Best Shots Reviews: SECRET SIX #2, BUCKY BARNES #5, FUTURES END #41, ALL-NEW GHOST RIDER #11

All-New Ghost Rider #11 preview
Credit: Marvel Comics

Happy President’s Day, ‘Rama readers! Ready for your holiday column? Best Shots has your back, with a handful of reviews for your reading pleasure. So let’s kick off today’s column with Observant Oscar Malby, as he takes a look at the sophomore issue of Secret Six

Credit: DC Comics

Secret Six #2
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Ken Lashley, Drew Geraci and Jason Wright
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It's Saw meets the Suicide Squad for a rough group of superpowered sinners, as Gail Simone and Ken Lashley continue their New 52 revamp of the Secret Six. Catman aside, this Secret Six is an entirely new line-up, and the furthest thing from a straight retelling of covered ground. Gail Simone's confident script merges with Ken Lashley's emotive pencilling to create a fulfilling issue well worth the couple of weeks' delay.

Trapped underwater and posed with an agonizingly ambiguous question: “What is the secret?” our six super-criminals struggle to answer. With the treat of death for one of their number looming, they quickly and haphazardly use their unorthodox powers to attempt to break free from their confines.

Writer Gail Simone juggles the past and present with ease, showing both Catman's captive past and his current struggle with claustrophobia inside that submersed coffin-shaped jail-cell. She deftly uses the events of his past to explain his current mindset, and does so in a clear enough way to avoid having to constantly narrate the time and place. Penciler Ken Lashley does a good job making a distinction between Catman's jail-cell of the past and the present, offering drastically different posing and a big ol' raggedy beard to help distinguish between periods. On one particularly striking page, Simone even switches between these two plots on a single page without sign-posting the change. It's a narrative technique that is often attempted but rarely achieved, especially when you consider the visual similarity of the two timelines. Thankfully, this strong creative team eases any possible confusion, melding both stories to excellent effect.

It's clear that Simone has carefully picked her disheveled team of delinquents, as every possible body type and state of derangement has been represented. From the borderline-illiterate scribblings of the murder-happy Strix to the suited behemoth known as Big Shot, there is a great amount of diversity and likability to this team. Considering their volatile natures, making the Secret Six an endearing group was a difficult task, but Simone's knack for well-rounded character ensures that you're all cheering for them by the issue's climax.

Ken Lashley's artwork is dynamic and highly detailed. He perfectly renders the lithe strength of Catman and company, whilst also accurately illustrating the unhinged, unwashed and undesirable mugs of these six captives. Not merely adept at pencilling the uglier dregs of society, Lashley also shows his range with a shockingly cute kitten. The little kitty's eyes positively spring from the page, undoubtedly causing “D’awwwwww!”s from anybody with hearts not crafted from stone. Atop Lashley's pencils, he and Drew Geraci ink in an impressionistic manner that perfectly highlights the muscle, bone and sinew beneath the limbs of the imprisoned. Whether they're muscle-bound, frail or just obese, Lashley and Geraci know exactly how to define a unique figure.

Colorist Jason Wright's painterly technique adds a sense of noir-ish class to the issue and his hot/cold color palette of orange and teal underline the … ahem... depth of the Secret Six's watery situation. It's not exactly the most original palette, but its effectiveness is absolute. To cap it all off, Wright's colors are textured and blotted, as if water-damage from the surrounding ocean is seeping in through the page.

Secret Six #2 is a satisfying second installment of a successfully re-imagined fan-favorite. When combined with Ken Lashley's energetic artwork and Jason Wright's textured use of color, Gail Simone's strong and intriguing script makes Secret Six #2 an unmissable issue.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier #5
Written by Alex Kot
Art by Marco Rudy, Langdon Foss and Jordan Boyd
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Reviewed by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Alex Kot is trying to do a lot in this issue of Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier #5. He’s following up on the Bucky’s Partner, Daisy “Quake” Johnson being stabbed by Crossbones, building the relationship between Bucky and Ventolin, and revealing the role of the multiverse version of James Buchanan Barnes. None of these threads is particularly well executed, though, so the comic is a bit fractured in its storytelling.

Part of this splintering is due to the visuals. To be fair, Marco Rudy’s art is beautiful. It’s Alex Ross, J.H. Williams, and J.G. Jones rolled into one. The pages are a gorgeous array of paintings, creative panel designs, and unique composition. When the images work, they’re spectacular and the shifts in design -- from a watercolor style to a sparse inking -- are a visual treat.

But this change in design also hampers the fluidity of the storytelling. The action sequences, for example, are bit difficult to follow due to the way Rudy illustrates movement. The blurry and erratic motion lines make following Bucky and Crossbones’ fight rather difficult. You’re not sure if someone was stabbed, punched, or thrown. And Crossbones’ final act -- which involves detonating an explosive device -- doesn’t have the impact it should because you’re not sure what exploding or how it will affect the characters. Even Langdon Foss’ after effects fail to really capture the nature of the devastation.

The changing visuals also make following Kot’s story difficult. We’re seeing a different Crossbones, which is cool, but we don’t really see the character any differently; we’re only aware of the change because Bucky says it. The narration of the multiverse Barnes is what really helps elucidate the tale, but the other version of Bucky seems much more attuned than the Bucky that we know, which is a difficult pill to swallow. I know that love can make people a bit obtuse, but I can’t image that Bucky would lose all sense of reasoning or skill the way he does in this issue.

The comic has a good finale, and one that definitely will bring me back to find out what happened, but the art needs some sharpening if the story is going to rely so heavily on action. Plus, I’d like to think that Bucky isn’t as easily fooled as he is in this issue. The man basically figured out Nick Fury’s secret in Original Sin when no other characters had any idea, so we know he’s not easily duped. Plus, I have an easier time accepting a Bucky Barnes in love than a Bucky Barnes in the dark.

It’s hard to completely fault the visuals because they are so good. Their ability to communicate the story, however, is where they fall short.

Credit: DC Comics

The New 52: Futures End #41
Written by Brian Azzarello, Keith Giffen, Dan Jurgens and Jeff Lemire
Art by Andy MacDonald, Jesus Merino, Dan Green and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Corey Breen
Published by DC Comics
Reviewed by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Last week’s issue of Future’s End was a culmination of a lot of compiling threads. The pacing was excellent and the story gripping, so I was expecting the same kind of full throttle thrill this week. Unfortunately, the this week’s issue is a let down because it lacks the same punch. The story slips back into a series of expository episodes, the major players don’t do much except react, and the buildup from the previous issue is wasted making Future’s End #41 a decent, but nowhere near as exciting read.

Where Future’s End #41 succeeds is in having a cool mystery embedded within, and one that seems to coincide with Convergence. There’s a hint at the multiverse, and a scene involving Hawkman that invokes Zero Hour, DC’s 1994 series that intended to unify and straighten myriad inconsistencies in characters and timelines. The writers seem to be hinting at a similar time anomaly, but the moment is just as quickly skirted in order to make space for the three other plot threads what compete for space in this issue.

This leads to a flat pacing. Superman’s return -- specifically Clark’s return in his Morrison inspired t-shirt and jeans uniform -- is weak. Where you’d expect the writers to make an heroic effort with the real Superman’s reappearance, Clark is instead anything but superhuman. His moments in the comic are few, and he’s literally tossed aside in a scene that makes him look anything but powerful or valiant. But this might not be so noticeable had the buildup to his revival not been so seemingly important.

Instead, the writing is more focused on how the heroes react to a Godzilla-sized Brainiac stomping through the streets of Manhattan while a glowing net begins to ensnare the city. It’s easy to forget that New York City is under siege as much of the comic’s attention is spent on characters trying to fix broken machinery, or discuss the merits of a rescue mission. Furthermore, without solid pacing, the climax occurs much like an afterthought rather than having a powerful impact. This means that a hero’s death and what should be a shocking finale both fail to stick their landings.

The artists have a more solid showing than the writers in this issue. When Superman appears, He looks heroic and awesome - I have to admit that the beard really works well for Kal-El. Maybe this is what makes his exit from the scene so unceremonious. He looks imposing, yet acts anything but. The other noticeable moment is when Hawkman flies inside Brainiac’s ship and gets a glimpse of the multiverse. Any DC fan will have a lot of fun with this panel as we get to see the artists’ interpretations of a diverse set of characters from DC’s most well known stories. It’s a cool piece of visual trivia for comic fans, and one that is successfully penciled, inked, and colored.

And regardless of the compressed finale, the artistic team does what it can to make the final page impactful. Despite the comic’s failure to create a strong end, the art is impressive; I only wish the last three panels could have been individual pages. The epic scope of the story might have struck more deeply.

After a rocky start, Future’s End has really found solid footing. The stories have been increasingly more impressive with last issue being one of the best. The carry over, however, isn’t here and issue #41 doesn’t maintain the same sense of urgency. There’s still a lot of story to tell with seven issues left, so we can forgive this misstep, but I hope Future’s End gets back on the impressive track it had going. With Convergence looming, this may be our best chance to understand what DC has in store for the future of its heroes.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New Ghost Rider #11
Written by Felipe Smith
Art by Felipe Smith and Val Staples
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

With the end of this series in sight, Felipe Smith shifts gears in All-New Ghost Rider, taking over both the writing and art duties for the title. Yet what hampers this book is less Smith’s cartoony style, and more a return to the same overwrought mythology that has plagued previous Spirits of Vengeance.

In certain ways, Ghost Rider as a concept has tried to muscle in on tried-and-true narrative themes shared by the Incredible Hulk. It’s not enough to have a character defined by not just a need for speed, but by the insane risks that go along with it - Ghost Rider has occasionally flirted with Jekyll and Hyde territory, with a human struggling (and often failing) against the ceaseless bloodlust of his alter ego.

Unfortunately, that sort of storyline often leads to some severe naval-gazing, and considering the potential we once saw in the muscle car-racing Robbie Reyes, there’s sadly nothing “all-new” about Ghost Rider these days. Smith portrays Reyes as struggling against voices in his head, as the spirit of Eli Morrow calls upon him to spill as much possible. But there’s a lack of sophistication to the dialogue that hampers the poetic spirit of a man at war with himself - bits like Lisa’s heavy-handed flirting (“I think you need a girlfriend, Robbie Reyes… and I’d like it to be me”) or even the strangely literal sound effects of “Sizzle Sizzle” and “Sptz! Sptz!” when Robbie struggles to remain in control. It’s to be expected to have some level of fantasy in a comic like this, but Smith’s scripting feels juvenile even for a comic about a flaming skeleton who drag-races for fun.

But the big shift in this comic is the artwork, and in that regard, there’s nothing wrong with what Felipe has to offer. There are some who might argue that Smith’s cartoony style comes at cross-purposes with the dark nature of Ghost Rider as a character, but to me it feels like a more toned-down version of the hyper-elastic action Tradd Moore was doing when they relaunched the title. He packs his pages together decently well, and while some of the talkier scenes in the developmental center with Robbie’s brother Gabriel feel a little cramped, the characters all seem expressive. The highlight of Smith’s artwork has to be the way he portrays flames - there’s an over-the-top anger in Robbie’s eyes, but when he transforms into the Ghost Rider, he becomes a figure of true horror. Colorist Val Staples also is particularly impressive with his color work, utilizing a nice purple-orange color palette which accentuates Robbie’s flames and the seemingly endless sunsets of Los Angeles.

That said, because we’re 11 issues in, many people will see this creative switch-up as too little, too late. And they’re not wrong — there hasn’t been a ton of new ground broken in All-New Ghost Rider, with Smith meandering along with Robbie’s two-dimensional supporting cast. He’s simultaneously brought Ghost Rider down to earth, but taken away any new avenues for the sort of insane adventures that have made this character such a staple. This comic on its own isn’t a complete wash, but as a concept, All-New Ghost Rider has proven that it’s a lemon.

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