Best Shots Advance Reviews: DIE #1, LAGUARDIA #1, BREAKNECK #1

LaGuardia #1
Credit: Tana Ford (Dark Horse Comics)
Credit: Stephanie Hans/Clayton Cowles (Image Comics)

Die #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Stephanie Hans
Lettering and Design by Clayton Cowles and Rian Hughes
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Die is the latest offering from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Stephanie Hans, a tabletop-RPG themed fantasy comic book that many will write off as “Jumanji for adults.” But to do so would be a great disservice to these creators. Because on some level, that assessment, while reductive, isn’t entirely inaccurate - Gillen has said as much himself. And he reveals the seeds of this idea pretty readily in the back matter - talking about the unproduced finale of the Dungeons & Dragons TV show and how that got the wheels turning for him. But while that provides a starting point, there’s a lot more going on, and Gillen’s unique voice coupled with Hans’ lush artwork makes for a comics experience we haven’t seen in a while.

What are we talking about when we talk about Kieron Gillen’s authorial oeuvre? Something pop culture-obsessed. Something more specifically music-obsessed. But I think even more than those two obsessions, there’s maybe a bit of approachable reflection in his work. The writer has worked on some of the biggest characters in the world, maintained personal creative output that is routinely critically acclaimed and still (seemingly) has time to geek out about music and Warhammer 40,000. He’s known for writing young characters well because he doesn’t write down to them, and while his plots can seem convoluted at times, there’s a certain neatness in their conclusions. That’s what makes Die feel so instantly special. It lives in the same pools of nostalgia that we draw from when we hear a song that changed our lives, but doesn’t feel so fully familiar that it reads as a knock-off. It embodies so much of Gillen’s authorial voice and method that when all is said and done, it might be the book you give people to introduce them to his work.

But what is Die? It’s a fairly standard setup - a group of kids get together to play a game, things go awry, they get sucked into the magical realm of the game and don’t escape for two years. A couple of decades, one lost hand and a missing party member later, a mysterious object from their past brings them together again and - you guessed it - they find themselves back in that magical world. This issue does a lot of work to set that up and help us understand these characters. The opening narration has an almost The Wonder Years omniscient vibe to it, guiding us through the characters and the facets of their lives with ease while helping us understand the stakes at play. And on even more subtle level, Gillen lets certain ideas play out in text and through the art without beating readers over the head with it, allowing us to start to interpret and explore the story in our own ways until he decides to get to it. (One example being that the main character Dominic plays a female character in the game and is transformed when entering into it. There are a lot of interesting avenues for fans and Gillen himself to explore using that very simple and subtly placed detail.) But I mentioned obsession earlier, and indeed Gillen talks about the book being born of it in the back matter, but in a larger way that’s just what the book is about. As we get older, how do our obsessions (be they hobbies, jobs, or relationships) shape us, and how do they determine the pieces of ourselves that we’ve left behind? This issue is an excellent springboard for that idea.

Stephanie Hans is a big part of making that possible. Her painterly approach is an obvious fit for a fantasy setting - living in the same world as Dungeons & Dragons greats like Brom, newcomers like Sarah Stone and Magic: The Gathering artists like Terese Nielsen. It’s easy to see why Gillen was eager to work with her again after their work together on Journey into Mystery - her art is beautiful at the outset, but it definitely hits its stride even more once we’re solely in a fantasy setting. Some of Hans’ expression work can feel statuesque when compared to more traditional comic book art, and early on in the book that does put a weird bit of distance between the reader and the characters that we’re supposed to care about. But Hans is able to bring it home and does a great job aging up the teens that we see in the opening before transforming them once they end up in the game in recognizable ways. Any of the energy that’s occasionally lost through those character renderings is balanced out by sharp page design and panel layouts that give things a kind of underlying steady tempo.

In some ways, Die has a similar structure to starting a new campaign of your tabletop RPG of choice, and this issue is essentially the character creation step. We’re meeting characters already in progress, maybe far past the point where their stories should have ended. But maybe their something to be rediscovered, maybe there’s something to be regained. Maybe the things lost in the pursuit of obsession can be found again. Die wants to explore that and with Hans’ artwork providing the vehicle, it's off to a spectacular start.

Credit: Tana Ford (Dark Horse Comics)

LaGuardia #1
Written by Nnedi Okorafor
Art by Tana Ford and James Devlin
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Karen Berger’s Berger Book lines expands with a new creator-owned title from award-winning novelist Nnedi Okorafor. LaGuardia #1 explores the ramifications of interstellar immigration in a world that’s no better equipped to handle alien refugees than it is to handle humans. Set in a future where aliens landed in Nigeria in 2010, ushering in a time of unprecedented technological advancement, LaGuardia follows the path of Future Nwafor Chukwuebuka, a Nigerian-American doctor returning to New York City after three years in Nigeria with a baby on board and a small, undocumented alien in tow.

Aliens as immigrants isn’t an uncommon metaphor in fiction, but Okorafor dodges most of the pitfalls of the trope, not allowing devotion to the metaphor to blind the narrative to the experiences of very real people of color, immigrants or not, who still live in these worlds where aliens exist. As Nigeria grapples with a separatist movement that wants to force alien immigrants from its borders, Future deals with the reality of being a black Nigerian-American woman whose appearance and even her name are still seen as a novelty or or an inconvenience. LaGuardia is the best of Okafor’s prose - personal, political, and deeply relatable in its empathy and good humor.

LaGuardia’s strength is in its distinctive voice and visuals, from the art to the lettering. Artist Tana Ford and colorist James Devlin deliver gorgeous visuals, from the eye-popping alien designs to strange tech that feels just odd enough to be futuristic but close enough to modern innovations to keep the story grounded and familiar. The character designs are impressive and Okafor writes each with a distinctive voice, from exasperated professor and wishy-washy separatist Citizen to Future’s new housemate, a leafy friend with a cat-like expressiveness who chooses the name Letme Live.

There are times when the art feels somewhat flat and static - primarily close-up panels, with just one or two characters - but Ford’s expressions and Cipriano’s lettering touches give wider shots a sense of life and atmosphere that elevate Okafor’s solid script. Cipriano’s lettering makes the ubiquitous technology of self-driving cars or holographic phone calls their own characters, and adds an immediate charm and warmth to Letme Live when they’re finally able to show themselves in the safety of Future’s self-driving car. Colorist James Devlin makes the cities characters in their own right, from the bright, vibrant openness of Lagos to the dreary tarmacs of the perpetually under-repair LaGuardia Airport (the only hub for interstellar immigration in North America).

Tomorrow’s LaGuardia #1 is a quick and efficient introduction into a familiar but complicated world. Okafor writes with a distinctive enough voice that even the expository text feels natural and quick to read. Okafor has done solid work with Marvel previously (including the new Shuri ongoing) but LaGuardia #1 feels like her strongest comics work yet, thanks to both her script and the talents and work of Ford, Devlin, and Cipriano.

Credit: Simone Guglielmini (Titan Comics)

Breakneck #1
Written by Duane Swierczynski
Art by Simone Guglielmini, Raffaele Semeraro, Lovern Kindzierski, and Chris Chuckry
Lettering by Jimmy Betancourt
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

What do you get when you mix a ticking clock, infidelity, and a looming domestic terror attack? The pulpy, luridly entertaining debut of Breakneck, the latest gritty superhero comic book maven Duane Swierczynski. After sitting in the writer’s head for more than a decade, Hard Case Crime provided the perfect stage for the twisty, slightly seedy story of a man who discovers his wife is cheating on him with a government operative, only to stumble upon a wide-reaching conspiracy that threatens to engulf the whole East Coast. As far as hooks go, this one is gold, given an extra edge of fun thanks to Swierczynski’s wry, punchy script and the ticking clock he and letterer Jimmy Betancourt inlay through the narration. Couple that punchiness with Simone Guglielmini, Raffaele Semeraro, Lovern Kindzierski, and Chris Chuckry’s down-to-earth artwork, and you have another lurid, but engrossing debut from the imprint, strengthening their presence on comic shelves, keeping pace with their prolific print output.

Joe Hayward is a human lie detector. Which is what leads to him standing outside of a hotel room, armed with a bat from under his bed and a loose brick from his apartment building’s garden. But finding out his wife’s infidelity is just the start of Joe’s problems, as he blunders into a much larger, much deadlier story. This is the main drive of Duane Swierczynski’s Hard Case Crime debut, but even with the grimy trappings of the genre, Breakneck feels so much more human and raw thanks to the same brutally poetic style that made his Punisher and Judge Dredd runs so engaging. Though Joe is kind of a sad sack, Swierczynski presents him as at the very least a somewhat sympathetic one, keeping with the imprint’s tradition of morally murky protagonists.

Better still, the main hook of the story is pure pulp. You have a healthy helping of intrigue with her lover being a government man, who is mixed up in some kind of far-reaching conspiracy that “was always supposed to be a what-if”. You also have a touch of sultriness with the sexual dynamics at play, again keeping in lock step with the tone of the genre. Topping all that off is some brutal, low-fi action in the sequence in which Joe and Scott Majeski, his wife’s lover, finally square off - which goes about as well as you would think a fight between some company schlub and a black ops agent would go. Swierczynski and his art team stage this sequence a bit like a comedy of errors with Joe swinging wildly with his impromptu weapons and Scott lashing out with trained blows, but it really grounds the heady story of terrorism. It isn’t pulp unless your leading man gets the stuffing beaten out of him by someone much stronger than him, but Breakneck puts a neat spin on this trope by making it sadly human and slightly hilarious amid the hard knocks.

But while Duane Swierczynski’s script keeps ticking toward disaster and bringing the hooks, I am not sure this debut would be as engaging as it is without the artwork of Simone Guglielmini, Raffaele Semeraro, Lovern Kindzierski, and Chris Chuckry. Though the team leans into the more cinematic style of current era crime comics, their pencils and stagings of scenes are much more grounded and down to earth than the more stylized efforts from the imprint. Meaning this debut is much more in line with the period artwork of books like Harmony Gold and Babylon Berlin than the exaggerated action of the imprint’s Quarry adaptation and Triggerman. And I think that works really well in the debut’s favor. The action is not only clear, but each scene feels real, much more like an HBO drama, thanks to the pencilers’ fleshed out, expressive style and Kinderzierski and Chuckry’s plaintive colors.

If you like your pulp with plenty of hooks and just a touch of steaminess, then Breakneck #1 is the book for you. Armed with a real down-to-earth tone and a tense ticking clock gimmick, Duane Swierczynski, Simone Guglielmini, Raffaele Semeraro, Lovern Kindzierski, and Chris Chuckry hold the Hard Case Crime standard high while also delivering a pretty damn entertaining first issue of a comic. It is win-win for crime and comic fans alike.

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