Best Shots Comic Reviews: MULTIVERSITY: PAX AMERICANA, AVENGERS #38, More

 The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1
Credit: DC Comics
Multiversity #4: Pax Americana
Multiversity #4: Pax Americana
Credit: DC Comics

Multiversity: Pax Americana #1
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Frank Quitely and Nathan Fairbairn
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

And we’re back with another installment of Grant Morrison’s multiverse-spanning epic. This time we check in with the Charlton Comics heroes of Earth-4, a group probably most known for being the direct inspiration for Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Frequent Morrison collaborator Frank Quitely delivers on the art side with his trademark brand of big action balanced by somewhat unsettling character renderings and depictions of violence. With this chapter, Morrison seems to be expanding the idea of the Multiverse to include not just places where different version of heroes live but places where actual ideas live. The Earth-4 heroes have an intrinsic connection to Alan Moore, but Morrison sprinkles in other ideas and themes that we’ve seen in Moore’s work to beguiling effect.

“This world rewards its bastards. Heroes are for movies. The super-hero is dead.”

With those words, Morrison might have boiled down Alan Moore’s feeling about comics in a mere three sentences, and that idea prevails throughout the issue. But Morrison doesn’t forget about his own goals for this series. Once we meet all the major players and see their obvious connections to their counterparts in Watchmen, we also are brought back to the idea of the cursed comic, a thread that Morrison has pulled through every issue. Morrison uses every trick in his arsenal to keep up the mystery. Captain Atom’s direct address of the reader is unsettling especially after Morrison flips a famous Moore quote and has a character say “This is not an imaginary story...” Captain Atom is the most intriguing character this time around. He exists in all time and space simultaneously but he does not leave Earth the way Doctor Manhattan does. Instead, he stays around, and his presence is a powerful force. Morrison gives us a great scene with Captain Atom and his dog that gives us a idea of how disconnected he is from our reality. The juxtaposition of a god pondering the meaning of everything over a dog should be enough to give an astute reader a little chuckle but Atom’s methods are horrific. Themes of life, death, time, reality, purpose and, oddly enough, vivisection have stayed strong throughout.

Frank Quitely is a rare talent. His work eschews description but I’ll try. I know many readers are put off by the textured look of his characters but it’s scars and pock marks and wrinkles that, I think, help characterize them even more. The purer a character is, the easier they are too look at. The more unsettling their actions become, Quitely changes their outward appearance in some way to reflect that. He definitely doesn’t hold back with regards to action and violence either. Getting punched in the mouth by a superpowered being is no small moment, so Quitely let’s that all out on the page. Teeth shatter. Blood flows. It might be a little much to stomach, but “this is no imaginary story,” and Quitely’s exaggerated realism carries that theme through to its end.

Multiversity: Pax Americana is a dense book. Every page is packed with panels. Every panel is packed with symbolism and it’s all serving Morrison’s bigger ideas for this series. Readers might be turned off by Morrison’s somewhat haphazard approach to time in this issue, but it’s almost as if he’s letting the characters control their own fates. Atom loses some awareness of where and when he is the same way that the reader might. Time flips between forward and backward on a whim and without warning. Morrison and Quitely challenge the idea that anything you read is ever all that straightforward, and that’s a scary thought. If you could prevent something from happening just by turning back a comic book page, would you?

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers #38
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Stefano Caselli and Frank Martin
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Remember all those plot threads that have been seeded throughout Avengers from the very first arcs? Well, Jonathan Hickman sure did, and now the grand game is starting to take some truly compelling shapes. As the covers of both Avengers and New Avengers proclaim, time is quickly running out for the Illuminati, SHIELD, and the broken remains of the Avengers World, but for good or ill, it seems that everyone has some sort of plan. Thankfully, the background player turned power player Roberto de Costa has been working tirelessly through Hickman’s eight-month time jump to mend the broken machine and finally remind all of the bickering heroes just who they are and what they are meant to represent. Avengers #38 is a truly dense comic to get through, with heaps of exposition plied on top of too little action, but it is also a fantastic example of the type of plotting Hickman brings to his comics. In Avengers #38, a great many secrets are brought to light, and for the first time in a long time for the Avengers, it may bring them closer together, instead of threatening to tear them apart.

Avengers #38 offers us two distinct inputs into the larger story that Hickman has been weaving throughout his both his Avengers books; the mysterious system tool, Pod, and Roberto’s ramshackle New Avengers team. While the last issue found most of Roberto’s heavy hitters being flung into the maw of the multiverse, Avengers #38 shows us the painstaking lengths Roberto has gone in order to bring his team together and just how honest he is willing to be with his teammates; a very welcome change to the Steve's bullheaded leadership and Tony's multiversal wheelings and dealings. Roberto and Sam were two characters that I was elated for upon Hickman’s first roster reveal, but for the most part, they were limited to comedic relief in the early arcs. Now it seems that Hickman has finally found a solid role for them in the larger narrative. They have finally been allowed to grow into the characters that we - OK, mostly me and the dozen or so New Mutants fans out there - always knew they could be. Roberto is every bit a leader now, and he may just be exactly what Earth’s Mightiest Heroes need right now.

The second of Avengers #38‘s plots, featuring the origin of Pod and its role in the larger narrative of the universal systems, fills in the gaps that Hickman had previous left unattended until now. While this showcase may leave some readers scratching their heads, those patient enough to have kept along will find deep satisfaction in Pod’s revealed origins. As Hickman reveals in this issue, Pod is not just an ordinary robot. In fact, it is a she - more specifically, a young Norwegian girl named Aikku Jokinen who interfaced with the falling robot the day it entered our atmosphere. This type of reveal is vintage Hickman, adding a human element to the insane hard science fiction to give the story a solid emotional grounding. The reveal comes late in the issue right before two other game-changing reveals, but it is Pod’s story that will stick with me for future issues. Science fiction only works if we care about the characters that are experiencing the high ideas of the plot and now Hickman has given us not one, but two beating hearts at the center of this crazy comic.

Stefano Caselli is quickly becoming one of my favorite artists on the rotating roster of Avengers pencilers. Starting from his work on the criminally underrated Avengers Assemble, his smooth lines and robust character renderings have become synonymous with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to me. As I said above, most of Avengers #38 is steeped in heavy exposition and lots of dialogue, but Caselli sells it all the best he can. Each character and character interaction is rendered with emotion, heart and bursting with personalty. Caselli understands that these characters are a bit over the top, but he is one of those rare artists that balances that hyper-reality with genuine human expression. Colorist Frank Martin and his muted color pallet work well with Caselli’s realist approach. Though Martin has excelled in his use of shadows and heavy inks in previous issues, Avengers #38 has a much more relaxed color scheme. The flashbacks detailed throughout are layered with a sepia-toned filter while the rest of the comic seems to be done is almost natural lighting, highlighting the natural choices that Martin used throughout. Sometimes, you don't have to go bombastic to tell a good story.

Heavily serialized storytelling is always a crapshoot, and that counts triple for monthly comic books. More often than not, readers will lapse on a title and then try to come back to it, a few issues down the line, and the book they find is not the book that they left. Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run has been a lot like that. It has been frustrating, obtuse and often times inaccessible - and I say this as a fan of the title. That said, these strikes against it still doesn’t take away from the meticulous plotting of Avengers. I’ve often said that nobody puts more time and effort into the plotting of major arcs like Jonathan Hickman, and Avengers #38 is one of those fantastic examples of his narrative payoffs. There are still way too many questions and not enough answers still lingering on the surface of Avengers but for now, we know way more than we did last month and, for now, that is more than enough.

Credit: DC Comics

Wonder Woman #36
Written by Meredith Finch
Art by David Finch, Richard Friend and Sonia Oback
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

There are still many threads left in Diana's tapestry as a new creative team takes over storytelling duties in Wonder Woman #36. The fan divided, but still impressive run by Azzarello and Chang wrapped up many issues with the cornerstone of the DC Universe. But Meredith and David Finch have far from a clean slate with which to work. There are still Amazon men living on Paradise Island, Diana is still the God of War, a founding member of the Justice League, and the current ruler of a people that have all but lost faith in her. And even with all that happening, Meredith and David Finch still need to place their own mark upon the DC icon.

Issue #36 opens with a narrative that leads the reader to believe that perhaps Meredith Finch is going to take things a little slow. An opening that allows both Diana and her readers to take in this new path. It's a classic bait and switch that works well enough, but reads as a little tired. For a story that promises an exciting new villain and direction for the titular character, there is very little of both that stands out. Someone is clearly attempting to control nature, and in doing so has cost the lives of thousands of women, men and children. While this is a powerful enough hook to draw Wonder Woman and the reader into the story, it still reads as uncertain, primarily because we are again reading a comic where Wonder Woman shares the spotlight with other members of the DCU.

That's not to say she shouldn't interact with them - far from it. But when it's a debut that promises a fresh take, the last thing the reader should see is their main character off to the side while the Justice League takes center stage. Still, Meredith Finch does write some interesting character moments. For all my concern over other members of the Justice League leading the charge, the conversation between Wonder Woman and Aquaman is quite interesting. Unlike the other members of the League (and arguably the DCU at large), Diana and Arthur have much in common in regards to responsibilities. Watching her express her concerns, one monarch to another monarch is a line worth exploring. But even that moment gets lost in a characterization that presents a Wonder Woman that is a little too young and inexperienced. This is not the time and battle-tested character we've seen, both in her own comic and other DC titles.

This trend frustratingly carries over on the art. David Finch is a strong artist when tasked with composing large battles and intense action. However, his line work falters a bit when it's needed to express the more deeper issues happening within this comic. Indeed, there is a hint of unfinished edges on many of the more personal panels on the page, giving an impression that most of the time was spent on two-page spreads and establishing panels. As many have come to expect from David Finch, his work on characters like Batman and Cyborg look great. And a special note needs to be said about his use and design around Swamp Thing. All are quite impressive and would elevate any title, were they the intended focus. However there is simply no way in getting around the fact that his Wonder Woman looks out of proportion and borders the cheesecake line a little too much.

Unfortunately, the inks from Richard Friend do little to bring definition to Finch's rushed line work, save the moments where Wonder Woman is not the focus. This is redeemed a bit by colorist Sonia Oback - while the palette from which Oback works isn't all that vibrant, her coloring adds some much needed depth to panels that would otherwise fall wholly flat. There are still a few strong moments in Wonder Woman #36, moments that fans will enjoy. Unfortunately this new creative team continues to suffer from the same inconsistencies that plagued the title under the previous team. Diana feels like a side character within her own book. For too long, Wonder Woman has simply reacted to the world around her. It's time for her to step back into the light that made her a cultural icon. As it stands, this still isn't the comic where that happens.

Spider-Woman #1
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Art by Greg Land, Jay Leisten and Frank D'Armata
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 1 out of 10

And you thought the butt cover was bad. Turns out, that publicity snafu was the least of Spider-Woman's problems.

Considering the timing of this book's release, it's to be expected that Spider-Woman #1 is a tie-in to the unfolding Spider-Verse saga going on in Amazing Spider-Man and its sister titles. What's frustrating, however, is how much the title character plays second banana in the first issue of her own book. If you're looking to get to know Jessica Drew, or even have a cohesive story about her, you're going to be gravely disappointed.

Spider-Woman's first sin is that it doesn't stand on its own two feet - not only do you have to know about Jessica Drew, not only do you need encyclopedic knowledge of Spider-Man and all his alternate universe counterparts, but you've really got to read this week's issue of Amazing Spider-Man in order to even make sense of why Jessica is out riding dinosaurs in a parallel dimension while she babysits both new Spider-totem Silk and the alt-universe Spider-Man Noir. (If it hurts your head to read that sentence, just imagine paying $3.99 for a comic about it.) It turns out that Silk is a beacon to the Inheritors, and thus Jessica is charged with keeping Silk safe and sound - and away from the other Spider-Men.

To say that this sounds more like Silk's story rather than Jessica's seems like a no-brainer. Silk has an actual arc to undergo - going from a liability to being a responsible heroine in her own right. And that would be great in a Silk title. But since the name of this comic is Spider-Woman, it's a shame that Jessica Drew feels like window dressing in her own book. To be fair, Dennis Hopeless doesn't really make any of the characters here likeable - Silk is a brat, Spider-Woman is a grump, and the rest of the Spider-People feel largely interchangeable - but it's even more glaring that Spider-Woman doesn't really do anything. (Yes, she steals a hovercraft and uses it as a weapon against two of the Inheritors. She also goes shopping for food and clothes. It's pretty barren of any weight.) At least Silk is diving into fights and being pursued by the bad guys!

It also doesn't help that the plot is very choppy, with a shifting supporting cast, random scene changes and no real goal other than keeping Silk alive. The threat of the Inheritors seems ever-present, but Hopeless's story feels mostly slow, with sudden bursts of action that are liable to give you whiplash. For example, the jump from a dinosaur-riding universe to Spider-Man Noir's universe feels arbitrary rather than helpful to establishing the plot, Meanwhile, the sudden inclusion of Peter Parker and Spider-Gwen doesn't just feel mandated, but it actually hurts the story, as it puts Jessica on another mission, one that makes spending an issue with Silk feel like a moot point. At one point, Silk says it best: "This seems dumb." "Agreed," Spider-Woman replies. I know the feeling.

I try to give Greg Land the benefit of the doubt, because oftentimes the critiques leveled at him are a bit out of proportion for, y'know, a regular old comic book. But this is some bad work from him. (Even Hopeless trying to lampshade how goofy it is for three Spider-People to be crouching on the same bar at the same time doesn't make the image look any better. One of Peter's legs is almost a stub, for crying out loud!) But perhaps more egregious is the fact that Land is tapping into some pretty familiar facial expressions for Silk, one of the only characters to have her entire face shown - I mean, there's at least three different panels that I know I've seen in Ultimate Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men. Combined with some needlessly sexualized posing from both Spider-Woman and Silk, and it's not a fun read. Combined with some energy-draining colors from the usually potent Frank D'Armata, and you have a book that's hard to read on almost every level.

For all the hubbub online that Spider-Woman got regarding its Milo Manara cover, at least that cover is a static image largely divorced from the contents of the story. Turns out, the story is even worse. This is about as obvious a tie-in cash-grab as it gets, and when even your lead character checks out of her mission to go elsewhere, you know you've got a waste of an issue. If you're morbidly curious about whether or not the contents of Spider-Woman match its decommissioned cover, then by all means, have at it. But don't say I didn't warn you. For everyone else, you might want to steer clear of this disappointment of a comic.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #36
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Who knew the Amazo Virus would be just what the doctor ordered?

Geoff Johns is two for two with this arc of Justice League, as he's given a shot in the arm with new artist Jason Fabok. With a newfound focus on the League rather than its external threats, Johns is able to fit them in some pretty interesting narrative territory - namely, at Ground Zero of a superhuman plague.

Opening up on some downright spooky silence, Johns really sells the tone of this issue, which comes right on the heels of an assault on Lex Luthor's private lab. Jumping forward 24 hours, Johns gives himself a lot of room to play around, as Superman and Batman rush into the hot zone. That's where this comic gets interesting - it meshes the sort of virulent fear of an Andromeda Strain or a 28 Days Later and splices it with good, old-fashioned superhero action. The Amazo Virus doesn't just take down superhumans, but it infects ordinary people with uncontrollable powers. It's a smart conceit, and one that's reduced the League to its three most powerful members... and its two most untrustworthy new additions.

Part of it has to do with narrowing down his scope, but part of this issue's success is the paradigm shift Johns has had in his writing the past few issues. And it's a shift I hope he continues - while the external plot is putting down enormous amounts of pressure and danger, the characterization in this comic still shines through. In particular, you see how much Johns enjoys writing Batman, as he leaps into the fray to save an infected man, even with the visor of his protective suit cracked. Meanwhile, there's an immense sadness behind Superman's eyes, as his survival in the face of the Amazo Virus just reminds him of his greatest insecurity: the fact that he's not human.

It doesn't hurt that Johns has Jason Fabok on art now. Fabok feels like the linework of Ivan Reis and the layouts of Gary Frank with an injection of David Finch - not a surprise, considering Fabok's relationship with Finch as he rose up the ranks at Aspen. Fabok's characters just feel iconic, with some clean, bold lines with just a hint of rendered dirt. His take on Wonder Woman in particular is a great dichotomy, as this warrior goddess with armor, a shield and a sword still radiates understanding, even to a creep like Lex Luthor. (Fabok also has a great panel with Captain Cold, as he grins in spite of himself knowing that his archenemy, the Flash, is down for the count.)

If there's one issue that this book might have, it's the relative decompression that takes place. Some of this reads as intentional - Johns has a very interesting way of pacing his books, and in this issue, he utilizes a number of double-page splashes in order to maximize his page turns. Showing an empty Metropolis or a sick ward full of Justice Leaguers, however, has its benefits, as Fabok shows just how desolate things have gotten in the span of just one issue. Yet with six pages out of 20 being splashes, it does slow down the story just a bit, and robs us of the opportunity to check in further with any of the Leaguers' progress.

Regardless of decompression, however, it looks like for Justice League, the disease might be the same as a cure. The past two issues have shown a newfound focus and panache that this series has desperately needed since the Trinity War and Forever Evil arcs. The formula to making Justice League work isn't hard - you put DC's best and brightest superheroes in the same room and have them team up against a bigger threat. By putting the spotlight back on the team - where it belongs - Johns and Fabok are quickly making this book the A-list comic it deserves to be.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Guardians of the Galaxy #21
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Valerio Schiti and Jason Keith
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Venom’s place on the Guardians of the Galaxy roster struck many fans as an odd turn for the primarily Earth-based character. But the symbiote’s interplanetary origins have never been explored and Brian Michael Bendis took that opportunity to launch into a story that will shed some light on the its mysterious nature. It’s always exciting when a writer gets to dig into a corner of the Marvel Universe that we haven’t seen before. But even with artist Valerio Schiti onboard, the first chapter fails to get going. Is that something implicit about the character, one created in during a time of great excess in comic book history? Depends on whether or not you believe the old axiom, “There are no bad characters. Only bad writers.”

To be clear, Bendis is not a bad writer, but this story doesn’t get off to the start that I think many hoped it would. Flash Thompson is still separated from the the Guardians, and his symbiote is manifesting in ways we've never seen before. Bendis continues the anti-Earther sentiment that he introduced when Flash was brought to the team; it seems the two most hated beings in the galaxy are humans and symbiotes. Bendis gives us another cutesy scene between Starlord and Kitty Pryde. Their relationship has been one of the strengths of the book and it helps keep this issue afloat, even if it is incredibly cheesy at times. While all the Guardians make an appearance, Bendis doesn’t utilize them all fully, instead opting to build the mystery surrounding the symbiote. Bendis’ usually snappy dialogue is absent here, as well. And the final page reveal is definitely going to be a fan-favorite moment, but the grind to get there isn’t all that much fun.

Valerio Schiti is a great addition to this title, though. First and foremost, he can draw an incredible symbiote. As I mentioned before, we’re seeing this alien do things that it hasn’t done before. As it’s been in a different environment for an extended period of time, it’s taken on a new look, an almost insectoid look that is larger and more lethal than ever before. Schiti’s expression work is great, too. The scene between Kitty and Starlord is effective because of Kitty’s reactions to Starlord’s speech. I was also very impressed by Schiti’s panel composition and usage of panel gutters to help show movement. There’s a scene where Venom walks by two patrons talking at the bar that could almost be one panel but by splitting it into three, Schiti gives the impression that Venom is stalking off while he’s eavesdropping. It’s an effective use of page real estate that helps the pacing of the book.

That all said, the opening chapter of “Planet of the Symbiotes” is still a bit of letdown. The art can only do so much to help what turns out to be a rare lame duck script from Brian Michael Bendis. Inevitably, this arc will get better if Bendis gives us more of what we seem to be promised by the title. Schiti’s art will do a lot to help sell Bendis’ sometimes tired dialogue but the moment these two creators really lock it in, readers will be in for a treat. Guardians of the Galaxy is usually near the top of my reading pile, but you wouldn’t be missing much by skipping this installment.

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