Greetings once again, 'Rama Readers! It's your friend George Marston, taking the reins from your usual guide through the week's releases, David Pepose, while he's off-world repelling another Skrull incursion. We've got a bunch of great reviews for you this week, including a couple from our newest recruit, Justin Partridge, III, whose work you may have seen on Between the Panels. This week's column kicks off with a look at Justice League #24 from yours truly. Excelsior!
Justice League #24
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert, Eber Ferrera, and Rod Reis
Letters by Nick J. Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
This issue of Justice League is a perfect microcosm of the state of affairs at DC Comics right now. Granted, it fairs a little better than many of the titles still chugging along under the New 52, but the dichotomy of its opening scenes - at once thrilling and grotesque, but emblematic of the still blank portions of DC's now 2 year old canvas - versus its almost anti-climactic and procedural second half are almost to the letter what one expects from a DC comic these days. There's a wealth of fresh ideas and well sketched character beats, but very little in the way of pay off or depth.
Justice League #24 starts out with a bang - a pretty big one, too - as we're treated to the destruction of another universe's Krypton, and a well-rendered and suitably brutal peek at the origins of Ultraman. Geoff Johns does a fantastic job of portraying the almost cartoonish Darwinism of the Crime Syndicate's home universe without relying on cheap gore or lowest-common-denominator shocks. Violent as their world may be, Johns does more to make you appreciate the Superman we have and loathe the Ultraman with which we've been cursed than long for a less harrowing reading experience. Ultraman's inner monologue is a little corny in the wrong way, but it's balanced by the appropriately scenery-chewing presence of both his Kryptonian and Earthbound parents.
It's when focus strays from Ultraman's past to his present that the book begins to flag. The much heralded threat of Black Adam to Ultraman's criminal regime continues to be teased, along with the threat that has drawn the Crime Syndicate to our universe. It's not these continued allusions that make the book suffer so much as what Ultraman actually accomplishes. Ignoring the looming "problem in Khandaq," Ultraman pays a visit to the prime universe's Daily Planet, an institution which, apparently, is a bastion of Ultraman's "survival of the fittest" mantra in his world. It's here that any hints of Ultraman's duality are quashed, reducing him to a walking pair of crushing limbs and a flatly expressed sardonic mouth. Whereas this issue's first half is all wit and satire, the anger and plain ugliness of it's second half render take a quick nosedive into a territory somehow worse than straight up shock value or cheap thrills - that of boredom, plain and simple. It's just not fun to see Ultraman belittle Jimmy Olsen - apparently a vicious killer on his world - or threaten to take Lois apart "piece by piece" because of her connection to Superwoman.
Fortunately, this issue's bastion of consistency, despite a veritable army of inkers, is penciler Ivan Reis, one of the few artists whose work may have actually gotten stronger since DC's relaunch. Right from the start, Reis balances his work's innate readability with a dynamic sense of mood and energy. Reis's characters pop off the page. Almost sadly, his Ultraman bears more resemblance to the Superman many expect to see than most modern renderings of the Man of Steel, dark countenance notwithstanding. Even characters like Steve Lombard are beings of emotion, with Reis's take on the staff of the Daily Planet, and a clever segue to finally bring Black Adam into the fold the sequence's only saving graces. Colorist Rod Reis is a perfect fit for the dynamic swings between light and darkness in this issue, and while he remains close to DC's house style in terms of technique, his palette does a much stronger job of building atmosphere than many of his contemporaries.
So there you have it, Justice League #24 as the ambassador of DC's ouevre. At once able to draw on its wealth of characters to cut a dramatic cloth, but unable to form that cloth into a well wrought tapestry. Of course this is only one chapter in the ongoing saga of Forever Evil, but it's one with enough meat on its bones to stand alone. The portions of this book that deal with the motivations, origins, and possible deeper motives of Ultraman are excellent, but the book can't escape the pitfalls of simply turning its main character into a sneering, brutish, ugly caricature of comic book violence.
Young Avengers #11
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie, Kris Anka, Mike Norton and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
Kieron Gillen turned one the greatest villains in the Marvel Universe into one of my favorite superheroes. When Matt Fraction brought Loki back from the dead in the pages of his Thor run, it was a major paradigm shift in the huge cast of Asgardians, but Kieron Gillen was the one who gave him a voice and personality that no one, least of all me, could have predicted. Now Loki was actively working toward the good of all mankind. He was self-effacing, brave, and cunning. This was still the Loki that we all loved and knew, but this was a Loki that was using his silver tongue in the service of protecting us, but... there was still a dread hanging over his head and as we rushed toward the finale of Journey Into Mystery, we all wondered when Loki the Liar would rear his crooked head once again.
Now? That Loki is back, and I’m not sure what to feel.
The issue joins our favorite superpowered teens right where we left them, dimension hopping and adventuring as per usual, unaware of the trouble that Teddy found himself in at the end of #10, thus dove tailing beautifully into the larger arc of the book’s first year. Mother has her hands on Teddy, and the Young Avengers scramble for a rescue plan. Kieron Gillen’s strength has always been in his banter, and this issue is heavy in the trademark wit that has made YA a must read book month after month, but in this issue, the teens are finally having to deal with the axe that has been dangling over their gorgeously groomed heads, and its a welcome change of pace from the breezy, devil-may-care attitude of the earlier issues.
We see Loki finally come clean to his “team” and deal with the fallout, which leads to him quite literally exploding. We see Billy willing to sacrifice himself in a very violent manner to save the one he loves, along with the whole of reality. We also see what might be the beginning of the end to what might be my favorite coupling in all of comics, with Noh-Varr in contact with many of his Evil Exes. Its heady stuff that never feels forced or ham-handed. This is only book that I can think of that isn’t called Runaways that has dealt with issues like suicide and sexual identity that feels honest. Gillen writes teens very well and writes teens as superheroes - and their issues - even better.
Gillen’s partner-in-crime, Jamie McKelvie, also turns in a stellar example of why he’s one of the best artists working today, doing so much with even the most simple of scenes. Loki’s growth explosion is the best example in this issue, making what could have been a very lackluster scene into something vibrant and interesting. The various images of the multi-Loki fountain running out of the torso of Kid Loki gave the largely action-free issue a blast of weirdness that was more than welcome. McKelvie's work with the negative space within panels also gave this issue a simple depth that accentuated Gillen’s feels-heavy script in the best possible way.
Meanwhile, Kris Anka and Mike Norton's inks, along with Matthew Wilson’s vibrant colors, continue to add a much needed sense of pop art depth that is sorely lacking within modern cape comics. Young Avengers feels like a teen version of Gerber’s Defenders, both in tone and in execution and it’s just candy month after month. I also loved that McKelvie gave Jonathan Hickman a run for his money in the graphing department with the awesome Prodigy phone web graph toward the end of the issue. The graph was just another example on top of the many, many examples of the quietly innovative things that Team Young Avengers are turning in every issue. Plus, it was nice to see that many of Marvel’s teen heroes haven’t been forgotten or relegated to fighting to the death for Arcade’s amusement.
One thing that I’ve really enjoyed about certain writers' works is that they have taken a page out of the TV playbook and started structuring their arcs much like seasons of television. Looking at Young Avengers through this lens, #11 is very much the calm before the two-part season finale. All the pieces are in place for something truly special, and now all we can do is watch and cry.
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Chris Samnee and Javier Rodriguez
Letters by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Holiday-themed issues don't come that often except for a Christmas issue here and there, with Halloween seeming like an afterthought. Considering the masks and monsters that incorporate this universe, you'd think it'd be more of a tradition. Well, while not actually Halloween-themed per se, Daredevil #32 treats us to a tangle with the Jester, some southern racists with a few tricks of their own, and most appropriately, the Legion of Monsters. Thanks, comics.
What I love is the way Mark Waid ties his story arcs together, giving them a cohesive flow throughout. The Sons of the Serpent first faced Daredevil early on in this volume, and their involvement with the Jester serves as a bridge to something else entirely. The level of compression doesn't isn't overwhelming, leaving Daredevil as accessible as ever. Readers who are curious about Daredevil could easily pick this issue up this late in the game and still catch a great issue.
Chris Samnee is a modern-day Alex Toth, no question about it. That comparison is almost cliche at this point, but this issue drives it home even further. Daredevil started out with a rotating team, but Samnee has delivered the work of his career thus far within these pages. The way he tells a story with dramatic inks and composition are stellar, taking imagery and inspiration from classic horror movies to really sell the Legion of Monsters.
It also probably doesn't hurt that Javier Rodriguez is a perfect fit for Samnee's mood and atmosphere, adding weight to this world with his rich palette, without taking away from what Samnee has already put down. Rodriguez's pinch of extra eerie goes a long way in the last few pages.
With the news still fresh on comic fan's minds about this volume of Daredevil's impending end, it's still hard to believe that a series that takes the very charm of what makes Marvel, well, marvelous will be ending in a few months. Sure, there'll be another Daredevil title to take its place, but Mark Waid and Chris Samnee have certainly left their mark on the title's lineage in such a short amount of time, you almost feel sorry for the book's heirs if they're to be replaced. At least they're sending off ol' Hornhead in style.
Batman: The Dark Knight #24
Written by Gregg Hurwitz
Art by Alex Maleev and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10
Narcissism and attention can be incredibly strong motivators. Clayface is a testament to that and his origin story will always stand the test of time because it is so embedded in what makes us human. While it would have been interesting to see an updated origin for Clayface in the wake of social media and the Internet, Gregg Hurwitz and Alex Maleev instead take us down memory lane and their only fault is that we’ve heard this one before.
Most of the story is told via flashback. Basil Karlo is sitting in prison and begins to reminisce about his beginnings when another inmate recognizes him. Arguably the best Clayface origin ever was written by Marv Wolfman in the Batman: The Animated Series episode, “Feats of Clay.” That episode combined details from the first two comic book Clayfaces, Basil Karlo and Matt Hagen, into heartbreaking portrait of a man who had it all but let his greed get the best of him. Here, Hurwitz returns to Basil Karlo’s actor origins and but he doesn’t give us enough of a hook to really sell Clayface as anything more than a goon. He’s just a kid with a grudge and for that reason, most of the issue reads like a by-the-numbers supervillain origin which is a shame considering the pathos that most (if not all) Batman rogues can be injected with in the right hands.
Alex Maleev’s art is what really carries this one. Combining the tragic tale of Karlo’s beiginings with Maleev’s moody and dark artwork proves to be the right move here. Maleev’s inks are heavy and dour. His Clayface possesses a range of emotions that make him so much more than just a murderous golem. Dave McCaig’s colors lend themselves to the muddy nature of the character. Deep browns and grays help highlight the futility of Karlo’s life.
But the script never paints Clayface as much more than a constant victim of what other people think about him. While he does show a little ingenuity at the end of the issue, by that time we understand what this is all about. One of the problems with the New 52 has been that when given the chance to go in an exciting direction with a character, creative teams (editorial included) have either opted to maintain the status quo or made changes that actually hurt the character in question rather than help them.
Good comics should always be considered required reading. Whether their merits are writing, art or continuity-based, makes no difference. Batman: The Dark Knight #24 is an example of what DC is doing wrong across their line. Instead of trying to make good comics all the time, they settle for making mediocre ones most of the time. This isn’t a terrible comic. But it isn’t a good one, either. It’s a comic that exists to, no doubt, set something else up down the road. But in not hooking us here, it doesn’t try to get us interested in what comes later and that’s why it fails.
Marvel Now What?! #1
Written by Skottie Young, Eliott Kalan, Gerry Duggan, Brian Posehn, Wyatt Cenac, Lucas Hazlett, Sara Schaefer, Sara Benincasa, John Devore, and Scott Adsit
Art by Skottie Young, Jean-Francois Beaulieu, Jacob Chabot, Pat Olliffe, John Livesay, John Kalisz, Colleen Coover, Steve Lieber, Rachelle Rosenberg, Tania Del Rio, Andrew Dalhouse, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire
Letters by VC’s Clayton Cowles,
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
Skottie Young leads an army of creators into an old Marvel Tradition-making fun of itself-in this incredibly entertaining one-shot that fires barbs at everything from Young’s art style to the perception of female characters in comics in a comic that’s incredibly solid for a parody comic.
It’s not easy to get a parody comic right. Marvel’s been doing them for decades, going all the way back to Not Branch Echh in the 1960s with varying degrees of success, and the team of Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones are far and away the kings of the genre. The problem is that in the wrong hands, they become heavy-handed with jokes that fall flat as the page they’re printed on. That’s not the case here, however, with each gag strip going just the right length and having a great overall sense of what gags to use and when to deploy them.
Starting off by having Young’s characters complain at their treatment, Young ponders who to “exploit” next, which leads right into the first story, where Eliott Kalan and Jacob Chabot explain the background of the Marvel Now! initiative. Making fun of everything from derivative characters to radical status quo changes to the how Marvel picks their titles, the pair nail every single joke with just the right verbal and visual combinations (The best might be Wolverine collecting royalties for both Avengers and X-Men titles.).
Not afraid to really pick at scabs that cover the sensitive spots of comic fandom, another entry in this anthology features She-Hulk, Sue Richards, and the Wasp turning the breakfast tables on Doctor Doom-only to have a late-arriving Thor get all the credit. Sara Benincasa and John Devore take no prisoners in their script, making it clear the frustration that female fans feel about how woman characters are treated in comic books. They get a lot of help from Tania Del Rio, whose art creates visual gags that match the script, such as the looks on Sue and Janet’s faces when they see the size of She-Hulk’s pancake stack, setting up her “I didn’t come to brunch to be body-shamed” line perfectly. This one did everything right, and was a highlight in the comic.
Not all the jokes deal with comic industry topics, however. Sara Schaefer, Steve Lieber, and Rachelle Rosenberg pick a topic that’s dated-online dating-and combine it with a character for whom nothing is old hat, Captain America. Cap falls for a scam perpetrated by one of his old enemies, whose worst crime according to Black Widow, is speaking in internet memes. Lieber shows off his comedic chops, working in a style that brings his infamous thought balloon doodles to full-size life.
Sprinkled throughout the comic are one-page strips from the comedy team of Wyatt Cenac and Elliott Kalan, with art by Colleen Coover. They posit the questions no one cares enough to ever ask, like why no one ever graduates from the Xavier School, if Thor and Storm cancel each other’s powers out, and the old Marvel parody salt of “Who Watches the Watcher?” Using a logical approach to each situation, the humor comes from a combination of showing just how insane comic book realities are and the excellent work of Coover. Her characters are full of expression without going too far into the realm of exaggeration, looking annoyed as Cenac and Kalan pester them.
Speaking of the Watcher, Scott Adsit, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire close out the stories with a tale that appropriately requires deep knowledge of Marvel’s history to get the jokes. Forcing the Watcher to accept he’s broken his vows, Uatu is sent on a mission of repentance, with cameos from Galactus to Ego the Living Planet. Shalvey wins for best visual gag in the whole collection, though, with Uatu having a framed headshot of Reed Richards, playing the art straight to let the situations drive the jokes.
A comic like this one isn’t meant for the casual fan. This is a love letter written from Marvel to folks who consider themselves members of the Mighty Marvel Marching Society, even if it no longer exists. If you are a big fan of Marvel comics and want to see it get the comedy roast treatment, this is the book for you. Marvel What Now?! is the best such comic in years.
Hellboy: The Midnight Circus
Written by Mike Mignola
Art by Duncan Fegredo and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
There are many ways that Mike Mignola's young Hellboy is just a normal kid in Hellboy: The Midnight Circus. Set in 1948, when Hellboy hears someone warning the closest thing he has to a father that the boy is dangerous and should be dealt with, he does what any kid would do: he runs away to join the circus. This being a Hellboy story, it’s no normal circus as a Pied-Piper-like clown and his dog lead Hellboy down the road to the circus which runs “from the clock strikes midnight… to the fearful crack of dawn.” The clown recites incantations to summon the rest of the circus folk into a magical center ring and of course even back in 1948, Hellboy is the inquisitive sort and can’t look away from the wonders in front of him. If Mike Mignola’s shadowy art hides the world around Hellboy in most stories, Fegredo and Stewart’s shadows part ways to reveal more and more mysteries to Hellboy in this circus.
When Hellboy leaves the normal world and steps into the big top tent of the midnight circus, Fegredo and Stewart open up their bag of tricks, welcoming us and young Hellboy into a brand new world of muted and gradated water colors that make the darkness in Hellboy: The Midnight Circus more mysterious than we’ve seen before. For portions of the story, he colors the book more softer and deeper than he usually does, creating a veil over the world of the midnight circus. Returning artist Duncan Fegredo and Dave Stewart follow the standard look and feel of a Hellboy story that Mignola and Stewart defined 20 years ago and have followed faithfully since but when the world that Hellboy steps into becomes more unreal, the art and coloring transform into a world where the shadows reveal only what they want. Fegredo and Stewart make the world beyond those shadows more familiar as a fog hangs over the circus, allowing the artists to barely suggest what we can’t see through the night’s mist.
As Professor Bruttenholm searches among empty fields and old train wrecks, Hellboy is led through this midnight world by the Ringmaster and his sultry red skinned niece Gamori. The Ringmaster’s motives are never really clear but what he shows Hellboy is dangerous. An old and wasting away Bruttenholm trapped in the belly of a whale; a hall of mirrors reflection of Hellboy as the conquering demon; a burning and destroyed world. “You can light a fire with a word,” he whispers into the young boys ear. The Ringmaster and Gamori offer him temptations and when he flees them, she has the animals and the spirits of the circus try to kill him. Invoking the story of Pinocchio, Hellboy: The Midnight Circus is about Hellboy just wants to be a real boy but the world around him has other plans for him. And really, hasn’t the whole Hellboy series been about that?
Hellboy: The Midnight Circus feels like a proper Halloween story, one told late at night around a blazing campfire. Mignola, Fegredo and Stewart keep building up the mystery of the circus as well as the creepiness of it. Like some of the best Hellboy stories, Mignola explores myths while tying them into Hellboy’s story and even here you can see him adding elements that could play into future stories now that the character is dead and in Hell. The Ringmaster and his niece are more than just simple throwaway characters as the hints are there that they’re related somehow to Hellboy. As circuses are full of things that shouldn’t exist in the natural world, Mignola, Fegredo and Stewart show us just how Hellboy’s life is a struggle between the world that we can see and the world which we can’t.
The Unwritten #54
Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross. Mark Buckingham, Dean Ormston, and Chris Chuckry
Letters by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Having been out of The Unwritten loop for quite sometime, catching up was worth it to finally reach the end. Well, the end for now, at least. The Unwritten #54 marks the end of of the Fables/Unwritten crossover and possibly all of that world and universe. Trust me when I say starting the Apocalypse is one hell of a cliffhanger.
I will admit, as brilliant as it sounded, having a crossover of this caliber was something odd to me. It almost seemed like a deterrent from the main story already going on in Unwritten, but with the showdown with Mister Dark and the consequences still very real, I was proven wrong and we have not only a true masterpiece, but something of a love letter written by Carey, Willingham and others to literature and storytelling as a whole: the basis of each of their books.
Sure, the casual fan should probably not dive right in with the finale here. With so much mythos already established and with the final fight near the end, there is a lot going on. It reminded me of the final battle of Hogwarts, which makes sense as this issue contains pretty much the most epic scenes of the entire series and the art crew here purely strikes all the right chords. Looking at the credits, you'd probably think things would be in disarray, but the fact is all the artists here are pretty much in the same visual wheelhouse and things come across as looking great and never disjointed.
The Unwritten #54 is genius as it is gorgeous. Compelling and mature storytelling at its very finest and giving the creators here a stage to shine. The subtext about stories and mythology is plenty, but never Unwritten never loses its connection with Tommy along the way. With the relaunch coming in January of next year, it would be worth it for new readers to play catch up, because as you reach the final page, you might feel devastated, but you won't be disappointed.
Wolverine and the X-Men #37
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Giuseppe Camuncoli, Andrew Currie and Matt Milla
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10
It seems to me that X-Men events must always adhere to a strict checklist of tropes. 1) The X-Men must split into two or more ideologically opposed groups and duke it out for the majority of the event. 2) Wolverine must be featured on most of the covers. 3) The cast must be large and unwieldy. And, most recently: 4) There must be some form of time travel element that is central to the plot. A few recent X-events that have broken out of this model - Second Coming and Utopia succeeded in not only being fun comics to read, but stand-out X-Men storylines that pull new readers in, as well as pleasing the die-hard fans. But, it seems like ever since Schism, the X-Men are only really good for punching each other while delivering heavy-handed platitudes about honor and choosing a side.
This is my long-winded way of saying that Battle of the Atom has quickly become an exercise in spinning its wheels, and this month’s Wolverine and the X-Men #37 (Chapter Nine of Battle of the Atom) did nothing to really prove otherwise. The plot spins its wheels as the six - count 'em, six - X-teams chase their tails as they try to send the Original Five X-Men back to their own time. Last month’s Uncanny X-Men #13 gave us the lackluster reveal that the Original Five couldn’t be sent back due to some sort of timey-whimey twist that I’m sure will be revealed in later All New X-Men issues, but don’t worry if you didn’t read Chapter Eight of Battle of the Atom, because most of the overstuffed cast spends the majority of the dialogue recounting this information more than a few times.
This is where the real failings of Battle of the Atom lie. The Wolverine and the X-Men issues, along with the tie-ins to Brian Wood’s usually stellar X-Men title, feel so needless that it beg the question why couldn’t this just be an Uncanny/All New crossover event. In this issue, Aaron’s script just feels like its marking time until Bendis can bring it home with the final issue. There is little in the way of real forward momentum, plot-wise. Yes, the Evil Future X-Men are taking the Original Five to Cape Citadel, the site of their first encounter with Magneto, but that’s...really about it. It’s a nice little nod to original X-Men continuity, but no one wants to spend $3.99 on in-jokes.
That said, this isn’t to say that Jason Aaron’s voice isn’t on display here. There are still moments of wit and levity amid the tedium. I particularly liked the scene with young Quentin Quire meeting his Phoenix powered future self and asking when he was going to escape his school shaped prison, but, once again, the issue just felt like a checklist of things that needed to happen before the finale.
The only real selling point of the issue is Giuseppe Camuncoli. He’s an artist that I’ve always been a fan of and he at least gives the issue a lean and polished look that stands among the other artists throughout this event. Is he the best? Not really, but at least he is adding a bit of visual flair to the plodding script, much like David Lopez and Chris Bachelo have been with their assignments.
It’s really a pity that Jason Aaron and Brian Wood have been pulled into what really feels like a very Bendis-y event, when they are turning in interesting and entertaining X-books all on their own. With Battle of the Atom, both writers have had to put their stories and, by and large, their characters on hold to service the narrative that they really had no control over. Maybe if they had been involved in the plotting a bit more, Battle of the Atom would have felt more like an organic story instead of a generically convoluted slugfest with no real consequences on the X-books.
The even larger issue is that it seems that since Schism and, for the most part, Avengers vs. X-Men, it seems that writers aren’t interested in setting up X-Men events to be any more than mutants fighting mutants. The mutants may be a part of the larger Marvel Universe structure, but yet they can’t seem to outgrow the tired story lines of infighting. The mutants fight, and the only people who lose are the readers.