Best Shots Comic Reviews: IRON MAN #18, SUPERMAN UNCHAINED #4, Much More

Marvel Previews for November 6 2013
Credit: Marvel Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, as we kick off today's column with Forrest C. Helvie, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Superman Unchained...

Credit: DC Comics

Superman Unchained #4
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jim Lee, Alex Sinclair and Jeremy Cox
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It was the end of August when we last checked in with Superman Unchained, and since that time, the DC New 52 Universe has experienced a number of turbulent changes in the Forever Evil crossover. Thankfully, Scott Snyder is free to continue his story without the cumbersome burden of company-wide continuity as he picks up where left off in this issue.

Snyder juggles three narrative threads in this issue between Superman, Lois and Jimmy. With Superman, we return to Japan where he and Wraith stave off a swarm of robots attacking the city. We return to Lois as she confronts the source of her plane's malfunction and subsequent crash-landing. Finally, we see the curtain pulled back revealing Lex's plans with Jimmy Olsen. There are many pieces in motion in this issue, but Snyder largely handles it well.

The biggest draw in this story was the interaction between Jimmy and Lex. Admittedly, Jimmy serves more as a plot device than a fleshed out character as he allows the reader to gain greater access into Snyder's vision of Luthor, and it is a really well developed, nuanced portrayal of Superman's greatest villain that readers encounter. The use of origami in this scene quietly underscores the patient, deliberate, and disciplined planning Lex undertook while sitting in prison as it reflects a disciplined, albeit twisted, mind. Moreover, it also shows that while he clearly possesses a deep hatred for Superman, the other members of the Justice League have not escaped his notice. In many ways, this vision of Luthor only needed to be holding and petting a cat while muttering about his plans to kill James Bond. I also really appreciate that Lois is being given the space to show readers that she is capable of being more than just another plot device to help show Superman's greatness. She has her own set of challenges she must face as she tackles the terrorist group Ascension from a different angle than Superman. And there is an interesting twist that Snyder introduces at the end of her story in this issue that makes a good case for why she is being given a sizeable amount of "real estate" in this story.

My only concern with has to deal with Superman and Wraith. I appreciate Snyder's digging into Superman's history and creating a sort of doppelganger for the Man of Steel who more closely resembles aspects of the original super-man that Siegel and Shuster created – if in spirit and not as much form. We saw some of Wraith's use of power in the opening panels of the first issue; however, I am seeing less of his connection to the original ubermensch that Superman might have become in this issue – and it seems this is a connection Snyder is trying to make in this series. One aspect where this is visible, however, is in the battle taking place in the city, which draws sharp parallels to the battle that took place in the final scenes of Man of Steel from this summer. Unlike his cinematic counterpart, this Snyder depicts a Superman who is aware of the ramifications of confronting and engaging in super-powered fistfights with thousands, if not millions, of innocent bystanders in harm's way. In this regards, we do see the difference between the overman who shows little regards for the common person and the Superman who chooses to put himself in harm's way to save as many as possible.

Artistically, the story varies little from the previous issues and it demonstrates the signature styles of Jim Lee's superhero aesthetic. The only thing that I noticed that seemed a little out of place was what appeared to be a hood drawn on Wraith's head that I did not recall from the previous three issues. It did not look "bad" per se, but I was uncertain as to why this change was made. I will say I thought the colors in this issue were especially solid in the way they brought a certain "otherworldly" feel to each page. This was especially true during the scenes with Lois and the members of Ascension.

Overall, I think this issue is a pretty good read but it is likely to suffer most simply from having been off newsstands for about two months – which is a long time for new, on-going series. Additionally, I cannot help but feel as though the storylines for Jimmy and Lex as well as Lois and Ascension have progressed faster, if not further, than that of Superman and Wraith in spite of the difference in page count each pairing has had. In truth, if this was written by a writer with whose I was familiar, I would have likely rated this a point lower. However, Snyder has proven in past series that he will take his time in slowly building a story up in order to deliver a powerful conclusion making the wait worth the while.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing X-Men #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's hard to believe that Ed McGuinness has never really drawn an X-Men adventure before because he steps into it so naturally. In Amazing X-Men #1, his lively and jaunty style perfectly suits a character like Nightcrawler who should have a spring in his step (or backwards somersault, as the case may be) and a smile on his face even in the face of death. In no time at all, he claims Nightcrawler as his character like no one other than Dave Cockrum and Alan Davis have before. The recap page of this issue shows a brief, recent history of Nightcrawler, a history that lead up to his death. Full of dark and dour images, the recap page highlights some previous creators' ill-conceived attempts to give Nightcrawler some kind of deeper pathos or meaning. Wisely, McGuinness doesn’t emulate those recent artists but looks back to the times when Kurt Wagner was a fun character.

McGuinness and Aaron open this new series on Nightcrawler, sitting on the edge of Heaven, feeling like there's something more that he needs to do. And before long he gets his wish as demonic pirates invade his solitude, looking to invade Heaven. McGuinness delivers a classic shot of the hero, discarding his white robes and crouched ready to leap into action with two swords in his hands. Even better, he's wearing his classic costume. That's all you need to see to get the tone of the book. It's an adventure, which is some of the stuff that McGuinness draws the best. Leaping and teleporting around, Nightcrawler is having the time of his life, and so is the artist. McGuinness's bouncy style zips across the pages with an energy rarely felt in comics. From his wonderfully expressive faces to his figures that ideally capture the adventure of these heroes, McGuinness shows us that it's the characters who drive the action in these comics.

This issue is such an artistic highlight for McGuinness because Aaron's lighthearted take on the X-Men gives the art so much room to present these characters as we know them to be, not as some past creators have forced them to be. That's the same freedom that Aaron gives Wolverine and the X-Men artist Nick Bradshaw that works so well. Amazing X-Men #1 could well be just Wolverine and the X-Men Version 2.0, as Aaron recaptures that adventurous spirit that made his other X-Men title originally stand out. As the Bamfs run rampant over the school, the X-Men finally discover what the little imps have been up to; creating some kind of portal deep in the bowels of the school. As he leads us there, Aaron's deft dialogue lets us know who these characters are. Unlike other #1 issues, there's no strong hook to this issue. There's no laboring to establish who these people are and what they do. Aaron dives into his story but keeps it open enough that we find out about all of these characters by what they do and say.

That's what is interesting about this issue; there is no hook to this new series. This isn't the original X-Men, or the rogue X-Men or the all female X-Men. Aaron and McGuinness simply present this as an X-Men story, building off of the long history of the team. Bringing back Nightcrawler and even his father Azazel, it's not even necessarily the proud history of the team they are mining but Aaron is reclaiming some of the despised parts of X-Men lore and turning it into something fun. Azazel? The red demon who is Nightcrawler's father was a misstep that everyone seemed ready to ignore but Aaron and McGuinness turn him into a pirate, storming the shores of Heaven. It's still silly but the creators don't take it so seriously that they don't see the joke in it either.

Of course, this is the X-Men so no one really ever stays dead so Aaron and McGuinness get the dirty work of Amazing X-Men #1 out of the way immediately and give us back Nightcrawler in the opening pages. Any moroseness or pity the character might have had about being dead is immediately discarded as pirates invade Heaven and he gets to be a swashbuckling hero once again. Aaron and McGuinness show us that even the rougher parts of the X-Men’s history can be twisted around until the absurdity of it becomes what the stories are about and you’ve just got to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Credit: DC Comics' November 2013 solicitations

Detective Comics #25
Written by John Layman
Art by Jason Fabok and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Strange as it may sound, I'm hoping more books do what Detective Comics #25 does with Zero Year. That is, keep Batman out of the bulk of the comic. If we're going to explore the era in Gotham before all the other capes and cowls arrive, then I don't want, well, capes and cowls. Although this issue isn't a totally new and shocking tale of Gordon's earlier days on the Gotham City PD, it still manages to tell a tight little slice of Gotham crime while adding an element or two to the overall mythology.

Longtime Batman readers, this reviewer included, will have a few things to get over before they're really able to enjoy Detective Comics #25. The first and biggest hurdle is Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Year One. For as much as the Bat team at DC claim they haven't abandoned the canon as set by that arc, it's pretty clear that it's gone from New 52 Batman. There just isn't any way of getting around that. Second, be it by choice of story or order from higher up, this issue reads like writer John Layman is prepping the audience for the pending Gordon series on Fox. Interestingly, once you come to terms with that, you can appreciate a story that is quite entertaining. Although it's not Layman's strongest since taking over Detective Comics, the potential is there. In fact, it might be a constraint of the page count that prevents Layman from truly exploring Gordon. A character that needs, but hasn't yet had, any real time to grow or expand within the New 52.

Layman drafts a fairly simple plot, one that we've seen and read on multiple occasions. That of the straight lace cop doing the best he can in a department that's quite possibly dirtier than the city it claims to serve. It's a standard of the crime genre, but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable. Indeed, one could argue that Layman is doing a great job in reminding the reader why James Gordon is one of the modern archetypes of the honorable cop. In fact, Layman's got such a strong lead on Gordon as a character, I found myself wishing they'd return to this era of GCPD sooner rather than later. He's a man that truly wishes to do right by the people of Gotham, but can only be pushed so far before his own morals become a hinderance. Not to say 'ol Jimbo would ever go dirty, but he's more than willing to take the hits so his family and all the families can sleep better.

Artist Jason Fabok has really grown during his tenure on Detective Comics and this issue might be his strongest yet. With very little flash and crazy costumes to call upon, this issue allowed Fabok to focus on tight character detail and composition. His Gordon is clearly younger, but not comically so, something that happens all too often in flashback issues. Although some characters, most notably Harvey Bullock and Commissioner Loeb each look a bit trimmer and prettier than I would expect. However, that takes us back to the opening. This book is pulling double duty, as both a Zero Year title and a potential primer for the rumored television show.

Still, Fabok's lines are incredibly crisp, with some great attention paid to the backgrounds and setting. This feels like a living city for the characters. Supporting Fabok's pencils and inks are some extremely strong colors from Tomeu Morey. The issue has a palette that's subtly muted, without never once becoming drab or boring. The colors not only support the grittier tone of the police procedural, but also carry a tint that suggests we're looking back at an event, rather than living the moment. It's a solid choice that elevates the by-the-book storytelling.

There are more than a couple twists to the ending that attempt to tie everything back to this new version of Batman and to be honest, the coincidences are a little hard to accept. Still, I can't help but see it as a suggestion of the relationship that will form between this upstart vigilante and the man that will become Commissioner. It's not perfect, but it's still a highly entertaining slice of comic book storytelling. A comic that reminds us why Gotham City is more a product of its players that don't wear the cape and cowl.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain America #13
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Nic Klein and Dean White
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

After spending a more than a decade in Dimension Z and losing both his son and the love of his live in the struggle to get home, Steve Rogers is once again a man adrift in a world that feels even more alien than it did to him when he was first unfrozen by The Avengers. But now that a threat has emerged that requires Cap’s full and immediate attention, is he up to the task of putting aside his personal tragedies and getting the job done? This still remains to be seen, but Rick Remender has once again turns in a fun, visceral, if a bit needlessly padded, issue in the "Loose Nuke" arc.

The issue opens with a bit more back story on the character of The Iron Nail and his nefarious plans against S.H.I.E.L.D, as he finds himself captured and trying to infiltrate the top secret Weapon Minus program. These pages also serve as a nice opening teaser to his upcoming Winter Soldier: The Bitter March, thus proving that its not just some frivolous cash in on the upcoming film, but a title that will reverberate through the pages of the main Cap title. After this prologue set in 1969, we are transported back to the present which is where the issue starts to falter. Here we see Sam Wilson interacting with Jet Black, but no real new information or plot development is given. Yes, Sam reacts to Steve’s purging of his ties to his past, but it really just feels like a retread of old information. Jet Black is very powerful and dangerous and Steve is still reeling from the loss of Ian and Sharon. We know this, and I’m not really sure why Remender felt the need to spend more than a few pages re-relaying this information.

Part of the complaint that I had with the "Castaway in Dimension Z" arc was that a few of the issues felt needlessly stretched out; the plot would usually give three issues worth of forward momentum when two was needed and I would hate to see Remender fall back into that trap when he has had a good head of steam going structure-wise in his second arc on the title. The issue finally starts to cook when Steve and Sam confront Nuke in a thrilling set of panels, but it just feels like Remender could have gotten there a few pages sooner to give the inevitable last page cliffhanger just a bit more punch.

Artist Nic Klein, along with the amazing colors of Dean White, deliver a real sense of drama that I’ve come to expect from the Marvel NOW Captain America work. Every panel feels intimate, and the bigger action scenes and the splashes pop with an unexpected power when compared to the smaller, quieter minimal panels. It's odd that Carlos Pacheco is absent on a title that he was announced as the regular artist of, aside from a fantastic cover, but Klein more than fills his shoes well, balancing the quiet, dialogue-heavy scenes with the kinetic battle scenes, giving them a sense of consequence that is usually dismissed or ignored within scenes as frantic as one like Nuke versus Sam and Steve. It's really grim, hard-hitting stuff that never shy’s away from the ugliness of war, but it just further accentuates the feeling of loss of control that Cap is feeling over not only his world, but the world around him.

My problems with issue structuring aside, Remender’s Captain America continues to be a pulpy blast of grit that, with ever issue, distances itself away from Brubaker’s sleek, spy-drama epic that only strengthens it with every passing issue. Marvel NOW! has had home run after home run when it comes to its creative team shuffling, and one doesn’t have to look any further than Rick Remender’s Cap to find a pitch-perfect example of taking an established character into new territories of storytelling while still staying true to everything that has came before it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Iron Man #18
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Joe Bennett, Scott Hanna, Tim Leong, and Guru eFX
Letters by Joe Caramagna
Review by Justin Partridge, III.
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Tony Stark has always toed the line between genius level superhero and mad science despot and no writer has really ever completely touched on this. Tony Stark, through his intellect, has affected the world in wondrous and countless ways, but what if Stark’s genius, through no real sense of malice or forethought, was twisted and warped in such a way that he, through inaction and the trusting of a eerily similar A.I. to the one he just defeated, scarred the face of the world irreparably, causing countless deaths? These are the ideas that Kieron Gillen presents in the first pages of his new arc Iron Metropolitan and it’s a doozy.

After a disastrous simulation of a Stark Brothers designed city of the future dubbed Troy that had advanced the human race exponentially in a mere 30 years,Tony and Arno are now tasked with looking at their proposed city of tomorrow in a whole new light with Arno delivering a dire warning as they delve further into their research, determined not the make the mistakes that caused the city to fall in the simulation.

After The Godkiller arc, its wonderful to see that Gillen is committing fully to the hard sci-fi aspects of the book that he toyed with during Tony’s time in space. Tony is now back on Earth, working side by side with his newly discovered genius brother and, in a classically Tony bad idea in waiting, tinkering with the corpse of 451 and using his partner-system-in-crime P.E.P.P.E.R. to pilot the Iron Man armor during field incursions to give Tony more time in the lab with Arno, despite his brother’s warnings. Though the opening failure of Troy was just an intensely detailed, albeit horrific, simulation, it also had a deep portent of doom behind those nightmarish pages. Stark has always had the potential to be the cause, be it accidentally or through some sort or coercion, of some seismically horrible event to mankind and could these be a taste of what’s to come as the Stark boys race toward the completion of their goal? Leave it to Gillen to plant these Steven Moffat-esque seeds right at the top of his second year at the helm of Iron Man.

The idea of Arno is still an idea that I am finding hard to really accept. I like that Gillen is shaking up the status quo of Stark, tearing down the very idea of his ego and id through the span of his first year and it gives us, as long time Iron Man readers a fresh slate to come to this series with without any sort of preconceived notions or sure ground to stand on, plot wise, but I really wish that some of these developments weren’t at the cost of Tony’s already deep and rich bench of allies or a bit of a rehash of the Ultimate Universe character of Gregory Stark, with Anon filling the role as the equally intelligent, possibly dangerous counterpart to Tony.

This isn’t the only big reveal in this issue. It also seems that The Mandarin is starting to manifest himself in a new, potentially more dangerous way. In the last pages of the issue, a journalist cum activist is approached by the despot with the mission to save the world from Tony Stark. As much as I adore The Mandarin as a maniacally entertaining lunatic, I love even more that Gillen isn’t afraid to subvert the very idea of a character in order to give Tony Stark a brand new version of his greatest villains. Everything in the issue is rendered beautifully by new penciler, Joe Bennett who returns to Iron Man for the first time since 1996. His slick, clean pencils, along with Scott Hanna’s heavy inks and Guru eFX’s moody colors fit in nicely with the title’s ascetic and lend an extra sense of doom to Gillen’s already gloomy script.

After a shaky, but entertaining first year on the title it seems that Kieron Gillen is finally fully committing to the superhero sci-fi aspects of the title and we are it seems, just based on the ideas presented to us in this fast paced and ambitious issue that builds, quite exponentially on the already wildly idea heavy arcs before it, constantly shifting what we thought we knew about the world of Tony Stark, while moving us, as readers, forward on a bullet train of super science and unconventional superhero storytelling. This is Gillen given the keys to a kingdom and running wild, just like he did during Uncanny X-Men. He once described his writing for Marvel as “taking an established character or team and keeping it afloat in the best way possible, while maintaining my voice.” Now, with Iron Man, Gillen has completely made imbued the world of Iron Man with his distinct stamp and set the title to flying once again.

Credit: Valiant Comics

Quantum and Woody, Vol. 1: The World’s Worst Superhero Team TPB
Written by James Asmus
Art by Tom Fowler and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The death of a loved one can often bring family members together, but it’s usually not as literal as the situation Quantum and Woody find themselves in after investigating their father’s murder. Bound together by a mysterious experiment, these two very different people must try to find a way to live together without driving each other crazy in a yet another great series from Valiant Entertainment.

Very few writers can challenge the team of J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen for the comedic superhero crown, but James Asmus makes a case for the title in these first four issues that work perfectly as both a storyline and a series of punchlines. That’s the key to doing comedy well when you’re dealing with superheroes, and Asmus gets it. Jokes are fine, but if there’s no underlying plot to anchor them on, they quickly grow as stale as topical references. He uses the fact that Woody is a con man and Eric is a straight arrow to drive a lot of the comedy, but it also shows that despite their differences, the pair must bond or they won’t survive the villains out to get them-or their new power sets.

Though I’m unfamiliar with the original series, I’m a big fan of character co-creator Priest (aka James Owsley for those who read comics in the 1980s) and Asmus homages his style here, with title cards that are witty and help set up the jokes and pages to follow, the same thing Priest used extensively in his underrated Black Panther run. A typical example is from the very first issue, where the card reads “May the road rise to meet you” just as Quantum and Woody are falling towards the street from one of the top floors of an office building. It sets the tone for the entire series, and the rest falls into line accordingly.

What makes this series work so well is its refusal to care about offending anyone. When fighting a deformed scientist in a wheelchair, Asmus has the characters tripping over how to banter with him. Since the characters are different races (Woody is adopted), there are jokes about it, especially when Woody (white) impersonates Eric (black) at his workplace. It’s a thin tightrope without a net when you start making those kinds of jokes, but I thought Asmus handled them in a way that’s both funny and respectful, no easy task.

That’s where the storyline comes in. Underneath the main plot of getting their powers and trying to investigate their father’s death while dodging crone clones and a man merged with a Betamax system is the tale of two brothers who couldn’t be more different trying to find a way to love each other. We see their struggles and frustrations in flashbacks as well as the current story, and Asmus is careful to keep the tone light but also show a real family dynamic at work between Eric and Woody and the father who loved them both.

Asmus gets a lot of help from the rubbery, expressive style of Tom Fowler, who is able to match the jokes stride for stride and create visuals that enhance his punchlines. Much as his work on Mysterius the Unfathomable meshed with Jeff Parker’s script, Fowler is able to pick just the right facial look or physical motion to nail the moment, such as the wide-eyed stare when Eric realized just what Woody did to impersonate him. At the same time, he can play it straight as he does in the flashback sequences that are detailed and show the pain and hurt on Eric’s face when he feels slighted or in the terrifying look of the Crone as she ages.

The best part of Fowler’s art, however, has to be the fact that in a talking-heavy book, his characters always look like they are either a part of the conversation or reacting to it. Some artists forget to add the appropriate touches, but Fowler has his characters angled to look at who is talking in every panel, even if it’s just a slight inclination of the head. Eyes bulge or roll, as needed, and arms and hands move like real people talk. Best of all, these nods to reality often work best when being used to spotlight something that’s completely ridiculous, like a killer goat.

Quantum and Woody has a lot of competition to be the best Valiant title, but this first trade was note-perfect and a great addition to its line. Anyone looking for a light-hearted romp with hysterical but well-rounded characters and fast-paced, rapid-fire style absolutely needs to pick up this trade.

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