Best Shots Comic Reviews: ALL-NEW X-MEN #26, BATMAN ETERNAL #4, More

Marvel previews for April 30, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? The Best Shots team sure is, as we welcome new recruit Draven Katayama to our ranks! So let's kick off today's column with the new guy on the team, as Draven takes a look at the latest issue of All-New X-Men...

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New X-Men #26
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 Draven Katayama
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

This issue is reminiscent of the opening scenes of the movie Iron Man 3: what do you do when you return to “normal life,” but everything’s different now? Jean Grey has returned from her perilous stint as a prisoner of the Shi’ar. While she made it out of that ordeal alive, she manifested a new power set that scared her and everyone around her. Young Cyclops has left Earth to go on an adventure with his space pirate dad, Corsair. If you’re a young, time-displaced Jean Grey, you’re feeling very alone and confused now.

Brian Michael Bendis is first and foremost a writer of dialogue, and this issue has some of the best dialogue we’ve seen in this title. Jean sits and talks with Cyclops — alone — and first says upon being startled, “Oh, it’s the older you.” What ensues is one of the best awkward guy/girl moments we’ve seen in recent comics. It’s the first time these two have really talked. Jean, already in a vulnerable state, is clearly aware of her fated attraction to Cyclops. Cyclops is conscious of the gulf between them in both age and closeness, but he is unsure how to approach that boundary.

Bendis writes Cyclops as a man with an undercurrent of insecurity. This issue gives a glimpse into his relationship with his Young Cyclops counterpart. We’ve seen Cyclops struggling to lead his team of misfit mutants against mysterious Sentinel attacks — see Uncanny X-Men #20. Without romance from Emma, guidance from Charles Xavier, a comrade in the recently AWOL Magneto, or even a foil in Wolverine, you can’t help but sympathize at least a little bit for Cyclops. Bendis deserves credit for writing a multifaceted character who is as much the victim of his decisions as he was an instigator.

Another highlight of the writing in this issue is Kitty Pryde. While Kitty is not as old as Emma or Cyclops, she has firmly established her identity throughout this title’s run as a capable adult who feels personally responsible for her Original Five X-Men students. Her no-nonsense verbal anger at Cyclops is one of the best moments of this issue. The way that Young Warren respects her and calls her Professor K is a telling example of Kitty’s evolution as a character.

Young Bobby has, of course, been the funniest part of this title. In this issue, he doesn’t disappoint. His happy-go-lucky naivete is one of the traits we love most about him, and Bendis has consistently written him perfectly as the person who breaks the tension in a scene. One of the issue’s best scenes is when he reveals his cluelessness about X-23. "I didn't catch her name," he says. "What were you calling her?" "Wolverine clone."

Stuart Immonen continues to draw one of the best looking comics around. Even behind ruby quartz glasses, Cyclops seems to emote regret and conflicted thoughts. Immonen shows great variety by contrasting the tight quarters of Cyclops and Jean’s conversation with the open sky where Young Warren is flying. In one scene, X-23 is looking at a shadowy figure in the woods. Immonen’s art keeps the pace visually interesting as your eyes move from panel to panel, trying to see what she sees.

Marte Gracia’s colors are always impressive, especially in the red hues of Jean’s hair and the purple telekinetic energy that emanates from Jean on the cover. Gracia and inker Wade Von Grawbadger create stunning art especially in the scenes with X-23 and her dark surroundings and clothing.

X-23 is one character that many fans of X-titles have missed since Marjorie Liu’s exceptional writing. While X-23 was in Avengers Arena, her character was not developed as deeply as other characters like Nico, Cullen Bloodstone, and Anachronism. Bendis made a great choice in bringing her to this title, as she fulfills an outsider role, not fitting in with either the new class of Uncanny X-Men — Eva, David, Fabio, Christopher, Benjamin — or the Original Five. I look forward to seeing what this next arc has for her, with sort-of-love-interest Young Cyclops’ absence and impending fights with the Future Brotherhood.

This issue surpasses recent issues of both All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men for its intelligent character development of Cyclops, Young Jean, and X-23, and the fun inclusion of Young Warren. The issue’s cliffhanger was perfectly written, and I'm excited to see what happens next.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman Eternal #4
Written by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, John Layman, Ray Fawkes and Tim Seeley
Art by Dustin Nguyen, Derek Fridolfs and John Kalisz
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Batman Eternal continues to dominate the sales charts, but this juggernaut is moving at a glacial pace. There are a lot of subplots forming in the wake of Commissioner Jim Gordon's incarceration, but they're all getting decompressed within an inch of their lives.

Part of the problem with Batman Eternal is that the immutability of Batman is actually working against him, making him a bit player in his own year-long story. Even with the Gotham City Police Department making plans to bring down the Bat, that's all it is right now - plans. Batman is just the connecting tissue to storylines involving Jim Gordon, his daughter Batgirl, and Stephanie Brown, who we already know is going to overcome his villainous father to become the Spoiler.

The problem is, Batman isn't an active agent in this storyline, and we already know how things are going to work out for the rest of the gang: Gordon will be exonerated, Batgirl will get over it, and Stephanie will put on the eggplant suit that the Tumblrs have been calling for since 2011. Even the big name of the book - one-time Gotham kingpin Carmine Falcone - is more of a plot device for exposition rather than a three-dimensional character.

The artwork by Dustin Nguyen doesn't help. Nguyen is usually much tighter with his linework than this, but he and inker Derek Fridolfs are not on their A-game this issue, as oddly shaped heads and faces dominate this issue. Fridolfs and colorist John Kalisz make this book seem shockingly bright, given both the setting and the grim tone of Gordon's arrest. Gotham should look even more dirty, stifling and oppressing than it ever has - over a hundred are dead, a train has caused billions of damage, and even Batgirl standing over two bloodied henchman doesn't look that intense.

Stylistic missteps and an overly slow plot makes this issue of Batman Eternal more filler than killer. Not much really happens here, something that a lot of weekly comics try to get away with (and often do). Everyone wants to see what happens to Batman, and because they get another chance next week, it's easier for them to forgive (and more likely forget) misfires like this one. I just hope for all our sakes that this book picks up and starts putting some weight behind this weekly schedule.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers #28
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Salvador Larroca, Frank Martin, Andres Mossa and Agustin Alessio
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Draven Katayama
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

It’s understandable that Bruce Banner has trust issues when it comes to Tony Stark. Tony and the Illuminati, after all, were responsible for sending Hulk into outer space in the Planet Hulk event, which saw the death of Hulk’s pregnant queen, Caiera. Since then, Tony has always played his cards close to his chest. This issue sees the culmination of a very long plot line stretching across this title and New Avengers: the Illuminati have been re-formed, and no one bothered to tell Bruce.

Jonathan Hickman chooses to write this climactic showdown between Bruce and Tony not in a setting where they can swing punches and hurl heavy objects at each other, but in a boardroom. In fact, the majority of this issue’s pages take place in one boardroom in Avengers Tower. Sitting on opposite ends of the long table, Hickman writes a scene that seems more Christian Bale in American Psycho than an Avengers story. If you expected to see more brawls and action scenes like last issue, this issue will leave you sorely disappointed.

Jonathan Hickman’s slow burn writing across dozens of issues is quite different from other Marvel writers, such as Bendis’ six-issue arc spurts. You really have to be committed to reading both Avengers and New Avengers to understand every detail of Hickman’s intricate plot. In this issue, Hickman’s writing drags along due to the dialogue being almost exclusively between two people, and without any humor. At least recent issues had some banter between Captain America and Captain Marvel. Besides our two protagonists, the rest of the Avengers cast barely appear at all here. The long explanations by Tony actually reminded me of Bendis’ Civil War: The Confession issue, where Tony talks at length to a dead Steve Rogers.

Despite the snail’s pace, a highlight of the writing is the clear contrast between Tony’s and Bruce’s personalities. Tony comes across as comfortable, not pompous or overconfident. He almost looks weary of thinking about the incursions and other Earths. Salvador Larroca is superb at drawing Bruce as his stoicism gradually unravels into more and more anger. Larroca draws facial expressions and hair that are true to each character.

Frank Martin and Andres Mossa’s colors throughout the entire issue have a gray-washed, dulled look which fits the tone of the story, but make for a visually unexciting read. Each panel looks like it was brushed over with a translucent layer of dirty, pebble-colored grey. Agustin Alessio’s cover is well-drawn, with a fluid style similar to Dexter Soy, but Hulk’s face looks a bit off — his eyes are strangely colorless and blank. Also, the content of the cover is misleading — the only true fight in this issue is the self-control Bruce must drum up to sit through Tony’s incessant beating around the bush.

Two highlights of this issue are its epilogues — yes, plural. The first epilogue is beautifully drawn, with detailed Wakandan art and a gorgeous dark color palette. The second epilogue has a simplistic, minimalist drawing style, but reveals an important plot point. The end of this issue seems to close a curtain as if Hickman is telling us, that’s the end of Act I. Catch your breath, because we’re about to begin an even more turbulent Act II.

Overall, this issue’s dreary tone and color palette, along with its snail’s pace of dialogue, leave the reader wishing for more visual variety. However, the brilliant care by Hickman and Larroca to show Bruce Banner’s eroding rein on his anger is fun to watch. The strained relationship between these two men seems to tease upcoming issues of the Original Sin event. Committed readers of Avengers and New Avengers may be satisfied by the long-awaited resolution in this issue, but for readers of other Marvel titles who are merely curious, the limited cast and focus of the issue make it an unessential read.

Credit: Image Comics

Dream Police #1
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Sid Kotian and Bill Farmer
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Image Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

The worst part about Dream Police is that there’s so much potential for this story — it has a great concept, a likeable character, and the potential to deliver a message in a unique setting that can give the protagonist any number of conflicts to enrich the story. Writer J. Michael Straczynski simply never realizes this potential; instead, he relies on the idea of the world and a mystery to keep the reader interested. This feels along the same lines of his other work Apocalypse Al, but in a different setting with different characters, and it’s a shame that this piece doesn’t challenge itself to be something more or unique.

The “Dreamscape” in Dream Police is by far the most interesting aspect of the story. Billed as the place where “one hundred million dreamers come every hour,” Straczynski puts the story in a world where seemingly anything is possible, and that piques your imagination… to a point. He doesn’t expand on the rules of the world nor does he fully explain the purpose of the Dream Police. Although this is a first issue, Straczynski has plopped us into a world of his own design without any context — without knowing what is or isn’t possible, or why the Dream Police are an organization, how can we fully grasp the gravity of what’s happening? Straczynski relies too much on our background knowledge of dreams and nightmares to fill in the blanks ourselves. While some may argue that they don’t want everything to be spelled out for them, we need to know what’s going on so we can adequately predict what’s going to happen next. It’s clear that the Dreamscape, dreams, and nightmares function differently in this world, but we need to know how they’re different as soon as possible so we can be immersed in the story.

Though the story starts in the middle of things—which is a great place to start — Straczynski doesn’t do anything to flesh out these characters. They’re all one-dimensional, besides Frank Stafford, Joe Thursday’s partner, who almost makes it to two-dimensional. Stafford questions the world around him and that makes him interesting. At this point in time, Thursday has literally no motivations or proactivity. He reactively goes through the plot of the issue and doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a plot device. We’re immediately barraged with police and Dreamscape jargon—Straczynski expects us to do the authorial work for him and immediately understand what he’s trying to accomplish. Without expanding on key concepts like the nightmares, the shape changing dreams, and the powers each of these characters has, Straczynski expects us to remain interested in a world we don’t understand. Honestly, it’s lazy writing and it shows throughout the narrative.

That’s a shame because Sid Kotian continues to do great work for Straczynski. He varies panel composition and vantage points, making the story visually interesting and keeps the pace consistent for an easy read. The inking, unlike in Apocalypse Al, doesn’t bog down the visual style and fits well into the overall feel of the issue. The character designs fall more on the side of realistic, and Kotian isn’t afraid to have them in dynamic poses. Paired with Bill Farmer’s colors, which offers a more muted style, the visuals—for the most part—look flat on the page, but it works. And it works well. It might not be a traditional art style, but it’s definitely one that’s enjoyable, especially with the subject matter.

This is one of those projects that you can tell the author has thought a lot about. After reading Dream Police #1 I am convinced that Stracynzski has a complete grasp of the world, its inner workings, and the subtleties that make it special and unique. Unfortunately, none of that made it to the page for us. Bogged down by the high, abstract concepts and ideas, the work never attempts to solidify itself nor to ground itself so we can become invested in the story Stracynzski attempts to tell. For anyone who’s a die-hard fan of Stracynzski’s work, this one may be for you; for everyone else, you might want to pick up something else.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers World #5
Written by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer
Art by Stefano Caselli and Andres Mossa
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

New Avengers is about mysteries. Avengers is about the high concept. So what is Avengers World about?

Avengers World is about the characters.

It's sad that we live in a world where these things are separated, but if I have to have them split up, character is king. You can feel Jonathan Hickman's distinctive stamp on Avengers World, as Earth's Mightiest Heroes move ever closer to their eventual head-to-head with AIM, but with Nick Spencer and Stefano Caselli on board, this comic has a lot more potential to entice readers.

Part of the reason why Marvel's Avengers film made such crazy bank was because we didn't just relate to the characters - we actively liked them. We liked the snarkiness and the repartee between Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and that sense of wit is exactly what Nick Spencer brings to the table with his dialogue. Most of the time, when two writers split the plotting/dialoguing duties, it winds up being very noticeable, but Spencer actually elevates Hickman's work and gives it a forceful new spin. Tony Stark telling Captain America "I learned it all from you, Dad!" or Bruce Banner sighing at the lack of work ethic from millennials doesn't just cohere with the well-known Marvel movie sensibilities, it also gives the story some necessary energy and pizzazz. When Manifold needs his Led Zeppellin to help tap into the universe, it reminds us that Marvel superheroes are human at their core, complete with all our human quirks and foibles.

Speaking of human quirks, Stefano Caselli's artwork makes our heroes look more human than ever. There's no stoic posing or gritted teeth - Caselli always captures his characters mid-conversation, with arched eyebrows and crooked smiles. His smooth pencils and inks really strike a great balance between expressive humans and people who can still pull off spandex costumes. That said, what's keeping Caselli from the flagship books is that while his characters are bouncy and fun to follow, he hasn't quite nailed the big moments yet - there's a great beat where Manifold wakes up to find himself in Captain Universe's cathedral-like dream world, but other beats, like the city of Madripoor sitting on a flying dragon's head or even the rocky terrain of the outback, don't quite have enough to pop.

Yet while Spencer's snappy dialogue perks up Earth's Mightiest Heroes, this book also commits some of the same sins as its sister titles. The pacing on this issue feels a bit uneven, and it's clear from his short scene that the Robert Downey, Jr.-esque Iron Man deserves way more spotlight on a team book than vanity pick Manifold. Bruce Banner's scene, while amusing, also feels like an indulgently long choice for such a simple punchline, and the subplot featuring AIM isn't particularly user-friendly. Indeed, it took me more than a few reads to remember what had happened to Smasher during her time on AIM Island, and seeing her pop up in one panel doesn't do much for me as a reader.

The overall execution of Avengers World is very strong - stronger than a lot of other superhero books on the stand, to be honest. But part of the problem with this book is that it isn't allowed to really stand on its own two feet. Because of Hickman's involvement, this book continues on the AIM-centric storyline that's been dominating the main Avengers book - only this happens to focus on two characters instead of, uh, four. But that also brings up the question of Avengers Assemble, which went on its own path and got canceled by lack of sales. What is it that Earth's Mightiest Superheroes need to translate those big movie sales into comic book dollars? Maybe Avengers World will bring us closer to the answer of what does and doesn't work. On the one hand, not too much happens here - but on the other, this team shows that this book has a solid foundation in terms of talent, and shows exactly what this franchise could be capable of. But it definitely still could be better.

Credit: DC Comics

Green Lantern: New Guardians Annual #2
Written by Justin Jordan
Art by Stephen Segovia, Edgar Salazar, Jed Dougherty, Jason Paiz, Jason gorder, Andrew Dalhouse and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Is there something in the water over at DC? I'm not sure what's happened over there, but their batch of annuals this week have been surprisingly solid across this board. Maybe it's the page count, and maybe it's the sort of free-floating time and place that releases this book from the shackles of continuity, but Green Lantern: New Guardians Annual #2 winds up being one of the more readable takes on that most esoteric of the Lantern books.

Justin Jordan starts this book off with an eerie twist, as we see artist Kyle Rayner struggling at his desk. His characters aren't looking right, he mutters to himself, as we then see the horror in front of him - real people are looking like his distorted images. It's a short hook, but it gives the first half of Green Lantern: New Guardians Annual #2 a real horror slant, as Star Sapphire Carol Ferris winds up ambushed by an unknown foe. Harkening back to Ron Marz's Green Lantern: Circle of Fire, Jordan is able to get Kyle Rayner back to his roots - namely, just because he has unlimited, omnipotent power doesn't mean he isn't flawed, doesn't doubt himself, doesn't know all the answers. It just means that his shortcomings come back to haunt him in a very tangible way.

I've also been critical of Stephen Segovia in the past, with his work on Dark Wolverine and Silver Surfer. But here, he really shines, as his linework is much tighter, much more controlled, giving the characters his own personal stamp without getting into the realm of self-indulgent. I think part of that also comes from a skill of his that I don't think has gotten enough praise - he knows how to pace a quiet, action-free scene. By varying up his pages and closing in on characters when they have emotional moments, Segovia makes what could be a bland, talky few pages really work - and that's a skill that may be more important than making Kyle or Star Sapphire look cool while flying (which he does). Edgar Salazar does a decent job filling in near the end of the book, occasionally evoking that Doug Mahnke style of clean linework, while Jed Dougherty brings the last two pages to a rough but workable landing.

That said, there are some flaws to this issue. Some people will cry foul at the outright retelling of Circle of Fire, and some will say that some of the swerves in this book, like Kyle and Carol sharing a moment, or Kyle's dad randomly appearing in the book, will feel like tacked-on ways to try to differentiate this issue from the character-defining miniseries that inspired it. (And I will admit that the explanation for this new villain is still kind of impenetrable, one of the major weaknesses of Green Lantern: New Guardians as a whole.)

Still, the overall pacing of this book allows Justin Jordan and company the room to produce what is, essentially, a done-in-one comic that still has major repercussions to Kyle Rayner and the various Lantern Corps as a whole. The great thing about this book, and in particular, this villain, is it provides readers with the essential characteristics of Kyle Rayner, a character who has become more and more difficult to pin down as his power set has grown. There's definitely still room to improve, but Green Lantern: New Guardians Annual #2 is, at its heart, the story of a powerful man overcoming - and even accepting - his own flaws. It's the sort of human message more DC books could use these days.

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