Best Shots Advance Reviews: XENA #1, PETER CANNON: THUNDERBOLT #4, MARY SHELLEY: MONSTER HUNTER #1

Credit: Dynamite Entertainment
Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

Xena #1
Written by Vita Ayala
Art by Olympia Sweetman and Rebecca Nalty
Lettering by Ariana Maher
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The cult icon warrior princess receives a middling new debut in Dynamite’s Xena #1. Though blessed by the comic gods with a highly anticipated creative team, this issue, unfortunately, reads like a disappointing second pilot episode - which is a shame, because all the elements are there. Written by rising star Vita Ayala, this new opening finds Xena and Gabrielle swept up in the affairs of a village under the rule of the goddess Discord. It’s a nice hook, right? But despite the great start Olympia Sweetman and Rebecca Nalty get off to in the opening sequence, this debut issue quickly runs out of steam, making Xena #1 a read that may appeal to completionists or die-hard Xena fans only.

Let’s start with the good, shall we? For one, Ayala really understands the campy, but sincere tone of the original show. Both their characterizations of Xena and Gabrielle impress, while also delivering the same kind of charm and fire fans will expect from this new comic. Better still, Ayala explicitly states that the women are lovers, staging them pointedly close as they travel in the opening sequence and as they interact with villagers. Later on, she simply throws away the pretense, showing them sharing a quiet moment in bed together after they learn of Discord’s influence. It is fantastic to see after years of the show and various other volumes somewhat tip-toeing around their relationship.

But unfortunately, the same spark in Ayala’s writing that made books like Livewire sing, is largely absent here. Yes, they get the characters. Yes, they offer up a big, mythical hook for the opening story. But it never really feels like more that just that, with pages and pages of exposition that can oftentimes feel difficult to connect with. It could be the “work-for-hire” nature of this series, or perhaps a reluctance to upset the core audience by trying something more with the characters. All I know is that it is disappointing as a reader.

The artwork of Olympia Sweetman and Rebecca Nalty also ends up a disappointment, even after a stellar opening. After the credit page, readers are greeted with an epic cold open of Gabrielle and Xena defending travelers on the road. The opening really is a lot of fun — spiked with portentous captions and Xena’s trademark battle cry letterer Ariana Maher, Sweetman and Nalty deliver rich high fantasy action. Sweetman well realizes the character’s fighting styles and how they can be utilized for visual storytelling, and like Ayala, she really seem to understand both women visually and in terms of their “acting.” The characters really do look fantastic, but after the opening is when things start to get a bit dicey.

As the story continues, the artwork deteriorates. The lush and detailed backgrounds of the opening are replaced with simplistic, single-colored backgrounds. The expressiveness of the characters is almost sanded down. The character models are still there, as are the screen-accurate costuming, but the finer detailing and energy of the opening is all but gone once we get to the issue’s cliffhanger. The story gets a slight shot in the arm with the arrival of Discord, a new vilain to the series, who gets a punchy introduction clad in a sort of medieval fetish gear. By then, however, the damage has already been done.

The silver lining of Xena #1 is that the potential for a great comic is there. The entire creative team knows what kind of book they are working on, and at times, they even nail it. It just needs a bit more personality and a little less reverential adaptation. Hopefully by the next issue things will have livened up a bit.

Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #4
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Caspar Wijngaard and Mary Safro
Lettering by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Just when you thought he had wrung everything out of his post-modern riff on Watchmen, Kieron Gillen nimbly shifts course to the indie comics of the ‘90s in Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, creating a unique sort of mashup that finds a deep core of emotion in what has otherwise been an almost surgically precise send-up of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ grim classic. And by changing the setting of the comic so dramatically, artist Caspar Wijngaard and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou in particular show off some incredible versatility, making this issue one of the most technically ambitious comics of the week.

After making a tactical retreat after being handily defeated by his nigh-omnipotent interdimensional counterpart, Peter Cannon wakes up in 1993… a world with no color, no superheroes, but a heart and charm that often escapes the grim and violent setting of costumed superheroes. With our titular Thunderbolt having crashed into the world of alternative comics, he’s greeted by… well, himself. A more down-to-Earth, welcoming and empathetic version of himself, but Doctor Peter Cannon, nonetheless.

“Pete,” the bespectacled man responds. “‘Doctor Peter Cannon’ gives them the wrong idea twice over. Not that kind of doctor, and not that kind of guy.”

Given how sometimes infuriating the main Peter Cannon can be as the smartest man in the room (when that room is filled with people wearing spandex who fight each other to the death), to see Gillen get to stretch his emotional muscles as well as his analytical ones proves to be a welcome shift in the narrative for this book. Indeed, a five-page detour to the evil Peter Cannon winds up feeling distracting, even though it is necessary on an issue-to-issue basis — instead, Gillen is able to take the archetypes of Watchmen and filter them through this very human, very engaging level, with bartender Lauren taking over a pub (called the Watch) from her mother, Eddie the “comic” fuming over his failed sequential art pursuits, or John sifting through photos from his trip to New York. It’s a fun way to not just take the piss out of an overwhelmingly self-serious piece of fiction, but a way for Gillen to explore and indict the trappings of superheroes when taken out of their relentless status quo.

Wijngaard, meanwhile, is able to take a super-scratchy spin on his usual artwork, and the result is something truly engaging and beautiful, even when it’s portrayed in shades of stark black and white. The expressiveness he’s able to get even in this stripped-down style winds up being actually more effective than what we’ve seen in the past — and by virtue of the low-key British pub setting, you can’t help but feel safe and nostalgic, even when you know killer aliens are going to show up on the page at any minute. But it’s letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou who really helps sell the effect, with hand-written lettering that shows so much character and craftsmanship, down to the placement of the downright incredible last one-liner.

For a title about a semi-forgotten superhero, there’s something scarily intelligent with what this creative team has done in Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt. Gillen has proven that this series isn’t just a one-trick pony sending up Watchmen, but instead is able to cross the boundaries across the history of comics. Teaming up with Caspar Wijngaard and company, one can only wonder how this comic can possibly top itself from here.

Mary Shelley Monster Hunter #1 cover
Mary Shelley Monster Hunter #1 cover
Credit: Hayden Sherman (AfterShock Comics)

Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter #1
Written by Adam Glass and Olivia Cuartero-Briggs
Art by Hayden Sherman
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by AfterShock Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

In the vein of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter comes Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter #1, a new AfterShock series about the pioneering science-fiction writer that posits that Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus was firmly rooted in Shelley’s personal experiences going toe-to-toe with the unknown, exploring the reality of Shelley’s life through a newly-discovered journal. After being forced to take shelter in Doctor Frankenstein’s sprawling, eerie mansion in the dead of winter, Shelley takes it upon herself to investigate the unsettling events keeping herself, her fiance Lord Percy Shelley, and their companions Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont from fully enjoying the gracious free room and board of their host. Unfortunately, what she finds winds up offering little promise of a peaceful respite.

Though there’s regular debate about the literary merits of Seth Grahame-Smith’s repurposing of history, both fictional and otherwise, for the sake of a hit horror novel, what charm there is to both the literary and cinematic adaptations of these works is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the absurdity of what’s going on. Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter winds up feeling more like homework than a exhilarating new take on an old classic — writers Adam Glass and Olivia Cuartero-Briggs spend a great deal of time setting up the dynamic of Mary (Godwin, at the time of the story’s opening), Percy, Byron, Claire, and tagalong Fanny (Mary’s actual half-sister) in a way that’s not particularly compelling.

We spend more time listening to Percy pontificate about his open marriage with Mary alongside Percy and Byron’s bickering than we do seeing Mary engage with anyone in anything other than the narration provided by her journal. There’s a heartfelt scene with Mary and Fanny that touches on their complicated familial relationship, and the issue is never raised again — it’s not clear what it’s meant to say about Mary or Fanny or the narrative, or if it’s just meant to help ground a fantasy about a monster hunter back in the her actual lived existence. It’s frustrating and gets more frustrating leading into the issue’s final four pages, when it finally teases Mary’s future foe, but doesn’t feel intentional even when the script seems to lampshade it by noting the rising tensions between Lords Shelley and Byron in close quarters.

The script doesn’t serve illustrator Hayden Sherman very well either. He delivers brooding, moody art well-suited to the period and the genre, his hazy blues and greens punctuated by pops of vivid red that keep the story centered, visually, where it ought to be: on Mary herself. The hints of horror we get before the issue’s climax — an unsettlingly inhuman face peeking from the shadow of a cloak, a looming castle against a blood-red sky — promise some incredible work when the series gets into the nitty-gritty of Shelley’s monster hunting days. Beyond the striking cover, though, there’s not enough emotional punch to Sherman’s faces to provide any depth to the plodding script. Sherman will likely shine in later issues, when Shelley’s story really begins to unfold, but this debut issue doesn’t inspire much confidence that the story will live up to his skill.

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