Best Shots Reviews: X-MEN, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, More

Credit: Marvel Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots sure is, as our reviewer family has grown by one this weekend! Please give a hearty Internet welcome to Richard Gray, who joins us from BehindThePanels.net. Now let's kick off today's column with the Women of the Atom, as Aaron Duran takes a look at Brian Wood and Olivier Coipel's first issue of X-Men...

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men #1
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Olivier Coipel, Mark Morales and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

One of the first comics I remember reading was an issue of Uncanny X-Men. I don't honestly remember a thing about that book, save one item: Mohawk Storm. She stuck with me, and even at my very young age I felt there was something special about that character. As shallow as it may sound, if you show me a book with that Storm on the cover or taking charge from the pages within, then you've already hooked one reader. The fact that Brian Wood, Olivier Coipel, and Laura Martin turned in such a wholly entertaining and compelling comic helps as well.

This really is how a company presents a restart for a book. Wood immediately weaves in the themes of masculine and feminine into the opening pages of the comic, even as we the readers talk about the potential implications of an all female X-Men book. It's a deft bit of writing that simply entertains on one level, while still manages to sit in the back of your brain and simmer as you turn the pages. On the surface, it's a basic plot. Jubilee is coming to the one place she's ever felt safe, the Jean Grey School for High Learning (once Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters). She has a baby in her arms, while a villain of unspeakable power quietly stalks her. In time we learn this is no ordinary infant and the team will soon face a frighteningly horrible threat in the heart of the school.

What impressed me so much was Wood approach to this debut issue. While not perfect, he does a great job of entertaining the longtime X-Men fan without wholly alienating or confusing new comers. Beyond their obvious power and skill set, the women of X-Men #1 are the real powerhouses of Marvel's mutant universe. Both in raw power and fan appeal, these are the characters everyone enjoys reading. Thankfully, Wood leaves much of their convoluted and intimidating backstories by the wayside (at least for now). By doing so, this is a fresh approach to characters that could have easily fallen victim to fan service. There are a few occasions within the dialog where Wood stumbles a bit. Particularly in the case of Kitty Pryde, but it's forgivable misstep when you consider this is a character Marvel still feels uncertain upon her growth.

X-Men #1 also features one of the strongest art teams at Marvel these days. Coipel's lines are incredibly crisp and show a characteristically light weight to them. His work, though detailed, is rarely hampered down with unnecessary lines to generate depth. He really is an artist that works in tandem with the inker and colorists to create the best visual storytelling for the book. As I've come to expect, Coipel is strongest when the characters are simply interacting with each other. His gift for expressing emotion through facial expresses and body language is all but unmatched in modern superhero comics. Some of his talent loses it's way a bit on wider action moments, but I'll fully admit to that being a personal choice on how one reads more chaotic scenes. As stated above, the book is all about the art team. Mark Morales inks, along with Coipel, really bring a sense of depth and realism to the title. Laura Martin's colors are vibrant, finding the perfect balance between emotional tone and basic storytelling. Much of Coipel's expressions are reliant upon the work of color and shadow upon the characters. Both Morales and Martin are more than up to the challenge.

X-Men #1 is one of the few superhero relaunch books (from either company) that I've been really excited to read. This debut issue certainly did not disappoint. Many of these women have been around and saving the world for decades now. It's about time for them to truly step out into the spotlight and they've done so in a wonderful fashion within this comic.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League of America #4
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund and Andrew Dalhouse
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The idea of a ruthless, scrappy Justice League of America is a good one, but there is so much going on in Geoff Johns' script that this unlikely team feels like it's been left out in the cold. With a horde of new villains and supporting cast members, this fourth issue feels like it's all subplot, with the actual League presence feeling more perfunctory than powerful.

Some of that is due to a great idea that winds up lacking a solid follow-through. Geoff Johns spends much of this issue with Catwoman, the JLA's secret double agent, as she infiltrates the Secret Society of Supervillains. It's a smart concept that really plays up the central premise of the JLA — namely, that these "heroes," even though they're meant to take down the A-listers of the original Justice League, are only a shade of gray away from the villains they combat. But once Johns gets us into the villains' lair, it's almost as though he's run out of ideas — Catwoman roams around a bit, but there's no intriguing use of powers, no crazy new discoveries... it's not really even going from Point A to Point B, because Catwoman winds up right where she started. There's a nice cliffhanger at the end of this comic — albeit a cliffhanger you know will be reversed shortly - but there's a lot of slow pacing to get to that point.

The League-centric half of the script is also a mixed bag, namely because Johns has to not just balance the actual superheroes, but their non-powered bureaucratic leaders. Amanda Waller and Steve Trevor's interplay has dragged the series down before, but it actually gets slower here with the introduction of Dr. Arthur Light. It's a shame, because out of all of the characters in this book, Light — now an ordinary family man getting woken up out of bed in the name of national security, not a super-powered, deranged rapist like in Identity Crisis — feels like the most sympathetic character in this title. But the build-up of Light goes on so long that when we finally get to the League itself, there's very little sizzle or steak here. Katana gets a line, Green Arrow gives some exposition, but ultimately a walkie-talkie coin gets more page time than any of the team. Isn't that a shame?

Artwise, Brett Booth fills in for David Finch, and considering the big name he's following, Booth does an admirable enough job. You can feel the Jim Lee influence in his linework, even though his characters are a bit more distended, a little less deliberate in the composition. Green Arrow looks the best out of the bunch, balancing an arrow on the tip of his finger as he nonchalantly walks into a confidential meeting, and Booth admirably tries to inject some energy to this talky script by having Catwoman bounce around as much as possible. Yet the team sequences even Booth can't rescue, as there are so many characters talking rather than acting that it becomes difficult for him to do much more than have them stand around in stock poses.

That said, much of this comic's slowness might be a necessary evil — namely, it's all setup, and now that Johns has put his ducks in a row, there's the potential to let the Justice League of America finally get to strut their stuff as a unit. The recruitment of the team has been a slow build these past few months, but you can see the potential for conflict in the Secret Society. Here's hoping that the actual stars of this series can get some spotlight before it's too late.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avenging Spider-Man #21
Written by Christopher Yost
Art by Marco Checchetto and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Brian Bannen

Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Prepare yourself: even though the comic has the word “Spider-Man” in the title, this book really isn’t about him. Is this a complaint? Hell no! Christopher Yost expands upon Spider-Man’s role in the Marvel universe by picking up where he left off in last month’s issue of Avenging Spider-Man, but where Yost laid the groundwork for the arc in the previous issue, this one is where he lets loose, delivering an action heavy and wholly entertaining story.

Otto’s whole purpose of boarding the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier was to capture the Chameleon. Why? We don’t have a much better clue by the end of the issue, but what Yost shows us is a glimpse at a sinister motive for Otto, and I’m excited to see how the events in this issue will play out in Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man because they have some serious ramifications. I knew Otto was dark, but when we see what he’s up to . . . it raises a lot of scary questions.

The rest of the issue is pure action. Running in the same vein as Joss Whedon’s AvengersAvenging Spider-Man #21 shows the Avengers in action - from Black Widow’s skillful combat to Hawkeye’s trenchant mouth to Bruce Banner’s uncontrollable anger. Each character in this book plays a pivotal role, either in the moving the story along or in providing some needed comic relief (as evidenced in the banter between Maria Hill and Agent Coulson). I found myself flipping through the pages quickly because of how smooth everything is pieced together. The comic, despite its heavy emphasis on movement, never loses its clear focus and solid pacing.

And this is due to Marco Checchetto who delivers his best work on the series. Checchetto’s angular, gritty style really captures the brutality of the fighting, as well as providing the perfect pacing for the issue. Sequences follow each other in such lucid order that you have to wonder why more comics aren’t this well constructed. Plus, Checchetto’s Banner looks insane, and you can clearly see how much Bruce enjoys losing control while at the same time beating up bad guys. A nod has to be given to Rachelle Rosenberg for her colors, and for her ability to bring the visuals to life, particularly in the dark and violent final sequence between Otto, Chameleon and one of the The Saints. 

I loved everything about this comic, and really the only reason that it’s not a perfect book is because it doesn’t give us enough Spider-Man/Chameleon interaction, which was the centerpiece of the arc. But despite this minor, minor flaw, Avenging Spider-Man delivers on all of its fronts, whetting my appetite for another Yost/Checchetto book. If this book is any indication of how well they work together, I’m sure we’ll see them teaming up again in the future.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Amala’s Blade #2 
Written by Steve Horton 
Art by Michael Dialynas 
Lettering by Steve Horton 
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Richard Gray 
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Despite first appearing in the pages of the anthology series Dark Horse PresentsAmala’s Blade seemed to materialize out of the ether with the arrival of a zero issue several months ago. Crafting those original short vignettes into a mini-series, last month’s first issue revealed a world that was a stunning mix of Steampunk and Cyberpunk, somehow taking the best of both worlds and creating a cocktail that had its own flavor. As we approach the midpoint of this small saga, Harvey-nominated author Steve Horton has the makings of a modern classic on his hands.

Maintaining much of the momentum of the previous issues, Horton sends the assassin Amala straight into a confrontation with some of her would-be killers. With a bounty still on her head, Amala continues on her journey to the Purifier capitol city to take out a “very important target”. Injured in the initial fray, we learn a little more about the complex relationship between Amala, her titular blade and the ghosts that only she can see. As the political intrigue between the uneasy bedfellows of the Purifiers and the Modifiers grows, Amala is quite literally left dangling close to her target.

Amala’s Blade #2 doesn’t quite move at the same frenetic pace of the previous two outings, which is often a red flag this early in a mini-series, but it allows Horton to briefly explore aspects of the early life of Amala, and some of the elements that make her tick. Horton’s skill of delivering impact within the confines of a four-issue miniseries is an increasingly rare one, and he achieves the seemingly impossible of balancing this compressed format out with enough clues to sustain even an ongoing series.

Artist Michael Dialynas has a distinctive art style, a curious mix of Steve Purcell and Riley Rossmo. Imbuing each of his characters with an almost cartoonish expressionism, the fine lines and scratches of the eponymous hero sit in contrast to the rounded ghosts and animals that surround her. This dichotomy makes for a visually pleasing combination of imagery. At one stage, Amala is in disguise as an elderly woman, leading to an amusing sequence with some fun interplay between Amala, an innkeeper and a singer that we suspect will turn up later. Horton gives Dialynas the opportunity to cut loose with several different approaches, giving us parallel splash-page introductions to the Purifier and Modifier capital cities, and nor does he have to waste any time before leaping into some dazzling swordplay and literally explosive action.

Now halfway through this miniseries, Horton and Dialynas have conclusively hooked the audience. Without beating the exposition bush too heavily, the creators have not simply presented a fun set of action sequences either. Instead, they have crafted an entire world, filled with characters that are worth spending some time with, from the heroes and villains, right down to the city dwellers that fill every panel. While there may only be two more issues in this run, we certainly hope this creative team – and more importantly these characters – live to fight another day.

Credit: Image Comics

Mind the Gap #10
Written by Jim McCann
Art by Rodin Esquejo, Arif Prianto, Fahriza Kamaputra and Gloria Caeli
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Image Comics
Review by Brian Bannen

Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

A good comic should make you want to flip to the first page immediately when you get to the last. Mind the Gap #10 is that book. Jim McCann promised answers in this issue, and boy does he deliver. Just don’t come lightly to this comic - it requests a lot of your time and effort.

Where he’s been building the mystery of Elle’s attack and the key players involved in it, McCann finally writes an issue that answers more questions than raising them. From its first page, the comic is much slower than the previous issues. It’s denser, more layered, and definitely something that requires a second or third read. I have to admit that I didn’t understand everything given on the first go round, but this seems like McCann’s ploy, and even on further readings, I was impressed by how deep his mystery goes. If you doubted that McCann has a plan for Mind The Gap, this issue should set you straight.

The other way McCann gets his information out is through Elle who has her own discoveries in the coma world she inhabits. This was particularly impressive because while the comic seemed to introduce this world as something of which only Elle was aware, it’s clear by the end of the issue that other people know about it, thus opening so many doors to the universe McCann has created. Where Mind the Gap felt pretty grounded in reality, here we can see a much bigger mystical side that McCann seems intent on exploring in future issues.

And as usual, Rodin Esquejo and the art team create sharp and detailed images on every single page. The colors are especially vibrant in this issue, shifting way from the muted tone seen in previous issues. Instead, everything looks crisp. My only complaint would be that the characters look a little too stiff. The reason for this may be due to the denseness of the plot, and the slow, methodical pacing McCann employs, but something about the visuals was a little off.

The only other gripe I have (even though it’s a minor gripe) is the villain-speak one of the character’s employs. It’s a little too dramatic, and it lacks the same panache of the usual dialogue. McCann wants you to know who the villain is, but in doing so he sacrifices a bit of the comic’s usual composure.

Critiques aside, this issue of Mind The Gap restored my faith in the series. I was toying with dropping it because I can only hang on for so long before giving up the overpowering weight of the mysteries (see Lost), but the cliffhanger has pulled me right back in, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the events of this issue play out next month.

Credit: Zenescope

Grimm Fairy Tales Presents Wonderland: Down the Rabbit Hole #1
Written by Raven Gregory and Pat Shand
Art by Gregbo Watson and Yusuf Idrias 
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by Zenescope 
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

For the uninitiated, reading Grimm Fairy Tales Presents Wonderland: Down the Rabbit Hole #1 will be a bit like staring at a familiar tale through the looking glass. Spinning out of Zenescope’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales series, Raven Gregory’s stories based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have been some of the highest selling for the publisher since their foundation almost a decade ago. Taking the framework of Lewis Carroll’s original stories and doing its own thing, they have been characterized by an adult and generally darker version of the classic piece of children’s literature.

Set before the events of Return to Wonderland, Down the Rabbit Hole #1 is the first book in a prequel trilogy. Here we meet, or meet again depending on where you are entering the tale, Alice Liddle. With her days in Wonderland behind her, she is on the cusp of moving into a new house with her husband and two children. Spotting something out of the corner of her eye, she is soon drawn back into the nightmarish insanity of the Wonderland universe, driven by a Jabberwocky that wants in on Alice’s own world. Yet to the outside world, it simply looks as though Alice is going mad, relapsing into a state previously written off as a psychotic condition.

Down the Rabbit Hole takes what we previously knew about Alice’s new adventures in wonderland, and reframes them from the perspective of the rest of her family. It’s an interesting motif if you are already a fan of the series, albeit an obvious re-tread for those that have been down the rabbit hole before. To a new reader, it comes across as very much the first chapter in a saga, perhaps with the original Alice in Wonderland being the only required reading in advance. That said, as the issue went on, the jumble of ideas that poured out onto the page, and it sometimes felt like a disjointed montage of highlights rather than a cohesive narrative. It is difficult to be too harsh on this approach, however, because everybody from Carroll to Disney has picked up on the episodic nature of Alice’s adventures. It’s just that here it is occasionally an impediment to enjoyment.

Gregbo Watson and Yusuf Idrias follow the Zenescope style and deliver what is effectively cheesecake art, with a bra-less and gravity-defying Alice running about in spine-bending postures. You’d never believe she’s had two children. One particularly gratuitous bathtub scene barely leaves anything to the imagination, and using a classic horror movie motif, leads to a bloody and shocking conclusion rather than appeasing the hormonal rumblings of the reader. This is in keeping with the darker edge to their renderings as well, with a chaotic vision of a Jabberwocky plundering Earth genuinely frightening and teasing future events.

The pinup cover is the comic book equivalent of Alice’s “Eat me” signs, and we all know how that ended up. This prequel is something of a double-edged sword, not offering anything entirely new, but perhaps providing some back-story for existing readers. It’s not exactly an easy introduction to new readers either, although it certainly seems to be inviting them in with this origin tale. How far down the rabbit hole you want to go is entirely up to you.

Superior Spider-Man, Vol. 1: My Own Worst Enemy TPB
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Ryan Stegman, Edgar Delgado, Giuseppe Camuncoli, John Dell and Antonio Fabella
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Peter Parker is dead! Long live... Peter Parker? With Peter’s deadliest enemy Doctor Octopus in charge of his body, vowing to be an even better protector than Parker ever was, there’s a new Spider-Man in town. Octavius is out to be a force for good, but he’s not going to do it the traditional way as this first story arc sets up a new status quo that’s absolutely amazing.

When I first heard about this change, I was skeptical. We’ve had any number of impersonations over the years, involving everyone from Batman to the Beast. It’s not even new for Spider-Man, given Kraven’s Last Hunt or Ben Reilly’s time in the costume. Heck, depending on what Marvel wanted to try, Venom even played a “Dark Spider-Man” role when they wanted Eddie Brock to star in his own series.

The thing about Dan Slott is that like long-time fans of the webslinger, he’s read all these comics, and probably some we’ve missed along the way. He knows what’s been done before. He knows what the tropes are. And best of all, he understands the unique balance between Peter and Otto that makes Doctor Octopus his best villain and the perfect character for trying to be Spider-Man.

From the first issue, where Ock-Spidey faces off against the “Sinister Six” to taking full advantage of his intellect to expand upon Peter’s ideas and improve his ability to fight crime, we get to see that when Ock turns his mind to helping humanity, he can be quite the innovator. Decisions — like how to best use his time as a crime fighter — show Peter’s flaws in way we don’t normally see. Otto’s decision to leave Mary Jane alone (after some hilarious dating hijinks that show Slott can find other ways to make this series have some humor) displays wisdom, even if Otto breaks it with a new potential relationship. In fact, all things being equal, he really is a better Spider-Man, something the Jiminy Cricket ghost of Peter has to acknowledge along the way.

But that’s far too easy for a writer as gifted as Slott. The problem is that, almost like a What-if story, having Peter’s powers without the gentle hand of Aunt May to raise him or the love of Betty/Gwen/Mary Jane to temper his anger and rage, Otto can’t stop himself from making decisions that I’m sure Slott has planned to eventually haunt him. The rough treatment of Peter’s colleagues at work is a perfect example of this. The same is true for his attacks on the Vulture and the calculated decisions regarding Massacre. There are clues for those who know how to look - the key is going to be what happens when they do. 

Ryan Stegman is the primary artist for the first story arc, and his style matches a newer, darker Spider-Man very well. With slightly rough edges, his lines take away some of the slickness we associate with the character. The designs for Peter’s ghost and his reaction shots are classic. and I love how he makes Ock-Peter look like May’s nephew, while still evoking a mad scientist. In the Massacre arc, Giuseppe Camuncoli takes over and does a good job making the transition feel as seamless as possible, though his body shapes are bulkier and owe a bit more to, say, John Romita, Jr. before his work became so thin. Both artists’ panel constructions are innovative and menacing, especially the closing to issue five.

I’m not sure yet how this plot will resolve, since we all know Peter will be back. However, I trust it will be handled in the most unexpected way possible, if the start of the series is any indication. Despite all the ire for removing Peter from the series, Dan Slott is writing some of the best comics about Spider-Man the character of all time. The fine balance between rooting for Ock and wanting to see him fail is so thin Ant-Man couldn’t safely walk across it, making for perfect storytelling. If you haven’t gotten onboard this series yet, do so now. This is the next chapter in the Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus dynamic, and it’s some of the best comics of 2013.

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