REVIEW: Artemis & The Assassin #1

Artemis & The Assassin #1
Written by Stephanie Phillips
Art by Francesca Fantini and Meghan Hetrick
Colors by Lauren Affe
Letters by Troy Peteri
Published by Aftershock Comics

Sometimes I want to read a comic that's a metaphor for colonialism, or a critique of capitalism. But sometimes I just want to read a story about time-traveling assassins. Well, excellent news for me! And for anyone else who enjoys fun, engaging, sci-fi action stories. Artemis & The Assassin is here, it's a highly entertaining read, and it's off to a very strong start.

The story opens on a wintry road in Russia, 1916. A stagecoach has been stopped by a mysterious figure in the middle of the road. Things get very bloody very quickly, and the driver and the passengers of that coach don't stand a chance against this mysterious and incongruous figure. One of these people is of great historical importance, and he's the reason our mysterious assassin is here. Grigory Rasputin is now dead, and history is about to change. We see this mysterious assassin (whose name we learn is Maya) walk through a portal and return to her headquarters. Things are tense between her and her handler (named Isak), but he has a new mission for her. A new target. The story then moves to Vichy France, 1944 and we're introduced to the remarkable (real-life) figure of Virginia Hall, code-named Artemis and known as the deadliest spy in World War II.  She successfully takes out a bridge and makes her way back to resistance headquarters, but from there, it doesn't seem like Artemis' life is about to get any easier.

The issue also includes a second story, which takes place earlier in Maya's involvement in this organization. She's training and is clearly very promising, but Isak is not yet ready to send her on missions. She's sure she's ready, so he takes her to a target. If she can kill this target, then he will believe that she's ready. But while we don't see the target, it's clear this is going to be an incredibly difficult test for young Maya.

In addition to being a highly engaging story, one of the main takeaways I want to give you about Artemis & The Assassin is that it's a really good-looking book. I was only vaguely familiar with Meghan Hetrick (who illustrates the main story) and I was not familiar with Francesca Fantini (who illustrates the backup story) but both are excellent, and paired with the skillful coloring work of Lauren Affe, really bring this story to life.

Hetrick illustrates the main part of the issue, and she's got a terrific and distinctive line that feels very original while evoking other great creators.Hetrick has a big, bold, exaggerated style that uses exaggeration in bodies and facial acting but still feels very true to life. As seen in the above and below pages, she has a skillful eye for action, tension, and pacing. On the first page, our focus moves smoothly from the overhead view of the carriage, to the driver, to his stunned reaction, and finally to the person to whom he's reacting. Without showing too much, we can see that Maya is swiftly lethal. While being very much her own style, Hetrick's work evoked for me the idea of a more restrained Christian Ward or Riley Rossmo, with the characters' oversized eyes and exaggerated expressions.

Hetrick's linework is perfectly complemented by the bold, atmospheric and larger-than-life colors provided by Lauren Affe. I'm a big fan of Affe's color work, going back to the Image series Five Ghosts, and I think she does spectacular work in conveying tone and mood through color. In these first wintry pages, while the color of the sky and the way that the background envelops the characters is not *realistic* per se, in some ways it feels more real than real. The sky and the trees and the backgrounds *feel* like what a cold winter in Russia is supposed to feel like. And making the reader feel the cold of the Russian winter is more important than verisimilitude. Affe's colors adapt seamlessly to other settings, from the bright and sterile headquarters of the time-traveling assassins, to the dark woods of WWII France, to the well-worn walls of a tavern and cramped bedroom.

Fantini illustrates the backup story where we see a much earlier interaction between Isak and Maya; an example of the black & white art is included below but the final pages are fully colored. I've always been a believer that if you're going to have more than one artist in an issue of a comic, there needs to be a reason for it. And I think that the best possible use of two different artists in a single comic is to show two different time periods, or two tell two completely different (but related) stories. That's what Fantini is doing here. She illustrates a training sequence from much earlier in Maya's career, before she was a full-fledged assassin.

Fantini has a more detailed, precise style in this first issue; it's a distincy style, but the realism of the facial acting and body language and the overall level of detail reminds me a little bit of the work of Steve Epting. Fantini's work feels more *grounded* than that of Hetrick That's an excellent choice for showing the earlier life of Maya, before she found herself in the absurd position of being a time-traveling assassin, back when she was just a trainee. That deliberate artistic storytelling is echoed in the color choices from Affe. The colors are still bright, but the choices do feel a little more muted. There's also more detailed rendering of the various characters; this gives these pages a more grounded, realistic feel. All of the artistic choices in the issue feel very thoughtful and deliberate.

I'm a sucker for a fun time travel story. I was 9 years old when I saw Back to the Future in the theater, and it completely blew my mind (I can't believe my parents actually let me see it 4 times that summer). Since then, whether it's Timecop, Primer, Looper or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, if it involves time travel, I'm there. Similarly for comics, I've loved many stories such as Paper Girls, Pax Romana, The Comeback, The Red Wing, and more. I've loved a lot of different time travel stories, and all I really need from one is (1) for the time travel to make *enough* sense (just to make sense within the context of the story), (2) for there to be a good reason for the time travel to be taking place, and, (3) something fun or cool or interesting I haven't seen before.  

While Artemis & The Assassin is only one issue into the story, and it feels very much like an introductory issue, it's definitely been successful in making me want to read more.  In addition to time travel generally, I've always been hugely fascinated by alternate history stories (i.e., what if the Roman Empire never fell, what if the South had won the Civil War). The assassination of historically important figures sems like it would have all sorts of significant effects on the timeline, but we don't yet know in this story how time travel works. Can you change the past (e.g., Timecop)? Or does that just create new branching realities (e.g., Avengers: Endgame) and not in fact change the past. We'll see, but the idea of an agency of time-traveling assassins is a great idea and I'm excited to learn more about this agency, and its history and its guidelines. For example, what if people offer to hire them for conflicting jobs? Would they go back to the same date in history more than once? Are they in some way insulated from the changes that they make to the timeline? 

While we don't know very much about the world of the story, we do get a decent sense for Maya. She's very good at her job, and she seems to enjoy it. There's something a little cruel and almost sadistic that she seems to get out of killing. There's some tension and/or hostility between her and Isak, but the motivation to do her job keeps her focused. She's a formidable foe for anyone to have. 

But, the name of the comic is Artemis & The Assassin, so it's clear that Artemis is going to very much be a formidable foe for Maya. What we see of Artemis in action is very impressive. She takes out a German officer with a sniper rifle, and then she runs across a bridge a makes sure it gets blown up in time to hurt the Germans and make it impossible for them to cross at this particular point. When we follow her back to the resistance hideout, her comrades want to celebrate but she just wants to rest. We learn then that her tremendous physical exertion by her (including outrunning the German soldiers and leaping off of a bridge) is all the more impressive, given that she has a prosthetic leg. She's clearly a remarkable person, and it's also clear that she's as committed to what she does as Maya is.

The WWII setting is always a fantastic place to tell a story. You can go anywhere from gritty combat, to weird mystery and horror, to clandestine espionage, and other genre choices as well. Given Artemis' role as a spy, I expect the story to stay in the spy genre, but with the added wrinkle of a time-traveling assassin with incredible futuristic weaponry (which just sounds like a lot of fun). I very much appreciate stories that combine various genres, and this feels like that sort of creative combination.  Not to mention that the real-life Artemis seems like an amazing individual (about which I admit I knew nothing), so I'm very much looking forward to learning more about her. 

There's definitely a lot to enjoy in this first issue of Artemis & The Assassin. I really want to know more about the organization that employs Isak and Maya, and about the broader world of the story. This first issue is highly entertaining in and of itself, but also has a ton of promise of what' to come.