Best Shots Reviews: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., SINESTRO, THE WAKE, More

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill on AoS
Credit: Marvel Studios
Credit: ABC/Marvel Studios

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Episode 1
Created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen
Starring Clark Gregg, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen
Broadcast on ABC
Review by Noelle Webster
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

I think we’ve all been excited about this for a while. I would have watched any television show based in the Marvel cinematic universe. I would have watched any television show from Joss Whedon. What we have here though is a situation that I never would have imagined: an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show that directly ties into the Marvel cinematic universe, helmed by the director of Avengers, and this director also happens to be Joss Whedon. Stop reading my diary, ABC! And while I can't say this pilot episode blew me away, I can say that it is extremely promising.

Pilot episodes are often a mess, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a particularly tough job to do. It has to establish its timeline in relation to the cinematic universe, show viewers the main characters, and then give viewers an idea of where the show is going. It has the unique problem of targeting an audience that has fallen in love with a franchise, and then not using those franchise characters. The main tie-in to the movies is Agent Phil Coulson (and a guest spot from Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill), but more on that later!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is set in a post Battle of New York world. Agent Grant Ward is a straight-laced fish-out-of-water-type, and Brett Dalton seems very comfortable in the handsome, macho man role. We didn’t get too much depth for his character this episode, but there’s a mystery about his past (start speculating now!) and he plays the straight man well. Less comfortable in her role is Chloe Bennet, who plays super-hacker Skye. She’s supposed to be spunky and funny (or so I’m led to believe), but often I felt her delivery didn’t work or feel natural. Whedon has a very specific type of dialogue, and Bennet clearly isn’t used to it yet. She’s not the only example of this, but Bennet’s delivery is the most distracting.

There’s also scientist duo Fitz and Simmons (hee-hee), engineering and biochemistry respectively, who are dead giveaways that it’s a Whedon show. If Topher from Dollhouse annoyed you, something tells me you’re going to be very unhappy with these two. The Fitz/Simmons banter is quick to the point where they often speak over each other. I’m hoping that they were just amped up versions of themselves for the pilot to give viewers a sense of the characters, and that their dialogue is really kept in check in the series. There’s a thin line there that it would be all too easy to cross, and they’re a good example of how the episode strayed into cutesy Whedon territory. Lastly we have Melinda May, played by Ming-Na Wen, a previous field agent who now wishes to remain a desk. She doesn’t get that much to do this episode, but it’s apparent that she didn’t take a desk job because she can’t kick ass.

Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, however, is very much at home in his role and is what really makes the episode work. He of course has had more time in his role so it makes sense, but his one-liners are great and he’s completely enjoyable to watch. While all the characters have mysterious pasts, the fact that Coulson is there at all is a mystery since, hey, we totally watched that dude die. There’s been speculation on how this is possible, and Gregg’s hints to this mystery are nuanced and it’s great to see him show range that was previously not demanded of the Coulson character. He’s proving that he can sustain a major role in a television show, and I very much look forward to his character arc.

Another strength of the pilot is that ABC shelled out some money. Pilot episodes are always bigger and prettier than the average episode, and this one seems to be no different. The opening of the episode is a ton of fun; it’s exciting, moves quickly, and has great action. The episode then lulls a bit, but had plotting to be done. Let’s hope the opening/closing action is a good indicator of what’s to come!

The reason to check in with the episode though, is Whedon’s participation. The episode is truly funny at times. There’s also a great moment where Agent Ward insists he can diffuse bombs but isn’t good with people and, well, we’ve all seen Iron Man 3. The Extremis tie-in feels a little haphazard though, and has an awkward climax. You think something awful happens before you realize it’s a fake-out, but it’s shot so strangely that the characters’ nonchalant reactions feel out of place. Some of the in-jokes don’t work as well, and there’s a line about an origin story that made me visibly flinch it was so bad. The love of comic books is evident here with references galore, but the pilot really hit you over the head with it. It’s a television show about comic book characters, we get it.

That said, I’m definitely coming back next week. I’m intrigued by the characters, loved most of the dialogue, and think they’ve set up the groundwork for what could be a great show. It’s not the most memorable hour of television, but it shows promise and I’m optimistic. How much influence Joss Whedon will have on the show will matter in the long run, and I hope he continues to come back and oversee it. His previous television work has had issues with too much network interference, and I wonder if there will be more interference on a show like this or if, after Avengers, they’ll give him more freedom finally. I am of course hoping for the latter, even if it means Whedon will break my heart over and over again as he so loves to do. It’s a good pilot, and I look forward to seeing where it goes!

Credit: DC Comics

Green Lantern #23.4: Sinestro
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Dale Eaglesham and Andrew Dahlhouse
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Villains Month wraps up this week at DC Comics, bringing to an end a month-long series of "point" issues for the bad guys. Some of the books have pushed the “Forever Evil” narrative a little further along, while others have carefully maintained the status quo. The majority, however, have mostly followed a pattern of exploring seminal dramas in the lives of future foes, and Matt Kindt’s look back at Green Lantern’s greatest enemy falls heavily into the latter camp.

Unlike the first Green Lantern title in the “Villains” series, which ties directly into the forthcoming “Lights Out” crossover event, Green Lantern #23.4: Sinestro neither introduces any new elements or really sets up future arcs. Instead, it sees Lyssa Drak - a villainess in her own right, introduced during the Geoff Johns years - searching for Sinestro. As her own will falters, it is replaced with the amazing ability to tell flashbacks of Sinestro’s entire history, from his days as an anthropologist and how he first gained the Green Lantern ring. It is here that Kindt places emphasis on his early villainy, framed as the first in a series of tough choices that would ultimately lead to his dictatorship of Korugar and exile.

It’s a bit of a shame that Sinestro wound up being the focus of this issue, as Lyssa Drak’s tale showed even more promise in the opening pages. Instead it is a straightforward retelling of Sinestro’s history within the New 52 context, one that merely affirms that he is not so much a villain as someone who had a misguided sense of obligation. Told from Drak’s point of view, we get a cynical perspective on all those that opposed Sinestro of course, and Kindt manages to imbue the lead with pathos, something that is common to many of the Lantern villains in this run, from Relic through Black Hand.

Eaglesham’s confident art is constrained somewhat by the yellow construct that serves to frame each of the pages, an admittedly beautiful future Deco that surrounds an elongated hexagon of panels. Abin Sur comments on the sheer imagination of Sinestro’s constructs, but they re only showcased in a less than half-page panel. It gives the art a claustrophobic edge, emphasized all the more by the full-page pieces featuring Drak.

Kindt leaves us with little doubt that Sinestro’s story is far from over, and while this issue adds little in the way of new perspective on the character, it does provide a handy overview for one of the most essential villains in the DCU. If anything, there’s just as much scope for exploring the fate of Lyssa Drak in future issues as there is Sinestro, but the fate of the two now seems to be inexplicably tied. However, as much as these issues have worked as a curiosity, it will be far more rewarding to return to the main narrative next month to see how the events of “Lights Out” relate to larger issues in the DCU.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Young Avengers #10
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Considering only two members of the team are even present in this book, it's amazing how good Young Avengers #10 is. Even though this comic is technically an interlude from the cross-dimensional travel that has dominated the past few installments, it proves to be one of the strongest issues Kieron Gillen has written in quite some time.

The inter-dimensional parasite known as Mother may say she cannot survive on "meta" alone, but Kieron Gillen breaks the fourth wall with a tremendous amount of charm, as even our omniscient narrator cannot survive her creepy advances. But that's Gillen's greatest strength - he's an ideas man, and he conveys his smarts less through physical action and more through sharp dialogue. There's a great sequence, for example, where Loki matches wits with Mother through a game of questions, and it's that sort of assuredness that makes the reader excited - even though the God of Mischief is a pathological liar, you can't wait to see what plans Gillen has for him.

There's also a nice subplot going on in this issue, featuring some newfound complications between Hulkling and Wiccan. Can you trust your feelings for someone when they can twist reality around their finger? In so doing, Gillen introduces the equivalent of a Young Avengers Revenge Squad, comprised of some young metahumans with their own ties to the team. Without giving too much away, Gillen brings a smart twist to the old superhero trope of the dark mirror image bad guy, and it makes me very excited to see these antagonists really cut loose.

In terms of the art, for the most part this is a very subdued issue - mainly because of the dialogue-heavy nature of the script. But considering how good Gillen's plotting and dialogue is, that just means that Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton succeed in the thankless job of making these conversations flow smoothly. McKelvie's take on Loki is the highlight of the book, particularly the subtly evil way he looks at the reader when his plot to corrupt Wiccan begins to bear fruit. Matthew Wilson's colors are also particularly energetic, especially with the holographic greens he uses for Loki to represent the lengths he will go to protect himself from Mother.

Despite taking a somewhat jarring turn from the team-centric central narrative, Young Avengers #10 is a truly excellent read. By building up the relationships and the back stories of the characters involved, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton really give this team some extra heft - even if they don't all appear in this comic. With some smart dialogue and some pitch-perfect plotting, this book is well worth a read.

Credit: Image Comics

Saga #14
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

We're still going backwards leading up to the last panel of Issue #12 and yes, it's been a minute since the last issue, but Saga is back and near top form.

Having multiple characters across the galaxy still affecting one another could have been a daunting task, but Vaughan here smooths things pretty easily, and you get to see an almost Venn diagram of where things start to overlap and what remains separate (for now). The budding relationship between The Will and Gwendolyn hits a small speed bump, but the inclusion of The Stalk pretty much haunting Will is a nice angle to that. I think I've enjoyed Will's character arc more than anybody else's thus far. The inevitable showdown between him and Prince Robot will be one to enjoy, I'm sure.

Having Hazel being the narrator allows for some comic relief here as usual, especially a certain scene with Mr. Heist. The issue though mainly concerns the book's overall theme of "love and war." Heist's background is explored a little more here, shedding more light on his wife and son and how war affected his family. The nice little nod that the possibility of Heist and Alana's mother might have a thing later on just illustrates that war can bring people of different faiths and races together for moments of peace and shared mourning.

Once again, artist Fiona Staples breathes life into Vaughan's world, giving us some of the most distinguished-looking cast of characters in comicdom in quite some time. Though the best thing about everyone here is how human and "regular" they really are. Alana may have wings, but she's still a bookworm by heart. Her stepmother is dressed in almost contemporary fashion with "mom capris" and Heist being a cyclops still comes alive and seems quite real with his exile and the loss of his family. Even Lying Cat seems very human in a quiet moment with Sophie (nee Slave Girl). Staples captures these characters with great emotion and bravado, almost to the point of feeling like live-action.

I'm really not quite sure how long Vaughan plans on dragging out the flashback sequence since Prince Robot is on his way, but since we've already seen his POV back in Issue #12, it'll be interesting to see what happens next. While Saga doesn't have the momentum it had last year, it's anything but slowing down.

Credit: DC Comics

The Wake #4
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
Letters by Jared Fletcher
Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The Wake #4 picks up in the aftermath of the underwater explorers' retreat from the drilling station after the murderous rampage of the merman following its escape. The last image most readers will recall is that of the swarm of mermen swirling and descending upon the fleeing remnants of the team - and if that wasn’t haunting enough, wait until you get into this issue.

As a reviewer, I typically like to address the narrative first and then begin a review of the art. In this case, however, I'm making an exception and jumping right into the artistic side of things. Not many comic readers or professionals will argue that Sean Murphy isn't a skilled artist. I would argue, however, that The Wake #4 represents what might be seen a definitive "signature" issue from the body of his work. Rarely has an artist been able to so skillfully control light and darkness in the panels of a page to honestly evoke a sense of claustrophobia and dread in me like I felt during this issue, particularly in the ways he conceals much of the landscape leaving room for all sorts of evil to lurk. Further, he often uses darkness as a means of cropping the panels to limit the readers' vision to only the partially exposed and terror-stricken faces of Lee Archer and company. These are dire straits that Scott Snyder has written these characters into, and Murphy so expertly captures this in the look and feel of every scene.

There are a number of other things that come together artistically, all of which make this issue a real stand out in the series. First, it struck me how often it seem that in situations wherein female characters are called to swim, they are either depicted in lingerie-like swimwear, or inevitably, they find their skin-tight wetsuits torn and tattered in some fashion. Murphy aims higher than generating reader interest through objectification of the female body, and instead keeps the scene focused on what's most important: character and story. Also, there is a sense of fun and light-heartedness to be found in this otherwise very heavy issue in the ways Murphy has a little fun embedding Easter eggs throughout the issue where he "kills off" his co-creator Scott Snyder, and gives his breakout hit Punk Rock Jesus a shout-out. While not related to the story, there is something to be said about the quality of a comic when the creators are really enjoying themselves while writing and drawing the comics we read every Wednesday.

It's also worth pointing out the ways in which colors and lettering worked together to create those feelings of anxiousness and trepidation as my eyes moved from one panel to the next. It seems like Matt Hollingsworth incorporates a bluish tinge into most – if not all – of the pages, and this is a nice, subtle cue to the reader about where the characters are located. While we know this story takes place underwater, it's helpful to continually keep in mind just how far from the light and vibrant colors of the surface these explorers truly are – and Hollingsworth's limited color palette certainly goes a long way in helping to remind readers of that fact. With regards to the lettering, I was really impressed with not only Snyder's selective use of exposition - which would necessarily affect the lettering - but also Jared Fletcher's placement of speech bubbles and textboxes. The strength of Murphy's inks and use of space would have been potentially been lost altogether had they been interrupted by a few poorly placed text boxes. Instead, Snyder limits the amount of text that Fletcher must work with, and he does so in such a fashion to best allow the darkness seep off the page and into the reader's imaginations.

Of course, all of these amazing artistic elements playing out in The Wake #4 come together with the page-turning script Scott Snyder provides. Where Issue #3 focused on team's escape from the once-captive merman, we see Part Four picks up with their attempted escape from the hundreds – if not thousands – of mermen as they overrun the drilling station. It is a fairly standard horror trope for the "good guys" to find themselves on the run from an overwhelming evil force; and yet, Snyder is able to incorporate some grimly humorous exchanges along the way. And if I can caution you in any way, it's this: do not skip ahead to the last page! Not only does it provide a surprise left hook, it also answers a rather big question Snyder and Murphy raise in a much earlier issue.

Honestly, this series is incredibly smart in the story it tells and artistic techniques it uses without coming across as overly dense or impenetrable in any way. While it does get a little graphic in some of the depictions of violence, I never felt it was out of context or a distraction from the story. There's a lesson to be learned here: When creators are cut loose and given the freedom to tell the stories that they think will really push the medium forward, we get comics like The Wake.

Art from Sex Criminals #1
Art from Sex Criminals #1
Credit: Image Comics

Sex Criminals #1
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Sex Criminals has a very loaded title, but not much bang for its buck. The debut issue focuses primarily on the first half of the title and that’s ultimately its downfall. The nonlinear narrative style employed by writer Matt Fraction serves to completely rob the book of anything resembling stakes, turning it from another potential hit from the writer of Casanova and Hawkeye to just another comic book with decent art that seems vaguely dangerous because there’s a penis in it and the nice graphic design work tells you not to give it to kids.

Suzanne is the sex-positive, manic pixie dream girl at the center of our story, and we meet her in the middle of a quickie in a locked bathroom while a police officer bangs on the door. But instead of progressing with the action at hand, Fraction takes us back through Suzanne’s history and how her sexual awakening led her to this predicament. And that’s fine, but if you’re going to tell the origin story, at least make it interesting. Generally speaking, sex is about making a connection, but Fraction doesn’t give us any reason to connect to Suzanne. Everyone’s sexual education is weird and awkward but I don’t go up to strangers asking about it. So if I’m hearing about it, there had better be a reason for it. This book drags because we’ve, for the most part, heard this one before. We lived it on some level.

Still, the book is funny in spots, when it puts a focus on those painfully uncomfortable moments when the things you find out about sex are only freaking you out. And so, the standout scene comes when Rach is telling Suzanne about sex in the Girls’ bathroom. But, outside of that, it’s all about as entertaining as when your friend tries to tell you about a dream they had but you’re not in it. Who cares?

Chip Zdarsky’s work is good, though. The magical orgasm scenes are well-rendered and flow well into the more traditionally colored scenes. His character designs are mostly strong despite older Suzanne kind of shifting in age anywhere between 30 and 50 from panel to panel in some spots. There are a few moments of truly Daniel Clowes-esque clarity where the simplicity of the linework coupled with the relaxed coloring provide some true “wow” moments. Zdarsky is really on point.

This issue suffers from a lack of a real hook. Fraction has a lot of range as a writer. He can tell any story, from very down-to-earth ones that have no frills and are incredibly moving to plots that seem completely insane but actually have a lot of heart. Sex Criminals has yet to be defined because the creative team has barely scratched the surface. They spend so much time in the past that we don’t get to see the present or move into the future. A few questions are raised by the events in this book but nothing that will really grab anyone. Fraction buried the lead. Let’s just hope it’s not six feet under.

The Unwritten: The Ship That Sank Twice
Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross, Kurt Huggins, Al Davison, Russ Braun, Shawn McManus, Dean Ormston, Gary Erskine, Zelda Devon, Al Davison, Chris Chuckry, Eva De La Cruz and Jeanne McGee
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

It was difficult to not rate this with anything less than a perfect score and once you get a few hours to yourself and start reading The Unwritten: The Ship That Sank Twice, you'll see why. Not only does it act as almost a fantasy novel in its own right, but as a perfect introductory course to the world of The Unwritten, as well as a peek behind the curtain.

For longtime Unwritten fans, this has been a long time coming: a full-fledged Tommy Taylor story as well as behind the scenes of Tommy's (not the wizard) early life. Yes, we've had Tommy's origin explained here and there, but here it's told through his father Wilson's notes and journal. While the story bounces and forth between the Tommy Taylor story and Wilson's, Carey doesn't stay on one path for too long before heading back to the other with great timing and precision at just the right beats.

Now the big thing here is Carey's crew of artists the Tommy Taylor story; no less than ten artists (including the colorists) are on board dishing out some phenomenal art that you'd come to expect from the world of The Unwritten. Peter Gross leads this marching band of extraordinary talent to give the reader strong and fantastic visuals (Tommy being rescued at sea by giant sea creatures, and the origin of Lord Ambrosio easily stand out). Yes, Gross penciled and laid out the entire book so it feels like an Unwritten story, with colorists and artists putting their stamp here and there, but the artist breaks coincided with story breaks, giving it a natural flow. The inconsistencies aren't bothersome at all, and still comes across cohesive and very much pieces of the same, beautiful puzzle.

Fantasy fans and old-school Vertigo readers who aren't familiar with Carey and Gross' world, should most definitely need to pick this up. Not only can readers get somewhat caught up with what The Unwritten is all about, but they also read a fantastic standalone story in the meantime.

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