Best Shots Reviews: ALL-NEW X-MEN, PUNK ROCK JESUS, More

Ready for Monday? Best Shots has your back, with this week's big column. Let's start today off with a bang, as we take a look at Marvel's merry mutants in All-New X-Men #5...


All-New X-Men #5

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger and Marte Gracia

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

With an attitude that not only can they change the future but that her team of X-Men can save the future, Jean Grey takes charge of her team in ways that we never saw her able to in the past. This isn't the Jean Grey that was defined by her marriage to Cyclops, or her time spent as Phoenix, or by one of her many deaths and resurrections. In All-New X-Men #5, Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen are showing us the Jean Grey that has always been the heart and soul of the X-Men and they're also reminding us why every character at one point or another has fallen in love with her.

Bendis has slipped surprisingly easily into the X-Men franchise. With the fate of the time-thrown mutants tied into the older Beasts own life-and-death struggle, Bendis demonstrates why the X-Men were the biggest stars of the Marvel Universe long before he began his run on New Avengers. It's all about the characters and here is a cast where he has complete control. He's not hindered by a cast that has their own regular books or (as of yet) a series of crossovers that updates and changes his status quo every eight months. In All New X-Men #5, he has a group of characters that have always worked best when their stories are about their own relationships and struggles to understand who and what they are.

And who and what is Jean Grey? In one incredible two-page spread by Stuart Immonen, Bendis answers that by giving young Jean a glimpse of everything she will ever do. A Jean Grey who has barely been an X-Man for 10 seconds gets to see Phoenix, Dark Phoenix, Madeline Pryor, Onslaught and Cable. She gets to see her death again and again and again. She gets to see everything she will ever do right and everything she will ever do wrong. How do you go back to your simple life of fighting the Vanisher and Unus the Untouchable when you see that someday you will wield the power of a god?

Stuart Immonen, an artist who can draw in a multitude of styles, has gone into classic super-hero mode with this series but this issue shows the touches of flair that Immonen uniquely brings to any comic book. Just the simple expressions by how lost all of these characters are, from an old Cyclops who doesn't understand his sins against his beloved mutantkind to Wolverine who is stoically going through so many thoughts seeing the young version of a man he hates and a woman he loves. With this issue, Immonen joins the rank of classic X-Men artists like Cockrum, Byrne and Smith because his characters are actually living these events. Immonen's figures are not just illustrations of a story but they're characters we know and love. The look and move like real people. They love and hate like real people.

The wonderful thing is how Bendis and Immonen are taking our concepts of the mutants’ future and turning it on its head. For the original X-Men, our present is their “Days of Future Past.” They’re seeing the future where they lost, the dream was shattered and they’ve turned into the bad guys. They’re seeing a future where the mutants are hunted and persecuted and rounded up. Bendis is creating the time that they’ll fight desperately to avoid. It’s the flip of every X-Men story we’ve seen since Claremont and Byrne first flung Kitty Pryde into a futuristic dystopia. Only know, we see how far the X-Men have fallen from their dreams. More importantly, the young X-Men see how they grow up to be failures.

Jean Grey makes the stand; they’ll stay and fix the present. They’ll do what Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops and Charles Xavier weren’t able to do and they’ll create a better future. Of course, thanks to the Beast, she sees her own future as well — the one where she dies and is reborn as Phoenix; the one where she destroys an inhabited solar system just because she’s hungry; the one where her husband has an affair with an enemy who one time tried to destroy her. Bendis shows Jean Grey a future where she is not exactly as innocent as she wants to be.


Punk Rock Jesus #6

Written and Illustrated by Sean Murphy

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by Vertigo

Review by Erika D. Peterman

’Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It’s putting it lightly to say that after a lifetime on a destructive sham of a reality show, its teenaged star is pissed at ... everyone. Chris was presented to the world as a clone of Jesus Christ and then he twisted the plot completely by becoming an atheist and leader of a controversy-courting punk rock band. By the end of the last issue, he had fully evolved from a passive, confused lightning rod in the culture wars to an aggressor hell-bent, no pun intended, on playing a show in Jerusalem. The decision is outrageous and therefore the perfect ominous setup for this final issue.

Punk Rock Jesus has been explosive from start to finish and as usual, writer and artist Sean Murphy brings the pain in unexpected ways. Chris’ nihilistic actions obviously come with heavy consequences, but they don’t play out in a predictable way. The most searing element of this issue, however, is the revelation about Thomas McKael’s family. Thomas, Chris’ loyal bodyguard and an ex-IRA terrorist, has been an anchor for this series and he believes he’s serving God by protecting Chris. But circumstances keep forcing Thomas into a role he has come to hate — that of a killer.

“Tell me that you’re Jesus and that I’m not going to hell for breaking my vow,” Thomas angrily demands after Chris’ trek to Jerusalem forces him to do, once again, the thing he’s been trying to escape.

As excellent as Punk Rock Jesus has been, the limitations of a six-issue run finally catch up with it. Murphy's razor-sharp black-and-white art remains strong as ever. However, the revelations and significant plot developments seem rushed and it’s a shame that there isn’t time for more exploration. The romantic relationship between two of the characters comes as a total surprise, for example, so their brief storyline lacks the power it could have had. Moments of revenge and remembrance are abrupt.

But on the whole, Murphy deserves praise for giving Punk Rock Jesus readers a thoughtful, provocative and surprising story in a relatively short period of time. It's to his credit that even an imperfect ending leaves the reader wanting more.


Ultimate Spider-Man #19

Written Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponsor

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Ultimate Venom is one of my favorite characters of the Ultimate Universe. Unlike his 616 counterpart, this version of the alien symbiote has not become stale with overuse. Bendis teased his return in an earlier issue, and while Venom’s true plans have yet to be revealed, he makes one hell of a comeback in Ultimate Spider-Man #19

But Brian Michael Bendis has other irons in his fire, and the quick shifts from moment to moment make the comic a jerky, uneven read. Occasionally, however, Bendis slows down and his does his thing. After Betty Brant was killed in the previous issue, Maria Hill comes to see J. Jonah Jameson about their connection. This scene is easily the best of the issue. Bendis’ dialogue is punchy, clean, and lacks any of the usual repetitive word choice, and Jonah says the things we’d all like to say if we were in a similar situation.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the book. Bendis is a little too clever with his dialogue and thought boxes in other parts of the comic, and a character having his name repeated four times in the same series of dialogue bubbles becomes an exercise in tediousness. Clearly, Bendis has a lot of fun with character speak, but at times it fails to move the story forward and becomes a drag on the pacing. Other characters steal the show, like the aforementioned Jameson, and Miles’ father, Jefferson, who’s currently dealing with his own woes in the wake of the “United We Fall” storyline.

The real star of the comic, however, is Venom and while he only appears a few times, he is gorgeously illustrated by Sara Pichelli. In fact, he’s never looked more menacing before. Pichelli gives him a hulking, feral design and with Justin Ponsor’s smooth colorization, Venom is every bit as ferocious as he should be. In fact, every character is cleanly drawn and fun to look at. The only one who looks out of place is JJJ. Given her adeptness at polishing character features, Pichelli fails to give JJJ definition so that his head is weirdly shaped — minor, but noticeable as everything else in the book looks so good.

Exposition is a necessary part of any story, but when it takes over the entire comic, pacing and flow are secondary thoughts. This doesn’t make Ultimate Spider-Man a bad comic, but knowing the abilities of its writer, this is a noticeable departure from his usual forte.


Superman #15

Written Scott Lobdell

Art by Kenneth Rocafort and Sunny Gho

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

The hero facing off against his greatest nemesis is a old as chocolate being added to milk. Batman has the Joker, Spider-Man has Norman Osborn, but the most exoteric of all matches is Superman and Lex Luthor. Despite all his strength, the physical power of Krypton’s greatest champion sometimes falters under the overwhelmingly impressive mind of Earth’s smartest man. And despite all his intelligence, Luthor usually fails to succeed because his vanity leads to his own downfall. So pitting these two together in this comic isn’t a bad idea, especially given their long and pointed history.

But Scott Lobdell doesn’t have the same panache as other writers, and his attempt to have Supes and Lex duke it out in a battle of wits is clumsy and inconsistent. Part of the problem is the set up. The opening page is pretty interesting, showing Lex’s fervent obsession with Superman. But Lobdell doesn’t capitalize on this, and instead readers are given page after page of Superman and Superboy’s jocular interplay.

Most of Superboy’s lines are comic relief, and the lack of seriousness hurts the moment when Lex and Superman finally meet. Lobdell attempts to give Luthor a high level of diction in order to emphasize his intelligence, but the language feels out of character, even for Luthor. In fact, the dialogue is what most hampers the comic -- it attempts to be too creative and too clever. If Lobdell isn’t going to treat the story seriously, readers aren’t going to respond in kind.

Given the excessive dialogue, even in action scenes, Kenneth Rocafort complies as best as he can. He gets creative with the panel design, and this way the story is easy enough to follow. Some of the space is wasted, though, and given the amount of stuff Rocafort has to draw, the unused areas of the page are glaringly empty. I like how he draws Kal, but we only see him in frame once in the book. The rest of the time, he’s obscured, off center, or drawn from an angle. I don’t fault Rocafort for this, but given the way he utilizes space could account for the alternating imagery.

“H’El on Earth” is a neat concept, but the storyline stalls with this issue and part of this is due to the lack of purpose of the story serves. Why does Superman meet with Luthor if he already knows how to defeat H’El? Why does Luthor agree to imprison himself if he knows it will keep him from defeating Superman and potentially saving the Earth, therefore making him the true hero? Why does the Justice League have a need to expose their weaknesses overtly through their dialogue.

From the cover, one would guess that this is a book about Lex Luthor, but it isn’t. It isn’t a book about anyone, and this is part of the problem. A showdown between Luthor and Superman is always interesting, but Superman #15 fails to capitalize on this established history, and what’s left is a comic that meanders from moment to moment without every truly moving the story forward.


Godzilla: Half Century War #5

Written by James Stokoe

Art by James Stokoe and Heather Breckel

Lettering by James Stokoe

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

There used to be that Saturday afternoon thrill of watching an old badly dubbed Japanese monster movie on some UHF channel. The monsters were both the villains and the heroes as all of those kids from Tokyo developed strange and wonderful bonds with these destructive forces of nature. The comforting battle roar of the monsters, the people pointing up to the air and the mechanical-sounding clash of fists, flippers, wings and almost any other appendage are all signifiers of hours of entertainment. Sometimes you just want stories of giant monsters fighting.

James Stokoe’s Godzilla: Half Century War #5 is all about the fun of seeing those giant monsters clash one more time. His story isn’t only about the monsters though as we follow Oto Murakami, an aging monster hunter, realizing that after a couple of decades that he hasn’t really been all that successful. His brigade which started out back in the 1950s trying to fight Godzilla is now spending the 1980s just following the monster, trying to play cleanup whenever he appears. Murakami is no longer a young man and he’s wondering just what he’s done with his life. “I’ve spent so long trying to solve the Godzilla problem,” he muses, “that I couldn’t even begin to imagine a life without it.”

After the army takes their own stab at fighting Godzilla with a Mecha Godzilla, a giant crystal structure falls from the sky, revealing Space Godzilla! Stokoe draws these multi-Godzilla battles with so much loving detail that you just have to get lost in the drawings to take them all in. Every scale on Godzilla is delineated and the crystalline structures of Space Godzilla are beautiful and awesome when you realize the true scale of Stokoe’s drawings. The Bombay buildings are just so tiny when compared to massive girth of Space Godzilla.

Filling the pages with bright primary colors, Stokoe creates pages that pulse with energy. The red glow on nearly every page creates the heat of the characters and the heat of the battles. He doesn’t bathe the pages in red so that everything is read. I many panels, the red hues are just a highlight, subtly added to create excitement around the action. He creates a rhythmic beat with the colors, like listening to the drums in any good rock song. The color builds in the background until the comic becomes all about the red heat of the battle and danger.

Seeing this battle against one man’s thoughts on his own shortcomings in life, you start to wonder about those kids in those old movies who thought Godzilla and Gamera were their friends. Whatever happened to those kids? Murakami is working sort of in reverse as he sees that there’s something scarier coming to Earth than Godzilla. As he activates MechaGodzilla to battle Space Godzilla, he asks his partner “You really want something that can kill Godzilla stomping around Earth?” Stokoe is writing about a man who has seen things that we can only imagine. Just think of it for a moment- looking out your front door and seeing Godzilla walking down your street.

That little bit of thoughts of our own place in this wild universe adds a bit of texture to Stokoe’s writing about monsters, robots and aliens in this issue. It’s fun seeing giant kaiju fight and battle but that’s not really a story. Godzilla fighting Space Godzilla isn’t doesn’t offer much other than the thrill of Stokoe’s magnificent drawings bringing these creatures to life. The story that Stokoe offers in Murakami, a man whose obsessions have cost him a life, gets to the soul of Godzilla: Half Century War #5. In Murakami, we find a man who has outlived his obsessions and is stuck wondering what’s next?


Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake #1

Written and Illustrated by Natasha Allegri and Noelle Stevenson

Lettering by Britt Wilson

Published by BOOM! Studios

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating 9 out of 10

What started as simply fan fiction that Ice King wrote in one episode, has branched off and become something unstoppable. Finn and Jake's female equivalent/counterpart has their own mini-series now and the first issue is everything you'd expect from Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake. It doesn't hurt that the issue is mainly written, illustrated, and colored by Fiona and Cake's creator, Natasha Allegri.

While this does have a different look to the Adventure Time ongoing that BOOM! has out, it still has the same sensibilities that you'd expect with something associated with that universe. Allegri's art is too gorgeous to word adequately to be honest. The opening scene with the fairy tale of the woman made of fire and the magic she holds is just illustrated so wonderfully. Whether it was letterer Britt Wilson's idea or Allegri's to have the art itself be lettered the way it was, either way it paid off.

Though the lettering for the remainder of the issue isn't your standard flair, but something unique looking and definitely grabs your attention. It's more elegant looking.  Here we have Fiona battling her nemesis, the Ice Queen, and in typical Adventure Time quirkiness, she must do battle with her choosing from a barrage of swords, including one made of cat litter.

The panels are broad and easy to comprehend which is perfect for the kids out there who worship this franchise. Everything is bright and bold and ready to devour with your eyes. Allegri's color palette is soft and simplistic and compliments her linework splendidly.

The small backup feature "The Sweater Bandit" by Noelle Stevenson is equally as charming. Her art style has a more animated and even simpler than Allegri's, but it's charming and fitting of the world nonetheless. Stevenson includes small cameos by fan favorites Marshall Lee and Prince Bubblegum, which is a nice expansion of characters to this gender-swapped issue.

Fans and fanatics will easily pick this series up, but Fionna and Cake is a pure gem not to be missed. It's a solid story with great characters and accessible to even the most casual fan of the television series, or somebody who isn't that aware of the mythos of the land of Ooo.

In Case You Missed It!


Eerie Presents El Cid

Written by Budd Lewis with Gerry Boudreau, Bill Dubay, and Jeff Rovin

Art by Gonzalo Mayo and Bernie Wrightson

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Galloping out of the history books and into the pages of Warren Publishing’s Eerie magazine, the gallant Spaniard known best as “El Cid” rides his noble steed in these stunningly well-drawn sword and sorcery adventures that are sure to please any Conan the Barbarian fan.

At the same time that Conan was scoring publishing success for Marvel (both within and without the Comics Code) and DC had its own licensed characters romping across its line, the lower-budget Warren attempted its own noble warrior character. By choosing Ed Cid, they did not have to pay any rights nor worry about an oversight committee. Thus, El Cid can be fighting a man more horrible than any imagined creature in one adventure and then facing nightmarish incarnations of his noblemen rivals at court the next without anyone wondering how this fits into place.

It was a great idea and actually works quite well. Roaming the time when White Spain was threatened by the Moors, El Cid is able to attack foes both real and imagined, and I was actually impressed by how tasteful the fights with the Moors are handled, though of course we have the vaguely racist adjectives that no one would have blinked an eye at in the 1970s when these were originally published. At the same time, El Cid champions their rights as human beings, showing the complex nature of writing comics with potential racial issues at the time. Bud Lewis tries to emulate Howard but also recognizes that it’s a different world in which these stories saw print.

Lewis is the primary scribe on all of the adventures in this collection, with plotting help from others. He actually does a pretty good job with making the dialogue as organic as possible while still having the epic nature that readers would be looking for. Lewis is less successful at the narrative boxes, which often drag down the action and in some places can be skipped entirely, as Gonzalo Mayo’s art more than expresses the action.

I’m also curious about the decision to keep returning to the “this wasn’t actually real” well, as though they couldn’t decide if El Cid—a historical figure—was allowed to fight dragons, because that would be too fictional. It works well as a device—once. By the time we finished an extended version of this trope it wore a bit thin and we get version of it nearly every time out. Perhaps in small chunks that was okay, but read together, it does hurt the overall quality of the work.

Though the stories themselves are entertaining if you are a fan of the genre, the real reason to pick up this collection is the stunning art of Mayo. It’s hard to believe the quality of the artwork of these stories. Bernie Wrightson is a legend of the horror genre, and makes a brief appearance here in a splash page cameo. Mayo, however, deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Wrightson. His pages are incredibly detailed, often drawing in the brick lines for a distant castle or the shape of every bauble on a nobleman’s armor. At the same time, there’s also a melted quality that distorts things ever-so-slightly, making his work feel like Kelley Jones mixed with George Perez, able to shift about in formless or exaggerated fashion as easily as providing every blade of grass.

Mayo also does a great job drawing the many beautiful women (some of whom forgot their shirts) that aid or attack El Cid, making them gorgeous and lusty without unreasonable proportions. They are as vibrant and full of life as Ed Cid himself, making up a world that feels ready for adventures both natural and supernatural. This is an area of comics I’ve rarely explored, and I left wanting more of Mayo. You will, too.

There is a question in the preface that asks, “Why didn’t El Cid get his own comic?” and I don’t have a good answer for that, or even why these are the only El Cid stories that were produced in the 1970s. While not for everyone, anyone who is a fan of other pulp-style heroes definitely need to seek out this excellent collection and revel in the over-the-top storytelling and amazing artwork by Mayo.


Gutter Magic #1

Written by Rich Douek

Art by Brett Barkley and Donna Gregory

Published by Sixgun Comics

Review by Jeff Marsick

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Imagine an alternate-universe New York City where the top 1% inhabiting the skyview terraces and gleaming towers are highborn wizards and sorcerers who practice a pure and powerful magic. The other 99%, living in the down-below, play with a sort of dirty magic — what the highfalutin' call "gutter magic" — which is nothing more, really, than parlor tricks gleaned from talismans and trinkets. Start there, then add a gun-slinging roguish protagonist with a malfunctioning connection to the REAL magic, sprinkle in a gang chasing him called the Ghost Knives who are half Bowery Boys and half Baseball Furies, toss in a cognizant marketplace that makes Diagon Alley look positively pedestrian, bake it under a revisionist history where World War II was the beginning of a magic arms race, and you have perhaps the best steampunk book of the year.

It works so well because writer Rich Douek drops us right in the middle of the action in this weird world, doesn't clutter the panels with unnecessary narrative, and lets the characters be the story. No thought balloons, no voice-overs, just dialogue that can be clever and witty without ever being groan-inducing, that leaves just enough plot dots unconnected to keep the reader guessing and intrigued but never lost.

Brett Barkley's artwork is a perfect fit, deftly switching perspectives from panel to panel to keep the story moving and never cramming them with "stuff", and the myriad of strange creatures and peoples that he's created to populate this lower caste realm reinforces the book's fantasy feel at a level better than I've seen from more established artists. Mr. Barkley subtly inks his work which preserves the details, and his efforts get a boost from Donna Gregory's colors which are subdued and don't drown out either mood or artwork.

Mr. Douek and his team have started a great high-fantasy adventure of magic and mayhem that doesn't feel as if you're reading it so much as watching the movie. Gutter Magic is worth every penny and should be on everyone's list.


Mara #1 (Published by Image Comics; Review by Rob McMonigal; 'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10):
It’s the Super Bowl every day in Mara’s world, as the star volleyball player is the focal point of a corporation and war-fueled future that starts slow but has gorgeous enough artwork to be intriguing. Brian Wood’s script is almost 100 percent narrative box info-dumping, getting us up to speed with more telling than showing. He lays it on think, and I wish Ming Doyle had been given more room for her art to show the problems. Doyle’s swirling, Paul Pope-like lines curl the reader around this dystopia. Her Mara is full of life despite the constraints placed on her while Jordie Bellaire uses vibrant shades to emphasis Doyle’s linework. The promise of more world-building by Doyle makes this worth reading, at least for now.


Hip Flask: Ouroborous (Published by Image Comics; Review by Rob McMonigal; 'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10):
Time may heal all wounds but disrupting it can create even more damage unless Hip Flask can stop Horn as this mini-series in the world of Elephantmen continues. I’m impressed with writer Richard Starkings’ ability to make this work on its own, giving us plot points without a recap by having characters race through time to prevent a murder. This world where some animals were given humanoid appearance and intelligence comes alive as a desperate place where betrayals are rampant, blending sci-fi with noir. Ladronn gives everything a futuristic feel yet makes it also seem as tarnished as a seedy prohibition bar. His animal characters are big and bulky, yet move with ease among the humans in a story I'm eagerly awaiting to see to its end.

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