Best Shots: AVENGERS ACADEMY Finale, BEFORE WATCHMEN, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for some Best Shots? Your favorite review team is at it again, with a handful of big releases from your favorite publishers. So let's kick off today's column with George Marston, as he takes a look at Marvel's graduating class in the final issue of Avengers Academy...

 

Avengers Academy #39

Written by Christos Gage

Art by Tom Grummett, Cory Hamscher and Chris Sotomayor

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating:  7 out of 10

And so ends Avengers Academy, not with a bang, or even a whimper so much as a feeling that there's still something left to be done. While most of Christos Gage's Avengers Academy was not necessarily flawless, but well executed, underappreciated, and kind of incredible in its success for not featuring a single straight, white male, this final issue didn't necessarily push the right buttons for the emotional response this title deserved.

To be fair, it's entirely possible that the slight sense of dissatisfaction that this ending imparts is based on knowing what comes next — seeing characters that evolved through so much, whose stories were not about exploitation placed in a Battle Royale fight to the death seems like missing the point — and knowing that it's unlikely we'll see some of the new concepts left lingering by the group's graduation come to fruition.

Story-wise, there's a lot of what you'd expect. The characters achieve a kind of individual catharsis, with scenes like Hazmat finally making herself truly vulnerable with Mettle, Reptil moving on from his obsession with Finesse, and Finesse realizing that maybe, she doesn't want him to. Really, if there's a weak point in this issue, it's that it feels more like it's setting up another chapter than ending a story, and while things are pretty much over for at least one character by the book's end, it feels less like Hank Pym is graduating these students, and more like he's moving them up to the next grade, like there's more story to tell, which undersells what the whole process has meant to the characters.

Still, it's not as if the issue is poorly crafted. While Tom Grummett hasn't ever particularly been the guy whose name says "understated emotional drama," he does a great job of making this title, and this issue visually interesting despite the fact that it mainly consists of characters hanging out and talking. Gage concocts some of his most subtly powerful moments yet, such as Finesse shedding a tear, possibly for the first time in her life, over the loss of two relationships that she obviously took for granted, and Striker realizing that sometimes publicity and the public eye cheapen a moment, rather than making the most of it. The growth that these characters have seen almost can't be understated, and it's because of that kind of long-term emotional payoff that the ending lands at all. Gage set an incredibly high bar for himself, and the main problem with this final issue is that it felt more like the end of the writer's run than the end of the concept in general.

It's very hard to see Avengers Academy go. It was something of a landmark title, proving that a teen superhero drama doesn't have to revolve around the deaths of the characters to hit emotional paydirt, that a superhero book can feature a cast consisting entirely of women and minorities without making that some kind of focal point, and that a good concept, solid art, and great writing will always be the most important factors in the success of a book. If anything, Avengers Academy should be judged by the 39 issues that preceded this one than by it's final gasp. Still, it's hard not to feel like there was something missing from this finale.

 

Before Watchmen: Moloch #1

Written by J. Michael Straczynski

Art by Eduardo Risso and Trish Mulvihill

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by DC Comics

Review by Jose Camacho

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

At the climax of the Before Watchmen series, the lowly villain, Moloch, gets his own two-issue story. Here’s what I see as Moloch’s mission: Convince the reader that this is something more than DC cashing in on Watchmen’s popularity. And after seeing the awesome cover, we know this story was going to have at least two things: magic and murder.

For those scratching their heads, Moloch was one of the villains that battled with the Minutemen, Alan Moore's all-too-human allegory for the Justice League. With his impish appearance and affinity for magic, he was probably the closest thing to a true supervillain in that universe. He seemed to be modeled after the Golden Age comic villains that robbed banks with bombastic personalities, costumes and silly weapons. Throughout the issue, the reader is shown a deeply troubled and conflicted individual falling deeper into a cycle of self-hate and rage. Moloch is an outcast surviving by any means necessary.

This issue quickly introduces the reader to an imprisoned and aging Moloch confessing to the prison chaplain. He is shrouded in shadows and repenting. This quick setup sends the reader through Moloch’s childhood and his descent into a life that combines circus magic, robbery, drugs and prostitution. Moloch #1 shows us an environment that sent the titular character into a life of crime. Much like any villain, he claims to be a victim of society. While it does add personal details, it lacks the social commentary that is expected from a series tied to Watchmen.

At times, Moloch’s tale seems to mimic noir films. Moloch in a suit looks like an elfish version of Humphrey Bogart as he plots kidnappings with his goons. The noir feel helps the issue mix well with the retro-Minutemen. The trains, the tommy guns and even the solar mirror weapon helps place this story in the same era.

Straczynski finds a way to maintain a steady pace throughout the issue. He chooses events that are multi-faceted. While the reader may have been overexposed to details of Moloch’s sex life, it really added to the depth of the character. As odd as it was to see, the reader got a glimpse into the character’s head and his self-worth. Straczynski came up with events that showed Moloch at his lowest even though he was at the top of his own criminal empire. Another event showing Moloch’s humanity is when he finds the futility of battling the Minutemen. It was refreshing to see from the perspective of the criminal. This almost serves as commentary on the repetitive nature of superhero comics as a whole.

The art in Moloch #1 sometimes bordered on cartoonish but overall, Eduardo Risso is solid. The reader could assume that this was done to take the edge off the mature images within. Either way, it compensated for its look by utilizing the structure of a photo album. The comic was arranged like a collage of Moloch’s memories. Each panel focuses on a specific event tied to the story Moloch is sharing. These snapshots are his memories so they are intense and very personal. Moloch slumped on the side of his bed with a glass and a gun is a memorable one. There Risso displays Moloch at the height of his power yet very depressed.

Many of the panels were dominated by a singular color that would set the mood.  Reds and yellows dominated the sequence of Moloch’s first kill; the blues and blacks in the prison panels create a somber mood similar to the look in the eye of a trapped animal. It is a simple trick but it helped compliment the tone of the different flashbacks in the issue.  Another technique that Risso employs here is minimalism. This can easily be found in the prison sequences where the bars are nothing more than black outlines. Risso makes the prison bars appear to be more than physical; Moloch is trapped mentally as well.

This issue is a good addition to the “Before Watchmen” collection. The tragic elements keep the reader engaged. Risso’s art and Mulvihill’s colors compliment the odd and somber life of Moloch. It seamlessly blends in the world of Watchmen. Although Moloch #1 did not go the extra mile that some of the other “Before Watchmen” counterparts reached. Hopefully, I’m crying foul too early and the series’ conclusion will prove me wrong. Maybe this is the setup to an entertaining sleight of hand.

 

Daredevil: End of Days #2

Written by Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack

Art by Klaus Janson, Bill Sienkiewicz and Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Matt Murdock had 99 problems, and women were... well, several of them. But another problem that Daredevil: End of Days has is a lack of focus. While the creators behind this book come together for a veritable symphony of talent, the fact remains that this book, focusing on the loves of Daredevil's life, still doesn't quite have enough meat to sustain last month's apocalyptic debut.

Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack have a story that flows slowly, as reporter Ben Urich tries to track down the secrets of the late Man Without Fear. Yet while the last issue focused primarily on Matt Murdock's descent into villainy, this comic really kind of skirts around the character of Daredevil almost entirely. The Black Widow, Milla Donovan, even a certain crimson-clad assassin get their mentions here... but that's just it. They're mentions. Bendis's naturalistic dialogue is in full force here, however, lending a smart-alecky vibe to Urich — you can feel the love of classic Frank Miller on every page. There is one minor curveball that Bendis throws in, but it's nothing as damning or chilling as the murder and corruption of last issue.

The artwork by Klaus Janson and Bill Sienkiewicz still conjures up the kind of dark old-school vibe that at least alludes to the stakes involved. Harsh angles and overwhelming shadows give some real character to the burned out Urich, as the larger-than-life lights of Times Square and the alleyways of Hell's Kitchen. It's definitely a looser sort of line than I would have expected, but this is a case of getting the right artists for the right storyline — every page feels like a eulogy, every panel feels like a burial. Matt Hollingsworth's colors manage to balance today's need for high-energy colors with the contradictory need to keep everything moody, realistic, dark.

Reading Daredevil: End of Days is like watching a good band at work — from a craft perspective, this is the A-Team, these are some real geniuses doing their thing. But the notes of the song don't line up. There's a Devil-sized hole in this story that no one can seem to fill in these pages, no grand tragedy that pulls our attention and our heartstrings. Matt Murdock has enough sadness and terror in his life to fill a hundred epics — here's hoping that Ben Urich's investigation gets back to what really matters next month.

 

Hellraiser: The Road Below #1

Written by Brandon Seifert

Art by Haemi Jang

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by BOOM! Studios

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Last month I was tasked with writing a retrospective on the Hellraiser films. I dig horror, this was going to be fun. And, with only four flicks, it'd be a simple evening. Then reality hit me. Hard. Nine movies! There have been nine Hellraiser movies, and following the rule of diminished returns, that ninth one would be a real stinker. And while this is a comic review, trust me, you need to cash out on these flicks after the first three. (If we're being honest, the first two.) This is all an incredibly long way to say BOOM! Studios is totally making the right call by flushing the last seven Hellraiser flicks for their series. Hellraiser: The Road Below is no exception.

Right out the gate, if you aren't a fan of Kirsty Cotton ascending the role as Hell's new priestess, then The Road Below is going to be a hard sell. But from a character and storytelling evolutionary stance, this is a natural phase in the Hellraiser series and breathes much needed life into this world. As in his Witch Doctor series, writer Brandon Seifert has a good ear towards a dry humor that plays well to the Faustian concepts in Hellraiser. We are all our own enemies and it is only after the punchline do we even comprehend the joke.

The bulk of the issue centers around Rhea Wolfe and her daughter as they attempt to hide from a destiny that promises a less than joyous future. Hunted by, perhaps literal, demons from her past, Rhea makes a last-ditch attempt in protecting the only thing that matters: her young daughter. And, when one is playing around in the Hellraiser world, there is really only one person that answers that call. While there is very little of Kirsty in this opening issue, what we are presented with an interesting insight into what kind of Pinhead little Kirsty will become.

Visually, artist Haemi Jang works best in the personal moments that fill the bulk of The Road Below. Although it's easy to treat the Cenobites are heartless demons of temptation and pain, it's their subtle nuances and even humanity that make them so compelling. In that regard, Jang brings a real sense of life and depth in the few moments we see the denizens of hell on the page. There is also a fluidic motion and grace to Jang's lines, especially where Rhea Wolfe is concerned. Fans of Becky Cloonan will find a welcome tone in Jang's pencils. There is some stammering with Jang's fight scenes, and I was hoping for a grander experience with the famed puzzle box. However, both show hints of an artist getting more comfortable the exaggerated movement required for such moments.

Seifert and Jang make a strong team for this book. While there are a few scenes that feel a little too convenient, one needs to remember the basis and foundation upon which all Hellraiser works stem; that of the theatre of the bombastic and avant-garde. When viewed with such light, The Road Below almost reads as the quiet prologue to a violent exploration of whatever is left of Kristy Cotton's soul... and just what it means to be the Priestess of Hell. 

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