Best Shots Reviews: STAR WARS #2, SUPERMAN #38, BLACK VORTEX ALPHA, RAT GOD #1

Star Wars #2 cover by John Cassaday
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Star Wars #2
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by John Cassaday and Laura Martin
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

...Most impressive.

With their second issue of Star Wars, Jason Aaron and John Cassaday continue to create a new story with as much cinematic style and breathtaking nostalgia as the original trilogy. While this 20-page comic doesn't quite have as much room to breathe as the first issue, this creative team doesn't skip a beat with this fast-paced, action-heavy installment.

Considering this second issue is really just the first part of Darth Vader chasing down our favorite band of intergalactic rebels, Aaron paces this out beautifully. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader may have fought during the fall of the Death Star, but that was all aerial dogfighting - now, Aaron pits this iconic duo against one another, face-to-face, for the very first time. But unlike the thrilling lightsaber battles of The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, we're not seeing two Jedi fight one another. Instead, Aaron really sets his sights on Luke's growth throughout the trilogy - meaning this farmboy doesn't stand a chance against the Dark Lord of the Sith.

It all rings true to the original series, as Luke's impetuousness gets him into some very tense situations, and even teaches him a thing or two. It's impressive the way that Aaron has Luke learn these lessons quickly, as the Force reads a lot like karma - at first, Luke prays to Obi-Wan Kenobi to "help me kill him," but only a few panels later he recognizes the innocents caught in the crossfire. "Oh, Ben," Luke asks. "What have I done?" But just because Luke has some growing up to do, doesn't mean that Aaron doesn't give him some fun moments to work with - in particular, rehabbing the old saying about Luke being able to "bullseye womprats."

While Luke steals the show this issue, Aaron doesn't forget about his supporting cast, either. There's that old Lucas timing to the way that Han Solo drives an AT-AT right into Darth Vader, but damn if the laser blasters still aren't operational! But Vader is the other star of this book, not just in his voice (which you'll likely hear in your head as James Earl Jones just by virtue of seeing that mask), but also the way that Aaron has him utilizing the Force. There's just something spooky about the way John Cassaday poses Vader, stretching his arm out and causing horrific, invisible devastation in his wake. He doesn't need to be within swinging distance to kill a man - if he can see you, Vader can end you. Such is the power of the Dark Side.

I think the other reason why Star Wars works as well as it does is because of the photorealistic style of John Cassaday. Admittedly, some will find some of the facial expressions a little inconsistent (or in the case of Luke and Han's brow lines, maybe too consistent), but if you're looking to tap into the youthful nostalgia of this franchise, you want the characters to look the way we remember them. Where Cassaday truly excels, of course, is in the action sequences, particularly the way that he stages a volley of blaster fire, or the way a speeder zips across the page. Colorist Laura Martin especially sells the brightness of the lasers or short-circuiting machinery, really making these moments pop.

The one downside of Star Wars #2 is something endemic to trying to merge cinematic storytelling techniques within the confines of comic book publishing - namely, that while the action sequences are pretty awesome, from an actual narrative perspective, the story doesn't exactly progress very far. Still, let's make no mistake about what Star Wars is trying to do, and in fact does so very well - it's trying to evoke that same flavor and style of the original films, and really stir up those memories in a positive, feel-good way (especially before the new films come out). In that regard, Aaron, Cassaday, Martin and letterer Chris Eliopoulos prove to be fitting custodians of the Star Wars mythology, as this comic book adaptation continues firing on all cylinders.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman #38
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, Laura Martin, Ulises Arreola, Dan Brown and Wil Quintana
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

What are we talking about when we talk about Superman? The New 52 has been rife with varied characterizations of the Man of Steel seemingly to fit the whims of whichever creator holds the reins. Geoff Johns was supposed to put an end to Clark’s seemingly split personalities - and I think he has one some level - but I wasn’t expecting something this dull. The “Men of Tomorrow” arc has pitted Superman against another analogue of himself that explores themes of home, power, family and responsibility, but I lamented that approach in my review of Johns’ debut, and sadly, I was right to be wary. John Romita, Jr. remains an immense talent, but I don’t love the way Klaus Janson inks him, resulting in an issue that feels like a non-event despite the hurried status quo changes.

Why Johns chose to rebuild an iconic character like Superman without the help of a recognizable rogue is beyond me, but that doesn’t mean that this idea couldn't have worked. The problem with Ulysses as an analogue is that he wasn’t terribly interesting to begin with. And by the end of this issue, Ulysses has learned nothing, and Clark really hasn’t either. Ulysses cries when his parents tell him they love him, but the moment is cheap and rings very hollow in the face of him attempting to kill a large portion of Earth’s population. (Or the fact that another planet was blown up in the interim.) Maybe we’re supposed to believe that Clark is burdened by the weight of a new power (one that’s kind of half-borrowed from the Human Torch, though I guess we’ll be seeing less of him anyway) but we’re given no indication that he’s really all that concerned about it. The power itself is half-baked deus ex machina that does change the title moving forward (Clark’s bouts of temporary humanity set up to the potential for a host of new stories), but discerning readers will find it an unsatisfying solution to an overlong arc that was mildly intriguing at best.

Romita’s art has a few moments where it’s really worth the price of admission and I don’t think there are many artists better at creating dramatic tension in a fight scene. But Janson’s thin-lined inking doesn’t give the work the weight that it needs. Romita is known for adding more than a few extra lines as a means of shading his characters, but under Janson’s hand, those lines only serve to make panels more busy. This might be in part because the host of colorists are not shy about overusing gradient effects that just make certain lighting look completely unnatural and in some cases, don’t gel well with the light sources that Romita had in mind. The issue does get better towards the end as the action slows down and there seems to be more purpose behind each of Romita’s initial lines, however. But great comic art relies on a symbiotic relationship between all the members of the art team and this issue just seems out of sorts.

Superman #38 is a forgettable conclusion to an arc that was supposed to be the beginning of a brand-new era for Clark Kent. But the harried conclusion doesn’t leave readers with much hope for the next story. Arguably, the marketing department hurt this issue, too. Readers only checking in for the new power and “new” costume will be left wondering why they didn’t just stick to reading the preview pages for glimpses of those. I felt when this creative team was announced that they would need to come at Superman with a very strong central concept to ground the character in the New 52 DCU and make it easier to relate him to the average reader on a more personal level. I was cautiously optimistic at the beginning of this arc that Johns and company were returning Clark to his roots but now I see that I was wrong. “Men of Tomorrow” follows what’s starting to become a “classic” New 52 tactic; build a character in a certain direction until pulling a flashy, no-substance detour for the sake of some publicity. Hopefully, this time they haven’t gone completely off the road.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Guardians of the Galaxy & X-Men: The Black Vortex Alpha
Written by Sam Humphries
Art by Ed McGuinness, Kris Anka, Mark Farmer, Jay Leisten, Mark Morales, Marte Gracia and Marcelo Maiolo
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

While Peter Parker may hold the thematic title of "great power means great responsibility," the X-Men are no strangers to the moral quandaries that come from absolute power corrupting absolutely. Following in the footsteps of the Phoenix and Avengers vs. X-Men comes The Black Vortex, with a 30-page opening issue that is gorgeously drawn but still feels hollow narratively. Whether its due to the arbitrary combination of characters, or the variant-inducing MacGuffin at the heart of the story, something keeps this book from really grabbing readers, even with its expansive cast of characters.

But first things first - the good. Bringing Ed McGuinness onto a book is a safe way for Marvel to stack the deck, since his character designs are always bouncy, cartoony and inviting. Given the premise of The Black Vortex - namely, that a character is super-charged to become an all-powerful version of themselves - there's also a lot of room for McGuinness to flex his muscles, bulking up a shark-like alien into a demigod, or turning a few of our heroes into half-classic/half-revised versions of their former selves. McGuinness's characters are always energetic and expressive, particularly with some great moments like Rocket Racoon riding around on the dragon Lockeed, or a splash page of the Guardians playing a good old-fashioned game of Dungeons & Dragons. Visually, this book puts its best foot forward.

Yet narratively, this comic still has a lot of kinks to work out. Sam Humphries tries his best to recap his underrated Legendary Star-Lord series by establishing how Kitty Pryde ventured off into space to rescue her boyfriend, Peter Quill, but this exposition comes a little too late - and a little too long - to be really effective. We jump from the planet Viscardi and the origin of the Black Vortex to the X-Men jaunting off into space, and it's ultimately too jarring to really get a handle on things, let alone justify an odd mash-up of teams like this. Both the X-Men and the Guardians of the Galaxy are characterized by their inherent quirkiness - but unlike a team-up with the Avengers, where it's clear one team is the "straight man," the two wisecracking teams seem desperate to one-up each other.

Some of the lack of enthusiasm about this project isn't Humphries' doing. The X-Men as a lineup are about as anemic as I've seen them in quite some time, and that's way out of his hands. But having an X-Men team with no Wolverine (X-23 doesn't count), no Cyclops, no Nightcrawler, no Colossus feels like a complete waste of a crossover. (Beast, Storm, Kitty and the Original Five X-Men feel particularly lightweight.) But ulimately, once we've spent half the book assembling this gestalt team... the action goes next to nowhere. It's routine comic book violence, down to a double-page spread largely featuring 20 character's heads. Indeed, most of these characters, like Venom or most of the Original X-Men, just exist as faces on a page, with nothing really making them stand out.

And I think that ultimately sums up my issues with The Black Vortex as a whole - it's slapping on a shiny new redesign on Marvel's two B-teams, but lacking any substance underneath to make it to make it really shine. There's a hint of a debate about power and corruption in this issue, but the real appeal of this crossover - namely, watching two distinctive teams with two distinctive voices clash around one another - is nowhere to be found. Here's hoping this storyline will pick up the pace soon.

Credit: Dark Horse

Rat God #1
Written by Richard Corben
Art by Richard Corben and Beth Corben Reed
Lettering by Nate Piekos
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Richard Corben’s name has long been synonymous with the arcane, the weird and the horrifying. From his extensive work in Heavy Metal to his insane work on comics like Hellblazer, The Punisher and Haunt of Horror, Corben has always maintained his singular style and voice amid the tide of similar looking books and art styles. Dark Horse Comics’ Rat God #1 is very much within Corben’s wheelhouse, and an opportunity to introduce readers to who Alan Moore called “a genuine giant among his chosen medium.” As a story, Rat God #1 is a fairly straightforward Lovecraftian set up; a young man, who displays all the horribleness of a Lovecraftian protagonist, blunders into a culture that he couldn’t hope to understand and will surely pay dearly for his insolence. Yet thanks to Corben’s meditative script, the story feels just a bit more cerebral while being rendered in tight, sumptuous panels. Vile things are a foot in the hills surrounding Arkham, but in the hands Richard Corben, terror never looked so good.

Our story begins long ago, in the wilds of a land untouched by time, as two natives, Achak and his sister, Kito, are fleeing from two rival tribes. But while mortals stalk these two, another presence is also making itself known - that of a deadly forest spirit. This chase scene serves to not only introduce us to the society that will surely play a part in the series in issues to come, but to also establish the feeling of dread that was so front and center in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Corben barely shows us anything truly horrible during this extended chase, save for a gorgeously rendered pair of corpses lashed together, yet these pages are heavy with a feeling of doom. Not many writers that tackle Lovecraft are concerned with this device, opting instead to show us the unknowable as quickly as possible, but Corben, a vet of Lovecraft adaptations, lets this story breathe, setting a firm base for the future issues in order to allow the horror that is sure to come pay larger dividends instead of going for the cheap and easy scares up front.

Eventually, one of the tribes catch up to our refugees and claim the life of Achak as his sister flees into the wood for her life. It is here that Rat God #1 takes a turn that would be right at home in the twisting and turning pages of Heavy Metal. As Kito contemplates her next move going forward, she happens upon a paved road and hears the roar of unfamiliar machinery. A car, carrying Clark Elwood, a student at Miskatonic University, barrels down the road stopping only to investigate the beautiful Indian woman who is now nowhere to be found. This scene kicks off the second part of Rat God, which serves as an introduction to Clark and just how terrible of a person he is. One thing that scholars and critics have often cited as one of Lovecraft’s weaker points was his racism, not only in his own life, but in his characters; here Corben gives us a classic Lovecraftian yutz, complete with a high-and-mighty attitude, a milksop’s strength and a lineage of “good Aryan stock,” and throws him into the wilds of Arkham. The finale of this issue, which finds Elwood alone in the woods as a snowstorm starts to blow in, searching for the town of Lame Dog, is a nice contrast to the opening sequence and also a quick bit of comeuppance for Clark before the real horror starts.

Above I used the word "sumptuous" to describe the artwork of Corben, and I am hard-pressed to think of another word that comes close. Richard Corben, along with his wife and colorist Beth Corben Reed, render this script in alternating five- to seven-panel pages containing artwork so odd-looking that one can’t help but be struck by it. Corben’s rounded renderings and thick lines complement the tight script well and give the readers interesting panel layouts, beyond the standard six-panel grids. Most times, a single panel is the focus of the page, while other panels containing bits of character action or tight shots on specific bits of nature, are slotted into the larger panel like an intricate narrative puzzle. On paper, this sounds a bit more hard to follow than it actually is, but Corben gently guides a readers eye effortlessly from page to page, never telegraphing the action or tipping his hand toward some of the larger things at play, but merely providing an easy to read experience, complete with gorgeous artwork contained therein. The colors of Beth Corben Reed are also highly impressive as each page carries a heightened naturalist hue, meaning that each color choice is appropriate to the lush settings and characters, but feel slightly brighter than they are really suppose to look, giving Rat God #1 an unnatural, yet appropriate look and feel.

If Rat God #1 is your first look at the works of Richard Corben, I envy you. Corben has been an artist’s artist for longer than some of us have been alive, and Rat God #1 illustrates that he is still working at the peak of his weird powers, delivering a true-to-form Lovecraftian set-up, wrapped in gorgeous, rock album ready artwork. Speaking to a larger point, Rat God #1 is a book that you could only get from Dark Horse Comics, an imprint that made its name on horror yarns and pulpy output from heavy hitters just like Corben. Rat God #1 is a comic that should have been made in the late '70s, but thank the Elder Ones that we have it now, and a huge Ia Ia Cthulhu Flagetgn to Richard Corben for being the same insane person that wowed a previous generation with works just like this. Rat God #1 won’t be for everyone, but for everyone else, it will feel like a cold blast of air on an acrid day.

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