Best Shots: WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN, DEMON KNIGHTS, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Best Shots is ready to start the week off right, with this week's edition of our Monday column! So let's kick off today's column with the latest from the pupils at the Jean Grey School, as we take a look at Wolverine and the X-Men #26...

 

Wolverine and the X-Men #26

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by Ramon Perez and Laura Martin

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

So... who wants to learn the secret history of Wolverine's brother Dog?

That may not draw many hands, considering that Marvel's original mutant loner now has a clone, a son (two, if you count another universe... tons more, if you count Jason Aaron's other Wolverine series), but Jason Aaron has certainly latched onto that otherwise forgotten character from Wolverine's . And for what it's worth, he certainly puts in the work to try to make Dog a compelling villain. While I still don't see him as a lasting adversary to Wolverine, Ramon Perez and Laura Martin help elevate this issue to a beautifully illustrated diversion.

For my money, I think it was a smart move by the book's creative team to mimic the original painted style from the original series. Ramon Perez is at his best when he's not beholden to traditional panel layouts, and Laura Martin's nuanced colors make the whole flashback seem otherworldly, just eerily beautiful. Those sequences are particularly thoughtful, like the small moments like us watching the feral Wolverine stare warily at his pursuer some time in the past.

The present-day sequences, however, feel almost business as usual — maybe it's coming after the spectacular flashbacks, or maybe it's just Perez not really being comfortable with all those masks and costumes and fight choreography, or maybe the shift to "traditional" colors comes off as too jarring.

The other problem this book has is... no matter how hard he tries, Aaron is not going to make Dog a thing. To invoke , it's his personal "fetch." Maybe it's because we already have a number of dark Wolverine clones, ranging from Sabretooth to the Silver Samurai to Daken, blade-wielding warriors who give in to their dark side rather than struggle with it as Logan does. So having a long-lost, time-traveling brother with techno-gadgetry doesn't feel iconic or organic from Wolverine's character, he just reads as a plot device with an accent. It's a problem with concept, not setup, and while Aaron does an admirable job setting up Dog as somehow jealous of Logan's hardscrabble life... it doesn't quite take.

Focusing on this no-name villain versus the children of the Jean Grey School was a gutsy move for Jason Aaron and company, and while I don't think it worked out for them this go-round, it's that anything-goes mentality that I so love about Wolverine and the X-Men. Combined with the sheer artistic power that this book keeps showcasing, this isn't a solid hit, but Perez and Martin prove that any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

 

Demon Knights #18

Written by Robert Venditti

Art by Bernard Chang and Marcelo Maiolo

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With niche characters and a new world and an unpredictable magical setting, it's easy for a book like Demon Knights to get out of control. So what's a writer like Robert Venditti to do?

Set up some rules.

As Venditti has been reintroducing, with varied success, the Demon Knights after a lengthy in-story hiatus, this comic focuses on the most famous member of the team: Etrigan the Demon. Held at bay for decades by his host Jason Blood — as well as years of imprisonment and torture by former teammate Vandal Savage — Venditti wisely conjures up some structure to the Demon's powers, tying him further to Jason Blood and giving his all-powerful character a decent weakness so he doesn't wipe the floor with the bad guys all by himself.

But the real reason this book works so well is Bernard Chang and colorist Marcelo Maiolo. These characters look smooth and compelling, particularly the pages where the Knights are conversing with one another — and that is a skill few people have. I particularly like it when Maiolo surprises us, like a moment where a panel explodes with a bloody orange when Jason moves to summon the Demon. That said, Chang isn't quite his usual self when it comes to the fight sequence — it may be a script issue, as Venditti has a lot of characters to juggle, but the actual choreography feels a little crunched, and that's a problem when there isn't a moment you really remember.

There are some other issues with this comic, as well, as Venditti is still getting the hang of balancing all these characters at once. Considering the amount of time they had going their separate ways, I would think there is a wealth of hidden stories and character growth that could be mined among the Knights, but aside from Exoristos' semi-bland Amazon story, most of the characters aside from Jason and the Demon get a bit of short shrift on exposition duty.

While the series is flagging a bit after Venditti's curveball opener, he ultimately does hit the plot points he needs to set us up for a satisfying conclusion to his opening arc. Because Bernard Chang looks as compelling as he does, it's easier to forgive some of the excess dialogue in this book — Chang makes it visual enough for us to move with. They may be a niche market, but there's a lot of potential to Demon Knights that is palpable just by reading it, and I'm feeling pretty confident that upswing will continue to next month.

 

Star Wars #3

Written by Brian Wood

Art by Carlos D’Anda and Gabe Eltaeb

Lettering by Michael Heisler

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Forrest C. Helvie

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

This third issue of Brian Wood’s Star Wars provides readers with a bridge from the plots developed in the first two issues to what will no doubt be much more fast-paced reading in Issue #4. Readers encounter further intrigue with the black ops team Leia is in charge of as friction builds between herself and Luke—who is clearly exhibiting some of the same brash behaviors his father displayed in his past, which most readers would immediately recognize. Moreover, we see a side of Luke that fans of the movies will be surprised to encounter in his interactions with one of his teammates. Considering how Luke is portrayed in “A New Hope” as an innocent farm boy, it was nice to see his character a little less archetypal and more human.

What I found most enjoyable about the story is that Leia is not shown to be uncomfortable in her role as the alpha leader in this group of highly trained pilots. While she bristles at some condescending remarks from Luke, it is naiveté and inexperience that shows in his behavior—not Leia’s. Wood continues to flesh this character out who is all too often remembered for her need of being rescued in “A New Hope” and her fanboy-inspiring regalia from “Return of the Jedi;” instead, he shows her to be confident, decisive leader who is able to fit whatever part the Rebellion requires of her. And D’Anda’s artwork supports this representation of the rebel leader as she looks like a military officer and not some sort of pinup girl—a potential danger given the following Carrie Fisher developed following her time in the iron bikini. Her personality—not her body—is what gets the main focus of the art.

Elsewhere, the scene with Han Solo and Chewbacca being double-crossed is the most action-filled in the comic, but aside from another escape scenario, it doesn’t do much to show us something new or unexpected about either character. Given Wood’s interest in developing the story around Leia, it will be interesting to see what his future plans are for these two characters in the future.

My only criticism with this issue is this: It needs more Vader! D’Anda’s art is strong and it’s no surprise he was tapped to work on this title, and yet, his menacing depiction of Darth Vader and the agents of the Empire are perhaps even stronger than those of his Rebel scum. At this point, the book could be split evenly between Leia and Darth Vader with every other character serving in supporting roles, and it would still be just as appealing to fans of the book and movies. Wood is able to deliver a Leia who is a nuanced and compelling leader who is struggling to move her cause forward while not collapsing under the strain of the world she knew that is now gone. He also has a fascinating story to tell about Darth Vader’s fall from grace—something that was never really alluded to in the movies—but a topic of conversation regularly held by fans following his defeat at Yavin IV.

That’s a story that will bring this reader back for the next issue to see what else is told of the fallen Sith Lord and the upstart Colonel looking to unseat him from his place beside the Emperor. And given the final splash page of this issue, it’s likely we will see even more of Darth Vader and his story in issue #4.

 

Age of Ultron #2

Written by Bryan Michael Bendis

Art by Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Paul Mounts

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

This is what I was afraid of.

After a solid opening, Age of Ultron doesn't just slow down — it barely moves from last month. I was concerned this might happen after the way started strong and sputtered across the finish line, and I hate having that concern confirmed. While Bryan Hitch's artwork still looks gorgeous as ever, his widescreen shots of the apocalypse don't mean much when the story goes nowhere.

From last issue's cliffhanger to this issue's cliffhanger, Age of Ultron pretty much goes from Captain America slumping... to Captain America standing up. Seriously. That's how much progression you're missing. The rest of this comic deals with the rest of the country reeling in the aftermath of Ultron's assault... so you essentially get to see a scarred Black Widow and Moon Knight engage in the same sort of running, hiding and killing that Hawkeye did last month. But aside from the minor shock value of the Black Widow's maimed face, Brian Michael Bendis is essentially answering questions that no one really needed the answer to — most of Marvel's big-name superheroes are in New York, so who cares about in San Francisco? Bendis himself already addressed Washington, D.C. last issue, so spending this much time away from the main story doesn't just feel wasteful — it feels criminal.

Especially when you have an artist like Bryan Hitch spinning his wheels like this. Hitch is a superstar, no doubt about it, and his photorealistic style makes this disaster epic feel real, feel huge, feel crushing. In particular, I like the guerrilla twist he puts on Moon Knight, and watching Spider-Man swing towards a behemoth machine is pretty striking stuff. There's so much detail to Hitch's work that it really sells how dire the Marvel Universe's plight is — that said, I think he also slightly oversells certain bits, like the Black Widow's scarring, to the point where I can't help but think something's getting undone somehow. If property damage is fleeting, deforming a star from a billion-dollar movie franchise certainly won't hold up for long.

But ultimately it's difficult to abide by a second issue that goes literally nowhere like this. The extremely small progression on the part of Black Widow and Moon Knight is definitely not enough to justify 13 pages, and the additional eight pages with the Avengers just feels like recap filler from last issue. Great art, but this isn't a sophomore slump — this is basically cutting class entirely. If Age of Ultron doesn't unfreeze itself by next issue, this ambitious disaster story is going to be one more for the scrap heap.

 

Sledgehammer 44 #1

Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi

Art by Jason Latour and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Clem Robins

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Mike Mignola and John Arcudi take readers back to 1944 for a rare World War II-era Hellboy-verse tale featuring men in gigantic robotic battle suits duking it out in the ruins of a French town. Conceptually, it’s a pretty simple idea, which is being touted as “Mike Mignola’s version of Iron Man,” though the lead character bears more than a passing similarity to Atomic Robo.

This debut issue opens with a blast, literally, with the lead character being dropped onto the battlefield inside a bombshell. From there it’s pretty much non-stop action for the next dozen pages, as Sledgehammer (or Project Epimetheus, as he’s officially known) breaks into a Nazi armory and battles with a German-engineered version of himself. It’s a well-crafted opening salvo that sets a pretty rapid pace for the rest of the story. Bearing in mind that this is only a two-issue mini, a fast pace is something of a necessity, and Mignola and Arcudi definitely deliver on this front.

That being said, it’s worth mentioning that storytelling hasn’t been sacrificed for the sake of action here. Rather than being told from the perspective of Sledgehammer himself, they have chosen to tell the tale from the perspective of a small squad of soldiers who have been sent in as his backup. This adds a human element to the story that firmly grounds this fantastical adventure in the grim reality of war. In the few scant pages allotted, the writing team manages to provide a strong introduction to the characters, and fleshes them out beautifully, ensuring that the reader becomes invested in their fate.

The issue ends with an interesting cliffhanger that promises for an exciting second/final issue. They also leave us with some lingering mysteries and suspicions as to the true nature of Sledgehammer, which guarantee that readers will come back to find out the answers.

It should be noted that this story was originally created with John Severin in mind as the artist. Unfortunately, Severin passed away before the project came to fruition, and Jason Latour was picked as his replacement. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, but not only does Latour accept this challenge, he embraces it—creating some stunning artwork that Severin himself would be proud of.

Latour’s pencils have a gritty roughness to them that works brilliantly for a war story. He beautifully renders the ruined streets of the French town, and illustrates the battles in such a way that the giant robots don’t look absurdly out of place of the battlefield. His character designs are quite fantastic, particularly on the Nazi warsuit — it looks like a menacing tank on legs, very reminiscent of German Panzers of the time, but with a slight steampunk sensibility about it. Something that really jumps are the characters’ faces, as Latour gives them all very simplistic facial features, and rather pointy noses. There’s something oddly charming about this approach, which brings to mind the war stories of our youth.

Dave Stewart provides another top-notch coloring job on this issue, using a very muted palette, in fitting with the wartime nature of the story, and doing lots of colour washes to set the mood on a number of scenes—mostly brown and blue tones.

Sledgehammer 44 #1 is a fun World War II-era adventure story, filled with larger than life characters and action galore. The idea holds a lot of promise, and it will be fun to see Mignola and Arcudi explore the enigmatic character more in future issues.

 

Green Lantern Corps #18

Written by Peter Tomasi

Art by Chrisscross, Scott Hanna and Gabe Eltaeb

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

With Geoff Johns readying his big finale from the franchise he built, the rest of the family's sister titles have been running in place with "Wrath of the First Lantern." If you've read one, you've essentially read them all — the First Lantern Volthoom tortures our heroes with visions of what might have been. Unfortunately, the wildly oscillating plot gives us almost no characterization to hold onto, making this a lightweight exercise in "what if?"

Basically, if you've been following Green Lantern Corps over the past couple years, you sort of know where Peter Tomasi is going with this comic. Heck, even if you've read John Stewart's Wikipedia entry, you've got this comic. What if John didn't blow up Mogo? What if John's mother hadn't died? What if John killed himself after Xanshi exploded? Picking one or two of these questions could have actually been an interesting character study from Tomasi, but he's running from question to question so fast that he barely has the time to show us any of the answers. And because Volthoom is narrating the whole thing, it's impossible to get a grasp on John as a character — he's a victim, he's simply having things done to him rather than being an active participant in his own story.

Chriscross's artwork is also surprisingly a miss here, which is weird since he's usually so good at being expressive. Oftentimes the detailwork here feels a little light, which may indicate a crunch with inker Scott Hanna, although I did like the designs and fight choreography they produced in an alternate reality where John became an Alpha Lantern. (Love that knight-inspired look!) That said, there's so much dialogue going on here that Chriscross's layouts wind up making the storytelling more confusing as opposed to more organic. And considering there are so many big, bloody moments to this issue, it's kind of a shame that Chriscross sort of flinches with the details, making the horror of these alternate histories seem that much weaker.

The big weakness of this comic, of course, is not only has this been done in another comic — and will continue to be done in at least one other comic later this week — but that we've already seen this done better. There's nothing in Green Lantern Corps that compels us to care about John, that gives these parallel lives any meaning. It's a one-dimensional light show, a continuity exercise, a $2.99 class in self-indulgence. If you choose to witness the "Wrath of the First Lantern," just know you have no one to be wrathful at afterwards but yourself.

 

Star Trek Vol. 4 TP

Written by Mike Johnson

Art by Stephen Molnar, Erfan Fajar, Hendri Prasetyo, Miralti Prasetyo, John Rauch, Ifansyah Noor, and Sakti Tuwono

Lettering by Neil Uyetake

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Character studies and what-if theories make up this fourth collection of IDW’s Star Trek stories that are unfortunately uneven when placed together in a collection.

Writer Mike Johnson has done an amazing job fleshing out the world of the JJ Abrams Star Trek universe, echoing classic ideas while giving them a fresh turn. I’ve been impressed with his ability to show that while these are the same characters we know and love, they don’t always act like the “old” universe did. The subtle differences make this a comic I always look forward to reading.

When it came time to approach the Mirror Universe, however, Johnson is far too timid. The plot and script feels far too stilted, lacking the sense of shock that the original episode possessed. We get far less of the cold, ruthless nature of this mirror world and more of the two-bit villain in New Mirror Universe Kirk’s characterization. There’s very little tension in the actions of the new mirror Enterprise crew and outside of Uhura, Kirk and Spock, they show no craftiness or guile, something that they would all require in order to make it in this dystopic world. Scott, McCoy, and the rest come off as being nothing more than henchmen, which is disappointing. (Worse, given how the story plays out, I’m inclined to think the alternative world ends up better in this reworking of the movie plot.)  When Old Spock (aka the Spock from the TV series) mentions he’s seen this all before, it’s unfortunately true for the reader as well. I kept waiting for a new twist or turn, but it never happened. Johnson is unusually tentative here, and the last two issues of this trade suffer as a result.

Fortunately, however, the mirror story is matched with two character-driven pieces that are excellent and make this worth picking up on their quality alone. The first is a narrative by one of the red shirts, Hendorff, telling what it’s like to be on the Enterprise from their perspective. It’s a clinic on how to tell a story about a minor character, and really lets the reader see how important decisions are made daily by those in the ranks.

The second one-and-done story focuses on Scotty’s assistant, Keenser.  He’s constantly put down for his failings in the eyes of others, but in the end comes through because he is unique from the rest of the Enterprise crew. I love how Johnson reinforces Roddenberry’s message of inclusion without being preachy, even for a single panel. Both Keenser and Hendorff’s stories are some of Johnson’s best writing.

Star Trek has a rotating cast of artists working with Johnson, with Stephen Molnar and Erfan Fajar drawing the solo stories and Hendri Prasetyo and Miralti Firmansyah working on the mirror universe two-parter. Your preference is going to depend on how you feel about processed artwork.

Molnar and Fajar work in a more traditional style that echoes traditional comic book styles. It’s clear the work is penciled and inked, with little digital altering (or altered so well I can’t detect it.) Prasetyo and Firmansyah are definitely working with a computer to make the figures look as close to “real” as possible, which at times pulls me personally out of the story but does have the advantage of making these licensed characters look more like the actors who portrayed them. Your mileage may vary.

Unfortunately, neither team is strong at creating dynamic tension in the art, which is less noticeable with a good script but stands out when it has to keep the reader going during a weaker storyline. There is far too much posing in all the stories in this collection and the mirror story really hurts itself by offering almost no backgrounds beyond shadowy ship bulkheads. I really wish these stories had more compelling visuals. Both art teams do their job, but they do not excite the reader or make them want to linger over the panels.

Star Trek Vol. 4 is more of a mixed back than the previous three trades, but even the weakest links in this chain still show Johnson working to ensure that he preserves the great legacy of Star Trek. Fans of the series will appreciate it, warts and all. 

Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!

Twitter activity