Best Shots Comic Reviews: HARLEY QUINN RUB N SMELL, ALL-NEW X-MEN #33, More

All-New X-Men #33 preview
Credit: Marvel Comics

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with this week's big column! So let's kick off today's column with a stinky surprise, as Rollickin' Richard Gray takes a look at the scratch-n-sniff issue of Harley Quinn...

Credit: DC Entertainment

Harley Quinn Annual #1
Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by John Timms, Stjepan Sejic, Joe Quinones, Ben Caldwell, Kelley Jones, Paul Mounts, Rico Renzi and Michelle Madsen
Lettering by John J. Hill
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Following a month of lenticular covers, and several concurrent events, it would be cosmically unfair to call the first Harley Quinn Annual’s “scratch ‘n’ sniff” (er, uh, Rub 'n Smell, to avoid any copyright or trademark issues) a gimmick. After all, Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s book has been bucking DC’s serious trends for the better part of the last year, and rightfully taking the mickey out of a superhero genre that needs a swift pantsing every now and then to keep creators and readers alike on their toes. Flight of fancy it may be, but this is one book that grabs you directly by the nostrils.

Ostensibly a narrative about Harley Quinn breaking Poison Ivy out of the slammer, Harley Quinn Annual follows something closer to a dream logic. A loose framing device strings a series of surreal encounters together, everything from the beach, to a prison sequence and even a forest freakout. One could point a finger and say it is just a flimsy set of excuses to create scenarios in which the odorama elements of the book can come into play, and they would be absolutely right. To suggest otherwise would be to miss the point entirely, and to willfully ignore that this has pretty much been the

Regular series artist Chad Hardin gets a break, with alternate series artist John Timms providing the art for the main series. With colors by frequently Connor collaborator Paul Mounts, it never feels like anything less than a genuine Harley Quinn experience, the cheerful chaos oozing out of every panel. Things start to get seriously experimental with Stjepan Sejic’s”Foliage Freakout”, featuring a Swamp Thing cameo that could have come straight from the pen of J.H. Williams III. Likewise, Kelley Jones’s “A Study in Harley” has Mike Mignola’s shadows, complete with a Gotham By Gaslight aesthetic.

Yet undoubtedly the drawcard of this issue is not the visual, but the olfactory. Harley pops up throughout the issue to advise us to rub a specified area lightly with out digits, resulting in a number of mostly successful smells. The first of these, a leather jacket, is closer to synthetic pleather smell if we’re splitting hairs. Yet pizza, suntan lotion, and other distinctive smells are all authentic and require a second dip. Indeed, you’ll be heading straight back to the pizza smell after you’ve had several whiffs of the “cut grass” that closes out the smell-o-rama.

Far from being a cheap and quirky cash-in, Harley Quinn Annual #1 embodies everything that is still fun in comic books. A collision of surrealist storytelling and exemplars of some of the more interesting artists working in the field, this has more than a whiff of joyousness about it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All New X-Men #33
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mahmud Asrar and Marte Garcia
Letters by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It seems that Jean Grey is doing her best Amy Pond impression as her and her teammates are, quite literally, lost in space and time in the latest installment of All New X-Men. Issue #33 continues the team’s sojourn into the Ultimate universe, and while the previous two issues in the arc have slowly built toward the character’s discovery of this, the latest issue could carry the Ultimates banner and you wouldn’t bat an eye. Brian Michael Bendis, one of the core Ultimate writers, gleefully throws these kids into the deep end of the multiverse for some pretty entertaining and emotional results.

All New X-Men #33 employs Bendis’ hour-long television approach to scripting to great effect. Each member of the team is swiftly checked in with economical and entertaining vignettes, with Jean and Miles at the dead center of the narrative, because let’s face it, where else would they be? Bendis starts the issue off with an adorable bang, as he follows Bobby battling the Mole Man and his underground hordes. Bobby has been Bendis’ one-man sitcom since the start, and often times, his dialogue for him is grating and forced, but here, Bobby comes off as the Iceman we all know and love as he tests his own limits and makes a daring escape. When Bendis couples these small character triumphs with his quippy dialogue, it strengthens them both, instead of feeling like going for the cheap laugh. The scene is a brisk six pages, with the first four employing some impressive layouts from artist Mahmud Asrar, but it's a fantastic and engaging opening to the issue. Bendis and his audience has now spent many months with these characters, so it is nice to see Bendis stretching them out a bit, and not letting them and himself get complacent in their power sets and characterization.

Jean also gets a hefty dose of understandable pathos as she and Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales make their way to Westchester in order to use Cerebro. As she telepathically drives toward their destination, Bendis gives Jean a monologue detailing her feelings of failure after the botched attempt to contain the new mutant responsible for their dimensional hop. All New X-Men hasn't been afraid to throw Jean through the ringer, but this time it feels different. Jean goes further to explain that it is because she has seen her future and she is now presented with a second chance to do things right, but has come up short the lion's share of the time. It presents an interesting thought that maybe Jean Grey's future is always and forever going to be one of woe and loss. While I choose to subscribe to a more optimistic outlook on Jean's new future in the 616 universe, mainly because I believe the character deserves much better than that, it is still an interesting needle to thread for All New X-Men, a book built on a foundation of changing your fate.

The other character’s scenes are also equally entertaining and emotive as the team struggles to make sense of their “off” feeling new surroundings. Hank finds himself a guest of one Victor Van Damme, while Warren and Laura meet a familiar Ultimates face and are confronted with the tragic secret behind what it means to be a mutant on this world. The conceit of transplanting All New X-Men into the Ultimate universe for a few months was enough of a hook for us all to get us in the door, but Bendis seems less concerned with the team up aspect of it all and instead is focusing on these 616 mainstays learning and reacting to the state of Earth-1610. While I’m glad that Miles is around, this is much more interesting territory to explore and I can only hope the remainder of this arc continues this course, especially after the trademark cliffhanger lurking at the end of the issue, which is so damn good, I wouldn’t even consider spoiling it here.

As I said above, All New X-Men #33 starts off with a dynamite action sequence that is wonderfully executed by penciler Mahmud Asrar and colorist Marte Garcia, and while the subsequent sequences don’t wow like the opening, the artwork of Asrar and Garcia still offers plenty to marvel at. All New X-Men has been known from the start as a book that isn’t afraid to draw visual comparisons to films and Asrar’s pencils just ooze the look of a Hollywood blockbuster. Take the opening sequence for example; Asrar blocks the first four pages much like a tightly choreographed fight scene with the top panels serving as a wide tracking shot, establishing the setting and scope while the bottom panel grids highlight character moments and specific plot moments. Later on Asrar uses various repeating angles, hanging spaces between panels, and the silence from the script to create mood and creeping tension in the scenes with Warren and Laura. The characters and their expressions also look and feel real under the hand of Asrar, but for all you format junkies out there, there is a lot to love about All New X-Men #33. Marte Garcia, who is also lending his heavy brushes to Inhuman, covers this issue in sumptuous colors that feel almost too sharp, heightening the unfamiliar setting of the Ultimate universe. Everyone’s uniform looks slightly overproduced and everything seems to have an extra gleaming coat of color applied to it. Marte Garcia has been coloring these issues just a bit different each month, and it has made all the difference.

They say that you can never go home again, and for the most part, the All New X-Men are experiencing exactly that. While the covers and solicitation for this arc seemed to detail a team-up heavy jaunt into a whole other line of comics, Brian Michael Bendis and his team seem much more concerned about how that would effect the characters beyond how they would fight alongside each other. All New X-Men #33 is an economically written and entertaining tale that manages to inject a few great ideas into the superhero drama. The X-Men comics have often been about more than just tights and fights, opting instead to rely on character and plotting. All New X-Men #33 has both in spades which comes at the perfect place in the run to feel organic.

Credit: Image Comics

Southern Bastards #5
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Southern Bastards #5 begins a new arc, picking up where the story left off, but shifting perspective after the tale of Earl Tubb. Our view of Craw County widens as we see it from an insider’s perspective for the first time. Jason Aaron and Jason Latour dedicate the issue to Coach Boss and introduce the Sheriff as someone who is not going to forget anything. The story still feels like a fable, but it goes beyond simplistic paradigms of good and evil.

The first four issues of this story were so sad and complete that I didn’t know if Aaron and Latour even meant to continue the story beyond Tubb. Earl was a middle-aged man who returned to his football-obsessed hometown and felt haunted by his sheriff father’s over-bearing memory. After the casual murder of an old schoolmate, Earl stood up to the town’s dictatorial football coach and his goons. Earl was supposed to be a good guy, but this book has shown violence — even his righteous violence — as flavorless and uniform.

Southern Bastards #5 begins with a brutal flashback to Coach Boss’s teenage years. We sympathize with him for the first time when we seem him as a boy on his knees. At first he’s just belittled by his coach, but in a later return to the flashback we see him viciously assaulted by his own teammates. Latour continues with the book’s trademark muscular style and starkly limited range of colors. The Coach’s flashback is in the same angry reds used for Earl’s troubled memories in earlier issues. Where Earl’s flashbacks took the form of silent observation of adult violence or active participation in wartime violence, the young Euless Boss was a direct victim.

Outside the flashback, this issue looks like the phrase “in the cold light of day.” We follow present-day Coach Boss, the storm clouds of tension are only beginning to gather again after the first arc. For his subdued daylight palette, Latour uses light browns, tans, grays, cadet blue with familiar highlights of muted, brownish red. Latour’s men are as craggy and imposing as ever, with crooked teeth and thick limbs. Even Earl’s old uncle in a wheelchair looks like he could deliver a beating if he meant to. Assistant coaches Mater and Esaw ride along with Coach Boss and provide some comic relief, but it’s just an echo of the dark, slapsticky humor of earlier episodes. These are bad men but they act as Coach’s foils. From their reactions, we can gauge what’s normal for Coach and for the town.

Aaron shows us Coach Boss feigning innocence at a funeral, even though everyone knows he's the killer. He’s evil, but we see for the first time that he has a morally useful role in the town. Coach Boss is the one who sees and condemns (to Mater and Esaw) the onlookers who will “forget” what he did because they are ashamed of themselves for letting him get away with it. In a montage of these people, we get a better look at the locals than we did when Earl was the outsider protagonist. After Coach Boss’s guys killed the hapless but vivid Dusty Tutwiler in the second issue, there was no one to reflect Earl’s force of personality. It was a weakness of the story, making it feel more allegorical than literary. After Dusty was killed, Earl was like John Henry racing the steam engine. The county and its people were no more fleshed out than Earl’s shadowy memories of his father.

Coach Boss dismisses the Sheriff to Mater and Esaw along with the others. He says “I betcha he can’t forget fast enough,” and his words are at the center of a sparse panel showing the Sheriff at the gravesite. He has his fists clenched, and his legs planted apart. We see the mound of dirt on Earl’s grave, but the Sheriff is facing the headstone of Earl’s legendary sheriff father. This was an economical way to keep the story close to Coach Boss and his point of view, but introduce the idea that there’s more to the Sheriff than everyone previously realized.

Aaron and Latour have picked Southern Bastards back up in a surprising but fitting way. They dove back into the story with a sinister antihero instead of the hero we were used to. The story has folded in on itself and reemerged as something fresh but recognizable. This shows a command of their themes and story structure that suggests great things to come.

Credit: DC Comics

Wonder Woman #35
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Cliff Chiang and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Vanessa Gabriel
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

In a mad dash to the finish line, Brian Azzarello wraps up his three-year run in Wonder Woman #35. By mad, I do mean insane. The cleverest of the Greek Gods remain to plot, posture and pillage to usurp the First Born’s blood-drenched seat on the throne of Olympus.

Can we talk about the First Born for a moment? As the primary antagonist, he could not be more one-dimensional. It’s all blood-lust and nothingness with this guy. There’s no intelligence to his appetite for destruction, and ultimately, his hate-fueled tyranny is because he has daddy issues. As far as villains go, he’s boring. And as far as the conclusion to his story, it was obvious.

Painfully obvious.

Damn near everything about Wonder Woman #35 is obvious; right down to that yellow glow in Zola’s eyes and Baby Zeke’s true identity (the name gave it away a while ago). Borrowing from the incestuous, twisted histrionics that is the Greek Pantheon, this much anticipated coup d'état reads less like an homage and more like where novelty came to die... in a deep abyss of flesh and blood.

Perhaps the worst part of this disappointing ending is that it took far too long to reach. It’s clear by the clean-cut dialogue and succinct moments that Azzarello had this all mapped out. While that cohesiveness of his Wonder Woman manifesto is admirable, the three-year wait for something so positively underwhelming is a testament to the irreverence for our leading lady because so much time was spent on supporting characters that ended up being superfluous.

It bears mention that despite the sin of side-showing Diana that plagued so many past issues, this issue gives her plenty of panel real estate. While that absolutely should be the case, when you consider the context of each panel, most of her moments do little to elevate the character and cease to gratify. The reason for this has been present for almost the entire run save a few early issues. The problem lies with the characterization of our protagonist, punctuated in this final issue.

Azzarello postulates a character that has finally figured out who she is, yet Wonder Woman spends these precious 20 pages driven by external motivators. She plays part and parcel to capricious trickery fit for a Greek God, which is appropriate because she is, but sadly not a Wonder Woman worth rallying for. Through a melee of supporting character motivations, Diana never knew who or what was in the driver’s seat. She spins her veil of naïveté reacting to the static in sight and outright lacking the agency that makes a title character interesting, right down to the last page.

The disenchantment in story is a stark contrast to Cliff Chiang’s utterly exquisite lines. He manages to make gore and violence aesthetically pleasing, and when not pleasing, visceral and alive. It is only in the art that I am flush with gratitude for the myriad of characters. Chiang’s clean nuance and brilliant expressiveness is showcased in the fierce, god-possessed Zola, an insufferable Strife, the tragic Minotaur, and a Kirby-inspired, God-of-War Wonder Woman.

As the story moves from the red heat of battle to cool blue of resolution, the true glory is owed to Matthew Wilson’s phenomenal colors. As the dust settles and Diana stands tall, we are reminded that nobody makes a more beautiful Wonder Woman than the two of them. But just because Wonder Woman #35 is wrapped in a perfectly pretty package does not mean the contents are worth your time.

Credit: Marvel Comics

AXIS: Carnage #1
Written by Rick Spears
Art by German Peralta and Rain Beredo
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

I have to credit Marvel for their warning on the cover of AXIS: Carnange #1 because Rick Spears delves into Punisher territory with his violence in this issue, and that warning sets the tone for this issue - because Carnage is as Carnage does.

The comic is about Cletus Kassady learning how to be a superhero in the wake of the Red Skull’s attempt at world domination. Much of the issue is an inversion of Spider-Man as Kassady learns how to deal with things like remorse and guilt. Spears gets a few good jokes in, but mostly at Kassady’s expense. Watching a sociopath learn to feel is a pretty unique experience, and Spears definitely has fun doing this.

The other entertaining part of the comic is the violence. Kassady, as much as he takes on the role of the hero, cannot help but be violent and Spears gets creative with this concept. Where the earlier part of the issue goes for outright gore, Kassady’s showdown with a newer version of Sin-Eater is more clever. The character has echoes of Spider-Man’s resourcefulness, but minus the conscience.

I also found the new Sin-Eater a poetic figure. Spears’ internal dialogue for the character is solid, and he captures a tonal elegance that’s quickly offset by Kassady’s egomaniacal and overtly violent thoughts. There’s a mystery around the character, and one that’s intriguing enough to bring readers back for a second issue, but how he plays into Carnage’s story has yet to be solidified.

German Peralta and Rain Beredo bring a Rodin Esquejo and Sonia Oback like style to their art. The illustrations lean towards photorealism which helps sell Carnage’s violence. But this also makes the reveal of the Sin-Eater all the more powerful, and Kassady’s costume all the more horrific. And even with the photorealistic style, the illustrations aren’t stiff. The art has a smoothness and flow, and the team is solid with its pacing.

Making a villain into a hero is difficult, and I commend Rick Spears for how well he makes it work. Plus with an artistic team like German Peralta and Rain Beredo, you can be sure that their work will bring the words to life. I was pleasantly surprised by AXIS: Carnage and only hope the rest of the series is as entertaining.

Credit: Dynamite

Bob’s Burgers #3
Written by Rachel Hastings, Mike Olsen and Chad Brewster
Art by Damon Wong, Derek Schroeder, Tom Riggin, Kimball Shirley, Tony Gennaro, Hector Reynoso, Bernard Derriman, Kat Kosmala, Tyler Garrison and Frank Forte
Lettering by Hector Reynoso, Tony Gennaro, Kat Kosmala and Frank Forte
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

If Tina Belcher reviewed Bobs Burgers #3, she would probably start by moaning, swoon about her own story, and then moan about almost everything else involved. This would also essentially be an accurate representation of the book as a whole. Tina’s Erotic Friend Fiction starts the issue out strong, but the rest of the issue fizzes as Louise’s and Gene’s stories don’t quite stack up.

It’s no surprise that Tina Belcher won Entertainment Weekly’s Best Character on TV poll. She’s the teenager most of us knew ourselves to be: incredibly awkward, hilariously unsure of ourselves, and completely infatuated with another human being’s butt. Tina’s story in Bob’s Burgers #3 encapsulates all of that.

Writer Rachel Hastings sets Tina’s Erotic Friend Fiction in the Old West, as Tina helps Jimmy Jr. defeat gang leader Zeke. Of course, Jimmy Jr.’s butt plays a main role in the story, making a rather funny short story and will make any Tina fan laugh. Some of the humor falls flat, especially with the macabre opening featuring as Tina’s steed is accidentally slain during a shooting performance. This shakes up the narrative from the get-go and Hastings succeeds admirably to get the audience to laugh despite the off-putting start. The art team for this particular segment did alright in staying true to the show’s art style, but the characters appeared more bloated and blocky. The pacing and layouts of the story were fine, it was just distracting to see ballooned characters fighting in shootouts.

Louise’s story had all the components of a great Bob’s Burgers adventure: a hair brained scheme, Kristen Schaal’s voice practically saying Louise’s lines, and giant cardboard boxes. The kids attempt to rebuild their fort lost during the last Halloween show, and - of course - Louise and company build a structure that Louise compares to the Taj Mahal. The ridiculousness of the idea is a perfect example of why Bob’s Burgers works - at the end of the day, we’re not concerned whether or not it’s possible to build a cardboard mansion, we just think it’s pretty freaking cool because it’s Tina, Louise, and Gene doing it. Unfortunately, the plot gets pretty nonsensical, even by Bob’s Burgers standards, which ultimately makes the segment feel entirely wasted by the end. Writer Chad Brewster started strong but fell flat when he relied on physics similar to collapsing white dwarf stars to accomplish his ending.

Artist Frank Forte is the one who gets closest to the show’s art style, which makes Gene’s story a little more bearable. This, like Louise’s segment, has the show’s classic feel. Gene brings home what he thinks are fish eggs - later, the Belcher household is has upon its home a new biblical plague: fart-obsessed frogs. Writer Chad Brewster did a fantastic job in balancing the entire cast, giving the Belcher family equal opportunity to weigh in on the mayhem and insanity, while still allowing Gene to drive the story. While the segment’s actual story might be too linear and simple for some, Brewster was able to make it funny and endearing enough to let that slide.

Each of these segments didn’t have time to fully develop because of the book’s format: three segments, with the “Burger of the Day” and “Letters from Linda” segments in between each of the children’s stories. Each of them only run for about six to eight pages with Bob and Linda’s only amounting to one page each. The show uses the traditional half-hour comedy story format: eight minutes for the beginning, middle, and end to tell a complete and satisfying story, which is why this iteration of Bob’s Burgers can be frustrating. In the end, we don’t feel as satisfied as if we were watching the show, and that’s an issue. That’s not to say that there’s not nuggets of hilarity that’ll make any fan smile, it’s just that the book isn’t living up to the standards set by the source material.

Since this is the third issue, it’s clear they’re most likely going to stick to this format. Unfortunately, that means it’ll really only appeal to the most devoted Bob’s Burgers fans, as the casual fan won’t be satisfied with the short segments - especially if they’re not used to comic books - and anyone not familiar with the show isn’t given enough to become invested in these characters.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League United Annual #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Neil Edwards, Jay Leisten and Jeromy Cox
Lettering by Dezi Sienty and Taylor Esposito
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

This annual is what Justice League United should have been from the start. The JLU hasn’t been around as long as some of the more well established teams in the DC universe and the title has a whole has never felt like it quite gelled as well as it should have, despite the fan favorite roster and the talent of the creative team. Thankfully Justice League United Annual #1 blasts all that away with a breathless bullet train of a story that finally takes advantage of the epic scope of the DCU. Jeff Lemire and his art team finally deliver a story that cashes in on the promise of the great zero issue they delivered at the start of the series. Justice League United Annual #1 is big, bright, weird, and most of all, fun, while still functioning as a great first entry into what could be a compelling arc for the JLU.

Justice League United Annual #1 tosses readers into the thick of things as Mon-El faces off against the earthbound members of the JLU as he tries to end the threat of Ultra, the Multi-Alien before he can grow into the titular big bad of the arc. While Mon-El battles on Earth, the JLU away team of Green Arrow, Animal Man, Supergirl, and Stargirl wade into some of the seedier parts of the universe in order to find out who has stolen Hawkman’s Justice League transmitter after his untimely death. Right from the get-go, Lemire packs every bit of story he can within this annual. While the story could seem overwritten to some, Lemire does an admirably job giving each mini-team a proper page count in order to explore their part of the narrative, working them both into a great dovetail by the issue’s end. Lemire displayed this talent for attention division to great effect in Animal Man, but here, Lemire is throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at readers, filling both plotlines with heavy exposition and action set pieces. As stated before, this sort of pouring it all on the page storytelling might be overwhelming or needlessly overstuffed to some, but to me, this is exactly what Justice League United should have been from the jump. Jeff Lemire said at the start of this title that he wanted it to be the “big, weird, space adventure book,” and this annual finally looks like he’s making good on that promise.

Along with the regular cast members, Lemire gets the chance to write the guest starring Legion of Super Heroes, which makes me grin like an idiot just typing out. Lemire, a self-admitted huge fan of the Legion, slots the characters seamlessly into the larger narrative, giving their inclusion in this story much more weight than just a mere name recognition crossover. The Legion’s presence in Justice League United Annual #1 is just as important as the JLU themselves and it is nice to seem them again and used very well after the few false starts that were their solo books. Character has always mattered to Lemire and nowhere is that more apparent that in the pages of Justice League United. His Supergirl is a ball of seething emotion after the death of her friend, his Martian Manhunter is a fiercely protective leader, and his Green Arrow is a guy just trying to hold it all together. The entire team finally feels like a cohesive field unit, while still maintaining their own personalities and goals.

Adding the complex characters of the Legion and a clever ticking clock for the plot that comes with their inclusion adds another layer of team dynamics for Lemire to explore in later issues. My only complaint with the issue’s characterization would be Animal Man’s role as comedic relief that he’s seemed to settle into over the course of this annual and previous issues. After Lemire’s run on his solo title, I had expected that Buddy would be almost the haunted workhorse of the team, but instead, he seems a bit dumb and quip heavy in this annual and I’m not sure if I like it. I understand how important it is to have a character tell a few jokes throughout the course of an arc, especially since I’ve complained that some of the opening issues of Justice League United trading in the fun promised by the creative team for a dour opening arc, but after Lemire’s previous work on the character, it rings a bit false to me that Buddy would be a joke machine during his every on panel appearance; Make him the wry cynic of the team and I’ll love everything he says and does.

Handling the art for this annual is series fill-in artist Neil Edwards, along with inker Jay Leisten and colorist Jeromy Cox, who all come together to deliver some truly fantastic visuals throughout. While Edwards’ character expressions still leave a bit to be desired a few times during the course of this issue, his action scenes more than make up for a few blank looks from Equinox and Adam Strange. The opening splash page in particular, which depicts Martian Manhunter and Mon-El racing toward each other at superhuman speeds, is genuinely thrilling, complete with fantastic background details like the blurred building behind them and the debris kicked up by their incredible speeds. This scene, and the annual as a whole, is also done a great service by the colors of Cox and the inks of Leisten. Justice League United Annual #1 is filled with bold, heavy lines and garishly beautiful colors throughout, giving it the feel of a pop-superhero book of the '70s. You can’t include the Legion in a book and make it look muddy, so Cox drenches each panel with smooth, vibrant colors that make the annual look exactly as bright as the cover promises it does. If you need just one image to convince you, look no further than the art team’s splash page of the Legion in their full glory. There are few things I love more than a good Legion-in-flight page and Edwards, Leisten, and Cox deliver a doozy right in the dead center of this annual.

Justice League United Annual #1 is pure example of a book finally finding its own voice. After a lackluster opening arc, Lemire and his team seem to finally feel comfortable with their team as a whole, and with that comfort comes ambition. No one wants to read a comic that plays it safe and tells a middling superhero story that audiences have read time and time again. While the story of this annual isn’t going to bust open a new paradigm within comics, it is the kind of breathlessly huge story that audiences gravitate toward. I would much rather read something that shoots for the moon and misses than a story that doesn’t even try to aim. Justice League United Annual #1 not only shoots for the moon, it shoots for a moon in a neighboring universe. Time will tell if its aim is true, but for now, long live the Legion and the JLU.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Elektra #7
Written by W. Haden Blackman
Art by Alex Sanchez and Esther Sanz
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel
Review by Lindsey Morris
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Since the start of this new series, Elektra has been nothing short of a badass. It was with great surprise that I found myself interested in a character that had previously been so easily dismissed. The writing was solid, the art simply gorgeous - it all worked. However… that is no longer the case. In this latest and final issue of our heroine's two-part "Double Tap" story, everything is falling apart.

Elektra has been running around the world with Matchmaker (possibly the most boring sidekick of all time), trying to find an unspoiled safe house to hide Cape Crow and his son Kento in. They are not having much luck. Members of the Guild appear out of nowhere the instant our protagonist steps within inches of what was once a safe space. The eighth and final location has just been compromised, and the latest version of Lady Bullseye has come for Elektra's blood.

W. Haden Blackman has given us a concluding issue that, to be honest, doesn't offer much more than fighting. In its defense, it's a two-issue arc, so perhaps it is with good reason that this issue and its predecessor feel so rushed. The incredibly fast pace lends itself to the nearly endless fight sequences, but that's about all. The emotional ties that Blackman tries to put into the story between the members of the group seem forced, and there are no team dynamics to speak of. The villains our team encounters are all dispatched with suspicious ease, only to be replaced with another mob that will meet the same fate. Lady Bullseye is the only character with any interest to the story, and her role here seems more as a matter of course. While it's undeniably fun to see Elektra straight up massacre every villain that comes her way, it's also not the makings of a great story. But maybe that was the point.

The art by Alex Sanchez works well enough within the bounds of the story being told, but doesn't offer anything distinctive to make the comic stand out. That's certainly not a necessity for a successful book, but when following up an artist like Michael del Mundo, it leaves something to be desired. The fighting scenes that make up the bulk of this issue have a lot of close-ups shots, leaving little to no room for the dynamic poses to make them more engaging. There isn't much variation of facial expression either, which could also contribute to the lack of emotion that resonated through this issue. The colors by Esther Sanz fit the artwork, incorporating overtones of gray and orange into the issue which give it a little more spark.

Perhaps this mini-story was meant to be a short and sweet beat-em-up style break after the conclusion of the first "Bloodlines" arc. A change of pace. A different perspective. Looking at it from that angle, it works a little better. Looking at it as a smaller part of the whole, however, it just doesn't fit in. Here's to hoping that the next issue will regain its footing and employ more of the things that have been making the series a success since Issue #1.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League Dark Annual #2
Written by J.M. DeMatteis
Art by Klaus Janson with John Stanisci and Steve Buccelato
Lettering by Dezi Sienty Published by DC Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Justice League Dark Annual #2 has a very simple premise: The one constant in the ever-changing world of magic is John Constantine’s love for Zatanna Zatara. J.M. DeMatteis attempts to follow that theme through and make the annual a story of sacrifice and heroism, but the excessive narrative boxes, the constant shifts of internal thought, and the exorbitant amount of dialogue bog down a story that has a lot of goals in mind, but which fails to give the emotional punch it’s aiming for.

J.M. DeMatteis has a lot of story to tell. The annual ties in with the current Justice League Dark storyline, but the self-contained story and neatness of the conclusion don’t make it a must read. If anything, novice fans may fail to feel the emotional weight towards which DeMatteis strives. Part of this is due to how bombarded readers are by story. Pages are packed with information to a point of excess.

And this excess stretches over into other aspects of the story, chiefly the readability of the issue. The issue lacks fluidity. Much of the emotional punch relies on characters identifying with Zatanna and Constantine, but after a few pages the issue becomes a practice in patience. Several times, the action suffers due to the wordiness because I was working so hard to get through a lengthy passage that when the action finally occurred, I was too fatigued to even care.

This also affects the art. Klaus Janson and John Stanisci have a style reminiscent of John Romita Jr. and Dan Jurgens but without finesse. I see this, though, as a reaction to the amount of story DeMatteis asks for. Janson and Stanisci do their best to deliver, but some of their work is nothing more than vague illustrations used as set pieces around a clutter of narrative boxes.

They have a few solid pages, though. When John awakens in the House of Mystery, Janson and Stanisci have a little M.C. Escher style fun. This image is one of the most dynamic in the issue, and even Dezi Sienty gets to play along, using the lettering as a guide for the reader to follow as he/she turns the book around to spiral in on John’s thoughts.

The real issue with Justice League Dark is that it tries to do too much. The end result is a comic that never hits the mark in either its storytelling or its art. DeMatteis uses a simple theme about love to build his tale, but because of the density of the story, the story doesn’t get the desired emotion. Fans of the series might enjoy the book more than the casual reader, but I think even constant readers will think this is a bit excessive.

Trade & OGN Reviews!

Credit: Oni Press

Orphan Blade
Written by M. Nicholas Almand
Art by Jake Myler
Lettering by Douglas E. Sherwood
Published by Oni Press
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

With magic, adventure, Kaiju, and the Hero’s Journey all wrapped into one package, Orphan Blade is able to thrive within the tropes of classic genre storytelling to make an incredibly satisfying story. While the premise might not be groundbreaking or new, late writer M. Nicholas Almand managed to make his world diverse and vibrant. After being thrown onto the streets by his former Samurai master, Hadashi finds himself pursued by a deadly assassin group after stumbling upon one of the most sought after weapons made from the carcasses of extra-dimensional beings that ravaged the world decades ago.

One of the major standouts of this book is in the diversity of its cast. By my count, there are only four straight white males in the entire cast and only one has a significant role - as an antagonist. All the characters have a range of ethnicities, sexual orientations, and physical abilities. We see characters deal with depression, strife, and conflict in refreshing ways that will appeal to all readers. Alamand did a great job in making us care first and foremost about Hadashi, which works to great effect as Hadashi drives the rest of the narrative forward. While some antagonists and secondary characters might not have been fleshed out as well as they could have been, all of them feel more than one dimensional and all of the main protagonists feel three dimensional: they have flaws and virtues, convictions and doubts, and story that supports their personalities.

The impetus of the entire story is its fantastical element: the Artifacts made from the carcasses of the Kaiju. As Orphan Blade begins, a group of sorcerers decided to look upon God’s face and thus brought these monsters into the world. The proverbial mentor Dr. Africa made these weapons during the war and now seeks to destroy them after humanity turned against each other when the threat of the Kaiju vanished. These elements of hubris and violence are nothing new, nor are Artifacts’ abilities. Part of the problem with the Artifacts and their abilities is that they look like things we’ve seen before: a sword of darkness, guided arrows, beast masks. Artist Jake Myler doesn’t offer anything new visually, though for all intents and purposes his illustrations are perfectly fine.

Overall, the art looks unrefined. An amalgamation of traditional comic book artistry and manga style, the artwork - especially in proportions and overall look - appears too cartoonish. There are times, too, where Myler skimps on the backgrounds, opting to use solid backgrounds in lieu of using the actual setting. This is understandable, especially since he draws it out where it counts in larger and most established shots. The actual readability can sometimes get choppy as Myler opts for close ups of characters, which makes a staccato effect between panels. It can make the pacing rather erratic, especially when it’s during the characters’ down time and the erratic effect detracts from the reading.

Almand’s storytelling is more powerful than both the artwork and his actual writing. Though the dialogue, at times, is fairly uninspired and cliché, we care about these characters so much that it doesn’t really matter. One of Almand’s major strengths is his ability to seamlessly weave in information about the characters, avoiding the lethal “infodump.” Part of that included the romance between Hadashi and one of the other male characters. Alamand treats Hadashi’s sexual orientation like it should be: as one facet of his character, not his defining trait. Ninety percent of the book revolves around Hadashi and company avoiding death and trying to figure out how to survive in the world. Romance at all levels is primarily an afterthought and only saved until after the gang is out of immediate danger. From that, Almand sets an example of how such characters and stories should be written.

Orphan Blade’s big draw is its storytelling. By the end of the story, you’ll feel satisfied with what’s been told and believe in these characters. The cliché aspects of the story will be forgotten as the most important and well done parts shine through. Hadashi and company might be done for now, but as the sun rises at the end of the book, it seems like Orphan Blade’s future remains bright.

Credit: MonkeyBrain

Boo! Halloween Stories, Vol. 2 #1
Written by RJ White, Dylan Todd, Gloria Reynolds, Leonard Pierce, Matt Smigiel, Jon Morris, Delilah Dawson, Chris Sims, Ken Lowery, Manning Krull, Sean Poppe, Scott Faulkner and Benito Cereno
Art by Kelly Tindall, Matt Digges, Gloria Reynolds, Adam Eatson, Matt Smigiel, Joel Carroll, Matthew Allen Smith, Andy Hirsch, Shawn McGuan, Manning Krull, Sean Poppe, Erica Henderson, Scott Faulkner, Jordan Witt, Jon Morris and Pete Toms
Published by Monkeybrain Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Tricky tales with tongue-in-cheek references abound in this holiday-themed one-shot that pays loving tribute to the old horror comics while also tweaking them across the nose in a gathering of creators with a love for the horror genre write and draw for their fellow enthusiasts.

Last year, digital comics publisher Monkeybrain put out the first volume of Boo! as a series of smaller issues, with an extensive storyline going across bumper pages by Jon Morris. This year, they've taken a slightly different approach, with Morris still introducing most of the stories with Crypt Keeper/Uncle Creepy style characters, but there's no plot underlying their appearance. Instead, Morris, along with Erica Henderson, Joel Carroll, and Gloria Reynolds offer one-page advertisements, mimicking the kinds of things you'd find in old comic books, from a way to resurrect your pet to a promo for a movie that sounds completely plausible as a 1970s vehicle.

The stories themselves are of very solid quality, for those who are already fans of the short, twist-ending style of horror that typifies the anthologies, going back as far as the pre-code EC work, continuing into the Warren Publications, and given new life today in Dark Horse's resurrected Creepy and Eerie, along with a host of indie titles like Nix Comics who use a similar style. Boo! makes its mark by taking familiar horror tropes and giving them some dark comedic twist, giving it some separation from the other horror anthologies. For example, the second story, "The Mystery of the Mill Monster" by Dylan Todd, Matt Digges, and Pete Toms features a grouping of teenagers who are immediately recognizable as analogs for Scooby Doo, right down to being called "The Creep Crew." They investigate a case while quipping about what the Hanna-Barbara creations always did, while line artist Digges plays with the narrative structure of the panels, including a page you must read left-down-up, following the characters into an attic for the big reveal. What starts as a standard parody takes on an unlife of its own, and is a highlight of the collection.

Many of the creators involved are perhaps a bit better known for being engaging and entertaining on social media, particularly Twitter. Comics blogger Chris Sims, along with the main artist on the BOOM! Studios Garfield comic book, Andy Hirsch, turn in a spot-on parody of a Chick Tract with "The Hell Mask." You might think that the God-fearing would be against dressing up on Oct. 31, but it turns out if you're dressing up little Johnny as a cowboy, you're actually damning him to hell! Sims, no stranger to sarcasm, absolutely nails the tone of the sermonizing serials, right down to including a reference to a biblical passage. Meanwhile, Hirsch's visuals work within the limitations of the moralizer's small panel size, using his ability to draw strong, cartoonish faces and construct layouts that make the most of the space available. For the issue's closing story, Tumblr holiday historian (and Tick writer) Benito Cereno combines with artist Jordan Witt on "Great, Now I'll Never Get to Sleep" which features the mother of all "be careful what you wish for" gags in a three-page story that has perfect comedic timing. Witt knows just what to not show in panels that look almost like animated stills and the last line is absolutely nailed by Cereno to confirm the joke.

Not all of the stories are based around humor, however. Returning to their characters from last year, Ken Lowery and Shaun McGuan take us back to a familiar theme for musicians and horror, as the Valentine siblings learn there's a price for trying to make it big. McGuan's realistic art style is a definite departure from the looser, more cartoon-influenced work of most of the other creators in Boo!, which helps make it stand out. I like who they use as the stand in for the devil, too, as it's a nice nod to a classic song. It will be interesting to see if we get more of these characters next year.

There's not enough room to cover all of the stories in Boo!, but there's definitely not a dud in the bunch, if you are the type of person who appreciates classic, old-school horror, layered with a dose of internet snarking here and there. You're not going to be terrified, like when you read Colder, but you will be entertained by this Halloween treat that goes perfect with leftover, on-sale candy, as a reminder that the best holiday of the year is only 360-some days away.

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