Best Shots Reviews: USAGI YOJIMBO #1, WARLORD OF MARS ATTACKS #1, More

Usagi Yojimbo #1
Credit: Stan Sakai (IDW Publishing)
Credit: Marvel Comics

War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery #5
Written by Clint, Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy
Art by André Lima Araújo and Chris O’Halloran
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Our adventure in babysitting ends with a bang as little Laussa and the crew come face-to-face with Ares in the dramatic conclusion to War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery. This fifth and final issue ties up the events of the series in a neat, if somewhat speedy and efficient bow, that leads neatly into the upcoming finale issue of Jason Aaron, Russel Dauterman, and Matthew Wilson’s main War of the Realms miniseries. War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery #5 wraps up a strong Marvel Comics debut for the McElroy family and an excellent summer blockbuster-style series from artist Andre Lima Araujo and colorist Chris O’Halloran.

The McElroys’ script dives right into the action, picking up shortly after Ares’ escape with Laussa from Las Vegas HenchCon. Clint McElroy hightails it down a fine line between efficient and rushed with this issues’ script, managing to tie the loose ends of the series with several neat bows and set the heroes up for their inclusion, however major or minor their roles, in Wednesday’s War of the Realms wrap-up. There are moments in the middle that feel light on emotional impact, particularly the way Ares’ storyline is brought to an end — it’s not necessarily enough to make the series or even this issue feel unfinished, but may leave you wishing there’d been time for one more issue to give the McElroys and Araujo space to explore Ares’ circumstances a bit more.

Araujo, O’Halloran, and letterer Clayon Cowles serve up a dramatic car chase and conclusive battle worthy of the big screen — the framing in the early action sequences is incredible, from the line art and sound effects to the lettering layout to O’Halloran’s use of background colors to guide the eye and increase the drama of any particular panel. The McElroys’ off-beat and absurdist brand of humor doesn’t seem, at first listen, like it would immediately translate to the page, but Clint has a keen sense of pacing and comedic timing and Araujo, O’Halloran, and Clayton Cowles have incredible eyes for layout. The full series was very clearly aiming for a late ‘80s action comedy vibe, and the creative team collectively nailed it. It’s a little campy and a little cheesy and exceptionally fun, full of heart from Aurajo’s expressive illustrations and the McElroys’ inviting, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

More impressively, War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery manages to deliver all of this in a spin-off miniseries that manages to stand on its own despite being an event tie in. There are certainly some minor spoilers for the main War of the Realms title, but if you’re looking for a breezy, action-packed summer read without a major event commitment, Journey Into Mystery is a perfect way to scratch that itch. Journey Into Mystery is reminiscent of the high points of the Secret Wars Battleworld spin-offs — something full of faces you love and have maybe missed in recent years to reacquaint you with the goings-on of Marvel without having to dive head-first into a dozen different titles. It’s a delight to read, whether you’re a MBMBaMbino or a Marvel die-hard stocking up on summer adventures.

Credit: Stan Sakai (IDW Publishing)

Usagi Yojimbo #1
Written by Stan Sakai
Art by Stan Sakai and Tom Luth
Lettering by Stan Sakai
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

For anyone with a long memory of comics, it’s probably easy to view Usagi Yojimbo as a descendent of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the “funny” animal title that resurrected that genre in the 1980s. After the success of Eastman and Laird, all kinds of hamsters, mice and sharks got into the act of comics. And maybe even a rabbit or two. But Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is more of a contemporary of the heroes in a half shell than a knockoff of them. Sakai used his creation to wander in an often fantasized and fetishized landscape but to show more of how things really were in ancient Japan, just with rabbits and demons around as well. Other than that, everything in Usagi Yojimbo is drawn directly from reality.

The new IDW series opens with a healthy dose of Sakai’s fantasy, as another samurai warrior Sasuke battles forest demons and their horrific mother before getting directions from a benevolent spirit to go to a nearby town where there is more danger. This opening sequence is violent and dangerous as limbs get hacked off and Sasuke gets overrun by forest demons. Sakai’s cartooning walks a fine line of almost being too cute for its own good, but this opening sequence is a great introduction (or if you’re a returning reader, a reintroduction) to Sakai’s work. It’s dangerous, but Sakai’s artwork takes some of the edge off of it, allowing us to easily step into this world without ever feeling too overwhelmed by the action or the darkness of it.

The samurai Usagi Yojimbo already is already in the town where Sasuke was told to go, witnessing another battle between lovers and demons. Two warriors fight over a princess. When the winning warrior approaches the princess and demands to know where her father’s lands are, the demon drops her disguise and attacks him. Sakai uses this sequence to re-emphasize what kind of world these comics are taking place in before pulling the curtain back to show that this is just a puppet play and Usagi is in the audience, marveling at the skill of the puppeteers and storytellers.

Sakai isn’t tooting his own horn here, but it is not a far jump to put us in Usagi’s position as the audience and allow ourselves to be amazed at the work of Sakai. As the puppet sequence plays out, Sakai alternates between displaying the artists manipulate the puppets behind the scenes and showing a perception that this confrontation is actually taking place between the warrior and the demonic princess. It’s a short treatise on how we interact with our narrative art, both aware of the artists’ hands behind it and willfully ignorant that the art is anything other than reality. When we are reading a comic about rabbit samurai warriors that’s largely told from a historic perspective, some of Sakai’s audience may have a hard time seeing beyond the art and giving themselves over to the story that Sakai is telling. But that’s what he wants you to do, just like Usagi looks beyond the puppeteers to lose himself in the story that’s being told.

Looking at Usagi Yojimbo #1, it’s easy to be amazed at the work of Sakai, who is telling stories on multiple levels here. With this new introduction to his work, he’s setting up something nefarious for Usagi and Saskuke to fight but he’s also exploring the Japanese art ofJapanese puppetry. He is also providing guidance on how to both be aware of the work that is being put into a piece of art while also how to lose yourself in the art. Usagi Yojimbo #1 functions as a piece of art as well as a commentary on art and storytelling as Sakai’s own storytelling operates on multiple levels. And instead of getting too lost or involved in anyone of those levels, Sakai tells a fun story about the dangers that haunt feudal Japan that only its samurais can defeat.

Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

Warlord of Mars Attacks #1
Written by Jeff Parker
Art by Dean Kotz and Omi Remalante
Lettering by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Old-school action and dry humor buoy the debut of Warlord of Mars Attacks. Written by veteran comics writer Jeff Parker, this novel, green-blood-soaked crossover takes one of Mars’ — excuse me, Barsoom’s — greatest heroes, John Carter, and pits him against the chattering menace that is the Mars Attacks! Martians. The result is about as chaotic as you would expect. Better still, Parker finds a fun “in” on the story, neatly folding the Martians into established “Barsoomian” lore, which is sure to please some of the more continuity-conscious readers out there.

Artists Dean Kotz and Omi Remalante have an absolute blast with the classic sci-fi visuals of this crossover. By frontloading the issue with wall-to-wall action between Barsoomian forces and the Aliens, Kotz and Remalante prove from the jump they are capable of the kind of “innovative” violence the Mars Attacks! franchise is known for, just with the added pulpy goodness that is John Carter and his proto-steampunk set dressing and weaponry. Though I worry about whether the issue’s back half can hook readers with its Earth-bound mystery, Warlord of Mars Attacks #1 is still big fun, starring two cult icons.

We open in medias res. Saucers and death-rays have reached Helium, the seat of power on Mars. And only a brave number of Tharks and John Carter, hero of Barsoom stand in their way. Admittedly, though these scenes bring the action, Jeff Parker is throwing a lot of information at the reader. He assumes the audience has a cursory knowledge of Carter and his beloved Dejah Thoris, but thankfully the rest he fills in using appropriately purple prose in the narration. It’s through this narration that Parker layers in the pulpy, theatrical basis of the conflict between the Martians and Carter.

This opening barrels toward an explosive cliffhanger, but once the red dust settles, Parker takes a different tact. From the battlegrounds of Mars, we are then whisked away to Earth, where scientists and one hilariously aloof contest winner are finally receiving a feed from a probe freshly landed on Mars. Three guesses at what they find.

The rest of the issue is spent following these scientists and their fight for survival once the saucers make their way to Earth. Though these scenes deftly display Parker’s knack for broader comedy, I worry that the downshift might be too much for readers. That goes doubly for the introduction of a mystery centered around some of the weirder aspects of John Carter’s mythos. The potential for lasting fun is there, as is the constant visual comedy of the Martians’ attacks, but for a first issue it is a jarring tonal shift from the highly kinetic opening.

But handling that shift beautifully are artists Dean Kotz and Omi Remalante. Moving from the dusty expanses of Barsoom and a cramped jet propulsion lab with the same sketchy, splashy colored panels, Kotz and Remalante find a neat chemistry with one another. Recalling loosely rendered sci-fi action comics of old. Obviously the opening pages are the sizzle with the steak here. Along with Parker’s narration and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s bigger-than-life location cards and creator credits, the pair throw us headlong into the pitched battle. Delivering more than a few stunning, easy-to-digest double-page splashes of John leaping and zooming through the canyons of Mars, richly colored and staged for maximum impact. I don’t want to spoil much, but there is a scene involving John Carter’s sword and a trio of Martians that had me howling.

Following the script’s lead, the art team then downshift themselves, trading in expansive action for cramped character moments. The same kind of rough-hewn pencils and oversaturated colors remain, but all the interiors and exteriors are for more contained, focused on comedic beats and detailing now. This downscaling visually is a lot easier to process than on the script side, which keeps up the fun of this debut overall. Books like these live and die on tone, and for the most part, it is nice to see this creative team threading that needle as well as they can in the opening.

While a bit wobbly structurally, Warlord of Mars Attacks #1 still delivers what it says on the box, as it were. John Carter versus Martians, armed with ray guns and swords. What more do you want, a road map?! Jokes aside, this debut is a grand old-fashioned goof. One the creative team is firmly in on and trying to deliver as grandly as possible. What’s not to like about that?

Credit: Archie Comics

Sabrina the Teenage Witch #3
Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Veronica Fish and Andy Fish
Lettered by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“Oh, so now I’m getting dragged into the woods?! C’mon!”

It should come as no surprise that a feisty, determined and headstrong character like Sabrina the Teenage Witch slots perfectly into Kelly Thompson’s wheelhouse as a writer. From the narration on the first page as her lead regains consciousness, Thompson’s strong sense of voice comes across, one that is both identifiable as her own while also being befitting of the character themselves. Like Kate Bishop and Nancy Drew before her, Sabrina has a mystery on her hands to solve and a honed internal monologue like this allows the reader to process developments and deduce goings-on along with her.

When comparing this miniseries to both the previous series and the currently running Netflix show, this eschews the level of darkness found in their interpretations of Greendale, though that doesn’t mean the story is a lark in the park. As mentioned, this midpoint in the miniseries opens with Sabrina finding herself being dragged by a dragon-looking beast (which is also one of her classmates) into the depths of the woods and in hasty requirement of a way out. Lucky for Sabrina, the locale is a witch’s home turf.

As drawn by Veronica and Andy Fish, the woods are claustrophobic swathes of earthy greens and blues, where the shadows are close behind regardless of which direction you choose to run in, and where whatever’s chasing you is closing the distance quickly. This subdued use of color and shadow allows the magical aspects to shine. The beast is far more colorful, almost psychedelic in depiction. When a spell is used, the panel in which it is uttered has the contrast dialled up, being bathed in sharp pink. These panels stand out on a page, though the elements meld together. Take a moment after Sabrina uses a particular spell in the hopes of escaping. Fish adopts a low-angle perspective where the beast can’t even fit into the full panel, and yet their rainbow-like plume still overpowers the blue of the night sky and pink orb remnants of magic use that seemed so strong (and potentially tide-turning) just a couple of panels earlier.

Magic has a cost within Thompson’s story, inherent from the running count that appears whenever one is cast. When Sabrina runs into a conundrum where there are two pressing problems in need of a quick decision, she has to choose which spell is most vital to the present moment. Coupled with a later interaction with her aunt, it is not something to be trivially used, and Sabrina’s gradual understanding of this makes a nice contrast with how she used her power back in the first issue. The overall plot progression is slower in this issue, the midpoint, than the previous two, but Thompson dials in on character to make up for it, something that works well for the overall pacing.

This is best exemplified by the middle portion of the issue. Now out of the woods, there’s a stark change in the color tone, a pastel pink sky as if the sun is setting just out of view, or that the woods operate on a different plane to the rest of the world. Later, the full moon is out. Its reflection shimmers in a lake which it sits above, and the blues and greens used by Fish are more inviting than the hostility of the woods. Something which the show and this series share is that Sabrina is caught in the middle of the magical and mortal world, and this change in aesthetic helps to depict that without resorting to formal juxtaposition like alternating between the two on every page turn.

The world seems lighter in these moments, even the background colors are warmer and more welcoming. During this, Sabrina bumps into two other classmates, Radka and Ren, and their talk highlights how Fish excels in letting their characters express themselves, like in the way someone tilts their head in surprise from one panel to the next. Her layouts are sure to include eyelines, so that even when characters aren’t looking at one another directly, their emotions in that present moment are clear from where they’re looking. Even when she makes panel choices that puts distance between characters and the reader’s perspective on what’s being depicted, it’s clear what they’re feeling despite there being less chance for detail because she nails down the essentials.

As part of her internal monologue, Sabrina talks of how her life “needs to pick a genre already,” but the great strength of Thompson’s script is how it combines the various elements into a whole package. Even as it moves between genres, from horror to teen drama and even finding time for a spot of romance along the way, those transitions never come with a sense of whiplash. In fact, it feels as natural as the way the color of the sky can shift on a magical night.

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