Best Shots Comic Reviews: MIRACLEMAN #1 10 out of 10, Much More

Marvel Comics previews for January 15, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Miracleman #1
Written by Mick Angelo and Alan Moore
Art by Garry Leach
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Art Restoration by Michael Kelleher, Kellustration, Garry Leach, and Digikore
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

For a moment, forget the current headlines about Alan Moore. Forget what you think you know about his seminal maxi-series, The Watchmen, and the place it holds in comics history. For over thirty years, what is arguably the most significant work in postmodern superhero comics is finally available to the entirety of comic fans and scholars with the publication of Miracleman #1. The majority of readers have only heard of this series but were never able to read it due to the scarcity of either the handful of trade paperbacks published from Eclipse or limited access to the related issues from Warrior magazine. With Marvel's re-mastered release of this series, now is the time to take a history lesson about one of the most profound influences on why superheroes look and act the way they do since the 1980s and even into the present day.

It is worth pointing out that this series was originally published in 1982 in the U.K. magazine, Warrior. Printed in black and white at first, Miracleman told a far different and darker superhero story that deconstructed the genre through examining its tropes – sometimes harshly – and turning the heroes into regular working stiffs and murderous, corporate villains. Although Robert Mayer wrote a satirical novel that provided a clear influence on Moore's work (see Superfolks), it had never been done in comics with a critical manner that treated the material seriously.

Although I do not have access to the original black and white comics, I can say that Marvel's release provides a faithful retelling of the stories from Eclipse with the inclusion of the one-page close up on Miracleman that makes use of the quote from Nietzsche: "Behold…I teach you the Superman: He is the lightning…He is this madness!" It is a smart decision on Marvel's part to include this original page (omitted in the trade) as the page layout and composition imparts some subtle messages of what the reader will encounter. The traditional comic grid contains a standard, blonde-haired, blue-eyed superhero. Yet, the choice to use a close up shot that continues to move towards an increasingly extreme close up panel suggests Moore and Leach will be bringing the reader down the rabbit's hole of this colorful genre and into the dark realities of what this world might look like if super-powered beings actually existed.

One of the biggest questions many fans and comics scholars had regarding the re-mastering of Miracleman was whether Marvel would fundamentally change any elements of the story. It is worth pointing out that the story itself is true to the original text and line work (apart from being re-lettered). The most obvious change is the re-coloring of the issue, and the difference is immediately noticeable. Although I still feel the coloring from the Eclipse trade paperbacks stand the test of time, I do feel as though the new technology helped Leach's original and highly detailed artwork to standout even more as certain panels really come alive. These new hues emphasize Leach's dynamic art without overpowering it, and few purists will likely defend the not-uncommonly misapplied colors from when the series moved beyond black and white publication.

Readers will also enjoy seeing some of the original Marvelman comics from which Miracleman was based upon as well as the first part of an interview Joe Quesada conducted with the original creator, Mick Angelo, all of which are included in this first issue. It is interesting to note the similarities between the happy-go-lucky cartoonish style Angelo employed to his Marvelman character during the early 1950s to that of fellow European comic character, Tin-Tin. It speaks to the sense of innocence and naiveté of the medium as a whole – let alone the superhero genre – and just how drastically different the direction Moore and Leach would take this character in both story and aesthetic.

In all, new readers and long-time fans alike stand to benefit from the increased access as well as the improvements made to this monumental series. Although some younger and/or newer comic readers may find themselves thinking that Miracleman seems vaguely reminiscent of many other superhero stories they've read, it is because these writers owe a creative debt of gratitude to Alan Moore and Garry Leach's raw and powerful literary deconstruction of the superhero. There are stereotypes and then there are the original archetypes – this is one of the latter and it is a work that every student and fan of the superhero genre needs to know.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman/Wonder Woman #4
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Tony S. Daniel, Paulo Siquera, Batt, Sandu Florea, Tomeu Morey and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

After three months of a surprising charm offensive in Superman/Wonder Woman, Charles Soule and Tony Daniel divert their focus primarily to the Man of Steel, as Superman takes on the Kryptonian super-criminal known as Zod. While the lack of Wonder Woman is palpable, Soule's smooth characterization and tempered plotting makes this a comic that's still worth reading.

Sometimes - especially with a character with as much history as Superman - it's easy to make a story too complicated, throwing in so much spectacle that it becomes almost impossible to read. But Charles Soule doesn't overwrite this comic, instead having a good old-fashioned Kryptonian super-fight. The motivations are obvious, especially if you know of Zod's backstory, but it makes for a logical, streamlined story - even if, admittedly, the sudden jump from talk to fisticuffs might be a little too convenient. Still, Soule brings some simple but smart twists to the fight, particularly the ways that Zod uses Superman's Kryptonian technology against him. Indeed, even though the main story is only 12 pages long, it winds up feeling much more substantial.

The artwork by Tony Daniel is also a highlight. While his first few pages are a bit questionable when it comes to his layouts - indeed, opening up the book with two giant heads is a strange choice - he improves dramatically once we're able to see Superman in action. Zod in particularly looks both menacing and charismatic with his beard and windswept hair, and a splash page of an interstellar zoo suddenly on the loose is wildly entertaining. Tomeu Morey's colorwork also looks lush and energetic, with blues and purples that remind me a lot of Laura Martin.

The backup story for this comic is a great palate cleanser to the main storyline. In the aftermath of the world discovering Superman and Wonder Woman's relationship, Soule and artist Paulo Siquera focus on the World's Finest Couple's thoughts on the matter. Soule brings us back to Wonder Woman, who charms the reader as she goes for some girl talk - that is, girl talk over Amazonian battle. Paulo Siquera reminds me a bit of Eddy Barrows, particularly with an ambitious double-page splash of Superman and Wonder Woman kissing, but takes a surprising riff on Todd McFarlane when he draws a short sequence featuring Batman. While Superman provides most of the slow exposition for this backup, it feels like fair play, considering Wonder Woman's perfunctory narration through the main story.

On the one hand, this comic may be seen as a bit of a cop-out, as Superman/Wonder Woman rarely has the two characters on the same page. But that said, it's clear that Charles Soule knows what makes these characters tick - and more importantly, what makes them likeable. Combined with some striking action sequences and the occasional surprise guest star, this is easily the best take on either character in the New 52. Talk about a match made in heaven.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Superior Spider-Man #25
Written by Dan Slott and Christos Gage
Art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba, Edgar Delgado, Antonio Fabela and Veronica Gandini
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

It's the beginning of the end for the Superior Spider-Man - and is it weird to think that might be a good thing? Dan Slott, Christos Gage and Humberto Ramos wrap up their Venom-centric arc "Darkest Hours," but the ending can't help but feel anticlimactic, even with a game-changing plot point in the mix.

Most fans of Peter Parker know that one of his most difficult trials was casting off the homicidal, addictive alien symbiote known as Venom. It was a seminal moment in Spider-Man history, something that Dan Slott knows like the back of his hand - which is why it's a shame that when Otto Octavius is taken over by the suit, his story winds up feeling like a standard fight comic. Even with the "Superior Venom" facing off against the Avengers themselves, there isn't much going on underneath all those teeth and tentacles - and that says a lot, considering the one-note characterization Otto has had the past few months.

That said, it's acceptable for a book to be a fight comic. We've seen them before, and when they're done well, they're just as fun (sometimes, I'd add with just a touch of guilt, even moreso) as a more cerebral comic. The problem is, this action feels largely forgettable. Much of this is on artist Humberto Ramos, whose off-kilter angles and jagged linework comes off as overwhelming and difficult to read. That winds up being a problem when you have a battle royale as packed as Spider-Man versus the Avengers - even though characters like Spider-Woman have some cool poses thrown in the mix, you can't help but notice weird choices like Otto looking the wrong direction when he punches someone, or Black Widow and Thor lacking facial expressions.

While the actual Spider-Man versus Avengers battle winds up feeling perfunctory in its execution - particularly with its abrupt, convenient ending - Slott and Gage do some nice work in the overarching plot of Superior Spider-Man. They're juggling a lot here, particularly the buildup to Slott's finale, "Goblin Nation." Sure, there are a lot of goblins running around, and you can argue that it distracts from the main premise of the issue, but it's necessary work here. And while I would argue that the buildup is lacking, Slott and Gage do bring a nice twist near the end of the book that paves the way for a brand new era in Spider-Man history.

25 issues in, Superior Spider-Man has done good things for Marvel's friendly neighborhood webslinger, but all things must come to an end. There is still a lot of room for Dan Slott and company to compare and contrast Otto Octavius and Peter Parker, but right now the high concept seems to trump the characterization. And that's a shame - while its a necessary evil to pave the way for Peter Parker's return, I can't help but feel that Superior Spider-Man is getting the short shrift in his own series.

Credit: Image Comics

Zero #5
Written by Ales Kot
Art by Will Tempest and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

After last month's brutal installment, Ales Kot gives readers a breather in the latest issue of Zero. And that's for the best - now that the cold killer known as Edward Zero is recuperating from bloody combat and a missing eye, Kot brings new focus to the conspiracy lingering in his midst.

With Zero on the mend, Kot spends a decent amount of time with Roman Zizek, Zero's handler, and Sara Cooke, Zizek's lover and boss. Zizek and Cooke's relationship is... complicated, to say the least, as Kot osscilates from tenderness to outright aggression in the blink of an eye. Cooke in particular has a real menacing streak to her, as she begins to poke and challenge Zero in a way that's far more subtle and insidious than Israeli super-soldiers or tough-as-nails former assets. Kot also uses silence effectively, letting the eerie pauses show how the walls are closing in on our conflicted antihero.

The artwork by Will Tempest is also a great fit for this low-key issue. The characters look much cleaner than Morgan Jeske or Michael Walsh, but those placid features betray a lot of conflict underneath the surface. There's a real deliberateness to Tempest's artwork, particularly the silent pages focusing on Zero checking out his battle-scarred body and vacant, empty eye socket. He makes nine-panel pages flow effortlessly, and like Kot's script, he makes the transition from calm to cutthroat almost instantaneously.

That all said, there are some who may feel disappointment after the rock-'em, sock-'em action of last issue, as this issue is a bit more cerebral than before. The other slightly strange beat is almost akin to Nick Spencer's Morning Glories - yes, there's been robotic soldiers and clandestine secret societies in this book, but Kot takes a bit of a hard turn at the end of this issue, which may feel a little alienating to those who appreciated the harder realism of this series. It is Kot's prerogative, but tonally it is a bit of a shake-up.

While this issue is slower than the ones before it, I'd argue that Ales Kot and company have earned it - too many high-flying set pieces can equal burnout for even the most devoted readers, and there's a lot to be said for setting up the future conflict and intrigue for Edward Zero. Focusing more on atmosphere than action, Zero #5 remains a book worth watching.

Credit: Valiant Comics

Unity #3
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

In the run up to Issue #1, Valiant stated that Unity's mission was to "defeat the warrior king armed with the universe’s most powerful weapon." Now into its third issue, I find this bit of in-house advertising not only cued readers into the high stakes action of the first two issues but also foreshadowed the events to follow in the aftermath within Issue #3 and beyond.

This issue picks up in the wake of Livewire's taking control of the X-O Manowar armor leaving Aric vulnerable and on the run. Although the Visigoth's strength and pride remain ever-present, it is clear that he is no match for the individual members of Unity – let alone their combined efforts. With the king "de-throned," the stage is set for Kindt to reveal more about Livewire – the clear standout in this issue. Not only do readers get to know this techno-savant better, but through her, fans gain a greater appreciation for the magnitude of the X-O armor's capabilities and its desirability by the world powers. It is this lesson Livewire learns about her newly acquired weapon that Kindt uses as a set up for what will be the next arc in this series.

If readers enjoy the story Matt Kindt writes in this issue, however, they owe a great deal of thanks to Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber for bringing it to life. Once again, their collaborative efforts provide readers with an action-packed visual narrative that fans of the superhero genre are looking for. Braithwaite's art successfully treads that fine line between realistic and fantastic, particularly with his depiction of the various technological aspects of the story. And since we're talking about a comic that involves both superpowers and alien technology, Reber's colors do a superb job of elevating Braithwaite's pencils to an otherworldly level. Perhaps the best example of how well these two artists work together is the double splash page depicting Livewire's bonding process with the XO armor. The splintered format smartly parallels the merging of the armor's past hosts' memories with those of Livewire as she tries to process the rapid influx of information. Moreover, the mix of colors associated with the flashbacks and the blurred panel edges further enhance the reader's understanding of just what Livewire is experiencing. It's also worth pointing out that "DPS" takes up a good deal of "real estate" in a comic, and it's disappointing when they are used merely for pin up-style shots. In this instance, however, the creative team makes use of the two-page spread to drive home key elements of their story for their audience in a dynamic fashion.

While I'm aware Valiant maintains a shared universe, the team behind Unity is doing a great job of delivering a series that stands on its own. Moreover, the global stage upon which these players move and counter-move has certainly made for a thoughtful and engaging opening salvo. It also looks as though Kindt is setting up the members of Unity for a second, and possibly greater conflict, that will deal with issues of utilitarianism, the centralization of power, and personal betrayal.

Count me in.

Credit: Image Comics

Rat Queens #4
Written by Kurtis J. Weibe
Art by Roc Upchurch
Lettering by Ed Brisson
Published by Image Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating 10 out of 10

To be perfectly honest, I don't know how much longer I can keep reviewing Rat Queens. The wonderfully vulgar, violent, and often moving fantasy comic shot so quickly to my must read pile, I actually giggled last time I saw it on the shelves. With issue #4 dropping today, writer Kurtis J. Weibe and artist Roc Upchurch have somehow upped their game even more. Betty, the Rat Queens morally questionable thief (which is saying something) learns the hard way who hired assassins to take out her and her fellow companions. Still, things are never that easy in Palisade. A nasty Troll bent on taking revenge for her horribly slaughtered boyfriend declares she will raze the city to the ground if they don't give up the Rat Queens, in an exchange that had me literally laughing out loud, but would get me fired from this site were I to quote it.

It would be easy and entertaining enough if Rat Queens simply rested on the nasty jokes and incredibly over the top violence. But, what makes the title work so well is Weibes subtle character growth and interaction with each member and a setting that feels more and more real with each issue. Still emotionally reeling from her conversation with her brother in the previous issue, Violet the Dwarven fighter finds herself questioning her own actions and reasons. It's a short scene, but one that reminds the reader that there are real emotions bubbling under all the adventuring bravado. More so than adding layers, these moments of self evaluation also adds a layer of tension to the manic action that bookends the issue. It's easy to think the main characters are completely off limits to death and destruction. Yet those slight insights into their emotional state reminds us that, fantasy Rat Queens might be, these characters still share our flaws and can bleed and die just as easy as us. It's a neat little trick Weibe pulls, drawing the reader so completely into the moment once the swords, spells, and spleens start flying.

And boy howdy is the art all kinds of nuts in this issue. Upchurch pulls some hefty tasks in this issue as he perfectly balances the utter chaos of fantasy combat, while still maintaining the believability of the characters. His line work plays to the strength of everyone fighting on the page. There is a real sense of weight behind the more physical and brutal characters. While those that are limber of body or mind move on and between panels with speed and grace. More impressive still is Upchurchs comedic timing. So much of Rat Queens happens between the crazy. There are short moments where the comic all but breaks the forth wall, so that the reader may fully take in the scene. As has been the case since issue #1, Upchurch draws all the women of Rat Queens as wholly believable. Indeed, one could argue that these fantasy character look more like everyday people than most realistic comics on the shelves these days. Better still, Upchurch highlights elements that others would try and hide. Every little bump and scratch proudly displayed as the ladies leave destruction in their wake.

Like I said, I could keep going on and on about how this is one of the best titles on the shelves right now. Even if you didn't grow up on a steady diet of Dungeons & Dragons with a side of saturday morning cartoons, Rat Queens is a title you must add. This isn't just another sword and sorcery story made edgy with nasty words and flowing blood. Well, it is that, but it's also so much more. Rat Queens is packed with heart. Heart that has you rooting for these ladies no matter how nasty they get. Image puts out some of the best comics in the industry these days and Rat Queens is a jewel in that crown.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Disney Kingdoms: Seekers of the Weird #1
Written by Brandon Seifert
Art by Karl Moline, Rick Magyar and Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

When you read a comic book on a theme park attraction that was never actually built, you have to come in with diminished expectations. In that regard, and in that regard only, Disney Kingdoms: Seekers of the Weird #1 doesn't disappoint. With some lackluster artwork and a paper-thin storyline, this is a book without a hook or a clear target audience.

In certain ways, Seekers of the Weird comes across like any standard Disney Channel kid storyline - add in two plucky siblings (whose parents happen to own a magic shop), throw them into a dangerous world of magic, and let them sort things out. That said, this adaptation of the never-opened "Museum of the Weird" restaurant seems like a cliche for a reason - and the lack of strong characterization from Brandon Seifert doesn't help matters. Melody is a lacrosse player who doesn't do well in school, and her brother Max is a nebbish kid who gets picked on and doesn't do well in gym. That's about as much information as we get, and there's pretty much zero reason to like either of these characters before they're tossed into their parents' supernatural hijinks.

Once the action starts, well, it remains pretty cliche. The emotions just don't ring true - when your parents get snatched away by a horde of taxidermied animals, wouldn't you panic? Cry, perhaps? Seifert's characters seem pretty nonchalant, even though the actual concept would probably alienate any younger readers who might be interested in the Disney name on the cover. A supporting character gets dropped into the story halfway through with only the most perfunctory of exposition, and the end of the story is basically too traumatizing for any young reader. It's a problem that really hurts Seekers of the Weird - it's too light for adults, and it's way too dark for younger readers.

The artwork doesn't help matters. Colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu drenches this comic in dark hues, emphasizing gross purples and greens. Yet it's not all his fault - penciler Karl Moline has plenty of storytelling issues, himself. His storytelling is particularly difficult to follow, which makes the first big moment in the story - Max getting nailed in the face with a lacross ball - almost impossible to understand, because we never see the connection and it takes forever to see the aftermath. Moline's panel composition also comes across as unenergetic - there's a panel of Melody and Max's parents fighting off magical creatures, and they look almost bored as they stand stock-still. Like the story itself, the artwork doesn't wind up appealing to the cartoony style of younger readers, and it's just too rough for older readers to appreciate.

Melody's shirt may proudly proclaim "Keep It Weird," but ultimately Seekers of the Weird is anything but. It feels tired on the first read, with little to distinguish it from any other supernatural coming-of-age story. To make matters worse, the storytelling style winds up feeling hampered by the comics medium, with the stilted dialogue missing out on an actor's charisma to sell it. If you're looking to get your kids hooked on comics, pick another book - if you're a Disney diehard, you've got plenty of other options. If fun is what you seek, this is not the comic you are looking for.

Double Shot!

Credit: Image Comics

Rat Queens #4
Written by Kurtis Wiebe
Art by Roc Upchurch
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The fourth part of the "Gold, Guts, and Grog" story arc takes a break from the past issue's heavier character exploration and delivers a bit of a palette cleanse through bringing "the sexy back in large wholesale slaughter." Yeah. You read that right.

The story opens with Betty and Sawyer facing off against another ninja-like warrior, as the mystery of the mercenary killings is laid bare. In the process, Wiebe also lets readers take a peek into the backstory of yet another one of his many colorful characters. However, he quickly picks up the pace and launches his Rat Queens into action against an invading horde of orcs led by one monstrously angry she-troll on a mission to avenge her recently slain boyfriend (See Issue #2).

Is this a gritty and violent comic? Sure is. But what's refreshing about the Rat Queens (this issue in particular) is these are secondary to the fun Wiebe and Upchurhch are having as storytellers. Although we're treated to hands being hacked off and swords being jammed into the mouth of an angry dwarf's opponent in Issue No. 4, there is also the witty dialogue and one-liners involving characters like Gary, which seem to come out of nowhere to deliver some solid laughs. And while Wiebe does write his miscreant mercenaries as strong, ass-kicking women, he also avoids falling into the trap of making them infallible. Not only do they need others to bail them out of trouble on occasion, neither are they shining examples of the moral right. Each Rat Queen is wrong in her own ways – Betty's a drug dealer, Hannah is the morally indifferent hero, Violet is a dwarf without an axe (I'm still coming to terms with this), and Dee is a sacrilegious cleric – yet they all add up to something that is both believable and right.

As much as I loved this issue – and I do – I did feel as though there were a few points in the pencil work where it looked a bit rushed especially compared to the earlier issues. The wide-angle shot of the she-troll and orcs lining up against the wall protecting the town of Pallisades is the first example where some of the more basic details (faces and general anatomy) were left out with a swath of color used to fill in the space. This same sort of thing occurs later when we see the orc army again preparing to attack as well as some of the guards on the wall standing alongside the Rat Queens. I can appreciate the time and difficulty (let alone the monotony!) of adding these finer elements to the nameless masses; however, the absence of these details alongside more fully fleshed out characters was noticeable.

That said, Upchurch's signature style is still quite strong, and the enthusiasm for what he's doing in this issue comes across with each orc mutilation and witty repartee. He does an excellent job of conveying his character's attitudes through facial expression, and he is quite apt in grabbing his reader's attention and focusing it where he wants it through varying the shots and panel composition. Upchurch also accomplishes this by blurring elements of the background, which causes the characters and action in the foreground to really "pop" off the page. He also finds some unique and interesting ways for those characters to break the panel that emphasize either the action taking place or the enormity of their personalities (such as we see with the entrance of Braga).

Once again, I really enjoyed this month's issue of Rat Queens thanks to the mix of gruesome fun and biting humor. The certainty of my reading the next issue is most definitely a sure thing.

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