Best Shots Comic Reviews: JLA #12: All-New X-MEN #23, More

DC February 2014 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Enjoying your President's Day? Best Shots sure is, celebrating Lincoln, Washington and all the Roosevelts with your regular Monday helping of the latest and greatest books on the stands! So let's kick off today's column with Monarchical Michael Moccio, as he takes a look at Justice League of America #12

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League of America #12
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Eddy Barrows, Tom Derenick, R.B. Silva, Eber Ferreira, Allen Martinez and HiFi
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Forever Evil continues to flesh itself out through the tie-in issues, while Matt Kindt, Eddy Barrows, and the rest of the team give the unlikely pair of Martian Manhunter and Stargirl a chance to shine. By taking a step back and focusing on the aspect of hope in a world that’s already believe evil has won, Justice League of America #12 earns its few moments of splendor while tumbling towards an epic climax.

Kindt strengthens the narrative by focusing primarily on Stargirl and how the events of the issue—including Martian Manhunter’s defeat and story—impact her and what comes next. It was refreshing to see the story centered around hope, when it seems like everything has gone wrong. The Justice League’s lives are threatened, Batman is forced to side with villains—even the events outside of Forever Evil are grim, as the destruction of the Blue Lantern Corps is the literal death of hope for the DC Universe. Artsists Eddy Barrows and Hifi play this part home, as the scenes with Courtney heavily feature her glowing staff amidst dark backgrounds, drawing parallels to her resolve amidst the seemingly insurmountable odds.

It’s a testament to Kindt’s abilities as a writer to craft the story and make the reader believe that such an unlikely duo could be so cohesive. He really pushes this point home when drawing the parallels of Martian Manhunter’s fable and Courtney’s history. As J’onn explains, Courtney is the Martian hero, and the story isn’t one of heroism, but of hope. Courtney becomes a great example of how characters’ tragic pasts don’t have to obsessively drive them, but can—in fact—inspire them, which is what makes her become such a compelling character.

Martian Manhunter’s story, while enjoyable, was one of the more unbelievable parts of the story. Looking back, it just feels out of place. The reader doesn’t know how much time it takes for J’onn to relate the story, nor why he would waste such precious time when the Justice League’s lives were in danger. In the case of the drawn out and intermittent flashbacks of Courtney’s past, it felt spread too thin thought the rest of the story. While both the Martian story and Courtney’s life influence the main narrative, Kindt doesn’t do enough to weave three narratives seamlessly together.

Although there’s always the next issue, the ending leaves the reader bewildered and confused, not really knowing what’s happening the moment the issue ends. The reader is left with Courtney finding her determination once more, Firestorm approaching critical mass, and J’onn’s cryptic assertions that “Courtney has succeeded” and they’re going to win. Except, the reader doesn’t exactly know what Martian Manhunter really means. The ending leaves the reader more frustrated than wanting for more.

The three art styles, unfortunately, don’t find a rhythm by the end of the book. Visually, the scene on Mars is the most well-done, with the entire story being done in two pages. R.B. Silva composes it to give each individual visual impact—it was nice to see the story without panels, making each action seamlessly flow into the next. Barrows’ art feels repetitive at times, as he does the art done during real time and falls into the pattern of having characters take up the majority of the pages and panels floating in the foreground of the character. While they’re visually well done, the repetitive quality of the art doesn’t fade.

Barrows draws his strength, though, from the pacing of the issue, especially during the fights with Despero. Because he’s such a stronger force than Martian Manhunter and Stargirl, the feeling of the visuals work: it looks more like a tennis match, with Despero and his opponents exchanging blows and literally breaking each other. Because meat of the issue is Despero breaking the Martian Manhunter and fighting Courtney, these powerful back-and-forth images make the combat have a similar impact on the reader: when Despero breaks them, I winced with their pain. Evoking such a visceral reaction from the reader is nothing short of commendable.

Despite the several successes the book achieved, Justice League of America #12 still lacks a cohesiveness to make the entire book succeed. There’s so much going on with Forever Evil that this loses its unique voice amongst the rest of the tie-in issues and remains average within the context of the superimposed event. On its own, however, due to Stargirl, Martian Manhunter, and the indelible hope both seem to hold on to, the book remains a well thought out story about two major Justice League players.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New X-Men #23
Written by Brian Michael Bendis Art by Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger and Marte Garcia
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Space dogfights and mutant soap opera - what's not to like about All-New X-Men #23? It may have taken a little while to introduce all the players, but now that Brian Michael Bendis has both the original X-Men and the Guardians of the Galaxy playing on the same starship, these two quirky teams go surprisingly well together, resulting in an energetic, action-packed read.

Given that this issue is within the X-Men's purview, Bendis rightly puts most of the spotlight on the time-displaced Children of the Atom, mining some great drama out of a group of kids who are way out of their element. The opening sequence featuring Cyclops, for example, is a great way of showing the deep, primal connection between Scott Summers and Jean Grey, all while setting up this story's high stakes - where is Jean Grey?In the hands of the Shi'ar Empire, who have imprisoned Jean for crimes her future self is destined to commit.

This scene may be one of the best exposition drops Bendis has written in a long time - not only does he quickly set up the destructive history of Jean Grey and the Phoenix, but he also sets up Jean's current, altogether unsettling status quo. "A word of advice, young Earther," says Oracle, her Shi'ar interrogator. "Watch your temper. You're not helping yourself."

Yet Bendis's script would likely be dead in the water without Stuart Immonen's artwork to help sell it. Immonen's cartoony, expressive artwork not only draws some great action sequences, but he makes the emotional beats work, too - it's great seeing Cyclops' visor flash as he angrily asks where Jean is, and Immonen draws a superb panel of Jean angrily lashing out as her telepathic captors. (Colorist Marte Garcia especially deserves props for Jean's red hair popping against the cold blueish-green that defines the Shi'ar interrogation chambers.) Even his establishing shots featuring the X-Men or the Shi'ar Imperial Guard look great, as small details like Iceman lounging around barefoot or Titan looming over his fellow Guardsmen help show what kinds of characters they are.

The other great thing about this issue is that it showcases the kinds of action the Bendis is best at. It's basically Star Trek action, in the fact that, yes, we see ships shooting lasers at each other, and it looks pretty, but it's nothing that needs to be lingered upon or intensely choreographed - in other words, Bendis can punctuate his script as needed with a jolt of dogfighting before going back to his Mamet-esque back-and-forth dialogue.

It also helps that he has a good combination of characters to work with - watching alien ass-kickers Angela and Gamora talk about how much they like Wolverine clone X-23 before they jump out into space is a great moment. And it helps Immonen's cause as well - he's able to punch up the Guardians' admittedly dimmer spotlight with a couple of great action beats, particularly watching Angela, Drax and Groot hit a spaceship like a trio of torpedoes, with different streaks of colors trailing in their wake.

There will be some who feel that Bendis's trademark decompression still hampers "The Trial of Jean Grey," particularly with the double-page conversation spreads, not to mention the fact that it's taken three issues for much of anything to happen. (And there are others still who will scoff at Bendis's handwaving with the return of a cult classic X-Men supporting character, one who will have a lasting impact on Scott Summers and company.) Still, this comic crackles with energy and likeability, even if the actual amount of content might be a little too low to make this book truly memorable. But if action and drama are what you crave, All-New X-Men #23 is well worth a shot.

Batman #28 Howard Chaylin 'Steampunk' variant cover
Batman #28 Howard Chaylin 'Steampunk' variant cover
Credit: DC Entertainment

Batman #28
Written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV
Art by Dustin Nguyen, Derek Fridolfs, and John Kalisz
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

DC's Bat-squad of Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Dustin Nguyen, and Derek Fridolfs deliver an exciting look at the future of Gotham with Batman #28. Bringing together the likes of Harper Row as Bluebird, a more villainous version of Catwoman, and the ever-anticipated Stephanie Brown, they’ve successfully given enough of a glimpse into the Batman future to hook readers in to the story to come. While it feels like we’ve seen Gotham in this state before, those feelings don’t significantly undermine the issue, leaving Batman #28 a strong and enjoyable issue.

The art team in particular really nailed it with this book, capturing the desolation of Gotham and contrasting it with the opulence of Selina’s establishment. The action sequences in particular stood out as outstanding. They take up the middle—and majority of the book—and Nguyen and Fridolfs made the book flow nicely when reading. Bluebird and Batman’s movements made it feel similar to watching a television show more than a comic, which made for a more cinematic experience. Nguyen shifts his focus from hero to hero to make it feel like Bluebird and Batman are equals, as both are given the same amount of screen time.

It’s also clear that Batman is compromising with the situation, and Snyder and Tynion specifically make note of that when the muscle-men question Harper’s use of a shock gun. This isn’t the only difference: he’s lost his allies, begrudgingly working with new ones, and isn’t operating in a city under his control anymore. Snyder and Tynion release this information through a clever use of other characters—the thugs to ask why Harper is using guns—and Nguyen and Fridolfs visuals of the characters—Bruce’s deadpan at Harper’s eagerness. It’s more than likely that because Bruce is on the bottom of the food chain, he’s had to make concessions, which is considerably different than his “my way or the highway” attitude in the present during Forever Evil. This remains one of the most interesting parts of the issue, as well as a source of underlying tension that readers can expect to be explored throughout Batman: Eternal.

This glimpse into the future was a brilliant move by DC Comics and everyone involved on the team. In a single issue, readers finally get a concrete glimpse at Stephanie Brown, know Gotham is in a shambled state of affairs, and understand the Bat-family is backed in a corner with the odds stacked against them. In short, readers have a sense of where things are going. Beyond the quality of the issue, this is where the team’s genius shines. By giving readers a glimpse into the future, they now have a yardstick by which to measure the progress of Batman: Eternal; they’ll immediately become invested in the story because they know fan-favorite characters will return, and they’ll be kept on the edge of their seats by continuously attempting to anticipate what happens next. By crafting this story around a virus—one that only Stephanie Brown knows how to stop—they’ve added that all-important immediacy to the story where Batman has to fix this “right now,” or else more people will die.

As exciting as this new status quo feels, there are elements that feel like we’ve seen them before. This isn’t the first time Gotham has been hit by a virus (Batman: Contagion); this isn’t the first time Batman’s been an outsider in his own territory (Batman: No Man’s Land). And beyond that, the story was—to a degree—frustrating to read. It was clear that this was meant to entice the reader to hop on board for Batman: Eternal and give us an unsatisfyingly short glimpse at Stephanie Brown. At times, the narrative felt a tad overdramatic, such as Catwoman’s aggressive reaction to Bruce. Although there might be a good reason for that interaction, the reader’s left in the dark with the exception that Bruce “left her to die,” which is just maddeningly unhelpful, because it’s so far from how Catwoman is now.

None of that changes, however, that this is still an enjoyable read, from both a writing and artistic perspective. Snyder and Tynion release just enough information to get the reader hooked without spoiling the most important details, while Nguyen and Fridolfs craft a masterful visual portrayal of events.

Credit: DC Comics

Injustice Gods Among Us: Year Two #3
Written by Tom Taylor
Art by Bruno Redondo, Julien Hugonnard-Bert and Rex Lokus
Lettering by Wes Abbott
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Tom Taylor takes a step back from focusing on specific characters in the third issue of Year Two, exploring the grander context of Superman’s assertions at the end of Year One that he’ll save the world. By sacrificing that character-driven point of view we had with Black Canary, Taylor removes the reader from the events and lets the story continue without much needed exposition to explain some of the finer points of the plot.

Speaking as someone who thoroughly enjoyed Year One for its innovative and strong storyline, the first few issues of Year Two have left the reader without enough information to fully grasp the new status quo of Earth. The main set-up in the issue is that Hal must choose to potentially overstep his bounds by stopping Congress from shutting down the US Government at Superman’s request. While this shows that Superman is still thinking of humanity’s best interests, the reader is still left wondering exactly what’s causing this shutdown: fear of Superman, the economy, or Superman’s show of force at the UN? Superheroes don’t have a history in interfering with the Government, especially within the context of the economy, unless someone like Ra’s al Ghul or Lex Luthor manipulated the system, and Taylor never expanded as to why they would start now, especially when Clark seems so focused on Diana’s recovery. This weakens the credibility of the overall story and leaves the reader wondering exactly how this situation will become relevant.

It’s clear that Guy Gardner will most likely come crashing into Earth and protest at what Hal’s doing, using the situation at Congress as a spark to fully ignite the proverbial powder keg Earth has become. Tensions are undeniably high, and Earth has drawn the full attention of the Guardians. While Gardner is a refreshing and enjoyable point to the story—bringing back the reader’s own initial disbelief that Superman would be capable of such actions—giving a renewed perspective at how far the heroes of Earth have fallen. Regardless, by establishing that Ganthet has been watching Earth long enough to bring the situation to the Guardian’s attentions, Taylor has made the reader question whether or not the Guardians would be so blind as to not know who killed Kyle Rayner. To have Ganthet’s gaze so fixed on Earth and conveniently not see something so critical seems coincidental at best.

It feels like Taylor has become too relaxed in his storytelling with Injustice. The story, at several points, feels over dramatic, especially at the end when Hal seals the doors to Congress saying “No one leaves.” This is largely due to both the writing and the compositional choices from the art team. Whereas Barry is visually seen as arrogant in the way that he casually sits and unceremoniously chastises the Speaker of the House, Hal is seen as more an aggressive force, asserting his position by floating above everyone else with his arms crossed. Because readers don’t fully understand what’s caused this government shutdown, it’s unknown whether Hal’s response is warranted or over-stepping his bounds.

The art was a hit or miss throughout the entire issue as well. Bruno Redondo fell into a repetitive style with his perspective, choosing to draw the characters head-on for the most part. The artwork becomes monotonous, and the times that it does provide variation seem out of place and without much reasoning, case and point choosing to have the reader see Green Lantern fly towards Congress as if looking right up at his abs and chest. That being said, Redondo and the team really shine during Hal’s flight. Bouncing between visuals of the plane, Hal, and Carol, the team adds a nice element of drama between the two lovers, even if the scene doesn’t exactly feel organic to the story.

That’s really what it boils down to by the end of the issue. Although the story progresses in a logical sequence, from Oa, to Ferris Air, to Washington, the book no longer feels like the characters are the impetus for the actions. They feel disconnected from each other, like the cause and effect pattern has been lost and Taylor is simply pushing the plot forward from event to event. He had a great start in the first issue by focusing on Black Canary; it’s by taking a step back to look at the entire world that he’s lost that character-driven perspective that’s all too necessary to stay invested in the story.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Kick-Ass 3 #6
Written by Mark Millar
Art by John Romita, Jr., Tom Palmer, Dean White and Michael Kelleher
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Icon
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Anyone who’s read Mark Millar knows the man likes action. Each series he’s crafted has been full of explosions, gunfights, and often times gruesome deaths. Of all of his work, Millar’s Kick-Ass has really exploited these themes throughout its epic run.

But what makes the comic so good is that Millar can scale back on the action and instead focus on the characters, and when he does this successfully, the series takes on a new, fresh tone. This is especially noticeable in issue number six of Kick-Ass 3.

By now, we all know Mindy Macready’s origin as Hit-Girl. We know she was raised by her father to be the perfect weapon. But even with this information, her origin can still feel exciting and imaginative and this is where the majority of the issue spends its time. More layers of Mindy’s past are unfolded, and while we’re not surprised by them, they add depth to her character.

Millar paces the issue with aplomb, moving the story along with precision and confidence. The step-by-step approach to Mindy’s past, as revealed through her session with a psychiatrist, are wholly engaging, and they lead to an unexpected resolution involving Mind’s mother.

The second of the issue is a noticeable shift from the first, and here is where Kick-Ass 3 goes back to basics. Millar coalesces his threads and leads the story back to its original conflict with Christopher D’Amico, aka The Motherfucker. This changes the tone of the comic, altering its spark a bit, but Millar clearly wants to remind people of the current situation as he gears up towards his climax.

And Tom Palmer’s finishes have been getting better with each issue. John Romita’s immediately recognizable pencils carry the story, particularly around Mindy’s facial expressions, but Palmer’s inks and washes give the comic a level of cinematic sharpness, especially in the sequences involving Mindy’s training.

A good story balances all its pieces well, and Kick-Ass 3 is such a book. What Millar proves is that his doesn’t need to be glitz and glamor all the time. He’s a solid writer with a gift for plotting and dialogue, and one need look no further than Kick-Ass 3 to see this.

Credit: DC Comics

Superboy #28
Written by Marv Wolfman
Art by Andres Guinaldo, Mark Irwin, Tanya Horie and Richard Horie
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 1 out of 10

There’s no need to tip toe around this one: Superboy #28 is an awful comic.

It’s a mess of clunky threads poorly cobbled together with uneven transitions, poor characterization, and shoddy art that all adds together to make a barely readable story, and one that’s as easily forgotten.

The biggest weakness of Marv Wolfman’s Superboy #28 is that it has so many irons in the fire, the story doesn’t know where to focus. At its center is the origin of Schiz (yes, that’s her real name), a telepath who’s been kept in stasis since her birth because even as a baby, she was a murderous psycho. But there’s also threads involving Raven, Kon, the Crime Syndicate, and Bart Allen.

Isn’t this a Superboy comic?

None of these story lines works well together as Wolfman tries to pack them all into a single issue, but with no finesse as far as transitions, pacing, or tension. Several times, he switches gears right in the middle of the same page, so that the story awkwardly shifts from plot to plot without any connectivity. I thought for a moment I had picked up a Teen Titans comic because of how little the story wants to focus on Superboy.

The artistic team, led by Andres Guinaldo, is left with the unenviable job of visually translating Wolfman’s erratic story, and their contributions don’t help with the clutter. Characters are awkwardly framed so that their faces are visually distorted and messy. Bodies are misshapen, and much of the action occurs in the background leaving us with no real focal point in the panels.

The final splash page is an outright mess for how much it tries to conclude as well as cliff-hang, and one has to question the pacing of the issue. Did Superboy #28 really need all these different threads? Wouldn’t the story have been better served by following one character instead of five?

Wolfman clearly wants to have some connectivity to the Legion of Superheroes, hence the story’s future focus, as well as its three freed heroes, but the addition of all the extra stuff clutters the comic, and what happens is that Superboy becomes one more terrible issue for a series that has failed to find its footing, or solidify itself as a must read of the new 52.

Credit: DC Comics

The Royals: Masters of War #1
Written by Rob Williams
Art by Simon Coleby and JD Mettler
Lettering by Wes Abbot
Published by Vertigo
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Rob Williams makes the “divine right to rule” literal as The Royals: Masters of War propels itself into this reimagined World War II scenario. By having a strong and relateable protagonist, as well as an interesting concept, Williams’ story has enough merit to draw the reader’s attention, despite its flaws.

Williams employs the classic technique of giving us a glimpse of the future and then bring us back in time to explain the events leading up to what appears to be the climax of the overall plot. Starting in Berlin of 1945, the reader is introduced to the main character Prince Henry, who’s lost someone close to him—whose identity remains unclear—and is fighting against an unknown protagonist. While this method can be used to great effect, namely in giving the reader enough information to want to know the culminating events, Williams doesn’t reveal enough to completely hook readers in with that alone. Instead, they’re given a display of powers they don’t fully understand and an antagonist sans an identity.

The rules of the world have yet to be completely defined, leaving the exact nature, capabilities, and limitations of Royals’ powers uncertain. While withholding information can sometimes propel the reader forward through the story in an effort to uncover the information, this instance proves the opposite. Having royal bloodlines possess powers is an incredibly interesting idea, one that piques enough interest in the reader to stick with the first issue. Instead of one page devoted to frustratingly vague references to this new version of history—including callbacks to the French and Bolshevik Revolutions—perhaps it would have been better to take the first few pages to bring the reader into the world by having them understand the new history and context with super-powered royalty.

Although the intricacies of the world are muddled, the characters become enough of a reason to stick with this series by the end of the issue. The main character Henry is immediately identifiable with the reader: frustrated that he can’t help his people under his father’s rule, he’s forced to spectate and play second fiddle to his elder, and more irresponsible, brother until he rebels against his father’s will, as most teenagers eventually do. The dynamic between Henry and Rose play into the reader’s feelings towards Henry—Simon Coleby and JD Mettler on art play up Henry’s innocent look in contrast to his sister’s and brother’s more powerful and dynamic portrayals.

The best example of this is the shot of them together—the youngest children stand behind their father, Rose looking outward and confident, with Henry withdrawn, looking down, and his arms crossed, part of his face covered in shadows. Meanwhile, his brother and father are looking out as well. There’s a clear indication through the art that the family isn’t a cohesive unit, and—although they’re fractured—Rose and Henry remain an inseparable pair.

Often, Rose is depicted as subtly stronger than Henry, with her stance visually open and confident, as well as taking the lead in searching for Arthur and leaving the castle. It’s clear that their relationship will play an important role in the story to come, and their relationship acts as a foil to the relationship Henry and Arthur share. As soon as he’s introduced, Arthur is unlikeable due to his arrogance and aggression. Like Rose, he’s portrayed as much more assertive than his brother. Such interpersonal tension leaves much to be explored by Williams.

These subtle layers in the visuals show that the team is really thinking things through and being collaborative in the process with Williams, making the art one of the strongest aspects of the issue. Beyond relating to the plot, the art just looks stunning, especially in the two-page spread and shot of Henry intervening in the fight towards the end of the issue. Their use of perspective really lets the focus of each shot take center stage—the plane and Henry, respectively--without the equally well-done background getting lost in the mix.

Overall, Williams presents an interesting concept with an above-average opening, done well enough to give readers a sense they need to stick it out for a couple more issues before making a final decision. Reader should definitely continue to read the series, if not to see what happens, but to understand exactly how the world’s history with super-powered royals has progressed in a similar manner to our world’s history without them.

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