A review a day: <i>Top Cow First Look</i>

Yes, a Top Cow book. You gotta problem with that?

I mentioned that while I was at the con, I ran into Joshua Fialkov, who is quite the awesome dude. I'm sure he was happier to see the Delightful Ms. Sonia Harris, because who wouldn't be, but he did give me a copy of Top Cow First Look, which includes one of his stories. It is, shockingly enough, published by Top Cow, and it includes six "first" issues of what Marc Silvestri and his sinister cabal hope will be six new series. So. Six issues in a nice trade ... for $4.99. You read that right. I don't know how you can pass this up, especially because five of the six stories are good. It's FIVE DOLLARS, people!

Let's get the bad story out of the way right now, shall we? Mysterious Ways is the third story in the collection, and it's really what you think of when you think of a stereotypical "Top Cow" comic. It's bloody, unpleasant, dull, and mystical, and it features Tyler Kirkham art. There's a guy named Sam, an ex-cop, who is on parole after being in prison for murder. Someone is killing women (the end of the issue pretty much gives it away, even though it's not difficult to figure out) and Sam is getting blamed for it. He's carrying strange pieces of metal in his pocket that apparently enables him to heal quickly. There's a mysterious old dude and devil worship. There's Tyler Kirkham art. Jason Rubin's story is awful and clichéd and gives us no reason to think it will ever get better (these are first issues, so they're supposed to entice you back). The characters talk like characters in a B-movie that Joel (or Mike) and the bots would mock. Arif Prianto's colors are drab, but they're probably the best artistic part of the book. Troy Peteri's letters give me a headache. And there's Tyler Kirkham art. I certainly understand why Kirkham gets work from DC, because for much of DC's middle-of-the-road crap, they seem perfectly happy to have mediocre superhero art. That's Kirkham! And just so he doesn't get off the hook, Sal Regla's inks are heavy and overwhelming. Sigh. I don't know any of these gentlemen, and I have nothing against them, but Mysterious Ways is just a lousy comic. Oh, Tyler Kirkham art:


The other stories vary in quality, but they're all quite good. Genius by Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman (writers), Afua Richardson (artist), and Peteri, is the continuation of a Pilot Season comic that featured a Los Angeles gangbanger named Destiny who just happens to be a military genius. She's uniting all the gangs in LA together and planning a war against the police. A Detective Reginald Grey, who has spent some time coming up with a theory that one person is uniting the gangs, but no one in the LAPD believes him. Bernardin and Freeman do a nice job juxtaposing Grey's report about "Suspect Zero" (as Grey calls Destiny) with Destiny's upbringing, showing how spot-on he is (even though he thinks Suspect Zero is a man). So we get her "origin" as the cops are moving into her territory, and at the very end of the issue, she unleashes her forces on them. It's an intriguing set-up, as it gives us a sympathetic cop and a sympathetic gangster, which is sure to cause problems down the road when they find out about each other. Richardson's art is cartoony but gritty enough to show the mean streets of LA. It reminds me a bit of Kyle Baker, actually.


The second story is called Sunset, and it's written by Christos Gage, drawn by Jorge Lucas, colored by Felix Serrano, and lettered by ... well, I think you know by whom it's lettered. Lucas obviously uses a lot of photo-reference, but it's interesting because the action scenes, which are often the hardest to get right when you're doing art this way, actually look pretty good - everything flows fairly well, and nobody looks stiff and posed. I don't absolutely love the art, but it's a lot better than what I expected when I saw the first page. Serrano's colors are rich, bright, and lush, which I think helps the line art quite a bit. Gage tells the story of Nick Bellamy, a Korean War vet whose wife appears to suffer from Alzheimer's and who has a large stash of cash under his bed. He's out at the Wal-Mart (not called Wal-Mart for obvious reasons) and three young punks accost him in the parking lot. They work for a man called Gianelli, who employed Bellamy thirty years earlier. Apparently Bellamy stole from him and Gianelli (who must be a mobster, right - I mean he's Italian, and according to my Italian wife, EVERY Italian is a mobster, including her!) has finally found him. Bellamy, showing off his moves, kills the three punks and then realizes that they found him at the store because they'd already been to his house. His wife - dead. His wife's nurse - dead. And Bellamy decides that it might be smart to move on. It's another solid first issue - Gage gets us involved, leaving out enough to intrigue us, and showing that Bellamy might be an old man, but he still knows how to deal with punks. He doesn't look anything like Clint Eastwood, but I can't believe Gage wasn't thinking about Dirty Harry when he wrote this. But that's okay - it's still a pretty cool story.


The fourth story is the long-awaited (by me, anyway) first issue of Black Vault by the quite talented by apparently scatter-brained B. Clay Moore, with art by Nelson Blake II, coloring by Dave McCaig, and lettering by ... seriously? Jesus. I really like Moore's writing, but he has some issues getting his comics out (which I assume is economical in nature and not scatter-brainedness, which is just a joke) - the first issue of Black Vault was solicited in January 2009, I should point out. And let's not even get into what happened to The Expatriate. I know Moore reads the blog occasionally, so I'll just say - I'll keep reading your stuff, sir, even though it vexes me! And it's a pain, because Black Vault is pretty intriguing. Moore spends the entire issue setting things up and introducing the rather large cast until the final big reveal, but he does a good job with it. It's 2011, and on the International Space Station, the scientists are about to get visitors. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is sending up a team to install a new weather module. There's also a deep space probe they need to launch. When they arrive, we learn that the ISS commander, a Russian, knows the American colonel in charge of the shuttle (and later, they have some zero-g sex, so they have that going for them), and that the weather people are a bit coy about their cargo and mission. Of course, something much more sinister is going on, but I certainly don't want to spoil it, because it's kind of neat. Moore does a really good job building the tension throughout the issue, as we know something is going on but really can't figure it out - well, maybe you can, but I didn't. Blake has a good, solid line - he isn't called upon to do much, but Moore does need him to make each character distinguishable, and he does that pretty well. Visually, it's not the most exciting issue, but we're never confused by who's who, which is good. I do hope that Black Vault #2 comes out, because Moore usually has some cool ideas up his sleeve.


Next is Fialkov's contribution, which is part of Top Cow's newly revamped Minotaur imprint (which produced Obergeist back in the day; I read that!) and gives us the final two stories in the collection. Minotaur's stories are hard-core, so they're in black and white (which has nothing to do with keeping coloring costs down ... nope, not a thing!). Echoes has Fialkov reuniting with Rahsan Ekedal, who drew his mini-series The Cleaners a while back, and it's lettered by you-know-who. It's the story of a man named Brian whose father is afflicted with Alzheimer's (he actually dies a few pages in). Before he dies, he starts rambling about "dead girls" and an address, and when Brian goes to investigate, he finds something unpleasant. It's a creepy, moody story that slowly builds tension, and Fialkov does a nice job with it. Brian is (probably) schizophrenic (he takes clozapine, which is used to treat schizophrenia), and as he's so caught up in what his father told him, he forgot to take his meds. That makes his journey through the run-down house that's at the address his father repeated terrifying for him, and when he discovers what's in the crawl space ... well, let's just say it doesn't do his already stressed brain any favors. Ekedal's black-and-white art is much better than his colored work on The Cleaners (which wasn't bad, but kind of bland) - the second and third pages, which form one big tableau, is a gorgeous piece of work, with Brian and his father in the middle, surrounded by smaller panels showing both snippets from Brian's youth and scenes from his current life, including his pregnant wife. Ekedal's excellent work with shading makes the house even creepier, and he does a nice job with the things that might - or, you know, might not - be figments of Brian's imagination. Echoes is a very cool issue, and it will be neat to see where Fialkov goes with the story.


The final story in the collection is called Last Mortal, which is written by John Mahoney and Filip Sablik (who's Top Cow's publisher), drawn by Thomas Nachlik, and lettered by the ubiquitous Peteri. It's the story of a guy named Alec King who begins the story by telling us he just killed his best friend. We learn that King is a low-level criminal who takes lousy jobs just so he can figure out ways to rob them. One day his friend Brian tells him that he's been less than honest with some of his criminal contacts, and the only way he can make it right is to assassinate the candidate for mayor (of Philadelphia, where the book is set, because Philadelphia is awesome). Alec, of course, thinks this is a monumentally bad idea, but Brian tells him that he's dead if he doesn't do it, and he really needs Alec's help. The plan isn't bad, actually - lower themselves down as window washers outside the candidate's window, then blaze away - but Alec hesitates, Brian gets shot, and everything goes FUBAR. The bad guys are waiting for them on the street, and they shoot Brian in the head for his failure, but Alec gets away. That brings us back to the beginning, where Alec commits suicide. Or does he? Well, it turns out that he can't die. Hence the name of the comic. Mahoney and Sablik do a good job starting at the end and getting us involved and then looping back around - it's a standard way to begin a story, but that's because it works - and they give us an interesting character in Alec - he's a smart guy who might want to examine his loyalty to his friend. Nachlik, like Lucas earlier in the book, seems to use a lot of photo reference, but while he doesn't quite integrate the surroundings into the panels as well as Lucas does, he still makes it work. Plus, the shootout on the scaffolding is handled well. It's a little more stiff than the work by Lucas, but the characters don't look awkwardly posed, which you sometimes get with this type of art. As I mentioned with Lucas, I don't love this style of art, but if the artist does a good job with it, I can live with it. And Nachlik does a pretty good job with it.


So those are the six issues in this collection. My two favorites are Black Vault and Echoes, but the others are quite good as well. And then there's Mysterious Ways, which isn't very good at all. These are some good creators doing some interesting work, and I want to stress - this is FOUR DOLLARS AND NINETY-NINE CENTS. Honestly, when Marvel can barely put out a $3.99 floppy without going into receivership, I don't know how you can pass this up, especially when the contents are quite good. So look for this at your favorite comic book shoppe! Maybe we'll get some new series out of it before the turn of the next decade!

Tomorrow: A Van Helsing story! With a twist, of course, because we need our twists!

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