Best Shots Extra: AGE OF ULTRON #10AI, BATMAN/SUPERMAN, More

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Age of Ultron #10AI
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Andre Lima Araujo and Frank D'Armata
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Even though the Marvel universe hasn't exactly been reinvented in the wake of Age of Ultron, there's still some revolution going on. In Age of Ultron #10AI, Mark Waid takes the reins on the renaissance of Hank Pym, digging into the character's history and attempting to resolve his often schizophrenic nature. It's no small task reconciling the various past attempts at making Hank Pym work, let alone making him likable, but Waid goes above and beyond, making Pym not just compelling, but downright exciting.

Age of Ultron #10AI starts out by delving into Hank Pym's childhood, an area of his life that has been left relatively untouched, establishing the young Pym as an inquisitive, inventive, and creative child stifled by practical parents and bolstered by a grandmother who nurtured the flights of fancy that his parents stifled. Waid smartly spends a good deal of the issue asking the question that Pym himself has never seemed able to answer: why be a superhero? Of all the science adventurers in the Marvel Universe, Pym has always been portrayed as the one most dedicated to using science for the greater good, but least in tune with his persona as a costumed crime fighter. By exploring Pym's struggle to stay practical, grounded, and stable in spite of his high-flying fantasies, Waid adds a through-line to Hank's history that nicely ties together his anxiety, his struggles with identity, and his innate need to help humanity, even if he's not quite sure how. What's more, Waid allows Pym to actually embrace his heroic identity, finally free of the yoke of Ultron, and able to actually enjoy himself and indulge the part of him he's long struggled to keep hidden.

Of course, it's not perfect. For a fairly thorough look at Hank Pym, Age of Ultron #10AI glosses over a lot of important points in his history. While the creation of Ultron is fairly well-explored, there are other things (like Hank's relationship with Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp) that Waid simply breezes past. Wasp, despite her importance to Pym's history, is boiled down to a sentence, garnering only a mention as Pym's anonymous girlfriend, in front of whom he felt inadequate alongside heroes like Thor and the Hulk. Granted, it's not out of character for Pym, from whose point of view the story is told, to dismiss Janet outright, and ignoring some of the darker parts of their relationship seems like the right choice when trying to win people over for Pym, but it does raise questions about Pym's long battled stability to see him wholly ignoring the poor parts of his own narrative.

While Waid brings Hank Pym into a new light, he's joined by Andre Lima Araujo, whose personable art isn't exactly blockbuster material, but who captures enough emotion in his characters to make up for some exaggerated or poorly proportioned figures. Frank D'Aramata's gorgeous color definitely help, adding some depth to Araujo's lines, and complementing Araujo's well-crafted panels with a suitable mix of drama and dreaminess.

It's a new thing to see a Hank Pym who, instead of blaming himself for all the world's ills, instead spends his time considering his triumphs and reveling in his role as a scientific swashbuckler. There's something about the inherent darkness now associated with Pym that makes his bounding, dynamic crime fighting persona all the more poignant, like finally seeing an old friend free from the shackles of depression. Reinventing and reinvigorating Hank Pym, Marvel's oldest loose end, has been tried a time or two, but few have taken him down a road not of penance, but of reverie. Mark Waid has done a dynamite job setting the stage for Sam Humphries to take over when Avengers AI launches. Let's just hope Humphries can keep up the pace, and keep the new and improved Hank Pym around for a while.

Batman/Superman #1 First Look
Batman/Superman #1 First Look
Credit: DC Comics

Batman/Superman #1
Written by Greg Pak
Art by Jae Lee, Ben Oliver, June Chung, and Daniel Brown
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Man of Steel. The Dark Knight. The World's Finest. 

They've had numerous monikers throughout the decades, but here in The New 52-verse, they are simply Batman/Superman. Recent DC acquisition Greg Pak establishes the iconic character's first meeting in this new universe, but somewhere along the way it goes from to cinematic to just merely adequate. Given the fact this was billed as Jae Lee's debut on a Superman-related title and return to Batman after almost a decade and Pak's big outing at DC, the whole package stops just shy of what you might expect from these two A-list talents. 

Pak's script starts off strong in the beginning, as right out of the box we see that he actually gets the characters and their dichotomy here. Ever the reporter, Clark is the man of action, while Bruce, the detective, observes on the sidelines, picking his battles and allowing people to learn how to defend themselves. It's an interesting spin, as immediately, we're drawn to Clark as the Boy Scout character he's been defined almost since his creation — considering in recent years where DC has been more in Batman's favor, it's refreshing to have Pak let us actually like Clark more for a change, even though the top billing was reversed this time around. 

That said, given Pak's resume, I expected the script to be a bit beefier. There is some great inner dialogue from both Supes and Bats here, particularly a great line from Batman saying the problem with kids today is that they don't have enough nightmares. Pak gets the characters here. Even Catwoman's brief appearance is charming as she mutters "Metropolis? What the hell am I doing in this dump?", as does Clark's demeanor around Bruce in the opening scene. This issue is a little lacking in actual dialogue between the two, and while their own inner thoughts while sizing up each other were entertaining, once those lessened, some spoken banter between the two would have kept up the pace of the book. 

The book is a fast read as most of the issue is action-oriented and artist Jae Lee kicks off the book with some terrific stuff. The spread at the beginning that shows us who Superman and Batman, as well as Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, are and defined as characters in a mere eight stylized panels almost didn't need any words with it. The first page itself could be considered high art with the Tim Burton-esque approach to Gotham City, and the art decor and nouveau mixed panel construction on the first page in Metropolis featuring Catwoman and a Wayne employee should be applauded. Even his take on the way Batman's cape glides through the air is more complicated than it probably needs to be, but it looks damn awesome as he crashes through the clocktower. There's actually three splash pages in the issue that really define who Lee is as a visual storyteller for new readers who aren't familiar to his work. While a page with robots rising from the floor to Batman's aid looks a tad clunky, but still a striking image that'll stick to your brain for a while. 

While this is considered Lee's book, it's actually finished up by former Batwing artist, Ben Oliver. It's a good combination and not as jarring as other fill-in artists that DC's used in the past when the situation arose. Lee certainly as a more cinematic and polished style in comparison to Oliver's more sketchy and rougher compositions, but both have a flair for photo-realism. Another thing they have in common is not drawing fully rendered backgrounds. Instead, they focus on letting the colorist supply those with regular color hues. Which, considering the talent pool here, things should be more refined. 

Not to say the colorists June Chung, and Daniel Brown don't do a great job, they most certainly do, but more than half the time, it just seems Superman and Batman are just floating in a gray, murky limbo. When things get complicated at the end, Brown brightens up the colors using dark golds and oranges, almost like autumn when we're in Smallville. 

Speaking of the end, the cliffhanger is a little hazy. We're transported back in time with present-day Batman, but still the same younger version of Clark. I understand what Pak wanted to show here, but Oliver's pages don't translate that as well and comes across as confusing and we're left almost as perplexed as Superman is. It just doesn't come across as strong or comprehensive as the rest of the issue.

Pak clearly has a vision in mind for these characters, and it would be great to see what he has in store down the line, especially aligning with a marquee name like Lee on board. We've seen how Superman works alone, how he works with this Justice League, and while the ending here feels sporadic, now we get a glimpse of what the future holds when he teams up with Batman. Here's hoping Batman/Superman packs more of a punch instead of the light slap later on. 

Credit: Marvel Comics

Hawkeye #11
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Every dog has his day, and for Lucky the Pizza Dog, Hawkeye #11 is it. What could be seen as a throwaway joke issue instead becomes a master-class in sequential art storytelling, as Matt Fraction and David Aja create an unorthodox yet endearing tale of Marvel's premiere canine sidekick.

The main conceit of this issue is clever as hell - we're not just seeing a day in the life of Lucky, but we're seeing the entire world from his perspective. Cutting in and out of the events of the past few issues of Hawkeye, we don't get the benefit of dialogue, because Lucky himself can only understand a handful of words. Instead, David Aja treats us to a challenging read, as we identify the world through icons representing everything Lucky can smell. Coffee and dog food represent Clint Barton, for example, while flowers, lipstick and martinis symbolize Kate Bishop. It's a cute trick that keeps the reader engaged, all while illustrating character in a very innovative way.

It also doesn't hurt that Lucky is endearing as hell. Just like his owner, there's a bit of a rough-and-tumble streak to Lucky, such as his love of pizza — one of the few human words he can understand — as well as a moment where he gets rebuffed by another dog down the hallway. (Women. Am I right?) Yet like Clint, Lucky has a heroic streak that is only more pronounced because of his all-too-human (all-too-canine?) peccadilloes. It's always funny how desensitized we can be to human-on-human violence, but when Lucky dives into the fray against his former abusive owners from the Russian Tracksuit Mob, it's hard not to grit your teeth. Lucky is a mutt that you can't help but root for.

And that's not even including the little moments that Aja and Fraction throw in there. Indeed, Aja packs in so many panels so effortlessly, the meaty pace really gives you a lot of rewarding beats. Like Lucky's predilection for winking, even if it comes off as more like a weary scowl. Or saluting his owner when Clint tells him to keep an eye on the place. (Indeed, the page of Lucky's "patrol," where he analyzes all the comings and goings in the neighborhood, is one of the smartest pages I've seen in a long, long time.) 

Man's Best Friend is also the star of the week's best comic, as Fraction and Aja truly up the ante on visual storytelling to tell the unique tale of Lucky the Pizza Dog. Innovative, experimental and ambitious, this comic isn't just a palate cleanser, but a meaty story in its own right. Way more fun than it has any right to be, Hawkeye #11 is a must-read not just for people who enjoy quirky, humorous comic book stories, but for anyone who wants to see the bar raised on sequential art.

Justice League #21
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Nick J. Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Shazam has his last stand against Black Adam in this week's issue of Justice League, and you have to give Geoff Johns credit - he knows how to write an action-packed crescendo. Picking liberally from his Green Lantern playbook of continuity-based escalation, this comic is more brawn than brains, but is still a fun read.

The comic does take a little while to get up to speed, as Johns first has to re-acclimate readers to Shazam's backstory, which had previously been taking place as a backup feature in the main Justice League storyline. There's a lot going on here - Black Adam, Sabbac, Dr. Sivana, not to mention Billy and his adopted family of foster children — but once Johns establishes all these various players, then things start to heat up. Similar to the multicolored Corpsmen of Green Lantern, Johns finds a way to expand the Captain Marvel mythology, and while it could raise some concerns of some very deus ex machina storytelling in the future, Johns manages to justify the large supporting cast with some very fun moments.

The action for this comic is also particularly well-choreographed, and is definitely one of Johns' best "fight" books in a long time. Each character has a moment to shine, particularly when Billy uses his magic to bring in an unexpected character to assist him. Black Adam's defeat, while a bit predictable, is built up nicely, as Johns takes a page from his Sinestro playbook and gives Adam a twisted yet heroic reason for being.

Gary Frank is also a big reason for why this book works. Like Johns' script, it takes a bit for him to warm up, but once he hits his first double-page spread, that's when he really hits his stride. Not only does he deliver some great character designs for Billy's extended family, but he also constructs some superb money shots for the action sequences. Black Adam looks tragic and resolute as he says "I am a hero," and the way that lightning strikes across every splash page makes this book crackle with energy. Batson's redesign in the New 52 was fairly cosmetic, but the way that Frank and colorist Brad Anderson portray him, it's a costume that could easily make the jump to any kind of multimedia.

That said, there are some flaws to this finale. The biggest problem is that there are way too many villains to this piece - Black Adam is plenty, but because Johns includes so many other characters, he has to also bring in Sabbac to give the others something to do. Yet while Black Adam has some actual humanity and reasons for his destruction, Sabbac just is a mindless engine of destruction, while his human host is more of a one-dimensional jerk. Additionally, Johns' unique characterization of Billy Batson has been more or less tossed by the wayside here - Billy was a jerk before, but now he's more or less settled firmly in the role of plucky hero. Many readers will find that to be a relief, but once the action dies down, it might be difficult to remember what set this particular hero apart.

Ultimately, if you're looking for a high-octane action thriller featuring Shazam, it's hard to go wrong with Justice League #21. An oversized issue with oversized characters, oversized fights and oversized stakes, this is a comic that doesn't get too fancy, but instead delivers the thrills that readers want. As far as first arcs go, this is a strong conclusion for Billy Batson - and now that he stands poised to join the Justice League, this momentum is really Geoff Johns's to lose.

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men #2
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Olivier Coipel, Mark Morales, Scott Hanna, Laura Martin, Matt Milla and Christina Strain
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

After a bombastic debut, Brian Wood’s X-Men has already fallen back to Earth and it’s starting to feel like maybe Marvel was trying to fill a quota more than they were letting on at first. The X-Men are definitely the best place to start when trying to put together a team consisting of all-female superheroes but just getting them together isn’t enough. There has to be some substance.

Wood excels at portraying the relationships between all of the X-Women. Storm takes charge with an understated cool that calms the team. Rogue punches first and asks questions later. Kitty is the well-meaning and reluctant hero. There is a clear sense of continuity amongst these characters and that makes the book fairly quick and easy to read. But the issue serves mainly as exposition with a side of action that doesn’t do much to actually make the plot interesting.

While we find out more about Arkea, are given questions about Jubilee’s baby and are left with a cliffhanger, it doesn’t seem like any of these things matter. Arkea says she will take over the world. That sounds like just about every super villain in every superhero book. Maybe we just haven’t told what’s so special about this particular instance of world takeover but I’m yawning at the prospect of a book that’s sole purpose is to have female superheroes fight a female supervillain. There’s no weight to the story in the way that the other X-books tie into a larger scale. And while I think that some of Marvel’s best books are fairly self-contained (Hawkeye, for instance), this one lacks the style and attitude that a book like that one has.

The star here is really Olivier Coipel. His art is some of the best in the business because he has is able to balance action scenes with quieter ones by paying the same amount of attention to detail to both. Coipel’s page layouts tend to skew to be more action oriented in this issue and the sequence of Rogue’s assault on Arkea is one of the best in the book (with a solid assist from letterer Joe Caramagna). The themes in coloring are interesting as well with each page almost taking on it’s own primary color profile with small accents coming from Beast's fur or a blast of energy. This issue is an all-around great effort from the art team.

Coipel’s inclusion was supposed to add further legitimacy to a book that many would dismiss as “that girl X-Men book.” Instead, the art stands out against a story that could have appeared in any book with any characters that was written, frankly, by any writer. Somewhere along the way we lost the Brian Wood that was responsible for DMZ and Northlanders, books that had style and nuance in spades while still providing powerful, meaningful plotlines. I’m well aware that those aren’t superhero books. I’m well aware that Wood is playing with “someone else’s toys,” so to speak. But great writers are able to bring out the best in corporate characters by taking them to their limits in new and interesting ways. I’ve always considered Brian Wood a great writer but I have yet to see him bring much to the table in his work for Marvel to this point. X-Men is probably his best opportunity to change that but we haven’t seen it yet.

The Wake #2
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
Lettering by Jared Fletcher  Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

There were times when Lost was arguably one of the best shows going in television. It managed to combine elements of fantasy and science alongside realism and fiction with plots and the characters that were wrapped up in intrigue, mystery, romance, and action. In short, there was something for just about everyone. Now, close your eyes and try and forget about all of the messy plot threads that were hastily left untied or in a tangled mess. Focus only on those elements that were fleshed out and seen through to a satisfying conclusion. That’s the type of reading experience Scott Snyder, Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth deliver in The Wake #2.

One of the many strengths in Scott Snyder’s writing has to do with his ability to build suspense within a reader – not through cheap shock tactics as though one were viewing a “B”-grade grindhouse film or comic. Instead, he accomplishes this through developing three-dimensional characters whom readers quickly identify with at some level and want to see succeed. In this case, we have Dr. Lee Archer, who we find thinking about her son, Parker, back home with her ex-husband. Not only does she face the pressures of government agents, mercenary-like competition in her field – not to mention that of the weight of the entire ocean surrounding her in the underwater laboratory – but she’s also a single mom torn between the desire to be a good parent with her own personal ambitions. Instead of laying it on thick and telling readers this, however, Snyder uncovers this anxiety with the appearance of “her son” as she is reintroduced in this story.

The suspense continues building through this gradual introduction of details as readers uncover more information about the mysterious creature. It’s often said the best fiction is dressed in reality and the most believable lies possess an element of the truth in them. So too does Snyder weave fact into his fiction in order to make this story seem more real to his readers. I don’t want to give away any of the plot elements, but I will say that the background he sets up for his story was plenty convincing for me to continue reading along without finding myself questioning his set up. The pacing in this story also worked really well as best seen in the individual experts’ respective efforts to prepare for the task laid before them. Each cut away panel provides readers with a little insight about the character, especially with Meeks’ cross-hatching the bullets in his weapon to make each round all the more lethal. It’s a dirty trick used to create an even more nasty entrance and exit wound on a given target, and Snyder aptly cues readers into this hunter’s psyche with such a brief and minute detail.

I tried to avoid much of the buzz surrounding The Wake prior to its initial release, but I recall Snyder and Murphy discussing the fact they wanted to generate a feeling of claustrophobia in readers with this series. Admittedly, I found myself wanting to “turn on the lights” on multiple occasions. What lurks behind the shadows Murphy creates with his oppressively sinister inks? This is where Matt Hollingsworth expert coloring comes into play as it further mutes and darkens the colors reinforcing the ominous world in these characters are exploring. But those aren’t the only ways the art stands out in this issue. There’s a great composite page where Dr. Marin describes the mythical tradition of the mermaids that’s easy for readers to linger over and appreciate. I also really enjoyed how Murphy composes the panels recalling Archer’s past experience of capsizing in a small boat while Hollingsworth applies one color set for the present and another, previously used palette, for the past. All of these details work in unison to slowly and seamlessly move the reader from one act to the next as the tensions slowly rise.

Once again, readers experience “narrative time travel” as we encounter a hunting trip of epic prehistoric proportions in the beginning of the story, while the issue caps off with yet another glimpse into the water-covered world of the future. It could just be me, but it’s interesting to note the visual similarities of this female of the future to Lee Archer. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see how this futuristic arc connects to the one in the present.

On a final note, one critique I raised against the first issue of The Wake was I felt that I was unsure if each person was speaking simultaneously or interrupting the other, and I have to say I felt a little of the same this second time around. Yet, it actually worked well within this issue. It’s natural that there would be an atmosphere of confusion given how the characters are dropped down to the bottom of the ocean under false pretenses only to discover the horrors and all new mysteries of the deep awaiting them. In such a distracting environment — and we do see how this setting affects Archer — it makes sense the conversations would come across as a touch disjointed and abrupt with some characters talking over one another. I’m going to have to go back and reread Issue #1, but there it is: When a book makes readers want to go back and reread past issues to better appreciate the present installment, there’s usually something special going on there.

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