Best Shots Comic Reviews: AQUAMAN #29, ALL-NEW GHOST RIDER #1, UNDERTAKING OF LILY CHEN

Interior art from Aquaman #29
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New Ghost Rider #1
Written by Felipe Smith
Art by Tradd Moore, Nelson Daniel and Val Staples
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

All-New. All-Different.

Pop the clutch. Time to switch gears. Put your pedal to the metal - and get ready to meet your new Ghost Rider. He's... a little unconventional.

Out of all of the Marvel NOW! offerings, it's All-New Ghost Rider that might bear the most watching. Outside of name - and maybe spirit - there's little to link this book from the grindhouse western-style trappings of Johnny Blaze or Danny Ketch. Instead of flaming motorcycles alongside tumbleweeds, this is a slicker, shinier Ghost Rider, drag-racing through the neon streets of East Los Angeles. He may not be the Ghost Rider you remember - but he's a Ghost Rider who deserves a chance to ride.

Stylistically, this book is like a dark twist on Jaime Reyes during the original run of DC's Blue Beetle. Robbie Reyes (no relation) is a kid growing up in the southwest, misunderstood, yet growing up with a fierce loyalty to his family. Yet whereas Jamie was a character born of naturalism and an innate sweetness, Robbie's life is painted in much starker colors. Writer Felipe Smith is all about taking characters to the red line of believability, and so the melodrama is cranked to 11. Not only is Robbie's every race over-the-top and harrowing, but even bits like defending his developmentally disabled brother Gabe come off so big, it might even be off-putting. But for every bit that might be too much - like Gabe freaking out over how much he likes macaroni and cheese - there's an equally intense beat that works, like Robbie tearing up at how ineffectual he is protecting his brother. Think of it as "emotionally hardcore."

And that influence extends to the art. Tradd Moore's manga-inspired characters are almost elastic, they bend so much - he reminds me a lot of a cross between Damion Scott and Freddie Williams II, with his characters contorting and stretching with a somewhat thin set of lines. His designwork for his characters really lends some emotion to some of the scenes, not to mention a real visceral punch to the brutal fisticuffs early on the in the book. But it's the chase sequences that really stand out - you can see how much thought Moore put into the chases, and they're some of the best, most innovative bits of comic bookery I've seen in quite a while. It's Speed Racer put through the worst neighborhood in Detroit, as Moore criss-crossed his pages with tire-tread-esque panels, laced with the perspectives of each of the racers. Including an ominous-looking skull.

But that's not to say that this book is perfect - far from it. Smith's pacing is ever-so-slightly off, making this issue feel a bit decompressed. This is particularly a problem since we barely get to see Ghost Rider himself - this is the same sort of playbook from the old Blue Beetle days, but for a character as speed-obsessed as Robbie Reyes, it's ironic that we don't get to the real meat of the story faster. In addition, people are going to either love or hate Tradd Moore's style - there's no middle ground here, especially as his fluid, bendy characters get more and more overpronounced.

But considering how much the concept has flailed about in the past, All-New Ghost Rider isn't a bad respite. There's no way that Marvel is going to keep Robbie Reyes in the driver's seat - there's already too much iconography, too much history to just forget about Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch. But for now, it's good to rest the concept and see what other directions it might go. If Smith can provide a solid platform for Moore to cut loose next issue, I'd say that All-New Ghost Rider will be a fantastic showcase for a future superstar artist.

Credit: DC Comics

Aquaman #29
Written by Jeff Parker
Art by Paul Pelletier, Sean Parsons, Norm Rapmund and Rain Beredo
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It looks like Diana isn’t the only one dealing with Olympian problems anymore. Jeff Parker pits Aquaman against the “giant-born” in Aquaman #29 and, despite the sometimes overdramatic narrative, questionable facts, and clunky artwork, it still feels like a rather enjoyable issue and one deserving of our attention.

The idea behind the story, where Atlantis sealed away Greek monsters, is actually quite interesting, especially after having seen the two cultures interact during Flashpoint. However, Parker underutilizes the premise as he executes the story. The monsters are called “giant-born,” born from the giants. That’s a rather ambiguous term when Cyclopses, Hecatoncheires, and the Laestrygonians all fall under that category. It appears that Parker could be referencing the Gigantes, the children of Gaea and Tartarus that the Olympians couldn’t defeat without the aid of a demigod — in the story, it was Heracles. He makes an appearance in Aquaman #29, but under his Roman name Hercules, which is strange since Parker established these monsters are from Greek mythology.

While these all may be classified as fun-fact trivia and irrelevant to the understanding of the story, these inconsistencies and ambiguities make it seem like Parker, as a writer, didn’t do his due diligence to properly research, in addition to the editors not catching these instances. Regardless, Parker should be commended for working towards that goal of a DC Universe, as the issue references Swamp Thing and brings in Greek mythology associated with Wonder Woman. It doesn’t take away from the story at all and only enhances it by tying it to the overall universe. Besides that, Parker’s writing is, for the most part, strong. Everything seems natural and character-driven, and we’re never questioning the believability of what’s happening. There’s one instance where Parker reveals the giant-born manipulated the tablet to show “Gate” instead of “Hell,” and Paul Pelletier’s breakdown of the panels makes it feel rather overdramatic, especially since we don’t know the full extent of the giant-borns’ powers.

Pelletier’s art is hit or miss for this issue, strong in certain places and weak in others. While the character and monster designs are visually appealing, the movements during the fight feel static and clunky, and this is because there’s just too much going on in the panels. While the monster designs are fairly diverse, colorist Rain Beredo makes everything except Aquaman’s pants and the central monster in varying hues between yellow, red, orange, and purple, which makes everything but those two things blend together. There’s no real sense of movement from panel to panel until Hercules enters the fray. The last page is absolutely the best throughout the issue, and it’s a shame that quality wasn’t a constant throughout.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these past few issues has been seeing the dichotomy between Arthur Curry and Aquaman. It appears that Parker won’t let that overshadow Mera, as she continues to be a strong character, getting business done in Arthur’s stead. If nothing else, Parker’s ability to juggle between all of the facets of the narrative is a testament to his abilities as a writer: although we see such different settings, between Arthur and Mera at their home, to Mera as acting queen in Atlantis, to Aquaman fighting on the battlefield, it all feels like an Aquaman adventure while still getting to the heart of these characters, which makes it such an enjoyable read despite its flaws.

Credit: First Second

The Undertaking of Lily Chen
Written and Illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff
Published by 01:FirstSecond
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Readers familiar with Danica Novgorodoff will note that The Undertaking of Lily Chen provides something of a departure from some of her more recent graphic novels – Slow Storm (2008), which deals with a firefighter in Kentucky dealing with the aftermath of a tornado, and Refresh, Refresh (2008), which focuses on the coming of age stories of three boys in Oregon. While her past works were rightfully well received by critics and fans alike, this latest original graphic novel provides readers with a story unlike most being told today.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen is a story about a young Chinese man whose brother dies, which forces him to go out and seek the dead body of dead woman who would serve as a "ghost bride" to ensure his brother does not become lonely in the afterlife. Although this practice may be unfamiliar to many Western cultures, it is one that dates back to approximately 208 A.D. with the marriage of the late-son of Cao Chung – an influential warlord during the time – to another recently deceased young woman. According to Novgorodoff, this traditional practice is again taking root in rural areas of China, which provides the backdrop for her latest story.

Novgorodoff does a really fine job of constructing the story and fleshing out her characters. Deshi's plight is one readers will sympathize with in some regards, and yet, there are also aspects to his personality and decisions he makes that keep Novgorodoff from giving him over to the all-too-common "everyman" trope. Yet, she also does not set up Deshi as a flawed character against a "saintly" Lily Chen – who is unknowingly traveling to become the corpse bride for Deshi's brother. Lily, too, will find an audience of readers who will relate to the struggles to want something better out of life and not wile away under the thumb of the men in her life. However, she has her share of flaws as well, which become evident in her self-centered and naïve behaviors as well. Although she is looking for someone to help her out of her lowly circumstance, she is no passive princess seeking a prince charming who will rule over her either. Overall, I found the flaws these characters possess and how they respond to each other are what draws readers into this unique and somewhat dark narrative and eschew a more traditional (and predictable) story.

Speaking of being drawn into the narrative, Novgorodoff's work with the brush is arguably the strongest, most compelling element to this whole book that will haunt readers well after they reach the story's conclusion. On far too many examples to cite, I found myself looking at the numerous water color backgrounds and thinking to myself how each could stand on its as an individual work of art. From her warm sunsets, wide-open skies, and crisp and cool waters, I really enjoyed the scenic backgrounds on display. If there was one aspect to the art that I think many mainstream comic readers will grapple with is with regards to Novgorodoff's character depictions, particularly with her tendency to apply more block-like body proportions. There were times when I did find the lack of fluidity in character movements contrasted with the gracefulness of the scenes she created. Even then,there were some excellent exchanges between Deshi and Lily where Novgorodoff presents each individual's facial expressions with simple lines that effectively convey the her desired tone, which illustrates her ability to help tell the story with her art.

Archaia rightly deserves credit for the high quality that they put into designing their graphic novels; however, I would argue 01:FirstSecond delivers equally eye-catching book that are just as thoughtfully designed. From the haunting and yet beautiful cover down to the quality of the paper used for both the cover and interior, this is yet another book from 01:FirstSecond that calls out to be read. And rest assured, The Undertaking of Lily Chen delivers a story that is unexpected and satisfying.

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