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Best Shots Reviews: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER #7, NO ONE LEFT TO FIGHT #2, DEAD END KIDS #1

Dead End Kids #1
Credit: Source Point Press

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #7
Written by Jordie Bellaire
Art by David López, Sas Milledge and Raúl Angulo
Lettered by Ed Dukeshire
Published by Boom Studios
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The idea of the soul has always been one of the most vital essences in Buffy. It’s what grants someone their conscience — a sense of right and wrong — and so it’s easy to see the change in someone before and after getting vamped as all of those notions have been erased from the person; just look at the differences between the ways that Angel and Angelus acted. If a soul is a source of humanity, then this series has been blessed with one from its launch, as rather than being a by-the-numbers reboot, Jordie Bellaire and the artists involved have crafted a radically different version of Sunnydale where the bigger plot departures from the source material have been properly considered.

Over the course of the first arc, this led to Xander getting vamped, a big change to one of the core Scoobies. This second arc has delved more into the metaphysical properties of souls as the rest of the gang have tried to bring him back from the darkness, leading to Willow splitting her soul in order to help restore Xander’s. Buffy #7 takes a deep dive into the emotional, mental and psychological implications of her choice, to the point where her giving up part of her essence seems to uncouple the book’s layouts from traditional panelling and orientation on the page.

This is a narrative decision heightened by a change in the art during the issue, as David López and Raúl Angulo handle the bookends of the issue, the opening comprised of a nine-panel grid as life goes on all around Willow while she just looks ahead with a thousand-yard stare. López isn’t focusing primarily on likeness, instead crafting a journey through these panels, shifting the area of importance from one to the next, making use of both foreground and background. In the first panel, Willow sitting near the front of class, then Rose is hanging on her shoulder in the next, and in the third, Buffy is fighting a vamp in front of her.

Jordie Bellaire’s script makes use of a time-skip between the ending of the last issue and now – opting not to follow up on the cliffhanger on Robin’s intentions just yet– and this first part of the story makes it clear that Willow’s been struggling in the wake of her choice, to the point where even sleeping is tricky. When she finally nods off, López’s panels drift away into the negative space of the page and she wakes up in a warped world, depicted by Sas Milledge. Panels overlap with one another. Their canted angles cause Willow’s bedroom to sway and their jagged borders cut into one another, as if it’s an attempt to make the world feel whole again. It’s a fractured world for a fractured soul.

Bellaire’s rhythms in this issue are a break from the way that the series has operated for the previous six — it has a more dream-like, spiritual progression and is much more akin to her work with Vanesa Del Rey over in Redlands. While in the dream, scenes give way from one to the next rather than directly cutting between them, and Willow’s subconsciousness’ depiction of other characters just appear and fade without warning. She’s at the mercy of where her mind wants to take her. While this involves elements that fans of the show will recognize such as Dark Willow, Bellaire’s not just going over old ground. Rather than remixing, she’s revamping and coupled with the choices she’s made already, it manages to feel fresh – even when it’s a technique that only possible due to assuming a reader’s familiarity with the source material.

Milledge’s impeccable work in the sequence takes center stage, and deserves the spotlight put upon it by the issue’s structure. Her handling of perspective threads a tricky needle considering that the art needs to feel “off” to indicate this isn’t the typical world, but not so much that the panel-to-panel storytelling becomes incoherent. The coloring at the start makes use of muted palettes, to the point where even Willow’s hair is more than a few shades darker, and a heavier use of black. That’s not just in the depiction of Dark Willow, but the negative space that comes about when the panels don’t neatly slot together. At some points in the storytelling, these two elements come together in close-up shots where the darkness is an extension of her, and vice versa.

The nightmare only gets more intense as it goes on, with the reds and oranges coming back in full force as Willow fights harder for control. As much as this issue depicts a subjective experience for her, that journey is one that serves to deepen an understanding of this new status quo. Compared to the show, it’s moving through big events dramatically quicker (largely due to how long an issue lasts compared to a 42-minute episode of a 22-episode season) and is more directly serialized, but it’s the emphasis on character which shows just how alive the series is at its core.
 

Credit: Dark Horse

No One Left to Fight #2
Written by Aubrey Sitterson
Art by Fico Ossio
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The charm and dynamics of No One Left to Fight come into focus in its second issue. Fleshing out their good-natured riff on the Dragon Ball franchise, creators Aubrey Sitterson and Fico Ossio take us deeper into this “saved” world introducing new characters. They also build outward a bit with the already established ones, scratching more off the surface of the animosity between series leads Vale and Timor, all set against the backdrop of a mythic training center for superhuman fighters and their connection to it. While the opening issue was more focused on introducing the characters, their past deeds, and power sets, No One Left to Fight #2 shows much more potential and fun to be found in this series.

When we last left our titantically powered cast, Vale and Timor were finally about to decide who really is this planet’s mightiest. That is, before the title’s third lead Krysta succinctly diffuses it by calling it as she sees it — two old men about to fight on someone’s lawn. It is with this neat feint that Aubrey Sitterson displays a good handle on the conventions of the franchises it is riffing on and how to sidestep them. In another comic, the writer would have at least delivered a few pages of super fisticuffs just for good measure. Especially when paired up with someone like Fico Ossio, whose beefy pencils really nail the strength of this, shall we say, genre.

But Sitterson shows a real restraint here in this second issue, and the emotional content of it is all the stronger for it. Embarking on the road trip proposed in the opening, our cast has to reconcile the people that they were when they saved the planet with the people they are now. That’s made even more difficult as they literally face their past, returning to the place of their training under the tutelage of Mistress Harga, where their old ally Winda still lives. Again, you would expect some big dust-up, but Sitterson is much more concerned with the emotional state and dynamics of the former band of fighters, making this a much more thematically rich experience than just seeing hot people fight.

But that isn’t to say that everybody suddenly got hard to look at with this second issue. Moving in step with Sitterson’s more pathos-focused approach, artist and co-creator Fico Ossio shows us the softer, almost angelic side of our planet-saving lead in a messionic opening. After word spreads of Vale coming back to town, the masses swarm Timor and Krysta’s house, hoping to get a look at the man who saved them all. Ossio stages it like a Superman scene, clean light bathing the crowd from behind the statuesque fighter.

From there Ossio shows that there is much more of this world to see as the trio set out on their road trip, skimming across the weird landscapes of the planet in a Final Fantasy-inspired “Mudskipper.” They land at the Mistress Harga Home for Foundlings in a landscape ripped right out of a Roger Dean cover and introduce more outlandishly designed, yet perfectly in tone characters in Harga and the winsome Winda (who looks like a cross between Marvel’s Honey Badger and Borderlands’ Tiny Tina). Harga’s design puts a sort of hippie spin on a crone-ish figure from Miyazaki, which rounds out the cast so far nicely in terms of this world’s visual aesthetics. It is also nice to see that Ossio still has much more of this world to show us in later issues. The debut issue was a decent pitch, but No One Left to Fight #2 shows that it has more consistent storytelling and visuals in mind.

Fans of burly but emotionally soft (and ridiculously jacked) leading men rejoice as No One Left to Fight #2 truly lives up to its bold, yet endearing cover blurb as “The Comic You’ve Always Wanted.” Now with the introductions deck cleared, creators Aubrey Sitterson and Fico Ossio can finally start immersing us in this world, strengthening dynamics between the cast and the world, as well as expanding said world’s scope and design. No One Left to Fight #2 shows that this new series has more in the tank beyond a flashy debut.
 

Credit: Source Point Press

Dead End Kids #1
Written by Frank Gogol
Art by Nenad Cviticanin
Lettering by Sean Rinehart
Published by Source Point Press
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Something that sticks out while reading Dead End Kids is that, for a book so insistent on making sure the audience knows that it is a ‘90s nostalgia piece, complete with an Offspring epigraph and the first verse of “All the Small Things” bleeds through a stereo in one of the character’s room, it roots itself in characterizations that feel far more timeless. The time period becomes incidental to the characters, but provide an interesting focal point to mull over why it was chosen. Writer Frank Gogol spends most of the issue cycling through character introductions and interactions, before building up to the context around the comic’s opening of a drowned kid. Art and color duties are taken by Nenad Cviticanin, who gives the backgrounds a very mature aesthetic while doing a solid job at differentiating between the surprisingly large cast.

After introducing his core quartet, Gogol’s story revolves around four friends who get into an altercation near a frozen pond with another teen, Bulmer, before the fight is broken up by Avery, a man who lost his son due to the actions of Bulmer’s father. Later that night, Benji, one of the core group of kids, is found dead in the frozen lake. The narration makes a point early on to say that, while Benji is the first death of the series, he won’t be the last. It’s phrased in such a way to imply that more of the core friend group will die, but its lack of specifics would lead more astute readers to think this means that either Bulmer or Avery will be the other death. If that is the case, it’s a bit of clever misdirection. The remaining friends, Murphy, Tank, and Amanda, all go to the site where Benji’s body was found and are greeted by a baseball bat-wielding Bulmer.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the late ‘90s backdrop being relatively arbitrary, and that its inclusion is purely for aesthetics. The way the story structures itself makes one think this may not actually be the case. Stranger Things, the standard bearer for nostalgic media, adopts the 1980-something aesthetic to accent the ‘80s narrative tropes of its story – like the ET plotline or the horror slasher plotline. Dead End Kids #1 is ‘90s nostalgia that follows the plot structure of things like ‘80s classic Stand By Me, ‘90s classic The Sandlot, and classic of both decades The Wonder Years. Those were created with an eye looking back at the 1950s, with the idea being that the narrator/POV characters were always looking back from the present — a place of adulthood, and introducing the people that affected their lives and the extraordinary memory that fundamentally changed who they were as people.

Dead End Kids takes the structure of ‘80s/‘90s stories that were so fixated on the past and makes the past of that story 1999. It’s positioning at the end of the millennium is anything but inconsequential. Amanda’s mother is profoundly concerned that the world is ending at the end of the year. The truth is that there is an end of sorts on the horizon. The world is going to change very quickly for these characters.

Cviticanin’s art is filled with rooms and landscapes that feel like they’re from the kinds of prestige indie books that get the “not just for kids” treatment from non-comics literature platforms. It gives a level of weight to the narrative, and provides a visual grounding of realism that makes something that other books often treat flippantly, death, have a real gravity that bookends the issue. The art is perhaps at its best in the facial structures and clothing in its characters. It is very easy as a reader to grasp who is who and what their basic personality is. Gogol’s writing goes a long way in terms of characterization, but Cviticanin’s art really locks everything together, and as this is such a character-driven story, the importance of that is hard to overstate.

As a comic with a strong slice-of-life rooting juxtaposed with a mystery hook, it’s easy to become invested in Dead End Kids very quickly. It gives the reader a lot to mull over and provides them with an interesting enough cliffhanger to keep readers sticking around. While most of the character work is good, it does verge on the overly sentimental at times, but with the way the whole thing is presented as a memory of a different time, that could be intentional and representative of how we often imbue profundity into our childhood relationships that may not have been present at the time. Overall, Gogol and Cviticanin have something special on their hands, and while the epigraph might ask how one little street could swallow so many lives, the readers will be left asking the same thing.

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