Best Shots Advance: SAGA, SAUCER COUNTRY, CONAN, More

Brian K. Vaughan Launches SAGA at Image

'Rama Readers! Ready for tomorrow's reviews, today? Best Shots has your back, with a ton of new comics for your reading enjoyment! So let's start off with Lan Pitts, as he takes a look at Brian K, Vaughan's return to comics with Saga...


Saga #1

Written by Brian K. Vaughan

Art by Fiona Staples

Lettering by Fonografiks

Published by Image Comics

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

It's hard to not just revel in all the awesome that is Saga. As a contemporary sci-fi epic, it is truly set apart from anything else out there in tone and appearance. It's also like nothing else out there because it's not everyday, well these days, that Brian K. Vaughan puts something out. As it's being heralded as Vaughan's return to comics, there's already a certain level of hype to it and I'm here to tell you it lives up to any and all expectations.

Trying to explain the layered story without going on and on about it, can be summed up as simple as "Romeo and Juliet in space". But even that doesn't even scratch the surface of the drama, the intensity of war, and political intrigue that gives the book its story. We're introduced to all the plot points, but nothing ever gets complicated or too tangled that we can't comprehend. It's all presented to us in a manner that isn't weighed down and easy to dive into. Vaughan's talent of establishing an emotional connection between characters and reader is in full swing here as even in the first handful of pages, you're already wanting our protagonists, Alana and Marko, to make it through all the hell that they're facing. It reminds me of A New Hope where you're thrown in this huge setting, but you're already rooting for the good guys and feel for them. Even though Marko's horns and Alana's wings set them apart from humanity, their struggle is relatable and easy to grasp onto. Their dialog and scenes together are sharp and poignant. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but doesn't wander into meaningless banter. The very basics of the story itself could easily have been told in a more realistic setting, but the sci-fi environment adds a certain level of majesty to it.

Now with Vaughan's character development added to the beautiful vision that come from Fiona Staples, it's just jaw-dropping. The detail she gives the characters and their setting is inspiring on a Jim Steranko level. Everything has a sketchy feel to it, but not over-rendered and definitely has a Phil Noto-esque look in some of the composition, but definitely her own style and certainly left her impression here. I've been a fan of her work for years now and while her name was mentioned several times as a top talent missing from DC's relaunch, I would rather see her bring her talents here than to anything offered from the big two. You can see that her style has evolved to something nobody could have expected for it to go. Even her hand-lettering for certain bits of dialog adds that bit of Staples' vision of the characters matches seamlessly with the dialog, which in turn adds to the emotion of the story and gives us visual storytelling at its finest.

With 44 pages and no ads and $2.99 pricetag, it's more than a steal; it's almost a crime if you don't pick it up. 2012 is almost a quarter done, but I'm certain that Saga #1 has already established itself as one of the best comics to have come out thus far. I predict this will rocket Staples to the top of the art scene, and usher in new readers for those who haven't been introduced to Vaughan's work already.


Saucer Country #1

Written by Paul Cornell

Art by Ryan Kelly and Giulia Brusco

Lettering by Sal Cipriano

Published by Vertigo

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

I believe in Arcadia Almorado.

In an industry with so many forgettable characters, Almorado is one that deserves a fighting chance. She's a divorcee, a grandchild of immigrants, a powerful orator in the New Mexican political machine.

And unbeknownst to her staff, she is also the survivor of an alien abduction.

It's easy to make the high concept of Saucer Country sound crass and juvenile, down to its faux-Western, almost Thompson-esque title. But that would be a mistake. Out of all of Vertigo's new pilot comics, Saucer Country has the most potential, the most humanity, and, most importantly, the most maturity in execution. Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly clearly value character ahead of shocks and gags, and that decision has led to a satisfying, well-paced premiere issue.

Considering his British heritage, it was more than a little surprising to see Paul Cornell really tackle the political side of this comic, rather than resting on the alien abduction subplot. And that's to this book's benefit — even as Cornell drops us abruptly into the story, it's far more interesting to explore Arcadia's world, from her estranged husband Michael to the barbed relationship she has with Chloe, a Republican campaign strategist. It's not a story about aliens, but about ideas. It's The Good Wife set in the Southwest... and that's the key to longevity in an over-saturated market. Cornell is stretching himself beyond his superhero pedigree, and when you see Arcadia deliver her first big speech, it pays off in spades.

Ryan Kelly, meanwhile, isn't the flashiest artist in the world, but he does bring a certain Vertigo visual style to this book. His take on Arcadia is what seals the deal on this book, as she exudes determination in a way that doesn't come off as unsympathetic or power-hungry (no mean feat, if your lead is the Governor of New Mexico). Kelly's style is sort of a proto-Dave Gibbons — very expressive and effective in the composition, if occasionally a little distended with the features or a little clunky with the inks. That said, I do think this creator pairing is preaching to the converted rather than the larger masses — Saucer Country has the potential to be something big, but if you want "big," you need a visual style with more panache.

While this book starts a little too quickly, Saucer Country rewards the astute reader with a story that far exceeds its low-brow high concept. Ryan Kelly just has to keep doing what he's doing to keep the tone of this book going — ultimately, what will make or break this book is how Paul Cornell will maintain the balance between politics and the paranormal. But at a time where readers are flooded with new series, this is a strong debut with a ton of potential. I believe in Arcadia Almorado. I believe in Saucer Country. And you should, too.


The Secret History of D.B.Cooper #1

Written and Illustrated by Brian Churilla

Lettering by Ed Brisson

Published by Oni Press

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The Secret History of D.B.Cooper is a new creator-owned series, written and illustrated by Brian Churilla. The series revolves around the real life 1971 hijacking of a passenger jet over Washington state, by a man using the alias of D.B. Cooper, and the suspect's legendary parachute escape. Now, 40 years later, the files have been opened and the truth about Cooper and the events surrounding the hijacking can finally be revealed. The story told in the pages of the comic is presented as a factual retelling of events, as constructed by Churilla from documents provided to him by a mysterious organization called Atlas Laboratories.

This first issue opens in 1971, with a brief news report about the hijacking, before taking us back one week, to recount the events that lead up to the incident. We meet Cooper in a bizarre and terrifying landscape, populated by all manner of oddity and horrific creature. He wears a samurai sword on his back, and is accompanied by a sentient one-eared teddy bear. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that things get a bit odd from that point on, and it becomes apparent that there’s a lot more going on here than a simple hijacking.

I’ve been avidly following Brian Churilla’s work since 2007’s amazing sci-fi series The Engineer: Konstrukt. Since then he’s mostly concentrated on the art side of things, with The Anchor for Boom!, and Avengers and the Infinity Gauntlet for Marvel. This title sees him returning to the writing side of things, and he does so in spectacular fashion, with a premise as high-concept as they come, and a plot steeped in intrigue and mystery that will leave readers desperate to find out more. Churilla presents the concept to the reader incredibly well, with a story of three parts, told in reverse chronological order, each revealing a little more of the truth, like peeling away the layers of an onion. The pacing is spot on, and issue comes to a close with cyclical sequence that presents as many questions as it answers. The protagonist is instantly likable, and Churilla manages to develop him amazingly well in the scant few page of this opener. Aside from some light exposition in the opening news report, Churilla keeps the script exclusively to dialogue, with no monologue or narration. This leaves the reader to depend upon Churilla’s artwork for the bulk of the storytelling, and helps increase the secretive atmosphere of the story.

To round out the whole package, we’re also treated to some enticing back-up material, in the form of a letter from the director of Atlas Laboratories, teasing the reader with redacted passages, and a delicious Easter Egg in the form of a URL that when followed leads the reader to a highly disconcerting audio file.

In terms of style, Brian Churilla’s artwork seems to be influenced by the likes of Mike Mignola and Guy Davis, particularly in his monster designs, but has a more cartoony feel to it. That’s not to say that his style is at all derivative, as he definitely has a strong artistic voice all of his own. His linework has a smooth and rounded feel to it that is very easy on the eyes, and makes the strange mash up of horrific monsters and fluffy teddy bears work amazingly well. His monster designs are second to none, and he creates all manner of  grotesque creature, featuring disturbing anatomy, and spewing forth repulsive excretions. The action is none stop, and Churilla choreographs the fights beautifully, using just the right angles and perspectives to show everything clearly. In terms of inking, he favors heavy blacks and a touch of negative space, to generate panels pooled in darkness and shadow - occasionally just drawing the outline of an object, and hinting at things left hidden. Together with a dark color palette, this works to increase the mysterious feel of the story immensely.

The Secret History of D.B.Cooper #1 is stunning debut that takes an enigmatic historical event, and builds a thrilling adventure around it that will surprise readers at every turn. It’s Brian Churilla’s best work to date, and I can’t wait to see where he takes the story next.


Conan the Barbarian #2

Written by Brian Wood

Art by Becky Cloonan and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Richard Starkings and Comicraft

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Tried, true and blood-spattered is the path of Conan in the second chapter of the Queen of the Black Coast arc. Conan is very much the fabled barbarian as Brian Wood takes us to the high seas and immerses you in the rank and file that dwells there. The vicious crew of the Tigress and the worn men of the Argus are merely a backdrop to the energy building within the battle. Amidst the chaos of warring ships, Only two stand apart; Conan and Bêlit, the infamous and deadly Queen of the Black Coast. The two of them make for a bloody, sexy comic.

Conan the Barbarian #2 is a robust visual experience. Becky Cloonan’s art is remarkable, but it is Dave Stewart’s exceptional color work that ices the cake. It is through Stewart’s colors that the connection and power brewing between Conan and Bêlit is displayed. Cloonan’s beautifully drawn close-up of Bêlit is highlighted with red and green on her intensely pale-skin, as she focuses her attention on Conan. As Conan beheads pirates, his eyes are bluest when focused on her. Most of the issue is pale blues, browns and black matching the tone of the story, as well as punctuating the powerful moments of color that much more.

It is an interesting experience reading Wood’s Conan the Barbarian. When I think of Brian Wood, I think of Local or New York Four; books that are in an entirely different hemisphere of thought. The style of writing and language used here are such a stark contrast from some of his previous works, but quite fitting of the Barbarian. I am impressed by Wood’s range in style. This, Conan, is an epic with a forlorn temper. Its pace and commanding narrative are immediately evident. But, I wonder if Wood will bring something fresh to a character like Conan. The story thus far, while exciting, does not offer much more than rogue bloodshed and male camaraderie. There is a hint of magic in the dark Bêlit that has potential to diverge from the thematic brunt force, but even that is a worn feminine trope. It may be too soon to tell.

Becky Cloonan displays some spectacular art. Her bold lines and heavy inks are striking and perfect for this story. The perspectives that she uses are powerful and well-defined. Her action sequences are dynamic and interesting. Every slice and stab is as clear as Bêlit’s piercing eyes. I love how Cloonan draws the human figure. It is simple and exquisite. From head to toe, she draws beauty. But it is not idealized or objectifying. Conan is taut and chiseled to fierceness; he looks strong but not unreal. From Bêlit’s ivory complexion, soft curves, and blood soaked feet; she is sexy and scary.

Conan the Barbarian #2 boasts an excellent creative team, and each artist does their part well. Stewart’s color work compliments Cloonan’s bold lines. Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s lettering takes nothing from the art, and is matched perfectly to Wood’s style of writing. It is because these parts move so well together that makes this comic so impressive. I only wonder if the story will evolve into something deeper than conquest and lust. To be fair, it is only issue #2. We’ve got time.

The creative talent on this book is worth every dime, and I am hopeful that the story will bring its weight in gold, too.


Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea

Written by Hugo Pratt

Art by Hugo Pratt and Patritzia Zanotti

Published by Universe

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

I’m always amazed at watching artists draw sketches at a convention.  The ones I really enjoy watching are those who are quick and draw all over the board, a mark here and a line there.  They don’t fret and worry over every single line, looking for some elusive perfection out of every mark.  Instead they pull the image out of the page as if instead of putting ink down on the page, they’re removing the white from the paper and revealing an image.  It’s amazing to watch these artists at work as the image takes shape.  I imagine even as he was creating comics that Hugo Pratt was one of those types of artists.

Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea is Pratt’s original 1967 serial that introduced devilish rogue Corto Maltese to Italian readers.  Maltese, a pirate captain without a ship to call his own thanks to an unseen mutiny, is pulled into kidnapping and power struggles in a loose network of pirates who all report to the Monk, their robe wearing leader whose identity is unknown.  Pratt’s story works because he builds a fascinating and diverse cast, all of whom have some kind of hidden motivations.  At the center is Maltese, a pirate with the heart and soul of a hero.  He’s a rapscallion like Han Solo was before he found religion or the rebellion or whatever it was that Han Solo found.  He’s a scruffy nerfherder who’s out for himself foremost but that doesn’t mean that he won’t also protect those who can’t protect themselves.

Around Maltese Pratt includes two kids, Cain and Pandora, who constantly run the risk of being those kind of cutesy/annoying kids who hang around in The Rock movies who he’s trying to save but are really there to teach him valuable life lessons.  Pratt mostly manages to avoid being sentimental about the kids as he focuses on the dangers for these two kidnapped children, lost in a world of pirates and villains.  The Ballad of the Salt Sea ends up becoming their story as much as, if not more than, Maltese’s.  The main threat in the book revolves around the safety of these children and their attempts to escape their kidnappers.  Between them and Maltese, Pratt constructs a harrowing and classic adventure tale that reads like something out of a  Robert Louis Stevenson story.

Pratt’s rugged and tough artwork endows the story with an vigorous spirit.  Pratt has an art style that shouldn’t work.  It’s quick, rough and unrefined by today’s eyes.  A lot of panels look like they were done as quick as possible so that Pratt could get onto the next panel.  And then that next panel looks quickly sketched out so that Pratt could get to whatever was next.  But in each line on every page, there’s a mystique behind Pratt’s pen.  His individual marks on the page shouldn’t work but when you see them in relation to others marks, like those magical con drawings that come together, the resulting image is a magical and exotic piece of the grand story.

Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea is a perfect exhibit that showcases Pratt’s rugged artwork.  There are artists with names like Toth, Caniff, Moebius and Pratt who pull you into stories by the simple marks they make on a piece of paper.  These marks contain no singular value in themselves but as the marks build into an image, an image builds into a page and a page builds into a story, those simple marks contain the unique DNA of the artists that opens up these unique worlds for the readers.  Pratt builds his characters, his settings and his plot through these images on a page that create a unique world that’s defined one exquisite mark on a page at a time.

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