Best Shots Extra: ACTION COMICS, DEFENDERS Finale, More


Action Comics #14

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Rags Morales, Mark Probst and Brad Anderson

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Go big or go home. Or, if you're Grant Morrison, go to another planet entirely. Action Comics is swinging for the fences this month, and even on the sands of Mars, the Man of Steel finally feels like he is where he should be.

As far as high concepts go, this is probably one of Morrison's most straightforward and his most epic: Superman fights living machines, an army of angels and even the Devil himself, all while staging an outer-space rescue mission on the surface of Mars. Honestly, if that isn't enough hook for you, we aren't reading the same superhero funny books. Morrison (mostly) doffs the cocky Clark Kent but keeps his lowered invulnerability, amping up the danger and tension Superman faces. (It's also a nice touch to have Superman face off against angels, one of Morrison's best moments in his acclaimed run on JLA.)

Morrison also includes the optimism of All-Star Superman, which goes a long way towards... well, not us necessarily worrying about this demigod, but at least liking him. You can tell Clark Kent is at least the biological son of a scientist, as he approaches even certain death with a sense of curiosity, of wonder, of good spirit. "We're going to figure out how to do the impossible," Superman says. From his bombastic entrance onto Mars to his reassuring look at a young boy, you can't help but believe him.

The artwork is also striking, although it also is the one thing that occasionally drags down this otherwise ambitious book. Rags Morales, when he's on, makes Superman look strong but not cartoonish, powerful but not omnipotent, even warm and reassuring with his body language and composition. That said, the actual expressiveness and acting of his characters falls flat on more than one occasion due to some severely inconsistent faces — there are plenty of lines in this book that could have been sold better with a wink or a small smile, but unfortunately Morales doesn't deliver. Where he does pull through, however, is with the action, particularly in the pacing and the sheer heft of everything thrown at Superman. For the first time in awhile, I actually felt like the Man of Steel had a worthy opponent — I guess dozens of angry cannibal angels will do that to you.

Ultimately, after months of wheel-spinning and jerky story directions, Action Comics is back with a vengeance, packing a ton of action and heart into one issue. (And that's not even counting the headline-grabbing cameo by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in a backup by Sholly Fisch and Chris Sprouse!) Big stakes, new worlds, a visitor on another strange planet showing us grace under fire — this is what Superman is all about. Definitely buy this book.


Defenders #12

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Mirco Pierfederici and Veronica Gandini

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Twelves issues after it began, Matt Fraction's scattered, quirky Defenders ends not with a big bang, but more of a big whisper. Rather than tying up the various loose ends of its diverse cast, Fraction takes a more meta tack on the Marvel Universe as a whole, leading to a quiet, somewhat impersonal, yet still surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

In a lot of ways, this finale felt like Matt Fraction's cover of Grant Morrison's trippy, fragmented Final Crisis — cutting from cast member to cast member, individual exposition be damned, Fraction instead lays out a cosmic apocalypse and draws up an elegant solution that ties in the entirety of the Marvel Universe. As he shows the doomed Defenders' last stand against a mad Celestial, he also takes an interesting approach to the idea of the Defenders as a whole — namely, they don't work. From a thematic standpoint, a structural standpoint, a sales standpoint, fitting these characters together is a mistake, and so it's to Fraction's credit that he's able to essentially shoot the moon and give all these setbacks and only-occasionally successful experiments a reason for being.

The art is an interesting sleight-of-hand, as well. From the first few pages, you could swear that Terry Dodson is back to finish this, with a rounded colossus that has an animated, pleasing look to the eye. Imagine my surprise when, a few pages in, you realize that isn't the case at all — Mirco Pierfederici does a nice job mimicking Dodson's style, with only his rougher inks betraying that this is a different guy behind the wheel. Pierfederici's expressions aren't always as strong as they could be — a weakness shared with Dodson, however — but I do admire his sense of composition, particularly the dynamic group shots of the various Marvel heroes. He's definitely got a hint of Matt Fraction's playfulness there, so it's not all serious, and if anything, all those additional inks make it look like a cataclysm is coming.

That said, I called this a cover, and I stand by that — Fraction may be riffing off Morrison's metatextual enthusiasm, but we've seen that before. The hidden truth behind the Marvel Universe is old news, something that DC already covered back in 2008. Additionally, most of Fraction's cast is lost amid the struggle, with Iron Fist and Black Cat in particular not getting a single line in the book. And those who did like this book will have reason to be upset by the end, as Fraction does use a tremendous cheat to let everyone live happily ever after.

Yet for someone who has had plenty of misgivings over this iteration of Defenders, I give Fraction some credit for at least trying to wrap up his messy, loose story with a nice bow on top, and I give credit to Marvel for trying to bring this book in for a soft landing with a nice artistic pinch-hitter. This team wasn't the best one Marvel's ever launched, and it wasn't necessarily the best fit for Fraction as a writer — but sometimes you have to play the cards you're dealt, and Fraction is cashing out with some serious skill.


Freelancers #1

Written by Ian Brill and Matt Gagnon

Art by Joshua Covey, Felipe Smith, Justin Stewart, Vladimir Popov, and

Zack Sterling

Lettering by Pat Brosseau

Published by BOOM! Studios

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

I sure as heck didn't see this book coming. A quick glance at the cover of Freelancers #1 from BOOM! Studios gave me a general idea of what to expect. A couple of ladies kicking all kinds of butt in a questionably over-sexualized setting. And, we kind of got that. But writer Ian Brill and artist Joshua Covey pull it off in such a charming way, the reader is totally along for this fun little ride. As the title suggests (and is later explained in a cliched, but well-intended bit of exhibition), Cassie and Val are Freelancers. Not the poorly paid writer kind, but the classic Fall Guy or Rockford Files kind. And if you think you've seen the last 70s or 80s television reference in this review, you're in for some serious disappointment.

In fact, it's the connection to late 20th century T.V. that helps sell Freelancers #1. Shoot, the book opens with an almost pitch-perfect, pre-credits action sequence. By the time Cassie and Val deliver a post job one-liner while looking directly at the reader, I was actually hoping for a childhood flashback. And this book gave me just that, even better, it was at a martial arts orphanage. In any other book, that would have activated the groan-o-meter. In Freelancers #1? Not so much. (Well, maybe a little, but I still dug it).

With Cassie and Val, writer Ian Brill does a good job of making these two ladies feel real, without falling back on tired “everyone has a smart comment” style of writing. There is a certain kind of feel to their banter. Like a fun mix of the Buffyverse, by way of Cagney and Lacey. You know, if Tyne Daly could leap from speeding convertibles in Venice Beach and deliver a roundhouse kick. Brill also gives us just enough back story on the two women that we want to know more about them, but don't feel like their past is wholly tied to the plot. Although some of that rear it's head in the story, it does help to justify that rather heavy use of flashbacks.

Joshua Covey really delivers in the first half of the book. His body composition of both Cassie and Val are that of strong and athletic women, while never once devolving the book into cheesecake or exploitation. And trust me, there are plenty of moments where a less than observant or caring artist could have taken these two ladies down the blatant sexism path. I say first half though, because right around the middle, Covey's art loses some flair for me. Nothing bad per se, but there is a heightened sense of rushed work. Fights scenes don't look as planned out and the lines aren't as tight. But still, a strong effect from the visual side.

Special consideration needs to go to writer Matt Gagnon and artist Felipe Smith for the back up, Tiny Fighters. Covering a pivotal moment in the lives of wee Cassie and Val, Tiny Fighters is like the Saturday morning cartoon adaptation of your favorite action show. Complete with crazy fight scenes, misunderstood villains, and a life lesson at the end we could all take to heart.

As much as I dislike the phrase “popcorn entertainment”, Freelancers #1 might fall into that category. Brill and Covey aren't breaking any new ground here. But they are having some serious fun with a couple of strong ladies that I can't wait to watch week in, week out. Or, month to month as this is comics. Freelancers #1 is just a good time.


Popeye #7

Written by Roger Langridge

Art by Roger Langridge and Luke McDonnell

Lettering by Roger Langridge

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Deniz Cordell

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

I must shamefacedly admit that this is the first issue of IDW's new ongoing Popeye series that I've read. What took me this long to finally come around to reading it, I've no idea, but I'm hoping I can somehow make up for this transgression.

First — Sappo. That's right, the old back-up strip on the Sunday Thimble Theatre strips has a presence in this new book, as well - and it's delightful to see that the care and affection for Segar's creations extend beyond the borders of Sweethaven. Once Roger Langridge trotted out that greatest of words, "veeblefetzer" (a word I find excuses to use in conversation), I knew that this was a magazine after my own heart. The Sappo story is a charming exercise in light, fanciful humor, as Professor Wotasnozzle introduces yet another genius invention that still has a few kinks yet to be worked out. The character interactions are sharp, and, for those unfamiliar with the characters, the relationships are instantly defined. Writer/artist Roger Langridge is working within the structure of the comic book to create something with the pacing and rhythms of a comic strip, and it works quite wonderfully. It's all about the storytelling here, and the gags are presented simply and elegantly. Langridge's art echoes Segar's, while maintaining its individuality, and his particular aesthetic - and his characters are expressive and energetic.

Now, onto the spinach and potatoes of the book — the headlining story, featuring Popeye. It's quite terrific, particularly for fans of the early days of the comic strips - back when characters such as Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy were featured as leads. The story, briefly, details Popeye, Olive, J. Wellington Wimpy (one of my selections for one of the greatest fictional characters of the twentieth century), and Castor (Olive's brother - here running a private detective firm), head out west to visit Ham Gravy - once a major character in Thimble Theatre and Olive's former beau before the introduction of Popeye. The character conflict between Popeye and Ham comes to the fore, along with a slate of visual jokes that emphasize the sometimes-grotesque physiognomies on display in Segar's world. The other part of the story, involving mysterious disappearances on Ham's ostrich farm is integrated nicely, providing a good sense of resolution to the various character arcs here - and Wimpy's burgeoning friendship with an ostrich named Rudy adds another layer of comic energy to the proceedings. Langridge's ostriches, which populate the story, are marvelous creatures — given hysterical faces with bug-eyes and perpetually addled expressions. Their presence adds to the immeasurable charm of the entire enterprise. The dialogue effortlessly captures Popeye's unique patois, while the other characters are faithful to how they were first conceived - Wimpy, in particular, has some cherce dialogue, and there's a very funny night-time scene that brings the Popeye/Olive/Ham triangle into sharp focus. A final gag dealing with the presence of a desert yeti evokes a once-startling twist from the legendary "Plunder Island" story, while fitting in nicely with the proceedings.

Langridge is, of course, perfectly suited to this material — his previous book, the late, lamented Snarked! was, I felt, very much cut from the same cloth as Thimble Theatre, with its fondness for wordplay, great comic characters, and elaborate, ornate plotting. To see him tackling Segar's world is a source of great delight, and he does so with aplomb, supplementing the supporting casts with his own players, and creating stories packed with terrific bits and details. Overall, the dialogue and plotting is as lively and picaresque as those stories of yore, and Luke McDonnell's color work is great - favoring bolder versions of the sort of color schemes used in the old Sunday strips. There's one final, terrific moment, a fight where we are given a glimpse of Popeye's indomitable spirit, and that sort of spirit and good-nature is what propels this new version of Popeye (and Sappo!) to delirious heights. 

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