Best Shots Advance Review: EXCELLENCE #1 Lives Up to Its Title - 9/10

Excellence
Credit: Khary Randolph/Emilio Lopez (Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment)
Credit: Khary Randolph/Emilio Lopez (Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment)

Excellence #1
Written by Brandon Thomas
Art by Khary Randolph and Emilio Lopez
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by Skybound
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Equal parts Harry Potter and Black Panther, Excellence is a debut that more than lives up to its name, as writer Brandon Thomas and artist Khary Randolph leave it all on the field with a crackling adventure that dives into family issues, mystical ethics, and the titular quest for making ourselves better than our detractors take us for. Frenetic, fast-paced and fun, Excellence is a story you don’t want to miss.

While pop culture may frame magic as escapism, Thomas flips the script quickly, showing us that while sorcery and spells may look cool, there’s also a heavy discipline behind it — case in point, our hero Spencer Dale, the scion of a mystical dynasty who nearly buckles under the pressure of being a late bloomer in a family renowned for excellence. But emphasis on the word “nearly” — it’s Spencer assuming his destiny on his own terms that makes him such a fun character to watch. Despite having claimed to renounce his anger, you can still sense a justified chip on his shoulder as he tries to ascend the ranks of a secret mystical organization of black magicians called the Aegis — the unseen shield protecting the mortal world.

It’s with a Saga-like montage of characterization that gives Thomas the fuel he needs to rocket the rest of the issue forward. The action choreography — which I’ll delve into momentarily with Khary Randolph’s superb contributions — gave me a handful of moments that made me audibly gasp, throwing together influences as varied as Inception to old-school Spider-Man. It’s a tightly paced and self-contained action romp, even if the overall focus of the Aegis’s efforts might seem a little fuzzy upon lengthy reflection. Still, Thomas’s worldbuilding feels on point, particularly with the Four Walls of the Aegis pointedly ending with a statement that invites an intersectional approach in further stories.

Khary Randolph, meanwhile, is the kind of dynamic, angular artist whose style just screams for a book like Excellence. What’s interesting to me is that much like Spencer himself, Randolph’s artwork at first feels looser than his usual self, almost channeling a style like Rick Leonardi — but by the time Spencer grows into his own magical abilities, the whole series’ visual component locks together with a panache that’s hard to ignore. Randolph thrives with the action sequences, as well as quick shots of Spencer at his angriest — it’s energetic and thrilling stuff, especially during moments when Spencer gets to flex his mystic might. Colorist Emilio Lopez washes the book in bursts of purples, greens, reds and blues, and special praise should go out to production designer Andres Juarez, who really channels the aesthetic of Black Panther’s Wakanda into this series, highlighting its themes of black excellence.

Action stories in comics can be a dime a dozen, and so it’s particularly refreshing to see how Thomas and Randolph are able to take time-tested tropes and make them feel exciting, new, and downright necessary. Excellence is working on a lot of levels, whether it’s the pressures of living up to your family’s legacy, or seeing ways that ancient tradition needs to be broken down for the sake of equity and justice. In other words, this is very heady stuff — but if this debut issue is anything to judge by, Thomas and Randolph are going to weave some truly compelling magic with Excellence.

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