Best Shots Reviews: SUPERMAN / WONDER WOMAN #6, ALL-NEW X-MEN #24, More

Superman/Wonder Woman #6
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Superman/Wonder Woman #6
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Tony S. Daniel, Batt, Sandu Florea and Tomeu Morey
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Some fans were concerned prior to Superman/Wonder Woman’s publication that the series would be a one-dimensional romance targeted at a female audience; to those fans, if you haven’t been reading already, do yourself a favor and give the series a try. Superman/Wonder Woman is a perfect blend of the underlying romantic feelings Superman and Wonder Woman have for each other and the powerful character-driven plot. Where romance would detract from the story, writer Charles Soule and the team use it effectively to enhance it and make the most of the story they’re telling.

Wonder Woman continues to steal the spotlight as the most compelling character in the series. Soule writes her incredibly well, allowing her to stand alone as a powerful character in her own right and provide emotional support for Superman. Even while struggling with her own self-doubt, she’s able to put aside her worries and balance her life as Diana with her life as Wonder Woman. Where Clark hesitates, Diana goes in strong; the scene between them over Italy proves that Soule knows what he’s doing in writing their relationship. When Superman lashes out and says he’ll heal fine even without “divine blood,” Diana immediately rises above the dig and compels Clark to tell her what the real issue is.

It also helps that Tony S. Daniel has done a phenomenal job in keeping the designs of these characters on point. He never takes advantage of Wonder Woman’s figure but instead portrays all these characters in a way that’s conducive to the story. He never shies away from drawing the fight scenes with dynamic poses, which makes for a more engaging read visually. The only drawback to his art is that everyone — with the exception of Hephestaus — looks pretty similar in body type. There’s nothing really distinguishing Superman from Zod and Apollo with respect to body type, nor is there a difference really between Wonder Woman and Faora. It should also be noted that there is one butt-shot of Superman, and while it’s no Nightwing, it’s certainly not missed.

Daniel’s has several major successes throughout the issues: Superman and Wonder Woman flying over Italy, the release of power from the armor, Apollo’s ray of sunshine, and the atomic explosion. All of those were particularly well done, except the intention of the cross imagery of the armor is lost on me. Regardless, all are visually stunning and Daniel and Soule should feel lucky that they have colorist Tomeu Morey on their team, because he’s fantastic at using light and color to enhance these images. The thought of coloring sunshine seems daunting to me as a non-artist, so when I see such amazing color that really brings these images to life, I can’t help but give credit where credit is due.

For all the success Soule has had in writing, there’s still one noticeable drawback to the story: he hasn’t spent any time really fleshing out Zod and Faora as characters to transcend them past simple villains. Because we don’t know their motivations — why they do what they do — they’re reduced to just two-dimensional villains. They have personality and an interesting dynamic, but we don’t know much about their specific motivations. Even looking back on Greg Pak’s Action Comics #23.2, Zod’s — and to a greater extent, Faora’s — motives are unclear, and how they became the people they did is still unknown. Soule has a good foundation for which to explore these kinds of things; it could prove awkward for him to spend time to flesh out these characters and could potentially derail the story from its momentum. Beyond that, there’s still the question of Mongul and how he’s going to play into these events after the conclusion of the Batman/Superman Annual and why he would allow Zod and Faora to take control or how Zod and Faora bested him to wrest control.

However, these questions pale in comparison to the strength of the story Soule and the team tells. All of the visual success comes in tandem with Soule’s success as a writer. He balances the exposition and explanation with the incredible action scenes—the entire team is so on point with each other and the creative synergy between them is breathtaking. The end of the issue is unacceptable simply because we need to know what happens next. There doesn’t seem any hope for Wonder Woman’s survival, but we know that there’s no way she’d be truly dead, especially not when this happen before the events of Forever Evil. Because we know that everything turns out all right in the end, we’re so engaged in the story because we want to find out how.

Credit: Marvel Studios

All-New X-Men #24
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's finally clicked for me why "The Trial of Jean Grey" has been such an effective book for Brian Michael Bendis. It's not some strange alchemy between the All-New X-Men and the Guardians of the Galaxy. It's not even the Phoenix-centric high concept of this crossover, which puts a young Jean Grey before trial for genocidal crimes she has yet to commit.

No. It's that finally Bendis has a cast big enough for him to stretch his muscles.

The best comics come not from particular big names, but leveraging a creator's talents to their fullest extent, matching their strengths to the book they're working on. For Bendis, one of his great strengths has been quippy banter - but so often he's been working on comics where his heroes are serious, with very distinct archetypes that doesn't play to Bendis's style. Not so with the X-Men or the Guardians: Bendis is able to have his cake and eat it, too, as he smashes together exposition, gags and teenage angst like nobody else in the business. His Rocket Racoon is appropriately Napoleonic to the fish-out-of-water-space-and-time young X-Men, while his Cyclops is resolute and ready to go to the mat, as he struggles with both the kidnapping of his girlfriend and the revelation that his father Corsair is still alive (and now gallivanting across the galaxy as a space pirate). Only in comics, right? But All-New X-Men #24 acts as a fun, bubbly read despite what could be a dour premise - indeed, Bendis has so many characters to check in with that his trademark decompression doesn't feel out of place here. Indeed, while not every scene feels methodically crafted, every beat feels natural - and rarely does Bendis make any missteps.

The other great thing about this issue is that Bendis really uses these characters' various histories and group dynamics to his advantage. In particular, he taps into the history behind Jean Grey, the Phoenix and the Shi'ar Empire, even referencing mostly forgotten stories like Chris Claremont's 2006 run on Uncanny X-Men, as he plays the mutant side of Marvel against the space-age side with aplomb. Yet even the new kids on the block - the Guardians - get some great, human moments here, particularly the girlcrush between space warriors Angela and Gamora. (And space pirate Corsair absolutely steals the show, swiping Star-Lord's penchant for charming quippery while also mining the family drama inherent of being reintroduced to his teenage son.) Granted, not every character gets their day in the sun - Drax and Star-Lord in particular feel a little left out, as do Beast and Angel, but the characters that do get love get a lot of love.

And speaking of love - can I talk about how much I love Stuart Immonen's work here? It's because of Immonen that this story feels dramatic but never feels like it's being dragged down. He moves from heartfelt to swashbuckling like nobody's business, whether he's drawing a silent scene of Jean Grey taking a flying leap through the Shi'ar cityscape or the beaming grin on Angela's face when she wakes up to Trojan-horse a hapless spaceship. Immonen's take on Jean Grey and Gladiator are the highlights of the book, showing off the fear, shock and anger in Jean's eyes as she learns what the Shi'ar did to her family, as well as the brooding shadows on Gladiator's face when he issues a challenge to his Earth-dwelling foes. Marte Gracia's colorwork also lends an otherworldliness to this comic, as he leans on darkness and eerie purples to flesh out the weirdness of a Shi'ar courtroom.

There are a few minor quibbles, here and there, particularly at how short the fight sequence between the X-Men, the Guardians and the Shi'ar is - especially since Bendis has been building to it for five issues, and also at how one of the inexperienced X-Men manages to take out one of the strongest fighters in the galaxy. And those who don't like Bendis's style of dialogue won't likely be converted here. But there's a lot to like about "The Trial of Jean Grey," and it's mainly because it harnesses Brian Michael Bendis's talents as a writer so well. This odd coupling of teams might have seemed strange on the outset, but they're two great tastes that taste even better together.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Secret Avengers #1
Written by Ales Kot
Art by Michael Walsh and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Marvel's newest incarnation of the Black Ops-style Secret Avengers is a little less Daniel Craig and a whole lot more Roger Moore. Not to say there's anything wrong with that. With Matt Fraction's Hawkeye and Nick Spencer's Superior Foes of Spider-Man taking more comical liberties with the characters, this version of Secret Avengers feels more in tuned to what Marvel readers can expect now, which is perfectly fine because Marvel NOW!'s Secret Avengers is crazy fun.

It's easy to make comparisons to Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye series with Ales Kot's snappy dialogue and Michael Walsh's minimalist, sketchy style - it's okay, it's understandable. The big difference is that this feels like an Avengers title, but sort of swished around with the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League International charm. And while Walsh and Aja have similar styles, I think Walsh is more of a sketchier Gabriel Hardman with the broader linework and rendering.

Now, it's not all slapstick and visual gags - the spy games are still intact as this line up are still kept in the dark on a few things, mainly the major addition of M.O.D.O.K. acting as an informant and weapons developer for S.H.I.E.L.D. Kot goes nonlinear with his timeline with some back and forth moments of how and why everything went down and how it went so horribly wrong so quickly. While the issue starts with Nick Fury, Jr. and Agent Phil Coulson dealing with a genocidal robot in space, Kot intercuts that with some funnier moments of Hawkeye, Spider-Woman (now on the Secret Avengers roster) and Black Widow, as the trio eventually launches into space as reinforcements. From their car.

Going back to Walsh again, I really love the though-out panel compositions here. Maria's incident at the end is a great example, as is the fight scene in the Russian bathhouse. Every page just soars with action and gives you a sense of urgency while Clint, Jessica, and Tasha are on the move. Even with his laid back style, the level of expressions he gives everyone here is impressive to say the least. I noticed there were no splash pages here and everything tells a great sequential story with no need for filler. Add in Matthew Wilson's, who is slowly making his way to Laura Martin levels of talent, who goes over Walsh's lines with a soft color scheme. Not muted, per se, but definitely adds layers to everything from hair to metallic textures and let's the linework sing, but is in harmony with that is laid out.

Secret Avengers is a book that has evolved from super serious, in-the-shadows, superhero warfare, to the more action-comedy we're presented with here. Kot does his best to stray away from a possible Hawkeye Team-Up vibe and maintains the course that is a team book with each character playing their supposed part. While it might be too soon for a relaunch (again), Kot and company did not waste anytime jumping back into serious action and serious fun.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #29
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Of the many totems of contemporary DC Comics, overly complicated origin stories seem to be the trademark of the New 52. What took a handful of panels in the 1930s and 1940s, and a mere four issues under the post-Crisis pen of Frank Miller, has now been going monthly since June last year, bleeding out into other books, and continuing on in this fashion for at least another four months. Despite its best intentions, “Zero Year” has gone against the New 52 ethos of providing accessibility to new readers, the ones who will not see the value in this monolithic arc until it hits trades later in the year. So all we can do for now is enjoy this for the roller coaster that it is.

Following last month’s confusing trip to the future, this issue picks up immediately after the events of Batman #27. The would-be Dark Knight scrambles against multiple forces as the Riddler metaphorically strokes his villainous cat. While this issue is undoubtedly the biggest and most ambitious to date, it is also emblematic of the problems that have arisen in this arc. While Snyder constantly imperils the Batman, it’s status as a prequel assures us that the “Court of Owls” “Requiem” and “Forever Evil” notwithstanding, everything is going to work out just fine for the millionaire playboy with the purple gloves. That said, Snyder ramps the action up tenfold in this outing, and with a cheeky exclamation from Gordon (a redacted “It’s the goddamn Batman!”), the sight of a Bat Blimp emerging from the clouds is enough to set many a fan loin a-quivering. As Riddler’s ultimate plan of destruction comes to fruition, while Batman fights a secondary bad guy, Snyder draws parallels with the helplessness Wayne felt at witnessing his own parents gunned down. Yet despite this, we as readers have seen beyond the chaos, and this whole arc simply becomes an extended flashback that adds very little to the origin.

Capullo’s art is restrained under the circumstances, keeping backgrounds to a minimum, but no less effective. Ripping Batman out of the shadows, he begins with a retro propaganda inspired flashback to Bruce’s childhood, before literally bringing the main man crashing through the scenery. Colors symbolically change depending on setting, giving a tonal consistency to the many buys elements at play here. Tipping his hat very firmly in Frank Miller’s direction, Capullo indulges in a frameable full-page splash of a leaping Batman framed against a lightning bolt, recalling a much older Elseworlds Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. For some this may simply be a reminder that no matter what happens, the whole New 52 is simply an Elseworlds story by any other name.

Putting to one side the immediate gratification of cool origin moments that “Zero Year” has thus far provided, any conclusion that this is leading may ultimately be a hollow one when contemplated for too long. While this story neatly keeps Batman in a holding pattern until “Forever Evil” expires, it has also killed any forward momentum that Snyder’s otherwise excellent arcs have provided to date. Let’s just hope that “Zero Year” doesn’t live up to its name.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Fantastic Four #2
Written by James Robinson
Art by Leonard Kirk, Karl Kesel, Jesus Aburtov and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

After the subtle promise of the previous issue, it's disheartening to see James Robinson's Fantastic Four get so tone deaf so quickly. While the book's debut issue was slightly stilted, it also showed that Robinson grasped the roots of the family he was setting out to deconstruct, even if he wasn't ready to say anything new just yet. Here, in Fantastic Four #2, Robinson's grasp of the FF's business as usual still comes through, but the way he's choosing to move the team forward is at odds with the "aw, shucks" style script, and the too-convenient plot.

For the last couple years, since his return to comics at DC, Robinson has been crafting a writing style that blends an almost campy, Silver Age-type voice with plots and stories that are thoroughly modern in their approach. It's not entirely different from his work on the seminal Starman, and it seems like a no-brainer for a book like Fantastic Four that is all about blending a wholesome family vibe with bleeding edge sci-fi trappings. But what's lacking here is nuance. Robinson's script hits all the technically correct beats for the story he wants to tell, but it pulls in too many big cliches too fast to feel like anything more than coming up with means to justify an end. There's nothing here to push boundaries, other than big, flashing signs that scream "We're pushing boundaries, here!" by calling the FF's hard times such cliche claptrap as "the Fall of Camelot," and tipping, way too far in advance, the hand that deals the FF out of the game.

It doesn't help that the art team just does not feel like the right fit. Leonard Kirk's elastic linework is often appropriate for scenes of the FF in action, and while he rarely nails the more intimate beats, shots like the final panel, where Johnny sheds a single tear, radiate just the right amount of emotion. However, the book's twin colorists, Jesus Aburtov and Rachelle Rosenberg, usually some of Marvels stronger colorists, don't mesh well with Kirk's style, highlighting its weaknesses and showing too many seams instead of bringing the visuals in line with the story's mood. Too many color-holds contrast with inker Karl Kesel's thick, dark lines, and the shiny, glossy palette is at constant odds with the unnecessary new red and black uniforms the team is sporting. Like Robinson's script, the book tries to visually split its language between dark and foreboding cues and more upbeat, classically informed stylization, and it feels like its at war with itself.

It's not all bad; Kirk is particularly deft at capturing Ben and Johnny's heroic exploits. A panel where Ben lands among the monsters that are flooding Manhattan, yelling "Guess what time it is!" shows just the right balance of all the contradictory forces at play, both visually, and in the script. But callbacks to the Heroes Reborn universe, and yet another attack on Manhattan that sees all of Marvel's major heroes hitting the streets stymie the times when Fantastic Four #2 gets it right by flinging the same old stuff into the script. The FF should be all about moving onward and upward, exploring the situations and places that no other characters in the Marvel universe can go. Seeing them retread ground that's been covered over and over again, not just in their own pages, but in the pages of other books is disappointing and uninspired.

The thing that makes James Robinson and Leonard Kirk's Fantastic Four so disappointing is that, by all rights, they could be doing so much better. Robinson's old-meets-new sensibilities seem like a natural fit for Marvel's first family, and Kirk's grasp of bombastic, big action lends itself perfect to a comic that often finds itself far afield in alternate dimensions, other planets, and exotic locales. But what works on paper is often less successful in practice. By forcing the FF into a more grounded mold, and trying to go darker to keep the book interesting, Robinson is ignoring the big, bright future that Fantastic Four has always promised. Fantastic Four needs actual innovation, not the illusion of momentum.

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #29
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Fernando Pasarin, Jonathan Glapion and Blond
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Last month, Batgirl maestro Gail Simone introduced us to arguably one of the most intriguing villains of the New 52. Gotham has seen its share of crazy over the years, but Silver sees the world differently to others, convinced as he is that Batman and his family are vampires hell-bent on sucking the blood from the innocent. So began a new era of the book for both Simone and Batgirl, allowing the character to step further away from the shadow of the bigger Bat and carve out her own solid set of rogues.

Stuck at the business end of the GCPD out of costume, Batgirl/Barbara Gordon faces down her new foe while racing against the clock to save a little girl. It seems like a typically gripping edge-of-your-seat adventure from Simone’s award-worthy headspace, but what happens next may genuinely surprise you (unless, of course, you’ve just read this and are now expecting a surprise of some kind). Taking on board audience expectations, Simone cleverly subverts them while staying within the bounds of some well-worn horror tropes, all the while flat-out telling you that she is doing so.

While Simone’s wonderful issue prior to this smacked of a tragic inevitability to the fate of all these new characters, Simone hits it out of the park again this month, shocking us in more ways than one. The truth about Silver’s madness is revealed, providing what could have been just another Gotham crazy a little bit of pathos. As his final play is revealed, his actions actually manage to stump the hero for the change, who has to shrug her shoulders in semi-defeat. It’s also a testament to Simone’s writing that such witty comedy can come from the mostly one-sided exchanges between Babs Gordon and the mute Strix. Indeed, this team-up is one that lays the groundwork for a potentially rewarding partnership down the tracks.

Pasarin’s pencils continue to provide the title with its own strong visual identity, finding a balance between character moments and rapid-fire action. He also gets to have more than a little fun depicting Batgirl and Strix as red leather-clad bloodsuckers. The action is undoubtedly bloody, and perhaps Simone (via Babs) puts it best: “If this wasn’t so unspeakably grotesque, it would almost be beautiful.” Pasarin also tries his hand at a character that will be familiar to a character whose book was cancelled around this time last year, and his entrance is not done without a sense of irony.

Batgirl is exactly where DC needs to be right now, throwing off-the-wall scenarios at established characters, testing their mettle inside situations that are equally grounded in character and high-adventure. Simone is a master of this kind of storytelling, and along with Red Sonja and Tomb Raider, of crafting strong female leads that eclipse their male counterparts. This latest issue is no exception to that rule.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

The Returning #1
Written by Jason Starr
Art by Andrea Mutti and Vladimir Popov
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Boom! Studios latest horror offering, The Returning bears some resemblance to other works in the genre but it tries to place its character before its concept. In many ways, that becomes both its strength and its weakness. Jason Starr builds a believable world but he doesn’t do enough to bait the hook, leading to some of this issue falling flat. Andrea Mutti’s art is suitably dark and moody but there’s a lack of clarity that holds it back.

Starr opts for a nonlinear approach in the first issue. Readers are immediately confronted with the idea that people in this world have been coming back to life and they’ve been coming back inexplicably changed somehow. Starr’s protagonist, Beth, is a fairly average teenage girl and the events leading up to her accident are served up in an almost afterschool special kind of drama. Starr can do better than this and inevitably he does. Beth’s near-death experience allows Mutti to stretch his muscles for the first time in the issue and it gets Starr over the flashback hump. With the narrative back in present, the plot moves along at a quicker pace. Beth is shunned by her peers and her family as her new status weighs on her life. Her narration feels real and Starr has a good handle on her voice. But Beth hasn’t real come alive for us (no pun intended) as a character yet. There’s nothing that stands out about her. Maybe that makes her an easy target for readers to project themselves onto but considering that Starr’s concept is at least slightly similar to Image’s Revival, its unfortunate that we don’t have a stronger protagonist guiding the narrative.

Andrea Mutti slogs through the first half of this book but his work takes a step forward when Beth has her near-death experience. Just like Star’s writing, Mutti kicks into another gear but his work suffers from a lack of strong, discernible lines. His inks feature heavy blacks and dark shadows but they causes his characters to bleed into the black gutters of the page. That approach works better toward the end of the book but for most of the issue, readers can be overwhelmed by how dark the pages are. Colorist Vladimir Popov doesn’t do Mutti any favors by using a very muted palette.

The Returning is a by-the-numbers horror jaunt that hits almost all the necessary tropes. Starr is definitely trying to open up the concept but most readers will need more than the appearance of a mysterious stranger to keep them interested. While Mutti and Starr do get better as the issue progresses, the whole package kind of feels stale. There’s potentially a good story to be told here but the creators haven’t unearthed it.

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