Scarlett’s Strike Force #2
Credit: IDW Publishing
Credit: DC Comics

Young Monsters in Love #1
Written by Kyle Higgins, Tom Seeley, Mairghread Scott, Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing, Paul Dini, Mark Russell, Steve Orlando, Alisa Kwitney, Phil Hester and James Robinson
Art by Kelley Jones, Michelle Madsen, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Cam Smith, Tomeu Morey, Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie, Nathan Fairbairn, Javier Fernandez, Trish Mulvihill, Guillem March, Dave McCraig, Frazer Irving, Nic Klein, Stephanie Hans, Mirko Colak, Mike Spicer, John McCrea and John Kalisz
Lettering by Rob Leigh, Clayton Cowles, Carlos M. Mangual, Sal Cipriano, Travis Lanham, Tom Napolitano, Dave Sharpe, Tom Napolitano and Clem Robbins
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

When your opening page is a heavily shadowed Man-Bat going head-to-head with the Dark Knight, it’s fair to say that this is a Valentine’s Day anthology with a difference. In this 80-page giant, DC serves up 10 short stories from the darker corners of their hero roster. From the legitimately chilling to the genuinely touching, this is perhaps the only Valentine’s book this year that will contain a story featuring the disarmingly sweet relationship between the odd couple of Monsieur Mallah and the Brain.

To the credit of editors Alex Antone and Dave Wielgosz, the assembled stories don’t have a single-minded notion of “love.” Despite the retro throwback cover, a fun nod to the tradition that spawned anthologies such as this, the collection doesn’t pull any punches in the horror or romantic stakes. Writer Kyle Higgins’ opening story “Nocturnal Animal,” for instance, maximizes the legendary art of Kelley Jones. The chiaroscuro shadow of the Man-Bat is omnipresent as he lurks over the reforming Kirk Langstrom. The story catches us off-guard as Kirk is not just doing the hard work for his love Francine, but for himself as well. It’s as good a missive on addiction and recovery as any.

Many of the stories have these kind of twists, such as Mairghread Scott’s Superman/Superboy tale involving Solomon Grundy. An extended fight scene segues into a morality play on love being worth any risk. Collin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing send in Raven to help a restless soul find peace at the prom in “The Dead Can Dance.” The biggest shock comes from writer Alisa Kwitney and artist Stephanie Hans, who remind us that I, Vampire was a character after all. The specter of the "New 52" lives on.

Then there are those stories that use levity to do the love/monster mash. The most successful of these arguably comes from Paul Dini in the Deadman story “Be My Valentine.” Backed by Guillem March’s impeccably detailed art, the hero possess a bullied young boy who is about to step in front of a train. Taking revenge on the boy’s aggressors, he leaves the kid with a positive message to “hang in there.” It’s not just a fun story, but a good memo against the normalization of bullying as part of school culture.

Other stories let the art lead the way. Frazing Irving’s layered renderings of Swamp Thing (in “Heart-Shaped Box”) are there for us to fall in love with. It helps that writer Mark Russell’s story is a bit of a heartbreaker too, with the lead character depicted as being “trapped inside a prison without a key” as the result of lost loves. Swamp Thing doesn’t seem to appear on the page so much as grow out of each panel, with Irving overlaying these organic moments with bright cutouts of people, objects, and moments. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of storytelling in sequential art you’re likely to see this year.

In Phil Hester’s Etrigan story, “To Hell and Gone,” his story is structured to allow Mirko Colak’s pencils and Mike Spicer’s vivid colors to leap off the page. This is perhaps unsurprising from a writer who has predominantly been known for his work as an artist. It begins with a demonic pile-on of writhing and embattled bodies, but ends with the demon alone. Not to detract from Hester’s eloquent script, but this is one of those rare stories that could also be told without a single word on page. It’s a testament to both writer and artist.

Never wavering from either central theme of “monsters” or “love,” this anthology could just as readily been released at Halloween and still be effective. Not all of the stories are entirely successful, with some embracing the eight-page limit more than others. Yet this is a collection of some of the best storytellers that DC Comics has to offer at the moment, and it is sure to break down the carefully built walls of even the most ardent of cynics.

Credit: Esad Ribić/Nic Klein (Image Comics)

VS #1
Written by Ivan Brandon
Art by Esad Ribic and Nic Klein
Lettered by Aditya Bidikar
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Micallef
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

VS is both blue-skinned and fierce, sitting itself comfortably next to the pantheon of Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper tales. It’s a comic that hearkens back to an oft-imitated but rarely explored oasis of comic books. Echoed chants of 2000 AD and Heavy Metal are regarded over war drums, as holographic gladiators enter combat for the adoring fans. The love child of Ivan Brandon, Esad Ribic, and Nic Klein, VS is unabashedly in love with every influence that composes its world, having a big smile on its face as the holo camera records all of the gore and brutality on display.

In VS, war has become synonymous with syndication, as blood and circuses have upgraded themselves into primetime television. Take, for example, our book’s hero, Satta Flynn, an aged, broken super-soldier who is trolleyed around like a half-conscious homunculus, expected to dance for the masses when he can barely walk. In a book so awesomely confident in its coolness, Flynn serves as both metaphor and compassionate hook, as Ivan Brandon presents him as an athlete who is also a wounded warrior. It’s hard to ignore the modern parallels present in Flynn, mirroring the immense psychological damages that athletes and soldiers are put through. He is Muhammad Ali by way of Richard Corben’s Den, and the book is all the better for it.

Artist Esad Ribic’s characters are like Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Atlas, not only holding the world of VS on his shoulders, but looking damn good while doing it. Ribic’s art is lovingly referential to the hard sci-fi scapes of the best progs of 2000 AD while still evoking his own modern sensibilities. While many may associate Ribic’s work with war vistas and battle cries, there’s a powerful scene in VS where Flynn tries to make his broken body stand that is both compassionate and crushing. Nic Klein’s colors are a beautiful guitar solo atop Ribic’s opera, with potent and smoky blues filling the palette making it all the more alien and wondrous. His colors bring life and atmosphere to Ribic’s linework as a whole.

In a world so wonderfully built, one may be taken aback at the sparseness in the depiction of VS’s population. There’s not a ton of bystanders drawn in by Ribic, and for a world supposedly so captivated by this cult of personality surrounding gladiators, it’s hard to feel like there’s a sizable number of fans or even people. In addition to this, Brandon’s characterization has a slight exaggeration problem, where characters, Flynn included, can be a bit overwrought and extreme. This is fitting for a book like this that plays in the milieu of euro-comic homage, but it has the potential to lose some readers.

Even while playing covers, VS marches to the beat of its own drum. When some books find themselves in sheepish restraint, this comic pushes onward. It’s both rare and invigorating to find a book that’s able to cultivate and repurpose it’s influences while still making a case for its own existence. As this series continues, let’s hope Flynn is able to fully stand on his own legs, shoulder to shoulder with the sequential art giants so lovingly referenced by Brandon, Ribic and Klein.

Credit: IDW Publishing

Scarlett’s Strike Force #2
Written by Aubrey Sitterson
Art by Nelson Daniel and Ryan Hill
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The Joes take the fight to Cobra in the bombastic Scarlett’s Strike Force #2. Having sussed out the location of the new Cobra Commander’s base at the North Pole, Roadblock and his squad wind up going head-to-head with mind-controlled wildlife. Despite the title’s limited lifespan, writer Aubrey Sitterson delivers near-constant action and rousing character work that stays true to the kinetic energy of the property as a whole, while artist Nelson Daniel and colorist Ryan Hill imbue this issue with an infectious Saturday morning dynamism that keeps the title moving at top speed. Scarlett’s Strike Force might not be long for this world, but its sophomore installment proves that it is going out on its own highly entertaining terms.

After making landfall in a newly melted region of the North Pole, the Joes are instantly set upon by a pack of rabid dinosaurs. Yes, you read that correctly. Though this incarnation of G.I. Joe has caught flak for not being realistic or steeped in military-based narratives, it is hard not to grin like an idiot while reading about a squad of Joes having to take on snarling dinos. In all honesty, this sequence could arguably be presented as Aubrey Sitterson’s whole statement of intention for the whole run, a run that prioritizes fun and characterization over realism and grit.

Now, the issue itself isn’t perfect by any stretch - plot points like Quick Kick’s training of a native and the Joes discovering a new energy source of the base back in Lemuria don’t really get the room they need to breathe - but Sitterson, Hill, and Daniel still make sure to frontload the issue with plenty of dynamic action and fun character beats throughout. It’s hard not to enjoy beats like baddies Croc Master and Raptor bickering over if the native dinosaurs are reptiles or birds and Gung Ho’s excitement about geothermal vent hot tubs after leg day. Is this the kind of stuff that “classic” G.I. Joe comics would have done? Of course not, but that doesn’t make it any less of a good time - which might be the perfect summation of Sitterson’s tenure with the Joes in general.

Aiding in the fun and splashy tone of the series is penciler Nelson Daniel and colorist Ryan Hill, who again prove to be the perfect art team to send this title off into the sunset. Anchored by Daniel’s manga-inspired pencils, this second issue begins with an extended chase sequence that never dips in momentum or loses the character’s personalities thanks to some fancy running, driving and shooting from Cover Girl. The issue’s energy does, however, take a bit of a hit once the script delves into the establishing scenes at the Cobra and Joe HQs, but colorist Ryan Hill does a great job of keeping the looks and lighting schemes of the bases separate and tonally sound. Thankfully, the pair end the issue on a hilarious high note with the showdown between the Joes and Croc Master and Raptor that brings the issue back up to speed with humor, energy, and bold colors throughout.

Though the series only has one more issue to go, you would never know it reading Scarlett’s Strike Force #2. Armed with a strong foundation of characters, a great sense of humor and fun, and frenetic, richly colored artwork, this era of G.I. Joe seems to be winding down while still staying true to itself and the tone its enjoyed from day one, haters be damned. Where else can you see villains debating dinosaur entomology and a vomiting T-Rex? Scarlett’s Strike Force #2, that’s where, and it’s just as fun as it sounds.

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