Best Shots Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE #39, UNCANNY X-MEN #31, THE MULTIVERSITY: MASTERMEN #1

The Multiversity: Mastermen #1 variant by Howard Porter
Credit: DC Comics

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with a handful of reviews from comics' biggest publishers! So let's kick off today's column with the conclusion of "The Amazo Virus" in Justice League...

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #39
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: 9 out of 10

Make no mistake - "The Amazo Virus" is Geoff Johns at his best. This arc has been exactly what Justice League fans have been waiting for, combining action, characterization, twists and turns and consequences for the entire DC Universe. Combine that with an updated roster with tons of fireworks, and this proves to be one spectacular superhero book.

In a lot of ways, "The Amazo Virus" has combined the best parts of zombie fiction with the unbridled optimism of superheroes. With only Superman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and Captain Cold - two clever power couples, one linked by love, the other by employment - around to stop a horde of superhumans possessed by the Amazo Virus, this comic could have gotten pretty depressing, pretty fast. So it's to Johns' credit that this comic never feels anything less than epic, particularly his rendition of Wonder Woman, who vows that at least one god won't leave humanity behind. Diana's characterization deserves some special praise here - this is easily the best single issue featuring Wonder Woman since the relaunch. She's resolute, powerful, drawing upon thousands of years of history to be one of the surest and wisest heroes in the Justice League. Without mincing words, this Wonder Woman kicks some serious ass.

And she's not the only one. While the cast of "The Amazo Virus" has been pared down, with four Leaguers fighting against a horde of their former colleagues, all of the characters here get some nice moments. Lex Luthor and Superman, for example, finally have to put aside their differences for the greater good. Captain Cold, meanwhile, completely steals the show, with great little blue-collar touches like calling Diana "Miss Wonder Woman." The smile she gives him has made those two my new favorite team-up in the DCU. But by focusing his spotlight, Johns is able to have his cake and eat it, too, really decompressing his script to allow the action sequences to flow - in particular, there's a great sequence featuring Captain Cold and the Flash that'll make you start rooting for the bad guys.

If this book is Geoff Johns' victory lap, imagine what it must feel like for Jason Fabok. This arc has absolutely been a proving ground for this guy, showing that he can handle DC's best and brightest without so much as breaking a sweat. Fabok's sense of design is immaculate, resulting in clean and powerful characters, and the fact that he's inking himself with such smooth lines is even more impressive. In particular, Fabok's take on Wonder Woman is the best of both worlds, really straddling that line between superhero costume and spartan-esque warrior. The way he choreographs fight sequences is also superb, but for my money, my favorite beat in the book is when Captain Cold and Wonder Woman trade a smile at each other. That's pure gold characterization. Extra props go to colorist Brad Anderson, who plays up the darkness of this arc without sacrificing any of the beauty. The way he uses blues and purples to tone this book really makes it a gorgeous read from beginning to end.

If there's anything that trips up this book - even a little - is that even though Johns is able to snag an extra two pages for this book, he's still a page or two shy of the mark. There's so much build-up with the threat of Amazo, that the inevitable cure for the virus seems to come a little out of left field. Granted, Johns is able to sell the moment magnificently, with a great line from Captain Cold (or should we start calling him "Leonard Snark"?), but the moment feels abrupt, particularly because there's still an additional five pages of epilogue to throw in.

While the pacing occasionally stumbles, "The Amazo Virus" is bar-none the best arc Justice League has had since its relaunch nearly 40 issues ago. The reason why is because ultimately, the villains of the Justice League are never going to be as interesting as the heroes involved - that's just what happens when you have 70+ years of history for each member of your supporting cast. And if there was one major sin Justice League had been defined by in the past, it was favoring the event over the characters involved. I am very pleased to say that that's no longer the case. If event fatigue caused you to drop Justice League, then consider "The Amazo Virus" the cure to what ails you.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Uncanny X-Men #31
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Marc Deering, Wayne Faucher, Mark Irwin, Jaime Mendoza, Victor Olasara, Al Vey and Antonio Fabela
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

This issue of Uncanny X-Men isn't about Cyclops trying to recruit some all-powerful mutant and failing miserably. It isn't about the life-and-death actions of heroes and villains. It is about the choices men and women have to make, particularly the choices of teachers and students. In the past few issues, Brian Michael Bendis and his artists have killed Cyclops, Magik and Emma Frost. These are superhero comic book deaths, so it's not the end of life that matters as much as it is what those deaths mean to the characters who are fated to be reborn. "Dead is dead" is a nice enough idea, but for Cyclops and Professor Xavier, Bendis and Chris Bachalo use death to explore the choices both men have and will continue to make through their lives.

We see those choices reflected sharply in Eva Bell, the first new mutant that Cyclops recruited to his mutant revolution. Bendis has already put her through the wringer in a recent two-parter time-travel story, but she's the only one of Bendis's mutants who feels like there is a full story to tell with. She's the mutant who has gained and lost the most while under Cyclops' tutelage, so when she travels back in time to get a young Professor Xavier to help clean up a mess he made, it may be the greatest act of compassion ever made by an X-Man - or the biggest act of desperation. Ultimately, her actions are the culmination of lessons that she's learned not just from Cyclops, but from all of the X-Men.

Bachalo, even with a myriad of inkers on this book, brings such vibrancy to these characters. From the awestruck students to the jaded and angry teachers, Bachalo gives these characters an inner fire that drives them. Even though Bachalo has spent a good portion of his career drawing the X-Men, he never seems to get tired of them. Whether it's in the middle of battle or watching two characters just narrowly miss the opportunity to fall in love, his lines and layouts are still giddy and bubbly. His cartooning reduces characters to their simplest form even as his layouts and actions propel the story with unending action. With Bachalo and Antonio Fabela's vividly soft colors, the artwork drives the drama of these characters at a crossroad.

This Marvel Now era of the X-Men has been about the effect of the division within the mutant society and how are the students supposed to learn from that. In All New X-Men, Bendis flipped "Days of Future Past" so that the original young X-Men were thrust into an almost apocalyptic future. In Uncanny X-Men, Bendis has used Cyclops to try and reconcile the man who Scott Summers was with the man who Scott Summers is. And it's been his students who have been caught in the middle. Eva Bell has learned all of the lessons but she never learned to be a hero because that's the one thing that Scott Summers couldn't teach to anyone right now.

Eva was the first of the new mutants, so it's only fitting that she's the first to graduate. But like her teachers, her future is so uncertain. After using her powers to set everything "right," she has a final discussion with a young Professor X. "You are either the greatest or worst mutant in the history of mutants," he admonishes her. "Right back at you, Professor," she answers without missing a beat. She's part of his legacy the same way that Magneto and Scott Summers are. Bendis is writing these broken characters and he may not be that interested in putting them back together. And that's all right. He doesn't need to because under his pen, the X-Men are much more conflicted and interesting than they've been in a long time. Their broken nature is far more fascinating than their heroic adventures.

Multiversity: Mastermen #1 cover
Multiversity: Mastermen #1 cover
Credit: DC Comics

The Multiversity: Mastermen #1
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Jim Lee, Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Mark Irwin, Jonathan Glapion, Alex Sinclair and Jeromy Cox
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

These glimpses into the Multiverse continue to be a refreshing break from what the regular New 52 titles have to offer. There’s a reason stories like Superman: Red Son and Earth-10 are some of the most interesting takes on Superman: it’s compelling to see our boy scout espousing the antithesis of American truth, liberty and freedom, especially when he believes he’s still in the right. Grant Morrison revisits the Nazi regime world of Earth-10 in The Mutliversity: Mastermen #1 and does a solid job in showing us how American patriotism can still thrive without the Man of Steel.

One of the best things a comic can do is reflect discussion about real world issues. What no one seems to be talking about is a major social issue Morrison touches upon in Mastermen: should Overman and the regime take responsibility and feel regret for what happened during the ethnic purges of the Nazi regime? This is a heavy topic, especially since it relates to real-world questions about should people or governments take responsibility for things like slavery or the creation of terrorist groups. This small part of the comic, which wasn’t really expanded upon beyond the interview in the middle of the text, added a nice layer of depth and complexity to the story.

For people who complain that Superman (in this case, Overman) is too perfect a character to be interesting, it’s these story beats that prove you can still make stories interesting when including abstract elements beyond the character’s control. Though Morrison’s explanation of events is tenuous at best - Overman was apparently away in space for all the ethnic cleansing and three panels doesn’t serve enough to convey all the background behind that information - it provides us with something to sympathize with his character and give him a moral dilemma that makes him relateable.

The one major flaw throughout Masterman is Morrison simply doesn’t follow through with his storytelling. He wastes pages with ridiculous exposition that doesn’t serve to push the plot forward - for example, that opening which could have been much more condensed - and thus has less time to tie things together and give them meaning. There are so many side characters that have little explanation for being in the narrative other than to give bits of exposition to keep us moving forward in the plot. It’s hard to pinpoint what this story is: Overman’s journey as his character develops, the struggle between Overman and Uncle Sam, or a part of the grander Multiversity story. Unlike other issues, this feels much more self-contained and less like something was targeting the Multiverse.

For a book with so many different artists - primarily with the inkers and colorists - it’s admirable that they were able to achieve a visual cohesion throughout the book. The biggest challenge Jim Lee faces is overcoming monotony in his penciling. While each image is above average in its own right, it all seems to blend together. This makes reading quick, but it doesn’t give pages like the explosion in Metropolis justice, since it feels just like any other page. It doesn’t help that there are points where these characters feel over-the-top ridiculous, like how Brunnhilde gets panels where she’s overly aggressive and enigmatic, but then reserved and posed the next.

Readers will come away from this reading feeling ambivalent about the majority of the issue, but will hopefully come away thinking about the potential characters like Superman and Overman have to be complex and nuanced characters. Hopefully the next issue of Multiversity will pick up its momentum, barrel towards Convergence, and continue to give us a reason to stay invested in the story Morrison’s trying to tell.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Moon Knight #12
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Sometimes it's hard living up to people's expectations - especially when you're following a dynamite first act.

But that's the unenviable position Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood have found themselves in since their very first issue of Moon Knight, after to pick up after the hyper-vicious series of done-in-ones by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey. While they've maintained a decent amount of the visual aesthetics from their predecessors, Wood has eschewed Ellis' structure in favor of a sweeping six-part arc. The result is a conclusion with a solid execution, but is still missing an essential spark.

Part of my problem with this arc may just in terms of structure. Wood throws a lot in this story, as Marc Spector finally reaches an accord with his benefactor, the Egyptian god Khonshu. Khonshu has been more than a little fickle in this arc - perhaps an accusation that can be leveled at readers like me, as well - throwing his lot behind Dr. Warsame, an East African ex-pat with an axe to grind against a bloody dictator. While it's taken a little longer than it should, Wood has set up some questions with some real potential: Does violence justify more violence? Should Moon Knight be taking a larger purview on the geopolitical landscape?

The problem being, Wood undercuts his argument almost as quickly - and unfairly - as he does his antagonist. Marc Spector was in one heck of a cliffhanger last issue, hurtling to his certain demise out of an airplane... and Khonshu comes back and saves him. The reason isn't really explained - other than perhaps sheer chutzpah - and from that moment on, Dr. Warsame crumbles without Spector even needing to lift a finger. Wood undercuts her righteous crusade as a lie and makes her motivations simply financial, robbing this arc of any of the moral quandries it possessed before. Indeed, beyond miraculously surviving a fall from a plane without a parachute and one shuriken to the wrist, Moon Knight doesn't really do anything in this story. It feels pretty anticlimactic when your Machiavellian villain just gives up, y'know?

That said, the art team deserves a lot of credit here, because Moon Knight still looks like an imminently solid book. Greg Smallwood reminds me a lot of Paul Azaceta, with his hard angles and his underrated style. He doesn't have the panache of a Declan Shalvey, but honestly, six issues in, I think Smallwood is allowed to draw without being constantly compared to his predecessor. There's a real cinematic style to the way that Smallwood paces his pages, and I really like the way he isn't afraid to utilize small squares to convey the barest amount of information possible to set up a scene. But it's colorist Jordie Bellaire that really elevates this book, with her lovely uses of whites and reds to punctuate the moody blues of her scenes.

One of the things that I think set this iteration of Moon Knight apart was its speed - Warren Ellis only had 20 pages to tell a story, and so he made it move fast and furious, eschewing unnecessary exposition or explanation, instead cutting to the chase with the bloody action. Brian Wood has tried a more traditional method, stretching out his story and putting on a more real-world political spin to it. The latter effort is commendable, but the pacing has really robbed this arc of its potency. The strong artwork is still no match for some serious flaws in the narration.

Advance Review!

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Giant Days #1
Written by John Allison
Art by Lissa Treiman
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

From Dinosaur Comics' Ryan North to Nimona's Noelle Stevenson, more and more webcomic stars are making the leap to traditional comic books. Now it’s longtime stalwart John Allison's turn, and while his hop over the pond and on to the page is an overall success, it doesn't come without a few drawbacks.

Since 1998, John Allison has fostered a huge universe of comedic and fantastical tales set in and around the quaint British town of Tackleford. With Bobbins, Scarygoround and Bad Machinery, Allison has offered a daily comic strip with a staggering amount of ambition, featuring plot lines that span years and character that have aged almost in real-time. Originally introduced as a secondary school student in Scarygoround, the spooky and headstrong young woman Esther DeGroot quickly became a break-out star. When the time came for her to leave Tackleford to pursue further education, we followed her in the spin-off Giant Days. Now, for the first time ever and thanks to BOOM!'s experimental imprint BOOM! Box, John Allison tackles a traditional 22-page comic book, handing off penciling duties to the up-and-coming Lissa Treiman.

Esther DeGroot, Susan Ptolemy and Daisy Wooton are living together in the halls of a UK university. United by their tumultuous first few weeks of independent life, they're still learning how to live outside of home. From Esther's dramatic tendencies to Susan's temper and Daisy's lack of social experience, the eccentricities of Giant Days' main cast should appeal to anyone seeking a fresh approach. Esther, Susan and Daisy are honest reflections of average university life; they're not particularly rich, they're not geniuses and none of them have super-powered alter-egos. They're just ordinary young women, despite the outlandish adventures they inadvertently find themselves in. Their struggles with privacy, boundaries and the shackles of their pre-university identities feel real and relatable, and Allison's ability to densely pack every panel with a joke or two alleviates any potential tedium that could have come from such an ordinary setting.

With that in mind, it would have been easy for Allison and Treiman to produce a relatively simple book, filled with nothing but talking heads laid out in uniform grids. Luckily, this isn't the case; with Allison using hyperbolic anecdotes to add a bit of visual excitement. The page in which Susan tells the story of how she left her home town for university is an especially amusing sequence: Treiman depicts vacant and dead-eyed people leaning against the walls of a desolate town, a visual that perfectly illustrates the thoughts of every English teenager who has ever left their quaint little town for a metropolitan city.

Overall, Allison's script is punchy and economical. He helpfully recaps the hundred-odd pages of Esther and co.'s past in just three panels, tweaking his page-a-day web-comic style for a more traditional format. Although the issue is largely a success, the pace suffers a little. The issue seems to end abruptly, as if Allison could have done with an extra page or two for that final scene.

Allison's dialogue is as unrestrained as ever, bringing over all the British colloquialisms and peculiar banter that make up the bedrock of Allison's world. There's a couple of lines here that might get lost in translation for an American audience (Try and explain what a Girlsworld is without the help of Wikipedia!), but it's nothing that'll alienate the average reader. If anything, it's the kind of thing that makes a book more immersive. After all, we're all adept at conversational Shi'ar, so what's the harm in adding a few little Briticisms to the collective brain bank?

Although inconsistent, Treiman's cartoon-styled artwork is well suited to Allison's laugh-heavy script. Her lines deviate from elastic expression to just plain sloppy, sometimes several times a page. Her characters heave and posture with a surprising amount of weight; their body language screaming their every thought.

With Giant Days #1, John Allison has successfully adapted all the wit of his web-series to the traditional comic book. Barring a pacing issue and a few sloppily-rendered panels, Giant Days #1 is a massive and very welcome change of pace from the uniformity of the average comic book week.

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