Best Shots Advance Reviews: SFSX #1, BLOODSHOT #1, THE PLOT #1

Bloodshot #1
Credit: Dave Johnson (Valiant Entertainment)
Credit: Tula Lotay (Image Comics)

Written by Tina Horn
Art by Michael Dowling
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

“I remember when I was free to scream.”

The heir apparent to Bitch Plane and Sex Criminals reveals itself in the harrowing, titiallating debut of SFSX (Safe Sex). Headlined by sex positive author Tina Horn, SFSX posits a world in which every explict detail of your sex life must be categorized, authenticated and recorded, all for the “purity” of society. Three guesses at what happens to those that are considered “impure.”

But while Horn and artist Michael Dowling are engaging in some large-scale worldbuilding, both ideologically and in terms of a Handmaid’s Tale-esque alternate history, SFSX #1 feels bracingly personal and intimate. Focused tightly around the life and relationships of former sex worker and indie filmmaker Avory, Horn and Dowling draw us deeper and deeper into her life and her experience living through this hellishly puritantical world. One that has deadly consequences for anyone who just wants to feel something. Bold, personal, and more than a little steamy SFSX #1 is another incendiary gem in Image Comics’ crown.

Instantly writer Tina Horn immerses readers into the “scene” and the world of SFSX. Opening on a very active sex club, wryly called The Dirty Mind, a succinct caption in the corner from letterer Steve Wands tells us all we need to know - this is San Francisco, ten years into the “future.” It also clues us into a new political movement known only as the Party sweeping across the nation, one that condemns and sanitizes the very acts Michael Dowling is detailing throughout these opening splash pages.

Suddenly the scene is split apart by violence, the honest beauty of Avory’s opening narration turning grim as Party thugs arrest dozens and hurt dozens more, tearing apart their community. From that inciting incident, Horn and Avory attempt to move on, grinding against the new world order of San Fran thanks to the Party. Three years after the opening, Avory and her husband are just trying to live. Her husband George works for the Party, stationed at the former Dirty Mind building, now one of their propaganda strongholds. Avory, naturally, has had a more difficult time adjusting to the new formalist lifestyle, agonizing over every choice in her appearance and yearning for the fulfilment and connection of her former life.

It is here where the real strengths of SFSX reveal themselves. For one, Horn is very judicious and organic about the amount of worldbuilding she has to do. Instead of just constant information dumps, much of the Party’s ideological impact and influence over society is detailed in crushing scenes of Avory just trying to live. From getting rejected at job interviews for the kind of lipstick she wears to the near constant barking coming from new state run media centers, Horn does a very good job of giving you the flavor and “rules” of this world without just naked exposition.

And with the focus on Avory and her circle comes the strength of SFSX’s intimacy. Though certain examples of this are, shall we say, a lot more explicit, the fact that Horn and Dowling keep everything focused on Avory and George’s POV makes the whole concept go down so much smoother. Both are ready-made audience surrogates, both having tasted freedom in the opening, and now forced to compromise themselves just to survive. Naturally, it all gets blown to hell, leading to Avory to go on the run for literal “sex” crimes, but thanks to Horn’s to-the-bone personal characterization for her and Dowling’s stringy, naturalistic pencils you feel more than just beyond how strong the hook is. You care for the people in it.

Though one could make the argument that this opener isn’t the “fun” kind of grindhouse-like exploitative satire or that we don’t get enough insight into what drives The Party as a movement (beyond some lampshading about “God’s intended purity”), I really think SFSX has the potential to catch on big-time with readers. Supported by a boatload of sex workers on the production side, Tina Horn and Michael Dowling have put the time and effort into building this world and cast, making SFSX #1 incendiary and fun social science-fiction.

Credit: Declan Shalvey (Valiant Entertainment)

Bloodshot #1
Written by Tim Seeley
Art by Brett Booth and Andrew Dalhouse
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Readers looking for a no-holds-barred action romp will find Bloodshot #1 delivers in spades even as readers find themselves facing yet another character’s origin story. Unlike previous iterations of the genetically enhanced super soldier, however, this one presents readers with a less psychologically driven drama and more action movie vibe.

Writer Tim Seeley’s take on Bloodshot not only makes the character familiar to long-time fans of the Valiant Universe, he also incorporates a few new twists on the rogue hero that promises to open up new storylines for him to blaze through. Given Seeley’s background on GI Joe and Grayson, he seems especially well suited for this kind of storytelling. And while few readers familiar with the character would question Bloodshot’s “threat level” from past series, Seeley elevates him to a whole new tier. We find black ops director General Grayle seeks military support in his hunt for Bloodshot as he declares to the leaders of the world that “Nearly unlimited power is in the hands of someone who feels betrayed…[and] God no longer trusts man.” Given the amount of creative displays of death and destruction we see in this first issue, Grayle may be onto something.

Despite Bloodshot’s ability to wreak havoc on the terrorists he faces in this issue – and he does – Seeley also manages to inject a little humor into the frequently dour killer. His romp with the tank was far from unexpected, but the soundtrack Bloodshot provides will certainly raise an eyebrow and elicit a few laughs.

In terms of the art, Brett Booth, Adelso Corona, and Andrew Dalhouse fire on all cylinders. The panels explode in a myriad of different ways that never let the story slowdown all the while continuing to relate the action in a clear and engaging way. Booth and Dalhouse’s work helps impart the severity of each situation – whether the burning inferno of Bloodshot’s exploits with the aforementioned tank or the grave threat he poses to the world’s leaders as they discuss how to handle him. Additionally, Corona’s inking never become invasive so as to overshadow Booth’s lines while providing enough contrast to carry and showcase Dalhouse’s colors. Given the upcoming Vin Diesel movie, this series looks to set the stage for Valiant’s resident anti-hero with a heart of gold.

The one element that stood out, which longtime Valiant fans are not likely to overlook is the disconnect from the greater Valiant Universe. In previous series, we saw at least subtle hints and references to the greater Valiant Universe. That’s not to say this is a flaw within the story itself, but given Valiant’s efforts in the past to highlight their shared universe, it raises the question of how distinct this story will be from the rest of the current offerings.

Make no mistake: This latest iteration of Bloodshot provides readers with enough background for new readers all the while offering returning fans something new to take aim at in 2019. Bloodshot #1 won’t try and change your mind or perspective on the world of violence we live in as previous iterations did, but if you’re looking to enjoy a real slobberknocker, then Seeley and Booth’s latest work will not disappoint.

Credit: Vault Comics

The Plot #1
Written by Tim Daniel and Michael Moreci
Art by Joshua Hixson and Jordan Boyd
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by Vault Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Horror can be something of a tall order in comics. Comics creators don’t have the music and soundscapes available to filmmakers. They don’t have the immediate power of a reader’s imagination like a novelist might. But great comic creative teams are able to tap into a specific tone, a frequency of horror that’s unique to the comic reading experience. With The Plot, Tim Daniel, Michael Moreci and Joshua Hixson have done just that - melding elements of horror and noir together with Coen Brothers-style intrigue to create a world for their story, illuminate their characters and seed a deeply unsettling feeling within the reader that begs them to turn the page.

It’s almost impossible to talk about writing and art aspects of this book as separate entities. There are choices made within the book that makes it clear how intertwined the two aspects are. This is a book that relies a lot on subtle motions and changes in facial expression. Hixson is tasked with replicating a lot of minute actions and he pulls it off consistently throughout the book. It’s hard as a writer and as an artist to give space to that sort of thing because it slows down the book considerably and in less skilled hands, that negatively affects the pacing. But Hixson and colorist Jordan Boyd are able to draw readers in with a mix of clear linework and statement coloring. I’m particularly impressed with how Boyd uses the colors to bridge the gap between scenes to create a consistent feel to the book. In so many ways, the colors act as a sort of soundtrack to the book, signaling to readers the importance of a moment or action. Boyd does a great job providing context for the Hixson’s panels in that regard.

I’ve been vague about the book itself to some extent, because I truly don’t want to give too much away. The setup involves an uncle saddled with a niece and nephew after the death of their parents. To give the kids some stability, they move into the family’s old ancestral home. Despite the simple set-up, Daniel and Moreci are playing with a lot of different elements. There are shades of Locke & Key, Criminal and Hot Lunch Special. Their approach to the world and their monster recall Swamp Thing as well. The dialogue is naturalistic and the world feels grounded. They are nailing a certain Stephen King, Small Town USA vibe to the setting and characters that makes them feel more real.

This is one of Vault’s best debuts in recent memory. It will wind you and leave you anxious for more. Hixson and Boyd’s moody artwork makes a great tag team with Daniel and Moreci’s writing approach. The whole creative team is really working well in tandem. Cynics might feel that the elements presented in this issue are rote, well-worn horror and suspense tropes. But rarely does a creative team debut with something that feels so familiar and well-crafted but still so unknown. The Plot is an invitation to become enveloped by the world that this creative team is presenting, and I can’t wait to dive in further.

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