Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #1
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Marco Rudy and Val Staples
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
So why has the superhero genre survived so long in comics? Maybe it's inertia. Maybe it's history. But I think, ultimately, one of the main reasons why costumed crusaders have lasted so long is that we're safe in knowing exactly what we're going to get.
Maybe there'll be some drama. Maybe some high stakes. But ultimately, one of the primary staples of a superhero comic is the fight. Fist to face, eyebeam to claw, "capes-and-tights" is often synonymous with "hand-to-hand." You can't get much simpler than that - and in so doing, you can't reinvent the wheel, right?
Case in point: Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #1.
In a lot of ways, this comic is less of a hard-and-fast story, and more a collection of pop art that's set to the standard beat-'em-up nature of a good old-fashioned fight comic. But it's not just what story you tell, it's how you tell it, and both writer Matt Kindt and artist Marco Rudy take every opportunity they can to play with structure, pacing and design, resulting in an ambitious, evocative comic that transcends its humble premise.
For the past decade or so, we've seen a shift in comics becoming more like cinema - particularly the focus on a linear storyline. Not so in Marvel Knights: Spider-Man. Matt Kindt plunges Peter Parker into a gauntlet of 99 of his worst foes almost instantaneously, lampshading the sheer improbability of it all by starting Peter's journey with the psychic Madame Web - in other words, she knew he was coming, so she could bring the party to him. Kindt moves at a blinding pace from there on in, and he ups the ante by twisting the web-slinger's perceptions - and ours along with it. "You don't feel the poison yet?" Jack O'Lantern says, as we can't help but feel a chill go up our spines. "I think you're in more trouble than you realize."
By having Spider-Man fighting off a mind-altering poison, Kindt not only raises the stakes, but gives Marco Rudy a chance to really play this comic to the hilt - not as some sort of unfilmed storyboard, but as a cohesive, ambitious medium that doesn't owe anything to anyone. Rudy is channeling J.H. Williams III with his evocative page layouts, and the way he breaks up the story is just wonderful. As Peter "drops frames" - a cute throwback to his background as a photographer - Rudy pulls us into the fight, as we're reacting with Peter, even as his sense of time and space winds up distorting, distending, even coming oh-so-close to breaking. Rudy's small details are particularly enthralling, whether it's Peter struggling against the claustrophobic walls of a blackened panel, or the eerie scrawl next to Spidey's arms as he stands over two broken foes, unsure of how he got there to begin with: "I did this."
But this is ultimately a fight comic, and for better or for worse, Kindt isn't looking to make a definitive statement on Spider-Man as a character - at least not yet. It's assumed you already will know who villains like Jack O'Lantern or Morbius or Werewolf by Night are - they really aren't filled in as characters, but instead are punching bags for the wall-crawler. (That said, they're gorgeously rendered punching bags, so that's not necessarily a bad thing.) That said, if you're looking for something other than frenetic action, this is not going to be your bag, baby.
Yet for my money, Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #1 is a bombastic opener, and a great showcase for two talents who are just shy of cracking the big time. Matt Kindt shows that he can cram a lot into a script and still bring plenty of smart ideas to the table, while Marco Rudy proves once and for all that he's nothing less than superstar status. Sometimes a punch is just a punch - sometimes a superhero street fight is just a street fight. Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #1, however, is a brash symphony of violence - and it's one that provides a superior relaunch to one of Marvel's great imprints.
Forever Evil #2
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by David Finch, Richard Friend and Sonia Oback
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
I have to give Geoff Johns some credit with Forever Evil, just based on the concept alone. The general idea of an event comic is to bring together a company's heaviest hitters together in one epic story - but Forever Evil isn't like that, at all.
Instead, to paraphrase the old agage, when the heroes are away, the bad guys come out to play. And that's the crux of Forever Evil - there's actually a sliding scale of villainy at play here, with the opportunistic Lex Luthor on one side and the destructive, nihilistic Crime Syndicate on the other. "Evil" is all relative here, and it's that theme that gives this series its legs.
People have compared Forever Evil to Marvel's Age of Ultron, and given the overall gloomy tone, I wouldn't say that's inaccurate. But whereas Age of Ultron was almost Tolkien-esque in its focus on the heroes travelling back from the edge of damnation, Geoff Johns barely has any superheroes involved at all. Sure, the Teen Titans make an appearance, but it's ultimately just in the service of making Johnny Quick and Atomica seem that much more powerful. Instead, Johns bounces back and forth between the intrigue of Earth-3's Crime Syndicate, the random destruction of "our" vilains in the Secret Society, and the unlikely rebel hero of the piece: Lex Luthor.
Of course, there is some shakiness here in the execution. Luthor's overall plan works great in the larger context of the New 52 - if Superman is seen as a threat, how can Lex turn this human weapon to his advantage? - but the actual characterization winds up being an issue. There's a moment of random mercilessness that feels almost tacked-on, almost as if Johns had to remind us all that Lex is still a bad guy, rather than an egotistical genius (who happens to have been proven right in his hatred of all things Kryptonian). Meanwhile, the exposition by the Crime Syndicate doesn't really introduce any new twists to the group's pre-existing mythology, particularly the love triangle between Ultraman, Superwoman and Owlman. There's a decent bit implied with Power Ring, but it is a lot more telling than showing right now.
David Finch's artwork definitely encapsulates the gritty, horrific tone of Forever Evil, and aside from the occasional hiccup, the storytelling works well. Finch is at his best when he's able to incorporate silhouettes and mood lighting to really play up the danger here, such as a group shot where the Crime Syndicate broods in the remains of the Justice League Watchtower, or a powerful shot where a supposed casualty comes back with a bruised and battered vengeance. That said, sometimes Finch's characters wind up coming off overrendered and distended, particularly the way that Johnny Quick's cowl winds up looking like some sort of swollen conehead. That said, some of his characters wind up looking gorgeous with the same approach, particularly his menacing portrayal of the hulking Bizarro.
Two issues in, and Geoff Johns has given us just enough new material to keep us interested in Forever Evil - but only just barely. The level of exposition here occasionally gets in the way with just telling the actual story, which is a shame, because the actual concept of Lex Luthor finally being the hero of more than just his own story is a premise that could really hook a lot of readers, and really lend some weight to the rest of DC's Villains Month fill-in issues. I want to see less discussion, and more demonstration of how bad these bad guys can get. Still, one could argue that Johns has done his due diligence in setting up this unorthodox event - now that we've established the bad guys, I want to see Forever Evil really cut loose.
Avengers: Endless Wartime
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Mike McKone and Jason Keith with Rain Beredo
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Warren Ellis and Mike McKone’s Avengers: Endless Wartime opens up on the civil warring country of Slorenia as American drones hammer the capital city of Tblunka. As a shot down drone plunges to the city street, it’s not a purely mechanical plane that's discovered but some alien monster, stamped and branded by the U.S. Air Force. Ellis and McKone begin with a story that seems to be about modern warfare but quickly loses that as he dives into a story about heroes and the secret government agencies that love to have them around but hate that that they are around. It's a Warren Ellis joint all right but it feels like a comic that should have been produced years ago as the comics and movies have caught up with what Ellis was doing circa 1999.
Ellis’s writing in Avengers: Endless Wartime works in spurts, convulsively starting and stopping without getting any real momentum going. The focus of his story is never clear. As the alien drones show signs of both Nazi and Asgardian technology, Ellis tries to make it personal for Captain America and Thor, unfinished business for both of them from a long time ago. The drones are destructive forces of nature, used by America both for protection and for war, but Ellis never develops the threat much beyond “drones bad- Avengers good.” Beyond these mindless drones, there’s no real force guiding or manipulating them. Ellis introduces the puppet masters for the drones but they’re never an integral part of the story. They’re simply there to give a name and a face to the bad guys without ever really developing any conflict between them and the Avengers.
There’s all of the quick witty lines of dialogue that sound like they could easily come out of Robert Downey Jr. or Mark Ruffalo’s mouth but the cynic in Ellis is still behind those words. There’s none of the warmth or personality that Joss Whedon or Jon Favreau could direct out of their actors that made you think that these characters were more than just actors, that they were the characters up there on the big screen. Ellis can’t get it to sound authentic with this group of characters. There’s no personality behind the humor; only calculated cynicism. When Wolverine or Hawkeye try to explain to Captain America the whys and wherefores of everything that’s going on, it’s what the characters have to say because they’re expressing the “lessons” that Captain America has to learn. They’re explicitly stating the subtext of the plot just in case you haven’t been getting it from the story.
As cynically tone deaf as the writing is, Mike McKone and colorist Jason Keith turn in a fantastic looking book. They find the sweet spot between traditional comic art and the more modern “cinematic” approach to comics. They often eschew widescreen storytelling, which Ellis along with Bryan Hitch had such a strong hand developing, and they make a very sharp, clear and easy looking comic book. For as much trouble as Ellis has embracing the superheroes, McKone never wavers as he draws very traditional superheroics. He moves the story along quickly, capturing the beats of the story in these fun, personable drawings. Even if Ellis’s dialogue doesn’t always sound sincere, McKone makes you believe in the moment. He makes you believe in these heroes and monsters. McKone and Keith fill this book with bright, vivid panels that sing in ways that a lot of modern day Avengers artists just cannot pull off.
Avengers: Endless Wartime is a natural sequel to the movies but also fits in with the current Avengers comic books. Ellis and McKone’s story perfectly bridges the Avengers of Joss Whedon and the Avengers of Jonathan Hickman because Ellis and McKone get to cherry-pick the elements of the movies and comics that they want to. Those elements that they’re picking for actually find their own roots in Ellis’s comics so there is this vicious circle happening here where Ellis is influenced by Ellis and it feels like the Ellis of 2013 doesn’t quite get the Ellis of 1999. We see Ellis trying to do the Avengers in an Authority style but everyone from Kurt Busiek to Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman have also tried to do the same and have been able to be more honest about it. Avengers: Endless Wartime is an Warren Ellis book but it follows the blueprints that Ellis laid out years ago without ever being able to take that next evolutionary step to set it apart from everyone that Ellis has ever influenced.
Mind the Gap #15
Written by Jim McCann
Art by Rodin Esquejo, Dan McDaid, Jessica Kholinne of STELLAR Labs, and Lee Loughbridge
Letters by Dave Lanphear
Published by Image Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
As the mysteries surrounding Ellie’s condition reveal themselves, her final fate draws closer. Everyone wants to control what happens to Ellie-but she has plans of her own as this compelling series reaches the end of its first arc.
After being a series that was all about the slow build-up, writer Jim McCann has been exploding revelations on the reader in the past few issues, culminating in learning that Ellie’s brushes with death are as familiar for her as brushing her teeth. Cleverly using the idea that Ellie had to take time to accept her true history, McCann can get away with spilling the beans now and not have it feel like a cheat. In other circumstances, this might seem like a huge chunk of infodumping, but McCann narrowly avoids this pitfall by linking it to current events in the story and weaving in and out of the present. The things we learn in this issue really cause the reader to look back at prior events and possibly see them with a different perspective.
One of the things that has made Mind the Gap such an interesting story is the way in which the characters come together. With a cast so large the comic usually opens with a “who’s who,” it would be easy for them to get lost or fail to develop. Yet even in an issue that’s about Ellie’s strange condition and who is best suited to save her, we see the group of characters developing and settling into roles that the reader could not have predicted back at the end of issue one. McCann does a great job with taking the hints he’s given over the start of the series and tying them together to form a picture that doesn’t give the reader any easy answers when they finish this issue, the end of the first part of the story.
Because of this development of the characters and complexity of the issues surrounding Ellie’s family, choosing which side is right isn’t as easy as it once appeared. Now that we know more of the history, there’s a chance that maybe Ellie’s brother isn’t being as altruistic as we’ve been led to believe. The idea that “everyone is suspect” has been a recurring theme, and that doubt, planted in the reader’s head from the start, is in full force now that we have more information to choose from.
Art duties on this issue are once again split between Rodin Esquejo and Dan McDaid, handling the present and past respectively. Their styles could not be more different, which makes placing the timeline of events very easy. Unfortunately, Esquejo’s sections here are not his best. His panel choices do very little to increase tension or drama. The characters often stand at rigid attention, with no indication of their feelings or emotions in their posture. It’s definitely a drag on a strong emotional moment like this one, with Ellie’s life in the balance.
On the other hand, McDaid’s scratchier and looser pencils really shine here. His style is a bit like Alex Maleev, though perhaps a bit more of an exaggerated style. In one panel, we know a doctor is confused because his body is at an odd angle when he gives a hesitant thumbs up, not by any narration. Every time we see Ellie’s mother in the flashbacks, her eyes bore into either the reader or the characters around her. People around Ellie show actual movement and reaction when she crashed into her death-states. It doesn’t take much for McDaid to show the reader what is going on, but what we do see is strong storytelling. I wish we got more of that from the scenes set in the present.
This issue of Mind the Gap is certainly not a jumping on point for new readers. It does show, however, that McCann has a plan for where this series is going and knows just how to write a thriller comic that’s satisfying and doesn’t leave the reader wondering why they’d set out on the journey in the first place. Despite some artistic issues and a bit of information overload, this is a series worth catching up on and sticking with into the second part of the story.
The Shadow Now #1
Written by David Liss
Art by Colton Worley
Lettering by Rob Steen
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
It's been decades since the world was first introduced to the Shadow, but David Liss, Colton Worley and Dynamite Entertainment have produced an ambitious, interesting take on the prototypical pulp hero. While there are some hiccups in the storytelling that hamper the enjoyment factor of The Shadow Now, the high concept and artwork both show some potential.
The smartest thing about The Shadow Now is David Liss's high concept, which allows him to both embrace the character's decades of history as well as place him in a contemporary context - thanks to meditation and regeneration in the Eastern temples of Shambhala, Lamont Cranston has survived to the modern day, as youthful and full of vigor as he was in the 1930s. Liss has pulled together an entire organization devoted to supporting Cranston's efforts to fight crime, and that winds up creating a nice set of supporting cast members.
That said, sometimes it feels like Liss puts the cart before the horse. It's basically expected that you already know about who the Shadow is and why you should like him - indeed, even the mention of his unnaturally long life is said almost as an aside. That can wind up being a bit of a challenge for new readers, as the perfunctory action beats wind up muddying the waters, as Liss abruptly jumps from scene to scene, particularly when Cranston meets an old foe in prison, as well as some intrigue going on right underneath his nose.
The most memorable part of this book, for my money, is Colton Worley's artwork. In many ways, he's Dynamite's version of J.W. Williams III - crazy layouts, lots of drama, all done in a painterly style that, at its best, reminds me a bit of Alex Ross. The iconography he gives the Shadow is superb, especially a page where the panels almost shatter as he guns down some hoods, as well as an eerie red light that appears from the Shadow's eyes. That said, while Worley has his style down pat, his panel-to-panel storytelling and composition could still use some work - particularly near the end, when it becomes difficult to tell who lives and who dies.
Thanks for a good first impression by Colton Worley, The Shadow Now #1 is off to a decent start - that said, this is far from the most user-friendly book on the stands, and gets by mostly because of style points that rock-solid storytelling. If Liss can streamline his plotting and really delve into what makes Lamont Cranston such a long-lasting icon, this book might be Dynamite's new sleeper hit.