The Flash Annual #3
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

The Flash Annual #3
Written by Robert Venditti and Van Jensen
Art by Brett Booth, Norm Rapumnd, Ron Frenz, Livesay and Andrew Dalhouse
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Robert Venditti and Van Jensen have been in this position before - stepping into the shoes of some fan-favorite creators. In the case of the Green Lantern franchise, Venditti and Jensen have been in the unenviable spot of trying to come up with a cohesive high concept that is different, yet still as beloved as the plots of Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi.

But that's all changed with The Flash.

While The Flash came out of the gate with some heat, thanks to artists-turned-writers Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, the series never really came together at the narrative level. Pretty pictures, but no weight behind their step. Venditti and Jensen, however, are a whole other beast, as they seem to be outdoing not just their predecessors, but even Geoff Johns himself, delivering a striking introduction to a saga that may just top DC's last major megaevent, Flashpoint.

The expanded page count of this annual really helps Venditti and Jensen lay out their story, which is split between the present-day Barry Allen as he meets the reimagined Wally West and the blue future version of the Fastest Man Alive. Perhaps this is the lack of characterization in the Johns/Manapul/Buccellato eras that's talking, but I'm really digging the resonance Venditti and Jensen are injecting in the present-day story, drawn with nostalgic aplomb by Ron Frenz. Instead of being a stick-in-the-mud, Barry is slowly but surely developing some human traits. Barry is rightfully annoyed when, say, a kid spray-paints his nice shirt, and appropriately confused when we see bits and pieces of his powers not working quite as they should. And perhaps more importantly, the duo finally nail the police procedural part of the Flash down pat, as it's not just a mechanism to take him to his next adventure - this is about a guy who is so rigid with his sense of right and wrong that it actually complicates law and order, not to mention lands him in hot water with his boss. I think that's a feeling we can all relate to.

The second half of the book, meanwhile, takes a darker turn, as Brett Booth tears through a future sequence featuring an aging Barry as a grim Cerulean Speedster. This is where most of the spectacle lies, as Barry squares off against a Speed Force-wielding Gorilla Grodd, but the sequence is also where the book gets its best moment. Right now, Wally West in the present still has a little ways to go - particularly if your new biracial character already gets tackled by the cops in his first appearance - but in the future, Barry winds up really elevating Wally to new levels. "I loved him, too," he says haggardly, standing in front of Wally's grave. "Like he was my own." In both the writing and in terms of Booth's sharp, angular linework, the future storyline provides a stark counterpoint to Frenz's smoother, more pleasant present-day. In short, their styles just work well together, retaining enough similarity (especially through colorist Andrew Dalhouse) to flow well, but enough differences to ramp up the tension. And that's a good thing, because whether it's in the terrifying future or in the heartfelt past, there's a ticking time bomb at the heart of the Flash legacy, and somewhere, somehow, Wally West is right in the middle of it.

Still, that's not to say this book is perfect - far from it. I think people are still going to need more time to get used to the new Wally West, who still feels more endearing because of Future-Barry's affection for him than through anything he does himself. (And, yeah, DC is kind of damned if they do and damned if they don't on the diversity scale, since it's great they're including more characters of color... but it feels also like a reductive trope to have him as a product of "bad influences," even if that does provide Barry a good reason to take him under his wing later.) In terms of a narrative standpoint, some of the action beats also stutter: a present-day fight in a museum by Frenz feels a little lackluster with the execution, while a future sequence with Grodd ends very abruptly, as Venditti and Jensen cheat to put Barry on top. It feels like a cop-out, to be honest.

But rough edges aside, The Flash Annual #3 is definitely ramping up the stakes for the Scarlet Speedster, making this one of the best issues that Barry Allen has been in since his post-Crisis resurrection. It's not enough to find new wrinkles to the Speed Force, or put Barry Allen through his action paces. You need an emotional throughline, and that's where Wally West comes in. It might not be the most explosive reintroduction to the character, and given his age, he's not likely to follow in the hallowed footsteps of his pre-Flashpoint incarnation. But what he means to Barry - and what he can bring to this franchise - is more than enough to keep me interested in this time-traveling thriller.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing Spider-Man #1
Written by Dan Slott, Christos Gage, Joe Caramagna, Peter David, and Chris Yost
Art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba, Edgar Delgado, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, Giuseppe Camuncoli, John Dell, Cam Smith, Chris Eliopoulos, Jim Charalampidis, Will Sliney, Antonio Fabela, David Baldeon, Jordi Tarragona, Rachelle Rosenberg, Ramon Perez, and Ian Herring
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Peter Parker is back in action, but only just barely. Make no mistake, this is the real Pete, but Amazing Spider-Man #1 feels more like a stop gap between the Superior and Amazing eras than an electrifying return to form. While it's clear that Dan Slott is having the time of his life bringing back Peter's unique sense of humor - and readers will be better for it - the less serious nature of the script makes Amazing Spider-Man #1 feel less urgent, and in turn less dynamic than Superior's shocking debut. Even the final twist, though sure to have some long lasting ramifications on Peter's world, doesn't hit very hard by any real comparison.

The real joy of Amazing Spider-Man #1 is seeing Peter navigate the morass of bad decisions and complex social implications left in Otto's wake. The brief action beats are all but inconsequential, despite some classic, chuckle inducing quips from ol' Webhead, leading the time spent on them to make the real meat of the story - Peter's unique attempts to make amends and fully grasp the scope of the mess he's been thrust into - feel half-formed and unresolved. And while, obviously, the first issue isn't the place to resolve all these long term issues, there's no real resolution to any arc. Amazing Spider-Man #1 feels like a lot of threads being tugged and ultimately just dropped, without any arc of its own.

Humberto Ramos's art is an equally mixed bag. He nails some beats, but missteps too often either through clunky composition of action scenes, or dramatic moments that don't mesh with his outlandish style. Edgar Delgado's colors are uncharacteristically clean and smooth, however, improving the look of the book by leaps and bounds. On the other hand, Victor Olazaba's inks feel heavy handed and messy, serving to muddle Ramos's already frenetic lines more than define them. Ramos and his team may be the through line for the last several eras of Spider-Man, but a big part of me wishes that the new volume of Amazing Spider-Man had been accompanied by a new visual identity to go with its refreshed outlook. Even with Ramos still at the helm, there is room for improvement in this title's visual language.

While Slott and Ramos's A-story all but spins its wheels, there is a host of backmatter to attend to. The short pieces - most of which serve to tie off long-dangling (but low priority) threads or to set up further possible storylines - run the gamut from the visually engaging but forgettably scripted Electro piece, to Giuseppe Camuncoli's uncharacteristically unformed Black Cat story, to a brief, uninspired pilot of sorts for the upcoming 2099 relaunch. While some, like the Black Cat story, bring up plot points left hanging in Superior's wake, none of these feel essential, with the worst of the bunch feeling tedious and superfluous.

It's good to have Peter Parker back, and there are moments of true joy in this script, like when Peter slaps on his mask, and, careening across the New York skyline, says "This is what being Spider-Man is all about!" But there's no big moment, no revelation that shows why killing Peter and replacing him with Doc Ock was all worth it. And without something to tie the last several years together, this relaunch feels joyous only because we lost Peter to begin with, like the reader is being made to feel excited about Peter's return simply by his absence, not because of any larger lesson about Peter's value, or the true nature of Spider-Man. Maybe I expected too much, but while it's good to have Peter back, his return only makes me question why he had to be gone in the first place.

Credit: Image Comics

Southern Bastards #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Jared K Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Raunchy. Religious. Serene. Spiritual. Violent. Football. BBQ. The South embodies all of these words at the same time. Driving down a Southern highway is like driving through an anachronism, a contradiction. Everything is old, even when it’s new. There’s a layer of rust on every metal surface and the nature seems unfazed by the developments of man. There is something unfettered and untamed about the American South. Like despite a predilection for bible-thumping, it’s also the last hold for something more magical. Jason Aaron and Jason Latour are trying to capture that in Southern Bastards and they’re doing a fine job of it.

This debut issue is heavy in tone, mood and mystery. Both Aaron and Latour talk about wanting to create something distinctly Southern in the backmatter of the book. It’s reflective of their roots. Just like any good crime-noir, the setting becomes an important character and Craw County, Alabama has the makings of a great one. By using a fictional town, Aaron allows himself the opportunity to define it without becoming beholden to reputation or stereotypes the way using, say New Orleans, might. This allows Craw County to become an amalgamation of everything the South is and was and ever will be. And it’s clear from the outset that Earl Tubbs wants little to do with it. But the town he grew up in isn’t instantly recognizable to him and fittingly, neither is he to it. Aaron slowly rolls out our introduction to the cracked and cragged faces of Craw County, upping the ante with each interaction that Earl has. Aaron’s script is unsettling. Earl has obviously been abused and he doesn’t want to relive it. Even 40 years later, the memory of his father makes him feel like a child. Revisiting the past has a way of dredging up old feelings. In a place seemingly more magical and sinister, that could have interesting repercussions.

PArt of the reason that Aaron is able to sell the setting so easily and craft the complexities that surround Earl is the work of Jason Latour. His style is almost tailor-made for this kind of gritty noir. The same way that Jeff Lemire’s art helped The Underwater Welder exude a kind of hopeless sadness and longing, Latour is able to scrape his nails across the proverbial chalkboards of our minds. His work is grating. His characters are disconcerting. The lines on their faces are deep and heavy. They’ve seen things. They’ve lived through them and it isn’t often that an artist is able to effectively convey that. It’s not just his line work either. The coloring (with assists from Rico Renzi) is sublime. The violent splashes of red that make up Earl’s memories bleed into his present day, from his clothing (a very literal visual metaphor about baggage) to Dusty’s bloodshot eyes (maybe showing us that Craw County leaves you visibly marked). It’s in these moments that we realize how in sync this creative team is and how clear their vision. And it would be a shame not to mention JAred K. Fletcher’s lettering, specifically at the end of the book. By using big sketchy orange lines to render the sound effects in the final scene, Fletcher flawlessly and simply adds tension to the final scene without making it seem too crowded.

Southern Bastards is just beginning but so far it has all the makings of a riveting crime-noir. By using the American South as their setting, Aaron and Latour are firmly in “write what you know” territory and it’s working for them. This issue makes it evident that hey have an excellent grasp of where they want to take this story and what they want to accomplish. As Earl gets sucked deeper and deeper back into Craw County, we’ll learn more about the town and how the places that you grow up can grow to define you. Southern Bastards is a country-fried gem of a comic book dripping in blood and BBQ Sauce. Can I get a hell yeah?

Credit: Image Comics

Dream Police #1
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Sid Kotian, Bill Farmer
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Since the revival of his Joe’s Comics imprint last year, J. Michael Straczynski's Studio JMS has wasted very little time in building a solid foundation of titles with Image Comics. Ten Grand and Sidekick have successfully turned aspects of their respective genres on their heads, and have since been joined by Protectors Inc. and The Adventures of Apocalypse Al. Proving that there’s not substitute for proliferation, Straczynski is returning former Icon titles The Book of Lost Souls and now Dream Police to the shelves and devices of comics reading folk the world over.

Street-smart Detectives Joe Thursday and Frank Stanford don’t get paid to take vacations, but they are waiting for you, driving you insane, those men inside your brain. The duo have been partnered up as long as they can remember, patrolling the subconscious wonderland of the Dreamscape, where the nocturnal imaginings of every human are brought to very real life by shapeshifters, imps and other fantastical creatures. If a recurring dream skips a track, or a lucid dreamer sets a monster loose on other unsuspecting slumberers, the titular Dream Police are there to put an end to it. At least until everything changes for Joe, whether he’s aware of it or not.

If it weren’t for the world and characters Straczynski already established in a 2005 one-shot of the same name, Dream Police would have snuck right up on us like a cheese dream after midnight. The lyrics born concept could quite easily have been a narrative cheap trick, yet Straczynski has constructed a world that is entirely organic and utterly fantastic. Indeed, taken together with that decade-old comic, we would be forgiven for thinking that, like the detectives themselves, we’ve been comfortably in this world for as long as we can remember. The obvious concept has certainly been played with before, but Straczynski’s finite touches (including police call-signs and nonchalant attitudes to the unbelievable, for starters) add real depth to the world. Like Fables before it, it’s a familiar kind of fantastic that presents a world of possibilities.

Kotian’s art recalls Mike Deodato’s gritty template from the original one-shot, easily sliding between the mean streets of the Dreamscape and a world where a waitress casually switches from 1950s diner mode to an alien creature by way of Indian and Mexican counterparts. Kotian, who is also currently working on JMS’s Apocalypse Al, might occasionally skimp on some of the finer details in repeated or crowded shots, but is also capable of some imaginative scenes as well. While at times it feels a little rushed, it’s difficult to name a dream that has ever come together with perfect clarity.

In many ways, this is Men in Black or R.I.P.D for the unconscious set, but is written far more in earnest than either of those comedies. Like Ten Grand, Straczynski has taken an existing genre and set it on the path that sets his brain alight. We can only imagine what his dreams look like.

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