Best Shots: SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN, BEFORE WATCHMEN, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood Best Shots team is back, and we've grown by one more — let's welcome <a href=http://www.sequart.org/author/forrest-helvie/>Forrest C. Helvie</a> of Sequart and Kabooooooom.com to our team! Now let's get started with a look at the second issue of Superior Spider-Man.

 

Superior Spider-Man #2

Written by Dan Slott

Art by Ryan Stegman and Edgar Delgado

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

What's more amazing than amazing? More spectacular than spectacular? Think superior — Superior Spider-Man, that is. Far from a sophomore slump, this Spidey shrugs off the crushing weight of our heavy expectations like it was nothing, as Dan Slott and Ryan Stegman weave together a sharp, smart, jet-black love story of the most warped kind.

There have been plenty of people worried not so much about Peter Parker — he's the headliner, he can't stay dead for too long — but for those who love him most, especially Mary Jane Watson. The courtship of MJ is the main focus of this issue, but before you freak out, readers — you know who you are — just roll with it for now. The status quo of Doc Ock as the new Spider-Man adds so much tension to the issue, but what lightens it up and keeps the dynamic strong is his own personal Jiminy Cricket: the spirit of Peter Parker himself, serving as both powerless protagonist and the voice of every possible critique a reader could have.

Of course, that's just concept — a Superior Spider-Man needs execution. While the last issue was an action-packed setup, this issue makes good on that basic foundation. You certainly feel that tension of Ock trying to make the moves on MJ, but Slott wisely doesn't make it a creepshow, instead weaving in the mystery of Spidey's new demeanor and Peter's histrionic complaining to keep everything on an even keel. There is some action here, for sure, but it's actually fairly low-key — it's the emotional beats that make this book reign supreme, as Ock's solution to the Mary Jane equation is one that's not just profound and heartbreaking, but a moment that really justifies this new status quo. At least for now.

Artist Ryan Stegman is also going through some changes, himself. Far from the clean, cartoony artist who wowed us with , Stegman is going the ultra-detailed, scratchy look that almost reminds me a bit of Todd McFarlane back in his '90s heyday. Oftentimes, that means the characters' faces do come off overrendered, which is the one place this book trips up. But Stegman's layouts look pretty good, and he and Edgar Delgado do a great job at putting Peter and Ock in the same place without it seeming too intrusive. The body language of the characters is what really rocks, particularly Spidey crouching in his webs as he tells Mary Jane exactly what she needs to hear.

For whoever had their Spider-Senses in a tingle: trust in Dan Slott. You'll be glad you did. The second issue of Superior Spider-Man is one of those character-driven pieces that is so good, you barely realize the action is limited — the moves aren't physical, but emotional, and it's pretty amazing to see what Peter and Otto have to show one another. This sophomore effort is one of the best books of the week.

 

Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill #1

Written by Len Wein

Art by Steve Rude and Glen Whitmore

Lettering by Steve Rude

Published by DC Comics

Review by Forrest C. Helvie

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Unlike other major characters from the original series undergoing the prequel treatment, I had no real emotional investment in Bill before starting his one-shot comic. As such, I wasn’t worried about encountering any sort of “violations” to the story—something many readers were understandably concerned about when DC Comics first announced the release of these prequels. Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill provides an immensely enjoyable story regardless of its associations with one of the best-known comics of the modern age because it doesn't rely on the past source material to drive its story.

Looking back on Brad Bird’s , one hears the echoes of Dollar Bill’s demise when E declares “No capes!” and a montage of superhero deaths proceeds from various heroes or heroines use of a decorative cape. Yet, it was Moore’s hero who cemented the dangers of costumed heroes wearing capes when Dollar Bill was shot point-blank after his cape was caught in the rotating door during a robbery. It is one thing for a superhero to go down swinging—a noble death; however, it is another when one is taken out by mere thugs due to a wardrobe malfunction. Yet, in spite of his going out as a darkly ironic punchline in the original , Len Wein and Steve Rude craft a touching story about a down-to-earth guy who tries to live up to the heroic façade before him.

Wein unpacks the story of Bill Brady—an all-star collegiate athlete who turns to an unsuccessful career in acting due to a career-ending knee injury. It is when Brady takes on the undesirable role of the National Bank’s costumed spokesperson that his name-recognition takes off, and eventually lands him a place on the newly formed superhero team, The Minutemen. While he recognizes Dollar Bill is merely a façade, he “slowly started to become the hero” that he had “long been pretending to be.”

Although readers already know the end of the story going into Before Watchmen: Dollar Bill, it does not come across as the same punchline as before; instead, there is a feeling of both empathy over the unfairness of the situation that brought his career too-soon to an end and inspiration with the way our heroes live on. While Bill was a successful athlete, Wein also presents him as a young college graduate struggling to make ends meet. He is a successful superhero, but his origins are hardly illustrious. And it is this sense of balance that elevates this character beyond his inauspicious entry in the original Watchmen.

With regards to the art, it is difficult to imagine a better fit for this story than artist, Steve Rude. Instead of more a typical, exaggerated depiction of men and women, Rude stays true to the vision of Moore and Gibbons through presenting the characters—both heroes and civilians—in a more realistic style. Yet, Rude’s clean and controlled pencils evoke a similar aesthetic to that of classic artists from the Golden and Silver Ages of comics—appropriate given the time and setting of this issue.

Rude's panel composition also smartly compliments the sequence of events he depicts and helps move the narrative in a meaningful way. From arranging the failures on the sports field to the attempts to win a role on Broadway, Rude builds the action and then delivers the results—expected or not. His choice of camera angles also helps immediately draw the readers’ attention to the most important elements of the panel as seen in the filmed bank robbery break up.

Lastly, Glen Whitmore’s effective use of a simple color palette contributes to the feel of a more simple time. Rude’s cover art is visually striking in the way it builds up the pomp and persona of the character whom Brady plays, and yet, knowing the ending of the story, there is a certain irony

Many fans of the original Watchmen who viewed the death of Dollar Bill as one meaningful part of the grand joke that plays out through the series, may not find the creative re-interpretation of his death to their taste. Admittedly, Wein does cast a more sympathetic light on this character. It is worth noting, however, that the changes made do not negate the events of the original mini-series nor do they take away from reading Dollar Bill’s death as a part of Moore’s dark and ironic comedy. He is unhappy with the facade that the Minute Men seem more than happy to prop up as public defenders, and yet, he is the one who faces the humiliating death at the end of the issue—not them.

Overall, this single-issue provides a heartfelt look into the brief life and even shorter career of a local boy who became a superhero. It is a carefully crafted story both in its narrative and in art, and is well worth reading even as a stand-alone issue apart from the franchise from which it is based upon because it deliver as it touches upon many of the same issues the original Watchmen covered in 1986 such as deconstructing the notions of our superheroes’ origins and that no matter how good our superheroes can be, they won’t always win.

While it is unlikely there will be many readers not previously familiar with the original — either the comics or the film — Wein deserves credit for writing a story that doesn’t rely on its original source material to tell a complete and satisfying narrative, and he receives a significant boost from the artistic efforts of Steve Rude along the way.

 

Hawkeye #7

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Steve Lieberman, Jesse Hamm and Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

I like to think of Hawkeye as TV in comics form, with punchy, no-nonsense episodes you can swallow in one gulp. So when you put Marvel's mightiest archers against the might of a hurricane, well, you might think it may be too much, even for one issue.

You would have thought wrong.

Forget that Fraction is donating his proceeds to the Red Cross. (Seriously, though, props to you, dude.) This is just a good comic. With Clint Barton in Queens and Kate Bishop stuck in Jersey, this comic brings a lot of heart to the disaster, showing off New York and New Jersey's resilient spirit even in the fact of Hurricane Sandy.

Matt Fraction's big success with this comic is that the characterization is so natural, just through the dialogue and action, that you don't need backstory or exposition or explanation — it's pretty much plug-and-play when it comes to Clint and Kate, these scrappy archers from NYC. That helps Fraction's structure, too — 10 pages in Queens, 10 pages in Jersey, and yet neither story feels shorted in any way. The one downside is on the readers' end — if you weren't there, you probably won't believe the extent of the damage, but talk to anybody who lost their homes during the hurricane, and they'll probably be cheering right alongside our friendly neighborhood Hawkguys.

The art is an interesting touch. Steve Lieber's more conservative artwork with Clint was more to my taste, more fitting with the precedent of David Aja or Javier Pulido, as you could really see some hardscrabble humanity in Clint's face (as well as the really heartfelt scenes between his neighbor Grills and his dad reconnecting). Jesse Hamm has more of a cartoony, fluid style for Kate's story, which is a bit of a jump when it first hits — it's so exaggerated compared to Lieber that is almost seems like a dream or drug sequence. But once you get used to it, it actually fits the sassiness and spunk of the character, as she has a teamup with the citizens of New Jersey to promote law and order in the storm.

Some people may have problems with the "very special episode" nature of this story, but considering how much Hawkeye has been a story about a guy living in New York, I think the conceit fits. There's been a lot of heartache regarding Hurricane Sandy, and someone bringing something positive out of it can only be good. It just goes to show you that a little bit of character can go a long, long way against any foe — even if its Mother Nature herself.

 

Masters of the Universe: Origin of He-Man #1

Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov

Art by Ben Oliver, Jose Villarrubia and Kathryn Layno

Lettering by Saida Temofonte

Published by DC Comics

Review by Forrest C. Helvie

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The return of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in DC Comics’ latest re-introduction of the franchise is certain to bring back feelings of nostalgia and memories of holding bathroom plungers while crying aloud “I have the power!” for fans of the 1980s cartoon and toy franchise.

Of course, there have been previous attempts to bring the Masters of the Universe back into the fold of mainstream pop culture from various cartoons, comics and toy lines in the 1990s and early 2000s up to the present day with DC’s relaunch in 2012. Where the cartoons of the past provided a mix of fun and camp with swords and sorcery, however, the new comics aimed to invigorate this franchise with a double-dose of action and intrigue that would appeal to both diehard fans and many who are less familiar with the exploits of Eternia’s greatest defender. But while I'm not sure Masters of the Universe Origins fails as a comic, per se, I'm not sure I'd recommend it as a starting point for new readers, which is something of a flaw for an “origins” book.

The story is fairly straightforward and the events occur over the course of only what appears to be a few minutes as it depicts the moments surrounding He-Man’s origins. Skeletor raids the royal palace in search of the fabled power sword of legendary King Greyskull, and there are hints that this is not his first time in the palace—though under much different circumstances than what readers see taking place. Die-hard fans and more casual readers who are less up to date with ways the characters’ backstories were fleshed out in the years following the popular cartoon will find this an enjoyable issue even if it feels a bit short coming in at just 20 (digital) pages.

One area of concern with regards to this story, however, is that it might prove somewhat confusing for readers who have little knowledge of more recent developments in the histories of the heroes and villains of Eternia as depicted in the latest DC publications. It is not as though the story is too complex or lacking in details that readers will be unable to determine what is going on—hardly the case. However, there are bits of information alluded to that are more fully explained in the —which was clearly meant to be read first. Aside from a lack of clarity in terms of how these issues are packaged and meant to be read, which may be more of an editorial or publishing oversight than a fault of the writers involved, the story does deliver fast-paced action while using these scenes to help set Prince Adam’s transformation into He-Man.

Perhaps the most noteworthy and enjoyable aspect of this issue is the cinematic aesthetic Oliver and Villarrubia employ in the pencilwork, lifelike colors, composition and layout of each panel. Fans already familiar with the He-Man cartoon will be shocked with the exceptional level of work that went into rendering the art in such a way that brings the characters and action to life before their eyes and create a truly dangerous and demonic looking Skeletor and a powerful, no-nonsense He-Man.

The scene in which Skeletor makes use of his Havoc staff to electrocute He-Man provides a chilling picture of the comedic villain readers once saw after school as children. While the animated Skeletor certainly had no love lost for the Defender of Greyskull, the safety of He-Man was never in doubt. However, the predatory look Villarrubia imbues the Lord of Snake Mountain with in this scene certainly creates a markedly different tone in this conflict between the two. While the story itself might have felt a little too brief by the time the plot reached its conclusion, the comic more than made up for this one drawback in the amount of time I spent taking in the beautifully rendered art.

There seems to be a desire on DC’s part to bring back the Masters of the Universe comics since their introduction in the fall of 2012, but perhaps one of the biggest struggles facing this franchise is the revolving door of talent. James Robinson was relieved of writing duties after the first issue of the 6-part mini-series, and a number of noted writers and artists have filled in on various issues afterwards.

Additionally, the Origins one-shots have taken a similar course of implementing different teams, and it can be a little jarring for some readers when the composition of a creative team changes. I understand that within the narrative, it makes sense to begin telling the story of Skeletor before He-Man; however, it’s confusing why each character is given his own single-issue origin when the narrative within each comic is clearly meant to follow the previous issue. It would make more sense to avoid the one shot-approach, and simply dedicate each issue to a specific character. Otherwise, readers will be unsure which origin issue they should read first and will no doubt find themselves missing some of the pieces of the puzzle.

DC has committed to an on-going series later this spring, and providing they can find a consistent team of writers and artists to steady the helm of this franchise, fans new and old will be in store for some finely crafted and fun-filled comics from Castle Greyskull.

 

Green Lantern Corps Annual #1

Written by Peter J. Tomasi

Art by ChrisCross, Scott Hanna, Marlo Alquiza and Will Quintana

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Considering how inclusive the entire Green Lantern universe has been recently, involving every type of ring bearer in the great expanse of space, Peter Tomasi slims down his tale to make this annual only about the members of the Green Lantern Corps, wrapping up the underwhelming “Third Army” arc by delivering a comic loaded with action, surprises, and an ending that left me wanting more.

What works best in Green Lantern Corps Annual is how quickly Tomasi dispenses with excess characters — Simon Baz, Atrocitous, and the white ring wielding Kyle Rayner — to center on John Stewart, Kilowog and Guy Gardner, the true focus of the Green Lantern Corps. He even finds a great way to make B’dg, the squirrel lantern, into a major player in the story. Due to its size, the comic has a lot of story but it never derails, bouncing from scene to scene without losing the focus or flow.

Tomasi also understands that no conclusion would be complete without some mayhem, character deaths and intense fighting. He cooperates fully finding a way to bring back one of the most powerful Green Lanterns ever, revitalize the corps, and set up the future of the series by leaving the majority of the conflicts still unresolved, making for a great climax and cliffhanger. The first few pages are the necessary exposition, but after he’s laid the foundation, Tomasi lets the story go giving readers the war they’ve been promised.

Drawing under the pseudonym ChrisCross, artist Christopher Williams does what he can to keep up with Tomasi. Sometimes he succeeds, particularly in close ups and tight shots. Other times, his work looks a bit stilted. The Guardians and The Third Army in particular demonstrate this the most. The images don’t lack clarity; they lack a certain aesthetic to make them cleaner, and sharper.

Label this a minor gripe because Green Lantern Corps Annual succeeds in being more than a clever or cursory tale with a neat concept but subpar execution. The comic plays to every major aspect of the Green Lantern continuity, as well as the characteristics readers have come to associate with this intergalactic police force.

Clearly, Tomasi was charged with wrapping up all the loose ends, and he does so fantastically, closing the door on a much-hyped, poorly presented “Third Army” story. His story is every bit as epic as it needs to be, and the annual more than an expensive and forgettable tale.

 

Deathmatch #2

Written by Paul Jenkins

Art by Carlos Magno and Michael Garland

Lettering by Ed Dukeshire

Published by BOOM! Studios

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

While the premise of superheroes and villains squaring off one another in gladiatorial style is nothing new, especially in the past recent months, Deathmatch takes the idea where it doesn't dare to go elsewhere. It's unpredictable and ballsy. This is 's heir.

It's only the sophomore issue and heroes are dropping out left and right. This issue here sets the tone for the rest of the series with the combatants seeing their future opponents in the upcoming matches. Needless to say, you'd have to cut the tension with a chainsaw. Writer Paul Jenkins uses analogues for these original characters just to get the point across, and at the same time makes them relatable. We get an idea about who these characters are without the story being slowed down with heavy exposition and narration. The indexes at the end of the issue really expand a bit too on the mythos of this universe, easing the learning curve of who's who. The characters to watch for are definitely Sable, a Batman/Huntress/Question amalgam and Rat, who is essentially Rorschach with a speech syntax problem who is also a giant rat. Go figure. Those two are the ones trying to figure out the who and why the heroes of this world were captured and forced to fight. Though most of the story is told through Dragonfly, a sort of Blue Beetle character.

One thing you're going to love instantly is Carlos Magno's art. It's some of the best stuff out there. His style is a equal mixture of Frank Quietly with more classic-looking linework in the style of Ethan Van Sciver and Barry Windsor Smith. It's compelling with some strong panelwork. There's nothing wasted on each page and it's crammed with detail. Not cluttered, but definitely brings as much as he can when he can to each page. He handles action scenes with two characters and crowd scenes with equivalent ease. You find yourself pouring over the pages to catch it all, and at times taking a bet with yourself on who is going down next. A minor gripe would be Michael Garland's colors. In a world like this, everything just feels a bit flat. While there is great design work and each character has a distinguishing color scheme, there doesn't seem to be a lot of "oomph" where there could be.

The only fans not enjoying something like this, would be the ones instantly comparing it to other titles that had the same idea. That point isn't really valid or hold up in anyway just because somebody else is doing it doesn't make Deathmatch any less entertaining. The Big Two might have books that played up this concept before, but there were rules and regulations and you knew certain characters weren't going to die. Here, those rules are put in a shredder, then in a blender as Jenkins hits "liquify."

It's hard not to love originality, even if the concept seems a tad redundant with similar products already out. Jenkins has the potential to really take Deathmatch anywhere it wants to go from here. It's the second issue in and you can see alliances form and the backstabbing begin, but the last panel is the real mystery of it all. If you're looking for over-the-top violence with and engaging story, check this one out.

 

Batman: The Dark Knight #16

Written Greg Hurwitz

Art by Ethan Van Sciver and Hi-Fi

Lettering by Dezi Sienty

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Ethan Van Sciver drawing Batman is more exciting than deep-fried Twinkies. Ever since I first encountered his work in Green Lantern, I’ve been drawn to Van Sciver’s lucid style, detailed images, and heroic designs. When I saw he was going to be illustrating Gotham’s resident protector in DC’s ongoing Batman: The Dark Knight, I even asked my comic shop to hold a copy for me. Van Sciver and Batman, what do I have to lose?

Well, a lot actually. For starters, I think Batman kills some people, an act that seems to violate everything he stands for. Furthermore, Van Sciver is relegated to smaller panels that hinder his grand, sweeping designs. The chaotic page constructs makes the art come off looking blurry and indistinct. Not even Hi-Fi’s colors can give the pages clarity.

Greg Hurtwitz’s story calls for a lot of images, but in doing this, Van Sciver often draws the action out of focus with items like Batarangs and missiles leaving and entering other panels. Granted, Van Sciver gets in a few very powerful shots, ones that hint at what be rather than what is, a point which makes the comic all the more frustrating to read. One splash page in particular, illustrated as a set of piano keys, was so packed that it draws the eyes up and down rather than across, inhibiting the pace of the conversation.

One of my other major draws to this comic was The Mad Hatter. I love Batman’s eclectic rogues’ gallery. With villains like Crazy Quilt, Calendar Man and Zebra Man, you never know what freak Bats will have to square off against. But The Mad Hatter becomes a copy of every other psychotic and violent criminal in Batman’s life. Plus, Hurwitz throws in so many side moments that the comic never finds its stride. Instead, Batman: The Dark Knight reads more like a series of vignettes rather than a linear and coherent story.

Clearly, Greg Hurwitz has a lot of story to share. The book is packed with dialogue, scenery, and action. But none of it sticks the landing. The story Hurwitz wants to tell doesn’t have the space it needs to breathe, and what happens is that the comic fills up very quickly, becoming its own worse enemy and failing to leave a lasting impression, or an urgent desire to see how the story will conclude. 

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