Best Shots Advance Reviews: XERXES #1, ISOLA #1, SONIC THE HEDGEHOG #1

Sonic the Hedgehog #1 variant
Credit: Kieran Gates (IDW Publishing)
Credit: Frank Miller/Alex Sinclair (Dark Horse Comics)

Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander #1
Written by Frank Miller
Art by Frank Miller and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Frank Miller
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

“It begins, as all wars do, with a grievance.”

Of the many Frank Millers that have populated the comic book world over the last few years, the one that’s been getting nostalgic has been at the top of his game. Following Miller’s Dark Knight III: The Master Race, the creator has returned to one of his most iconic pieces. Staggeringly, 300 has its twentieth anniversary this year, yet has never felt more vital. Perhaps it’s the more recent film adaptation, or maybe Miller’s interpretation of east clashing with west has tapped into some kind of zeitgeist.

Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander is a title that is not only twelve words longer than its predecessor, but is also one of the most historically descriptive of recent memory. This first issue spans 499 B.C. through 490 B.C., taking us up to a point roughly 10 years before the fateful Battle of Thermopylae. The historical setting is important, not only because the Battle of Marathon represented the first Persian invasion of Greece, but due to Miller seemingly having a direct dialogue with his previous work and critics.

Of the many criticisms made against 300, it’s historical accuracy is one of the most enduring. One such nitpick was his derogatory reference to Athenians as “boy-lovers,” with the Spartan’s masculinity fluffed in comparison to this dig. Indeed, the single line resulted in Alan Moore’s famous bit of shade: “I mean, read a book, Frank.” So Miller takes the opportunity to turn the tables and allow us to bear witness to the Athenian “shock combat.”

Miller isn’t so much rewriting history this time so much as paying tribute to it, specifically the Athenian hero captain Themistokles and the path that led the Greeks to their own god-king in Alexander the Great. As such, this debut issue reads more like a series of pointed vignettes, a wide brushstroke of history in which the 300 were but a mere historical curiosity in comparison to the bigger picture.

In the first of five deluxe issues, Miller’s readily identifiable art is at its most focused. Perhaps inspired by the tales of these legends, the brutal mix of rough angles and bloody swipes is not without its humorous asides. Aeskylos, the near-naked warrior who breaks ranks is with a curved and double-edged weapon, splits a man down the middle while the captions fall in opposite directions on either side of him. Like the Commanding General Militades, he is depicted with a kind of androgyny that belies the aggressive masculinity that permeates much of Miller’s work.

Presented in a slick deluxe edition, Miller makes full use of his widescreen panels. Marathon itself is a series of big full-page entries spartanly filled (pun intended) with rows of warriors. On another page, three split panels give us Sergio Leone levels of scope. The final one of these can either be read as a single frame or a rapid phenakistoscopic progression of warriors in battle. Miller once again reunites with his Dark Knight III: The Master Race color artist Alex Sinclair, who imbues the pages with a set of earthy tones that reflect the classical art on which it is based.

If 300 was a loud battle cry of resistance, then Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander is Miller’s examination of democracy and its opponents writ large. It’s an idea that’s clearly been on Miller’s mind as heavily as Leonidas’ deep brooding over Sparta having sat out Marathon. Yet as his characters muse, “We fight and kill and die…for nothing more than an idea.” If Miller’s series maintains the strength and scope of this first outing, then the horizon is as bright as the one in the final panel of the book.

Credit: Karl Kerschl/Msassyk (Image Comics)

Isola #1
Written by Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl
Art by Karl Kerschl and Msassyk
Lettering by Aditya Bidikar
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Real talk - I am a diehard Karl Kerschl fan. He’s the kind of artist’s artist with a clean, animated style, a creator who always feels like he has a scarcity to his output - that by extension, only makes his work seem more desirable. He’s a real MVP on the level of a Marcos Martin or Frank Quitely, and so for a certain section of fandom, Isola was always going to be a must-buy.

Yet in many ways, Kerschl’s dynamite artwork feels to be the only major hook for his new Image series Isola, which is artistically stunning even as it feels narratively jumbled. While this story of a woman protecting her transformed queen has potential, it’s also decompressed within an inch of its life - but that said, when you have a whole book of Kerschl artwork, it’s hard to begrudge the book for its other shortcomings too much.

Despite the story coming from Kerschl and his frequent collaborator Brenden Fletcher, Isola is perhaps most surprising for how quiet it seems. That’s in part because our heroine, Rook, spends most of the issue just talking to herself - she’s been tasked with protecting her queen, now transformed into a green tiger, but there’s an obvious language barrier that exacerbated by the fact that Fletcher and Kerschl never really delve into backstory or much even in the way of exposition. There’s some danger, based on the hunters present in the wilds as well as Rook’s overprotectiveness for her queen, but aside from a throwaway line here or there, readers are going to be in the woods fro this one.

But like I said before, the make or break for Isola isn’t going to be the story, but the artwork behind it. And Kerschl, teaming up with colorist Msassyk, is still as dazzling as ever - this could be a Disney movie in the vein of Pocahontas or Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Kerschl’s linework is so crisp and clean. The design of this world feels deliberate and well-realized, and Kerschl does great work with the expressiveness of both his human and feline characters, giving Rook and her queen a much-needed boost of chemistry as this harried protector quickly realizes she’s in over her head.

Yet if you’re not already buying Kerschl’s artwork, I’m not sure Isola is going to sell you. The plot progression on this debut issue feels almost nonexistent, and given how we’re given next to no information about the realm of Isola, or the nature of the queen’s transformation, or really much in the way about Rook’s characterization other than her being overwhelmed, this story feels paper-thin - sometimes self-indulgently so. So far, Isola feels less like a narrative journey and more of an art exhibition for Kerschl’s prodigious skills - and while that’ll hook in diehards like me just based on the sheer skill of his artistry, you can bet there will be plenty more who won’t take the bait.

Credit: Tyson Hesse (IDW Publishing)

Sonic the Hedgehog #1
Written by Ian Flynn
Art by Tracy Yardley, Jim Amash, Bob Smith and Matt Herms
Lettering by Corey Breen
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

When news broke of Sega abruptly pulling its Sonic the Hedgehog license from Archie Comics, there was a major sense of surprise across the industry - and when it was announced that IDW would be picking up the reins, one couldn’t help but be intrigued at what was to come. Archie’s Sonic comics were a staple for more than 20 years of fans, establishing the tone of the universe for literally a generation of readers. So what’s Sega’s bold new plan for continuing their mascot’s adventures under the auspices of IDW…?

Well, it’s almost exactly what it looked like over at Archie?

Despite this being a new #1, IDW’s premiere issue of Sonic the Hedgehog feels almost startlingly business as usual, with the return of Archie series writer Ian Flynn, teaming up this issue with his Archie collaborator Tracy Yardley. The only difference - one that won’t affect newcomers, but will surely frustrate longtime readers of the Archie series - is how tentative the actual world-building is. Sure, we have Sonic, Tails and the robotic forces of Dr. Eggman, but it can’t help but feel a little jarring to come from a world that was so well-realized - by these same creators, no less - and then have very little to replace it with. We get the requisite amount of Sonic beating up robots with a cocky grin on his face, but there’s really no new direction here, or anything to differentiate this volume of Sonic from its predecessor.

In a lot of ways, I’m not sure this is Ian Flynn’s fault - heck, I’m not even sure this is IDW’s. There’s a lot of wrangling that goes on with licensed books, and Flynn himself has gone on record to say that Sega would be more involved in this series, presumably for synergistic purposes with its video game offerings. And as much as it might pain longtime readers to suddenly wipe out the history of mainstays like Princess Sally, Rotor, Bunny Rabbot and much more, I’m not even against the idea of rebooting from scratch with a brand-new supporting cast that you can see more of on your XBox or Nintendo Switch. But this first issue winds up feeling more like it’s going through the motions, with little to introduce or engage new readers to these characters. Sonic’s a cocky celebrity, and Tails worries about his best bud’s safety, but for the most part, these characters are literally pinballing through action sequences with little plot progression or emotional arcs. It feels lightweight, even by adaptation standards.

That said, while he’s only drawing this particular issue, artist Tracy Yardley draws the heck out of it. His designs for Sonic are probably the most confident thing in the whole issue, with the Blue Speedster cutting a cocky grin as he puts Eggman’s latest robots through their paces. Admittedly, there’s a lot of Sonic and Tails spin-dashing around, which occasionally feels like a cheat, but shots of Sonic running up a robot’s arm as he’s about to strike is very cool, and Yardley also sells Tails’ emotions surprisingly well. Honestly, with the script feeling as threadbare as it does, Yardley is really the one selling Sonic and company as actual characters - but it still feels, well, sometimes like a video game.

And there’s part of me that wonders if that’s not a bug, but a feature in this new run of Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega has clearly rethought their position on this comic book, and judging by the fact that Flynn himself has said none of the Archie-created characters will be making the exodus with him, it sounds like Sega is looking to keep this book closer to its other multimedia assets. As a tie-in, keeping a similarity in tone and substance would make sense on paper, particularly for young or casual readers - but it feels like a myopic way to bring in diehard comics readers, particularly those whose connection to the Sonic Universe didn’t necessarily stem from the games. Combine that with the counterintuitive decision to relaunch this series with the previous creative team, and Sonic the Hedgehog feels like it’s already stumbling out of the gate.

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