Best Shots: Ultimate Origins, RASL, Darkness and More

Best Shots: Ultimate Origins and More

Greetings! Welcome back to the big column. Here’s a look back at this week’s Best Shots Extra . . .

Final Crisis: Rogues Revenge #3

And now, the regular reviews . . .

Ultimate Origins #5 of 5

Writer: Brian Bendis

Artist: Butch Guice

From: Marvel Comics

Reviewed by: Richard Renteria

Brian Bendis concludes his look at the ties that bind as Ultimate Origins draws to a close to make way for the status changing Ultimatum Event. While there were not a lot of major revelations made, I have to give credit to Bendis for the idea that mutants are a product of man rather than an evolution. This distinction gives the mutants of the Ultimate Universe a much more suspect origin and calls to attention a lot of ethical choices man makes when deciding to play god. The fact that mutants do not know this secret adds an provocative layer to the relationship between man and mutant.

I enjoy Bendis’ handling of Fury throughout the series as he, in a sense, is the key to a lot of secrets. From being the first super soldier to destroying all evidence of the link between man and mutant, Fury is a pivotal character within the universe and the current events seem a bit out of synch with Fury missing from action.

Jackson Guice’s art nicely compliments the story from beginning to end. Guice conveys the issues more powerful scenes in a straightforward manner which allows the art to tell the story. The scene when Fury discovers the mutant research lab, Weapon X, is quite powerful and the quick shots of the horror unfolding within the walls really make for a powerful moment and allows for the proper weight necessary for the scene to succeed. Justin Ponsor’s colors enhance the art in a natural manner utilizing a subdued color palette.

While the event itself was quite muted in the explosions and fisticuffs, the unfolding of the Ultimate Universe’s history was quite fascinating with some rather startling revelations. It should be interesting to see how, if at all, any of these events will play out in future Ultimate titles.

The Darkness #6

Written by Phil Hester

Pencils by Michael Broussard

Inks by Ryan Winn

Colors by Sheldon Mitchell

Lettering by Troy Pateri

Review by Lan Pitts

Issue six brings the conclusion of the "Empire" story arc, as Jackie Estacado faces off against a foe that is pure evil incarnate. Matching brains and brawn against this formidable enemy will test Jackie's strength, and resolve as it becomes clear to him that The Darkness power is more than just a sinister force, it is an organism of rage-filled destruction hell-bent on ridding itself of Jackie once and for all. Writer Phil Hester (Superman: Confidential, Green Arrow) teaming with budding superstar Michael Broussard (Unholy Union) put the stamp on their momentous first arc on The Darkness in an explosive closing.

After embracing the Darkness in order to survive being blown to smithereens, Jackie faces off against his "child", a being born of nothing but pure Darkness energy. Anything Jackie can do, this thing can do better. Though with most sons, they always think they're better than their father. While the slugfest that ensues in this issue is a seriously great fight, some of the dialogue seemed over the top and uncalled for.Then again, Top Cow can get away with it. I enjoyed the use of shadows in Broussard's art and his paneling composition is excellent. Winn's inking really compliments Broussard's pencils. They never weigh them down, or make them too slim and fragile. Add to the fact that Sheldon Mitchell's color palet sets the proper tone for the issue. If I had one complaint, it would be that some of the fight choregraphy looks all too similar to a Spider-Man/Venom altercation.

I have to admit, I've been out of touch with what's been going on in the world of "Darkness" for quite sometime. I got back into it last year with the release of the video game, and pulled out some old issues to re-read them. Almost ten years after his debut, Darkness is still one hell of an anti-hero. I'm hearing this will be released in trade paperback form later this year, and I would be interested in checking this arc out from the beginning.

RASL #3

By Jeff Smith

From Cartoon Book

Review by Brendan McGuirk

No one likes to be typecast. Jeff Smith is no different.

After his all-ages friendly, but subversively complex opus, Bone, and the charmingly innocent Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil, Jeff Smith was looking more and more like a cartoonist with a knack for making kid’s books. His rounded, direct visual style, and story choices made it seem like he was satisfied with the niche he’d carved out for himself in the underserved demographic of the young comic reader. This isn’t to minimize his success in this field, because his work appeals to a much larger audience, and is clearly among the most talented writer/ artist/ cartoonists in the field, but that seemed to be his M.O.

Well no more.

RASL is everything Bone wasn’t. It trades in fantasy and wonder for science fiction and murder mystery. It forfeits cutesy anthropomorphic creatures for prostitutes and disturbing mirror-monsters. It packs sex, booze, and hard speculative science in a beautiful package befitting one of the foremost visual storytellers in the medium. With a stoic and introspective lead, this is a big kid’s story.

The subject matter of Smith’s newest venture, with Nikola Tesla super-science, Native American symbolism, and troubling facial structure rearrangement, seems to be a blend of personal passions. It is the story of Rasl, a somewhat incorrigible scientist who has cracked the barrier that separates parallel realities. The idea of parallel universes is one familiar to most comicbook readers, but the urgency and danger that accompanies Rasl’s journeys between worlds adds a new level of dramatic tension.

After being free to unnaturally roam as he saw fit between worlds, someone has finally followed him back. The tenuous hold Rasl had on his life, and his sanity, begins to buckle at the seams when a mirror-faced pursuer begins murdering those close to him. Rasl, clueless that anyone else even had the capacity to travel as he does, must seek out mirror images of old friends, piece together scarce clues, and above all, survive.

In this third issue, things really start to speed up. We see what our hero’s life was like before his discovery, and learn just why he is of such interest to other dimension-explorers. It seems as though Jeff Smith really wanted to prove his own versatility, and this series is doing just that.

Mighty Avengers #19

Writer: Brian Bendis

Pencils: Khoi Pham

From: Marvel Comics

Reviewed by: Richard Renteria

Mighty Avengers #19 is without a doubt an absolutely useless tie-in to Secret Invasion. Even worse, though, is that the story is written by the architect of the event, and yet, the story adds nothing to the overall Secret Invasion storyline; all the relevant information that is presented in these pages has already been addressed (and in a much more succinct manner) in the main SI title.

The main thrust of this storyline seems to be an effort to give the Skrull Captain Marvel something to hit so that he goes down in style, which is fine, but there’s really little story in such a scenario. Did Bendis really think the reader needed another 22 pages of story dealing with the present day events of the invasion? It was my understanding that these tie-ins would reveal more about the Skrulls plans and what they were doing while all the heroes were arguing with each other. It seems there are better plot points that Bendis could be focusing on, questions readers actually want answers to, such as how deeply the Skrulls are embedded within earth’s populace; how about a story that centers on Jessica Jones, who has been missing for quite some time, or even better how about some more information on the initial infiltrations that we were promised? I feel cheated.

Overall, Bendis has been doing a good job keeping the reader entertained with these tie-ins, but it seems, starting with the Savage Land flashback issue, that Bendis is more concerned about giving a few rogue Skrulls face-time moments before they die to make them seem more heroic. What relevant information I took from this issue adds nothing to what has already been established. Bendis still does a good job of the overall characterization of the main players and moving the story along, but the premise of this issue is flimsy and not even good characterization can save the story.

Khoi Pham does a commendable job on the art; it neither distracts nor excites the reader: it just is. This is fine when one considers the sub par quality of the story. At times the art feels very hectic, almost rushed, which causes some weird distortions in various faces. One of the bright spots of this issue was Pham’s choreography of Captain Marvel’s fight with the two Super Skrulls. The fight is well-executed and Pham really lets loose with some great action shots. As Pham has a very distinct style it is nice to see the quality of his storytelling skills improve issue by issue.

As much as I have been enjoying Secret Invasion as an event, I have to say I am disappointed by this seemingly unnecessary issue of Mighty Avengers.

The Night of Your Life

By: Jesse Reklaw

From: Dark Horse Comics

Review by J. Caleb Mozzocco

They say there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone else’s dreams, and perhaps that’s true. But if the dreams are illustrated by a talented and versatile cartoonist? And re-told in an extremely rigid format that boils them down to their surreal essentials, and excising all opportunity for wandering?

Well, then you’ve got something.

Or, more precisely, Jesse Reklaw’s got something. The altweekly cartoonist is the creator of Slow Wave, a strip in which he takes dreams submitted by readers and turns them into four panel strips; each panel the same size, all arranged in a tight little square.

The format serves the material well, allowing Reklaw to tell often pretty complex (and necessarily nonsensical) narratives in as little space as possible, thanks to the images doing most of the talking and narration boxes setting things up and showing jumps in time.

The illustrations also serve to highlight the inherent oddness of a sentence like “My brother Kevin, Snoop Dogg, and I were being chased by a pack of mountain lions on Harleys” or “I was hanging out in a post-apocalyptic shelter when a carrot asked me out.” Reklaw’s style is illustrative and realistic, so the visual delivery is always deadpan.

It can occasionally feel repetitive in the way a collection of any standalone comic strip can be, but Reklaw is amazingly clever at presenting the dreams in a four-panel gag strip format, so that each reads like a complete story with a climax or resolution of some kind in the last panel.

Beyond the inherent humor in someone having to fight Jackie Chan for their bed or a housecat playing basketball with its own head, the book seems to have some anthropological value too. What would a dream analyst make of this strip, and the fact that Mr. T and Abraham Lincoln seems to appear almost as much as Jesus?

There are certainly some surprising overlaps between many of the dreams illustrated within (that talking carrot mentioned above isn’t the only talking carrot, nor the only usually inanimate object a dreamer enters into a relationship with) and, I suspect, a reader’s own dreams. While I haven’t had the exact same dream as any of Reklaw’s collaborators, I definitely see my own experience of dreaming in them, most particularly the complete randomness that makes perfect sense to the protagonist while its occurring.

Night of Your Life collects about 140 of his Slow Wave strips into a nice black and white hardcover collection. To check out Reklaw’s work, however, you can simply click to slowwave.com.

Gus and his Gang

Written & Illustrated by Chris Blain

Published by First Second

Reviewed by Michael C Lorah

Not sure why this book was named Gus and his Gang rather than Clem and his Gang. Gus, after all, fades out halfway, never to return (except for a brief flashback, detailing how Gus met his gang of bandits), while his comrade in train robbing Clem becomes the book’s undeniable lead for the final 60+ pages of a 164 page book. Regardless, here’s what you should know: Gus and his Gang follows a trio of train robbing outlaws in the Old West, with a particular focus on their amorous pursuits. Venturing to the semi-mythical El Dorado, a town populated by lovely single women, Gus and Gratt stumble valiantly about in attempts to woo various ladies, while married family man Clem finds himself in a torrid affair with sexpot Isabella.

Gus and his Gang is half screwball comedy, half rootin’-tootin’ western dramedy, and that dichotomy doesn’t always serve it well. Chris Blain’s lively, expressive cartooning suits the upbeat humor, and his character acting is superb. Each character’s most feverish hopes and most crushing letdown shines in the body language and facial expressions of the cast. Clem’s girl Isabella is a lovely freckled, assured woman with humor and strength, easily seen without reading a word of her dialogue.

However, it’s through Isabella and her relationship with Clem that the book develops an uncomfortable vibe. See, while you can see Isabella’s appeal, Clem’s got a wife at home, and Ava is just as adorable as Isabella. Somehow, during later sequences that focus on Clem’s home life, the book’s tongue-in-cheek quality doesn’t seem quite so tongue-in-cheek, unsure of how much levity to inject into Clem’s happy marriage. It’s not that infidelity needs to be portrayed seriously, but Blain can’t seem to figure out which side of the line he’s walking – Clem’s extra-marital love is fairly light-hearted and upbeat, but the tone doesn’t carry through as effectively to his marital life, which is presented as a fairly somber, yet comfortable and happy, marriage.

Gus and his Gang is still a fun ride, particularly for the experience of Blain’s excellent visual storytelling. The wittiest moments, most of the boys time in El Dorado and their train robbing antics, makes for a fast-moving, upbeat lark, but the book’s second half can’t quite keep up the pace and humor. Still, fans of great comic art, Westerns or off-color romantic comedy should definitely look for a copy. It’s a strong book, warts and all.

I Live Here

By Mia Kirshner, J.B. MacKinnon, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons

Published by Pantheon

Reviewed by Michael C Lorah

Seven years in the making, Mia Kirshner (star of Showtime’s The L Word – a channel I do not have, and thus, a show I’ve not seen) and her compatriots’ I Live Here is one of the most ambitious book and multimedia charity projects I’ve come across in a long while. And, thankfully, easily one of the most confident and effective.

I Live Here, the book, is actually a large binder containing four separate “notebooks.” Each notebook focuses on the plight of women and children in distinct and equally troubled portions of the world. The spotlight shines on Ingusheta, Russain province weighed down by the influx of Chechen immigrants, caught under the heel of oppressive Russian policies; Burma, where women sell their bodies on the border with Thailand to escape political and cultural repression; Cuidad Juárez, Mexico, a city witness to uncounted violent murders of young women; and Malawi, where women and children deal with unimaginable poverty and the unchecked spread of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mixing Kirshner’s actual journal entries from her travels to each location with fiction, non-fiction accounts and – yes, this has some relevance to comics – imagery and visual storytelling, I Live Here isn’t seeking to provide balanced, nuanced portraits of any of these places. This project is specifically exposing the suffering of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of young children and struggling women, many of whom you’ll meet in its pages. The first thing that surprised me, what could be an overwhelmingly oppressive and heart-wrenching read becomes more palatable when you see that the women involved refuse to give in to their circumstances. Each woman in these books is a proud, resourceful and intelligent being, which in many ways makes their circumstances harder to accept. They’ve done everything in their power to provide better for their families.

Longtime comic book fans will have to seek this out to see the fruits of Joe Sacco’s trip to Ingusheta, plus an extremely rare recent sequence from Phoebe Gloeckner, whose photo/art/collage narrative of women in Cuidad Juárez is among the books’ more moving sequences. Fans or critics of Sacco won’t be surprised by what they find here; he’s sharp as ever, and his viewpoint is as personal as you’d expect. Gloeckner’s mixed media artistry isn’t something I’ve seen from here before, and the visuals make the narrative she unfurls one of the most terrifyingly creepy in the entire project.

While the comics contributors are spot-on, the less effective pages are invariably the fiction. The issue being that the reality is so compelling and the women’s stories so moving that the fiction cheapens the sentiment, often tying up ends of a narrative too neatly to fit into the thorny reality of the lives lived in these areas. The fiction seems especially out of place when, to my surprise, actress Kirshner’s journal entries show her considerable talent for writing and description. Few of the other writers, and none of the fiction contributors, match her eye for detail and gift for placing the reader in her shoes during each encounter in any location.

If you’re looking for upbeat escapist fun, you won’t find it here. [b]I Live Here[/i] is putting a face and an identity on the human suffering around the globe, and Kirshner and her allies are doing so with class and humanity. Everyone should pay attention to this project and, more importantly, make an effort to help the organizations trying to provide aid in these places. After all, one day, we each may need someone to send assistance to the place where we live.

Scalped “Dead Mothers” Trade #3

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by R.M. Guera, John Paul Leon and Davide Furno

Published by DC/Vertigo

Review by Sarah Jaffe

Scalped is consistently one of the best books on the racks. With the third trade available now, it’s an excellent time to pick it up and immerse yourself in a thrillingly complex crime drama, one that dishes up equal parts action and violence, psychological drama, and supernatural elements and Native spirituality.

A comic set on an Indian reservation has a lot of pitfalls to avoid and a lot to live up to, but the team on this book is more than up to the challenge. A beautiful splash page of Mount Rushmore reading “You are on Indian Land” reminds us that Jason Aaron is indeed conscious of the huge burden he’s taken on writing this story, that he knows his characters aren’t just a punch line or a cliché, that they are indeed worth fighting for.

As this book goes on it becomes more and more of an ensemble piece, and you’re free to pick and choose your favorites, though there’s no guarantee that they’ll be around for the rest of the story. Me, I love Dino Poor Bear, I loved Gina, and I’m fascinated by Carol, by the hints of complexity that Aaron teases us with much more subtly than Carol herself teases. She may be a sexy comic woman, but she’s deeply wounded and we’re starting to have to face that.

But who can help being in love with R. M. Guera’s Gina Bad Horse, young and laughing? And who can help but feel for Red Crow when no one believes him that he didn’t have her killed? A willingness to kill off characters we’ve gotten to love is an impressive trait in a writer, and the reveal on the person who may be Gina’s killer will shock everyone.

Aaron doesn’t give us easy bad guys to blame. Except possibly Agent Nitz, who seems like a soulless bastard of the highest order, for now. But this series has so many twists and turns that I’m just waiting to see his story, to find out what makes him tick.

Dash Bad Horse’s bond with the orphaned Shelton regrounds him for a time, and gets us all solidly back in his corner—and then sucker-punches us with another twist. Yet they really aren’t twists for twists’ sake. Each book doesn’t end with a cliffhanger: we get ebb and flow, some down endings—the silent page with Bad Horse walking out on the orphaned kids—and some that leave you clawing for the next page—like Bad Horse squealing off in his police cruiser, trying to avert disaster.

Aaron is as good at the resonant ending, the complete story in one book as he is at creating a story that weaves throughout the chapter. Most importantly, though, he knows when to leave pages’ worth of silent panels and to let the art speak for itself, to trust his artists to carry the story and convey emotion without heavy-handed words. This is the hardest thing for new comics writers to learn, but Aaron’s instincts are spot-on.

The artists on this book are as good as it gets, too. Guera has made the characters his own, but John Paul Leon on “Dreaming Himself into the Real World” takes us on a trip through Dash’s mind and gives us a new perspective on him, And Davide Furno takes us on a similar dream vision through Officer Falls Down’s mind, with a particularly stunning panel of a gunshot bleeding flowers through his head—I want that one blown up and framed on my wall.

Scalped is as good as DMZ and Fables and better than anything else Vertigo is putting out. I guarantee that you’re missing something great if you aren’t reading it.

Predator Omnibus Volume 4

Writers: Kevin J. Anderson, Nancy Collins, Ron Marz and various

Artists: Scott Kollins, Claudio Castellini, Dean Ormston, and various

From: Dark Horse Comics

Review by J. Caleb Mozzocco

As an extremely early adapter of the now colossal licensed comics market, Dark Horse literally has thousands of pages of comics based on movie properties, many of them far pre-dating the current trade paperback bookstore boom.

The publisher’s come up with a pretty ingenious solution to getting these old comics back in the market with their omnibus program, which takes some of their longest-lived and/or most popular franchises—from Predator, Aliens and Star Wars to Buffy and the Dark Horse heroes—and assembles them in complete collections.

The books are a bit pricey—about $25 a pop—but also pretty great values, considering the hundreds-of-pages-per book format, and rather slick, full-color production that sets them apart from Marvel and DC’s phone-book collections of their older comics.

It’s an especially welcome format for a sprawling franchise like Dark Horse’s Predator comics, which began waaaay back in 1989, and haven’t really let up since. Because a lot of he inspiration has by now left the original concept, the stories are inevitably repetitive, with little changing from tale to tale save the setting and the combatants. So getting a big, fat brick of a bunch of them all at once, allowing the weaker efforts to be buoyed by the stronger ones, is pretty much the ideal way to take them on.

Sure, there’s some pretty mediocre comics here, even by the lowered standards of the Predator vs. Fill-in-the-blank format, but there’s some pretty fun ones too, and that’s enough to balance things out.

In this fourth volume, Predators battle grizzly bears, bison, British soldiers, Union and Confederate soldiers, Nazi soldiers, anti-Predator task force soldiers, a samurai and other Predators. They come to Earth during the Civil War, just after the Jack the Ripper murders in Victorian England, and in the far-flung future.

The strongest offerings are probably “Primal,” written by Kevin J. Anderson and illustrated by Scott Kolins (whose style had yet to develop to the scratchier point its now at), in which a Predator tries to take on an Alaskan grizzly and “Hell Come A-Walkin’” by Nancy Collins and Dean Ormstrom, in which two isolated factions of Civil War warriors must set aside their substantial differences to joine forces against what they assume is the devil. The weakest is probably Ian Edginton, Mel Rubi and Andrew Pepoy’s Predators vs. a ‘90s-style superhero/G.I. Joe team, “Xenogenesis.”

Everything else falls into a sort of middle ground, and, if you’re at all interested in the alien hunters after the most dangerous game of all conceit, it’s a middle ground full of some fun, trashy, sci-fi action, a good half-dozen or so of the seemingly endless riffs on a now rather rote story distinguished by how creative the writers are for coming up with combatants and arenas for the fights, and how much of themselves the various artists can put into the designs.

PELLET REVIEWS!

Legion of 3 Worlds (DC; by Troy): An absolutely stellar super-hero comic, L3W has Johns and Perez working at the top of their respective games. The art is just terrific, and Johns is creating real suspense with tension-filled action sequences. Seriously now . . . when the new LSV showed up, weren’t you immediately afraid that we’d lose all of the characters on the White Witch rescue mission? The mastery of Perez is evident when the Legions get together, particularly the arguing Brainiac 5’s. A must for Legion fans, though others can dig it, too.

Captain Britain and MI13 #6 (Marvel Comics; Reviewed by Richard): The start of a new story arc begins here and writer Paul Cornell wastes no time in getting right to the story. In this issue MI13 is investigating a mystical fire that citizens just can not seem to get enough of, literally. Also this issue is the introduction of Blade into the series as he tries to drive a stake through Spitfire. The most surprising moment of the issue though was the final page cliffhanger that has some potentially major ramifications for the life of Captain Britain. Leonard Kirks art really moves the story along in an electrifying manner as he seamlessly switches from scene to scene but the efforts of colorist Brian Reber, while appreciated, were a bit distracting as they seemed to overwhelm the page rather than compliment the art. MI13 continues to be a title full of potential and it maintains its quirky appeal while telling an entertaining story.

Amazing Spider-Man #573 (Marvel Comics, Reviewed by Richard): While overall I thought that New Ways to Die was a fun event that really captured the essence of Spider-Man there just seemed to be something missing. Dan Slott does a good job on delivering a solid ending and John Romita Jr. does his usual phenomenal job on the art front, but the story seemed to wrap up a bit too conveniently. Slott does start some new subplots that should prove to add more mystery to the title and the Anti-Venom concept has a lot of potential. I can not say that this event has me rethinking my stance on Spider-Man, but it is nice to see the ol’ web-head is in capable hands.

Ghostbusters: The Other Side #1 (IDW; review by Troy): This issue isn’t bad, per se; I just think that it needs to be funnier. While the conceit of using the ghosts of famous mobsters as the villains is a fun one (one that would have been right at home in the animated series), the majority of the one-liners just kind of hang there. The art, sans likenesses, is good, but I think that there’s more opportunity here than what this issue makes of it.

Crossed #1 (Avatar; by Troy): By issue’s end, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or vomit, which, quite frankly, is probably exactly what Garth Ennis was shooting for. This extremely hardcore invocation of zombie clichés (though, not technically with zombies, but with raging, raping people overcome by something that leaves them cross-rashed and homicidal) features great art by Jacen Burrows and some savvy mores-trampling by the writer.

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