Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Best Shots pick-me-up? Your favorite team of crackshot reviewers have you covered, as Mighty Michael Moccio kicks off today's column with the start of Marvel's latest event, Original Sin...
Original Sin #0
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Jim Cheung, Paco Medina, Mark Morales, Guillermo Ortego, Dave Meikis, Juan Vlasco and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
There are #0 issues to be proud of, and then there’s Original Sin #0, which turns non-Marvel readers like me into readers wishing they had been reading this whole time. In the span of one issue, Waid catches anyone up with only minimal familiarity with the current going-ons of the Marvel Universe, gives us reasons to root for and identify with Nova and the Watcher, and adds an undeniably heart-string-tugging human element to the entire story. As far as introductory issues go, this should be a model for reference, as it was nearly perfect.
As someone who isn’t too invested in the Marvel universe, I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special. One of Waid’s greatest strengths is crafting an issue that’s universally accessible to anyone with a general familiarity of the Marvel universe and beyond. He catches us up and sets the scene within the first two pages, and gives Sam Alexander identifiable characteristics and a clear motive: his father. Artist Jim Cheung makes Sam look incredibly young, which adds to the character’s overall charm and demeanor, immediately investing readers into Sam as a character. Some might complain that this is more telling than showing, but the visuals are clear enough that they show us everything we need to know to make what Waid’s telling us believable.
Although Jeph Loeb came up with the pairing of Nova and the Watcher, Waid’s version is incredibly genuine and full of emotion. The issue itself ties nicely together as it opens with Sam’s tale of his father and then connects to the Watcher’s own experiences. What develops is a moving encounter between an unlikely pair that anyone should be able to relate to. Jim Cheung and Paco Medina are nearly flawless in their depiction of events, encapsulating the implicit connection between the two characters; in one of the final pages, where Sam says, “I wanted my Dad to be right, too,” the breakdown of the scene is powerful, marking the pause between realizations of what’s happening to an attempt at empathy. The execution is nothing short of breathtaking. Justin Ponsor on colors deserves a shout-out for his glossy coloring style, which fits into the science-fiction tone set forth by Sam’s powers and the nature of the Watcher.
The only minor drawbacks of the issue were two things. First, it felt like there needed to be another page between when Sam asks the question to Iron Man and Captain America to when he goes off to ask the Watcher. As someone not readily familiar with their dynamic, nor completely knowing who Sam is, I wanted to see a few panels of him trying to concentrate with this restless question on his mind. It would have made his decision to act a little more believable, but the quality of the issue as a whole overshadows that want. Similarly, the Watcher’s dialogue in the flashback felt off at times, particularly when he uses the phrase “The strong must always aid the weak — else our strength is but a sham!” It would have helped if the Watcher showed events a little more back in time to set the background of him and his people, so that when he calls their strength a “sham,” the reader can better understand where he’s coming from. The word “sham” holds a strong connotation, one that almost implies religious undertones — it’s weird phrasing and it makes a generalized statement about the society as a whole. It seems like the Watcher wants to deliver something along the lines of an uplifting message, but it comes across more of a “holier than thou” attitude. A little more context and different phrasing could have made clearer what interpretation the reader was supposed to come away with.
Regardless of those (very) small hiccups, Original Sin #0 has made a Marvel reader out of me. Their focus on the human aspect of characters, having the reader fully understand them and their motivations, will inevitably be their greatest strength going forward and it’s up to the creative teams to capitalize on that. This issue sets forth a precedence of quality that will hopefully be met with each subsequent issue. For the meantime, however, Waid and the rest of the creative team deserves to give themselves a generous pat on the back — they’ve definitely earned it.
Justice League United #0
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Mike McKone and Marcelo Maiolo
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
I will admit that I was one of the naysayers. After hearing about Justice League Canada, I was skeptical at best and unfairly judgmental at worst. However, Jeff Lemire made a believer (thankfully not a Beliber, Canada and all); despite some less than inspiring writing at times, Justice League United #0 serves as a good starting point for Lemire and the team to make something great.
Stargirl and Animal Man are a surprisingly cohesive pair. I’m starting to think the real star is Stargirl’s personality, as she and Martian Manhunter also make quite the team as well. She oscillates between a superhero professional and witty teenager consistently throughout the narrative, but it turns out to be endearing and enjoyable, especially when she interacts with Animal Man. Part of the reason why the opening scenes after the glimpse into the future feels out of place is because we haven’t seen the ending of Forever Evil yet. The thought of Stargirl and Animal Man at a signing seems off, especially after the direction Matt Kindt chose to take Courtney in during Forever Evil.
Although showing a glimpse into the future can often be successful, as it gives readers a yardstick by which to measure how far the plot has progressed, Lemire falls short with his attempt. We don’t really know what’s going, nor can we even begin to understand this child’s powers, which just makes us confused — not intrigued. It takes about ten pages for the book to pick up the pace with the aliens arrival, and, although Stargirl and Animal Man have a nice dynamic back forth, it just wasn’t enough make the reader engaged in the story. Don’t get me wrong - they work well together, and artist Mike McKone makes them visually appealing too. His artwork has a certain whimsical quality — especially with Animal Man’s hair — and it’s clear that he has good grasp of what works visually on the page. The conversational sequences flow from panel to panel and make the physical reading of the book enjoyable, but that isn’t enough to carry the story completely.
The most disappointing aspect of the issues was the highly anticipated new character Miiyahbin, who just doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. While the added diversity feels natural — she’s absolutely not a token character — Lemire immediately makes her important because of her powers and the mystery of the Whitago. The emphasis is placed on Miiyahbin’s culture and powers, and it would’ve been nice to get behind her as a person first, rather than as a tool to push the plot forward. At this point, readers can’t know what motivates her, what her goals are, and thus we just can’t become fully invested in her character. There’s nothing concrete with which to identify. She looks cool, she sounds cool, and her powers and uniform — the mystery behind them — are all phenomenally done, but there’s nothing of substance behind it.
McKone and Marcelo Maiolo make a great pair, particularly when it comes to the high intense action and dramatic scenes. McKone’s sense of composition in terms of character placement and posture shines through, making it easy for readers to visualize what’s happening from panel to panel and watch it like it was happening right in front of them. Maiolo makes everything look distinct to ensure nothing gets lost in some of the more crowded panels. The subtle variations on the color to fit more with what’s around it — like how the oranges in the underground facility are slightly muted so they don’t overpower the greens and blues and greys — really make a difference overall. McKone does admirably with the Lobo redesign, but the former Main Man will still be sorely missed.
What Lemire and the team have working for them is the potential of the cast of characters. The heroes on Earth are already working well together — barring the sarcastic comments towards Animal Man’s capability — and the attention given to Hawkman implies he’ll be another interesting factor as well. Don’t expect to be sold completely on the idea of this book, but be prepared to leave with expectations of potential in the story.
Uncanny Avengers #19
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Daniel Acuna
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10
Ah, time travel. It is at times the bane of a superhero’s existence. At others it is the saving grace of a super team and our universe. Time travel has always been essential to the events of Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers, but now it seems that it is the only solution to the seismic events that took place during the ascension of Planet X. A Kang Ex Machina, if you will. But after all the over the top storytelling and extra insane events that have taken place during the last two arc, why has this current arc, cheekily titled Avenge the Earth, felt like such a dour slog?
Uncanny Avengers #19 finds a haggard and frustrated Havok striking a deal with Kang and a group of various Marvel heroes and villains assembled from different time streams, along with a battle-scarred Thor, still hungry for revenge. It's here that the fun of issue begins and ends. Remender assembles a team that just the right amount of goofy; a Dethlok-ed version of The Abomination, May Parker from Earth X, as well as Arno Stark, Iron Man 2020. This team looks amazing together, but they seem to only operate on a cosmetic level and are there only as support for Kang (and ultimately to set the time stream right again). Kang convinces Havoc that in order to set things right and erase Planet X from existence, he will have to gather the remaining members of the Avengers Unity Squad, send their minds back in time, and fix the mistakes made the first time around by finally banding together as Avengers. If that sounds familiar, it bloody well should, because it's the exact same plot as Days of Future Past, the famous X-Men storyline and the basis of the new Fox X-film opening this month, except this time Thor is involved. But more important than that, bear in mind that we are 19 issues deep into Uncanny Avengers and we have really yet to see them act as a full team.
Rick Remender is famous for this kind of big-picture, over-the-top plotting, and with Planet X and Avenge the Earth he has more than made good on the teases he dished out after the first arc of Uncanny Avengers. But it may be too little, too late at this point. Remender has held his cards so close to the chest for so long, and put this team through all sorts of hell to get to this point that as a fan of the book, I can hardly bring myself to care. While Uncanny Avengers #19 finally depicts the Avengers Unity Squad gaining the upper hand in this struggle for the future, it is still stocked with hackneyed gloom and doom for our heroes as well as elaborate tortures (Sunfire and Wolverine are kept in cells right next to each other with Shiro’s flames constantly being funneled into Logan’s, keeping him constantly burning). I came for the comic book action of an Avengers comic, not the endless displays of character punishment that Uncanny Avengers seems to be lately.
Keeping the issue from being a total bummer is the ever-dependable Daniel Acuna, who is a joy to behold no matter what book he is on. The decision to settle on Acuna as the regular artist for Uncanny Avengers has been an editorial saving grace for the title, giving it the visual flair that it sorely needs in order to keep it from feeling as heavy as the script seems to want it to be. Acuna fully commits to the absurdity of Kang’s Chronos Corps and the heavy totalitarian "utopia" of Planet X with equal aplomb. Acuna’s characterizations have always popped from the page due to his highly expressive and sleek style, and Uncanny Avengers #19 is just another in a long line of examples. Acuna’s characters seem to feel pain more intensely than we do and experience shock and anger to a higher degree than we do. If there is one artist who depicted the hyperreality of comics truthfully and effortlessly, it would be Daniel Acuna.
Its painfully dull when heroes are constantly and quickly coming out on top in comics. I will be the first to admit that. No one wants cookie cutter, three-issue story arcs that never even hint that the good guys might not come out of the other side of this scathed in any way. Considering this, its becoming harder and harder for me to describe Uncanny Avengers to people as the fun, out-there comic that we were given during the first arcs. Rick Remender is an intensely talented writer and is churning out quality work throughout the comics industry right now, but it seems that his work on Uncanny Avengers has taken a downward turn as of late. Perhaps after Kang and Havok get the band back together, we will see a return to the heady and exciting days before Planet X.
Written by Jeff Parker
Art by Paul Pelletier, Sean Parsons, Alvaro Martinez, Raul Fernandez and Rain Beredo
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
As expected, Aquaman’s story has expanded into the different corners of the DC Universe, bringing in Superman and even, more prominently, Wonder Woman. Though the start of this new story arc didn’t start off as strong, the idea of bringing in mythical elements to Aquaman’s story proves to be both intriguing and feasible. The balance between Aquaman’s activities on the surface and Mera’s time in Atlantis creates a good dichotomy and parallel storylines that keep readers interested despite the lack of any meaningful climaxes in the story.
The greatest tragedy of Aquaman #30 is that the story feels completely plateaued. There’s nothing meaningful to get us on the edge of our seat, and while the quality of the issue remains relatively high, there’s simply nothing that spikes it to the next level. Even during the climactic battle with Aquaman and Hercules, a battle that should have been incredible refrained from giving readers proper variations in pacing and action. The debris and clutter within the images also added to that feeling, as it sometimes felt too much to process at one time, specifically at the finale of Aquaman’s fight with Hercules. The red lava-like energy, which is a similar color to Hercules’ overdramatic screaming, makes the last page of the battle hard for readers to follow the flow.
Compared to Aquaman’s portions of the issue, Mera’s shined. Hers was incredibly more interesting, as there were times when the narrative felt paused as we wondered what was going to happen next. Alvaro Martinez decides to end a page with Mera trying to breathe as her assailants close in — we have to turn the page to find out what happens to her, and we don’t want to look away. Part of the problem is that these giant-borne still feel more like a plot device than actual villains; Parker doesn’t do enough to make us care about Hercules as a character. Sure, it’s cool that Aquaman is facing off with a mythical warrior, but there’s nothing except for his internal pleading that really characterizes him — even then, calling out to Zeus just feels off and doesn’t help the reader understand Hercules as a character. Aquaman seems to feel terrible about locking him away, but there’s nothing that makes us feel terrible as well.
Even though Parker’s been a hit and miss with characterization, when he hits it, he hits it well, especially with the female cast. Mera takes the spotlight with the issue, showing her ferocity as a warrior and compassion as a leader, even when she’s working with people who’re inherently prejudiced against her. Tula, similarly, shines for the short amount of time she appears in the issue. Though her status as Orm’s sister feels strange, Parker takes it in stride by showing her save Mera as Tula asserts herself as a character with which to contend, one who has a place in the main narrative.
Surprisingly, Alvaro Martinez’ artwork trumps Sean Parson’s this round. The character designs are much smoother and fluid, making it really enjoyable to watch the combat in the water. The art style itself felt more refined and deliberate than Parson’s, especially when comparing their visual composition. Whereas Parsons sticks to a traditions paneling breakdown, Martinez uses the angular panels to guide the readers’ eyes throughout the pages. Parsons’ character designs, especially in Hercules and the giant-borne, still erred too much on the side of monstrous, making them look too unrealistic for my tastes. However, Parsons absolutely shined as Aquaman and Hercules faced off in the water—the way he dream the exchange of blows and movement made it feel explosive compared to Martinez’s elegance, which suited Aquaman’s fighting style perfectly.
Though the story ultimately feels lackluster, that’s only because there wasn’t much variation in the pacing of the story, especially in the main scenes with Aquaman. While the action was done well, the characterization fell short and stopped Hercules or the giant-borne from becoming villains that deserved our attention. It’ll be nice to see heroes like Wonder Woman and Aquaman work together, especially when Parker’s reasoning makes the story feel so organic and believable.
Conan The Avenger #1
Written by Fred Van Lente
Art by Brian Ching and Michael Atiyeh
Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Dark Horse Comics made a name for itself very early on with edgy, innovative content, but the company also soared creatively with its variety of licensed characters and properties. Books like the continuation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Alien franchise, and up until recently the Star Wars universe have all yielded wonderful comics and story arcs that have felt like natural expansions of the original properties. Another property that has been a jewel in the Dark Horse crown since 2005 has been the worlds created by Robert E. Howard, specifically the life and adventures of Conan of Cimmeria. Now, fresh off his opening Conan miniseries, Conan and The People of the Black Circle, Fred Van Lente throws us headlong into a new ongoing, and it's one hell of a yarn.
Van Lente has already gone on-record to say that, like most of the Dark Horse Conan books, the new ongoing Conan the Avenger fits snugly into an established canon called The Dark Storm Chronology, which plots the events in Conan’s life from his early days until his reign as king, based on the events depicted in the original stories. Conan the Avenger is also serves as an adaptation of an incomplete Howard manuscript as well as a continuation of the Brian Wood entries into the series. Indeed, it's some of the smartest work with continuity this side of Mark Waid. If all this talk of canons and adaptations sends you into fits of continuity shock, fear not, gentle reader. While Fred Ven Lente has the full weight and backing of years of stories and current adaptations behind him, Conan the Avenger #1 is an easy to pick up romp designed for Conan purists and new readers alike.
The story picks up right after the events of Brian Wood’s run, which was a loose adaptation of the famous Howard story “The Queen of the Black Coast.” A destitute and wine-swilling Conan finds himself in the city of Kush, as black magic and political turmoil are threatening to boil over into the streets. Van Lente presents us a very different Conan than the one that we saw in Brian Wood’s run. The wonderful thing about Conan as a character is that, depending on your setting, Conan could be any number of versions of the character. We’ve seen Conan as the warrior king in King Conan. Brian Wood recently gave us Conan as the ruthless pirate and lover in his run. But Fred Van Lente gives us the feral, aimless Conan that most of us were introduced to and are most familiar with, introducing him as he drinks himself into a violent stupor, raging at anyone who dare try to roust him. This has to be by design. As a Conan fan, there is much to enjoy here from a diehard’s POV, but as a new reader, Conan the Avenger #1 is a white-knuckled introduction to the character with just enough hints at his rich history to send you looking into the back catalog should you so desire.
Depicting this rough-and-tumble time in Conan's life with suitably gritty and rough edged pencils is the art team of Brian Ching and colorist Michael Atiyeh. From the first two panels, Ching lets the reader know just how game he is with the visuals required of him in the Sword and Sorcery genre, and continues to impress until the last page. Ching’s Conan is lean and dangerous-looking, while still carrying the heavy burden of loss about him. Conan is finally once again the proper sort of grim that was described by Robert E. Howard. In a particularly visceral scene, after Conan’s belongings are stripped from him and he is left for dead in a pit of refuse, Ching renders Conan as a roaring beast, unbent by his circumstances, clawing and fighting his way back into the world to wreak vengeance upon those who stole from him. Ching goes for the jugular in this first issue and gives us what could be the start of a visually exciting run of Conan comics. Colorist Michael Atiyeh adds heaps of mood into the work of Brian Ching, coloring the night skies of Kush with heavy greys and deep blues, while the marketplace crackles with low, rich yellows and burning oranges. The world that Conan inhabits is dangerous and wild and Ching and Atiyeh never let the reader forget as such,
Licensed properties are easy to ignore, and even easier still to completely mess up. But it is the attention to detail and adherence to canon that has set the Dark Horse Conan books apart from other licenses. Since 2005, Dark Horse has been the place to go for bone crunching and thoughtful Conan the Barbarian stories and an authoritative voice in establishing a cohesive canon for “The Hyborian Age” created by Robert E. Howard. Fred Van Lente and his team start off slow, but quickly burst forward in a dead sprint with Conan The Avenger #1. It seems that our favorite barbarian is still in very good hands with Dark Horse.
Mice Templar v4 #9
Written by Bryan J.L. Glass
Art Victor Santos and Serena Guerra
Lettering by James H. Glass
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
The Readers of the Wheat have been thrown down. The Great Ash Tree smolders in ruins, and the mad king's reign crumbles as the people rise in rebellion under the banner of the once-fallen Mice Templar. The Legend of Karic continues to spread like wildfire, and its message inspires mice to rise up and fight back against the rats. Across the world, hell is breaking loose, and no one seems to be safe – including the gods. Although Mice Templar #9 continues to keep up the momentum, and remind readers of the epic scope of the backdrop for this issue, Glass' narrative in Issue #9 is still, at its heart, the sort of character-driven piece that has set this series apart from so many others.
Admittedly, I was hoping to see the stories of the young mouse heroes, Karic and Leto, and their aged counselors, Cassius and Pilot, move closer to their inevitable confrontation. Glass spent considerable time building up these dueling relationships with Karic and Leto each finding himself in the role of savior and champion of his people, just as their respective guides (Cassius and Pilot) seek accomplish journeys of their own – Cassisus' search for forgiveness and wholeness contrasting sharply with Pilot's vainglorious pursuit of power and esteem. And yet, only Karic makes the briefest of appearances in this issue.
Instead, Glass focuses his attentions squarely on one of the secondary groups of mice in this issue as readers discover the fallout of Ronan's failed attempt to implicate Karic in his "death" and the rift that has grown in his camp. While the primary characters of this series are absent from this issue, we continue to see the predominant theme of characters rising up from their failures playing an integral role in this arc. The Maeven's strength of character – and arm – are contrasted sharply with the Templar of their camp, and it's a welcome opportunity to see why these female are mice are to be rightly feared. More importantly, however, is that Glass has spent the past five years crafting anthropomorphic epic, and it would be more of an oversight on his part to leave any narrative threads dangling before this series reaches its conclusion by the end of volume IV. In this regard, Issue #9 plays an important role in preparing Ronan and Llochloraine's story thread to be woven into the greater arc of the return of the scattered Templar and their striking back against the tyrannical empire of King Icarus.
Fans will find Santos' ability to lay the story out in a visually compelling manner to be continually impressive. In particular, I found that his portrayal of the mice rising up and attacking the rat guards does a wonderful job of exemplifying how form can impart tone and mood as he captures the chaotic atmosphere of the town square. I also really like his use of half-splash pages to establish the setting or emphasize a particular dramatic element of the plot. The scene inside the caverns with the Bats of Meave is especially well done in the way he uses the bottom half splash to create a cavernous and ominous tone while the plot continues moving forward thanks to the panels at the top of the page. Guerra also makes a smart coloring choice in deciding to keep the mice in their traditional colors instead of cloaking them in shadow throughout this scene (and the issue as a whole). Although it would have made more sense to color them in darker tones, the choice to keep with a slightly brighter color palette helps set them apart from the background and one another. As a result, readers are better able to keep track of who is who more easily, and given the action that takes place, the choice helps keep the storytelling clean and clear.
Overall, this issue certainly fits well into the overall story Glass and Santos are crafting. Although I enjoyed the manner in which the issue opens with the bard presenting an overview of Legend: Vol. 1 in ballad form, I can see how readers new to the series will struggle making sense of and finding an appreciation for the dramatic tension Glass builds between the Maeven and the Templar. The strength of this series lies in large part to the rich history and the relationships between the various characters, and no overview will convey this sufficiently. It would certainly be well worth those readers' time to pick up the trade of Legend: Vol. 1 before digging into Issue #9. And for those readers who have been keeping up with the series, there will be plenty to enjoy and the tease on the final page will certainly raise questions about what will take place in Issue #10.
Five Ghosts #11 (Published by Image Comics; Review by Forrest C. Helvie; 'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10): The cover says it all – and how often in a world of variants and gimmicks can one say that about a comic? But the truth of it is that this issue of Five Ghosts, like every other before it, delivers on the nightmarish, thrilling pulp adventure it advertises. The mix of jungle monsters, shipwrecked swashbucklers and treasure hunters, and the supernaturally charged setting call to mind the stories of Falk, Howard, with a dash of Lovecraft. Amidst the quest to uncover the mysterious powers bringing the adventurers together, however, Barbiere or Mooneyham remind readers in this issue of the costs borne by others when treasure gets stolen. Mooneyham's brilliant three-panel page with Sebastian makes it clear that while this is also a story grounded in tragedy, and it raises the question of how this story arc will resolve itself.
Skullkickers #26 (Published by Image Comics; Review by Forrest C. Helvie; 'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10): Although the plot of Skullkickers #26 doesn't really move forward in this issue, it doesn't need to as we see bits of Rolf's personal and ancestral history flash before his eyes prior to his imminent execution. Huang and Coates continue to deliver a rich and vibrant reading experience, and the constant shift in settings allow them to really flex their creative muscles. What made me smile most in this issue, however, were the antagonistic narrators verbally sparring with one another throughout the flashback sequences. Zub's knack for zingers is on full display here, and it reminds me why this is such a fun title to read.