Best Shots Extra: SAGA, WONDER WOMAN, More
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples
Letters by Fonographiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Saga is unstoppable. In it’s second issue back from a brief reprieve, we still find Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples “firing on all cylinders” and other critical cliches that we usually only reserve for Batman and the first six months of those DC Dark books.But is Saga really deserving of every perfect score we give it? I’m not sure.
Don’t get me wrong. Saga is a great book. It’s a well-told story with excellent pacing, satisfying characterization and just enough weird shit to keep readers guessing and not wanting to show their parents. The book doesn’t feature particularly challenging methods of storytelling. It doesn’t really push any boundaries as far as the ideas presented in it. With the introduction of Marko’s parents, we’ve started to delve deeper into the past history between our cosmic Montagues and Capulets. There is some tension resolved from the first issue in this arc and differences are pushed aside for the sake of the greater good. So what’s the appeal here?
I think it’s that Vaughan has displayed a distinct understanding, in almost all of his work, of the things that make us human (even though in this case everyone is some sort of alien or robot). He cuts to the core quickly and without hesitance. There’s is a flow to his narrative that allows him to mine the deepest parts of our hearts with great ease. We’ve read stories similar to this one before. We know how they go. Barring the small details, I’m sure someone could guess where all sixty issues of this series are going. But we stay onboard because it makes us feel good. This is swashbuckling romance for the best parts of us.
Fiona Staples is a large part of that. We know she can knock out a character design like nobody’s business (though I’ve always felt that Marko and Alana could be suspiciously related to the protagonists of Mystery Society). But Staples’ greatest skill comes in the small scenes. It’s not even a look or an entire expression. It’s the fire of determination in MArko’s eyes. It’s the panicked rigidity of Alan when she can’t find Hazel immediately. Staples work seems almost unconsciously fluid and dreamlike. It’s part of the reason that every strange thing in this book is so easily sold to us. It makes sense in this realm because it is consistent familiar in all the ways that matter.
I could go on. But I’m sure you’ve noticed the eight at the top of this page, a rare blemish in an unerring string of tens. It’s not that I think there’s particularly anything wrong with this book. It will probably go down in comic book history as another in a long line of BKV smash hits. There will be three movies spawned from it. It’ll be the first book to be translated into the languages of animals so that they can enjoy it. It will suffer no lack of accolades. Because of this, this book exists on a higher plane of existence than the usual tripe and this issue was rather humdrum (even with the big final page reveal) compared to where it’s usually at. I need to rate this issue a little lower because we aren’t allowed to give the really really good ones 11s or 12s.
Indestructible Hulk #2
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Mark Waid might be smashing the Hulk's old status quo, but his sophomore outing continues to refine his new take on that Unjolly Green Giant with action, a touch of humor, and more than a little Avengers movie synergy.
Ever since that billion-dollar Avengers movie, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark have been comics' ultimate odd couple — one is charming and snarky, the other charming in a more hangdog sense. Now, Mark Waid doesn't have Mark Ruffalo's understated acting chops to work with, but he does have a whole new status quo to play with: "You wouldn't like me when I'm happy." As Waid illustrates his hero's new lab and round-the-clock vitals monitoring, we get the sense that this is Bruce Banner getting his groove back, almost in a manic sort of way — and cleaning up shop, in a psychological sense. The overall plot is actually staggeringly simple, but the flurry of pseudo-super-science gets us to the fisticuffs quickly enough, and that's what matters.
But similar to his crossover work with "The Omega Drive," it's nice for Waid to show off how well he knows these characters — by showing what individual sparks will fly between the two of them. Watching Bruce and Tony laugh at puns in quantum physics equations is a nice touch, illustrating the genius that unites them both. But unlike the chummy Avengers duo we might remember, there is some unique tensions between the two that Waid really plays up nicely — Tony's incessant one-upsmanship versus Bruce's resentment issues is a conflict that taps into character rather than high concept.
The art by Leinil Francis Yu has its occasional missteps, but on the whole hits harder than a Howitzer. His characters — Tony Stark in particular — look like they've been chiseled rather than drawn, with an almost ubiquitous sense of stylishness. He also has the emotional beats down well, particularly as Bruce has his inevitable meltdown, and watching Iron Man's armor constantly shift and morph looks actually better than it does in his own series, to be honest.
Where I think Yu still struggles, however, is in portraying the Hulk himself — from the strobe splash page of him transforming looking more grotesque than awe-inspiring to the Hulk's final save nearly getting lost in a distance shot, I feel like we haven't really seen the Hulk himself be all that he can be. Even a shot of the Hulk sailing through a building, a cool shot in concept, feels a little too distant to have an effect — the composition of the fights in general still feels cramped. In addition, Sunny Gho's colors usually pop (especially for the yellow-and-black Iron Man), but sometimes either come off as muddy or just ill-fitting (like the yellow and salmon backgrounds during the big fight).
I'll admit that I was surprised to see a crossover so quickly for this series, but that's probably a short-term stratagem for survival for an unproven new direction in an unpredictable comic book marketplace. But Mark Waid has sold it nicely — a done-in-one comic starring two of Marvel's biggest icons, taking a refreshingly direct twist on the tried-and-true superhero team-up formula? There's a lot of depth left for us to discover with Bruce Banner, and Waid and Yu have left me green with anticipation for the next installment.
Wonder Woman #15
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Cliff Chiang and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
In the hands of Brian Azzarello, the relaunched version of Wonder Woman has been one infused with mythology, a story populated by Greek pantheons and old gods.
And now there is a New God in town.
In Brian Azzarello's hands, Orion isn't just DC's Dog of War, but an irresistible force that steals every scene in which he appears. In a lot of ways, this is the perfect way to introduce a new character into the still-new DC universe, even if Orion's hot-and-cold characterization overshadows Wonder Woman herself.
Maybe it's just the helmet, or maybe it's the growling bravado he displays, but Azzarello's Orion reminds me a lot of Judge Dredd — this is a guy who, while nice enough to those in need, seethes with barely repressed aggression, and when he comes face-to-face with the arrogant children of Zeus... well, he's got full reason to tear out. What's interesting about this take on Orion is it's far from the grandiose Jack Kirby, instead a very subdued, understated take on the New Gods. There are no crazy designs or epic light shows, just one tough mother come to Earth from outer space.
But what that means is, ultimately, Diana of Themyscria is still a passive character, someone who reacts to those around her rather than takes any action herself. Azzarello even makes a comment about this, when she tells her half-brother Lennox "I let you have some control over me." While Azzarello also has to burn through some pages to touch base with the squabbles of Zola and Hera — seriously, this supporting cast is weighing Diana down — he's at his best when he focuses on Diana herself. Whether its getting a slight power-up from Hephaestus or issuing a challenge to Orion, there's some fire to Wonder Woman that I haven't seen in awhile, and it's fire I hope to see more in the future.
Seeing Cliff Chiang's artwork doesn't hurt this book, either. He's got a clean, cartoony look for many of his characters, but he can also amp up the detail when necessary, such as when he plays up the cloud of flies surrounding the homeless god Milan. His characters are also very expressive, too, particularly the look of sad pity coming off Orion when he sees a friend in dire straits. That said, Chiang stumbles a bit during the talkier scenes (particularly with Zola and Hera), and his composition doesn't always hit the mark, which makes things like the cliffhanger feel more like a swing and a miss.
In terms of this chapter's primary objective — bring back Orion with style — I think Azzarello can consider this mission accomplished, with a foundation of characterization making up for a lack of flashiness... at least for now. Piggybacking off established characters is nothing new, but there is a part of me that wishes Diana was a bit more established, too. The new guest star makes this issue one to watch, but I still hold out hope that Diana will be able to stand on her own two feet someday.
Written by Jason Aaron, James Asmus
Art by Pasqual Ferry and Brian Reber, Billy Tan and Jim
Letters by VC’s Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
In theory, A+X is a great idea for a series. It’s an anthology book featuring A-list creators that allows us to see a different side of characters that already have a dedicated solo title and gives us a check-in with lesser seen fan favorites. But the anthology format is flawed because all stories, all creators and all characters are not created equal. This is especially true in A+X #3 where a great lead story by Jason Aaron and PAsqual Ferry completely outclasses a rather light, frivolous one from James Asmus and Billy Tan.
Aaron and Ferry check in with the Black Panther and his status following his annulment. It strts off as pretty typical superhero fare but Aaron squeezes some character work in that really shines. Storm is (understandably) upset about their current situation and Aaron puts her in the “jealous ex” role to entertaining effect. Breakups are never easy but these two people are super-beings who have responsibilities that loom way larger than their interpersonal relationships. It’s a struggle for them to balance everything and Aaron does a good job tapping into that idea.
Pasqual Ferry’s art definitely enhances Aaron’s script. He does a great job shifting gears from the bigger action scenes to the smaller, more personal fare. The key is his character designs and expressions which manage to really lift some of the weaker parts of the art like the coloring. Brian Reber’s coloring doesn’t really work for me in some scenes as I think there’s a little too much put into the effects of different lighting and weather. It makes the story look a little too inconsistent.
James Asmus and Billy Tan are responsible for the Hawkeye and Gambit story in the second half of this book. It’s unfortunate that they had to follow two stronger creators who turned in such a solid story but the disparity in quality goes well beyond that. Hawkeye and Gambit both happen to be at the same outdoor play and compete with each other for the heart of the lead actress who has been taken by a monster. It’s the kind of fun story that reminds me most recently of that first bunch of Zeb Wells/Joe Mad Avenging Spider-Man stories. The tone of the story definitely fits these two characters but it just feels like something we’ve seen before. It feels entirely inconsequential.
And while AvSM had Joe Mad to prop up what were otherwise pretty standard superhero jaunts, Billy Tan isn’t really up to the task here. His work just looks uninspired and almost every other panel is a shot of one of HAwkeye’s arrows. Regardless of how you feel about them, Gambit and Hawkeye are both very high energy characters who have the ability to do things that are clearly impossible but look really cool. None of that is present here. Maybe that’s just a function of the setting or the script but this adventure comes across quite pedestrian.
This issue takes a hit because the second story is so lacking. The first one might have been worth the price of admission had it actually been a full-on one shot but I’m hard pressed to want to plunk down hard earned cash on something that’s so inconsistent. Still, it’s nice to see these characters outside of their solo books or their typical team settings and for fans of whichever characters are featured month in and month out, A+X might be a decent way to get your fix.
Written by Kyle Higgins
Art by Eddy Barrows, Eber Ferreira and Rod Reis
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
What happens when you own a circus in a city with a Clown Prince of Crime? In the case of Nightwing, it's a lot of violence and heartache, as Kyle Higgins stacks up a decent body count in the span of just 20 pages. While the threat of the Joker keeps the tension high, you also can't ignore that this issue hooks us in using cheap methods.
To his credit, Higgins does deliver an action-packed comic that balances the "Death of the Family" crossover with the ongoing soap opera of Dick Grayson's life. The theme of this issue is Nightwing as Batman's greatest knockoff, and that throughline really unifies all the threats Dick faces nicely. From the Joker's creepy initial moves to the sword-swinging action sequence Dick has to survive near the end of the book, the action is well-paced and well-choreographed — even if, by this point, the formula of these tie-in books is becoming readily apparent. Yet Higgins also keeps the trappings that make this book his own, namely the subplots involving the circus and Dick's affections with the daughter of gangster Tony Zucco.
The problem with this book, in my mind, is that DC is trying to put a square peg in a round hole when it comes to the art. Eddy Barrows has good character expressions, reminding me a bit of a smoother Tom Raney — but his actual designs don't really amp up the speed or acrobatics as much as they could be. (The Joker himself doesn't look particularly scary, either.) You sense that he's working his butt off with the fight choreography, however, and the composition of Dick twisting in the air to avoid an assailant looks great. That said, I feel like he's one step away from making it all click — his letterboxed panels look a little too static, but like Mike McKone, the pages really do get a shot in the arm the times he played with the layouts.
That all said... there are fatalities in this book, and I can't say they don't feel at least a little cheap. On the one hand, they prove that the Joker means business, and Higgins definitely plucks at your heartstrings when Dick fails to save someone's life. But at the same time, it's sort of rewarding bad behavior — it's easy to kill off no-name characters to give the protagonist purpose. But it's also so easy that we've seen it done a million times before. The occasional death will make a hero doubt himself and fight to rise to the occasion, but here I feel it acts as a substitute to nuanced characterization.
It could be worse, I suppose — many tie-in books feel meaningless or without consequence, and Higgins certainly delivers on that score. Perhaps more sobering, however, is the realization that, as distasteful as it might be, this issue sticks with you longer because of the body count, not in spite of it — a sign that some deeper introspection on the character might be needed. Nightwing eventually will need a shot in the arm either with a stronger direction in the art or a stronger direction in the characterization — but for now, the Joker has done his job right, and at least as far as this issue goes, made this series more compelling in his wake.
Cursed Pirate Girl
Written by Jeremy Bastian
Art by Jeremy Bastian
Lettering by Jeremy Bastian
Published by Archaia
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
It's a good thing I slacked on finalizing my Best of 2012 writing, because now I don't have to make the unenviable choice of replacing one with Cursed Pirate Girl by Jeremy Bastian. I'd heard of this title for a while now, but I'd also heard that Bastian was never going to get around to completing the story. Being one of those people that hates unresolved stories, I stayed away. Nothing more frustrating than knowing the end is in sight, but wondering if it will ever arrive. For that shortsightedness, I apologize to Bastian and everyone I ever brushed aside when they mentioned Cursed Pirate Girl.
The story couldn't be simpler. A young and cursed pirate girl seeks her phantom father upon the unforgiving waters of the Omerta Seas. She's joined by a wise parrot (of whom much is unknown and revealed) and together they face dangers that can only be dreamed by the unfettered imagination of childhood. Cursed Pirate Girl owes much to the wonderfully dark and whimsical fairy tales of Baron Munchhausen. And with that comes a certain level of reader sophistication. This isn't a book that allows for cursory reading. Every stroke of the pen is performed with purpose and focus, no matter how chaotic the final image might be. While some might question such an art style in a book geared to a youthful audience, it's obvious that Bastian has enough confidence in the reader to not scale back.
His dialogue is equally fresh, both in his voice for the cursed pirate girl and the characters that surround her world. Adults speak with an air of villainy and cynicism that reminds the reader of Roald Dahl, with perhaps a hint of J. M. Barrie. With a result being something that is well-known to all children. Adults are strange creatures that perform actions that befuddle ever the sharpest of mind. Interestingly, all the bizarre beasts that inhabit Cursed Pirate Girl speak with a subtle innocence and naivete. Again, showcasing Bastian's keen insight into the mind of an adventurous child. It's always easier to understand the monster than it is the authority figure. At least monsters play by the rules, not matter how outlandish those rules might be.
I will admit, it took a few pages for the book's unique lettering to settle with me. Indeed, I found myself wishing he'd brought in another person to perform the task. However, the deeper I read into the book, the more I found myself embracing Bastian's lettering. Like much of the detailed art throughout the comic, the lettering does not allow for surface reading. It's a style that demands much of the reader and in the end, makes for a richer experience.
Within this first volume of Cursed Pirate Girl, Jeremy Bastian has created one of the most beautiful and believable fantasy settings in a long time. It's a place fraught with danger and mystery, a place you will not want to leave once your crack open the book. It doesn't take long to imagine our young heroine swashbuckling her way across our own imagination. Better still, once that child in your life reads this book, it won't take them long to create their own adventures. And really, what better gift can a tale provide than one of inspiration. Books like Cursed Pirate Girl don't come along often. Do not miss this one.