Best Shots Advance Reviews: A WALK THROUGH HELL #1, JAZZ LEGEND #1

Scout Comics May 2018 cover
Credit: Scout Comics
Credit: AfterShock Comics

A Walk Through Hell #1
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Goran Sudzuka and Ive Svorcina
Lettering by Rob Steen
Published by AfterShock Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It can start like any other day. You wake up. You check Twitter. You go about your morning routine. But suddenly, it explodes into violence, and all you can do it watch in horror as everything around you transforms into a living hell. That is precisely the reality that writer Garth Ennis inhabits in his latest AfterShock Comics series A Walk Through Hell. Along with Hellblazer and Y: The Last Man artist Goran Sudzuka and Thor: God of Thunder colorist Ive Svorcina, Ennis debuts a horror tale steeped in modern America. An America where extreme gun violence is the norm and where something as simple as a warehouse can house unspeakable evil. Though this debut starts slow, Ennis and his art team draw us in deep, amping up the dread of our modern world and filtering it through cop drama tropes culminating in a restrained, but compelling debut issue.

Though Garth Ennis is usually known for extreme violence and his grindhouse-like sensibilities, the debut of A Walk Through Hell is played shockingly close to the vest. Opening with a grim shooting spree at a mall, Ennis delivers a dark “world outside our window” and then works outward from there. The opening itself is gut-wrenching, made even more so by Sudzuka’s tight focus on the victim and Ive Svorcina’s monotone background colors. But while the horror of the situation is there and very in your face, Ennis injects a real sense of dread into the already dreadful proceedings with a teasing bit of narration, portenting much larger horrors to come. He never really capitalizes on it in this debut, but the dread never leaves the pages of A Walk Through Hell, and that proves to be its greatest strength.

From there, Ennis, Sudzuka, and Svorcina settle into a mundane but engaging groove. The trio introduces us to our leads, the haunted Shaw and the idealistic McGregor, and their seemingly routine caseload. But as soon as another pair of agents go missing, that’s when the team really amps up the terror and we still don’t even see a monster or demon. After following up on another pair of agents, who have gone into a mysterious warehouse and been incommunicado for several hours, Shaw and McGregor arrive on the scene to find local police holding their positions and a SWAT team who have gone into said warehouse and then immediately retreated back into their truck and haven’t stepped foot outside since.

It is here where Ennis’ restraint and Sudzuka’s skill at character models really comes into focus. While our two leads bicker with the officer in charge and try to assess the situation, we keep getting quick glimpses inside the SWAT truck, where eight broken men simper and cry about whatever it was that they saw. They stop only to say that a “he” is coming, and they have to be anywhere but there when he arrives. Ennis’ wry humor and clever scene construction also shines through here, but this sequence wouldn’t be anywhere nearly as powerful or as creepy without Goran Sudzuka and Ive Svorcina. Bathed in a sort of sickly green lighting and rack focused on each of the SWAT member’s fraught emotional state, the pair give us a raw look at masculinity brought low, building to a violent and stylish crescendo that gives readers a real sense of just how bad it is going to get going forward into the later issue, punctuated by a clever repetition of Ennis’ opening narration. We know that the worst is yet to come, but at the very least Goran Sudzuka and Ive Svorcina prove that it is going to look great and theatrical once that worst gets here.

Armed with a pervasive sense of dread and fantastic artwork, A Walk Through Hell #1 is a best-case scenario when it comes to a horror debut. Though it holds out deploying overt scares and takes its time getting to the real crux of the plot, Ennis’ script, coupled with the emotive pencils and colors of Sudzuka and Svorcina, comes across truly bone chilling thanks to its “mundane until it isn’t” tone and sudden turns into visceral gun violence. Before the monsters and the blood starts A Walk Through Hell #1 shows us that Hell is all around us, and we walk through it every day.

Credit: Scout Comics

Jazz Legend #1
Written by JC Lacek
Art by Vasco Duarte, Cristian Docolomansky and Patrick Gama
Lettering by Cristian Docolomansky
Published by Scout Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The debut issue of writer JC Lacek’s series Jazz Legend is an inspired comic book that has a palpable sense of creative energy. It throws so much at the reader and seems to playfully revel in its own absurdities that it’s difficult to not find the entire experience to be infectious. The energy in Lacek’s writing is exacerbated by penciler Vasco Duarte’s delicate balance of cartoonish exaggerations and gritty realism, which itself is given depth from inker Cristian Docolomansky, and all of which is rounded out by colorist Patrick Gama’s moody palette choices. While its opening pages betray the strength of the bulk of the issue’s second half, when it finds its feet, Jazz Legend #1 is an unapologetic blast.

Over the span of a few dozen pages, Lacek introduces a lot of players to his plot. Martin is an uncannily gifted jazz trumpet player who performs nightly at Sweety’s club, the War Room, which is a black-owned club in the whitest part of Motocity. Between gigs, Martin goes missing on drug, alcohol, and sex-induced binges, and Sweety’s associate Red has to often literally drag him to his next gig. Near the club resides author Benjamin Way, who sees shadowy visions that plague him and Martin, and whose manuscript, Jazz God Hell, details Martin’s life. Martin notices that Benjamin follows him and reacts angrily, but a vision he gets while taking a new drug called New Blue both horrifies him and assures him that he doesn’t need to fear the storyteller.

Lacek’s balance of those elements hits its stride around the halfway mark of the comic book, as each of the players feels like they have contributions to make to the series overall arc. The world itself feels lived in, and like there were decades of stories worth telling that unfolded in it before we open on Martin slouched in an alleyway. The Lovecraftian elements and sense of dread also feel pervasive in a way that it’s hard for readers to not leave the first issue with the impression that things are going to get very bad for everybody involved, but that it’s going to be a wild ride to get there. Lacek’s characterization is also strong, and while the main players of Martin and Benjamin feel believable and dynamic, side characters like Red feel justified in their actions against a protagonist like Martin. And while the dialogue is often strong at giving the characters a sense of identity, it also holds the comic back at times by suspending an otherwise immersive comic.

The attempt to capture mid-century jazz culture vernacular in the opening makes the first few pages difficult to follow. While Lacek settles down and finds his groove by the midpoint, the opening’s onslaught of affected dialogue is surprisingly clunky in a script that later becomes airtight. The only other moment where this is a problem is a remark that Martin drinks like a “Haitian sailor.” This line is written in-text by Benjamin, who, though guilty of purple prose, the comic book never treats as a bad writer, so the line isn’t meant to be taken as deliberately a poor choice of words. “Drinking like a sailor” is already an expression that works for what the comic is trying to convey, but “Haitian” gets added to illustrate the severity of Martin’s drinking. It’s an arbitrary choice, and that flippant nature is a little disappointing. The fictional Motocity in whatever non-descript part of the U.S. exists in the same universe as a Haiti that both has known naval forces, something which real-world Haiti famously did not have at various points, and is used as a stereotype for heavy drinking. This might seem like nitpicking one line, but when other parts of the script are gold, trash stands out.

What makes penciller Vasco Duarte’s art such a treat throughout Jazz Legend #1 is the way that his dark and gloomy city scenes and the psychedelic and vibrant drug-induced vision feel so at home together when the juxtaposition of the two would seem too jarring on paper. It never feels like you are reading two separate comic mashed together, but one artistically complete work, as the slight cartoon quality that resides in his drawings lends itself to the exaggerations that the more surreal scenes require. It’s a unique comic that never sacrifices quality in service of that individuality. While Duarte’s drawings work because of how two distinct elements are woven together, colorist Patrick Gama succeeds because of the contrast he creates between the separate elements of the comic. Purples and reds fill the comic, but the hues get exaggerated in the dreamlike scenes to further distinguish them and remind readers that this is a plane that does not exist as the mortal one does. And while Cristian Docolomansky’s inking is solid throughout, it’s his lettering that deserves particular praise, as this comic asks more of its lettering than most do. Docolomansky’s alternation between lettering styles and intrusion of type-written narration gives the comic as much a sense of identity as its other components.

Jazz Legend #1 is one of the more enjoyable debuts of 2018. While the bravado with which the comic book tells its story can sometimes lead to moments of confusion or tone-deafness, it also delivers a realized and exciting world that readers will want to explore when the writing and art click. The balance between the cartoonish and the realistic is as measured as that between the comic’s sense of fun and drama. It’s impressive how the comic is able to never seem tonally jarring or haphazardly strung together when those are the tightropes it needs to walk. If good jazz is defined by knowing the rules of music so that you can break them, this book’s Morrison-esque “throw as many ideas at the wall as we can” ethos feels like it does the same with narrative rules.

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