Join us as we share our reviews and multi-page previews of Dream Thief: Escape #1, The Life After #1, Trees #1, the Number One one-shot, Brain Boy: The Men From G.E.ST.A.L.T. #1, The Last Broadcast #1, and C.O.W.L. #1.
First Impressions is our (more-or-less) regular and largely spoiler-free look at first issues, one-shots, and other “entry-point” comics. Unless otherwise indicated, all reviewed issues are digital copies provided free-of-charge by their respective publishers, publicists, or creative team personnel.
Dream Thief: Escape #1 (of 4; Dark Horse, $3.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]
- Story: Jai Nitz
- Art: Greg Smallwood
- Cover: Greg Smallwood
- Publisher’s summary: Like his father before him, John Lincoln is a Dream Thief, possessed by vengeful spirits while he sleeps—a deadly instrument of revenge! Now he must defend the felon possessed by his father’s ghost… and get revenge against his killer! Continuing the supernatural drama of last summer’s acclaimed miniseries.
- Click here to read our review of Dream Thief #1.
Dream Thief: Escape #1, the first issue of the sequel to the 2013 miniseries Dream Thief—a title that made our year-end list of our favorite comics, by the way—isn’t as new reader-friendly as most of the other titles reviewed in today’s article, but for readers already familiar with the property’s basic premise, characters, and enthralling (if somewhat tortuous) core supernatural mystery, this should be a very welcome return to the adventures of protagonist John Lincoln.
Back for this installment are writer Jai Nitz and artist Greg Smallwood, who pick up the narrative almost right where they left the first miniseries. Lincoln has a clear goal in mind at this point and isn’t simply stumbling about and solving mysteries despite himself, in that he now knows that his father’s soul is still on the earthly plane and that he holds the key to understanding the curse of the aboriginal mask that gives Lincoln the awesome-but-terrifying ability to be possessed by the ghosts of murdered folks intent on using his body to exact revenge, gaining their accumulated knowledge and skills in the process.
As in the original Dream Thief comic, Nitz shows his well-honed ability to balance hard-hitting action—Lincoln goes on a couple of ghost-possessed revenge sprees in this issue—with measured expository sequences, all without undermining the story’s momentum and pacing. The addition of subplots concerning a state investigation into the death of Lincoln’s girlfriend (from the first miniseries) and what looks to be an upcoming alliance-of-convenience with his father’s murderer adds layers of narrative tension to an already taut and gripping supernatural murder mystery.
Smallwood turns in solid work in this issue as well, although I miss some of the more graphic-inspired panel designs and layouts from the first miniseries. This is just me picking nits, though, as the visual storytelling exudes clarity above all else, and I personally like his rendering choices.
The Life After #1—Early Termination Edition (Oni Press, $5.00) [EDITOR’S PICK]
- Story: Joshua Hale Fialkov
- Art: Gabriel “Gabo” Bautista, Jr.
- Cover: Gabriel “Gabo” Bautista, Jr.
- Publisher’s summary: In an infinite city built on infinite sadness, there is one man capable of breaking free. He will go through Heaven and Hell to save us all. Literally. A fantastical coming of age journey through the afterlife and beyond from Joshua Hale Fialkov (THE BUNKER, THE ULTIMATES) and breakout artist Gabo.
- NOTE: This is a review of an early release edition of The Life After #1 made exclusively available to Wondercon Anaheim 2014 attendees and select members of the comics press. The main retail edition of The Life After #1 will be priced at $3.99, feature a different cover by Nick Pitarra, and hit stores on July 9, 2014.
The Life After #1 partially gives away its major plot twist by virtue of its title (and the publisher-supplied solicitation text, as reproduced in the “Publisher’s summary” section above), but that isn’t really a problem since the issue’s strength lies in its overall execution, not just in its use of anagnorisis.
Much of this issue is devoted to the worker drone-type protagonist making his way through an increasingly surreal and confusing landscape in pursuit of a mystery woman who has become a totem of his desire to live a more fulfilling life, but it is to the creative team’s credit that it remains compelling throughout, thankfully avoiding a descent into embarrassingly sappy over-sentimentality.
Writer Joshua Hale Fialkov shows a remarkable degree of trust in his readers by not frontloading the exposition and it results in a genuine air of mystery and intrigue—despite some fairly obvious clues as to the true nature of the setting—that sustains the work through to the twist reveal towards the issue’s end. Helping Fialkov in keeping the reader engaged despite the relatively loose sense of narrative is artist Gabriel “Gabo” Bautista, Jr., who employs dynamic perspective and distance to give undeniable visual appeal to panels and pages that would be prosaic and even monotonous in a less-skilled visual storyteller’s hands.
Trees #1 (Image Comics; $2.99 print, $1.99 DRM-free digital) [EDITOR’S PICK]
- Story: Warren Ellis
- Art: Jason Howard
- Cover: Jason Howard
- Publisher’s summary: Ten years after they landed. All over the world. And they did nothing, standing on the surface of the Earth like trees, exerting their silent pressure on the world, as if there were no-one here and nothing under foot. Ten years since we learned that there is intelligent life in the universe, but that they did not recognize us as intelligent or alive. Beginning a new science fiction graphic novel by Warren Ellis & Jason Howard.
I’ve always preferred Warren Ellis’ more overtly science-fiction work over his superhero material. Oh, he’s given us some great superhero comics over the years (alongside some real duds)—The Authority and Planetary remain touchstones for the post-Watchmen superhero deconstruction movement, Iron Man: Extremis brought the classic Marvel character firmly into the 21st century, and NextWAVE: Agents of H.A.T.E. took an axe to the superhero genre with an anarchic parodist’s glee—but in my experience, it’s been on science-fiction titles like Global Frequency, Ministry of Space, Transmetropolitan, and Ignition City that Ellis has been truly able to showcase his ability to package sociocultural and technological commentary as absolutely riveting escapist fiction.
Trees‘ premise certainly gives the comic the same potential to be as captivating as those aforementioned works. Ellis works with a number of themes here: the insignificance of the human race when set against the grand cosmic scale, our civilization’s history of near-sightedness and how our insistence on selfish provincialism undermines our collective advancement as a species, as well as the quasi-existentialist horror that stems from the existence of the eponymous “trees,” the giant alien organisms that have taken root all over the planet. Ellis has tackled these themes before in previous works—Supergod and the “Outer Dark” storyline in The Authority come to mind—but at this stage in his career, Ellis’ greatest asset as a writer isn’t so much his talent for novelty as it is his ability to reinvent and refresh his pet theses. Ellis also wisely dials down the acerbic, catchphrase and technobabble-loaded dialogue that, rightly or wrongly, has come to be associated with his oeuvre and has been the subject of imitation, parody, and criticism online. Ellis’ signature dialogue style is still there, but it adds flavor to the narration and conversations instead of serving as an outright distraction.
It is Jason Howard’s art, however, that might ultimately stick with readers. It is energetic and textured in a way reminiscent of Simon Roy’s best work on the Eisner-nominated Prophet but it isn’t at all sloppy or confusing. It’s visually exciting stuff that provides a vital contrast to the stretches of exposition necessary in an issue that has to accomplish a lot of worldbuilding within a limited page count.
Number One one-shot (Aazurn Publishing, $3.99)
- Story: Gary Scott Beatty
- Illustrations: Aaron Warner
- Colors: Gary Scott Beatty
- Cover: Aaron Warner
- Publisher’s summary: Comic shop owner isn’t a job, it’s a calling, in this full color, done-in-one-issue story exploring 50 years of comic book history! Comics helped Steve through some tough times growing up and he turned his love of the medium into a comic shop business. But is it worth the toll it takes on his family? “A personal story that’s also a fun and fascinating walk through the history of comics retailing. A great read,” wrote John Jackson Miller. The return of Aaron “Adventures of Aaron” Warner to comic book illustration!
- NOTE: This is a review of an advance copy of Number One. The comic can be ordered from July 2014’s Previews catalog under Aazurn Publishing, item code JUL140749.
It seems like comics specialty shops have had a rough go of it in the court of public opinion in recent years, not to mention that the economic viability of the brick-and-mortar comics retailing business is under threat more than ever from the competition posed by the growing digital comics distribution industry and e-tailers like Amazon who can afford to undersell the direct market. Gary Scott Beatty and Aaron Warner’s Number One, however, serves to remind us that not every comic book shop is a dank, cluttered mess staffed by prejudiced troglodytes and infested with hygiene-challenged, socially awkward fanboys, and that smart management and a focus on providing excellent customer service can allow a brick-and-mortar comics retailer to survive, and even thrive, in these modern times.
Number One follows the story of veteran comics retailer Steve, tracing his journey from a young fan to teenaged comic shop employee, and finally, comic shop owner. Along the way, Steve sees the decline of newsstand and grocery store comics distribution, the meteoric rise of the direct market in the 1980s, the speculator-fueled boom of the 1990s, and the direct market’s own dramatic collapse in more recent years. Steve also sees his personal life mirror the changing fortunes of his store, with the low point coming in the form of a divorce as his shop teeters on the brink of closure. I don’t know if the story is intended to be semi-autobiographical—I actually have no idea if Gary Scott Beatty has even worked in comics retail—but the narrative comes off as quite personal and earnest, regardless of whether or not it reflects his firsthand experiences. If there is a problem with Number One, it might be that Steve is aggrandized too much in the telling of his story—the sequence that shows a procession of grateful customers thanking Steve near the book’s close borders on saccharine—but I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising given that it is being narrated from the first-person perspective.
Rounding out the issue alongside Warner’s solid art is a six-page backmatter essay written by Beatty which provides a thorough summary of the history of comics and the comics industry. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this one-shot.
NOTE: The preview panels in the gallery below are out of sequence and are meant to be representative of different sections of the reviewed issue.
Brain Boy: The Men From G.E.S.T.A.L.T. #1 (of 4; $2.99, Dark Horse)
- Story: Fred Van Lente
- Illustrations: Freddie Williams II
- Colors: Jeremy Colwell
- Cover: Freddie Williams II with Dan Scott
- Publisher’s summary: Agent Price’s new mission pits him against a doomsday cult leader with a political agenda that poses a direct threat to the president. But a mysterious hive mind has more menacing plans for Brain Boy. He’ll have no choice but to go head to head—brain to brain—with the mysterious Men from G.E.S.T.A.L.T.!
- Click here to read our review of Brain Boy #1.
Like Dream Thief: Escape #1 above, Brain Boy: The Men from G.E.S.T.A.LT. #1 can be considered the first issue of the second story arc in what is virtually an ongoing series. This issue picks up one of the unresolved plot threads from the first Brain Boy miniseries—the identity of the villain who psychically possessed dictator Emil Ricorta—but compared to Dream Thief: Escape, it will probably be easier for the uninitiated reader to ease into Brain Boy: The Men From G.E.S.T.A.L.T. given that the major story points of the preceding miniseries can be easily gleaned from the inside cover text summary and inferred from Fred Van Lente’s tight script.
This issue is fairly straightforward, if somewhat unremarkable stuff. There aren’t any real surprises in terms of the execution and what you see in the solicitation text is pretty much what you get plot-wise, and I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment: Both the writing and the art feature generally solid technical craft—I am not too fond of artist Freddie Williams II’s work on figures and faces, however—although I am unsure if that is enough to make the book stand out among Dark Horse’s growing library of company-owned superhero titles.
C.O.W.L. #1 (Image Comics; $3.50 print, $1.99 DRM-free digital)
- Story: Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel
- Art: Rod Reis
- Cover: Rod Reis
- Publisher’s summary: Welcome to the “Chicago Organized Workers League”— the world’s first Super-Hero Labor Union! While C.O.W.L. once stood as a beacon of hope against an epidemic of organized crime and an unbeatable “brotherhood” of Super-Villains, the union now faces its fiercest foe yet—a disillusioned public. In targeting the last of the great villains, C.O.W.L. attempts to prove its value to the world and to each other, while staving off villainy from both outside and inside its offices.
Writers Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel do a great job of mixing superheroics with union politics, police drama, and municipal government intrigue in C.O.W.L. #1, which introduces readers to an alternate history early 1960s Chicago protected by the superheroes of the “Chicago Organized Workers League.” Those quick to dismiss C.O.W.L. out of hand as being simply another grim superhero deconstruction tale will miss out on an interesting spin on the concept of the superhero team. And while it is true that C.O.W.L. comes off as a rather Serious Superhero Comic, it’s not lacking in a sense of humor or superheroic wonder.
This issue is devoted largely to giving readers a glimpse of the expansive cast at the cost of providing much depth—this is one of those cases where I think an extra-sized issue with even more story pages (the issue already has three more story pages than the typical 22-page pamphlet) might have been a good choice for a debut. Despite that one misgiving, I am quite optimistic for the series moving forward given the genre-bending appeal of the premise and the quality of the dialogue.
Rod Reis’ art is quite striking, reminiscent in parts of the more restrained examples of Bill Sienkiewicz’s work. It’s stylish and stylized, but not to the point that clarity of storytelling and the ability to tell characters apart is sacrificed.
The Last Broadcast #1 (of 7; BOOM!/Archaia, $3.99)
- Story: André Sirangelo
- Art: Gabriel Iumazark
- Cover: Gabriel Iumazark
- Publisher’s summary: An urban spelunking group in San Francisco discovers a secret bunker belonging to the long-vanished 1930s stage magician Blackhall the Incredible at the same time as young, out-of-work magician Ivan receives a mysterious package that points him toward a possible conspiracy involving Blackhall’s death in 1934. Both groups dive into the mystery, not yet realizing that it’s about the change their lives forever.
The Brazil-based creative team of writer André Sirangelo and artist Gabriel Iumazark offer up a reasonably intriguing American comics debut with The Last Broadcast #1, despite some issues with the pacing and delivery. The comic proceeds at a consistent slow boil, and the lack of narrative momentum is further compounded by frequent cross-cutting from one setting and cast of characters to another in the issue’s first half. In theory, it sounds like a clever way to make the exposition/introduction phase of the miniseries more dynamic and exciting, but in actual practice, it can lead to some mildly confusing sequences. That’s a shame, because the twin narrative threads that open the comic are quite absorbing when read uninterrupted.
Worth noting is Iumazark’s artwork, which is reason enough for me to follow the miniseries for at least the next couple of issues. The comic’s scenes are appropriately atmospheric and moody while making the most of the contrast afforded by the spare coloring, and I find an appeal to his idiosyncratic figures as well.