Best Shots Comic Reviews: YOUNG AVENGERS #1, BATWOMAN #16

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Best Shots is back in action, with this week's Monday column! So let's kick off today's column with the new kids on the Marvel NOW! block, as we take a look at the first issue of Young Avengers. Please note, this book is in rarified air, having received a 10 out of 10 from three different reviewers, in the Best Shots Advance, Best Shots Rapid, and now today's main column. That means you should read it...

 

Young Avengers #1

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton and Matthew Wilson

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

"Being a super hero is amazing. Everyone should try it."

The first ambitious, space-age splash page of Young Avengers says it all — this is a book about power, about the freedom to use it, about being young and wild and not caring who knows it. And ultimately, that pure stylishness, that pure lack of regard for anything other than making a personal statement, is what makes this book magic. Make no mistake, this isn't Allan Heinberg's Young Avengers — Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are producing a brand-new book with a brand-new identity, and it may very well be the best Marvel NOW! has to offer.

While a few years might not mean much to the older generation, Kieron Gillen knows that two years can be an eternity in your teens and twenties. The result is a quantum leap in tone and content — whereas Heinberg and Cheung's team were a little too young to do anything more than chaste kissing, Gillen and McKelvie immediately crank up the sex appeal. Kate Bishop hooking up with Marvel Boy? Wiccan and Hulkling making out? Miss America looking as hot as she is powerful? These kids are all grown up with some equal opportunity objectification, but it's not exploitative or trashy — this is a superteam in the prime of their youth, and it all feels as natural as it is effortlessly cool.

But just because there's that undying truth to teenage superstardom — being comfortable enough in your own skin to do what you want and damn the consequences — doesn't mean that Kieron Gillen is resting on his laurels. His enthusiasm is palpable here, from Noh-Varr digging the Ronettes to Kid Loki's plans within plans. Structurally, this comic works great, jumping from Kate and Noh-Varr's stunning opening sequence to Hulkling and Wiccan to Loki and Miss America without skipping a beat. The threats escalate quickly, the action beats have panache, and most importantly, every character gets their moment to shine, even if this team isn't really a team yet — think of Geoff Johns's Teen Titans spliced with Joe Casey's Vengeance with Grant Morrison's structure in Seven Soldiers, and you've got this comic pegged pretty well.

But the secret ingredient for this book? Jamie McKelvie. I know he and Gillen made their bones together with Phonogram, but seriously, there isn't a better fit for this series on the planet. Jim Cheung's Young Avengers was cartoony superhero fare — it was a good representation of the original series' tone, as Gillen has said on his blog, as cosplay as a life choice. But as I've said before, this Young Avengers rings a little more authentic, just teenagers making their own reckless life choices — so McKelvie's gorgeous, pop art-esque figures have the right amount of style, the right amount of sex appeal, the right amount of irony. His character designs are superb (Miss America's costume in particular is a great dressing-down of Captain America's spangly outfit), and that multi-panel, strobe-like double-page spread of Kate and Noh-Varr's battle in space is probably the most memorable sequence I've seen in Marvel NOW! thus far.

The kids are better than all right — they're superstars. Teen drama, sex, interstellar action, and a huge catalog of backmatter at the end of the book (not to mention Kieron Gillen's Tumblr account), Young Avengers is back with a vengeance. It's rare for a book with such a short track record to make such a mark — but I don't think I've ever seen it done twice. Reckless and fun, stylish and effortlessly cool, everybody should try Young Avengers.

 

Batwoman #16

Written by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman

Art by  J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by DC Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating 5 out of 10

I've been relatively quiet on Batwoman since the title relaunched. Initially I was simply too stunned by the amazing art by JH Williams to notice the cracks in the foundation. We're at Batwoman #16 now and those cracks are starting to let more than dust fall through them. This is normally the time where I'd drop a few lines on the story and what the reader can expect. Truth be told, other than what Williams and co-writer W. Haden Blackman tell me via Kate or Diana's recap captions, I've got no clue. I mean, I know Medusa is killing some folks in Gotham City. I know Batwoman is angry and sad. I know Diana is confused and angry. I know there are good monsters and bad monsters. I know Flamebird is back, kind of. I know Chase from the DEO and Maggie Swayer from the GCPD have spent more time together than Kate and Maggie, and Chase doesn't even date. Finally, I know I'm confused. So very confused.

Reading Batwoman #16 I feel like an incredibly spoiled child. A child that gets everything they could ask for and still isn't happy. I need some kind of ending, some kind of closure that will allow me to take in and process all that's come before. Since the opening pages of Hydrology back in Issue #1, we've been dealing with the same players and concepts. Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of Batwoman standing alone among all the Gotham-focused titles. She doesn't need Bruce looking over her shoulder and as a whole that helps her grow. But something really needs to give in this book. It's been the long con for far too long. I need a payout. Win or lose, Kate Kane needs some closure. This never-ending tale of monsters and children has gone on far enough. I'm starting to think Williams doesn't really know where his story is going.

I was honestly tempted to talk about this entire issue without delving into the art. For one thing, what can a critic say about Williams art that hasn't been covered ad nauseum by everyone? (Myself included). Each page is a stunning piece of contemporary art infused with mythic and heroic symbolism. Combine that with some of Dave Stewart's best coloring ever and Batwoman continues to be one of the most beautiful books on the shelf. Of that there is no argument. Absolutely none. Were this simply an art book, I'd be more than happy to drop my $2.99 a month and read it with a smile on my face. To an extent, I do. Each month I know I'm going to take in a visual feast. A feast that, upon turning the final page, leaves me wanting. Leaves me hungry. Which brings me back to my original concern.

I want more than the surface. Looking past Williams incredibly wonderful art, that's all we Batwoman readers have had for many months now. Surface. There is nothing under that art. It's just that the painting is so very pretty we convince ourselves that something important simply must be happening. That there simply must be a bigger message under all those flowing colors and lines. Batwoman #16 suggests otherwise. What started as a powerful pairing of Batwoman and Wonder Woman has devolved into a series of two-page battle scenes, with little to no connection between the two. I want so much from this book. I've championed Kate Kane since she first swept Renee Montoya off her feet in 52. She is one of the best characters created in the modern comic era. But right now, she's just another pretty face without a story to tell. And that, above all else, is was bugs me so very much.

 

Stumptown Vol. 2 #5

Written by Greg Rucka

Art by Matthew Southworth and Rico Renzi

Lettering by Matthew Southworth

Published by Oni Press

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

So it turns out that it was never really about the baby in the velvet case, but it was about the velvet case and the drugs that were smuggled in it right under everyone's noses. Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth's second Stumptown miniseries wraps up, showing us that with a character like Dex Parios they can tell many different types of stories. The last issue, one of the most dizzying car chases in any medium, is followed with an issue that brings the characters together and finally answers why a rock star's precious guitar was stolen in the first place. The true answer is much more nefarious and dangerous than a fan looking for the opportunity to a one-of-a-kind souvenir from the favorite concert.

In the first Stumptown series, Dex felt like a character cut out of the familiar Rucka cloth — a hero who more often than not is their own worst enemy. It's the Tara Chase or Atticus Kodiak types that Rucka is so fantastic as writing. All of his characters are strong in their respective fields but whether it's their own shortsightedness or their own confidence ( or lack of), they often get in their own way and cause more trouble for themselves than any of the people they're chasing.

In "The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case," Dex is trying to protect Mim, a high profile client who is caught up in more than a stolen guitar case but Rucka also takes us back a couple of issues here to an argument between Dex and her brother Ansel. After the guitar showed up, as someone delivered the guitar to Ansel, Dex pushed her Downs Syndrome brother for information. She pushed too hard and too fast and Ansel ran to his room, only remembering that the guy who gave him the guitar had glasses after Dex apologized for being hard on him.

Rucka reminds us that no matter how random or normal events in private eye stories may seem, everything happens for a reason. As the circumstances around the stolen guitar and case start to become clearer for Dex and for the readers, Rucka demonstrates how these stories are all about the small details, even calling back to one small, innocuous panel from the first issue. Dex, even though she may at times seem like a screwed up character, is a good private eye as she reads people and can makes connections between what they say and do. Dex is a good, maybe even fantastic, private detective and Rucka shows us in this issue how her mind works as she picks up on the little things around her to put together a larger picture. 

The art in this series has been inconsistent as Matthew Southworth and colorist Rico Renzi have felt like they've been experimenting and trying to find a groove. With this last issue, Southworth's artwork is loose and expressionistic, more often suggesting details rather than clearly delineating them. It's far different from the first issue or the first miniseries where his artwork was clearly influenced by Michael Lark. Southworth still has a natural style, capturing the ways that people really move, dress and carry themselves but his linework is simpler as he leaves more shading and molding if shapes to be defined by Renzi's colors. This overreliance on Renzi though means that some of Southworth’s art looks unfinished, if you look too hard, some of the fuzzy details seem more comical than they are supposed to.

While the artwork can be visually inconsistent, Southworth and Renzi create a strong sense of time and space.  Each scene has a strong individual identity thanks to Renzi’s selection of color.  He gives most sequence a primary color and carries through with it.  One scene where Mim is trying to get out of Dex exactly everything that has been going on is comprised of hues that mimic the rock stars distinctive pink hair.  After the last issue where Southworth showed us one of the most thrilling and dizzying car chases in any medium, here he has to rely on creating the tension between people with very little action or kinetic energy.  He creates the suspense and  shows the pent up energy between Dex and the drug-dealing skinheads through the way the characters carry themselves and through their expressions.

Rucka and Southworth make their readers pay attention to the story that they’re telling. The reveal of the true thief at first seems like a trick, an easy solution to get out of this story.  But as you start to backtrack the story, to follow the clues and see what Dex has been seeing, you can see how Rucka and Southworth have been seeding this mystery from the very beginning.  Rucka’s assured and measured storytelling is as strong as usual but Southworth and Renzi’s sometimes shaky artwork makes part of this comic feel unfinished.  Even with the rough artwork, Stumptown #5 delivers a fantastic modern mystery that has both been about just what it seemed to be about while building an even deeper well of trouble for Dex in future stories by Rucka and Southworth.

 

Uncanny Avengers #3

Written by Rick Remender

Art by John Cassaday and Laura Martin

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Patrick Hume

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Say one thing for Rick Remender: say that he commits to his premise. His run on Uncanny X-Force was easily my favorite arc on a superhero book in recent memory, but when this whole "Red Skull steals Xavier's brain" reveal happened at the end of the first issue of this series...well, I had my doubts. It seemed gratuitous, like a parody of the extreme storytelling choices that critics have been decrying since Sue Dibny got attacked by Doctor Light. And, after two decades of being recast as the X-Men's bad dad and at then dying at the hands of his surrogate son, did we need to see further indignities visited on Professor X?

But I'm starting to buy it, largely because of the perspective we get from the Red Skull in this issue. It makes sense that this incarnation of the Skull, brought straight from World War II to the present, would look upon mutants as a disease to be eradicated. In his warped mind, turning the might of one of their own against them, and the father figure of the species, no less, is just what the Fuhrer ordered. It may be an extreme choice, but Remender manages to anchor it in character here, and that makes it intriguing, not gratuitous.

I just wish we could get the same kind of characterization for our heroes. Cap's reasons for putting Havok in command of this new Avengers squad make a degree of sense, but even Alex doesn't seem to know what he's doing leading a team that Steve Rogers is a part of. Havok has been in character limbo too long, and Cap has stepped back into Marvel's center stage too effectively, for this to work for me yet. When Havok asserts himself over Cap here, it just rings hollow.

Combined with some weird dialogue choices ("nutty rice"?), overwrought narration, and unmemorable villains in the S-Men, my takeaway is that Remender doesn't quite have his hands firmly on the tiller yet. The premise of the arc and the energy of the writing do a lot to carry this issue, enough that I'm willing to stay on board and see whether he gets more comfortable with the voices of these characters.

Where this issue does deliver, aside from fleshing out the new Red Skull, is in the action sequences, ably aided in that regard by long-time collaborators Cassaday and Martin. They adopt a more stylized look and lurid palette here, as if the Skull's madness is altering even the appearance of the world around him, making the visceral horror of the citizens of New York turning on the nascent mutants in their midst all the more chilling. We also get a couple of nice pin-up moments for Cap and Thor as they spring into action against the Skull and his mind-controlled mob. Some pages feel busy, like there's maybe one panel too many, but overall, sterling work.

The issue's ominous finale leaves a pall of smoke and fire over Manhattan. While the Avengers' eventual victory is assured, Remender does such a great job of making the Xavier-powered Red Skull into a legitimate threat here that I have my doubts as to whether the team will escape unscathed. Regardless, I hope the new and improved Johann Schmidt hangs around the Marvel U for a while, as I haven't been this interested in the character in a long time. Hopefully, I'll soon be able to say the same about Uncanny Avengers' heroes as well.

 

Wonder Woman #16

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: 3 out of 10

The more I read Wonder Woman, the more frustrated I get. Diana of Themyscria is a strong, iconic character with a tremendous amount of potential — but in this run, she's being abandoned in her own series.

It's like that old saying: you don't just marry the girl, you marry the family. In the case of Diana, that family isn't just dysfunctional — it's endless. Zola, Lennox, Hera, Milan and more — having Orion of the New Gods would have been plenty in terms of sharing the spotlight, but Diana pretty much gets a scene and a half to herself. She just gives exposition. The action is also lacking here — we've got one extended fight sequence to build up a bad guy who Brian Azzarello doesn't name in this issue, and a way-too-tidy wrapup to last month's cliffhanger that pretty much can only end in an anticlimax.

The art looks nice enough — Cliff Chiang brings a nice sense of design to the behemoth villain, who takes down a cadre of frost giants wearing a raven-like cloak and a mean-looking spike. Chiang's designs for Diana's siblings look urban, if a little self-consciously dramatic — but the problem is, Chiang isn't really given much to do here. It's talk, talk, talk, talk — seriously, when the God of War himself is just standing around and not punching something, well, something has clearly gone off the rails.

For those really invested in Brian Azzarello's story, well, I guess you'll want to continue with Wonder Woman, even though you won't miss much story here. If you like Cliff Chiang, then I guess that's another reason. But this comic feels like the worst kind of wasted potential, a comic that seeks to go nowhere as fast as it possibly can. Good looks can only take a book so far.

 

The Answer! #1

Written by Dennis Hopeless and Mike Norton

Art by Mike Norton and Mark Englert

Lettering by Crank!

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating 7 out of 10

This book probably reveals way too much about me, but The Answer! #1 initially grabbed my interest by featuring a librarian with glasses on the cover. Thankfully, it didn't take long for both the story and  characters to hook me, ensuring that I'll be back for the rest of the series. Not bad for a book that I, quite literally, judged by the cover alone.

With the story by Dennis Hopeless and Mike Norton, with art by Mike Norton, The Answer! gives off a very fun Buffy or Angel “save the guest-star of the week” vibe. Although they add a bit of polish to the concept by making the bulk of the issue from the point of view of Devin, our whip smart librarian with an uncanny gift for puzzles. Hopeless does a good job of generating a level of reader interest with Devin. Upon first glance, she is quite the walking cliché. She works long hours, alone, at the library. She is quite possible far too smart for her own good. She has a reply to almost every comment said at or near her. She wear clothes and hair that are just enough out of fashion to make her unquestionably cute and charming. You know, every character Zooey Deschanel ever played. Still, Hopeless writes her with a certain bit of flair and realism that you can look past these cliches. Indeed, the helped make her a character I want to know more about.

Interestingly, the titular character of the Answer holds little interest with me, as yet. As his name would suggest, there are some strange elements to him, given events that happen. However, were this his book alone, I doubt it would hold the same amount of interest for me. The same could be said for the Apeiron, the no doubt cosmically evil triangle scheme that will pull both Devin and the Answer into it's bizarre world of power and oneness. Still, the story has some potential and like the puzzle Devin receives in the opening pages, I'm looking forward to the connections Hopeless makes.

Visually, The Answer! is a little mixed bag. I quite enjoy the time Mike Norton spends on Devin. (Notice a trend here)? There is a lot of attention paid to all her little quirks and styles. It's a smart move, as it helps ground her and provide her with a better connection with the reader. Although some of that detail came at the cost of other characters. By design, the Answer isn't a visually striking vigilante, he lacks that heroic punch that would truly make him stand out. On the other hand, when you consider the story, this artistic element might be a stylistic choice rather than a shortcoming.

The few moments of action are also not as dynamic as I'd hoped, with some of the movement coming across as rather flat. Norton does a good job of helping the story along, but there is little that really makes this book stand out from others in terms of art. Mark Englert's colors are a little too muted for my tastes. While I understand that most of the books setting necessitates the dulled colors, there is little depth to assist Norton's pencils. This isn't a comic that looks bad, nor is it one that leaps off the page. Both artist and colorist get the job done, but without any real flair.

Artistic concerns aside, The Answer! has just enough mystery and interesting character work to keep my investing in the next issue. If Norton can bring the same attention and excitement he used on Devin to the rest of Issue #2, then we just might have a real winner on our hands here.

 

New Guardians #16

Written by Tony Bedard

Art by Aaron Kuder and Will Quintana

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, but I really wanted to see this arc of New Guardians through. My curiosity for Kyle Rayner’s situation overwhelmed my reservations, and by the end of the comic, I was rewarded for my time, given exactly what I wanted to see by writer Tony Bedard.

So why did it feel so hollow?

Kyle has been learning how to use each power ring of the color spectrum, having only failed to wield the ring of the Star Sapphires, and their emotion of compassion. Eventually, Kyle learns how and Green Lantern fans will instantly recognize Kyle’s new powers. But New Guardians suffers from a lack of interesting conflict, more so because what I expected to occur actually did, and the ending was so obvious that I wish Bedard had been a bit more risky with his story, amping up the suspense so that when Kyle made his transformation, he did so with much more drama.

Bedard begins the comic with a run through of significant moments in Kyle’s life, and how these situations will affect his abilities to wield the ring of compassion. If you need any more evidence of Kyle’s “good guy” nature, it’s present in the opening pages of the comic. When the story gets interesting is when Ganthet shows up, and we finally see what Kyle can do as he switches between rings and powers fluidly, and in a way that really makes him the most powerful lantern in the universe.

When Kyle finally learns how to use the Star Sapphire power, the story takes a nod from the Matrix (specifically when Neo realizes he is “the One”) and now that the final piece is in place, the Third Army will easily be defeated. The lack of a dramatic finish, however, is where the comic loses its potency.

The art, too, hinders the comic’s efforts, at least initially. The compact panels deflate the climax a bit as no major splash page gives the story any dramatic impact, particularly the final page. And the The first few pages showing snippets of Kyle’s life are so oddly drawn that Kyle’s face looks like a caricature of Woody from Toy Story. Luckily, the imagery gets better as the comic moves along. Kyle’s fight with Ganthet is clearly illustrated, and unique in its designs and colors. Close-ups in particular are extremely well done, and in these moments Aaron Kuder and Will Quintana’s work really shines, often looking like an amalgam of Frank Miller and John Romita, Jr.

New Guardians has moments of greatness, but not enough to make the comic a superb read. It’s cathartic in that it offers readers exactly what they want to see, but this is also part of its failing. A comic should excite and frustrate its readers, keeping them off guard. Giving the reader exactly what he wants fails to give the comic any major resonance, even if the outcome is satisfying.

 

The Ultimates #20

Written Sam Humphries

Art by Scot Eaton, Rick Magyar, Andrew Hennessey, Dave Meikis, Matt Milla and Andy Troy

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

The dust has settled, Captain America’s now the President, and Nick Fury has returned, but dressed as his 616 version (who looks a lot like David Hasslehoff). Plus, according to the cover of this comic, Cap fights a bunch of snakes.

The set up for Ultimates #20 seems strong enough, but the execution fails to capitalize on all the excitement. What’s left is a comic that meanders from its opening moments until its climax, never really making the story as exciting of a read as it should be.

Sam Humphries attempts to bring a lot of different players into the mix in The Ultimates, including Hydra agents, the Infinity Gauntlet, and supposed Ultimate clones. He also tries to use a female agent of Hydra, named Nails, as the focal piece of the story. Nails’ history is intended to add some humanity to the comic, but the story shifts from scene to scene without any real punch or excitement. The finale, involving a showdown between Hawkeye and Fury, fails to end the comic with a dramatic cliffhanger and the story very matter-of-factly gets to its climax without ever eliciting any real emotion.

Part of the problem lies in the art. Scott Eaton’s characters look very stiff, even in the action scenes. Faces, particularly, lack visual consistency between panels so that eye, nose and mouth designs make characters look different in every successive image. Hair styles and body designs also change drastically, causing too many visual blips for any type of smooth visual engagement. The bland color palette doesn’t help, and the art takes on a flat look, making it so the images never really come to life.

The Ultimates has everything it needs to be an exciting comic, but somewhere in the transfer from inception to product, the wheels fell off and the comic becomes nothing more than a mediocre entry. As a fan of the Ultimate universe, I’m interested to see the results of all the possible story developments, but if I weren’t already familiar with the Ultimate U, I would pass on this comic. Nothing in these 22 pages says I’m missing out.

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