Best Shots Advance Reviews: ABSOLUTE CARNAGE - SYMBIOTE OF VENGEANCE #1, TREES: THREE FATES #1

Trees: Three Fates #1
Credit: Jason Howard (Image Comics)
Credit: Philip Tan (Marvel Comics)

Absolute Carnage: Symbiote of Vengeance #1
Written by Ed Brisson
Art by Juan Frigeri and Dono Sanchez-Almara
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

While Robbie Reyes has the spotlight over in Jason Aaron’s Avengers title, if you’re looking for some old-school Ghost Rider action, you could do a lot worse than Absolute Carnage: Symbiote of Vengeance. Spinning off of Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman’s Absolute Carnage event, writer Ed Brisson and artist Juan Frigeri pit Danny Ketch against the god-tier threat of Carnage, and while this story doesn’t reinvent the hellfire-covered wheel, it’s a solid actioner that will speak to fans of the 1990s-era Spirit of Vengeance.

Given that Venom is a relatively young character to hinge a company-wide event upon, it’s always surprising to me to see Absolute Carnage spinoffs hinging not just on Cates and Stegman’s ongoing series, but also on comparatively recent minis like Rick Remender and Cullen Bunn’s Venom runs — and in this case, Symbiote of Vengeance owes a deep continuity debt to the 2012 limited series “Circle of Four,” which tied Flash Thompson’s Venom symbiote with Red Hulk, X-23, and an all-new Ghost Rider.

Still with me? Because that forgotten Spirit of Vengeance is ultimately the main driver of this one-shot, as Alejandra Jones’ adventure with the Venom symbiote has placed her straight in the crosshairs of Cletus Kasady in the heart of Nicaragua. And with Johnny Blaze trapped in the underworld as the new king of Hell, it leaves ‘90s icon Danny Ketch to race to Central America in order to stop the rampaging Spider-Man villain. There’s a lot of moving continuity parts that writer Ed Brisson has to juggle in order to facilitate this fairly straightforward conflict, so it’s to his credit that the whole thing reads as smoothly as it does — you understand Alejandra’s regrets about her own past misdeeds, you get Danny’s misgivings about doing the Devil’s bidding, and through it all, it feels like Carnage himself is having a grand old time.

That said, even with an expanded storyline with 30 pages, Brisson isn’t able to key in too much about what makes Ghost Rider himself special, in part because he has to give nods to Remender, Bunn and Jason Aaron’s work — there are a lot of callbacks back to 2011 and 2012 series, and while Brisson gets the basics of Ghost Rider’s concept (a motorcycle covered in hellfire, the Penance Stare, a dubious relationship with the Devil, etc.), ultimately this story is just a beat-’em-up against Carnage. The flow and pacing of the fight works well thanks to the extra page count, but one could also plug in a character like Moon Knight or Daredevil or Blade, and not get too much different from what we’re seeing here.

But to be honest, I don’t really fault Brisson for that — there’s only so much elasticity a character like Carnage has with other characters in the Marvel Universe, so a lot of his default reactions come across similarly in the other tie-in books, like Absolute Carnage vs. Deadpool, for example. For some readers, they are going to be happy enough either seeing a variation of the main Absolute Carnage series, or just to see a Ghost Rider riding a motorcycle again.

And to be honest, much of this book is a nice showcase for artist Juan Frigeri — he’s got an angular, cartoony style that feels in that school of Iban Coello and R.B. Silva, but he really plays up the skulls and symbiotes nicely. While I don’t know if his particular style is going to set the standard for Ghost Rider stories down the pike, his action choreography works well, and he definitely plays up the splash pages that Brisson gives him and knocks them out of the park. Colorist Dono Sanchez-Almara also deserves a lot of praise for keeping the art energetic and full of clarity — while there’s a bit more of a superhero tone than necessarily a dark supernatural tone like you might expect from a Ghost Rider story, this is engaging work that’s fun to read.

At the end of the day, that might be all you can ask for, especially since the creative team already had to play six degrees of separation to make Absolute Carnage: Symbiote of Vengeance work in the first place. Given that Brisson will be taking the wheel for the ongoing Ghost Rider series next month with artist Aaron Kuder, I’m not sure this tie-in feels representative of what we’re going to see with the Spirit of Vengeance’s own solo adventures — to be honest, it wouldn’t shock me if this tie-in was meant to give the fledgling series a bit more runway, riding on the heels of the mega-popular Absolute Carnage event in order to bolster more sales before final order cutoff. Whether this was that calculated a move or not, Absolute Carnage: Symbiote of Vengeance will absolutely appeal to fans of both Ghost Rider and Carnage, and as far as tie-in comics often go, that’s victory enough.

Credit: Jason Howard (Image Comics)

Trees: Three Fates #1
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Howard and Dee Cunniffe
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

11 years ago, massive alien monoliths fell from the sky and landed at random points around the planet. Last night, a brutal murder happened in the shadow of one of those monoliths, or “Trees,” as the occupied Earth has come to call them.

While that logline might sound fairly simple, Trees: Three Fates #1 mines a great deal of mood and lived in worldbuilding out of it. Returning to his creator-owned universe, Warren Ellis takes a much more pared-down approach with this third volume. Replacing the geopolitical tension and globe-hopping of In Shadow and Two Forests, Three Fates is very much a simple, no-frills murder mystery. Just one that happens to take place in an insane future, in a town where resources are doled out sparingly in closest proximity to a Tree than any town in the world.

Original series artist Jason Howard also returns with the Three Fates. Joined now by colorist Dee Cunniffe, who adapts very well to the title’s mossy, moody tone, Howard also shines with the downshift in scale. Walking us deep into the inner workings of Toska, Russia, Howard neatly lays out the geography and rough and tumble cast, aided in kind by Cunniffe’s rustic tones. While it may not have the same scale or political punch as the previous volumes, Trees: Three Fates #1 is a solid return for the Image hit.

While longtime readers will recognize the significance of the small Russian village, Toska is a welcome “clean slate” for new readers. Opening with a grim cold open flashback to the day the Trees came, Warren Ellis introduces both his bucolic setting and sharp, world-weary protagonist in one fell swoop. Klara, Toska’s only police, saw the Tree anchor itself to the world 11 years ago, just a few feet from her front door and it’s kept her anchored there herself ever since.

From there Ellis gets to the real meat of the story. Cutting succinctly to “Today” with an eerily, gorgeous vista of the whole town from a bird’s-eye view with the Tree looming over all, Ellis’ introduces this volume’s “problem” — the mutilated body of a stranger at the base of the Tree. Both engagingly simple and focused, the script, like Klara, sets to gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. Ellis has proven a steady hand at this kind of procedural storytelling, but Three Fates takes a more grounded, low-key approach to it. Even within the science-fiction world he built up in the previous volumes.

Meaning that Toska is a place the future hasn’t fully reached yet. Though Klara’s team includes a quadruped robot (the same model we’ve seen in previous volumes), electricity is scarce because a goat slept on one of the solar panels and Klara’s investigation is stalled before she can begin due to their town doctor missing a train. These are little details, but they really add up for the small town tension and dread Ellis is aiming for with this new opening. By marrying his large scale worldbuilding to the conventions of a “countryside mystery,” Ellis finds a really nice balance between the two.

And artists Jason Howard and Dee Cunniffe hammer home that balance thanks to their own down-to-earth take on the setting of this new volume. Presenting a worn-in, rural set of exteriors and interiors, Howard’s sketchy, thickly inked pages sell the isolation of Toska and its citizens. Cunniffe doubles down on that mood, coloring the whole affair with flattened grey-tones and deep, hazy greens. And like Ellis, the pair mix the tech well with the lush nature of the town. They do so by adding a real punch to the robot’s (nicknamed Boris) introduction into the story. Suddenly the action is a little more driven, the line art of the robot’s movement is sharper and staged with high angled panels to suggest more speed. Think a particularly lush BBC drama that just happens to co-star a robot and silent alien monolith and you’ll get a sense of Howard and Cunniffe’s work on Trees: Three Fates.

Mixing a Henning Mankell-esque murder-mystery with eco-based urban science fiction might not sound like the best pairing, but Trees: Three Fates #1 definitely makes a great case for more. Armed with the droll, yet engaging pen of Ellis and the tonally sound artwork of Howard and Cunniffe, Three Fates #1 stands as an accessible and rich return for the series. One that can hopefully draw more readers into the weird, wild world of Trees and Ellis’ riffs on formalist genres.

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