Best Shots Reviews: CAPTAIN AMERICA, HELLBLAZER Finale, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Then let's let Best Shots blow your socks off, as we open up with a look at the latest issue of the Marvel NOW! Captain America...


Captain America #4

Written by Rick Remender

Art by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, Dean White and Lee Loughridge

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Rick Remender's take on Captain America is, in many ways, a double-edged shield — for some, the crazy, Kirby-inspired sci-fi bent may be off-putting, a departure from Cap's nebulous true north that feels like garish style over substance. But Remender's Cap is also one of the best examples of character-building in the Marvel Universe as a whole, and it's that inner strength that sustains this book through some otherwise choppy waters.

Cap as a character has always proven to be kind of a tough one to really grasp upon — he's the "other" movie Avenger, the one who only got a couple of decent lines, the square in a room full of edge. So it makes a certain amount of sense for Remender to drop him into hostile, alien territory, so we can see Cap do what Cap does best: fight. But the downside for a high concept like the parallel universe of mad geneticist Zola is that it doesn't inherently feel like a Cap concept — even adding Ian as his son, while adding a nice bit of tension and humanity, just reads like a superhero version of rather than something that speaks to Steve's origins or core country-spanning concept.

There's a "but" here, however. Underneath all that weirdly paced sci-fi, there's some real gold. Remender's stated in the last that he wanted to show readers what made Steve Rogers the resolute hero that he's always been. Seeing this pint-sized Avenger-to-be surviving the mean streets of Depression-era America continues to be the highlight of this book. It anchors Captain America with his indomitable will, his never-say-die attitude, and adds a layer of humanity to what would otherwise be a fairly alienating main storyline. In a lot of ways, Remender is writing that Superman story that's always been implied but rarely defined — it's not enough to be told these heroes are "good," we're learning lessons along with Steve.

The pacing, however, is a bit clunky, jumping from Dimension Z to the Depression and back again, and it puts a bit of a damper on John Romita Jr.'s artwork. He's got a nice splashy moment with Cap and Ian (unfortunately you can already see it in preview images), but otherwise the layouts feel a little bit cramped, not giving much room for the big action beats like Ian blasting an alien or Jet beating around a prisoner. Romita is a clean artist, however, and the level of detail he and inker Klaus Janson give the Depression scenes are a nice touch.

Captain America is marching to the beat of his own drummer right now, but there is some method among all this madness. The character is all-important here, as this is a chance to use all that goodwill from and build Steve Rogers beyond the buzzwords of "leader," "optimist," "naïve" or "badass." The rest is all window-dressing, so your mileage may vary with Rick Remender's crazy concepts — while this issue might have been a little jerky in terms of sheer story content, there's something solid behind the shield.


Hellblazer #300

Written by Peter Milligan

Art by Guiseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Landini and Brian Buccellato

Lettering by Sal Cipriano

Published by DC Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Oh, Constantine! My Constantine! Our fearful trip is done.

Thought dead and buried, John Constantine shows up at his own apartment, shocking his widowed wife as if he's pulled the ultimate trick; cheating death. And really, if any character should cheat death in his final issue, it's John Constantine. Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini lead us on an issue that's never quite what it seems just as Constantine's games and schemes for 300 issues were never what they seemed. Hellblazer #300 encapsulates the life and times of John Constantine in one issue, showing us for one last time man who cheated the fates to leave a cold world just a little less dark for the few people that he truly loved.

The story in this issue is a series of red herrings, distractions and some imaginative (and possibly carcinogenic) magic. It picks up as the conclusion of the latest storyline but Milligan writes a story that's also easy for the lapsed Hellblazer reader to pick up for one last time. Let's just say that the opening pages, with an apparently alive Constantine greets Epiphany, his wife, is not what it seems to be. Milligan begins a story of misdirection, like the best stage magician dazzling you with his right hand while his left hand is performing the real sleight of hand.

This final issue of Hellblazer is about family, about wives, nephews and nieces. It's about the people that are left behind as the survivors after a death in the family. Milligan gives Constantine a chance to take a final walk through his life, trying to set things right before he has to say his final goodbyes. But Milligan is also giving Constantine one last time to cheat; to cheat life and death, to cheat love and destiny and one last chance to even cheat himself. As he's been written for over 25 years, Constantine has approached life as a game where he had all of the cheat codes but eventually all of that cheating has to catch up to the guy. We've all been waiting for that to happen.

Camuncoli and Landini navigate through the story with a fine, sharp line that's almost painful to read. They draw the pain in the characters that's unavoidable and raw. John may be cheating death in this game but they never show characters who have won. There's always something hurting behind these characters' eyes. Constantine is a character who hides in the shadows, manipulating them, but Camuncoli, Landini and colorist Brian Buccellato draw a clearly delineated London for Constantine to maneuver in. Their drawings are about emotions and those emotions are hurtful and painful. As you would expect from a Hellblazer story, this isn't a happy tale but it's surprising just how much emotional turmoil that the artists are able to capture in their razor sharp drawings.

As Constantine tries to pull of a final con against fate and destiny, Milligan, Camuncoli and Landini provide definition of what a Constantine-sized hole in the characters' lives (and by extension, our own comic reading lives) looks like. Moving through some of the stages of mourning, we see what life without this John Constantine will be as DC tries to trick us with substitutes and look-a-likes to try and cheat the fickle fates that is the comic book publishing business. But in the end, these creators borrow a trick from their main character and maybe cheat a bit, providing an ending to the character that isn't as final as death or banishment to superhero hell.

Hellblazer #300 reminds us of just what a bastard John Constantine really is and just how much we enjoyed reading these dark tales. Constantine was the ultimate cheater, a character who never showed all his cards even as he made sure that he had a wild card hidden up his sleeve. Milligan, Camuncoli and Landini play this issue the same way. We think we know the game and how this book, series and character are going to end. It's an ending 25 years in the making that still manages to trick us with its magic. A John Constantine may be showing up in comics with Batman and Superman now but our Constantine is gone. Milligan, Camuncoli and Landini pull off a final trick, giving us everything we expect from the final issue of Hellblazer while denying a finale that leaves us mourning the character.


Star Trek #18

Written by Ryan Parrott

Art by Claudia Balboni and Claudia SGC

Lettering by Shawn Lee

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

As IDW continues to produce Countdown to Darkness, the ongoing Star Trek title is free to explore the Enterprise's supporting characters. Star Trek #18 sets it's site on Lt. Uhura, the one character that's arguably receiving the largest expansion in this all new Star Trek. Although character profile stories are usually one-step removed from a clip show, writer Ryan Parrott brings some much appreciated attention to the iconic Communications Officer.

Exploring her earlier years at Starfleet Academy, Parrott manages to pull off the ever-so-tricky “flashback within a flashback” gimmick as we not only learn of Uhura's past, but also gain some insight into the controversial Uhura and Spock relationship. The story behind young Nyota Uhura isn't anything groundbreaking. Yet in the simplicity, Parrott brings much to the character. Uhura has always been presented as a rather scholarly and solitary character, and while she has her moments of passion and emotion, she's always felt most comfortable listening in solitude. Finally reading about the moment in her childhood that helped define the young officer is welcoming and very moving.

Claudia Balboni is quickly becoming one of my favorite artists to bring the Trek world to life in comics. As in previous issues, she does a fantastic job of realizing the actors on page, while never once falling into annoying photorealism. While I'm certain she references the actors, I didn't detect a pose or design flat out copied from a movie. During the flashback scenes, Balboni captures the determination of the child Uhura as she faces her greatest challenge. There is also a proper sense of scale in these moments. What was once a simple trip in a shuttle soon turns into a larger than life gauntlet that pushes young Uhura to her absolute limits. It's simply smart work that really sells the emotional story.

On colors, Claudia SGC faced a real challenge. With the bulk of the issue taking place within a hunk of metal, there was little chance and variety. Yet, she brings warmth to the setting that helps sell the rather normal and slightly mundane concept of the Uhura family on vacation. It has an interesting effect, taking what we consider the fantastic and rending it as old fashioned. Claudia also helped define pencils that, through little fault on Balboni, had little going on. While in general the line work is great, there is only so much an artist can do when the background is a plain metal bulkhead. During those moments, Claudia plays with the color and tone Star Trek fans have come to expect during an emergency. It's a nice touch that goes a long away in maintaining a connection between the comic and the film.

As a long-time (and rather obsessive) Star Trek fan, these IDW one-shots have been a real pleasure to read. Although we all love Kirk and Spock, too often the supporting characters get lost in the adventure. Fleshing out their place within this new Trek not only strengthens their role, but the setting as a whole. Although I will admit, we've now had two (technically four if you count Kirk and Spock's cinematic tales) deaths that drive our leads. With that in mind, I'm really hoping for some variety in inspiration with upcoming issues. Still, it's a good time to be a Star Trek fan, in no small part due to IDW and the creative teams they've put together.


Supergirl #17

Written by Mike Johnson

Art by Mahmud Asrar and Dave McCaig

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Want to see a fight between two of the most powerful members of the DCU? Mike Johnson’s got you covered.

Despite being wrapped up in the mediocre “H’El on Earth” arc, Supergirl #17 is a wonderful super-powered throw down between Kara Zor-El and Diana, mixing both story and action in an issue that is well paced and well drawn, and one that gives life to a character that started out strong has since become less interesting.

I love Mike Johnson’s work in the early Supergirl titles and since co-writer Michael Green left the book after Issue #12, the comic has been lacking the same strong writing which garnered it so much attention. In this issue, however, Mike Johnson shows readers that Kara is every bit as powerful as we saw in the first few issues, and that she even a few tricks up her sleeve.

The fight with Diana is more than a melee of strong blows and smashed faces. Johnson shows that in addition to being physically strong, Kara is also a tactician, finding a way to break free of Diana’s lasso. But more than that, he builds upon the work laid by other authors in the “H’El on Earth” arc. Whereas tie-in issues often feel like a waste of money, anyone following the story is going to want this book for both its action and its revelations.

Furthermore, Mahmud Asrar’s art is the perfect compliment to Johnson’s quickly paced story. The action scenes gain clarity due to Asrar’s clean images, sharp ink lines, and well-defined characters. Asrar channels the epic feel of the story by utilizing splash pages and full pages, as well as limiting the number of frames on the page, making for a smooth transition between moments, despite all the chaos of the comic.

While writers seem to be trying more and more to bring a human element into their stories, it’s nice to see two people pound on each other over the course of 22 pages. The end of Kara’s fight with Diana isn’t necessarily surprising, but it definitely shows that both women are forces with which to be reckoned. And if you’re like me, and your interest in Supergirl was starting to wane, Issue #17 will rekindle the fires.


Alpha: Big Time #1

Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov

Art by Nuno Plati

Lettering by Joe Sabino

Published by Marvel

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Introduced in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man Alpha was supposed to be the foil to Peter Parker. Irradiated by “Parker Particles,” Andy Maguire gained access to a host of powers, and Spider-Man was charged with teaching Andy how to use them. The problem was that Andy was nowhere near like Peter — no humility, no desire for justice, and no need to put everyone else before himself.

These exact traits are what makes Alpha: Big Time a difficult book to write. Andy Maguire is nowhere near as personable as Peter, and his personality is as flat as a playing card. Fialkov barely gives readers enough time to feel sorry for Andy before he’s made back into a superhero, and this is one of the major failings of the book. Readers cannot identify with Andy, so therefore his subsequent conflicts don’t carry the same emotional weight as Peter’s.

While Andy starts the issue with the mindset that he’s learned his lesson, clearly his actions don’t reflect this belief so when he encounters a villain, he fails to do the right thing and while the climax has a possibility for serious ramifications, Andy is no more humbled by the end of the issue. Peter lives by the code “With great power comes great responsibility,” but even when he tries to impart this wisdom onto Alpha (albeit through Doctor Octopus), the advice doesn’t stick, and we’re left with a hero whom we disliked from the beginning, and one in whom we haven’t seen any growth. At the end of the issue, Andy Maguire is still just as unlikeable, and therefore not a very marketable character.

Where the book works, occasionally, is in Nuno Plati’s art. His style is simplistic, but his pacing — particularly when he tries humor — makes the book a better read. He has an ability to use the beats well to communicate the comedy of the book, but these moments are utilized far less than they could be. And where Humberto Ramos was the initial designer of the character, his crisp, angular style is noticeably missing from this book.

If Alpha: Big Time is going to make Andy Maguire into a hero, it needs to do so quickly. Maguire is not a likable character, and this introductory issues doesn’t go far enough in making him into more than “not Peter Parker.” My one hope is in the artistic team. Fialkov has proven his ability to write a strong story, and Plato has what it takes to make Alpha look good. Now, they need to get beyond the character shell and show readers that despite his initial run in Amazing Spider-Man, the character still has a lot to offer.


The Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun #1

Written by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt

Art by Brian Churilla and Bill Crabtree

Lettering by Douglas E. Sherwood

Published by Oni Press

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Prequels, the biggest mixed bag of the pop culture world. On one hand, fans can rarely get enough of the setting or character they love. On the other, it's darn near impossible to surprise someone with a prequel. I mean, we already know how the story has to end. So, to that effect, it takes some serious writing chops to pull off a strong and compelling tale. The Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun #1 by Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Brian Churilla comes close, but we'll get to that later.

As the title suggests, Sons of the Gun seeks to reveal just how General Hume came in possession of cursed weapons, and how he formed the nastiest band of killers the world had ever seen. To be sure, this issue starts strong, with just the right level of implied danger. Bunn and Hurtt don't waste their time in establishing General Hume as a right ornery guy. Even as he's chained and placed in a coffin alive, he's full of hate and hellfire. Yet, in these opening pages, the curse of the prequel slowly and subtly rears it's nasty head. Rightly, the book shifts focus to Drake Sinclair and his connection to Hume. To The Sixth Gun faithful, this is a strong moment. We have years of understanding between these two people. Those that see an issue #1 and look to jump in, the moment isn't as strong. Make no mistake, it's still a great scene, but the impact solely rests upon your knowledge of the series and these characters.

The story proper is still fun, with the bulk of the attention paid to “Bloodthirsty” Bill Sumter and how he came to use (and perhaps hate) the First Gun. All but left for dead in an unforgiving dessert, Sumter again finds himself in the collection of less than honorable men as they seek artifacts for the Pinkertons. It's a fun spin on a classic western trope, something the main title has done well it's entire run. Still, the story reads a little rushed. Sumter was always the most sympathetic of Hume's crew (which isn't saying much), and while we see that sympathy again surface in this issue, we don't really see a reason. For now, Sumter is still just the guy that made one too many bad deals and those deals have come calling. It's fun, but lacks the depth the main series provides.

Brian Churilla's art is functional, but lack the nuance I've come to expect from previous work. Sons of the Gun has an almost claustrophobic feel to it, with most of the panels keeping the action tight on the characters. It's not the most effective use of Churilla's skill and overall has a negative impact on the issue. It's a real shame, there are a lot of fun elements to the fantastic setting presented in the book, but Churilla rarely has the opportunity to exploit these moments. However, when combined with Bill Crabtree on colors, the art does bring out the classic man with no name vibe from “Bloodthirsty” Bill. Like the writing, everything about the look of Sons of the Gun #1 feels a tad rushed. I really wish the story allowed Churilla the time to set the visual and emotional tone of book.

Everything I enjoy about The Sixth Gun is in this title, but Sons of the Gun #1 somehow lacks the raw energy and excitement of the main title. To a longtime reader, this debut issue adds some depth to the overall mythos, but doesn't really impact the enjoyment one way or another. To the new reader, this is still a mixed bag. Bill Sumter isn't the strongest character to launch a new title upon, but there should be enough here to engage a new reader, if only for the promise of the six guns having their day of villainy. A rough start from a creative team that I've come to expect a lot from over the years. I'll be back, but I'm really hoping for a rebound.


Nenetl of the Forgotten Spirits Part One

Written by Vera Greentea

Art by Laura Müller

Lettering by Frank Cvetkovic

Published by Greentea Publishing

Review by Jeff Marsick

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

On the surface, a story about a ghost searching for her family during the Mexican festival Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) while being chased by an exorcist sounds like a dark concept sprung from the mind of either Sam Raimi or George Romero. In execution it's a beautiful adventure, a magical fairy tale of hope and of the bonds of family that reach beyond the living.

According to Mexican belief, a person dies three deaths: the first is the clinical death, the second is when the body is buried out of sight, and the third is when the person is forgotten by their family. It is this third iteration that a person fears most and the reason for the country's annual November festival. Nena, the titular character, is a ghost, an adorable pixie of a girl who races the Mexican streets during the celebration in search of someone who will remember her and therefore ward off a sentence of terminal death.

Complicating matters, however, are four exorcist apprentices who pursue Nena, though for different reasons. Each issue of the series is planned to spotlight a different exorcist, with this first one being Bastian, a likable sort who seems straight off the Disney lot. A spirited (no pun intended) chase between Bastian and Nena ensues, ending in the cavernous depths beneath the Mexican streets and the question of who is actually predator and who is the prey.

I love Vera Greentea's writing, have so since I discovered her and books. A Kickstarter darling (Nenetl was another successfully funded campaign for her) her writing has a Neil Gaiman quality, storytelling infused with a playful whimsy overlying a deeper sadness that begs for a resolution. Although Ms. Greentea writes with elements of traditional horror, I'm hesitant to label it in that genre, since the underlying thread of hope eternal keeps a light shined on the shadows so that the end result is more spooky than gut-wrenchingly sinister.

What also sets Nenetl apart from other independently-produced efforts is the beautiful painted artwork by Laura Müller, whose animation style is thankfully bereft of inking that would simply weigh each panel down. Ms. Müller's storytelling is captivating and kinetic and although the artwork has a cartoony look about it, it's never silly. Terrific as well is her use of bold, bright colors for the festival and then a quick devolution to darker greys and blacks for the subterranean climax. Taken as a series of storyboards, this comic portends great promise for Nenetl to be an animated feature.

Nenetl is a wonderful first issue, with three more to go in the series. It is a professional-looking production that is just as satisfying on subsequent reads. If you're looking for something a little different, I can't recommend this one enough. 

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