Best Shots Advance Reviews: MS. MARVEL, PUNISHER, LOKI, WOLVERINE #1

Marvel Comics previews for February 5, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Ms. Marvel #1
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by Adrian Alphona and Ian Herring
Letters by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There has been a lot of lead up to the debut of the new Ms. Marvel. Much has been made of Kamala Khan's religious background, her age, and her very identity with fan reaction attracting the typical naysayers along with those intrigued by the potential of a character that doesn't fit the usual super-hero mold. With that kind of controversy, it's easy to get excited about a book like Ms. Marvel, and it delivers in spades. Capturing the same energy that many of Marvel's most successful teen heroes have thrived on, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona have created in Kamala Khan a character who is compelling even before she's gained her super-powers.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Right from the start, there's something familiar about Kamala Khan. There's more than a little Peter Parker in her fish-out-of-water, struggling to fit in plight. Kamala's family may be larger than Peter's, and the lessons she's learning from following her own path aren't as severe (yet), but there's something distinctly "Marvel" about this approach to a young teen hero, and that makes Kamala's story familiar, in an endearing way. But there's more too this young woman than her relationship with her family. Like many people who will read this book, she's an Avengers super-fan, a devotee of Earth's mightiest heroes all the way down to her very own fan-fiction and posters decorating her walls. There seems to be an element of wish fulfillment in Kamala's heroic apotheosis; one that also seems to carry the lesson "be careful what you wish for," judging by the final panel's twist.

As good as Ms. Marvel's script is, Adrian Alphona's art may be this book's real star. Fans of his work on Runaways will no doubt find a lot to love here, but even those unfamiliar with his previous work on teen heroes will be charmed. Alphona does a fantastic job of mining Kamala's emotional landscape and reflecting it on the page, instantly creating a visual language for Ms. Marvel that is exciting and accessible. Ian Herring's colors follow suit, easily conveying mood and depth, and perfectly complementing Alphona's cheerful, open lines.

Credit: Marvel Comics

While G. Willow Wilson's script is generally charming and engaging, it's not without its pitfalls. Kamala's blonde, racially insensitive friend Zoe comes off more as a plot device than a character, especially with Kamala's willingness to be taken in by her falsehood. Racism and racial ignorance are undoubtedly part of Kamala's life, but it's a little frustrating to see such a well put-together script rely on a strawman so quickly. Fortunately, Ms. Marvel seems to be far more focused on figuring out exactly who Kamala Khan is by building her self-identity, rather than relying on short-cuts to important issues. And it's true that the book's final panel may be a bit jarring, but it comes off more like a catalyst than a crutch, an inciting incident that will lead Kamala to embrace herself, and find her own identity.

Ms. Marvel is a solid debut issue, and that in itself should be a victory not just for G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, but for Marvel Comics itself. It is no secret that there has been some controversy over Kalama Khan's faith and her identity in the lead-up to this launch, but Ms. Marvel succeeds on its own strengths. It's not exactly edgy, and Kamala Khan is not exactly the first reluctant teen hero in Marvel's long history, but Ms. Marvel is one of the strongest debuts for a new character that Marvel has had in a long time. Here's hoping she sticks around for the long haul.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Punisher #1
Written by Nathan Edmondson
Art by Mitch Gerads
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Marvel is cooking up Daredevil and Luke Cage for Netflix, but little do readers know that Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads have basically already created a small-screen Marvel series - right in your local comic shop. With accessible, realistic storytelling and gritty, photorealistic art, Punisher #1 is the Frank Castle TV show we always wanted but never knew. It may not reinvent the wheel, but it doesn't have to - it's entertaining, it's free of continuity, and it gives readers just enough of a taste to leave them satisfied but also want them wanting more.

In other words: Frank Castle - you officially have earned our attention.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Frank Castle is a guy who wants bad guys dead. Using his military connections, his indomitable will and a veritable armory of weapons, he does just that. Nate Edmondson doesn't delve into the pathos of Frank's family or any of that other exposition - instead, he just drops the Punisher into his new West Coast digs and lets the reader figure the rest out. Of course, when you open up with Frank taking down drug runners in the waters of Mexico, that winds up being pretty palatable. Edmondson gives the Punisher a Clint Eastwood-esque sense of humor, as he blows off a man's hand with the same smirk as he gives when he teases a short-order cook's scrambled eggs. Like Eastwood, Stallone, Willis or any of the other Hollywood tough guys, Frank has his own quirks and foibles, and it turns out that over-the-top killings go down a whole lot smoother with a laugh than with some cold self-righteousness.

Actually, let's go back a click. "Over-the-top" might be the wrong word. It's clear that Edmondson's time on his creator-owned book The Activity was good practice for Punisher. Frank does go after his opponents with weapons both big and small, ranging from anything between tear gas to a bazooka to a car's cigarette lighter. But it's all hinged in realism, and unlike Garth Ennis or Jason Aaron's acclaimed takes on the character, it's not gratiutious or childish for the sake of sheer shock value or titilation. This is measured, it's controlled, it's a hint of humor but not gross-out or overdone. It's similar to the tone of a TV show, something you'd find on AMC or HBO.

Credit: Marvel Comics

And speaking of live-action - if anyone makes this comic look like a TV show, it's Mitch Gerads. And that's a good thing. From the moment you see Danny Trejo suddenly make a cameo as an ill-fated thug to seeing the Punisher's Thomas Jane-esque features, this doesn't just feel like something you'd see on your television, but it feels well-cast, too. Gerads in particular sells the action sequences well, making a group of commandos look sleek, powerful and altogether mysterious, as their visors shine just for a moment as they fire into the darkness. Gerads got his start in the industry as a colorist, and it shows here - his use of blues and greens that are suddenly offset with burning reds and hazy, smoggy oranges. It's almost as if Alex Maleev and Chris Samnee had an extremely handsome, extremely dramatic comic book baby.

While Marvel has been promoting this new run of Punisher to be Frank's move to the West, Edmondson and Gerads are far more self-assured of their own abilities - and they deserve to be. This is a Punisher team who are comfortable in their own skins, ready to rest on the strength of the character and his job rather than any auteur-baiting high concepts. And I use the word "job" deliberately - perhaps the refreshing thing about this iteration of the Punisher is that while he's driven, this is a job, rather than a cold, alienating, all-consuming mission. It's a job that we could tune into on a regular basis, whether it would be month-to-month on the comic stands or week-to-week on our TV screens.

In other words: Punisher is a job well done.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Loki: Agent of Asgard #1
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Lee Garbett and Nolan Woodard
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

With a starring role in three of Marvel's major films, including the blockbuster Avengers, and a face turn in last year's Thor: The Dark World, it's no surprise that Marvel is taking steps to put Loki front and center in their comic universe. It's clear that audiences like Loki as a hero, even a reluctant one, and even more, they like him when he has something to hide. But Loki was a villain long before Marvel, or any comics existed, and for years he was one of Marvel's premiere villains as well. Loki: Agent of Asgard takes great care in reminding readers of that fact, showcasing the character's duality. But in doing so, it seems to walk backwards, taking Loki down the same road we've seen him on for the last several years.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Writer Al Ewing clearly has a vision for Loki as a newly re-aged (it's complicated) man deeply in touch with his previous mistakes, and yet, in some way, still bound to the same behaviors that lead to them in the first place. Loki's trickster philosophy is on full display in Agent of Asgard's Mission: Impossible-like opening sequence, as Ewing delivers his script's best bit, with Loki comparing the art of magic to deceiving the universe into believing the magician's personal vision. It's moments like this that show real potential for this version of Loki, but Ewing's take on the Avengers throughout the rest of the book is broad at best, and Loki himself suffers by association.

Some of this frustration with Ewing's characterization, especially of Thor, is entirely intentional; in fact, it's part of the plot. But it's still a little tiring to see beats, such as Banner delivering the line "But I'm always angry!", and feel like they are there as fan service. It's impossible to ignore that a large component of fans will arrive at this title by rightly following Loki from his appearance in Avengers, but Agent of Asgard doesn't do enough to stand on its own feet to rely so heavily on callbacks. In fact, even this issue's big twist ending feels like a callback to Keiron Gillen's work with Loki over the last several years, work that undoubtedly paved the way for Loki's newfound popularity. It's not bad, but it's a little disappointing to see that Loki's first major conflict will be yet another twist on the same struggle he's been experiencing since he first took on a protagonist role.

Credit: Marvel Comics

On that same note, artist Lee Garbett's pages feel a little workman-like, telling their story with clarity, but with little relish. Garbett's work is solid, but lacks the kind of charm that Loki's big-screen counterpart sells so easily. Despite being at the center of this story, Garbett's Loki lacks personality. In fact, his outsized, aggressive Thor receives far better treatment, giving off waves of anger and strength. Loki just doesn't seem to be having much fun, and that's kind of a problem. He doesn't convey an air of mischief, something he desperately needs if we're to believe that he's just misunderstood. Nobody wants a pious, down-to-earth Loki, even if they want him as their hero.

Loki: Agent of Asgard is a no-brainer for Marvel right now. People want Loki, so who could begrudge them for giving it to them? Still, this issue feels like working backwards; less like someone said, "Wouldn't it be great if this happened to Loki?" and more like someone posited, "We need a Loki book. What can we put together?" While that's not an invalid approach, it does result in something that feels like a product more than a story. There are chestnuts of vision in Al Ewing's script, but Loki: Agent of Asgard has a long way to go before it's required reading, even for fans of the character.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Wolverine #1
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Ryan Stegman, Mark Morales and David Curiel
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

It's not because of a lost healing factor that Wolverine is no longer the best there is at what he does. It's because of a lost direction.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Over the years, Wolverine has grown a lot as a character - but not every change of direction is a good one. Casting aside Jason Aaron's incredibly fun decision to cast Logan as the reluctant headmaster of the Jean Grey School, Marvel has shoved Wolverine in a more inorganic, more uncomfortable position, aligning Logan with his movie counterpart in The Wolverine by stripping him of his healing factor. This is a more precarious, more unstable, far more killable Wolverine, and it feels as if Paul Cornell is struggling just as much as the Ol' Canucklehead to find his new place in the world.

For the most part, Wolverine #1 is a launchpad for Logan's new partners even more than his new status quo. Logan is running with a new gang these days, as Cornell runs Wolverine through a perfunctory raid to showcase everyone's new powers. For the most part, as far as names and character concepts go, Wolverine's new crew doesn't quite seem to have much juice as far as lasting power is concerned - there's the energy-wielding Lost Boy, the telekinetic Pinch, and Fuel, who ups the group's strength and speed (and perhaps as a result comes off as a bit of a walking plot device).

Credit: Marvel Comics

Cornell also laced his action entree with a bit of the familiar. The raid has the sort of the old school, comfort-food vibe as Logan brings back the Fastball Special or that old Kitty Pryde/Jubilee familial vibe as his team pulls him out of a jam. Cornell also brings in some familiar guest stars with his exposition, as he explains how Wolverine went from being battered and scarred by his old nemesis Sabretooth to joining a shadowy cabal led by the menacing Offer. It's not bad by any means, although it does feel a bit like a video game - plenty of characters moving around and hitting things, but there's no hook, no heart, no emotion.

The real standout for this book, however, is Ryan Stegman. This is his second high-profile relaunch in the last year, as he drew the opening arc for Superior Spider-Man. I was hard on Stegman way back when, and I'll admit it - he's definitely upped his game since then. (It also helps that he's been teamed up with inker Mark Morales, who keeps Stegman's cartoony lines looking bouncy rather than busy). Stegman has a bit of that Image-era McFarlane/Capullo vibe to his artwork, particularly with his expressive characters and cartoony designs - even if your eyes might roll at the ultra-tattooed Lost Boy or even Wolverine's Copperhead-esque new costume.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Still, Stegman's action sequences are the highlights of the book, particularly as a turbo-charged Wolverine is racing through a horde of hapless thugs, blue energy crackling in his wake. (Maybe this guy should be drawing a Flash book!) Sometimes, though, Stegman's compositions hamper his panel-to-panel storytelling - for example, there's a panel that's meant to establish Logan and Pinch's possibly sexual relationship, but it's so zoomed back that it's hard to tell if they're hugging or making out.

As a character, it's hard to tell stories about Wolverine that break the mold. He's been a loose cannon with the X-Men, he's been a samurai in his own solo adventures, he's even been a teacher at the Jean Grey School. Marvel's toyed with toning down Wolverine's healing factor before - the '90s-era crossover Fatal Attractions being one key example - but there's a reason it's never stuck. Tying Wolverine's fate to a B-level action movie isn't going to make Paul Cornell's life any easier - but neither will tying him to some B-level antihero wannabes. There's some edge to Wolverine, as Cornell produces more questions than answers, but with this abrupt, forced new status quo, even the Ol' Canucklehead is beginning to show his age.

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