Best Shots Advance Reviews: HARBINGER WARS 2 #1, BLACKWOOD #1, LAST SIEGE #1, More

Blackwood #1
Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Credit: Justin Greenwood/Eric Jones/Patrick Brousseau (Image Comics)

The Last Siege #1
Written by Landry Q. Walker
Art by Justin Greenwood and Eric Jones
Lettering by Patrick Brosseau
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Landry Q. Walker’s Dark Ages-inspired script forms the backbone of The Last Siege, the latest genre outing from Image Comics, but it’s Justin Greenwood and Eric Jones’ formidable art that quite literally leads us wordlessly through a sinister forest towards Walker’s first issue. It opens with a mystery and leaves us with one, setting the stage for what promises to be a rich and complex story.

That said, the set-up here is simplicity itself. In a land where the lords of the West have fallen to a rampaging king, one house and its castle remains on the coast. With a power vacuum left, Sir Feist aims to consolidate his king’s power with a marriage to the 11-year-old Lady Cathryn, the last heir to the castle. At least until a mysterious stranger from the East arrives in town

A curious mix of the samurai, western, and fantasy genres, there’s a little bit of Yojimbo by way of Game of Thrones in the way that Walker’s mysterious stranger enters the scene. It’s a small world that Walker introduces us to, at least in this debut issue, entirely consisting of the castle and its surrounding village. What’s remarkable is that he and the art team manage to convey a sense of the world-building he has begun here, confidently reassuring us that he knows all of the landscape even if we aren’t seeing it yet.

We only know fractionally more about the mysterious stranger by the end of the issue, although what we do learn is a doozy, so the majority of this issue is framed around moody action sequences and a keen sense of mise en scène. Much of that mood is due to the skilled talents of Greenwood and Jones. Without a single scrap of dialogue, a series of images tell us all we need to know about the pulse of the besieged castle: crows pecking at carrion, a splash page or two of a darkened forest, an insert of a hooded figure approaching the castle.

As Greenwood constantly pelts his rough-hewn figures with rain, Jones maintains a miserably muted color palette to fill in the scene with a sepia toned melancholy. Dark inks and speed lines run perpendicular to the rain to create a swift and chaotic set of action pages, leaving us with no visual doubt as to the ferocity of the mysterious stranger’s combat skills.

If The Last Siege was a show on a streaming network, you’d want to go straight onto the next episode for a binge. Unfortunately for all of us, we must now wait over a month to continue this saga. Leaving us on a hell of a cliffhanger that changes the power dynamic of everything we’ve seen up until that point, this feels like it is one worth waiting for.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Harbinger Wars 2 #1
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Tomas Giorello and Diego Rodriguez
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Balance is a tricky thing in superhero comic books. As a genre, it is far more rooted in escapism than, for example, horror comic books or general science fiction comic books. And that’s fine. Readers want to see a character whom they hold in high esteem undergo tribulation and succeed. The stakes of these challenges are often global and universal threats to make the heroes’ aforementioned success all the more enjoyable to a reader. There is a lot to love in Harbinger Wars 2 #1, but where the comic book succeeds beyond most superhero crossovers is in its dedication to and success with balance. This should be no surprise given the strength and consistency of writer Matt Kindt’s work on X-O Manowar, 2017’s best-kept comic book secret. By achieving balance in characterization, worldbuilding, and even extra-textual things like accessibility, Kindt and the X-O Manowar art team of artist Tomas Giorello and colorist Diego Rodriguez have created an explosive debut to an event that seems poised to satisfy fans who have been following Peter Stanchek and the psiots since the first run of Harbinger, jumped in with some time last year, or picked up this undeniably gorgeously drawn book on a whim.

A major gripe that most people have with events where superhero teams fight one another is that the entire thing rests on miscommunications and disproportionate responses. Harbinger Wars 2 avoids this by making the lead-in to the shared universe conflict one in which shadowy organizations and bureaucracies beyond the primary characters carry out acts which force the characters to fight people they otherwise care about. This achieves that sense of balance where you can have characters who are the heroes of their own books fighting for what is right while fighting against one another. Omen is the only party that is clearly entirely evil, as one would expect from what has ostensibly become Valiant’s new Project Rising Spirit, a clandestine organization that operated as a behind-the-scenes villain for many earlier series. Omen is responsible for the deaths of innocent children. In retaliation, Livewire caused a nationwide blackout and dropped satellites to Earth. X-O Manowar, one of the only beings capable of the mobility and power needed in that situation, is in space preventing the satellites from entering the atmosphere. X-O Manowar is saving lives but for the benefit of Omen. Livewire is threatening lives, but for the safety of children. That balance sets up a nuanced conflict where the outcome is hard to predict, especially as Livewire enters some of the grayest spaces a hero can enter.

The balance also comes in the sense of worldbuilding. There isn’t much direct exposition in this issue that doesn’t satisfy some other end, and much of it is carried out by showing readers the world rather than telling them. Nothing feels incidental or constructed just for the sake of the comic, and the world feels lived-in and like there is a depth to be explored there. It never feels like you need to take a trip to a wiki just to acquire context, but it also feels like there should be a detailed wiki filled with content. A perfect microcosm of this is the single panel referencing Aric’s harrowing ordeal on a distant planet in his own comic. He talks about how he got involved with conflict on an alien planet and suffered great loss in his climb from soldier to emperor, and how he wants to avoid competing interests. Kindt is the writer of the story Aric is referring to, but rather than do a full exposition dump or some context-free flashback, Kindt elegantly places the context needed in a natural way that also can draw newer readers in to other stories told in this universe, all the while Giorello and Rodriguez provide readers with a subtle visual indication of what Aric is talking about.

Giorello’s art style is gritty and doesn’t have the sleek and polished look of many digitally drawn modern panels, but this aesthetic is offset by the level of detail that he works with. Some part of each panel is always getting a higher level of detail than expected. In close up shots, it’s usually the face, but in medium and far away panels, it can be clothing, architecture, or some mechanical construction. This means that readers are always presented with something impressive to look at, but with a variety that keeps things visually exciting. Rodriguez’s colors compliments this. When Rodriguez breaks out of the established color palette for the issue, its often for the sake of characters like Aric, Livewire, Bloodshot, or Ninjak, and in doing so it makes these clearly narratively important character stand out against otherwise muted backgrounds. Peter Stanchak is a subversion of this, with his design and coloring being far less distinct until he activates his powers, which itself mirrors his ability to activate psiot abilities in people who are normal by all outward appearances.

The problem with the issue stems from the slight identity crisis that Valiant is prone to on occasion. As a publisher — and to an extent, as a brand — they present themselves as an alternative to the Big Two for for fans of shared universe superhero comics. For the most part, they do this well, as their comics are often nebulously cool in ways in which comic events from the Big Two often struggle. Harbinger Wars 2 #1 is a solid example of this, but it’s when the issue leans on ideas from Marvel in particular that the Valiant universe loses some of that unique energy. It isn’t enough to make an otherwise great book bad, but it is enough to hurt some of the immersion when you read that Peter Stanchak is an “Omega-level Psiot,” or that the news is drumming up fear about the “psiot menace.” While psiots are clearly Valiant’s analog to mutants, they’ve typically felt unique enough in their execution and the way the plots handle them that it felt removed enough to stand on its own. The two examples listed feel almost like a find-and-replace of “mutants” with “psiots” from a discarded X-Men script.

While that is a shame, it doesn’t take away from how special the story feels. There’s a lot of likable characters that have been forced into a bad situation against one another. Readers don’t have a clear character to root for, but the conflict is handled and written with enough intrigue that, rather than see a superhero overcome an obstacle, readers will want to see how an explosive and dangerous situation could possibly resolve. Harbinger Wars 2 #1 bursts from the gate with a lot of momentum, and with a distinct and interesting visual style that makes this comic stick out from the pack. What happens in this story feels like it will have repercussions, and the scaffolding for that fallout is already being established.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Blackwood #1
Written by Evan Dorkin
Art by Veronica Fish and Andy Fish
Lettering by Andy Fish
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

You might think that going to a supernatural school might be fun and games, but you’re probably thinking of the charmed students of Hogwarts - but if you’re a screw-up with some magic in your bones, chances are you should enroll in Blackwood instead. Inhabiting a similar but superhero-free space to DC’s Mystik U, Blackwood is elevated by the artistic dream team of Veronica and Andy Fish, who take Evan Dorkin’s mysterious script and imbue it with energy, emotion and raw, crackling magic.

There are secrets beneath secrets at Blackwood College, and I’m not just talking about the five cemeteries you have to drive past just to get to the front gate. But from the first page, Dorkin and the Fishes weave up a palpable sense of mystery and horror, as we witness the disturbing fate of a magical headmaster as he’s surrounded with an almost claustrophobic array of books and artifacts. But in many ways, the way that Veronica and Andy Fish are so able to switch gears between tones and styles is what makes Blackwood #1 such an engaging debut - in particular, Andy Fish’s layouts give these pages a deeply solid foundation, such as the panel creeping ever closer to another doomed lecturer, which frees up Veronica Fish to hit a home run with her character designs. Her characters switch ever so subtly with tones, sometimes taking a more realistic bent while other times evoking the cartooniness of Babs Tarr or Erica Henderson.

Dorkin’s script, meanwhile, is an extra-sized affair that lets his artists breathe while introducing his new students. In that regard, Blackwood is a bit of a slower burn, but there are little hints and pieces of mystery here, such as scrawling on a chalkboard (such as how one student’s name is repeated - and crossed out) or seeing a professor who we are largely certain is supposed to be dead. And like Mystik U before it, the students of Blackwood all seem to have their own backstories alluded to - like Wren Valentine, who awakens at Blackwood to a bloody nose, or Stephen Heller, whose eyepatch is basically screaming for explanation. While some of these characters might need a little bit more time to develop, it’s a strong foundation for the rest of the story to build upon.

Magic and broomsticks might play well with the kids, but older readers might ask what’s the catch - and the terrifying answers can be found in Blackwood. While Dorkin’s script sets up a lot of questions for future installments, it’s Veronica and Andy Fish who really make this book a showstopper, with a thrilling and fluid sense of artistry that makes this book you should not avoid.

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Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Panther #1
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art by Daniel Acuña
Lettered by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Being skilled as a writer in one field doesn’t mean that talent is inherently transferable to another. Writing a song is a completely different process to coming up with the script for an episode of television. Writing comics criticism doesn’t guarantee the ability to write comics. All of this is to say that it takes work to adapt to a new format and putting in the time and effort leads to becoming more adept with a particular style.

The prose of Ta-Nehisi Coates has long been understood as remarkable, for good reason. From his columns to his essays to books like Between the World and Me, he proved himself capable of insightful work about the state of the world and the topics he wrote about suggested he was a perfect choice to helm Black Panther. However, it wasn’t smooth sailing from the get-go - the long-form intentions of his first 12 issues seemed solid, but the execution of the single-issue components was lacking. But over time, he’s eased into comic book writing and found his groove, having found a balance between the big ideas and the requirements of superhero comic books.

The seasonal model that Marvel Comics has made frequent use of during this decade has allowed Coates to focus on a different overarching idea each year and with this relaunch, he’s taken to the stars and the Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda; seen back in Marvel Legacy #1. The first panel of the book makes that clear, the text portrayed against the cosmos, while the rest of the first page sums up the premise. Two millennia ago, a colony was established in the outer edges of space and pushed Wakandian ideals to radical ends which led to it growing into an empire across five galaxies. Coates leads with the premise, ensuring it serves as an early, enticing hook - rather than withholding it for an end of issue twist – then brings in T’Challa on the second page. The high-concept premise comes first, but the reader becomes orientated to this new location and status quo through someone recognisable.

While recognizable to audiences, he would unrecognizable to himself as he awakes to confusion, stripped of both name and title. An altercation with a guard follows and the fallout of this drives the rest of the issue forward. T’Challa, having had much of his identity taken away, becomes defined through action, depicted in a way that shows how far Coates has come as a comics writer. He entrusts Daniel Acuña with a near-wordless sequence, a stark difference to his very early issues, which felt prose-heavy as characters debated around tables.

Acuña has a distinct visual style, much like previous series artist Brian Stelfreeze, but it harbors a less realistic feel. His linework is light yet busy, giving beats of action a rush, even the simple kinds like someone’s palm moving to meet another’s chin. T’Challa moves so quickly on his feet, that it can’t be perfectly relayed in a clean manner, limbs becoming a blur. As wonderful as it is to see Coates find new ways to engage with the existing themes of his run, it’s also a joy to see him become more comfortable with writing action sequences that pack a punch.

As a book which has now veered into the territory of science-fiction, it also falls to the creative team to build up this empire in terms of designs. Let it be known that Acuña knows how to draw a spaceship with a distinctive look and that doesn’t feel overly complex. Similarly, his costume designs for the various factions help to establish distinct groupings of characters based on how much power they wield in this pocket of the universe. There’s an immediately clear difference between the location where T’Challa wakes up and the spaceship introduced slightly after, the Mackandal. When everything kicks off in the back half of the issue, these designs make it easy to identify where the different factions are in the battle while also showing how there’s a general uniformity and cohesion to the outfits.

Joe Sabino’s sound effects nail the interstellar feel with each laser blast, punch and kick landing in a satisfying way. The color palette chosen seems similar to that of Christian Ward’s on the recent Black Bolt series – in fact, so does T’Challa’s circumstances - but while that series had a tighter focus, here Coates manages to make his story feel grand. Later events are seemingly seeded with finesse, the worldbuilding going with it hand in hand. Finesse is really the key to this issue. It all flows so well.

What makes that even better is that Coates’ progression can be seen on the page - it’s not as if this is going back to square one or the drawing board, but an example of how putting the work into refining the craft can pay off. Despite being an extension of his previous twenty plus issues, this is a #1 that is also new reader friendly and that’s regardless of whether they’re new to Coates’ run or new to comics in general. Fans of the movie will spot characters they already recognise, the kind of corporate synergy that helps to bring them into this existing world.

As a first issue, Black Panther #1 displays a solid handle on what it wants to be and establishes that clearly to readers. As a story, it feels both fresh and exciting, crafting a distinct identity that stands out against the many other books on the stands. As a continuation of Coates’ run, it certainly continues engaging with what Wakanda means and many other ideas he’s considered and written about over the course of his career, all while giving a brand-new conceptual springboard for T’Challa to kick ass and take names.

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