the most part, his work has the feel of a Michael Lark, but when Infidel's misshapen creatures pop in, he suddenly morphs into something that almost evokes Stephen Gammell (of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark fame). It's deeply unsettling, and has readers peering in the shadows and corners of each panel looking for answers.

Additionally, this tactic proves to be a savvy one, because once the creative team has grabbed their readers' attention, Pichetshote and company are able to have their cake and eat it, too - namely, with fully realized representation of their Muslim female lead as well as the racism that's ever-present around her. Because once the audience is grasping for answers, they're going to pay extra attention to everything that Pichetshote is telling them - and that means we get to invest in Aisha's personal life, as both a Muslim woman who is struggling with her own place in the world, as well as someone whose grasp on her sanity is starting to erode. Yet even Pichetshote's demons are a good reminder of how scary racism can be, with his twisted creatures mumbling quiet epithets, in some particularly good lettering from Jeff Powell.

Infidel is the kind of comic book that has a message in mind, but it relays that message in a particularly smart way - by reminding us that we're all in this scary world together, so we better start paying attention to everyone. But what's just as promising about this book is that Pichetshote and Campbell are only starting to scratch the surface of a world that has loads of potential, delving into hallucinations and violence and hatred from a variety of different, beautifully realized angles. This is a strong debut from this creative team, and one that should not be ignored.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

The Backstagers 2018 Valentine’s Intermission #1
Written by James Tynion IV and Sam Johns
Art by Rian Sygh, Walter Baiamonte, Brittany Peer, Brittney Williams, Caitlin Rose Boyle, Rebecca Nalty and Katy Farina
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Box
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The Backstagers return just in time for Valentine’s to deliver an irresistibly sweet treat: the Backstagers 2018 Valentine’s Intermission #1, an absolutely adorable anthology special that reunites series creators James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh along with a new roster of talented creators for a set of stories so cloying you might get a toothache. Out tomorrow from BOOM! Box, this all-ages special perfectly captures the charm of the original series with a set of Valentine’s-themed stories that range from the romantic to the delightfully surreal.

Tynion doesn’t miss a beat - his passion for the world of St. Genesius and the Backstage crew is palpable in every story. Tynion and Sam Johns deliver four delightful tales centering on different characters and a wide variety of Valentine’s experiences, from the frustration of a seemingly unrequited crush to the curious after-effects of going a little too hard on a Valentine’s day candy stash. The Valentine’s Intermission is a light-hearted collection of stories that will have readers of all ages in giggles. Tynion and Johns have a knack for crafting kid-friendly stories in the spirit of Steven Universe - unapologetically quirky and fun tales that weave relatable experiences in with a magic and playfulness that makes them fun to read over and over.

Rian Sygh and Walter Baiamonte remain an artistic dream team: the pair of them have thrown themselves into the Valentine’s theme with aplomb, and Baiamonte’s beautiful, glowing colors are a perfect complement to the playful shoujo anime touches Sygh scatters throughout his illustrations. It would be easy to tip too far in either direction - overloaded with roses and romance or perhaps too dark and surly to reflect poor Beckett’s sour mood - but Sygh and Baiamonte both have an excellent sense of scene and timing, delivering softer, muted colors that give bigger, more exaggerated moments more of a pop. Beckett’s decent back down to the truly magical backstage realm is one of the most beautiful pages of the issue; Baiamonte brings Sygh’s M.C. Escher-esque labyrinthe to life in a way that makes it feel surreal and magical but not overwhelming.

Valentine’s Intermission brings an all-star team of artists together for three additional shorts: Brittney Williams and Rebecca Nalty on “Finding the One,” Caitlin Rose Boyle and Nalty on “Love Rodent #9,” and cartoonist Katy Farina on “Of Mice and Munchies.” All three stories do an impeccable job of maintaining the vibrant and distinctive feel of Sygh and Tynion’s creation while giving the new artists a chance to shine in their own styles. Williams’ expressive style perfectly captures the anxiety of picking out precisely the right valentine for your grade school boyfriend (or “friend you want to call your boyfriend but don’t want to come on too strong”) and Nalty’s richer colors translate perfectly from Williams’ style to the more exaggerated art of Boyle’s “Love Rodent #9,” a comedy of errors centered on the McQueen twins (whose over the top personas are well suited to Boyle’s playful art). Katy Farina’s work goes straight for the surreal - her delightful tale of Sasha’s ill-advised decision to chow down on some expired Valentine’s candy is precisely the right amount of weird for the most exuberant backstage boy, and I will probably still be thinking about Prince Friendo by the time Valentine’s Intermission #2 rolls around (I really hope it rolls around).

For those unfamiliar with the original Backstagers miniseries, Backstagers 2018 Valentine’s Intermission #1 will feature a few plot points that might spoil some bigger elements in the back half of the series. Have no fear, though - the second volume of Backstagers also hits shelves this week, meaning you can pick up both trades and Backstagers 2018 Valentine’s Intermission #1 all in one go at your local comic shop or online. This delightful intermission will deliver everything Backstagers fans have been missing since last year, from the gorgeous art throughout the entire book to Tynion and Johns’ heartfelt and engaging scripts. It’s great to see BOOM! bring back Tynion, Sygh, Baiamonte and Campbell for another new Backstagers tale, and to introduce some stellar new to the series talents into the mix for a valentine’s treat you won’t want to miss.

Credit: Image Comics

Twisted Romance #1
Written by Alex De Campi, Sarah Horrocks and Magen Cubed
Art by Katie Skelly and Sarah Horrocks
Lettering by Katie Skelly and Sarah Horrocks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Love and unfettered consumerism collide annual in a union so perfect that it calls itself Valentine’s Day. On this most sacrosanct of Hallmark occasions, the comic book industry inevitably responds with anthology specials filled with amorous leanings. Twisted Romance is an old-school anthology series that reminds us that compilations such as these are about discovery, perhaps leading us towards a writer or artist to fall in love with. Of course, these are all short stories so the love is fleeting.

The first story, written by Alex De Campi, tells the highly stylized tale of Misha, who is literally and figuratively scared. Running “Heartbreak Incorporated,” the character is helping a woman find out who is trying to take her husband away from her. Once we enter a groovy nightclub scene, a dramatic twist turns the story into a different genre entirely. It’s a perfect little vignette, accentuated by the unmistakable art of Katie Skelly. Her retro-inspired imagery places this stylistically in the 1960s, complete with a good, old-fashioned freakout. Yet it’s the lyrics from the disco sequence that sums this up nicely: “Yes sir, I can boogie.”

“Leather and Lace” is the next outing, and is a prose piece by Magen Cubed. Short stories such as these are a grand tradition in anthology books, and while it is a shock to the system after Skelly’s art in the first story, Cubed’s words soon entice the reader to stay for this bit of genre romance. There’s vampires and a wendigo hunt, which just screams romance, don’t you know? If anything, the 8 pages of double columns dominate a little too much of the overall piece, but its a solid story that would probably make a good comic book adaptation.

The third and final story is written and illustrated by Sarah Horrocks, and asks Skelly’s aforementioned freakout to hold its beer. To call it a story of eternal love isn’t quite doing it justice, as this is a chaotic and sexually charged exploration of love transforming into bitter spite and back again. Horrocks’ impressionistic art style and nontraditional storytelling reads like a free train of thought for its short run, and it’s fair to say that this won’t be for all tastes. Yet it is also the kind of story that invites you to linger a little longer on repeat readings, looking beneath the surface of the vivid color explosion and explore the passion and eroticism at its core.

In some ways, Twisted Romance does exactly what an anthology should do. It offers up a series of pieces that could not be more different from each other, challenging you to get comfortable. You may not love all the stories, and there may be some matches that you firmly want to swipe left on, but it is impossible to ignore any of the stories in this volume. As the first anthology in a four-part series, here’s looking forward to whatever weird direction the mini-series takes us in future volumes.

Credit: Ryan Dunlavey (Harper Collins)

Action Presidents #1: George Washington
Written by Fred Van Lente
Art by Ryan Dunlavey
Published by: Harper Collins Children’s Books
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

So you think that George Washington started his journey to be the father of the United States of America by chopping down a cherry tree as a child and not telling his father a lie about it? Well, Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey want to set the record straight. Van Lente and Dunlavey have a history of using their irreverent humor to explore history, first in Action Philosophers and then in Comic Book Comics. Their modus operandi is all about being as faithful to their subjects as possible while never missing a chance to inject some humor into philosophy or the history of comic books. In their new Action Presidents #1: George Washington, they turn their witty gaze toward American history, starting with the first President of the United States.

Action Presidents #1: George Washington takes the legend of George Washington and strips it down to uncover the truth about the man. Van Lente and Dunlavey start with the famous story of the cherry tree and the words “I cannot tell a lie” to show how truth and legend have gotten blurred, because Washington never said those words and never cut down any cherry tree. Using their host (think the old EC Comics witch hosts, but in this case Noah, the Historkey!), they quickly dispatch with legend as Noah leads a couple of children through something much closer to the truth. Or at least it’s closer to the truth as Van Lente and Dunlavey have studied it, as evidenced through the bibliography at the end of this book that provides a path to much a more learned but probably not as entertaining history of George Washington as this book provides.

As the story of Washington has grown to be bold, stoic and rigid over the centuries, Van Lente and Dunlavey show us a man who suffered humiliation, failures and who was anything but the unflinching portrait of the man we practically accept as reality now. The real George Washington was not always the hero; in fact, he was a bit of a momma’s boy as one of the running jokes through the book reminds us. He was a man who suffered many defeats before being able to work himself, his fellow colonists, and his European allies into a position to be able to defeat the British and win the freedom of a new country. They also show how the man was conflicted, a slave owner who recognized the ugly cost of slavery. As a man of his times, he felt he had little power to affect that course of American history and did little to ensure the liberty of all men. Those are the struggles of the man and not the legend. Van Lente and Dunlavey are far more interested in the man and in discovering who George Washington was than they are in mythologizing him.

This is no dry history lesson, merely recounting meetings, battles or personal drama from the late 1700s. Dunlavey’s expressive drawing turns history into a Saturday morning cartoon that’s fun and as entertaining as it is educational. Approaching a serious time in history in a less than serious manner, Van Lente and Dunlavey’s approach to storytelling turns this history lesson into the tale of how messy it is to try to pull a new country together. For all of the strategy and planning the colonists went through, these creators focus on the sheer luck and chance it took to drive the English out of the United States. Van Lente and Dunlavey play with the character of George Washington, undercutting the importance of the these historical events with an simple humor. That humor makes Washington a far more relatable character than the dry seriousness of textbooks and the myth of the man are capable of.

George Washington wasn’t a man of destiny and legend. That’s a tall order for anyone, let alone one of the countries’ founding fathers. For as much planning and strategy as Washington had to devise, the founding of our country owes as much to luck as it does to preparation. Van Lente and Dunlavey show Washington as a man torn between traditional duties and his own personal desires to be a private citizen and a quiet farmer. Now take that heady point of view of history and add in gags and jokes to it. Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey have created a comic that is faithful to history while not so serious about it that they can’t find the room to have a laugh or two about it.

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