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Writer/director James DeMonaco’s The Purge was one of those flicks that came out of nowhere and impressed me (and its financial backers, given its surprise box-office success) last year,  so it’s actually good to see a sequel not only come out, but come out so soon after the original, given that DeMonaco is still at the helm and probably hasn’t had much time to second-guess what made his first film work and is therefore still sort of on the same “creative hot streak,” so to speak, that started this whole ball rolling — and now  that The Purge : Anarchy has met with essentially the same strong response at the nation’s ticket windows that its predecessor did, odds seem pretty good that a third installment will be out by roughly this time next year, and as long as DeMonaco remains in the director’s chair, I’ll be there for that one, as well.

Yup, as if you couldn’t guess by now, I enjoyed the second chapter in this safe-to-now-call-it-a-franchise quite a bit, not only because it builds upon the unpleasant socio-political ramifications of the first, but takes the action — quite literally — out onto the streets, and away from the gated suburban subdivisions of the original, which results in something of a loss in terms of the claustrophobic atmosphere the prior movie had, sure, but DeMonaco more than makes up for that by expanding his story’s scope while deepening it at the same time. The end result is that The Purge : Anarchy is every bit as compelling and immediate as its celluloid progenitor (if not moreso), but the stakes feel even higher this time around.

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Most of the proceedings in this sophomore outing take place outside, on the decidedly savage streets of an unnamed American city on the night of the sixth annual “all laws are suspended” shindig known as the titular Purge, where a series of accidents of fate have brought together a rag-tag group of wannabe-survivors under the tenuous and unwanted (at least as far as he himself is concerned) leadership of a guy named Leo who was apparently a military or police sergeant at  one point and is playing it pretty close to the vest as to why he’s out and about on the most dangerous night of the year. His charges consist of a newly-homeless mother-daughter team (played by Zoe Soul and Carmen Ejobo, respectively) and a couple at a — let’s call it transitional — stage in their relationship whose care broke down (portrayed by Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez). All the various players do right by their characters, but it’s Frank Grillo who really shines as Leo — he’s got natural “leading man action hero” charisma and bad-assness to spare, to the extent that I honestly have to wonder why he’s never been given center stage like this before.

Rounding out the cast is Michael K. Williams as Carmelo, a Black Panther-type urban paramilitary guerrilla who is the unofficial head honcho of a growing anti-Purge, anti-New Founding Fathers resistance movement. Carmelo’s doing his level best to educate the public to the fact that this whole nightmare scenario is basically the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill The Poor” come to life, and while he only appears in one scene as himself (so to speak), video images of his revolutionary (and entirely sane) message make their presence felt at several intervals throughout the course of events here.

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Also figuring into the ebb and flow are a “safe house” that turns out to be a whole lot less safe than anticipated, roaming armored battle-trucks cruising the streets for easy pickings, hard financial realities that force loving parents to sell themselves to the economic upper-crust as human sacrifices in order to earn enough cash to support families that they will never see again because, hey, they’ll be fucking dead, a nauseating “victim auction,” and, finally,  a “most dangerous game”-style human hunting scenario. All fairly compelling, dramatic stuff that DeMonaco and his no-name cast bring to life with considerable aplomb.

Beyond the well-realized and tense horrific action, though, it’s in the area of drawing obvious parallels to the real world that The Purge : Anarchy  stands out from the crowded genre pack. I hope I’m not blowing anyone’s illusions of how the world actually works here  too much, but despite the fact that outlets such as Fox “news” will scream “class warfare” every time somebody proposes hiking the top income tax rate by a couple of measly percentage points, it’s the rich — specifically the astronomically rich — that have been waging (and, sadly, winning) a very aggressive sort of slow-burn class war against the rest of us for decades now. What? You thought all those public service cutbacks, welfare and unemployment benefits trims, reductions in public education spending, spiraling student loan and health care costs, and busting up of unions was just a coincidence? At the same time massive corporate tax breaks are touted as being the “solution” to our economic woes? Oh, have I got a bridge to sell you.

The Purge : Ananrchy, like its fore-runner, simply removes all of  the intentionally-choreographed pretense obfuscating these issues in the world today. This is precisely the sort of scenario that the ruling elites want — they just don’t have the balls to come out and hack you to death with a machete themselves, and would rather have their paid lackeys in government do the job for them by killing us all off on the installment plan. That DeMonaco is managing to get away with laying their scheme this bare is pretty cool — but then, I’m sure the reason our ruling corporate overlords don’t have too much objection to this is because they own the studio that’s raking in the bucks off these flicks, so hey, it’s all good with them.

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My only real problem with this film, truth be told, is its title — the vilification of anarchism,  and even of the concept of anarchy itself, is getting pretty tedious, and it strikes me that if folks really understood that anarchy means a society not just without government, but without bosses, rulers, or power over others of any kind — be it governmental, corporate, religious, you name it — we might come to see it as a potential solution to the very real socio-economic “purge” that is going on around us. I admit that’s a pretty small bone I’m picking, though, and that beyond that, DeMonaco is to be congratulated for producing yet another tightly-paced, fraught-with-peril-at-every-turn horror/thriller/sci-fi/action movie hybrid that has the added advantage of actually being amazingly relevant. Definitely a very strong contender for the title of summer’s best movie.

trashfilmguru (Ryan C.):

I take a look at Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Originally posted on Through the Shattered Lens:

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It’s safe to say that there’s no film other film in 2014 that I was more predisposed toward liking before ever having seen in that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Anyone who follows my “byline” at any of the various sites I write for (please! Get something better to do with your time!) even occasionally will know that I’m a tremendous fan of the director’s other works — from his superb animated efforts such as A Scanner Darkly  and Waking Life to his honest and heartfelt live-action films such as BernieSchool Of RockFast Food NationDazed And Confused, and his breakthrough hit, Slacker (which I just recently reviewed through decidedly rose-tinted nostalgic lenses),  the guy just has the magic touch, in my opinion. Heck, even his Bad News Bears remake was kinda fun, if you ask me.  And, of course, the three films in his hopefully-still-ongoing “Before”…

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It’s weird — when pressed to name my favorite filmmakers, I’m not even sure that Richard Linklater would immediately come to mind, but he fucking well deserves to. I’ve at the very least enjoyed — and frequently even flat-out loved — every single flick I’ve seen that he’s directed.  Sure, longtime readers of this site will know of my absolute and undying devotion to the “Before” trilogy, but BernieWaking Life,  A Scanner DarklyFast Food Nation, and the movie under our little metaphorical microscope here today, 1991′s Slacker (which was, in fact, his debut feature) were all masterpieces in their own right, as well.

I’ve been on something of a Linklater kick lately in preparation for seeing his much-anticipated Boyhood when it opens here in Minneapolis this weekend, but of all the films I’ve revisited, it’s been Slacker that stuck with me the most. In fact, I watched it two times in a row on Netflix the other night (it’s also available in superb DVD and Blu-Ray iterations from Criterion), and it’s kind of been wedged in my brain ever since.

Which may just be evidence of my much-delayed mid-life crisis finally kicking in, but I think there’s more to it than that.

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For those unfamiliar with the basic premise of the story here, rest easy — there isn’t one. Linklater just staged a bunch of scenes around his hometown of Austin, Texas that feature non-professional actors (including himself, in the movie’s opening vignette, as a guy who just got back to town and is taking a cab ride while expounding on some half-baked alternate reality theories) portraying people who were probably very much like themselves — go-nowhere, “Generation X” layabouts with nothing to do and all day to do it.

In fairness, some of the characters we’re introduced to — the JFK conspiracy theorist, the paranoid UFO enthusiast, the young guys rambling on about Freemasons, the elderly anarchist who’s a   fan of notorious bell tower shooter Charles Whitman — are probably the kind of folks you’re only likely to find in Austin (unless you’re looking really hard), but by and large the cast is populated with people we all know, or at the very least all knew, depending on how old you are.

I admit that Slacker hit a good few years before my own “Generation X wastoid” period kicked in, but the long conversations over beers, sitting in bars half-listening to crummy bands no one cares about, and random encounters with other people who aren’t up to much on a particular day are all things I know intimately from  my own experience. Even if I was more into black metal than I ever was “grunge” rock, and even though I never really got with the whole un-tucked flannel shirt look, there’s a definite sense of “holy shit, this was my life” that’s been hanging around in the back of my mind the past couple of days.

Here’s the thing, though — while almost anybody on the “other side” of 40 is prone to trips down memory lane and lengthy internal ruminations on the question of “where the hell did my life go, anyway?,” Slacker gets the whole zeitgesit  of those times so impeccably right that it doesn’t just get the wheels of your memory spinning, it puts you right back there. Sorry, but the more famous relics of “Generation X” cinema like Reality Bites and even Pulp Fiction just can’t do that — which goes to show that as a document of its time and place, Linklater’s little low-budget mockumentary-before-there-was-such-a-thing is an enduring, if entirely accidental, success.

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In fairness, it certainly has its flaws — the spaced-out chick with the supposed Madonna pap smear and the shut-in with all the TVs (both of whom are pictured in the stills reproduced above) are probably not approximations of any sort of reality, even early-’90s Austin, but they’re still memorable and fun characters, and it’s easy enough, for a time, to believe that people like that existed, even if they didn’t. That slight propensity for exaggeration keeps Slacker from claiming the mantle of the definitive media portrayal of “Generation X” — in my opinion, Peter Bagge’s seminal comics series Hate is the holder of that title — but it comes pretty darn close, and really these occasional sidesteps into OTT territory don’t diminish the overall effect of what Linklater’s going for here so much as they simply overdo it (though not to the point where it becomes annoying, thankfully).

As a hindsight-added bonus that can only come from viewing this thing again over 20 years (!) after its initial release, there are a couple of surprising things that stand out : 1) In a very real sense, for good or ill, many of the cultural memes started by “Generation X” never really went away; sure, those of us who were there at the time got older — that’s kinda how life works, I’m told — but “slackers” are everywhere now, they’re just called “hipsters”; and 2) in an equally very real sense, these “slackers”/”hipsters” — at least the commercially astute ones, at any rate — won out. The Austin of 1991 is nothing like the Austin of today, with the monstrosity that is SXSW having basically taken over every aspect of the town’s existence, but that’s proof positive of exactly what I’m talking about. The “alternative” music, movies, and other media that took their baby steps in the early ’90s are the establishment now, and the moguls who run the show at the film and TV studios, record labels, and various other electronic and print “entertainment” and “news” (two terms that are becoming almost indistinguishable from each other) outlets are often former “slackers” themselves whose tastes are very much a product of the times in which they grew up.

This ascendancy of one-time “X-ers” to the top of the media pyramid has its good and bad points, of course — on the plus side side we’ve got the veritable creative renaissance going on at Image Comics at the moment, on the minus side there’s Mumford And Sons — but that’s true of all generations before, and will remain the case for every generation that follows. Still, the simple fact  that a whole wave of people that was supposedly doing nothing has managed to implement its social mores, values, and tastes so widely is pretty remarkable in and of itself, even if a lot of the shit people my age are into is, frankly, stupid, and we’re passing that stupidity down to all those who follow in our wake.

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To bring things back to myself in closing here — hey, self-absorption is supposedly one of the defining characteristics of us “X-ers” — I’ll freely admit that there was something about seeing Slacker again that made me miss those times : the strong bonds of friendship I had with so many people (one of whom has remained a great friend that  I’ll actually be seeing Boyhood with, but many of whom, for various reasons, I’ve fallen out of touch with over the years despite the fact that knowledge of each others’ every move and thought and opinion was pretty much central to all of our existences for a good few years there), the carefree lack of responsibility, the random, entirely unplanned nature of life when you’re that young — but mostly what I miss is the general sense that, whatever may come, tomorrow will take care of itself, so just live in the moment. The older you get, the more you come to realize what starry-eyed bullshit that is, and ya know, that’s too bad.

Even so, Slacker wasn’t constructed with future nostalgia value in mind, and that shows — this is most definitely a “warts-and-all” picture of what it was like to be young and relatively free of attachments during the heyday of the “X years.” There are a lot of annoying assholes, boring blowhards, self-important know-it-alls, and wanna-be-smooth-talking bullshit artists to be found in this film, and watching them in action in their “native element,” you come to realize that not only did you know a lot of people like that, you may very well have been one yourself.

Hell, maybe you still are (and maybe I still am — it does take a certain amount of ego to randomly assume that people you don’t even know might be interested in what you have to say about movies, or comics, or books, or politics, or anything, after all).

Still, for my money that’s the surest sign that Linklater crafted something pretty remarkable — and enduring — with this film : it’s honest enough to admit that the characters, situations, and time period that it portrays are all very far from perfect, but it’s enjoyable enough to make you miss it all anyway.

 

 

 

trashfilmguru (Ryan C.):

I take a look at “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Originally posted on Through the Shattered Lens:

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This is gonna be one easy review to write because it all boils down to this : you really can believe all the hype, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is flat-out fucking awesome, and you need to go out and see this flick immediately.

My job is done, I’m finished, goodnight.

But I guess I do have at least a little bit more to say —

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I wasn’t a big fan of Cloverfield by any means, but I’m turning into a big fan of Matt Reeves. I know it’s heresy to some, but I thought that Let Me In was every bit as good as its Swedish progenitor, and with this latest — and, frankly, best — installment in the venerable Apes franchise,  Reeves has shown himself to be a director who is fully hitting his stride. The bigger and bolder the project, the more he seems to…

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Real quick — what’s your favorite Jack Kirby comic? It’s a good bet that a fair amount of you chose one or more of the titles in his legendary Fourth World saga. Others probably said to themselves Fantastic Four or Thor almost reflexively. Fans of his early work are probably more partial to Captain AmericaBoys Ranch, or Challengers of the Unknown. People with somewhat more eclectic tastes might put more “far-out” comics such as OMACThe Demon, or The Eternals at the top of their lists.

But it’s probably pretty safe to say that no one counts Devil Dinosaur as being the King of Comics’ greatest creation. And ya know what? Neither do I. But that’s not the point here. I’m not out to convince you that this book is some “lost classic” deserving of intense critical re-evaluation or that there’s a whole lot going on beneath the surface here that has never been properly understood until now. I’m just here to tell you that this book is nowhere near as lousy as people made it out to be for years and that it’s actually an imaginative, well-drawn, highly entertaining comic that more than deserves a lot more respect than it seems to ever have garnered.

Lasting only nine issues, all of which saw print in 1978, the adventures of the world’s only red tyrannosaurs rex and his  almost-human rider/companion, Moon-Boy, are just that — adventures. Unlike other Kirby projects of approximately the same time period that masterfully explored deeper themes such as the passing of the torch from one generation to the next (The Forever People), man’s diminished place in a technological world (OMAC), the ultimate futility of violence (New Gods), or the power of love to overcome even the most insurmountable odds (Mister Miracle), this is pure, light-hearted, escapist fantasy — albeit done with lots of care, charm, craftsmanship, and creativity.

In many respects, then, it treads similar thematic ground to the admittedly better Kamandi, but probably comes up a bit short in that comparison simply because it’s so truncated and lacks something of the “personal touch” of earnest and only somewhat wistful nostalgia that permeates the exploits of the “last boy on earth.” Considered from that angle, it certainly falls more than a hair short of being a great comic — but it’s still an awfully good one.

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Really, anything and everything you could wish for in a pre-historic romp is in here somewhere — savage killers with names like Stone-Hand and Seven Scars; intense battle sequences featuring massive, brutish beasts; a heart-warming friendship between one of our less-evolved ancestors and his mighty reptilian companion; heck — we even get some space aliens and a bit of cosmic “Kirby Krackle” thrown in for good measure. In short, there’s simply no reason not to like this comic, and if you go into it again with an open mind, I think you’ll find a lot more worth your time here than perhaps you first thought.

There’s no doubt that Kirby’s still very much “on top of it” as far as his artistic game goes here : Devil Dinosaur is filled with page after page of awesomely-realized spectacle, dynamic action, fluid sequential visual narration, and impactful bombast. Jack knows when to be grandiose and when to “dial it back” just enough to make sure that when he lands his next blow, you’ll feel it. Events move along at a brisk but measured clip, and there’s not a solitary panel that goes to waste, each one fulfilling its task of depicting life in an awesomely surreal version of prehistory that could only have come from one mind. Add in Mike Royer’s crisp,  solid,  and always respectful inks, and you’ve got a book that really is a treat to look at.

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Perhaps surprisingly to some, it reads pretty well, too. I know Jack’s scripting has its critics (mostly those who like to drag his reputation as a writer down in order to maximize the value of whatever Stan Lee’s contribution may have been to 1960s Marvel), but I’ve never really been among them. A Kirby-written story is certainly a product of its time, but if an issue of this or any other of his 1970s books were stripped of its credits and put alongside something written by Lee, or Denny O’Neil,  Steve Englehart, or Jim Starlin from roughly the same period that had equally been rendered anonymous, you couldn’t honestly say that any of them were more “clunky” or “unrealistic” than others. Jack frequently gets saddled with the reputation of a “stiff” and “tone-deaf” writer quite simply because it suits the agenda of those who wish to credit Stan Lee for pretty much everything to do so. In truth, his writing style is very much of a piece with the way comics storytelling was done at the time and he’s got absolutely nothing whatsoever to apologize for in that department.

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At the end of the day, then, maybe the fairest assessment one can make of Devil Dinosaur is that it may not be a great Jack Kirby comic, but it remains a great example of precisely why people still love his work, and always will. If that even makes any sense. Marvel put out all nine issues in a trade paperback collection a few weeks back, and the back issues are relatively easy and cheap to come by, so why not give it a go (or give it a go again, if you’ve read it before but it’s been awhile) in either format and enjoy the ride for what it is — a fun, furious, expertly-told tale of a boy and his big red t-rex. It may not knock your socks off like the very best of the King’s works always did and continues to do, but it’ll definitely charm them off, and that’s plenty good.

trashfilmguru (Ryan C.):

I take a look at “Transformers : Age Of Extinction” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Originally posted on Through the Shattered Lens:

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You can accuse Michael Bay of many things — overblown spectacle, formulaic hackery, using CGI as a massive crutch, general lack of anything resembling original vision — but false advertising ins’t among them : when you go see a Bay-directed flick, particularly a Bay-directed Transfomers flick, you know exactly  what you’re in for.

Oh, sure, his latest — Transformers : Age Of Extinction — alters the basic cosmetic trappings somewhat, most notably by banishing Shia LaBeouf to whatever hell for dead careers Megan Fox was earlier castigated to in favor of proven “action hero” star Mark Wahlberg, and yeah, Stanley Tucci is about the only major holdover (as far as human beings go) from previous entries in this series (look for more newcomers in the form of Kelsey Grammer and Nicola Peltz as Wahlberg’s daughter), but this is no reboot, by any stretch.

For one thing, the story continues directly…

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It seems like most comic book geeks/nerds/whatever that I know of absolutely fucking hated high school. It’s certainly understandable — the constant popularity contests, peer pressure, incompetent teachers and administrators, and study of subjects that would prove to have no bearing whatsoever on real life are more than worthy of all the disdain one can possibly muster. The biggest drag, though, is that there’s no bigger crime at the average American high school than being different, and most kids who are into comics are just that.

I didn’t actively despise my high school years nearly as much as a lot of folks — I wasn’t “Mr. Popularity” or anything, but I seemed to find a way of fitting in just fine without having to be some total conformist asshole. I read comics, watched Doctor Who, and not only did everybody know it, no one really seemed to give a shit. I wasn’t “picked on,” bullied, or made fun of — at least not to my face — and generally went to the same keg parties and other social gatherings that all the admittedly “cooler” kids did. Here’s a tip for any high school nerds struggling to fit in who may be reading this : shower daily and wash your hair and take care of yourself. You’ll find no one really cares too much how “weird” your interests and ideas are if they can stand to be in the same general vicinity as you.

All that being said — I can’t claim to particularly miss those times, either. I don’t feel some warm glow of nostalgia when I look back at them. I didn’t suffer the humiliation and indignities that many other “outsiders” do, but even so — I’m glad that chapter of my life is over and done with. At my last class reunion, I cut out after about an hour — it was perfectly fine seeing all those people again, but watching them get drunk and reminisce about the “best days of their lives” isn’t something I’m terribly interested in. I wish ‘em well, but if I want to keep up with any of my former classmates — apart from the small number I remain close friends with to this day — I’ll follow them on facebook. That’s good enough for me.

Besides, if I want to remember what high school really felt like, all I have to do is pick up the latest issue (there are three so far), of writer James Tynion IV and artist Michael Dialynas’ ongoing series from Boom! Studios, The Woods. Granted, the situation presented in the book is an extreme one — the students, faculty, and entire building of Bay Point Preparatory Academy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin are transported to another planet for reasons unknown — but damn if these kids, one-dimensional caricatures though many of them may be (as is common with both many actual high schoolers and stories such as this one with large ensemble casts) don’t read like the real thing, and behave precisely in the manner you’d expect them to if plunged into the deepest of deep ends. Right now, the asshole football coach is busy turning all the jocks into a makeshift vigilante disciplinary force, for instance. Sound about right to you?

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I’m not too familiar with Tynion’s work apart from his functioning as Scott Snyder’s unofficial understudy/fill-in writer of choice on DC’s Batman and Batman Eternal, but he’s crafting a very intriguing little suitable-for-all-ages adventure here that captures the tone and tenor of his characters in as authentic a way as is possible, and while I admit to being more or less completely unfamiliar with Dialynas outside of his work on this book,  he’s really impressing me with his non-flashy, but energetic and well-realized, visions of both the mundane realities of “life” in a school building and the completely unknown (and perhaps unknowable) alien forest (hence the series’ title — what? You thought maybe it was a comic spin-off of Lucky McKee’s film of the same name?) outside of it that one small, brave (or perhaps foolhardy) group of kids have set off into on a search for some answers to their current predicament — because, let’s face it, after awhile even life at home with your parents beats being stuck with your classmates and teachers all the time. Suffice to say that I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for future works from either/both of them, though, because The Woods shows both of them to be in possession of well-above-average sequential storytelling skills.

There’s a certain innocence and charming (but quite intentional, it seems to me) naivete to both of these creators’ outlook on their subject matter, but as the story goes on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that much of that will, sadly, have to be sacrificed if everybody — or at least as many people as possible — are going to survive. I suspect that we’re headed for a semi-traditional morality play on the tragedies of youth gradually slipping away, but who cares if it’s been done a thousand times before? As long as it’s handled this deftly and presented in a context this new and fresh, I’m cool with the underlying themes not breaking a tremendous amount of new ground. At the end of the day, most literature professors will tell you that there are only, what? Seven different types of stories or something anyway? Just write yours well and draw it well — both of which are happening page after highly-turnable page in The Woods — and this armchair critic will happily remain on board for the duration of the ride.

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The other thing that Tynion and Dialynas are to be commended for is making certain that each issue they produce is better than the last. Granted, we’re only on number three, and there are bound to be some hiccups along the way, but so far the art, which started out plenty strong to begin with, keeps on getting better and better,  and the story’s stakes are gradually, methodically getting higher while at the same time the personality of each character comes more sharply into focus. That’s the essence of consummate professional comics storytelling in a nutshell, my friends, and it’s a commodity in far too short supply these days. These guys are handling their respective duties in a way that all young creators should strive to emulate.

I’ve read some reviews out there that say this book is giving them a bit of a Lost-type vibe, and while there do appear to be some parallels, I have plenty of faith that our writer and artist here — faith that’s entirely earned based on the quality of their work thus far — will, by the time this is over (which I hope isn’t too terribly soon), have given us something that actually, ya know, makes sense. Even if the handful of kids out trudging through the wilderness are about to wander into an alien pyramid. Heck, maybe The Woods will end up being the kind of story that Lost could (and should) have been — but it’s more likely that it’ll just be its own unique take on subjects that remain fairly timeless. So what are you waiting for? It’s not too late to get in on this highly addictive series before the bell rings and we’re all told to siddown and stay in our seats.