Best Shots Comic Reviews: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #9, GOTHAM ACADEMY #2, More

Marvel previews for November 5, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with today's edition! So let's kick off today's column with Prolific Pierce Lydon, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing Spider-Man #9
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Olivier Coipel, Justin Ponsor, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Cam Smith and Antonio Fabela
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos and Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"Spider-Verse" is finally underway in Amazing Spider-Man #9 with superstar artist Olivier Coipel in tow! Marvel and DC are both refamiliarizing readers with the lesser-known counterparts of their favorite heroes with reality-bending, parallel dimension-hopping stories, and the results have been interesting. Dan Slott is digging pretty deep into recent Spidey continuity as well. J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the title featured “The Other” saga and brought to light some more mystical, totemic aspects to Peter’s mythology. Despite the often confusing nature of those developments, Slott maintains a fairly streamlined approach to this event in its early stages and Coipel sets the tone for what feels like another Spider-Man family epic.

I’ve always maintained the belief that Spider-Man works better as a more science fiction-based character. His origin is science-y. He’s really good at science. Many of his villains are the result of science or technology gone wrong. It makes sense. Dan Slott’s work has always been laden with a healthy dose of sci-fi, but he’s continually left certain things more open-ended, and we’re starting to see where those loose threads lead. There’s been a focus in the dialogue (from any number of characters) that the Peter Parker of Earth-616 is somehow special or the most powerful of all the Spider-Men. Slott has hinted at this before, as recently as the finale of Superior Spider-Man, which saw Peter pretty much will himself back into existence. While that sent a powerful message about the strength of willpower and good triumphing over evil, it did seem like a weak moment in a generally strong run. At least, it did back then.

Slott fleshes out Morlun and his family in the main story and the back-up and in doing so we see more Spider-Men meet their demise. There is so much more narrative freedom when you can kill off characters at will but the impact of those deaths isn’t quite the same. Peter Parker of 616 is finally alerted to what’s been going on by all the parallel versions of himself. We get to see another Spidey rescue mission, this time Scarlet Spider, and Slott closes with the fate of Miles Morales unresolved. Overall, it’s a strong issue. Slott fleshes out Morlun and his family, giving greater context to their role in shaping the universe. He also allows Peter Parker to catch up with the rest of the Spiders and subsequently finally involve him in the story. There’s a foreboding bit where’s he’s told “you’re the greatest of all of us,” and that’s something that it seems that Slott is ready to expand on and explain. Mysteries abound! And the stakes might be somewhat inflated by a growing (and probably inconsequential) body count, but aside from that this is a pretty lean and effective start to the event.

Olivier Coipel is a big reason for that. There’s a distinct difference between his work and the artists that we’re used to seeing on Amazing Spider-Man. Coipel elevates the ideas in the script. The lines are crisp and clear. There’s a seriousness to the artwork that supports the tone of the script when it needs that extra push. You don’t hire a superstar to draw any old issue of Spider-Man. You hire one when it seems like everything is on the line. I also think that Coipel probably draws the most intimidating Morlun since his introduction by John Romita, Jr. That’s no easy task. I hate the overuse of digital lighting. I get that we’re seeing a lot of different portals and things like that but I always feel that digital lighting overwhelms pages because it draws your eye directly to it. Thankfully though, Coipel backs up his blacks effectively and so we don’t lose any contrast. Giuseppe Camuncoli draws the back up story and it’s a good fit for him. His line work really taps into the horror of “The Feast.” It should make you a little bit uncomfortable and Camuncoli achieves that effect.

“Spider-Verse” is off to a good start. We’ll have to wait and see what Slott does with the idea that Peter Parker is the greatest Spider-Man in the multiverse. That’s an intriguing title considering that we know that he isn’t even the strongest member of all the Spiders currently assembled. Slott is doing a good job of keeping all the mysteries at play fresh in our minds. Olivier Coipel is a great fit for this event. His involvement is the shot in the arm that this title needed to remind everyone that this isn’t your average Spider-Man story. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the fact that there are so many different versions of Spider-Man featured in this book but it’s important to remember that there’s a larger story underneath it all. Slott’s always writing for the long game and so far this one should be keeping everyone guessing.

Credit: DC Comics

Gotham Academy #2
Written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Karl Kerschl, Geyser, Dave McCaig and John Rauch
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Marlene Bonnelly
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Boy, is Gotham Academy a nice change of pace. Truth be told, I’d been a little worried about DC; they hadn’t been trying to push the boundaries as much as Marvel in terms of content and target demographics. Gotham Academy, however, is entirely different from what we’ve come to expect of the publisher. The book is quirky and cute, a Scooby Doo mystery wrapped in an anime shell and served with teenage angst on the side. It’s also extremely slow going and a little dull at times, but nonetheless a solid book that fills an important role in DC’s lineup.

For once, I’d like to touch on the art first. I can’t describe it in any other way except refreshing. The care that the art team has invested in designing and rendering these characters is obvious on every page. There are no weird angles, distorted faces or oddly proportioned figures. Every panel is packed with detail down to the background characters in a classroom scene, with hair and uniforms clearly outlined. Speaking of outlines—I find something incredibly charming about colored inks rather than the standard, solid black. Olive’s hair is often lined in a pale blue, for example, which adds an extra layer of depth. The backgrounds, too, are honestly gorgeous and convey the mood well, whether that mood is “spooky, spider web-infested library” or “romantic sunset.”

The story is where I get a little lost. I do love this book and I want to love it more, but sometimes I feel like I’m grasping at air when reading. This sensation was a given for the first issue, as it was an introduction to Olive and Maps and the whole odd situation that is their lives, but now into the second issue I don’t feel like I’ve learned enough to be satisfied. We got a few nice morsels thrown our way, like a dog digging up a bone and the reveal of a cult-like group at the end, but I want more. This desire may just be the greedy reader in me, however, and the fact that I so desperately want to have the next installment in my hands may actually be a sign that Cloonan and Fletcher are doing a great job.

Pacing and mysteries aside, I can really understand why this title has been so well received. This isn’t a standard comic book packed with superheroes and/or super villains duking it out with muscles and gadgetry. This is a story about a young woman who’s just as confused as we the readers are. It’s easy to identify with Olive, who really struggles to manage in a school environment (just like we all have at some point). It’s fun and interesting to learn alongside her, too, especially given that her young sidekick is often more bold than she is. Maps is the nerdy child in all of us, curious and sometimes oblivious to danger. Olive is more rational and timid but, as we see at the end of this issue, she’s finally learning how to take control. Together they make a balanced team and an impressive pair of detectives. If they stay on this route and finally start developing solid backgrounds beyond “bad stuff happened last summer,” they’ll be showing up Batman in no time.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Hulk #8
Written by Gerry Duggan
Art by Mark Bagley, Drew Hennessy and Jason Keith
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

We've had mutant registration, we've had Armor Wars, we've had Initiatives... Marvel Comics have often looked to the destructive potential of its heroic characters and used it as a source of tension and dread. And perhaps no character fits that anxious, atomic-fearing quality than the Hulk, as Gerry Duggan taps into that sensible concern with "The Omega Hulk." Even with Bruce Banner effectively wiped out under the gruff persona of "Doc Green," Duggan is able to have his cake and eat it, too, streamlining the Hulk mythos by eliminating unnecessary spin-offs, while also showing how vibrant the Hulk's supporting characters can be - even without their gamma powers.

Perhaps the gutsiest thing that Duggan does with his story here is that he doesn't quite commit to it being an out-and-out tragedy, or even a full-on action story, but something much more varied and bittersweet. For example, the first scene, where the Hulk checks in on an often-overlooked gamma-enhanced being - the grave of Dr. Leonard Samson. On the one hand, it could be seen as morbid or depressing, and for moments like the Hulk placing a flower in his friend's grave, it is - but there are also some surprisingly funny beats, like his headstone reading "The Doctor Is Out," or the Hulk telling a bewildered groundskeeper "no one will ever believe you." It actually feels more natural this way - even in the bleakest of circumstances, there's always something funny going on.

There's also a surprising amount of psychology to this arc, as Duggan looks at gamma power as not just an enhancing condition - it's downright addictive. Even with his dubious methods of enforcement, you quickly realize that the Hulk might actually be doing the right thing by stopping Betty Ross - the Red She-Hulk - as she manhandles one-time sidekick Rick Jones, screaming, "the rage doesn't control me -- I control the rage!" Duggan subtly taps into so much history, particularly between Betty and Bruce - like it or not, Bruce Banner has cast a traumatic, violent shadow over her life, and you completely understand why she'd lash out against him, screaming "I won't let you change me again!"

This might also be the best artwork from Mark Bagley that I've seen since he took over this book. He really takes to Red She-Hulk like a fish to water, making her seem strong, destructive, sexy, and most importantly, full-on angry. His fight sequences are superb, as Betty's house explodes into rubble, and the debris that comes from the ground makes this latest Hulk fight seem larger than life. Bagley also excels in the quiet moments, as well, showing off the sadness in Betty's eyes as she makes a dark confession. Colorist Jason Keith might be the big unspoken hero of this issue, as his colors feel layered and weighty, but never at the cost of popping off the page.

That said, this book isn't for everyone - those who haven't been reading Hulk lately are likely to be bewildered, and it only gets more challenging if you haven't read Jonathan Hickman's S.H.I.E.L.D., which I presume is the Order of the Shield mentioned repeatedly in this book. Even those who have been reading will likely find at least one thing wrong with this book - namely, the anticlimactic reveal of who issued the order to have Bruce Banner shot (not to mention the almost nonexistent reason why). Continuity issues aside, the thing that will make or break this book is whether or not you need a book to settle on a particular tone - or if you're able to embrace this book as a story with some range.

I like to think the latter, and that makes this issue of Hulk a strong one, even with its sometimes sedate tone. Even with the occasional punch-out, this arc is actually a much more measured response to the gamma-enhanced threat - the Hulk used to only speak with violence. Now he has science, reasoning, and even negotiation to help prove his points. And after reading this issue, I think he was right all along - there's more to his "family" than just being spin-offs. It clearly took a cure for gamma radiation to remind readers of the true characters that have been stirring underneath.

Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #36
Written by Greg Pak
Art by Aaron Kruder and Wil Quintana
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There is something inherently creepy about small towns, even one as picturesque as Smallville. This feeling of unease is what beats at the center of Action Comics #36, a strange and emotional palate-cleansing issue from Greg Pak, artist Aaron Kruder, and colorist Carlos M. Mangual. It has been two months since the devastating attack from Brainiac, but as the cleanup rolls on, a strange creature sets its sights on Lana Lang and her recently deceased parents, and even Superman himself may not be equipped to help. Pak’s run of Action Comics has set itself apart by making wonderful use of Lana as a protagonist and by telling stories that transcend the troupes of regular tights and flights comics. Action Comics #36 is yet another example of this attention to character and mood, wrapped in some gorgeous pencils and colors from the art team.

Action Comics #36 finds both Clark and Lana doing their best to pick up the pieces after the events of the previous arc, but while Clark is heartened by humanity’s resilience in the face of destruction, Lana Lang is plagued with nightmares detailing her parents rising from the grave. As if that weren’t enough, a strange green fog descends onto Smallville, cutting off communication to the outside world, and bringing Lana’s nightmares to grim reality. Right from the jump, Pak slows down the pace of Issue #36, making it a sort of cool-down from the high drama and stakes of the previous arc, which makes this issue work to great effect. Pak has always been a writer that has a firm grasp on when to shift up and when to bring things down, and Action Comics #36 is definitely the latter, but that isn’t to say that it moves at a glacial pace. Pak employs this thoughtful pace in order to truly sell Lana’s unease over the last month and to slowly build toward the issue’s reveal of the antagonist, a truly grotesque, Shoggoth-like creature meticulously rendered by Kruder and Quintana.

Pak’s Action Comics has succeeded up to this point because of his fantastic characterization of Lana, who has quickly become the driving force of much of his run on the title. Action Comics #36 is very much Lana’s story that just happens to include Superman. Though Pak is clearly Team Lana, Action Comics #36 also contains some fantastic characterization throughout. Pak’s Superman is still a very compelling take on the character that highlights his deep emotions as well as his very human flaws; running the gamut from idealistic citizen to emotional force of nature as he promises to himself that he would “break the damn sky apart” before he lets the creature hurt his friends again. Pak’s John Henry Irons is every bit the affable everyman that we expect, as he works tirelessly to help the citizens of Smallville and be there for Lana whenever and however he can. Pak even throws in a fun bit of self-continuity as Superman enlists the help of the Toymaker to crack the shroud around Smallville. While Greg Pak’s plots are unconventional and fun, it is his attention to character that makes his Action Comics so engaging month after month.

Aaron Kruder and Wil Quintana could be on seven books a month and it still wouldn’t be enough for me. Since the very start of Pak’s run, Kruder has turned in emotive and kinetic pencils and Action Comics #36 is no exception. Even with the slower pace of this script, both Kruder and Quintana make the most of every page, complimenting each other’s work beautifully. Kruder’s Superman is still powerful looking while never sacrificing his kind nature, even when he loses his temper. His Lana is still fierce, while never being severe or dismissing the deep well of emotions that she is experiencing after the loss of her parents. Kruder’s design of the unnamed creature at the center of this story is also a sight to behold - without giving too much away, it is definitely one of the more interesting creature designs I have seen recently. However, Kruder’s work wouldn’t be as nearly engaging without the vibrant colors of Wil Quintana, who drenches each page with fantastic choices. Quintana gives us his all with the crisp ambers of a Smallville sunrise as well as the sickly greens of the mystery fog, the brackish yellows of the creature’s skin and blood, and the shocking reds of Superman in flight. If there was ever a team that you would want handling Action Comics for as long as humanly possible, it is Aaron Kruder and Wil Quintana.

Every small town has its secrets, even one as idyllic as Smallville, and Greg Pak, Aaron Kruder, and Wil Quintana have given us one hell of a sneak peak under Smallville’s seemingly perfect public face. Action Comics #36 may not be the biggest Superman story going right now, nor is it the most action packed, but it is most definitely the most engaging one. Greg Pak and his art team understand that you don’t have to shoehorn a set piece into every other page in order to tell a compelling story. All you have to do is present engaging characters with real human motivations and foibles and let them be humans, instead of the infallible ideal of humanity that some comics present. Action Comics may be a title that was built on all action, all the time, but Greg Pak and his team have made it a book about characters above all else.

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