Best Shots Comic Reviews: IRON MAN #17, JUSTICE LEAGUE #24, More

Iron Man #17
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Iron Man #17
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Carlo Pagualyan, Scott Hanna and Guru EFX
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Iron Man #17 marks the conclusion of Kieron Gillen's first "season" of Iron Man. With this post-script for "The Secret Origin of Tony Stark," Gillen shows that he may be a little more clever than Origin's space-faring plot would have you believe. The truth behind this untold history of the armored Avenger aims to strip Tony Stark back to his human core, setting up an internal conflict that is sure to reverberate for some time in Tony's life.

Back on Earth after narrowly escaping 451's plan to eliminate him, Tony uncovers a secret that underscores this arc's exploration of the greater good, and the moral grey area. While the resolution to Stark's discovery is a little convenient, especially considering Tony's usual selfish demeanor, Gillen's script conveys the necessary sense of aloof optimism and hesitation without becoming too heavy handed. Still, the story winds up feeling a little thin despite leaving little room for any added story. In short, Iron Man #17 is little more than it's central twist.

Further, Carlo Pagualyan is all but wasted here. His storytelling fits the book nicely, but there's little for him to latch onto, with the script relying too much on talking heads and personal drama to really suit Pagualyan's energetic style. Combined with Scott Hanna's finished and GuruEFX's competent but straightforward colors, this issue comes off feeling a little too much like Michael Bay directing a heady stage play. It looks fine, but the personalities of the art and script don't line up quite right.

What impact Iron Man #17's big revelation will have in the long term is hard to tell. There are obvious implications of the twin secrets uncovered in this issue at the character level, but the story possibilities feel frighteningly limited compared to the weight of the secrets being revealed. Kieron Gillen's track record with Iron Man has, so far, been hit or miss, but Gillen is well-versed in wringing the humanity from the larger-than-life characters he writes. Perhaps with the catalyst presented here, he can finally start focusing more on the "man" than the "iron."

Justice League #24 Cover featuring the Crime Syndicate by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado
Justice League #24 Cover featuring the Crime Syndicate by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado
Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #24
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Oclair Albert, Eber Ferreira and Rod Reis
Lettering by Nick J. Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Some two years after DC revolutionized their line-up by hitting reset on the whole shebang, they’ve shifted gears by pressing pause on selected parts of that line-up. With the Justice League missing and presumed dead, “Forever Evil” is the status quo for the foreseeable future. By rights, this title should follow “Villain’s Month” conventions and cross out the book’s title and replace it with “Crime Syndicate,” for that is closer to what this issue sets out to be.

In looking at the first issue of Forever Evil, we remarked that it was like starting over again, after two years worth of anticipation. In this month’s Justice League, this is literally the case, as Johns takes us on a New 52 recap of the Earth-3 origin of Superman’s evil counterpart, Ultraman. Sent out as a tool for his parent’s revenge, he’s raised by trailer trash and taught to despise the weak. In what is presumably the start of individual explorations of the Crime Syndicate, it suggests the question ‘What makes up Superman?’ in the nature versus nurture argument that has spawned such classics as Red Son.

In an unrelentingly nihilistic vision of Earth gone wrong, the Superman ideal is not inherently good, easily subverted by the machinations of his parents’ malice and the petty jealousies of humans. Indeed, Ultraman doesn’t do much world deconstructing in this issue, so much as seek revenge on Earth Prime’s Jimmy Olsen for the snap-happy perversions of his evil Earth counterpart. (Evidently, Earth-3 Jimmy likes to take pictures of Lois “in exchange for favors”). Similarly, a throwaway line about Owlman having to “talk to Dick” belies more personal stakes than anyone is letting on.

Ivan Reis has some fun playing with the alternate world designs of the characters, even if they aren’t too far removed from their Earth Prime equivalents. Even Rod Reis’s colors on the ‘origin’ elements evoke the softer look of Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origin, making the dark imagery all the more surreal for it. The modern day settings reflect the sharper edge of Jim Lee’s initial work on the series back in 2011. Of course, the showstopper splash page in which Black Adam, the “problem in Kahndaq,” confronts and attacks Ultraman is the stuff epics are made of, leaving us on a suitable cliffhanger to keep the momentum of the series flowing.

The basic building blocks are all here for an interesting introduction to a new world, but this is still ultimately the fundamental dilemma of Forever Evil. It’s a beginning of something when it should be the dramatic apex following an already cataclysmic change. With the main story continuing in the pages of the seven-part Forever Evil mini-series, it’s just hard to escape the feeling that DC’s flagship title is being used here as a sideshow to the main event.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Uncanny Avengers #13
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Daniel Acuna
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

There are team books. And there are event books. And then there's Uncanny Avengers.

With Rick Remender and Daniel Acuna at the helm, Uncanny Avengers is one of those rare monthlies that hits like an event book but refuses to resort to cheap tricks to get its point across. High stakes, killer characterization and larger-than-life concepts are what make Uncanny Avengers the best team book Marvel has to offer.

The best part about Uncanny Avengers is watching Rick Remender play these characters off one another. Comprised of long-time Avengers as well as a quirky assortment of X-Men, each of these heroes has their own personalities, perspectives and histories - for example, there's a great beat in this issue where Wolverine breaks under the weight of all his failures, telling Rogue how he failed Charles Xavier. Her response is pitch-perfect: "Charles loved you. You have him hope a man could change."

These are the sorts of moments that populate Remender's Uncanny Avengers even more than the fight sequences or the overarching plot featuring the Apocalypse Twins. Yet while Remender also mines his continuity, he also explores new territory with the different characters involved. The Wasp's flirtation with Havok is just a glimmer of the potential this team has (even if Janet secretly admits that Alex's tenure as leader hasn't been the most effective). Meanwhile, a deafened Captain America acts as the surprise comedy factor this issue, as he shouts awkward non sequitors as he tries to regain his hearing.

The artwork by Daniel Acuna remains as stunning as ever. Remender's scripts are surprisingly dense, but because of Acuna, the storytelling never feels cramped - there are tons of six-panel pages and epic fight sequences going on in this issue, and Acuna sells all of them magnificently. (Particularly a beat featuring Thor rescuing an alien world, as well as the sheer damage done to Wolverine, as he's tortured by his resurrected son Daken.) Acuna's dark colors really play up the desperate mood of the story, but his characters remain clean and iconic - and as his last splash page shows, particularly inspiring.

If more superhero comics were half as good as Uncanny Avengers, we'd be living in a new golden age. This comic doesn't have to rely on stunts to justify itself as a must-read - instead, Remender and Acuna dig deeply into each member of the Avengers Unity Squad to stir up drama and tension. If you read one superhero comic this week, Uncanny Avengers #13 needs to be it.

Credit: Image Comics

Pretty Deadly #1
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

I'm going to skip over any attempt to provide a plot summary for Pretty Deadly #1, as it's just too complex to gloss in half a dozen lines. It's a comic that is busy introducing story elements for readers that will slowly piece together, not over the course of this issue, but the first story arc. With that in mind, I'm going to focus this review primarily on the pros and cons of what I saw in my first (and second) reading.

The Pros: First, it was something of a refreshing surprise to see story from the Western genre place women in a number of different roles throughout the story. Although I've come to expect a balanced representation of genders from DeConnick, it was great seeing women in roles often reserved (in fiction) for men with female gunslingers dictating the pace of the story. Not once did I get the feeling that these were women playing "dress up" in a man's clothes. The response to "Big Alice" in the brothel is one of fearful respect – due to any dangerous outlaw – but the women also seem to respond differently to her than they would if she were a man. It's a subtle detail, but it's worth pointing out as it makes this distinction meaningful – not arbitrary.

Art from Pretty Deadly by Emma Rios
Art from Pretty Deadly by Emma Rios
Credit: Image Comics

I also really enjoyed DeConnick's creative approach to providing Ginny's backstory with the two travelers serving as types of bards or heralds for Death's daughter. DeConnick creates a sort of comic within a comic in the way she tells of Ginny's parentage through the banners the old man and young girl use to tell the story. Unlike many origin stories where there is either an unseen narrator taking readers by the hand and showing them the past events leading to the hero's origins or we witness them firsthand, Pretty Deadly takes an altogether different approach. Readers stand alongside members of the dusty town and listen to the ballad of Death's encounter with Beauty and the consummation of their love, which produced Ginny – all of which takes on lyrical form both in the girl's speech and within the captions interspersed throughout the related panels. DeConnick beautifully executes this comic element, and it was probably my favorite part of the story as a whole.

Strangely enough, my favorite part of the issue didn't actually take place in the comic itself, but instead, in the back matter with DeConnick's brief autobiographical "Falling Up" documenting her story leading up to the publication of Pretty Deadly #1. What really made this stand out was the way in which she is able to capture brief vignettes from her life within the scope of only 150-250 words each. The individual sections not only come together to create a greater picture of what lead her to publish her first creator-owned work – clearly a labor of love and inspiration – but the individual elements stand on their own as a sort of flash nonfiction piece, each of which had its own voice and story. If Kelly Sue DeConnick ever begins working in prose, that's a work I'll buy.

The Cons: I've seen both Emma Rios' and Jordie Bellaire's work in the past and both creators had me very excited about what they would bring to this comic. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a number of different elements that did not come together well in this first issue. I found the inks to have muddied the line work, and this is seen most notably in the early part of the story when the reader is introduced to the young girl in the vulture outfit on stage. Details are lost in the murkiness of the dark coloring and inking, and making sense of what's taking place becomes a little challenging.

Art from Pretty Deadly by Emma Rios
Art from Pretty Deadly by Emma Rios
Credit: Image Comics

I also felt the color palette came across as a little too flat, resulting in a number of panels lacking the sort of "pop" one might expect – especially with the few scenes involving Ginny. Those seemed like opportunities for the page to come alive, and this is exactly where a veteran colorist like Jordie Bellaire shines best. Unfortunately, it came across like a lost opportunity. Admittedly, I have since heard from all three creators via social media that there were some sort of printer-related issues that created some problems with the art, and this could account for some of the concerns I was picking up on in this issue. All I know is that, while a rough-edged aesthetic is completely appropriate for a "dark Western fairy tale" like Pretty Deadly, the execution at some level or another did not deliver as expected.

I also found myself a little confused in my first reading of the issue with regards to what was happening in the story following the old man and young girl's departure from the town and chase that ensues. DeConnick's proven her abilities to bring a story together in the past, so I do not doubt readers will find the clarity they're looking for in the following issues. But it is worth noting that this is not the sort of book that lends itself to a fast read; instead, plan on taking your time with it as you slowly digest the events unfolding in each panel. As I mentioned before, this seems to be intentional as DeConnick slowly reveals the different parts of her story. I expect this is the sort of series where patient readers will be well rewarded.

The Verdict: Pretty Deadly #1 comes across as a very ambitious project for DeConnick, Rios, and Bellaire that has a lot of promise. Hopefully, the second issue will be free of the technical problems with regards to the art so that readers can equally appreciate the work of these two artists and more fully immerse themselves in this supernatural Wild West story. It's not a question of whether this comic is worth sticking around for because it is a story readers will want to see unfold. Instead, it may simply be a case of this creative team striking the right balance between the story being told and the visual approach that is used to convey it.

Credit: Image Comics

Sex Criminals #2
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Where Issue #1 of Sex Criminals provides readers with Suzie's backstory, this second issue of shifts gears and allows the audience to glimpse into Jon's coming into the world of adolescent sexuality and his time-stopping powers. Unlike the previous issue, whose plot jumped around quite a bit, this story does a better job of delivering a less broken narrative. That said, readers do shift from the present – in the aftermath of their first hookup – to that past – in Jon's backstory – and then glimpses of the future – where they are on the run from some sort of costumed agents who are able to transverse time and have Suzie and Jon on the run.

While the story still jumps around a bit and there are instances where the fourth wall is broken, the elements of the plot dealing with the past and present seemed to gel a little more smoothly. Additionally, the time when Suzie directly addresses the reader provides an effective approach to creating an informal, relaxed tone throughout the comic. Considering the subject matter is often taboo in the world of comics, this is a smart decision on Fraction's part.

With regards to the art, I was initially tempted to critique Zdarksy's cartoonish aesthetic as not being the sort of style appropriate to edgy, boundary-pushing subject matter like what we see in Fraction's story. After thinking about what the greater purpose for this comic could be – a frank and honest discussion about sex within the context of the comic book medium – it seems this approach is actually an incredibly smart one.

While adopting a highly polished, 1990s superhero style to Suzie, Jon, and the rest of the cast would no doubt amp up the "sex factor" significantly, that would distract readers from a thoughtful storyline through visual titillation. Instead, Zdarksy keeps us focused on what happening in the story by not overpowering it with the art. Where the art does begin to demand more focus is when the orgasmic time-stopping powers are shown; however, it makes more sense to try and show this visually than it would be to merely explain it, so again, I really appreciated the sort of intentional planning behind the various visual elements helping drive this story forward.

Although I found the plotlines from the past and present working together to deliver a cohesive story, I found myself struggling a little bit to make sense of the future thread weaving in and out of this issue. There were three agents of unknown origin who seem to be able to travel through time as well as they attempt to apprehend the youthful bank robbers; however, there's no explanation as to who they are or how they're able to bypass Jon and Suzie's control over time. To be fair, I would be surprised if these aren't addressed in Issue #3. But I find it problematic that Fraction spends a good deal of time introducing characters who, apart from their fantastic powers, are highly relatable, and yet are also being made out to be bank robbers for no foreseeable reason. Again, these are the types of problems that, when read in collected form, are hardly even a second thought and are more likely symptomatic of the serialized format than the writer him or herself.

I think there are enough interesting elements within this series to continue seeing how the different narrative threads will play out. Certainly, it's not a comic for everyone; yet, readers who are looking for an adult-themed comic that is still respectful of readers' intelligence compared to some of the other comics published in the past (and even in the present) which use sex merely to titillate the reader and drive sales will find Sex Criminals shaping up to be a welcome change of pace.

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