Best Shots Comic Reviews: AVENGERS #29, AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #5, FUTURES END #2

Avengers #29
Credit: Marvel Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots is at it again, with a handful of the biggest releases of the week! So let's kick off today's column with Jazzy Justin Partridge, III, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Avengers...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers #29
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

This comic has two very big strikes against it from page one in the minds of many fans. One, it is another dreaded event tie-in, which are famously filler issues that have only the most tenuous connection to a larger story that most audiences might not be following (such as some of the least well-received issues of Hickman’s Avengers run). And two, it is yet another comic concerned with the contentious working relationship of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, Marvel’s ever fighting mother and father. Yet Avengers #29 wields these preconceived notions like weapons and exploits them with deadly effectiveness, turning this into the kind of diamond-in-the-rough tie-in that we all long for, yet would never admit exists. Jonathan Hickman took every note he could possibly take from his lackluster Infinity issues and provides a truly high-stakes tale that spans through the multiverse instead of just another forgettable tie-in about yet another parental scuffle.

Hickman’s Avengers run has simmered a bit too long, with plots of anger and potential violence running underneath the mythic exploits of both main Avengers teams. The first being the long-promised throwdown of T’Challa and Namor over in New Avengers and the other being the one that is brought to an explosive head in this month’s Avengers - Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, who joined the Illuminati only to have his mind-wiped after a disastrous attempt to use the Infinity Gems to prevent an Incursion. He also called out the Illuminati for using their intellect to justify the compromising of their moral codes in the pursuit of ending the Incursions. Suddenly waking up and remember the truth, Steve plans on making Tony answer for his lies. Jonathan Hickman, from issue one, has written the Avengers as a mythic assemblage of heroes and titans, and in doing so, this showdown between Steve and Tony finally has a substantial narrative weight behind it. This is a cold, calculated betrayal by Tony Stark. He built a great machine and assembled one of the most powerful lineups of Avengers in recent memory... all for his own purposes, to fight back the rising tide of multiversal decay. He then used that team to capture a rogue planet and turn it into a giant weapon of mass destruction without their knowledge. Greater still, he lied to and manipulated Captain America, finally including him in the dirty work of the Illuminati only to banish him when Steve refuse to bend and called into question Tony’s willingness to succumb to a monstrous solution. This is dangerously close to Hulk Hogan heel-turn territory. Leave it to Jonathan Hickman to take a tired comic book plot and infuse it with stakes that could destroy the very fabric of reality.

Don’t allow my paragraph above to fool you though. While this comic is mainly about the betrayal of Steve Rogers, which is mostly retold through flashbacks that make up the first half of the comic; a welcome recap for readers that may have, understandably, dropped the title before now, but needless for those of us who have kept up with the book, Hickman also gives us great moments with the core Avengers, including the third member of Marvel’s Big Three, Thor. Thor has often played the part of equalizer and arbiter between the men in story arcs in the past, but here Hickman writes him as every bit the comrade in arms that we know he can be. Thor has been a character that Hickman has truly excelled in highlighting throughout his run, mainly through interaction with the other godlike character on the roster, Hyperion - yet here, Hickman displays just why you would want a man like Thor by your side when things go south. He will not only show up to back your play, moving on trust alone, but he will also bring along two of your ultra powered mates along because he knows what you are like when you get heated. It's yet another brilliant character moment amid a myriad of brilliant character moments.

Along once again for the duration of this tie-in is artist Leinil Francis Yu, as well as colorist Sunny Gho and inker Gerry Alanguilan, providing superb visuals to go with the tension-heavy script. Yu’s craggy yet stylish pencils always add a real atmosphere to this issue. Yu, Gho, and Alanguilan also manage to make the flashbacks to previous issues of New Avengers feel new and fresh again. While Steve Epting’s work with those scenes worked, and worked very well, this art team’s David Fincher-esque renderings of those scenes add to the ugliness of the actions and failures displayed in those scenes. Hickman seems to want most every scene to hit as hard as possible, and his art team assures that with gusto. Yu also makes the confrontation scenes crackle with tension as he silently raises the action with small character movements in the panel. After the stellar visual gag of Thor knocking in Tony’s laboratory door, Cap confronts Tony with a stern “I remember,” and Yu takes a two beats to let this simmer; one is done in total silence, letting the words hang, and the second is a preparation for attack as Cap’s squad moves into flanking position around Tony. It's a very small moment, but one that speaks volumes toward Yu’s command of visual storytelling and this is just the tip of the iceberg for Avengers #29.

When a monthly comic that you follow regularly has a giant title proclaiming its connection to a larger macro story that is happening elsewhere on its cover, it may as well have a giant red X stamped across it, but I am more than happy to report that Avengers #29 not only uses the Original Sin arc to inform its action, but also uses it to wonderful effect in terms of the trajectory of the Avengers title as a whole. This is something that has always been coming for Hickman, Rogers and Stark. This was a seed that was planted in #1 and now it is growing into a viciously deadly plant that seeks to tear apart these men, and in doing so, the Avengers themselves. Jonathan Hickman isn’t interested in justAvengers #29 is just a taste of that that scale might be.

Credit: DC Comics

The New 52: Futures End #2
Written by Brian Azzarello, Keith Giffen, Dan Jurgens and Jeff Lemire
Art by Jesus Merino, Dan Green, Keith Giffen and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Carlos Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

While Batman Eternal has an approach that’s more focused on that series of titles, DC’s other weekly Futures End is dealing in a time-travelling story that’s already more expansive from the get-go. Oliver Queen is dead and the writing team uses his funeral as a focal point for the story to great effect. But if Terry McGuinness’s job is to prevent some events from taking place, how much of this specific future’s end will we actually see? But despite the questions that might arise about the long-term staying power of some of what we see here, there’s a lot to like.

As fellow reviewer Jake Baumgart noted in his review, this book feels very much like pre-New 52 DC. It’s a book that thrives on character interaction and the characters in question are acting a lot more like their old selves than their new iterations. Animal Man’s eulogy is a moving tribute to his fallen friend and it provides the right tone for Firestorm and Arsenal’s emotionally charged exchange. Unfortunately, this is where the writers also miss an opportunity. At a funeral that’s attended by many superpowered folks, it seems illogical that someone stronger (and older and wiser) than either Arsenal or Firestorm wouldn’t step in. It would have helped to give us some further clues about the dynamics of the Justice League in the future as well as given a chance for a female character to actually utter a single word. Instead, the other characters are used as mere props.

And for all the character work that is done, the plot moves at a snail’s pace. There’s a brief conversation between Terry McGuinness and A.L.F.R.E.D. A package is left at Lois Lane’s door. Plot wasn’t the focus of this issue and the package definitely ups some of the mystery but the time-travel aspects are still fuzzy and as I mentioned earlier it’s hard to know what won’t be wiped away. When that potential exists, it can become harder to be as emotionally invested.

Jesus Merino turns out some great artwork though, once again calling upon a DC art style of old. I can’t speak to how much Keith Giffen's art consultation had an effect on Merino but this offering does seem to have a much stronger sense of visual storytelling than other work I’ve seen from Merino. He and inker Dan Green team up for some great renderings of the heroes, though. When a comic is as laden with dialogue as this one, it becomes the artist's job to sell the words more than ever with facial expressions and body language. The eulogy and Fire Storm and Arsenal’s argument stand out as high marks for this book in those regards. Hopefully, other DC artists are paying attention.

The timeline is still dubious at best because the pieces haven’t quite come together. But these things take time as we’ve seen from DC’s other weekly series. Futures End is still barely in it’s infancy but those looking for a dose of old-school DC might find what they’re looking for here in terms of both art and writing.

Afterlife With Archie #5
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Erika D. Peterman
’Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Is Afterlife With Archie the best book you’re not reading because it’s, you know, Archie? If so, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Want exciting plot developments, did-that-just-happen interactions and eye-popping art? Done. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla are producing a smart, chilling page-turner any reader can enjoy.

Afterlife With Archie’s winning mix of dread and revelation is in full effect in issue #5, but there’s a twist. This time, we see events and flashbacks unfold from the perspective of Smithers, the Lodge family butler who gives Alfred Pennyworth a run for his money in the loyalty and discretion department. As keeper of the wealthy clan’s secrets, and there are some doozies, Smithers is the ultimate fly on the wall. He inhabits a rarefied world but knows his place as a servant.

The Lodge mansion has become a refuge for Archie and some of his pals as they hide from the approaching undead. After rescuing his mother, Archie returns from the outside world with blood on his hands following a horrible but necessary act back home. His anguished confession to Betty is wrenching. One thing this series does so well is that it focuses on exchanges between the players that reveal a great deal about their personalities and relationships. Then it strikes a powerful punch — in this issue, a literal one — that comes out of nowhere.

Zombies are far from the only source of drama. Teenage heartbreak abounds as Veronica, Ginger and Reggie wrestle with the reality of their romantic situations or lack thereof. Kevin Keller, a relatively new presence in the Archieverse, makes a notable entrance that provides unexpected insight into another character. Cheryl Blossom pushes back against her twin brother’s insistence on creepy sibling closeness, doing so in a way that suggests she likes messing with him. Aguirre-Sacasa goes there, and it’s wonderfully twisted.

There is no narrative weak link in Afterlife With Archie. Artist Francesco Francavilla has made Riverdale perfectly gothic, desolate and isolated. Bright pinks, yellows and oranges glow in the dark of perpetual night. The variation in panel shape adds another layer of visual interest, to say nothing of Francavilla’s modern take on the characters. Each page will hold your attention. The lettering asserts itself at critical moments, and in some pretty cool ways.

Afterlife With Archie brings its first arc to an eerie, satisfying end and creates high expectations for the next chapter. For Riverdale’s survivors, the adage “You can’t go home again” couldn’t be more true.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New Ghost Rider #3
Written by Felipe Smith
Art by Tradd Moore and Val Staples
Lettering by Joe Carmagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Marlene Bonnelly
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

So, we’re going to start with the art on this one for a change, because it’s just so good. Each new issue of All-New Ghost Rider gives me this brilliant little thrill not only because of the opportunity to read a decent story, but also because Moore’s artwork is so dynamic and fundamentally different from the vast majority of what’s on the market today. Just the way he illustrates Ghost Rider’s fire, with intricate shapes and textures, is honestly beautiful and makes the new getup look like a Tron suit took a trip to hell, in the best possible way. It’s refreshing to see his style shape a new character—and such an interesting new character, to boot!

Even the first few pages (a literal conversation between Robbie Reyes and a car) maintain the fluid, always-in-motion sensation that’s become trademark to this series thanks to Staples’ vibrant colors. This scene is the perfect place to start the book, too, because it offers Robbie a much-needed moment of introspection before the inevitable chaos of his battles as Ghost Rider. In fact, I actually think I enjoy the scenes with Robbie more than the scenes with his alter ego kicking monstrous hide, as spectacular as the latter are to read. In just three issues, Smith has managed to create real emotional depth in this Reyes kid, in part because he’s grounded him to his little brother. The daily struggles he faces as a human playing caretaker in a rough neighborhood, while simultaneously being influenced by a seedy spirit, are pretty entertaining.

The overarching plot, however, is weak. I understand it and I can even appreciate it in a “don’t think too hard about this” sort of way, but all the pieces feel disjointed. The drug element that seems to be the constant, indirect source of Robbie’s troubles reminds me too much of the “slappers” from Batman Beyond which, though seemingly at home in this version of Los Angeles, read like an excuse to keep drawing grotesquely huge enemies for Ghost Rider to take down. Mr. Hyde, the mastermind behind the ring that kicked off Robbie’s big change, doesn’t have much substance to him. His transformations between slick, mousy scientist and rage-blind brute also seem unnecessary in an issue where another brawly gang boss hulks out in almost the exact same fashion just a few pages down the line. I assume that all the juxtaposition in the book is supposed to be meaningful, but instead it comes across as repetitive.

Still, I want to have faith that these disjointed pieces will come together as Robbie embraces his new persona and tracks down those who have wronged him in true Ghost Rider form. There is a lot of potential for this book, especially since the main character’s loved ones are dropping left and right, providing plenty of fuel for his fiery vengeance. The initial shock of seeing such a different version of Ghost Rider has died down, leaving room for me to really admire the budding anti-hero who pulls bad guys up through car hoods and sets them ablaze. If Smith can narrow the focus of his story and continue to bridge the gap between Robbie’s story and the world around him more concretely, then this title could definitely shape up to be something incredible.

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #31
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Fernando Pasarin, Jonathan Glapion and Blond
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It might be considered a cheat for Gail Simone to bring back Ragdoll in the pages of Batgirl, but damn if it isn't a real and genuine pleasure to see this contorting psychopath back in the pages of DC continuity. In the case of this comic, the villain absolutely steals the show, and while the most jaded of critics might say it's just rehashing pre-New 52 stories, you can't deny that this villain lets Gail Simone show off her wicked side.

That's not to say that Barbara Gordon doesn't get her due - Batgirl herself is in the center of tons of drama that push the story forward. Simone's plotting is very clean and precise here, with all of Barbara's supporting characters drawing her into more tension and challenges - there's a beat with her and her boyfriend Ricky that makes their relationship all the more precarious, while Barbara's roommate Alysia winds up getting in over her head, bringing Barbara's costumed alter ego to the fore. It's old-school, smart comic book story structure, with Simone drawing out her scenes just long enough to draw some emotional resonance.

That said, there's one thing holding Batgirl back - she's so much of an everywoman that she doesn't really stand out as a character. Things happen to her, and she's enough of a cipher that it makes sense, but there's some electricity missing - maybe it's that Barbara feels like she's on such an even keel, even when horrible things are happening to her and her friends. That's not the case with Ragdoll. Ragdoll is creepy yet makes you chuckle almost in spite of yourself, and I think a lot of people would be lying if they didn't say that familiarity from the pre-reboot Secret Six didn't hurt. Ragdoll creeping under doors and considering "full" murders a "happy ending" is the kind of black comedy that Simone excels at.

The artwork by Fernando Pasarin really hits home with the action sequences, and is solid enough to make the soapy sequences pass smoothly. His fight choreography is his greatest strength, particularly the way that Batgirl drops from overhead and proceeds to put a beatdown on Ragdoll, utilizing the seemingly sparse setting of a stairwell to great advantage. His Ragdoll scenes are also amazing, especially the creepy way Ragdoll's head turns as he skitters underneath three hapless twentysomethings. That said, he doesn't quite sell Barbara's emotional moments as well, particularly when Ricky drops a bombshell on her. You would expect her teeth to be gritted in rage when she's in her costume, or for her body language to be a bit more tense out of costume, but some of the quieter scenes still feel a little static.

While you might say that this is leaning on a tried-and-true premise, who's to say that doesn't describe superhero comics as a whole? Gail Simone is able to flex some long-dormant muscles with Batgirl #31, injecting this series with some energy as she delivers a menacing and malevolent bad guy. But at the heart of it all, we find ourselves cheering not for Ragdoll as a bad guy - but almost as the return of a friend.

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