Best Shots Extra: SUPERIOR SPIDEY, JLA, NEW AVENGERS, More

 

Superior Spider-Man #6

Written by Dan Slott

Art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba, and Edgar Delgado

Letters by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

As tough as it is to see Doc Ock getting more and more vicious with Peter Parker's body in Superior Spider-Man, it's also tough not to stick it out in the hopes that Peter Parker's great return will be even more triumphant with Ock's ferocity as fodder. Still, there's something so primally wrong about seeing Spider-Man brutalizing, or even killing — yes, it's confirmed here that he did in fact kill Massacre last issue — that it becomes terrifying to think of how far down Otto Octavius will sink before the end. Still, there's no denying the quality of the crafstmanship of this title, and this issue in particular, and that's what's making it possible to keep returning each issue.

This issue sees the return of Screwball, one of the more innovative b-list Spidey villains of the last few years, and she's got a new partner in tow. With her new accomplice the Jester, Screwball sets out on a campaign of humiliation targeted at high-profile targets, all in an attempt to cultivate hits and ratings for their website. One can't help but see some parallels in their lowest-common denominator trolling of J. Jonah Jameson and the muckraking antics of some of Slott's critics, but the unpleasant consequences of Jester and Screwball's attempts to prank Spider-Man are so far outside of Slott's wheelhouse that any metaphor almost certainly ends there.

Meanwhile, Humberto Ramos is back with his first go-round on Superior Spider-Man, and his work is some of the best Spidey stuff he's drawn yet. The break Ramos got while Giuseppe Camuncoli and Ryan Stegman handled the first few issues of this series seems to have truly recharged his batteries, allowing him to hone in on his strengths, cleaning up his layouts and placing the focus on the dichotomy between Peter as Spider-Man and Doc Ock in the role. Edgar Delgado's work on this issue is also some of his best to date, as he shies away from the use of color holds and shiny rendering that can sometimes muddy Ramos's work, instead letting Victor Olazaba's striking inks do more of the work.

It's almost too close to call the way Superior Spider-Man will let its chips fall. Every issue sees Otto Octavius falling further out of Peter's reach, but also brings more consequences from characters like the Avengers, who are now determined to find out what's wrong with Spider-Man. After last issue's tense, and ultimately gut-wrenching climax, it was very difficult to look forward to continuing this story, but at the same time, there's something almost reassuring about the way Dan Slott lets his villains be villains, and his heroes truly heroic. There is a defining line between a man like Otto Octavius and a man like Peter Parker, and Superior Spider-Man is all about exploring what that is. Hopefully, doing so won't come at too much more expense to poor Peter Parker.

 

Justice League of America #2

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by David Finch and Sonia Oback

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It's amazing to see how some writers evolve over the years. Case in point: Geoff Johns's Justice League of America. After bringing together this scrappy team — complete with their secret mission of taking down the Justice League — Johns is readying them for their first mission in the field.

Notice I said "readying."

In certain ways, this feels almost like what I'd imagine Brian Michael Bendis's Justice League of America to look like — a lot of conversation, a lot of interpersonal dynamics, but the actual plot progression is fairly limited. Johns seems to be having loads of fun with some of his characters, however, with poor Vibe being the odd duck even with the criminal Catwoman on the team, or Hawkman nonchalantly walking into the conference room covered in blood. "It's not my blood," he says casually. That's surprisingly funny for a team that's been positioned as the more "extreme" Justice League. Yet some characters — particularly Katana and Star-Spangled Girl — still need some fleshing out, and new Green Lantern Simon Baz actually hasn't even made an appearance yet.

Where this book stumbles, however, are with the spymasters in charge. Amanda Waller and Steve Trevor do a lot of telling, not showing — it's supposed to be a war of ideas, but when it comes down to it the ideas are which one is more deluded. (Also, the line where Steve calls Amanda "the man" and she responds that she is "the woman" is really funny, but not in a good way.) This comic isn't so much about trading your humanity in for efficiency, it's a comic about distrust — there's a brief flicker of that message in a telepathic scene with Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter, where Ollie actually creates a campfire in his mind to ward off mental incursions, and that's probably the smartest beat in the entire comic. More of that, please, Mr. Johns!

Yet just because the comic is dialogue-heavy, don't count out David Finch just yet. There are a handful of action beats in this issue, and Finch really sells those moments — watching Ollie get knocked through a window by a Batman android is pretty striking, with the panels actually looking like broken glass. Like I said last month, this is also a much cleaner style for Finch, given that he's begun working with digital models as well — his usual hyper-rendered style is way toned down, but I think that works to this book's advantage. They may be the scrappier, dirtier Justice League, but they aren't going to be parodies of themselves, either. That said, Finch does occasionally struggle with the layouts, with some panels seeming awfully small to accommodate so many characters and word balloons.

That said, two issues in, Justice League of America continues to roll on based on the strengths of its ingredients: this is a good team with some nice potential for sparks to fly (Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter being a good example, as are Vibe and Hawkman and Catwoman), the artwork looks great and the stakes remain high. There is some fat to cut from this book, however, since the two people at the top of the chain of command wind up taking away precious space from the characters we really came here to see. Combined with a superb, sinister backup by Matt Kindt and Scott Clark showcasing the Martian Manhunter, this book still shows it's got some muscles to flex.

 

New Avengers #4

Written by Jonathan Hickman

Art by Steve Epting, Rick Magyar, and Frank D'Armata

Letters by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In a week of seemingly bleak releases at Marvel, it's nice to know that there are still a few positive things you can count on, confusing as they may be. While the Illuminati — minus Captain America and plus Black Panther — each flail at solutions for the incursion of another universe into our own, an unlikely solution presents itself, causing each member of the team to question their own motives. Jonathan Hickman is masterfully crafting an increasingly cosmic tapestry of disaster and intrigue, delving into super-science and infinite morality the way only he can. New Avengers #4 may be raising the stakes, but it's also focusing in on the human element at the heart of the Illuminati, turning the supernatural into the superhuman in the true Marvel style.

While it is a little baffling why the Illuminati would bother trying to stop the destruction of an alternate Earth while simultaneously considering ways to destroy it themselves, the real answer is, deep down, they are all heroes. They want to save both worlds, not just their own, reassuring the deeply held convictions that lead to Captain America's expulsion from the team last issue. It's comforting to see that these great men aren't willing to take the easy way out of their predicament, even when their own solution may yet yield the same results. Dr. Strange gets something of a spotlight this issue, and that's all the better. Hickman's take on the newly reappointed Sorcerer Supreme is at odds with his scientifically driven Reed Richards, but no less compelling. His willingness to sacrifice himself to an act that he calls "unspeakable" yields one of his most intriguing scenes yet, where he calmly, but solemnly informs his ever-faithful assistant Wong of his intentions.

This is also Steve Epting's best issue of New Avengers yet. He captures the scope and weight of the cataclysmic conflict like no other artist could, using his trademark ultra-dramatic lighting and a perfect balance of widescreen, popcorn-fueled angles, and more intimate close-ups to dial in on the essence of each scene. His faces still seem less angular than usual, but like Hickman, his best rendering is Dr. Strange. Along with Rick Magyar, whose inks are deep and rich, and Frank D'Armata, who has a palette that is at once colorful and somber, Epting's Dr. Strange immediately springs off the page, practically begging for a spotlight.

Though the vast, cosmically philosophical nature of Hickman's New Avengers may be intimidating to some, fans of his work on SHIELD and Fantastic Four will not be disappointed. This is Hickman's Gotterdamerung, a celestial morality play writ large across Marvel's entire tableau, where the demigods of the Avengers learn of their inevitable mortality. It's an intimidating prospect, but Hickman has handled stories on this scale before, and with great aplomb. With any luck, the intrigue and weight of this story will loom larger than it's inevitable result of combining many of Marvel's disparate timelines, such as the New Universe, with the one we know, as saddling a book this good with as shaky a result would be downright criminal.

 

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray #1


Written by Frank J. Barbiere


Art by Chris Mooneyham

Color Assists by S.M. Vidaurri


Published by Image Comics


Review by Forrest C. Helvie


'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

What sort of comic would fans get if they took the best from Indiana Jones, Hellboy and added a splash of old school Vertigo attitude? You’d get Image Comics’ latest release, Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray #1. This book succeeds in the way in which presents these familiar elements without coming across as derivative in any way as Barbiere & Mooneyham incorporate their own unique twists to the treasure-hunting horror sub-genre.

The story opens during the World War II era as its protagonist, Fabian Gray, closes the case for a beautiful patroness by delivering a jewel held by the Nazis. Gray recalls Indiana Jones in his strong looks and swagger all the while in pursuit of an object of mysterious origin. But it is more than just quick wit that enables this adventurer to succeed where others have failed. Four vastly different spirits possess him—some of whom (such as Sherlock Holmes) readers will identify right away, others who are still unidentified (like the Samurai)—all of whom imbue him with supernatural abilities to overcome various obstacles and opponents. The result is our protagonist crosses over from expert treasure hunter to magician over to being a bloodthirsty monster followed by temporarily wielding a sword with deadly effect. There’s a little something for everyone. In this, Barbiere accomplishes what so many over-hyped titles try and fail to accomplish in providing readers with just enough information about who Gray is and why we should be interested in him. How did these spirits possess Gray? He is told this could lead to his death, but why? A good writer should provide enough information for readers to become engaged in the narrative without being confused by it, and Barbiere does just that. Needless to say, readers will need to continue on to later issues to find answers to these questions.

Chris Mooneyham, like Barbiere, is a relatively new and upcoming creator who handles the artistic duties for Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray #1 . Where Barbiere writes a compelling and intriguing narrative, it is Mooneyham who expertly tells this story. Not many readers often notice the gutters in a comic, and yet, Mooneyham’s subtle touch of alternating between white and black space subconsciously cues the reader into a particular mood and atmosphere within the panels of that given page. This was especially effective on those pages where the inks were heaviest and the stakes were highest. Given his story focuses on a supernatural tomb raider of sorts, he rightly eschews clean and heavily stylized line work in favor of a slightly rough and jagged aesthetic, well suited to the characters and scenery readers encounter. Moreover, his work with S.M. Vidaurri on the colors for this first issue provides an added visual element to heighten the action and capture and convey the emotions within each of the panels. The final splash introducing what appears to be the comic’s primary villain is one such example of many where Vidaurri’s talents shine, as a sort of hellfire seems to swirl around the devilish Iago.

If you enjoy a good hero’s tale but need a break from mainstream superhero fare, or you simply want something different from the rest of the comics out there, be sure to pick up a copy of Frank J. Barbiere’s and Chris Mooneyham’s Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray #1.

 

Action Comics #18

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Rags Morales, Brad Walker, Andrew Hennessy, Cam Smith and Brad Anderson

Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Say what you want about Grant Morrison's run on Action Comics — it may be messy, it may be broad, but it's certainly not lacking in self-esteem. The very first page of Morrison's final chapter with the Man of Steel touts itself as "nothing less than a new American mythology." I wouldn't go that far — this story is pure Morrison, but it might be too much of a good thing for even diehard fans to take.

Sometimes when writers hit a certain point in their career where they wind up indulging their quirks a little too much for comfort. Geoff Johns, for example, can engage in heavy dialogue, Brian Bendis can decompress a story within an inch of its life through zero-calorie banter. The last temptation of Grant Morrison, however, is that he has so many ideas and not enough space to put them in — so what he winds up doing is overcrowding even a 30-page comic. Lex Luthor, Krypto, the Superman Revenge Squad, the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Wanderers, and not one, but three beings from the Fifth Dimension? It's exhausting just typing it, and you not only have to be totally on top of the last dozen or so issues of Action Comics to make sense of it, you also have to be a Grant Morrison aficionado to really bridge the gaps that he's leaving in his story structure.

Similar to Morrison's conclusion to Final Crisis, no exposition and quick cuts from scene to scene not only steal the spotlight away from Superman — what good is he as the world's greatest superhero if he needs two extra teams and a dog to help him get out of this scrape? — but it also makes this issue difficult to follow. Morrison has said in interviews that while Batman tries to stave off death, Superman fights the impossible. That's well and good, but besides one quote near the end of the book, that message doesn't really hit home in the confines of this comic. If you can't readily understand a book without outside interviews, the wide appeal of the Man of Steel is going to get tarnished.

The artwork by Rags Morales and Brad Walker has its bright spots, however, particularly on the last page of Superman and Krypto sharing a nice, wholesome moment. The more psychedelic Morrison's script gets, the better Morales and Walker's work gets, from the circular focus panel where Superman punches out a Doomsday-robot-enhanced Vyndktvx to a sequence where Superman is mutated into having a lion's head or an ant's mandibles.

The designs for the Wanderers, a team shows up abruptly to take out the Superman Revenge Squad — again, you won't get it if you haven't been keeping up, and you'll barely get it if you did — also has some nice designs. Yet the talky scenes wind up feeling pretty limp, with a lot of blank expressions and stares, and the composition for the battle scenes feels remarkably old-school, just too bland and pulled back for such big ideas and foes for Superman to fight.

Yet the problem that Morrison faces is the same problem that dozens of Superman writers before him have succumbed to: what is a fitting foe for an invincible man? And what is the most iconic way for Superman to dispatch that foe? Morrison was clever enough to define Superman by not just his strength and his intelligence, but by his good heart and his tenacity over in All-Star Superman. In Action Comics, however, it's all about clinging onto nonsense in-continuity rules like making people say their names backwards and Fifth Dimensional möbius plots.

You have to give Morrison points for ambition, and even further kudos for trying to wrap his various threads together as ended his run. And while its admirable to build up Superman's supporting cast beyond the derivative sidekicks like Supergirl and Superboy, accommodating all of these characters means this comic doesn't feel much like a Superman story, let alone an enduring new piece of American mythology. This conclusion may be big and it may be expansive, but it's also so convoluted that even a Man of Steel can't quite hold it together.

 

X-O Manowar #11

Written by Robert Venditti

Art by Cary Nord and Moose Maumann

Lettering by Dave Lanphear

Published by Valiant Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating 7 out of 10

When it first relaunched, I had some serious doubts about X-O Manowar. Even after giving it a couple of issues, the execution of the concept just didn't pull me in. Now, a few months later, Valiant kicks off the "Planet Death" arc with issue #11. Everyone kept promising me this would be a great time to give the space gladiator another shot. So here I am, X-O Manowar #11, with an all but fresh set of eyes and not a clue as to what came before. Honest. I didn't even bother reading the recap at the beginning. This comic was either going to grab me or it wasn't.

Based on visuals alone, this book landed in that artistic sweet spot and blew me away. From page 1, artist Cary Nord and colorist Moose Baumann are the stars of this issue. I simply loved all the bordered panel design, with it's intricate combination of plant and stone to highlight the once paradise planet of Vine. The book played to memories of early science fiction movies. Movies where even a simple retelling of a people’s history required every single person in the art department to step up their game. Sure, the narrative from writer Robert Venditti is a little heavy-handed, but that doesn't really matter. This book pulls the reader in with a vast and lush setting, and that's enough for me.

Admittedly, the book does read like one massive recap issue. So much so that, by the time the man in the suit arrived to cause all kinds of havoc, I'd almost forgot the comic is named for him. With that in mind, I enjoyed the wanton carnage that soon ensued. Again, I have only the first two issues as a reference, so the reasons for said carnage are all but lost on me. In a strange way, I think that worked in the stories favor. Venditti, be it by choice or necessity, simply assumes that everyone coming into the book knows what came before and does nothing to bring readers up to speed. At least, in regards to Aric of Dacia and his connection with these aliens. Having just explained the history of these supposedly peace-loving aliens, in comes this one-man death bringer and starts to killing. Stranger still, the aliens see him as a god and don't fight back. Yeah, I can dig that kind of mystery. If the series had started out this way, I might have stuck around. Although I wonder if I would enjoy this current issue as much.

All is not perfect with the art though. While I enjoyed the panel layout and design, the work loses some luster once Aric enters the scene. The fights scene read a little static to my taste and lack a real sense of direction. Ships and various body parts feel out of place, even beyond the occasional blasted form, which I would give a pass. It's hard to really put my finger on it, save to say the character composition never really rises to the visual feast that was the opening pages. Even the coloring and shading lack the attention to detail we saw in the first half of the book. It's a real shame, as it ends an otherwise strong title on a low note.

Still, X-O Manowar #11 does a good job of bringing in lapsed readers like myself back into the fold. Unlike the start of the series, there is enough here that I want to know what happens next. If the creative team can find cohesion between art and words, this "Planet Death" arc could be a real winner for Valiant.

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