Best Shots Reviews: AVENGING SPIDER-MAN, DEMON KNIGHTS, More

Greetings 'Rama readers — fresh from the holidays, Best Shots is back, with a handful of big releases! So let's start off with Brian Bannen, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Avenging Spider-Man...

 

Avenging Spider-Man #16

Written Chris Yost

Art by Paco Medina, Juan Vlasco and Dave Curiel

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

I miss Peter Parker. Peter is everything Doc Ock isn’t — charismatic, humorous, humble and relatable. I’ve praised the non-canonical Avenging Spider-Man in the past for giving readers a title where Peter could do what he does best, without the baggage of such a heavy canon. But now that Ock is behind the mask, we have to deal with his arrogance, egotism and stuffiness — traits that mar Avenging Spider-Man so that doesn’t have the same light-heartedness that made it such a fun and appealing read.

Granted, the book has a lot to offer. X-Men veteran Paco Medina shines in this issue with his polished, glossy stylings, and sharp, crisp images. The story is not short on action, either, so readers are treated to a comic heavy on detail and loaded with energy. Spidey’s throw-down with Wolverine is particularly impressive, and easily the highlight of the issue. Medina has a few visual hiccups (like characters sometimes standing across panels, thereby blocking other images), but the rest of the book makes up for it. Juan Vlasco’s ink lines make the images pop, and Dave Curiel’s colors add incredible precision to the imagery, giving the comic a level of lucidity that draws the eyes neatly across the page.

The comic really serves to show how the new Spider-Man and the X-Men meet, so a tenuous (if inventive) story involving a massive spider attacking New York is the vehicle for their encounter. Props go to Chris Yost for his originality, pacing, and character control. Yost is also no stranger to the X-Men, so readers are treated to story that hits all the right beats with its characters, even with Doc Ock.

But because the characters are so vastly different, the book didn’t connect with me as much. Part of Peter’s appeal is his ability to be a team player. Ock is anything but, and Yost spends a lot of time reminding readers about Ock’s narcissistic motivations and self-important persona. Plus, having Ock face off against a telepath should be a much greater threat, but Otto is able to defuse the situation despite Logan’s misgivings. And given how out of character Spider-Man acts in this issue, the X-Men are a little too dismissive of the change.

Regardless of this, the comic is still a good read, and Yost raises some interesting questions about how long Ock can keep pretending he’s Peter Parker before someone figures out his true identity. The story is tight and impressive, regardless of its main character. Still, fans of Spider-Man will feel the fresh sting associated with loss when they see another man trying — and failing — to fill the big shoes left behind in his death.

 

Demon Knights #16

Written by Robert Venditti

Art by Bernard Chang and Marcelo Maiolo

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It's been decades since the Demon Knights rode as one — but a new writer is bringing the band back together, and the results are surprisingly a ton of fun. Instead of spoon-feeding us the continuity of his soft relaunch, Robert Venditti trusts his readers to read between the lines, giving this ailing title a much-needed shot in the arm.

The first thing that Venditti does right is the villains of the piece. Teaming up Cain, a vampire Amazon and the threat of a bloodsucking plague? That's high-concept gold right there, and gives us a big but understandable (and supernatural) threat for the team to face. There's little outright action here, but that's okay — this is pure buildup, both of friend and foe, which goes a long way towards acclimating lapsed readers to the new status quo.

The other great thing that Venditti does is he turns the clock forward. Jumping years into the future doesn't hurt the period-piece nature of this comic, but it does allow him to naturally tweak characterization for his cast. Even immortals like Horsewoman and Exoristos have a lot more depth added by virtue of having had adventures both together and apart since last we saw them — furthermore, Venditti doesn't have to gradually have the characters interact and establish their dynamics that way. The Demon Knights have capital-H History behind them, whether we know what it is or not, and that makes them a lot more fun to watch.

The art looks great, as well. Bernard Chang is such a good fit for this book, giving the characters a really clean look that gives their ancient settings some real grace and nobility. His expressiveness also helps get us on board with these characters quickly — a scene with the Horsewoman and her steed gives more humanity to the character than I've ever seen, and it's due mainly because of the looks the two give one another. Chang also paces his scenes with barely an error, particularly zooming in on Cain's fangs and scars to show exactly what kind of monster we're dealing with here.

That said, this book is definitely an overhaul, but it's still not quite at A-list status yet. If you tried reading Demon Knights and got turned off by the haphazard characterization and pacing, this is a great time to get reacquainted — that said, if this is your first time reading about Vandal Savage or Jason Blood or the Horsewoman, well, you're going to know their relationships but not their core concepts in terms of power sets and what they can do. There is one scene in this book — when Exoristos, Shining Knight and the Horsewoman meet their captor — which reads extra slow, lacking a strong visual component to make the exposition a bit more palatable.

With this series soon on its way out, it's kind of a shame to see Demon Knights make such a strong turnaround. Had this been the first arc, I have no doubts this series would have at least been better received, even though I know Paul Cornell's name brand status hits a little bit harder than Venditti's. But rather than dive into the self-indulgent, inaccessible magicks and battle scenes, this new-and-improved Demon Knights focuses on character and team dynamics with great success. Definitely a pleasant surprise to pick up.

 

All-New X-Men #6

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by David Marquez and Marte Gracia

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Patrick Hume

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Of necessity, the shadow of Charles Xavier looms large over All-New X-Men, as literalized in the cover art on this issue. The central theme of the book has to be Xavier's dream, and how to reconcile how it began versus what has become of it. As the younger X-Men start to settle in to day-to-day life at the Jean Grey School, Bendis explores the process of realization as Jean, Scott, and Warren grapple with what has become of themselves, their teacher, and the philosophy they believed they were dedicating their adolescent lives to.

My feelings on Bendis' writing have always been mixed, but thus far All-New X-Men seems to be playing to his strengths. The complex situation facing the present-day and younger X-Men gives plenty of opportunity for the looping, stylized dialogue he tends to favor, making the decompressed storytelling feel natural as the cast tries to work through their feelings about the new status quo. The material with Jean here, as she struggles to control her telepathy and interacts with her future student in Kitty and future best friend in Storm, resonates effectively as the relationships between these characters reconfigure themselves before our eyes.

Likewise, Scott and Warren continue to try and understand this new world and their places in it, with mixed results for each. As effective as the Jean material is, I have to question the decision to position the younger Scott and Wolverine as adversaries. Given Logan's newfound calling as leader of the X-Men, wouldn't it make more sense for him to get past his resentment of the adult Cyclops and try to guide Scott away from the path that will end up causing so much destruction? Perhaps I'm looking for too much nuance, not a traditional strength of the superhero comic.

The book's final pages set up the return of a long-time antagonist who seems perfectly suited to undermine the fragile place the younger X-Men are building for themselves. Their mercurial nature and ties to the X-Men's past position them perfectly to cause a great deal of trouble, as does the implication that they are not without allies. My concern here, however, is that the interpersonal dynamics that Bendis has built here will get subsumed, or at least pushed aside, by whatever conspiracy is about to go into action.

I found Marquez and Gracia's art outstanding throughout. Certain moments made me think of John Cassaday, in a good way, but Marquez's slightly softer lines and more active use of panel arrangements mark the work as his own. I was particularly impressed with the clear differentiation in ages between the younger and present-day X-Men, essential for a story like this and difficult to pull off in a static medium with multiple illustrations per page. The consistent look of the characters helps to sell the premise in a big way.

I look forward to seeing what Bendis and his team come up with as the original X-Men navigate a world that hates and fears them all over again. With any luck, we are going to have another hallmark X-Men run on our hands again.

 

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #16

Written by Matt Kindt

Art by Alberto Ponticelli, Wayne Faucher and John Kalisz

Lettering by Deiz Sienty

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Goodbye, Frankenstein — we hardly knew ye. The horror-superhero comic meant to capitalize on Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers success is shuffling off this mortal coil with a hero as misunderstood by his readers as he was by the rest of his fictional universe.

When Frankenstein was reintroduced in Seven Soldiers, the operative word for the character was "badass." Shooting, smashing and slashing his way through monsters, aliens and the sands of Mars, Frank was a tank, spewing out poetry like he was Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. But that sort of gruesome panache never made the jump to this New 52 series, with Jeff Lemire and now Matt Kindt bringing out something that seems more kitsch than creepy.

Kindt's last and latest story is an example — a done-in-one story about a hapless government agent who gets in hot water after watching Frank's Creature Commandos stop a bioweapon. It's meant to have a funny punchline, but I wasn't really laughing — it felt like a backup rather than a whole comic you're going to drop $2.99 on. Frank's soap opera status quo also felt tired even by the first page of surliness, his poetry even being called out by his friends as lame, almost self-consciously angsty.

Alberto Ponticelli's artwork also kind of missed the point from the original Doug Mahnke-illustrated series. Mahnke knows how to draw horror, using shadows and gore to really drive home the point that Frankenstein really was death in human form. Ponticelli's work just feels quirky and misshapen, down to the vulture-like humans looking up at the monster bomb early on in the series. Frankenstein is hardly imposing, coming off instead as fat and lumpy, and even scenes that call for it being off-the-wall crazy and gory are way too toned down.

DC had a smart idea with this comic, and I'm sure the brain drain for their bigger series with the New 52 didn't help Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. any. But with a character that had such a small track record, sometimes a complete tonal shift isn't the right move for a character like Frankenstein — this was a character that only had four issues and got a huge following, a following which would have grown with more of that proven formula. Unfortunately, the all-new, all-quirky Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. has proven itself an experiment that never reached its full potential.

 

Savage Wolverine #1

Written by Frank Cho

Art by Frank Cho and Jason Keith

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

When reading a Frank Cho book, readers can rely on certain constants: curvaceous, amply formed women, clean, smooth line work, and dinosaurs. You will find all those elements packed into Savage Wolverine. What you won’t find, however, is a story worthy of an ongoing series.

Bringing Wolverine into Cho’s world, especially a lush tropical world populated by deadly thunder lizards and dangerous natives, is a smart move. The concept of Savage Wolverine is simple. Wolverine is dropped into the Savage land where he can cut loose (pun intended) and get in touch with his more animalistic sides. Wolverine should feel right at home, here, and Cho does his best to create some mystery as to Logan’s arrival, and the strange magical forces at work beneath a Cthulhu shaped mountain.

But the story reads more as a tale about Shanna the She-Devil and her attempts to stay alive when she’s stranded while on a Geological survey with several shield agents. The comic opens with Shanna, and even after Wolverine arrives, Cho spends the majority of his time on Shanna’s tale. Wolverine is instead treated as the vehicle for her story. And this version of Wolverine spends his time giving readers exposition on his abilities through excessive narration that feels very out of character.

When Cho finally gives Logan the chance to let loose, he does so spectacularly. By employing tight, detailed boxes, the action comes to life with slashing claws, flying heads and a whole lot of blood. Jason Keith employs nice colorization to emphasize the violence of the moment, and while the story fails to hold up over the course of the issue, the comic is never short of beautiful. Every image is lucid and powerful. But visual captivation can only engage readers for so long.

For an ongoing series, I expected a lot more. Marvel currently has a dearth of Wolverine led titles on the shelves each month, so giving readers more of their favorite Canadian killing machine makes sense. But I don’t see this series holding up over time. How many times can we watch Wolverine go berserk before the effect loses its potency? Comic readers can be a fickle bunch, even with their favorite characters. Cho knows how to draw a great book, but his first outing in this new series is lackluster.

The saving grace, of course, is the artwork, and while the story fell flat, the visuals are anything but. 

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