Best Shots Comic Reviews: X-MEN LEGACY, BATMAN & ROBIN, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Get ready for the big column, as Best Shots brings our weekly reviews to you! So let's start off with a twist of a tie-in, as X-Men: Legacy goes sideways from Avengers Vs. X-Men...

 

X-Men: Legacy #271

Written by Christos Gage

Art by Rafa Sandoval, Jordi Tarragona and Rachelle Rosenberg

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Tired of crossovers? No problem — Christos Gage seems tired of them, too, as he throws readers a real curveball in the latest issue of X-Men: Legacy. While the transition from Avengers vs. X-Men to what is essentially a sci-fi war comic is a jarring one, Gage and company succeed with strong characterization and easy-to-follow rules that keep tension high.

Keeping his focus on the power-stealing Southern belle known as Rogue, Gage wastes no time with pleasantries like exposition or worldbuilding — last issue we were watching Rogue take her shot at the Phoenix-empowered Magik, and now, well, she's fighting for her life on a war-torn alien world. That premise, ultimately, is what makes or breaks this book: Can you deal with such a dramatic, almost random-seeming shift in content and tone? Think of John Carter of Mars, only starring an X-Man, and you've got a decent idea of how this issue goes.

Yet Gage bucks the odds, thanks to two things. The first is that while he drops us into this new world without warning, he also establishes some smart rules to keep things tense. For now, Rogue has the powers she stole last issue from Ms. Marvel, but Gage tells us early that those feats of strength, flight and energy blasts could fade away at any moment, leaving Rogue all-too-human in an world that will show her no mercy.

It also helps that Rogue is a charmer — Gage has her in way over her head, but she's pragmatic and self-deprecating, competent and even a little bit reckless, as she hauls off and slugs one alien into next week. She's a fun protagonist, and because the odds are so stacked against her, you do become concerned for her well-being, even if her dying on some no-name alien planet flies in the face of decades of superhero lore.

Artist Rafa Sandoval is also a great fit for this comic. His composition is particularly striking, especially when we watch Rogue touch down like a human fighter jet into this new world, or the bodies fly when Rogue lashes out against her attackers. Sandoval reminds me a lot of Stuart Immonen, with his sharp, cartoony designs being very accessible and inviting for new readers.

I also really liked Sandoval's designs for these aliens, which come off as brawny, powerful, yet expressive — even a little familiar, giving off an almost cat-like appearance at times. Colorist Rachelle Rosenberg is also a good fit for this comic, with her color choices really lending an otherworldly energy to this off-the-wall environment.

Christos Gage and Rafa Sandoval have definitely gone off the beaten path for X-Men: Legacy, and for many, that will be enough to skip this book. It's definitely calorie-free sci-fi adventure, with all the cliches and tropes that an interstellar gladiator movie might bring. But the execution is strong, and the scenarios depicted have that oh-so-slightly-guilty thrill that comics have long lost in their quest for respectability. This comic has no pretensions, but plenty of fun. It's a diversion, but one I certainly enjoyed.

 

Batman and Robin #12

Written by Peter J. Tomasi

Art by Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray and John Kalisz

Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The spectacle of a finale is what many writers and artists shoot for. Most arcs in comics end with massive explosions, intense fights or redefining character moments. Peter J. Tomasi goes for all three in Issue #12 of Batman and Robin. The problem is that the book is poorly paced, chaotic in its visuals, and anti-climactic.

First off, Terminus feels like a throwaway villain. As a foil to Batman, he’s a Bane knock-off in a Juggernaut-like suit. He lacks any sort of staying power given his quick rise and fall. The secondary characters are merely place holders for Damian, Tim, Jason and Dick — all of whom have some dialogue in this issue. Whereas Tomasi had something interesting in his conflict with the Robins, that thread it tossed aside for a compact ending that sets everything right in the final two pages. Even the villain’s defeat is weak.

Secondly, the book is so chaotic that the story is hard to follow. There are many moments of inconsistency where successive panes do not have fluid or neat actions. It’s evident Tomasi wants to give this an epic feel, but due to the amount of “stuff” going on, I felt bounced from moment to moment without any shared cohesive thread. The book has cool character moments, particularly with Damian, but they feel lost in the big battle between an armored Batman and a glowing Terminus.

Part of my complaints with the comic also lie in the visuals. Patrick Gleason has a lot to illustrate, but the volume of movement makes the pages lose a lot of clarity. His choice of perspective, at times, makes it so that characters appear larger or smaller than normal, and due to the similarity of colors, certain characters are lost in the shuffle. Close-up shots are fantastic, especially when they’re used for effect or tension, but these don’t redeem the disorder.

Whereas the first arc dealt with Nobody, a villain who had some serious emotional and physical impacts on Batman and company, this story lacks the same weight. Terminus is a one-dimensional villain who moves in and out as if carried on a strong wind, and the tidy ending doesn’t help. Given the recent events of other Batman comics, I can see why Tomasi would want to have a story grand in scope and epic in execution, but this effort lacks a focus on character and instead shifts to action. The result is a dismissive story that is all flash and almost no substance.

 

It Girl! and the Atomics #1

Written by  Jamie S. Rich

Art by  Mike Norton and Allen Passalaqua

Lettering by Crank!

Published by Image Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

While I know of and have read a few Madman comics, I would never call myself a devoted fan of Mike Allred's rock star superhero. Diving into that character always felt too daunting. So I was more than a little excited to see It Girl! and the Atomics #1 as a perfect place to experience this world. Although I was a little bummed that Allred only drew the cover, I would never go so far as to complain about a bait and switch with this comic.

But that isn't to say a little creative twisting doesn't happen in this issue. Writer Jamie S. Rich does throw the reader into a setting that rarely happens with in the Madman setting. That of the dark and dangerous alleys of Snap City. With storytelling that mimics the most tired of vigilante tales, It Girl! sweeps in to clean the mean streets of thugs and pushers. Only to fail her mission and have to return to the previous save point and try again. The real It Girl! is playing a video game version of herself as she's bored to tears at the banality of a Madman free life? Ah, that sounds a little more like it friends.

The exploration of a superhero without a cause or reason to go out is the real strength of this story. Rich is slowly revealing to the reader two different outlooks on the costumed life: One in which a hero so deeply wants a return to her glory days, so much so that she'll submit her body and mind to a less-than-stable scientist, while a villain, released on a fantastic technicality of hero resurrection, only wants the mundane life It Girl! so disdains. In any other book, this might read as a painfully angst-ridden comic. But, under Rich's snappy dialogue and and story elements, this analysis is bright and energetic.

Helped in no small part by the artist team of Mike Norton on pencils and Allen Passalaqua on colors. This is one vivid and gorgeous book. Norton shows his flexibility as an artist, as well as his understanding of trends in comics. As the books opens in the video game world, we are in full on Xtreme era. Flowing hair and trench coats, comically over sized belt pouches, and feet that could never hold that body upright. Only to effortlessly switch to the real world with frumpy clothes and facial expressions that do more than shout at the reader.

What I find more enjoyable about Norton's pencils is the suggested sense of movement. The reader always gets the impression that this is a living, breathing world. No one is truly posing, we're simply catching brief moments in their life on paper. Combining the vivid colors of Passalaqua and you have a book that looks like the finest in animation. In fact, it is Passalaqua's colors that make the strongest transition from the opening video game scenes to the real world. For all the dangers that It Girl! faces, she still lives in a world of stunning primary colors. Any muted colors would have diminished the visual storytelling found in this issue.

It Girl! and the Atomics #1 succeeds on a couple of levels. As a new reader, it did a great job of pulling me in and keeping me interested in this character and her world, and second, it really makes me want to go back and starting reading Madman. Not a bad accomplishment for a woman that can't beat her own video game. 

 

Archer and Armstrong #1

Written by Fred Van Lente

Art by Clayton Henry and Matt Milla

Letters by Dave Lanphear

Published by Valiant Entertainment​

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Faith is a tricky thing and those who feel strongest, such as trained religious warrior Obadiah Archer, have the furthest to fall if that belief is shaken. Thanks to the villainous cabal known as the One Percent, Archer’s world is coming to an end, and they might just take the rest of the globe with him in this terrific topical series that is not recommended for conservatives.

Fred Van Lente brings his strong sense of plotting and sarcastic sense of humor with him to Valiant in a book that I’m impressed is seeing print. Given the controversies weathered by other writers such as Ed Brubaker for merely referencing right-wing political issues, I give credit to Valiant for going out on a bit of a limb here, as this comic clearly has a left-wing slant.

Religious faith both old and new is shown to be dangerous in the book’s opening and closing moments, and the villains of the piece are corporate heads who literally wear Ten Commandments-style gilded bull masks who want to use a super-weapon to manipulate the economy.

Van Lente lays it on a bit thick at times, portraying a happy family in a Bible park as being stereotypically overweight, a radio personality who proclaims the sinfulness of the outside world, and making Archer’s Dad a Congressman who is also a Reverend. A girl even warns of the wrongheadedness of Archer’s family, just in case you didn’t get the point.

Archer’s character works a lot better once he’s in New York, as he looks on in horror at the things we take for granted. Some of his commentary has merit, and I like that these moments, leading up to a misunderstanding and brawl based on values disagreements, show that while he may have a perspective that readers may not agree with, Archer is at heart a good person. That’s crucial for a main character and sets up an evolution that will be fun to watch, once Armstrong’s influence on Archer begins to take full effect.

While Archer is the focal point of this opening issue, Armstrong’s intro shows that unlike the naiveté of Archer, he is a world-weary man who has seen much in his thousands of years. He doesn’t need to see the big reveal of a corporate power that’s been using those on the religious right to slowly grow their influence the way that Archer does. We don’t get a lot of time with the co-star of the book, but what we see shows he might be jaded and debauched on the outside but hides a deeper core that seeks to prevent the devastation he’s already witnessed. It’s not unlike Greg Pak and Van Lente’s take on Hercules, and fans of their version of the Prince of Power should have a lot to like in Armstrong.

Clayton Henry’s visual timing works perfectly with Van Lente’s script, expanding and emphasizing the points made verbally, such as in the examples I mentioned above. Similar in style to Frank Quietly, Henry draws in a thin, realistic style that allows him to provide extensive detail work. Little touches do so much in this issue, such as the wide-eyed look of Archer as he enters a bar with bikers and a wall of bras or his concerned look while stuck on a bus with the unwashed. Henry is equally at home illustrating period costumes in Mesopotamia or the slick suits of the One Percent, giving both the appearance of accuracy and showing a wide range of emotions on the faces of every era.

Colorist Matt Milla works with rather than against Henry, making the art even better. He doesn’t try to over-process the look of the comic, shading things naturally and using a variety of colors, switching from light to dark to evoke just the right mood from the reader. It’s great to see the entire production team working in harmony together like this, making for an almost flawless execution that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should.

Archer and Armstrong #1 is by far my favorite Valiant comic of the relaunch so far, with a great story that is topical and yet contains timeless elements such as measuring the value of faith. It’s my pick for book of the week and highly recommended for anyone who won’t be offended by its politics. 

 

Punk Rock Jesus #2

Written and Illustrated by Sean Murphy

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by Vertigo

Review by Erika D. Peterman

’Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

How do you follow an indelible debut issue containing one of the most startling, did-that-just-happen endings in recent memory? That’s a hard act to follow, but the second issue of Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus is yet another indicator that this six-issue series will be one of the most memorable comic book titles of the year.

Take some DNA from the Shroud of Turin, attach it to an egg to create a Jesus clone, artificially inseminate a virgin with the fertilized result and launch a global reality show based on the so-called second coming of Christ. What could go wrong? It’s just as disastrous an idea as it sounds, and writer/artist Sean Murphy takes readers deeper into the chaos that the birth has wrought.

Much of the story is devoted to naive teen mom Gwen Fairling, who is essentially a prisoner of Ophis, the company behind the J2 reality show. If there were any doubt about Ophis’ ruthlessness in keeping the J2 franchise intact and juicing ratings — and I don’t know how there could be any at this point — this issue will dissolve it. Far-fetched as this story might seem at first blush, the circus surrounding Gwen and baby Chris, the outrageous manipulation of truth and the pressure to feed the TV beast are all too believable.

Gwen’s seemingly hopeless situation brings her closer to Thomas McKael, the ex-IRA terrorist who serves as security and knows quite a bit about tragedy. The flashbacks to Thomas’ boyhood in the days following his parents’ violent murder are heart-wrenching. Writer/artist Sean Murphy’s intense black-and-white illustrations are so powerful that Thomas needs no dialogue to convey the depths of his trauma or the devastation he’s seen or inflicted. Thomas is a man of few words, but there is much more to him than brawn and an intimidating scowl.

Murphy's character sketches, both written and illustrated, are truly something special. Geneticist Dr. Sarah Epstein, the brains behind the cloning, is still coming to grips with the deal she’s made with the devil, so to speak. She’s already gotten a frightening glimpse of the consequences of her partnership with Ophis, and while she makes valiant attempts to assert herself, she’s much more vulnerable than she knows. J2 producer Rick Slate is menace incarnate, a shark with a too-big smile and a black hole where his heart ought to be. There's a feeling that the whole thing could blow up at any moment, especially with all the bullhorn-toting protesters and excitable voyeurs surrounding the enterprise.

Punk Rock Jesus is the antidote to empty, throwaway reads. Murphy tackles a lot of big themes without making the story oppressively dense, and it's one of the most substantive, surprising comics you can buy right now.

Dancer #4

Written by Nathan Edmondson

Art by Nic Klein

Lettering by Jeff Powell

Published by Image Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Nathan Edmondson continues his man vs. clone saga this month with Issue #4 of Dancer. The previous issues teased a big showdown between the main character Alan and his younger self, and while it occurs — somewhat — the story is a much more standard hunt and chase. This hurts the originality of the series, and makes this issue the least impressive of the series so far.

This issue of Dancer is more status quo. Bad guy and good guy fight, one gets away, wounded, the other follows the blood trail and a fight ensues. From what’s come before, there’s nothing unique about this issue. Even the characters become stereotypes of their roles. Sadly, the hero of the issue is the least interesting part of it. The idea of having a battle with a younger self is the compelling, but whereas Alan had some fire in previous issues, he’s very weak in this one.

Nic Klein’s panel construction is a bright spot of the comic. It helps move the story along, as well as keep the tension constant. The desolation of the setting is perfectly conveyed through the continuous gray and snowy backdrop, and while Klein’s imagery looks simple enough, he shows impressive ability in drawing setting. The buildings in particular are photo-realistically drawn. Additionally, his characters, save for Quinn, are gritty and heavily inked, but the imagery is apropos of the story.

While this issue of Dancer wasn’t as good as the previous issues, there’s a lot left to be answered and enough that fans of the book will come back next month to find out more about Alan and his clone, the mysterious “Fox,” and what role Quinn plays in this entire series. The last mystery is the one I’m most interested to learn, and while Edmondson teases a bit of her history, I have high hopes for the reveal. Hopefully, it happens soon.

In Case You Missed It!

 

Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe #1

Written by Cullen Bunn

Art by Dalibor Talajić and Lee Loughridge

Lettering by Joe Sabino

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Click here for preview

Marvel seems to have this fascination with "Antihero Kills the Marvel Universe"-type stories.  You never see a "Deathstroke Kills the DC Universe" or "Jughead Kills The Archie Universe."  Cullen Bunn and Dalibor Talajić continues the "... Kills the Marvel Universe" with either one of the most misunderstood or ill conceived characters of the past 30 years in Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe #1. With a title like that, is there really any plot description needed in a review?  It's pretty much right there, spelled out in black and white.

The fun part of Bunn's story isn't really anything he does with Deadpool but the way that he plays with some forgotten elements of Old Marvel stories. Opening up with Uatu, the Watcher narrating the story like some old "What If...?" story immediately sets the reader up with certain expectations and Bunn and Talajić dive into those showing a murderous Deadpool administering the final beating to the Fantastic Four. Actually, it's more of a killing than a beating, as Bunn and Talajić show us that this is going to be a bloody skirmish race through the Marvel Universe.

But how did we get here?  With Talajić's rough Paul Smith-like artwork, we see the X-Men delivering Deadpool to a doctor who Xavier believes could help the deranged hero.  Bunn and Talajić show us a Deadpool who's a victim — a victim of the heroes who didn't know what to do with him, and a victim of the voices inside his own head. For most characters, those voices would be an angel and a devil but Deadpools's voices are just two devils until they're replaced by one, more dangerous devil thanks to Deadpool's "therapy sessions."

That's where the mayhem begins, as we learn that Deadpools's doctor is an old Marvel villain and that his other "patients" are  other costumes villains and killers. Like any good “What If...?” story, Bunn and Talajić show us what we've always wanted to see but what couldn't be done in regular continuity.  Deadpool will never kill the "real" Fantastic Four, but the great thing about "What If...?" stories were that those outrageous scenarios could be played out to their horrific ends.

There are no real surprises in this issue because ultimately we know what is going to happen: Deadpool is going to kill everyone in the Marvel Universe. Bunn and Talajić now get to have fun in coming up with as many grisly ways as possible to do that.  Even though there is plenty of killing in this issue, I don't know how many of those you could call "imaginative kills," since the majority of them happen off-screen. Most of the Fantastic Four are killed before the issue even begins.

Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe #1 is a bloody book and quickly shows us that there's going to be a high body count as no one, not even the Fantastic Four, is safe. It’s bloody but hopefully from here it gets imaginative, as the book lives up to its title and shows Deadpool doing only what the Punisher and Fred Hembeck have done before.  Bunn and Talajić start out with an old “What If...?” story gone wrong in the way that only “What If...?” stories could.  Those old stories were never what you would call “happy” stories but they were fun as The Watcher and Marvel’s writers tried to throw new twists into classic stories.  There’s no classic story as a starting point here, so Bunn and Talajić have to find fun ways to live up to the title of the series.

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