Best Shots Comic Reviews: TRIAL OF THE PUNISHER #1, SECRET SOCIETY, More

Marvel Previews for September 25 2013
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Trial of the Punisher #1
Written by Marc Guggenheim
Art by Leinil Francis Yu and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Given the way that Greg Rucka ended Punisher: War Zone, it's a nice bit of serendipity that Marc Guggenheim has put Frank Castle behind bars in Trial of the Punisher. Given that the Punisher is typically known for action-heavy romps, it's a nice change of pace to see Marvel's toughest vigilante in a courtroom drama. Combined with some top-notch artwork from Leinil Francis Yu, this is a book that's definitely worth checking out.

While continuity cops might cry foul at how Guggenheim's introduction doesn't connect perfectly with Greg Rucka's masterful Punisher: War Zone, it's particularly interesting the way that Guggenheim attacks this script. Sure, there's a little bit of violence here and there - a gangland shooting in a flashback, a failed jailhouse assault - but ultimately this comic is a mystery disguised as a courtroom drama. Given that he turns himself into police custody, Frank clearly has a plan... but what is it? Either way, Guggenheim makes for a bleak comic story, as we see how the twists and turns of the legal system give way to someone as single-minded and focused as the Punisher.

But that said, the premise of this series is very much take-it-or-leave-it - the reason why this comic works is because of the art. Leinil Francis Yu is a real "get" for a non-continuity book like Trial of the Punisher, lending a real sense of legitimacy and value to the series. Combined with Sunny Gho's dark and moody colors, Yu's Punisher looks brooding and powerful, giving this series a real edginess and grit. In particular, there's a great sequence where Frank writes a confession, as we see a Godfather-style takedown in an Italian restaurant. But it's to Yu's credit that he also sells the numerous conversations in this book, playing around with expressions and silhouettes to keep Guggenheim's script energized.

Still, there are some hiccups to this book that keep it from superstar status. For example, there are a couple of moments where there is some serious disconnect between the writing and the artwork - there's a beat, for example, where Frank's candor winds up unhinging a trained psychologist, but if Guggenheim hadn't narrated it, you wouldn't have gotten it, based on Yu's splash page. Additionally, sometimes the tone of Guggenheim's script gets a little too cute, leaning on humor rather than the insane lockdown the Punisher would likely receive if he were ever in custody.

But despite its flaws, Marc Guggenheim has definitely found some new territory for Frank Castle, as Trial of the Punisher shows the lengths Frank will go for his war on crime. While this issue isn't particularly character-driven, the high concept and the stellar artwork is enough to pique reader interest, even if the jury is still out over whether this series will continue to succeed.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #23.4: Secret Society
Written by Geoff Johns and Sterling Gates
Art by Szymon Kudranski and Kohn Kalisz
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Even though the title of this book is Secret Society, Justice League #23.4 really is the secret origin of Owlman and the Outsider. Yet even with DC titants Geoff Johns and Sterling Gates on board, this alternate universe history winds up feeling hollow, with the minor twists and turns feeling more obligatory than innovative.

While the mainstream DC Universe has Batman and Alfred, the Crime Syndicate's world on Earth-3 has Owlman and the Outsider. Unfortunately, the central theme of this story isn't particularly deep - while Johns and Gates say that Owlman's central motivation is control, it's mostly telling and not showing. The actual plot - pitting Owlman versus the Joker - is fairly forgettable superhero fare, and winds up muddying the whole mirror-image world of Earth-3: If the Crime Syndicate are supposed to be the bad guys, why pit them against people who are actually worse than them? It's hard, for example, to root for the Joker when he winds up dismembering someone and putting them into six separate boxes.

Besides the lack of a likeable protagonist, the actual content of this issue doesn't really add too much to the general Forever Evil storyline. Johns and Gates have one clever bit in the beginning of the issue, where they say that Alfred actually was the one who shot and killed Owlman's parents, but beyond that bit of dialogue, everything is implied rather than explained. Why does Alfred stay so loyal to Owlman? Why did Talon go AWOL? It's one thing to raise questions for the main series, but tie-ins are supposed to further illustrate the central narrative, not distract from it.

The artwork from Szymon Kudranski is also somewhat perplexing. Tonally, his sketchy, Jock-like linework certainly fits the dark mirror world of Earth-3, but his actual storytelling winds up coming off extremely jerky. For example, a sequence where the Joker flees from Owlman winds up being very difficult to follow, and it makes it difficult to tell whether or not the Joker wants civilian casualties or not. In addition, Kudranski's composition winds up being a bit shaky, particularly a page where he focuses a tremendous amount of Owlman's boots on a rooftop. While his use of silhouette plays up the darkness of Earth-3, his actual detail work winds up looking a bit distended.

Time will tell if Justice League #23.4: Secret Society truly has an impact on Forever Evil, or if it's just a red herring. If the former, then in retrospect, this issue might wind up reading a lot better as part of a collection. But as far as single issues go, unless you're a diehard or a completist, you can probably skip this one.

Credit: Image Comics

East of West #6
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Noelle Webster
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

East of West #6 marks readers’ first real deviation from Death’s story, focusing instead on introducing a new character as well as some excellent world building (though the ever indecipherable Message of course makes an appearance). Bookended with a continuation of Bel Solomon’s story, the issue feels almost like a one-shot in the middle as Hickman introduces a new character. Readers get a look at the futuristic justice system, and it makes for action packed and fascinating issue.

This issue focuses nicely on world building, giving the reader a look at a judicial system that is both futuristic to the reader and old to the characters in East of West. The court’s motto is the rather poetic: “To do justly, and to love mercy.” Sounds like a good system, right? It’s something that you can truly believe would be a courtroom motto and something that evolved out of the society depicted in East of West. The futuristic courtroom looks very similar to our real, present day courtrooms with the exception of a massive judge (who clearly hasn’t been able to see his feet in years) seated in a circular chair that literally hovers high above everyone else. The fact that the courtroom only has minor changes to current courtrooms makes the scene more grounded and therefore feels real, even though we see a man hovering above the rest with futuristic goggles on. It’s a nice depiction of a dystopian future that lands especially nicely since it’s not too far out of the realm of believability.

It’s in this flashback that we meet our new “Ranger,” a former police officer who started a rebellion to overthrow these corrupt judges and politicians after watching the system fail one too many times. This scene is highly stylized, and the action here is great. You immediately understand and root for this badass new character, and there is a great minimalist panel with an example of the onomatopoeia background (BLAM!) that this series does so well. This story is then blended to incorporate the Western trope of a battle worn lawman coming out of retirement to do one last job. Get excited.

The flashback section in the middle of the issue is a great example of why Nick Dragotta’s art and Frank Martin’s colors are so essential to why East of West works. The courtroom flashback is done with a slight change in the color scheme, but the unique distinction here is that these pages are not glossy like the first section. The way the difference between the more science fiction scenes and the scenes with a Western feel are depicted is subtle, but noticeable. The beginning of the issue that takes place in the present (for the characters) and is done with crisp blues, blacks, and whites that give these pages that glossy look. In the middle section, the color is duller, with more shades of brown and tan. The flashback within a flashback is then done in a style of black and white that is mostly grays, with red accents that really highlight the horror of what is going on in just a few panels. For an issue that is about world building, the art is so important and this issue is just another great example of how well the visual and writing style blend so well.

While I really enjoyed the action in the center flashback sequence, I found myself confused as to what was happening in the opening. I couldn’t quite tell what was happening to Bel, and was therefore confused as to what he was doing at the end of the issue. It’s not imperative to the story for this to make sense; I just visually would have liked to see it a bit clearer. My other complaint is that occasionally the dialogue can be predictable. The series is a bit of a love letter to Westerns of course, but sometimes the cowboy dialogue is too much of an on-the-nose trope as opposed to being influenced by it. This makes the dialogue come off as cartoonish occasionally, particularly the last line of the issue.

But this line of dialogue is coming off of a great speech by Bel, detailing how he got himself in the situation he’s in with The Chosen. There wasn’t some big turning point like we just read about for our lawman, Bel just continued to compromise over the years until eventually he was a shell of what he used to stand for. The issue offers insight into some of the characters, as well as giving the reader a better understanding of the East of West world. We may not see a direct continuation of Death’s story, but the issue certainly has momentum. It gets you excited for what’s to come, which is how issues like this need to work. I was initially skeptical about the lack of Death in the issue, but it’s another great installment by Hickman and I’m pleased to have been wrong.

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