BEST SHOTS EXTRA Reviews: CAP, DARK KNIGHT, More

Marvel May 29 2013 Previews
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America #7
Written by Rick Remender
Art by John Romita, Jr., Scott Hanna, Klaus Janson, and Dean White
Letters by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Captain America is one of the last major Marvel titles that's truly still coming out monthly. Most of their other books have gone almost bi-weekly at this point, and that distinction may actually be hurting Captain America. While most Marvel NOW! books that debuted around the same time are on their second or third arc, Captain America is still languishing at a snail's pace, biding its time in the twisted Dimension Z and getting by less on the content of each issue, but the cliffhangers and twists that seek to justify the book every 22 pages or so. Maybe it's decompression, or maybe it's simply that the rest of the Marvel Universe has started to outpace Captain America, but this book is moving like molasses, setting the book's plodding pace at odds with its energetic and engaging visuals.

With Captain America #7, Rick Remender has finally starting bringing together many of the threads he's pulled through this series, using Steve Rogers as a vehicle to explore the nature of fatherhood, and an all together different take on his usual theme of evolution and change. One thing to say about Remender as a writer is that he clearly has a mission statement for his comics work, touching on similar ideas and concepts throughout his Marvel books. The flipside of that coin is that as clear as his vision may be, it has a tendency, as in Captain America, to get bogged down and diluted. Much of the action in Captain America #7 feels incidental, like it exists solely to reach the next climax rather than to add anything to the story other than the next shocking final page or fist-raising moment of heroism. Not every scene has to be the book's biggest moment, but they should serve some purpose other than stretching out the time between the worthwhile beats. Indeed. a lot of the past few issues of Captain America seem like they could have been condensed if the comic were more concerned with what was going on between the major beats, or if it were at least able to compress scenes like Cap excising the Zola virus from his body, Jet Black's conversion, or this issue's final scene into a more compact series of events. The major story beats are there, but Captain America takes more than its share of time reaching them.

Of course, John Romita, Jr.'s high-octane art is one of the major selling points for Captain America. Say what you will about Romita's consistency - his high level of output has certainly left some duds in its wake - but when he's on, he's one. There's something simultaneously gritty and hopeful about Captain America's battle worn costume as he dashes through the bizarre Dimension Z, providing an electrifying backdrop for Remender's occasionally plodding musings on fatherhood and legacy. Dean White's painterly colors add depth to Romita's art, rounding out his style which can suffer under the wrong colors.

The problem with Captain America #7 is the same one that's plaguing the series et al. There are some really great moments, written with skill and depth, but they're surrounded by what comes across as filler, material designed to eat pages and expand the story rather than tell it. At the heart of Remender's Captain America is a story about a man learning what it means to be a father, and seeing in himself a way to right the wrongs he felt as a child. Unfortunately, on the surface, it's still about Cap plodding his way through Zola's world without much real direction and without enough consistency in the storytelling to justify the razor-thin plot.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman: The Dark Knight Annual #1
Written by Gregg Hurwitz
Art by Szymon Kudransky and John Kalisz
Letters by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

I count myself still skeptical about the overwhelmingly regressive direction of DC's New 52 at large, so imagine my surprise when I cracked open Batman: The Dark Knight Annual #1 to find something closer to a post-modern supervillain sitcom than another dreary stab at some of Batman's classic foes. In "Once Upon a Midnight Dreary," Penguin, Mad Hatter, and Scarecrow gather together at the Arkham Detention Center for Youth, each having received a message from the others requesting their participation in an undefined caper. As it becomes clear that they've been duped, the almost obvious "why's" and "how's" take a backseat to three reluctant colleagues, bound together by chance, and the fraternity of villainy letting off a little steam, and finding both more and less than they bargained for in the shadows lurking about the creepy Arkham estate.

Right away, the most striking thing about The Dark Knight Annual #1 is Szymon Kudransky's gorgeous art. Kudransky captures a sense of dread and whimsy that is perfectly balanced, with creeping darkness and stark lighting playing against the exaggerated and almost comical features of three of Batman's silliest and strangest rogues. John Kalisz's moody, washed out tones have an almost watercolor style to them, which melds seamlessly with Kudransky's sense of light and shadow. With a lesser art team, or a team more in line with DC's current house style, this tale could easily fall flat, as Gregg Hurwitz's script, while funny and well crafted, almost requires art that can capture the essence of fear on the same page as a sneering goofball in an oversized top hat for this tale to have any sense of credibility.

While Kudransky's art is the definite star of the show, Gregg Hurwitz's script captures the paranoia that goes with being one of Batman's sworn foes almost effortlessly, melding it with a kind of behind the scenes look at the cult of supervillainy. As Mad Hatter, Penguin, and Scarecrow lurk through the long-abandoned Arkham Detention Center for Youth, certain that the Caped Crusader is silently stalking them, having lured them all to a trap, they muse on Batman's mannerisms, his taste for theatrics and affectation, and the possible merits of opening Gotham's first stained glass window factory. It's almost like a comic version of "Waiting for Godot," where these three bizarre men, certain that something profound and dreadful is coming, allow themselves a few moments of unpretentious pondering on the absurdity of their lives. When "Once Upon a Midnight Dreary" finally breaks, however, it sees Hurwitz pulling in threads from his "Penguin:Pride and Prejudice" mini-series, along with elements from Scarecrow and Mad Hatter's recent appearances in Batman: The Dark Knight to finally cash in on the sense of terror that's been lurking at the heart of the story, culminating in an experience that the three men are as eager to forget as they were to open up about the almost petty nature of their dislike for Batman.

Despite a distinct lack of actual Batman in this annual until the funnily downbeat denouement. Batman: The Dark Knight Annual #1 could rank among the best Batman one-and-done stories in recent memory. It's easier to compare it to some of the more beloved episodes of "Batman: The Animated Series" than anything that's happened in a New 52 Batman comic heretofore. While the timing is a little odd - the story is meant to take place on Halloween - that's less of put-off, and more of an invitation to revisit this comic when the appropriate time of year finally rolls around. Any comic that begs a re-read, especially nowadays, is a welcome change of pace from the fleeting pleasures of most DC comics these days.

The Wake #1
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Sean Murphy
Colors by Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In 2010, Vertigo Comics released a new creator-owned series from a relative newcomer to the comics medium: American Vampire by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque. Originally announced at New York Comic Con in October 2012 and released today in 2013, Vertigo looks to see if lightning will strike twice with Snyder’s most recent creator-owned enterprise in The Wake with artist, Sean Murphy (who also did some art on American Vampire). From this first issue, it seems as though storm clouds are gathering for a second visit.

The first issue of The Wake busily sets about establishing the world, which Snyder plans to bring readers into over the course of this ten-issue maxi-series (which could lead to additional volumes, but that’s the current plan for this first arc). Dr. Lee Archer, a professionally recognized cetologist and yet flawed individual, provides Snyder with his protagonist for this underwater thriller. The federal government calls upon her to aid them with an eight-day expedition in Alaska where she will be tasked with uncovering the origins of a haunting, whale-like cry. It is this mystery that provides the primary trajectory for this journey. In ways reminiscent of a tabletop roleplaying game, various experts in their respective fields are drawn together, each under a different understanding as to the reasons for their underwater explorations. Like any dungeon-crawling adventurer, Archer discovers there are some dark monsters just around the corner.

Archer is an interesting character. She’s working to be a respected scientist, and yet, we see she’s struggling to be a good parent as a divorced mom. It’s a reality many readers will likely identify with, and I can appreciate how Snyder avoids playing into stereotypes of women and provides a more balanced characterization—both in placing a female as a respected scientist (given that more women possess doctoral level degrees, this shouldn’t be surprising), but also as someone who isn’t a perfect parent. And Murphy’s character design is certainly much more grounded when compared to how many women often find themselves depicted in comics. Although this comic doesn’t make her gender a big deal, comics have yet to enter that period of time when we can take for granted three-dimensional representation of all demographics. So it’s worth taking note of The Wake for this reason as well.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t end with Archer and her cohort, but instead, a flashback to the early prehistoric man. Moreover, the story doesn’t even really begin with Archer either as it opens nearly 200 years after the events of the main story. So what does this mean for readers? Expect a story arc that spans over 10,200 years of human history from the earliest recorded origins of man to a “Water World-esque” future. It’s a tall and ambitious order to be sure. Given Snyder’s record at world building between his critically acclaimed creator-owned work as well as his redesign of more mainstream properties, The Wake will likely prove to be every bit engaging as it the hype surrounding this first issue.

World building and storytelling in comics isn’t just in the hands of the writer, of course; and Sean Murphy proves adept as a graphic storyteller. There is a raspy sort of quality to the art that works incredibly well. It’s a style readers have seen in Murphy’s previous American Vampire work before, as well as in other thriller-horror comics such as Steve Lieber’s Alabaster mini-series or Chris Mooneyham’s Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray. This aesthetic is quite effective as it immediately cues the reader into a world that is not clean and crisp; instead, it is one that’s harsh and hazardous. There are some pages, such as the splash depicting the ghost rig, where the art looks like it’s carved out charcoal—very gritty and ominous. And the deep swathes of black on either side of the page lend to a claustrophobic atmosphere as the submarine descends deeper into the watery depths. This is also a credit to Matt Hollingsworth, whose colors accentuate the mood Murphy creates without overpowering the images on the page. If anything, Hollingsworth colors almost heighten the darkness of this world, even on some of the lighter, less brooding panels, such as Archer’s encounter with the humpback whale early on in the issue.

Even with rating a comic like this as high as I did, there were two minor critiques I would raise: First, I found that the stark white text bubbles contrasted a bit harshly against the more muted color palette. Given the lack of white used in this issue, the bubbles felt somewhat artificial at times and made me aware of reading a comic as opposed to being fully engrossed in the narrative. Second, I did find the dialogue to be a little difficult to follow between Dr. Archer and Agent Cruz during their initial meeting from one panel to the next. I was unsure if each person was speaking simultaneously or if each interrupting the other but some of the responses didn’t make sense given what the previous character said in the last panel. All in all, most readers shouldn’t find these issues will interfere with the narrative in any significant way.

With recent changes taking place in Vertigo’s lineup, it’s reassuring to see the imprint is far from losing its creative edge. Snyder and Murphy are certainly aiming to provide readers with a different type of reading experience in The Wake, which begins with a slow build up in this issue but, as seen towards the end of the issue, promises to bring thrills as the story continues.

King Conan: Hour of the Dragon #1 (of 12)
Adapted by Timothy Truman
Art by Tomás Giorello
Colors by José Villarrubia
Lettering by Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

King Conan: Hour of the Dragonprovides readers with a comic adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s sole Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon, in two six-issue mini-series with this issue providing the first part of the initial arc (the second part is expected to come out in 2014). More traditional Howard fans who have struggled with Brian Wood’s creative interpretation of Conan will no doubt find Truman, Giorello, and Villarrubia’s series more to their liking as it recalls a more classic approach to the Cimmerian along the lines of “Big” John Buscema.

The story starts in the present with an aged King Conan in the tomb of his deceased queen, Zenobia. His reminisces are interrupted by a scribe, who seeks to continue recording Conan’s stories for future generations to read. From this exchange, we discover there were two women who Conan loved greatest: Zenobia the gentle—whom we expect to learn about from this series—and Bêlitthe pirate queen—the woman presently co-starring with the Cimmerian in Dark Horse’s other on-going Conan title. Conan the narrator then goes on to tell what will presumably be the tale of how he came to be with Zenobia…and the numerous battles had along the way.

Not unlike other Conan stories, the warrior king finds himself facing a necromancer of great power whom he will need to put down—Xaltuton in this case. In true Conan fashion, this will likely be through sheer brute force and willpower; however, readers will have to wait for this showdown as the first issue concerns itself primarily with setting up the board upon which these two beings will move their armies and play for power.

Truman rightly earned praise for his past adaptations of Howard’s original short stories, so it only makes sense he would be tapped to provide the script for REH’s only full novel dedicated to Conan. Moreover, the artistic pairing of Giorello and Villarrubia works well with style of storytelling as they bring to life the swords and sorcery of Conan. Giorello’s pencils, as mentioned before, are reminiscent of John Buscema’s work on both the Marvel on-going title as well as his contributions to The Savage Sword of Conan magazine. Further, his inks are exceptionally effective at evoking a dark and brooding tone within his characters and the overall atmosphere—something of a requisite for classic Conan stories. Paired with Giorello is Villarrubia’s dynamic colors, which helps enhance the shadows when necessary, and bring a sense of warmth and vibrancy to the larger-than-life characters in this comic.

Overall, there isn’t much to criticize about this first issue of King Conan: The House of the Dragon, providing one is looking for a more traditional Robert E. Howard Conan story; yet it does not do much to add to the existing field of fantasy comics or literature nor does it really push any boundaries of the genre. Still, readers will find this is an excellent adaptation of an older source, which has gone on to provide a significant influence on the fantasy genre of today, and a book doesn’t need to push boundaries or break new ground to be a fun read. Fans looking to enjoy a good, old-fashioned swords and sorcery story will certainly not want to miss out on this series.

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