Best Shots Comic Reviews: ACTION COMICS #26, AMAZING X-MEN #2, More

DC Previews for December 4, 2013
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with a handful of this week's biggest releases! So let's kick off today's column with Justin Partridge, III, as he takes a look at Action Comics...

Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #26
Written by Greg Pak
Art by Aaron Kuder and June Chung
Lettering by DC Lettering
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Action Comics has been a bit lost at sea as of late. After the completion of Grant Morrison’s bizarro Superman opus, the book was bounced around with one creative team leaving before the first issue ever hit stands and others struggling to right the ship with one of DC’s flagship titles. Now it seems that under the steady hands of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder, we finally have a comic worth of the title "Action."

After a fun, yet forgettable Zero Year tie-in, we are presented with a back-door pilot of sorts to Greg Pak’s take on The Man of Tomorrow. This issue finds Superman showing off to his high school sweetheart, Lana Lang, after her and her team of engineers accidentally awaken a huge Kaiju looking creature while trying to tap into a new source of geothermal energy. Not only must Superman contend with the creature, but a mysterious phasing soldier that seems bent on killing him. Pak throws a bunch of balls in the air, but it never feels overstuffed. Pak balances the action in the main story with a beautifully dovetailed flashback to Smallville with a young Clark learning just how destructive his newfound abilities can be.

Pak’s Superman is quickly becoming one of my favorite takes on the character yet, and his Kal-El definitely turns on the charm in this issue. By using Lana, a character who is woefully underused in Superman stories of late, in the main story, Pak gives us a bit of the flirty version of Clark as he shows off for Lana (and calls himself on it) while doing battle with the creature. Pak also shows us just why he was drawn to Lana in the first place. The first few pages of Lana running to save her co-workers and then turning to make a stand against the giant monster, while cursing herself for having so much fun doing it, is more than enough to show that Clark Kent is not the only hero gracing the pages of Action Comics this month. The “Soldier Tasked With Killing Superman” is a trope we’ve seen many, many times, but Pak gives us an interesting spin on it with his phasing power set, and the hook that the Ghost Soldier may actually be dead. Pak seems to not only take Superman seriously, but not seriously enough to not know what makes him fun and relatable and based on that alone, he’s the right guy to be writing Action Comics.

Aaron Kuder is going to become a star in the coming months. For too long, many DC books have looked similar to the point of banality, but Aaron Kuder and June Chung gleefully present something beautifully different among the crowd. Kuder's work very much reminds me of Chris Burnham, with a heavy emphasis on the cartoonish. His Superman is graceful and powerful, while never looking over muscled. His giant creature looks like it stepped straight from a Toho movie,delivering a sense of menace along with hints of humanity. His action beats flow seamlessly along his smooth panel layout. Kuder proved himself more than capable to handle The Man of Steel and his larger-than-life adventures last month with #25, but here, he hammers it home, making good on the title’s promise of Action. Kuder’s Superman looks ready to rocket forth at any moment, but willing to slow down enough to offer Lana an easy smile, which Kuder renders with all the warmth of a yellow sun. Kuder also handles the intimate just as well as he handles the epic. The close quarters combat between Superman and the Ghost Soldier feels as dangerous as it looks in panel. I hope he is in for the long haul with Pak on Action, because this is the book that will make him a star, and he deserves every bit of it.

After a few misfires and false starts, it seems that Action Comics has finally found sure footing again with Pak and Kuder. This team has delivered a fun and surprisingly intimate first volley that gives us more than a few hints toward a larger, surely entertaining upcoming arc. Always forward, dear readers. Let’s hope Pak never gives us a chance to slow down from here on out.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing X-Men #2
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines and Marte Garcia
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"I've dreamed about fighting flying pirates since I was nine."

Jason Aaron sums up the appeal for Astonishing X-Men #2 with one quote, as Marvel's Children of the Atom gleefully cross blades with piratical demons determined to take over both Heaven and Hell. Instead of bogging down the X-Men with the various factions of mutant rights, this comic instead just surrenders itself to pure action, and with Ed McGuinness on drawing duties, the enthusiasm is contagious.

Before you get too excited, there is one big disappointment here - while last issue had a burst of joy with the return of Nightcrawler, the X-Men's favorite deceased blue elf only makes the slightest of appearances in this book, as it seems clear that the big moment of this arc will be Kurt's reunion with his one-time teammates. Instead, Jason Aaron focuses on Wolverine and his squad of X-Men, as they have to fight off demons while split amongst Heaven and Hell. But using some poetic narration, Aaron continues to reintroduce new readers to the teachers of the Jean Grey School, particularly showing off how seasoned Storm and Iceman are under pressure. There are also some nice little continuity nods here as Wolverine fights pirates in Heaven, as he is helped by an unexpected - but altogether heart-warming - ally.

But the artwork here is the real attraction. Ed McGuinness is the perfect choice for a bouncy, bombastic fight comic that shows off the glee and wonder that is the Amazing X-Men. His characters are clean and expressive, and his take on Wolverine is especially ferocious, as his panels seem intentionally cut up with claws, debris and pirate ship sails. McGuinness's cartoony style keeps this comic running at top speed, not succumbing to the more serious theological implications that hampered Chuck Austen's take on the wannabe priest Nightcrawler - just like the alien Sh'iar Empire before it, the new frontier for the X-Men isn't space, but the afterlife. Marte Garcia's colors are also particularly strong, with nice little bursts of color that play nicely off the bright whites of Heaven.

Now that all said, there are a few missteps here. You might notice I haven't mentioned much about Iceman, Storm or Firestar, who fight in the pits of Hell. Despite Aaron trying to pump them up, they do get the short end of the stick, as a horde of demons doesn't quite have the same ring that a pirate ship full of undead serial killers does. Iceman does get a solid beat near the end, but Storm and Firestar in particular feel a little wasted. Additionally, some of the serial killers alluded to on the pirate ship might be a turn-off for some, especially if they're looking for villains with a bit more nuance.

But looking at McGuinness's larger-than-life artwork - not to mention Aaron's over-the-top premise - are you really looking for nuance with Amazing X-Men? Or are you looking for some fisticuffs and the return of Marvel's mighty mutant swashbuckler? While there's no denying there's a bit of a sophomore slump to Amazing X-Men, there's enough fun and wonder to this comic that you'll likely come back for more.

Credit: DC Comics

Earth 2 #18
Written by Tom Taylor
Art by Nicola Scott, Trevor Scott, Pete Pantazis
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Tom Taylor’s second outing on Earth 2 delivers on the promise of his gut-punching debut last month, and is exactly what you’d expect from someone who has been subverting the sandbox over in Injustice for the last year. After surprising us more than once in his first outing on the title, Taylor seems determined to keep our heads spinning at an alarming rate, eliciting more than one audible gasp in the latest issue.

Central to this new arc is the mystery around the “not Bruce Wayne” Batman, a character that we know is rougher around the edges because of his five-o-clock shadow. Much of this issue is concerned with newly minted Red Tornado (née Lois Lane) confronting the aforementioned Dark Knight, leading to some revelations about the nature of both of these alternative characters. Similarly, Taylor’s inherited revelation of Superman’s turn to the dark side is an equally intriguing puzzle, and it’s little surprise that Taylor appears to be gleefully subverting one of his favourite icons before our eyes. Case in point is the way in which the unidentified Batman deals with one of his predecessor’s most arch of enemies, which may be a massive clue to his identity.

Bringing these two heroes to the front and centre of Earth 2 electrifies the title. While The Flash, Green Lantern and the rest of the Justice Society have been the heroes of the post-invasion Earth 2 up until now, James Robinson’s run always felt like it needed a heavier hitter. The return of Superman, albeit a twisted version under the influence of Darkseid’s minions, lends gravitas to the title. On the flip side, it is a sudden turn from the previous run, and having a Superman and Batman on the field makes this an entirely new ballgame. Some may argue that Taylor has ripped down some of the world building, with Superman quite literally grabbing The Flash by the ankle and crushing it, but it is more analogous to a storm whipping through the status quo. We will only know what is left standing if it ever calms down for a moment.

It’s easy to run out of superlatives when discussing Nicola Scott’s art, which serves as the main line-through of continuity to the previous run. Influenced by Taylor’s darker edge, there’s a balanced union of drama and art, helping move the visuals along at the same rapid pace as Taylor’s dialogue and action leanings. Trevor Scott’s inks and Pete Pantazis’s colors aid the transition from the optimistic outlook of Robinson’s initial run to this much grimier and increasingly cynical world of secrets and lies. As parademons emerge from pits all over the world, we get the sense that the changes on Earth 2 are far from over.

With false starts to be found in all corners of the New 52, Earth 2 has become a terrific example of how these reboots should be done, by taking the barest of essentials from what has come before, emptying out the box and building it back up again from the pieces that survive the fall.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman/Superman #6
Written by Greg Pak
Art by Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund and Andrew Dalhouse
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

This book should have a much higher rating. It ticks every box of what a good comic should be. Its fun, kinetic, deftly written, and has spot on characterization. So why is it just a mere 4 out of 10? Because all that good stuff is hampered by the most basic of comic book staples - in this case, some supremely user-unfriendly panoramic positioning of the pages. Honestly, this comic should be be doing gangbusters, but some major creative missteps mar what would otherwise be a very positive review.

For me, Batman/Superman has been one of the sleeper hit surprises of the New 52. Greg Pak has taken what could have been just another cash-grab team up book and turned it into a fast paced cleverly plotted blast of a comic that wears its weirdness on its sleeve like a badge of honor. #6 is the second issue into a video game-themed arc that finds Batman and Superman unwilling participants in the Toymaster’s new augmented reality video game that has been hijacked by Mongul and his crystal-boned alien cohort.

Its off-the-wall plots like this (and the dimension hopping fun of the previous arc) that elevate this book past run-of-the-mill cape comics. Pak understands that no reader wants to see The World’s Finest just tackle standard street crime or fight yet another super criminal that we’ve seen time and time again, so he throws the heroes into huge situations to show why we love seeing this pairing work together to tackle huge problems in the first place. Greg Pak may be writing the most fun Superman in the New 52 right now. His Kal-El is still green and struggling with his anger issues, most notably in his inner monlogue detailing just how furious he is at Batman for trying to take on Mongul by himself, but Pak balances this with a sense of responsibility and restraint that comes with being one of the most powerful beings on the planet.This isn’t to say that Pak’s Batman is just a common grim-dark rehash of previous takes, by no means. Pak balances the speeding bullet action of his Superman with a droll, ruthlessly effective Batman, giving us a faint hint at the wry smile underneath the cowl while still never sacrificing the pragmatic rebel that we all know Batman is. This is once again illustrated in the perfect inner monologue that Pak gives Batman when, while under control by the game’s vast collective of player, he attacks Superman, making digs at his “big, booming, patronizing voice.” Greg Pak has made this team fun again, and in the New 52, fun is more precious than gold.

But the visuals are hit and miss. I will say that the widescreen format allows Brett Booth and his team to fill the pages with a truly cinematic feeling panels, really selling the non-stop action of the story in tall panels and neatly arranged page layouts, but it never really looks any different than just a bunch of thin panels in a line, which is a shame. This is where the format does the book a grave disservice. Booth and his team are wildly talented, but the widescreen format shackles them to a tighter page space, never really giving them ample room to breathe. Everything feels too compacted within the page, instead of spread out, which makes it feel too dense to a reader’s eye. We are used to letting our eyes wander over a page, but here we have to retrain our eyes to a different aspect ratio that what we are used to, but it never really pops like it should. Yes, the splash page of a warring Batman and Superman looks cool, and its nice to see that DC is willing to try something new in the execution of one of its bigger-selling titles, but after all these "big" pages, the effect is lost, feeling more like a pin-up than a hard-hitting note. Booth falls in line with the DC house style of the moment, but his expressions of Supes and Batman seem softer and a bit more emotive than what we are used to seeing within DC. His characters have definite personalities beyond the gritted teeth and roaring anger of some of the new go to artists at DC and that’s all kinds of refreshing.

With Pak’s bullet train scripts coupled with Brett Booth’s expressive pencils, DC should have a sure-fire hit on its hands, but it doesn’t - not yet at least. Aiming to be more than an obvious team-up book, DC has taken a chance on a different kind of point of view with this arc of Batman/Superman and, with two issues in, its proven to be more of a hindrance than selling point. Its a shame because this issue was fun, but it was just too hard to look past the too tight and simplistic panel layout and cramped nature of the pencils. With only one more issue to get through until we get the normal format back, let’s hope that the spark that was lit with #1-4 gets reignited.

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