Best Shots Comic Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK, SCALPED, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Get ready for the big column with Best Shots! So as you get settled into the work week, take a peek at the end of an era with George Marston, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Jeff Lemire's Justice League Dark...

 

Justice League Dark #12

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Mikel Janin and Ulises Arreola

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Talk about a big turnaround. Since writer Jeff Lemire joined ongoing artist Mikel Janin on Justice League Dark, it's gone from being a book to which I didn't even give a second thought, to book I read first on the weeks it comes out. There's something about Lemire's grasp of the characters involved combined with the pacing of his storytelling that makes every issue a gripping, compelling piece of fantasy. Issue #12 is no exception, as the team races to find the Books of Magic before Felix Faust and his allies.

Beginning with Dr. Mist's origin, and ending with Faust's mysterious employer's confrontation with Dr. Occult, Lemire never wastes a page, moving the story along between numerous locations, action sequences, and character beats on a whirlwind tour of the DC Universe's various magical hotspots. Even with the character development given the traitorous Dr. Mist, who is quickly becoming my favorite character in the book, perhaps the best thing about Justice League Dark is also the least expected, as Lemire deftly weaves together the action-packed, superheroic world of the DC Universe with the more subtle and nuanced vision of magic from DC's Vertigo imprint.

My skepticism for the ability of characters and concepts like Constantine and the Books of Magic to successfully assimilate into the larger DCU is what kept me away from this book to start, but Lemire's handling of the story has been classy and compelling. That's never more apparent than in this issue, as Lemire successfully throws numerous story bits tying together old, hanging threads from Vertigo's Books of Magic into the mix, perhaps even closing the book on Tim Hunter, Vertigo's magical prodigy.

The success of this book doesn't rest entirely on Lemire's shoulders. I'm just gonna come out and say right now that Mikel Janin may be the best artists DC has in their stable at this point. He's certainly one of the most underrated. Besides accomplishing the seemingly impossible by completing 12 straight issues of a single DCnU title with unerring consistency and quality,

Janin also manages to make every single page electrifying and exciting, which is not an easy task in a book where so much time is spent contemplating magical dilemmas, and doing supernatural detective work. His Constantine is grungy and smug, his Deadman is ghastly and pallid, and his take on the old Global Guardians character Dr. Mist is at once mysterious and inviting, echoing the characters roots in Ramona Fradon's gonzo, Fourth World-esque design, while also updating the character to fit amongst a team of psychics, shapeshifters, and ghosts. Not a single page goes by without Janin and colorist Ulises Arreola applying their almost painterly art to some new concept, be it a demonic, squalid take on Felix Faust, or the imposing and terrifying Blackbriar. I'll say it again; there's not a better art team in the New 52.

With all of that going for Justice League Dark there's almost got to be a downside, but I can't see it. With Lemire at the helm, this book has joined the upper tier of DC's titles as a book to watch. Fortunately, Lemire and Janin appear to be on board for the long haul, with neither making plans to exit the book any time soon. It's a good thing, too. Justice League Dark is a book that thrives on its moving pieces, including its compelling cast, Lemire's taut script, and Janin and Arreola's masterful art. Rarely, especially since DC's relaunch, have an artist, writer, and concept come together so fluidly. If you aren't reading Justice League Dark, it's only because you haven't given it a shot.

 

Scalped #60

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by R.M. Guera and Giulia Brusco

Lettering by Sal Cipriano

Published by Vertigo

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Jason Aaron and R.M. Guerra bring Scalped to an awe inspiring conclusion, with a mexican standoff, a burning casino, bloodshed, death, tears shed, love lost, and life spawned. If you were expecting things to turn out happily ever after, then you clearly haven’t read the preceding 59 issues of the series.

The way this story ends is sure to frustrate many readers, as Aaron leaves a few storylines unresolved and open-ended, leaving things to the reader’s imagination. Given the grim and realistic nature of this story though, this feels like a perfect ending, because real life rarely wraps everything up with a neat bow on top - life can be frustrating, disappointing, and sometimes just downright unfair, especially on the Prairie Rose Indian reservation. Something that is sure to please however, is that two of the series’ biggest assholes get their comeuppance, quite literally dying in a fire. Also pleasing is the fact that Red Crow keeps his promise, and the fact that Dashiel does not succumb to his baser instincts - though Guerra shows us in very gory detail what he would like to do to Catcher, he resists the urge, and in the process saves his and Red Crow’s lives.

Dino Poor Bear’s story is the saddest one of all, as over the course of the series, Aaron has turned him from a good kid, down on his luck, to a brutal and heartless villain. Aaron also uses the storyline to comment on the inevitability of life on the Rez, and how removing Red Crow from the position of power just created a void, which someone even worse came along to fill.

The resolution of Dashiell's storyline actually brought tears to this reviewer's eyes and tugged strongly on his usually very tough heartstrings. After spending his entire life trying to escape the reservation, he finally found a reason to stay, and people who really need and love him, but the mistakes of his past came back to haunt him, and now he has to run away, leaving many ruined lives in his wake. It’s the cold and hard resolution that you would expect from this story, and couldn’t be any other way.

Jason Aaron’s script for this issue is some of the best writing of his illustrious career, with a dark and grim plot, perfect pacing, flawless character work, realistic and flowing dialogue, and tons of ponderous, almost poetic monologue. Whatever Jason Aaron does next will have very big boots to fill, because this series has established him as one of the best writers working in comics today.

R.M. Guera is working in a similarly high gear on this issue, clearly pouring his heart and soul into every page of artwork, with highly detailed and expressive linework that illustrates every moment perfectly. He works from loose and almost sketchy pencils, which give the story a gritty noir feeling, then overlays them with luscious inks, with lots of brushy flares, and much use of heavy, heavy blacks. Life of the Prairie Rose reservation is ugly and brutal at worst, and sad and depressing at best, and Guerra does an amazing job of bring this feeling to the page.

Giulia Brusco puts the final touches on the artwork, bringing Guerra’s inks to life with a subdued and dark color palette, which really suits this sad story. There is a point during the height of the final fight, where Dashiell imagines what he would like to do to Catcher; I’ve read that some readers had a problem differentiating between which panels were imagined, and which were real, but I think that Brusco actually did a commendable job with her colors here, using a slightly different palette to help separate what was dream from what was reality.

Scalped #60 brings Aaron and Guerra’s magnum opus to an fitting and bloody conclusion, which provides some satisfying story resolutions, but ultimately leaves things on the reservation pretty much the same as they were in the first issue. Life marches on, and cares little for the plight of our characters...

 

The Invincible Iron Man #523

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Salvador Larroca and Frank D'Armata

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Patrick Hume

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Over the past four years, Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca have made The Invincible Iron Man one of Marvel's flagship books again, as is only appropriate given the character's Downey-related marquee status. I think that, taken as a whole, their run has equaled or surpassed anything else featuring the character, and has been vital in re-establishing Tony Stark as a protagonist we can get behind after the miscues of Civil War.

Despite all of this, The Invincible Iron Man #523, Part 3 of "The Future," crystallizes my concerns that Fraction has been losing steam when it comes to Ol' Shellhead. The last few short arcs, focused on the Mandarin's dismantling of Stark's life and putting him to work building weapons, have dragged where they should have sung. There are so many different irons in the fire at this point that Fraction can't give any one thing quite the same energy that came off the page back in 2008.

This issue moves all of the pieces into place for the final showdown with the Mandarin and Stark's redemption, but it fails to feel as if it's building towards something. The cutting back and forth between Tony in Mandarin City and Pepper and the Stark Resilient staffers back in the States diffuses any momentum that either plot tries to accumulate. I'm all for a vibrant supporting cast, but outside of Pepper, Rhodey, and Mrs. Arbogast, I still can't put a face to a name on any of the Resilient crew, and I've been reading this book closely since day one. If the guy with his name on the cover is being forced to work for his archenemy, I want to be reading that, not Pepper in bed with Resilient Guy #2 (all right, all right, Wyche) trying to figure out if Rhodey is the guy in the new Iron Man suit. On that note, may I say how much I hate that device? Of course Rhodey's the one in the suit. I'm also not sure I buy Tony not warning Pepper about the possible traitor in their midst.

Aside from breaking up the tension of the rising action, the time we spend with the ensemble in this issue also means we only get half a picture of what's going on with Tony. Even as he prepares to take on the Mandarin and recruits his fellow prisoners to the cause, there's a sense of something missing, narrative shortcuts taken for expediency's sake. Given how meandering the last several issues have felt, it's unfortunate that we don't have a solid throughline for what's going on with our lead.

Despite some of the missteps on the scripting side, Larroca's art remains exemplary. His clean lines and clear storytelling do the heavy lifting here, lending vibrancy the story would otherwise lack. Each panel feels like a distinct moment that could start moving again the second we take our eyes off of it. The irritating nature of the storyline aside, the Rescue-Iron Man dogfight shows off Larroca's ability to convey character and body language in the midst of action, even through the suits. Frank D'Armata's contributions with the colors cannot be understated, either, bringing a distinct visual tone to each scene that does essential work in setting the mood.

Fraction and Larroca's run starts coming to a close next month as "Armor Wars III" kicks off. While The Invincible Iron Man #523 may be an unremarkable component of the larger whole, I have hopes that its last pages have positioned the cast for an explosive finale, one that will make this team of creators the benchmark for Iron Man for years to come.

 

Batman Incorporated #3

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn

Lettering by Patrick Brosseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

A Grant Morrison comic can be a heavy handed read, both in its context and its pacing. But in Batman Incorporated #3, Morrison streamlines his story and pens a tale that is wonderfully paced, well-written, and fun to read.

The comic follows Bruce Wayne as he dons his Matches Malone disguise in order to figure out what role the villain Leviathan has in Gotham City. It turns out that Leviathan has been involved in a lot of Batman’s life the past few years and readers get a great insight into Morrison’s ability to tie these various stories together. Rarely do readers get to see Bruce doing his detective work as anything other than Batman, so in having him use the Matches Malone disguise, we’re given a distance from Batman that makes the story more light-hearted. Matches has all the humor that Batman doesn’t, and Morrison makes the distinction clear when Batman shows up to have words with Matches Malone. For example, when “Matches” is talking to Lumina Lux, he tells her “I'm like true love and nuclear war -- there’s no way to prepare.” Would you ever hear Batman saying that?

The comic is also a good showcase of Bruce’s sidekicks and helpers as Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne play important parts in Bruce’s scheme. Morrison knows how to write Dick so that he isn’t a carbon copy of Bruce, and as always, Damian has the best lines of the issue.

The comic is also visually stellar. Chris Burnham’s choice of frame is the most impressive part of the imagery. He deftly uses long, medium and close-up shots to convey a variety of emotions. Readers are given a great sense of the “scope” of the story in the first two pages, and while the next several are word-heavy, the comic never loses its momentum.

When Bruce goes to visit a “damsel in distress” at the end of the issue, Burnham creates the perfect amount of tension and dread with tight shots and skewed panel designs. The imagery never loses its clarity, even in the face of chaotic events, and the final three pages are an exercise is excellent story telling through visualization. This is truly impressive work as Burnham not only draws intense moments, but when Matches confronts the man who thinks he murdered Robin, Burnham illustrates the desperation of a man who murdered a child and now has to deal with the aftermath. In these moments, the Goat’s bruised face and terrified eyes say all that he can’t.

If you’re looking for the perfect mixture of narrative, dialogue and art, Batman Incorporated is your book. Morrison keeps the tone light for the majority of the issue, then slams the final few pages with palpable intensity. Of the books that benefitted since the New 52 reboot, Batman Incorporated is one of them. It’s an eclectic mix of characters and canon written by one of comics’ greats, and illustrated with impressive skill.

 

The Ultimates #14

Written by Sam Humphries

Art by Billy Tan, Timothy Green II, Terry Pallot and Ifansyah Noor

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

A lot of crazy shakeups have been happening in the Ultimate Universe. The country is falling apart as Washington, D.C. has been destroyed by a nuclear weapon and states are seceding from the union. Basically, the Ultimate Universe is having their own Civil War. The Ultimates have been charged with combating rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who are under the thumb of a master planner intent on dissembling the country state by state.

To put it succinctly, there’s a lot going on.

Most of the references to the war are through characters so while readers won’t necessarily see the country being disassembled visually, the characters have enough visceral reactions to the events so that the weight of the story feels real. Carol Danvers and Steve Rogers have a conversation that sums up the general hysteria when Steve says “Why would they do this, Carol?” It’s a weighted line that evokes the intended emotion and considering that the story has spanned three different Ultimate Books (The Ultimates, Ultimate Comics X-Men and Ultimate Spider-Man) theres an added urgency as every character in the Ultimate Marvel Universe has been affected.

A lot of what Sam Humphries writes in this issue feels like a scene pulled from The Avengers movie. There’s a blistering amount of action in the comic, and most of it takes place in New York City. Humphries still finds time to slow down his tale and transition to the calculating and villainous Mr. Morez. These moments are what work best in the comic. When Humphries gives his characters time to react, the suspense and tension are strong.

Where the comic falls short is in the action heavy moments. There’s so much going on that when Humphries tries to shift from character to character, some of the momentum is lost. This is really due to the amount of dialogue. While moments are meant to be rapid-fire, the amount of talking slows down the reading, and where something is supposed to last a few seconds, it feels longer. Characters still have cool moments, and Humphries has them doing and saying a lot of awesome things, but the action doesn’t come across as fast-paced as it intends.

Part of the problem might be the switch in pencils from Billy Tan’s to Timothy Green’s. Where Tan’s imagery is smooth and consistent, Green’s is roughly drawn and visually off-putting. Green puts a lot of errant lines in his panels, throwing them in during stationary moments that result in visuals that look like they’re in perpetual motion. The most climactic moment of the comic occurs off-panel, and is only conveyed through dialogue. Green’s characters are also misshapen and faces are awkward-looking. For example, Black Widow looks emaciated while Thor looks like he’s seven feet tall. After a while, it gets distracting.

I’m a fan of thrillers so I like the behind the scenes player moving his chess pieces into place. Mr. Morez is a mysterious but powerful villain, and Humphries knows how to convey the Ultimates as a team rather than a group of individual players. The art, however, hinders the story. It was difficult for me to be fully engaged by a book whose visuals diverted my attention. But I like grand, sweeping stories, so I’ll stick with The Ultimates to see “Divided We Fall” through. After that, however, who knows?

 

Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan

Written by J. Michael Straczynski

Art by Adam Hughes, Laura Martin

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by Jake Baumgart

'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

When going into the Before Watchmen series, the big concern seemed to come from how this would impact the original Watchmen. So far, the best of the series have done their share to not muddle with the events of the source material, instead focusing on the early adventures that formed these characters. Most creators have demonstration respect and control when dealing with these characters and have chosen to tell significant stories about their past that compliment the original.

But not J. Michael Straczynski.

The story starts with Dr. Manhattan at Edward Blake’s funeral, a scene that was great in the original Watchmen, as Alan Moore used it to tell some backstory on Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian. I guess this wasn’t enough for J. Michael Straczynski. The writer, strangely, chooses to pick up from this point to tell his Dr. Manhattan story. Too much time in the book is spent on events that already exsist in the original book. There is definitely no reason to go back and rewrite what’s already there. From that point the memories desolve into Dr. Manhattan’s time on Mars. This is, arguably, one of the best moments in the source material, as the good doctor struggles with humanity and his god-like perception.

However, with this new story, JMS actually adds (feels more like “replaces”) that original internal monologue with his own circular inner dialogue. Now Dr. Manhattan asks a bunch of questions that just seem to collide with nothingness. Just big, empty, questions that sort of feel like they might mean something but don’t. The thoughts that he proposes to no one don’t seem like the kind of thing a man with that much power would ponder over. Questions of “what does is all mean” seem too juvenile. It almost feels like a watered down version of the original that Moore wrote.

While these thoughts are punctuated with moments from Manhattan’s life, sadly, there is no real story here that wasn’t already in Watchmen. The new scenes feel like things that might have been left on the cutting room floor. The characters that populate these scenes feel just as empty as Manhattan’s thoughts. They rehash motives from the original book or just expositional sentences that fill dead space. It’s a shame, really, because one of Hughes’ best pages is littered with this sort of thing. The dialogue suggests that JMS doesn’t know what these people should be saying.

One of the highlights of the Before Watchmen series is the choice of artists. So far, every book has a top talent artist assigned to each title. Now, whether or not each artist has turned in their A-game is another story. Adam Hughes seems to rest somewhere in the middle of this. Hughes slightly alters the original layouts in Watchmen instead of going a completely different visual route. Instead of feeling comfortable familiar or excitingly different, it just feels flat. This could be a choice based on how much of the story swims in the original territory of the source material.

Colorist Laura Martin might not have been the best choice for Hughes’ pencils. Everything is colored in the warm glow of yesteryear. There is a nostalgic feeling that comes across with such a brown palette and sepia tones. However, this book is too close to the “now” of Watchmen that it confuses who these memories are really intended for. The reader? Doctor Manhattan? He doesn’t seem like the nostalgic type, even sitting there in the buff on Mars.

Hughes hits a few home runs, though. There is a full-page splash of the titular character towards the end that is amazing. Martin and Hughes really come together great here and that piece would make and awesome print. There is also the three-by-three panel page (reminiscent of Dave Gibbons) that’s nice in spite of JMS’s dialogue mucking up the page. Adam Hughes's art is good, but not good enough to pick up the book.

For completists of the Before Watchmen series, this isn’t the worst of the bunch. However, fans that are still on the fence can go ahead and skip this one as well. No need to meddle with a work as good as the original Watchmen. Maybe JMS doesn’t exactly know what he has to say about a man as powerful and close to God as Dr. Manhattan.

 

Wolverine #312

Written by Jeph Loeb

Art by Simone Bianchi and Simone Peruzzi

Lettering by Albert Deschesne

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 1 out of 10

As he pummels the savage Sabretooth to a bloody pulp, Wolverine tells us that he doesn't know what his longtime arch-nemesis is talking about, and he doesn't really care.

Unfortunately, newcomers to Jeph Loeb's story arc may well say the same thing. With various factions all trying to get their piece of Wolverine — including mysterious masterminds Romulus and Remus, each sporting the same kinds of claws and healing factors that make Wolverine such a rough-and-rumble kind of customer — this book almost reads as if it was written in a foreign language. With even more allusions to Weapon X and Logan's hidden history, this comic beats a dead horse from the '90s all the way to the glue factory.

That's not to say, of course, that Loeb doesn't know his audience. Wolverine is the best there is at what he does, and so Loeb crams in a ton of fight sequences in the span of a single issue. That's great. Unfortunately, the choreography is less than inspired (more on that later), and more importantly, we don't really care about Logan as a character here. He's largely invincible with his healing factor, to the point where he can shrug off being tossed out of an airplane, and the theme of whether or not he will give into his berserker rage is something that wore out its welcome back in 1995.

If this book looked good, we'd at least have something to work with here, particularly with all the fight scenes. We don't have that. Simone Bianchi's artwork comes off as a little too pretty in layouts — particularly a spread with luminous panels showing off Logan's history with Romulus and Sabretooth — but is rough and ugly in terms of the fine details. Wolverine himself has always been a roughneck, but Bianchi brings almost a quiet horror vibe to his art, almost like a painterly Ethan Van Sciver. But whereas Van Sciver is usually tempered with brighter colors, Bianchi falls into deeper darkness with Simone Petruzzi's colors. Even Albert Deschesne's sharper, '90s-style "animalistic" lettering feels overwrought and out of date.

Bianchi's other, bigger problem is how he conveys the art. His choreography really takes you out of the story instead of bringing you in deeper with powerful, memorable shots. While there's one nice beat of Wolverine bringing his claws through Sabretooth's chin, there are plenty of other beats that fall flat, including Wolverine punching Sabretooth into the ground in a comically over-the-top feat of strength (no claw slashes, though), or a nude Romulus leaping at Wolverine junk-first in the closing splash. The worst of the bunch is Remus being tossed out of an airplane, and then in the next panel miraculously clinging to Wolverine's back, somehow making it back up a solid 10 feet in the air. Comics!

While you might have heard about the game-changing revelations of this issue, I wouldn't think twice about it. You probably won't understand half of what's going on in this book, and the final-page twist is so implausible that it will likely never be mentioned again, let alone used in a future Wolverine storyline. Unless you are a fanatical completist of either Loeb, Bianchi or Wolverine, you'll be better served reading just about anything else.

In Case You Missed It!

 

Mumbai Confidential #2

Written by Saurav Mohapatra

Art by Vivek Shinde and Saurav Mohapatra

Lettering by Saurav Mohapatra

Published by Archaia Studios

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Like so many other genres, the crime and noir stories have slowly evolved. It's no longer enough to have a smoke filled room and morally questionable characters. Modern readers and viewers need more from their heroes of clay. But for all our love of modern crime fiction like Sherlock or Luthor, we're also looking for something more than a typical A – B – C procedural. Where do you go when all you want is a pure distillation of the genre? A story that does more than pit cop against crook, but also avoids the predicable tropes as found in a series like Bones or CSI? Mumbai Confidential from Archaia Studios comes very close.

Loosely based on true events from India's darker past, Mumbai Confidential #2 continues the story of the cities' Encounter Cops. Men that, in essence, take down Mumbai's dangerous and deadly underworld without judge, jury, or any form of due process. Similar to Elliot Ness and his Untouchables during the high point of Prohibition. And, like Ness, these Encounter Cops have been romanticized within Indian cinema. Writer Saurav Mohapatra does his best to peel away that false veneer through our main character, Officer Kadam. And yes, while Kadam is our main character, he is in no way a hero, no matter how badly he wishes to be so.

Mumbai Confidential works best when we're following the destruction (and redemptive) path of Kadam. He is the classic gritty vice cop. Entering the force with a real desire to do good. A pure and noble heart that must continue to tell himself that what he does, the laws he breaks, and even the faith he destroys is for the good of the people. And it is when life reminds him of his personal lies that we truly start to see what kind of a man Kadam is. And how very little he's done to make Mumbai a better place.

The art by Vivek Shinde is a great tonal companion to Mohapatra's rather tortured writing. His use of shadows and dim coloring paint a world that feels like it's in a perpetual state of chaos. Even in quieter moments, you can feel the outside world attempting to push in and shatter what little peace it finds. His use of a watercolor style only adds to the vision. As there are rarely any dividing lines between people, places, and nature. That isn't to say the art is sloppy and bleeds. Indeed, quite the opposite as I get the emotional sense that each element is vying for power over the other. Shinde's lines and colors suggest a disciplined and evolved form of Frank Miller's work in Sin City. No where near as harsh in contrast, but more evocative in emotion.

In a way, this acts as the one major hurdle I have with Mumbai Confidential. It's a well-written book with compelling characters, a familiar yet still strange setting, and art that is truly wonderful to view. Yet I don't know if Mohapatra and Shinde know exactly what kind of a story they're trying to craft. Is it a fictional retelling of real events, or a study on human hubris and its impact upon society? Then again, maybe we aren't supposed to know the real questions. Like any good crime, it's up to us to put the pieces together. For now, Mumbai Confidential #2 is a powerful book with great dialogue and compelling imagery. It's one you should not miss.

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