Best Shots Reviews: STAR WARS #1, BATMAN ETERNAL #41, MORTAL KOMBAT X #1, More

Credit: Valiant Comics
Star Wars #1 variant cover by J. Scott Campbell
Star Wars #1 variant cover by J. Scott Campbell
Credit: Marvel Comics

Star Wars #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by John Cassaday and Laura Martin
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

I first watched the original Star Wars trilogy when I was home sick from school one day and my dad rented them for me. My six-year-old brain was blown away. I watched the rise of a new Jedi, the fall of an empire and a successful rebellion. I proceeded to gorge myself on any Star Wars material I could find. Twenty-years later, it’s hard not to be skeptical of a story that serves as some kind of retroactive continuity. But Jason Aaron and John Cassaday are up to the challenge. They are able to turn their fond love for these characters into something more: an expertly paced reintroduction to some old friends.

From the opening scroll to the first reveal of those familiar heroes, everything about the book screams “Star Wars.” It’s like we never left that galaxy far, far away. Aaron’s greatest strength is in his characterization. Han Solo is the snarky bastard we’ve always known him to be. Leia’s toughness is on full display as she socks an Imperial officer in the jaw. And Luke’s arc is probably the most interesting. By the time we see him in Return of the Jedi, it’s clear that he’s very much straddling the line between the light and dark sides of the Force. Aaron is able to show the brutality of the Dark Side as well as the compassion of the Light Side in only a few pages, lending a ton of pathos to the script and putting it more in line with the seriousness of Te Empire Strikes Back.” For all that, the plot itself is fairly straightforward. The rebels are trying to shut down a weapons factory. That’s pretty standard fare when you’re fighting a war against an empire but it’s that believability that helps ground the story in it’s world.

John Cassaday handles the art on this one, and before you jump on me, I know I’m in the minority when I say I don’t really like his work here. He completely nails the big moments like the splash pages of iconic characters, and, as others from the Best Shots team have noted, the way Cassaday strobes lightsabers across a panel really helps sell their potentially devastating effects. But for characters as recognizable as these, Cassaday fails at consistently rendering their likenesses. It’s only jarring because suddenly you’re looking what appears to be people in Star Wars costumes as opposed to the characters themselves. Cassaday also overuses dutch angles to communicate tension. There are definitely a few defensible uses but as the issue goes on, they lose their effect because we see the canted angle so frequently. Cassaday’s sense of scale is also skewed. The reveal of the AT-ATs could have been a bigger moment but they look laughably small in comparison to our heroes. Despite the excellent pacing, this all makes for a somewhat inconsistent and choppy read.

But overall, the Force is with this one. Big-time Cassaday fans will definitely overlook some of the artistic shortcomings, but it’s really Aaron’s script that’s the draw here. Even at a whopping 36 pages, Aaron provides us with action, humor and gravitas. Most importantly, the characters that we know and love are recognizable through their actions and dialogue. There was a lot of bellyaching about Marvel relaunching the Star Wars comic book universe, but it turns out that we should all have a very good feeling about this one.

Batman Eternal #41
Batman Eternal #41
Credit: DC Comics

Batman Eternal #41
Written by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Kyle Higgins, Ray Fawkes and Tim Seeley
Art by Joe Quinones, Kelsey Shannon and Steve Wands
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Spoilers on. Be warned.

How do you make an issue of your weekly Batman comic stand out from the rest? How about put Joe Quinones on the art, and serve up a brand-new addition to the Batman family? After her debut in Batman #28, Harper Row finally steps up to the plate as Bluebird, and that makes for an issue of Batman Eternal that, while still anemic thanks to this series' clashing storylines, will likely still be an important comic for the Bat-mythos to come.

To say that it's shocking for Joe Quinones to take on this book is putting it mildly. Given the rapid-fire construction of a weekly title like this, it's almost a given that faster artists - and, unfortunately, that often means untested artists - are called upon to deliver pages, no matter what shape they wind up looking like at the end of the day. That makes series like Batman Eternal feel less than marquee - and that's something that Quinones works hard to correct. His style comes across as big and cartoony, which is a slightly weird feeling for the griminess of Gotham, but it suits this issue's sidekick-centric story perfectly. Red Robin, Batgirl, Red Hood and Harper all feel human, not like urban legends, and in the case of Harper, her expressiveness makes her seem that much mroe likable.

With Quinones at the helm, the story for this comic almost doesn't matter. Part of that is that while you can't help but root for the rise of a new hero, the story that Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV put them in happens to be the weakest of the bunch. (And this is a series that put Batwing through the haunted asylum sewer for weeks on end.) The idea of a "nano-plague" infecting children (and smashing city streets) feels too nebulous to sustain a story, let alone a weekly story, let alone a story in a semi-plausible location like Gotham. Scripter Kyle Higgins, to his credit, dutifully lays out this story, even when so much of it - the villain behind "Nano," the fall of the sidekicks, and the rise of Bluebird to save them all - feels entirely out of his hands. Still, the actual plot points here feel pretty weak, rescued only by, well, fanservice.

While Quinones makes for a refreshing take on Red Robin, the new Batgirl uniform and Red Hood, he's not perfect. His style does evoke a few setbacks in this issue, particularly when it comes to an action sequence featuring the Spoiler. (Who, in many ways, feels almost obsolete against the plucky and precocious Bluebird.) Quinones is great at many things, but evoking speed and power with his characters' hits isn't one of them. Additionally, he's hampered by colorist Kelsey Shannon, whose faded colors wind up devolving into blue-green gradiant backgrounds by the end of the issue. In many ways, picking Quinones for this title is DC playing against type, but Shannon hampers the energy of his art.

Sometimes comics succeed based on their plots, and sometimes they succeed based on their execution. Batman Eternal #41 is a mixed bag in that regard, as it's got just enough "important" plot points - and surprisingly strong art - that people will likely feel vindicated buying it, if only because it feels bigger than many of the issues that came before it. That's the real struggle behind Batman Eternal - there are so many storylines that are picked up for only a few issues before being lost in the next subplot, and with magic, technology, action and criminal politics all fighting for the spotlight, it makes this book a schizophrenic sort of read. Still, clarity does come when you least expect it, and moments like these are ones to cherish in a book like this.

Credit: DC Comics

Mortal Kombat X #1
Written by Shawn Kittelsen
Art by Dexter Soy and Veromica Gandini
Lettering by Saida Temofonte
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Creating narratives out of fighting games is no easy task. By their very nature, they are either contests of button-mashing prowess or (occasionally awesome) excuses to violently eviscerate opponents by quite literally venting their spleens. The results are often mixed. Sometimes Christopher Lambert is a lightning god and Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue gets put in films. Yet for every disaster, there is a wonderful spin-off like Injustice: Gods Among Us, a perfect fusion of comic book history, gaming and expanding universes. Unfortunately, Mortal Kombat X does not follow in that book’s footsteps.

The loose story, such as it is, leads up to the forthcoming video game of the same name. That game is being touted as introducing an original and “non-linear” storyline, but it seems the creators of this prelude comic have jumped the gun and done away with narrative ahead of time. The sword master Kenshi and an unknown boy are on the run from the Red Dragon people, and even the most casual of Mortal Kombat fans will be surprised to see Scorpion on the side of angels and helping out the duo. Through a series of flashbacks and fight sequences, in which awkward dialogue (“I’m the bitch with a blade”) abounds, the unwieldy tale unfolds.

Where Injustice: Gods Among Us had decades of comic book history to rework and pad out the already strong narrative behind the game, Mortal Kombat X relies far too heavily on assumed knowledge of the characters and their histories. Flashes of story are quickly dispensed in the second act, when whole pages are literally taken up with static images of two character facing each other with the familiar “FIGHT!” dangling above them in a speech bubble. It might be a cute nod to the video game origins, but it makes for poor sequential storytelling.

Dexter Soy’s fluid pencils are dynamic, and often engaging, especially during some of the flashbacks or moments involving rapid movement. Yet the layouts are less than dynamic, an irony given that they were original designs for the digital format. It’s frustrating because there are times when Soy’s artwork lingers on details or character designs with attention to detail. It’s almost as if, like the reader, Soy found certain parts of the story more interesting than others, and paid more attention to those along the way.

If you’ve ever wanted to get into the Mortal Kombat franchise but felt that the video games had far too much movement and interactivity for your tastes, then this comic series may have been what you’ve been looking for all your life. Diehards will no doubt add a couple of points to this rating, and they may be plentiful. However, as an entrée to the series, it really only acts as fan-service, and no new fans are likely to be won over in the process.

Credit: Marvel Comics

S.H.I.E.L.D. #2
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba and Edgar Delgado
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There are a lot of weapons in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s arsenal, but in this series' second issue, its most powerful asset is charm. But then again, when it stars two of the most charming new additions to the Marvel universe - Kamala Khan and S.H.I.E.L.D. tech Jemma Simmons - how could it not be?

Even as a fan of the televised Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Mark Waid’s S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed like a bit of a risk to me. While Coulson made the transition into comics from the screen somewhat smoothly, it wasn't clear if the rest of his companions would be so lucky. But thankfully S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 assuaged those fears with a woolly, fast-paced and altogether likable story.

S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 starts off strong with a well-constructed cold open with one hell of a punchline, as Jemma Simmons has to deal with her biggest threat yet: her overbearing Roxxon executive father, who lambasts her career decisions as a "party planner" - and never realizes that his daughter is actually trading gunfire with A.I.M. agents on the other end of the line. From the first scene on, you can see that Ramos is an artist who excels at facial expressions, as he makes Simmons' father look like the harder, younger version of J. Jonah Jameson as he bares his teeth and grouses through the phone call while a poor assistant of his tries to get his signature for something. Between Waid and Humberto Ramos, this scene made me snort with laughter, and it wasn’t the last time.

Waid then quickly shifts into the main story with ease. Jemma has now taken the guise of a biology teacher at the Coles Academic High School in Jersey City (under the name Ms. Steranko, for all you true believers) in order to track down a small-time smuggler of supervillain equipment. But you can't spell "S.H.I.E.L.D." without superheroes, and Waid delivers, in the form of some surprising back-up from Kamala Khan. Waid sets all this up in a relatively short amount of page space, but instead of feeling rushed or compressed for time, it all just feels breathlessly fun. The first action sequence, featuring an automated glove from the Wizard terrorizing the school, happens roughly five pages into the comic, and Waid never lets up from there. Jemma, Ms. Marvel, and Coulson are thrown into the fray pretty quickly and they stay there up until the conclusion of the book, but these set pieces never feel like action for action’s sake. This is just a Tuesday for Coulson and his team, and that makes it all the more fun to read.

While the action is breathlessly plotted by Waid and just as breathlessly rendered by Ramos, Victor Olazaba, and Edgar Delgado, S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 also finds the time to give us compelling characterizations amid the all the smashing and running. Waid nails each character's personalities as he puts them through the ringer. Jemma is selfless and determined even in the face of insane odds. Coulson is stern, yet coolly confident as he tries to corral the chaos and learn to trust an untested metahuman. Finally, Kamala is the Kamala we all fell in love with a year ago; eager and energetic as she throws herself into the hero life headlong, turning her knowledge as a fan into a weapon against her antagonists. While I would have liked to have seen more interaction between Kamala and Jemma aside from the issue’s resolution, S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 is still a wildly fun team-up book.

Ramos has been on my Ms. Marvel wishlist for a while now, and while we may never get to see him tackle a full issue of the title, he more than makes up for it with his work on S.H.I.E.L.D. #2. Ramos’ loose and fluid style is more than suited to Kamala’s power set, giving her a lithe, powerful set of hero shots throughout the issue. Ramos’ controlled chaos does wonders for the breezy action of Waid’s script as each set piece panel is loaded with details like crumbling hallways, terrified onlooking students and overturned furniture. While action is what Ramos excels at, his character shots are also filled with nuance. Each character is rendered with a full range of emotion and expression. Ramos even goes so far as to completely clear out the backgrounds of certain scenes of character exposition in order to give the audience completely focus on the characters and their expressions and dialogue. It is a small detail but it works wonders for the few bits of raw exposition found in the issue. Edgar Delgado, Ramos’ go-to colorist, drenches S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 in a sumptuous color palette, evoking the same color scheme as their work on Amazing Spider-Man which is all sorts of fine in my book. When you see the names Ramos and Delgado on the cover of a book you should expect both action and emotion and S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 has both in spades.

A book like S.H.I.E.L.D. is always a pleasant surprise. As someone who has grown to love the cast of Marvel’s first foray into television, it does my fan’s heart good to see them start to flourish in the larger scheme of the Marvel universe. S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 moves quickly and assuredly through its story, and while it doesn’t offer anything ground breaking in terms narrative or form, it is still a blast to read, and also proves that teaming Kamala Khan up with anyone will yield entertaining results.

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #38
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Babs Tarr, Maris Wicks, and Cameron Stewart
Letters by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

It's a little disheartening to feel like a promising creative team has peaked after only four issues, but Batgirl #38 continues the previous issue's trajectory of feeling underwritten despite its wordiness, and lacking the cleverness to match its artistic charm. Batgirl #38 isn't bad - it's strictly OK. And when your rocket climbs as high as Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr's first two issues did, that downward swoop seems all the more pointed. That's not to say there couldn't be an upswing in Batgirl's future, but four issues is a little early for such a parabolic flight path.

Batgirl #38's biggest flaw is that it feels so much like it is simply rehashing what's already been done. And not in the sense that it feels like a continuing story; moreso, like seeing Batgirl's identity threatened is getting old, as is the trend of villain-of-the-week style non-threats. Whereas Dagger Type was at least an actual villain - mishandled as he was - this issue's Jordan Barberi seems so much less like a villain, and more like a nuisance. As much as I get the urge for the almost cripplingly millennial Batgirl to tackle something like an overhyped reality TV star, Barberi is more of a means to an end than an actual threat.

In fact, it's a little unclear why exactly Barbara is even bothering with him. It's clear he is a problem for Burnside, but it seems more like sheis resentful of the comparison between Barberi and her alter ego than she is concerned with actually righting a wrong or bringing him to justice. Maybe that's the point, but it's not addressed deeply enough to feel like commentary. And that is the real problem with Batgirl right now. As much as it is trying to have fun, it exists in a unique position to really speak on millennial issues, but as it stands, Stewart and Fletcher have a lot of words, but not a lot of deeper points.

On the other hand, Tarr's contributions to Batgirl are only getting better and better. Despite Barberi's generic personality, Tarr does an excellent job of crafting a distinct and colorful look. That's one thing that can be said for Batgirl's villains; one-dimensional as they may be, Tarr gives them all looks that could be "cosplay-able," for lack of a better word. Tarr's action scenes are also dynamic and intense, with her background in manga and anime coming through with kinetic aplomb. Maris Wicks is no slouch either, with her warm, cartoonish colors providing the perfect companion, especially in the book's quieter scenes.

Batgirl isn't a lost cause yet. Stewart and Fletcher are doing too good a job at pinning down the book's main cast to truly feel left cold at this point. The problem is that, while the core of the book is solid, it already feels like they've run out of places for it to go. While we know that there is a larger enemy... somewhere... the gimmick of constantly threatening Barbara's secret identity is becoming tired. Every cliffhanger seems to revolve around some new way Batgirl may be outed, and honestly, the threat is starting to wear thin. Identity issues are a strong subject matter - especially for a book like Batgirl aims to be - but the past two issues, #38 included, haven't balanced that threat with any deeper insight into Barbara herself, or enough forward momentum to keep things interesting.

The bottom line is, Batgirl is still loaded with promise, but the creative team needs to right the ship and start building a bigger picture very soon. All the potential in the world does no good without a strong direction. The soap opera elements are in place, with Barbara's relationships with Dinah, Liam, and Qadir providing a solid foundation. It's the capes 'n' cowls aspects that need to fall in line for Batgirl to feel like a must-read.

Credit: Dark Horse

Conan/Red Sonja #1
Written by Gail Simone and Jim Zub
Art by Dan Panosian and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Richard Starkings and Comicraft
Published by Dark Horse Comics and Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Lan Pitts
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Arnold and Brigitte this ain't.

Pairing two of Dark Horse's and Dynamite's sword and sorcery titles, we have a reunion of sorts with Conan/Red Sonja #1. This is also a first-time team-up of writers Gail Simone and Jim Zub, who give the bladed duo a common goal, but unfortunately a sudden end. Swords swing, and barbs exchanged as the Cimmerian barbarian and the red-haired she-devil square off in this fast-paced adventure.

Starting off, you're going to notice the artwork by Dan Panosian. A veteran of twenty-something years, Panosian goes all out with this issue. The background elements and the way he works a crowd scene are all superb, and that's to say nothing of his fight choreography. There's a double-page spread that gives you an extra bit of detail to both characters and Panosian gives you an idea of things to come with his level of skill. Not only is his handling of both Conan and Sonja pitch-perfect, but it's how they move and their expressions that are the show-stealers. Topped off with Dave Stewart's palette of strong reds and colors straight from the Dark Ages, it just looks great. The idea to also lower the saturation and keep the colors somewhat muted, but not flat, gives the book a pulpy vibe as well.

Now Simone and Zub's characterizations of the titular characters are back and forth. Sonja feels more fleshed out, like you get a better idea of who the character is and what she's fighting for. Her willingness to kill a beast tamer is pretty, well, tame to the rest of the story, but the fact that she finds cruelty to animals not at all amusing is something that makes her personable. The level at which she went to nab the animal wrangler shows her dedication and fierceness to get the job done. Of course, that guy was just a sidequest to her true destination, but it's still a nice tidbit to really figuring her out and adding depth to Sonja.

However, Conan's introduction is more of the lines of "yep, that's good ol' Conan impaling a dude", with some fistfights sprinkled along the way. I did like juxtaposition between Conan's dialog balloons, as they're more jagged and almost explosive, to Sonja's that are a bit more of the standard and smoother shape. It makes for a strong, but subtle counterpoint between the two warriors. Conan with his booming voice and dialect, with Sonja not needing to raise her voice to get her point across.

The biggest fault with Conan/Red Sonja is the ending. It just comes all of a sudden, and brakes on the pacing of the story pretty abruptly. Yeah, it gives you a reason to tune in for the next three installments, but it really doesn't the do the characters any favor. The duo come to an understanding and get in that one last snark with one another, and then eh. It's slightly cliche, and I expected slightly more with the marquee talents behind the script, but the issue as a whole is still a delight for the sword-and-sorcery crowd.

Credit: DC Comics

Fables: The Wolf Among Us #1
Written by David Justus and Matthew Sturges
Art by Travis Moore, Shawn McManus, Stephen Sadowski and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by Vertigo
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

When Bill Willingham’s Fables reaches the end of its historic run this year, it will leave behind a mighty saga worthy of any of the tales that inspired it in the first place. It makes sense that others will want to run with the world that Willingham has created, which some may argue that ABC television is already doing with their series Once Upon a Time. Willingham has been behind most of the franchise, including the spin-off Fairest, told predominately from a female perspective. While 1001 Nights of Snowfall and countless flashbacks in the ongoing Vertigo series have given us glimpses of the past, Fables: The Wolf Among Us is the first ongoing series that acts as an immediate prequel of sorts.

Set immediately before the events of the main series, this book also acts as an adaptation of the video game of the same name. On a routine domestic violence call in Fabletown, as much as any of those things could or should be considered normal, Sheriff Bigby Wolf gets involved in a mysterious murder most foul, where the obvious suspect is not the most likely one. As with all things Fables, the case begins to unearth a series of clues about stories from the old world, taking us through every corner of the world we know so well from the long-running comic series.

As this is an adaptation of an episodic video game, the narrative structure often feels like it is built around the same game logic that point and click adventure games have been perfecting for the last few decades. One clue leads to another, with “cut scenes” almost built into the seams of the story. Yet as the book goes on, it does what Willingham’s stories do, and begin to inexplicably draw the reader in through a combination of mystery, and familiar storybook framing devices. It may not have quite the same level of depth, but it’s still able to benefit from the rich tapestry of world building over the last decade or so.

The artwork doesn’t always feel consistent throughout, sometimes merely filling in the main details to push the story forward, but it does maintain a level of consistency with Mark Buckingham’s distinctive template. This digital series works well when it uses the aforementioned storybook narrative device to visit the history of one of the new main characters, a sepia-toned style that never feels out of place.

It might not be quite up to scratch with the main series that inspired it, but it is nevertheless a worthy companion to one of the most essential pieces of comic literature in the last few decades. Working primarily as an adaptation of the video game rather than being concerned with the expansion of the source material, this gives Fables: The Wolf Among Us scope to tell some good investigative stories within a world that was well defined by others. It gives us hope that there will be many more stories to tell by different voices within this world for years to come.

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Credit: Valiant Comics

X-O Manowar #31
Written by Robert Vendetti
Art by Diego Bernard, Alisson Rodrigues and Wil Quintana
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Even if you don't know who X-O Manowar is, there's a lot to like about this comic, as even a combat-hardened Visgoth with alien armor can be laid low by the machinations of ordinary human beings. Even if you might be able to expect the twist at the end of this book, it doesn't change the fact that Philip Zahn and his pack of specially designated Armorines seem to be a lethal new addition to the X-O Manowar mythos.

Writer Robert Vendetti is likely aware that his lead character doesn't have the same instant cache of characterization that more well-known superheroes might have, and thus smartly starts out with some action - namely, Armorine Number Four rock-climbing his way into an alien landscape. Like Philip Zahn himself, Vendetti has to be a salesman about this book and the concept of this arc, as he smartly explains the specialization of the Armorines as a business tactic. With all that set-up told in as interesting a way as possible, Vendetti has effectively locked and loaded this story.

What's interesting about this particular issue is that Vendetti doesn't get a lot of page time with Manowar by himself, but he does manage to get across some key points of characterization. Aric's a good guy and a leader who wants the best for his people, but even more importantly - he's a show-off. He's cocky. And that means he's primed to fall. And without giving too much away, the collision between Manowar and the Amorines is a smart one, one that doesn't utilize the overdone pyrotechnics of most superhero books, but instead goes for almost a horror vein. Things immediately start to go wrong, piling up on top of each other and disorienting the reader as much as our hero. It's good stuff.

Artist Diego Bernard is also very easy on the eyes, adopting some of the hard angles from the DC Comics school but laying out his pages incredibly effectively. One six-panel page introducing Zahn is laid out spectacularly, even if he's got to throw in some cheats like a goofy beer helmet or Zahn's secretary stretching herself out in lingerie. It reminds me a bit of Ed Benes mixed with Tom Raney, but it's never too over-the-top. It's to Bernard's credit that a book that doesn't even land a single punch still feels as striking as it does, and colorist Wil Quintana deserves even more credit for making this book look as energetic and weighty as it does.

If you haven't been checking out X-O Manowar, this issue is as good an opportunity as any. Even if you don't know Aric and his various storylines, it's easy to follow this exciting issue - and that's enough of a hook to get you invested in him as a character. Well-written, well-drawn and fun to read, this book is one that shouldn't fly under your radar.

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