Best Shots for June 23rd, 2008

Justice League of America #22 cover

Best Shots for 6-23-08

By The Best Shots Team, courtesy of ShotgunReviews.com

Your Host: Troy Brownfield

Greetings! Welcome back to the big column. First, links to our Best Shots Extra from this week . . .

Wolverine #66 (Marvel Comics; review by Troy Brownfield)

And now, regular reviews . . .

Chiggers

By: Hope Larson

From: Aladdin Mix

Review by J. Caleb Mozzocco

Hope Larson’s previous graphic novels—Salamander Dream and Gray Horses—were both highly idiosyncratic works, featuring somewhat elaborate visual motifs and plots veering toward magical expressionism and away from easy genre classification. The former was a black, white and green story of a girl growing up and distant from her friend Salamander, some sort of anima/nature spirit, a story punctuated by long stretches of wordless visuals and semi-mystical business. The latter was a black, white and orange story about a French foreign exchange student, a bread sculptress and a mysterious (but harmless) stalker photographer; it featured a shutter-count for page numbers and strange dreams involving a talking horse.

Chiggers then, is a somewhat unexpected work from Larson, as it’s a fairly straight Young Adult-style graphic novel from a new division of Simon and Schuster’s children’s publishing. At 170 pages, it’s a longer work than the others, and it’s straight black and white (with no third color), and the panels all feature clearly defined borders (her previous works had implied panel borders formed where the edges of the pictures met the white space of the pages).

It also seems like a somewhat more grounded work. It’s about teenager Abby’s summer at the camp she spends each summer at, but this year, she finds things are different. One of her best friends has less time for her, some of her other friends are growing more catty, and she has a succession of strange bunkmates, staring with a spoiled nasty girl who leaves early, and then Shasta an exotic girl who claims to have been hit by lightning, to be one-eighth Cherokee, and to be dating a boy who’s almost ready to go off to college.

Though Shasta and Abby have a lot in common—including liking the same fantasy books and the same nerdy boy at camp—Abby’s other friends dislike Shasta, and Abby finds herself in an odd situation.

Not that Larson’s new story is completely without any touches of the fantastic, of course. Shasta is stalked by some sort of weird, glowing orbs (ball lightning, maybe?) that neither she nor Abby understand, and their active imaginations lead to several scenes in which the mundane surroundings of the camp dissolve into more extraordinary ones.

Larson is, of course, an incredible visual artist, and her work seems sharper here than ever before. It’s hard to believe that she’s just gotten that much better since Salamander Dream, though I suppose that’s possible; perhaps the more standard comic format helps accentuate her line work than the softer, dreamier, partially colored work did.

She’s also a terrific character designer, with each of the half-dozen or so characters looking completely distinct from one another, while all sharing the wide eyes and prominent noses of Larson’s people.

Now, as a 31-year-old man, I’m well outside the target audience for Aladdin Mix (the website mentions kids aged 9-13), so I may not be the best judge of the book’s quality in terms of its intended context, but I quite liked it. The teenage emotions and situations seemed all-too-familiar from real life, and the mysteries of Shasta and the orbs of light kept me turning the pages.

Meanwhile, Larson’s conveyance of those same emotions, situations and mysteries kept me from wanting to turn those pages, as I stopped and lingered on them.

She employs quite a few interesting strategies for telling the story through the images, beyond depicting what’s happening as it’s happening and through the dialogue. For example, when Abby is lying in her bunk, listening to a girl cry, we see a close-up of Abby’s head, with an image of the girl curled up and crying drawn in Abby’s hair, near her ear.

Like I said, I’m not sure if a little kid will dig this book or not, but grown-ups who dig great comics should love it, which I think is a pretty encouraging sign.

Justice League #22

Story by Dwayne McDuffie

Art by Ed Benes and Pete Pantazis

Reviewed by Lan Pitts

This issue is the start of a new arc, but they're still doing the same thing they've done before: find Red Tornado a new body. It makes sense to have Niles Caulder and Dr. Will Magnus on board to help with the procedure, and I guess Zatanna now is a "leaguer" again. As one of my favorite characters I say "good for her". NO matter what the team, you I think you should always have an expert of the magical fields. Vixen comes clean about her "powers" and is forced to quit the team by Black Canary. Superman tries to vouch for her, but no dice. So, at the end of the issue, something goes terribly wrong with the body switching and old school JLA baddie Amazo lives again.

I know that every issue of a team-up book like this is not going to be a drag-out slugfest. And while Green Lantern and Superman try to give Red Arrow relationship advice, something still seems amiss. For one, the art, usually inked by Sandra Hope, is just gaudy and a bit junky. To me, if Michael Turner's and Jim Lee's art formed a progeny, that would be Benes. I'm assuming that the inking and coloring were done at the same time, which seems to be more and more common these days. And this comic proves why it shouldn't be done like that. It looks very unkempt.

Now, I also know that McDuffie is no Meltzer. Likewise, Meltzer is not Grant Morrison, but when you have Hal Jordan say things like "newbie", I get annoyed pretty fast. He could have said "rookie", or "new guy". Anything that didn't make him sound like a 14 year-old over X-Box live.

I will give credit for Meltzer for at least trying to be bring back the Red Tornado since he has such a strong League history, but McDuffie or SOMEBODY could just wrap this up. The book still doesn't seem to go anywhere sometimes. It's not boring, or bad. Just meh. M-E-H. Meh. A writer needs to take hold of the book and actually do something. Like I previously said, they don't always need to be kicking White Martian ass all the time, but hopefully NOW a real threat will come along, and we can see what this team can really do.

The Vinyl Underground, “Watching the Detectives” Trade #1

Written by Si Spencer

Art by Simon Gane and Cameron Stewart

Published by DC/Vertigo

Review by Sarah Jaffe

The Vinyl Underground is like its namesake—shiny, slick, hip, and fun. Its colors are bright and its characters are sexy, and like many great comics, its location is a character in its own right.

Morrison Shepherd is the leader of a crew of misfit occult detectives solving crimes in a hard-boiled London, and leaving behind an Otis Redding single whenever they solve a case. In this first story arc, they’re tracking the person responsible for a particularly grisly killing that the police are quick to blame on immigrants.

Spencer’s narration is musical, rhythmic, funky, and his scene-setting is excellent. Though the book is about crime-fighting, it’s also all about style—“It’s all about the drama,” Leah says after stomping through some unsavory type’s hand with her bright red heels.

It’s only the first collection here, so its high-gloss finish can be chalked up to a start, and it does hint at more to come. Its characters here are only beginning to become whole people rather than collections of unlikely traits—virgin-pornstar-pyromaniac-tough chick, coke-addicted-heartbroken-ex-con-detective, but they’ve got potential. I like the tendency to play with archetypes here, and the hints of gender-bending scattered throughout.

The first crime the group has to solve brings in all sorts of personal baggage from the characters’ past, and as this collection draws to a close, it’s heading into deeper, messier waters. Addiction and infidelity run throughout the book, and this series ends with the beginning of a new case, so it’s sure to leave you wanting more.

The art, penciled by Simon Gane and inked by Cameron Stewart, is just gorgeous. That the characters are pretty is a plot point rather than just gratuitous, and the artists know how to capture a mood.

Best of all, this is one of many of Vertigo’s recent offerings to be really girl-friendly. Sure, the female lead’s a porn star, but the creators’ willingness to let her be more than that creates a better female character than many a sanctimonious-and-scantily-dressed superheroine. The male lead is the most obvious appeal to the female gaze I’ve seen in comics, and he’s genuinely likable. But this doesn’t feel like a book consciously written to draw female fans so much as one that can appeal to everyone.

Even with the unlikely combinations, it’s a bit tough to avoid stereotypes entirely, like referring to recent immigrants as “African” rather than from a specific country (since Africa’s a rather large continent with hundreds of languages and ethnicities), and racism is used as an easy marker of the “bad guys.” But let’s face it, we’re not reading The Vinyl Underground for a lesson in sociology or anthropology. We’re reading it because it’s pretty and a pretty good story to boot, and so why not?

Plus, I’ve already got a crush on Morrison Shepherd. Pretty-boy screwup and just my type. I’ll be buying this one again.

Conan: Born on the Battlefield

From: Dark Horse Comics

Written by: Kurt Busiek

Art: Greg Ruth

Reviewed by Tim Janson

With the latest Conan trade paperback, writer Kurt Busiek takes a look at a period of Conan’s life that has been hinted at, but never fully explored; namely, his birth and early life in Cimmeria. Even Conan creator Robert E. Howard never touched on the subject. The earliest mentions of Conan are as a teen during the “Sack of Venarium”, an Aquilonian frontier outpost that was destroyed in a massive attack by various Cimmerian clans.

Do we need to know about Conan’s youth? And is Kurt Busiek the right man to tell the story? I’ll shrug my shoulders to both questions. Busiek is a fine writer although there have been better Conan scribes. It’s important to note that what Busiek or any other modern writer pens about Conan isn’t to be taken as canon. Outside of Robert E. Howard’s original stories and the fragments completed by people like L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, nothing else should be considered canon, although I’d be more inclined to offer that boon to Roy Thomas for his work on the original Marvel series as he was the most influential writer when it came to putting Conan back in the public eye.

Busiek’s tale literally begins as Conan is born on a battlefield, his pregnant mother even killing an attacker just before she gives birth. That Conan was born amidst a battle is taken as a great omen by the Cimmerians. His father was a blacksmith and Conan developed a powerful physique even as a child by working the bellows for his father. Conan is not even ten years old when he kills a full-grown wolf to protect one of the men of his village who is trapped under a fallen tree. Conan’s reputation for ferocity begins to develop, as does his ability to serve the village as a skilled hunter.

As a young teen, Conan accidentally kills another young man of the village with a single blow. The boy’s father wants revenge but other men hold him back, reminding him, “It’s Conan!” Conan, while not ostracized exactly, feels its best for him to leave his village and live on his own. The book concludes with the famed and often mentioned Sack of Venarium. The Cimmerians, grown weary of Aquilonian oppression, strike back, destroying the fort and forcing the invaders from their land.

I had problems with two aspects of Busiek’s story…first, that Conan was viewed as the sacred cow of his village and he was seemingly allowed to do whatever he wanted, no matter what the consequences. I do not see that characteristic as being part of Conan’s makeup at all. Busiek is making a huge stab in the dark and I’d guess that Howard wouldn’t approve and knowing Howard, he’d probably pummel Busiek just for fun. Secondly, Busiek assigns a much greater role to Conan during the attack on Vanarium than has ever been suggested. Busiek makes Conan the lead figure in the attack and I don’t care how skilled Conan was, he was still only 15 or so and not yet the seasoned warrior that many of his fellow Cimmerians were.

Greg Ruth’s painted art makes the book. His style is vastly different from regular series artist Cary Nord. His color palette and gritty style perfectly reflect the cold, gray, grim setting that I’ve envisioned Cimmeria to be. An “A” for the art and a “C” for the story.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus vol. 1-4

Written, penciled and edited by Jack Kirby

Inked, Lettered and Colored by Mike Royer, Vince Colletta, D. Bruce Berry, Greg Theakston, John Constanza, John Pound, Dave Tanguuay, Drew R. Moore, Pacific Rim Graphics, Anthony Tollin, Bill Wray and Tony Dispoto

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Michael C Lorah

These books are the greatest things I’ve ever read.

What’s that, Troy? You actually want analysis, reasons why Kirby’s Fourth World comics are the greatest stories in history?

Okay, all right, here we go: A little back story, if you only know these characters from more recent versions – Jack Kirby, unsatisfied with his personal and financial treatment at Marvel Comics in the 1960s, jumped ship to DC Comics in early 1970. Promised complete creative latitude, Kirby agreed to take over one existing DC comic book title, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen (and, wow, readers of that book were in for a creative whiplash!) and launched three all-new titles that he’d write and illustrate – New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle. The four titles, when threads from each were woven together, dealt with a cosmic war, an endless conflict between ageless, technologically powered gods, an ongoing battle that had spilled over to Earth.

Though Kirby planned, eventually, an ending to the entire saga, questionable sales and an unsympathetic management caused the books’ cancellation long before Kirby reached his denouement. So, you have to go into this realizing that – even with Kirby’s 1985 graphic novella The Hunger Dogs, an erstwhile finale, included – when you sit down with these four gigantic volumes, you’re not going to get a true, satisfying conclusion.

When I say that the Fourth World Omnibuses (huge props to DC for doing a beautiful job on these books, and thanks to former Kirby assistant and current Kirby biographer Mark Evanier for his insightful, balanced and loving afterwords, which give great insight into the creation of these stories) are the greatest thing I’ve ever read, I’m specifically talking about the first three volumes. I’ll discuss vol. 4 in a moment.

Volumes 1 through 3 are overflowing with big ideas, exploding with dramatic moments, and thick with amazing artwork. Although Kirby was known to sometimes plot by the seat of his pants, his understanding of the bigger picture of his Fourth World cosmology must’ve been incredibly clear, because each individual comic book story – put in original publication order in these books – adds another brick (often several) to the greater tapestry of his epic. Despotic Darkseid’s presence on Earth is first teased in the pages of Jimmy Olsen, and Forever People reveals his quest for the anti-life equation. The dramatic history of the war between peaceful New Genesis and corrupt Apokolips is unearthed in the pages of New Gods and Mister Miracle.

Each story adds a layer of intrigue and excitement, building to, I feel, a monumental crescendo in the third book, with the stand-alone issues “The Pact” and “The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin” in New Gods #7 and #8; Mister Miracle and Big Barda’s invasion of Apokolips to fight for their right to live free and peacefully; and the Forever People’s encounter with Billion Dollar Bates, a possessor of the anti-life equation. “The Pact” is Kirby’s finest work, where he pours out the history of the New Gods’ conflict, the instigator of the great war, and the cost (and hope) of an uneasy peace. The tremendous power of the gods is shown, and the secrets of Darkseid, Highfather, Orion and Mister Miracle revealed. Longtime readers certainly know this history, but if you haven’t read the story yourself, you can’t truly understand how personal a tale this is.

Criticisms of Kirby’s comics often revolve around two aspects: Kirby’s dialogue and his character names. To tackle the latter, I’m not sure what I can say. If you find a dominatrix-styled old woman called “Granny Goodness” unacceptable, there’s little I can say that will persuade you. Personally, I think Granny’s one of the greatest characters comics have ever produced. On the topic of Jack’s dialogue, on a “realism” level, Jack’s words can sometimes seem obtuse, heavy-handed or clumsy, but taken in the context of 24-pages of Kirby’s relentlessly driven stories, his dialogue actually establishes a rhythm that complements and highlights the action and dramatic revelations. And, more importantly, the metric ton of information in each issue is conveyed clearly and precisely, and each character’s voice is, despite Kirby’s “limitations,” unique and unfaltering. Orion’s fierceness, Mister Miracle’s stern confidence, Big Bear’s effusive humor, Desaad’s sadism… readers could read the dialogue without the images and still recognize the speaker.

Artistically, Kirby is at his peak through most of these comics. Characters nearly leap from panels into the reader’s lap, yet the basic storytelling remains concise and easy to read. Machinery crackles and heavy, stylized lines enforce the solidity and power of the characters and weaponry. Unique character designs overflow on each page, and the protagonists – particularly Orion – frequently show the physical cost of such dramatic and intense conflicts. After the original Fourth World titles were cancelled, Kirby’s return engagement (1984’s “Even Gods Must Die” and the 1985 graphic novella The Hunger Dogs) fail to retain to passion of the original work. The line becomes unsteady, the designs lose detail, and the backgrounds simplify.

This unsteadiness leads, of course, into the discussion of the fourth Omnibus volume. Compiling the final issue of each New Gods and Forever People, both of which leave readers with jaw-dropping cliffhangers, and the dimmed quality of the mid-80s finale (Kirby’s final Jimmy Olsen issue is in vol. 3), this fourth and final Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus is primarily the adventures of Mister Miracle. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the cancellation of the other titles, Kirby elects to recast the hero in a more traditionally superheroic role, to which he seems ill-suited. It doesn’t seem surprising that in three of the later issues, Mister Miracle himself plays second-fiddle to his understudy Shilo Norman. For the final issue, Kirby does pull out the Fourth Worlders again, but this time only managing to haphazardly toss established characters into the path of Mister Miracle and Big Barda’s wedding. Kirby wanted to end it with the mythology in front, but it’s clear from the final issue that there was too much left to say.

Credit must also be given to DC’s Collections department, for their quality work assembling these books. Excepting Mister Miracle #10 being listed in the table of contents for vol. 3 and vol. 4 (it’s in 4), the hardcovers are everything I hoped for. Kirby’s art looks terrific without garish, eye-slicing paper stock, and the design elements showcase the power of the artwork beautifully.

Combining the timeless archetypes of mythology with exciting science-fiction adventure, Kirby has created a truly modern pantheon in his Fourth World cosmology. The full epic is, as Evanier points out, akin to an incomplete symphony, but none of that can take away from the majesty of the existing notes. Cresting with explosive stories, such as that of a hard-driven cop trying to compete when “super-spooks” are waging a turf war in his town or the temptation for Superman to join a society of super-beings where he could be among equals, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World is a multi-faceted world, brought to the reader through four unique perspectives. Each collection is a treat for readers, but the combined power of all four is simply the pinnacle of adventure comic book storytelling.

And, yeah, there’s a lot of hyperbolic language in this review. But it’s a Jack Kirby book, and hyperbole is part of what makes it all so damn fun.

PELLET REVIEWS!

Marvel Adventures Avengers #25 (Marvel; by Caleb): Add Arnim Zola to the ever-growing list of weird-ass Marvel characters that writer Jeff Parker has built hilarious done-in-one adventures around. The villain who’s so smart he keeps his head safe in storage and runs around with a face projected onto a TV set in his chest has developed some sort of Freaky Friday like ray, one which he turns on the all-star Avengers line-up just as they’re going into battle against the Wrecking Crew. When they take the fight to Zola, things get really silly, with Wolverine-in-Ant-Man’s-shrunken-body having a tiny little berserker rage and trying to claw the Crew to death, Hulk-in-Storm’s-body roaring about himself in the third person and trying to uproot trees, and so on. Hilarity ensues, as per usual.

Teen Titans: Year One #5 (of 6) (DC Comics; review by Rev. O.J. Flow): If nothing else, this title is proof that there's room for more than one adorable and endearing Teen Titans book, Tiny Titans being the other such book. In a funny coincidence, this issue, along with this week's Justice League of America #22 underscore just how bad Speedy (Roy Harper to his friends) has been historically at romance. In the modern day it's Hawkgirl, we all know about Cheshire, and here we see how poorly he handled himself with a very smitten Donna Troy. Wonder Girl here is even more green to the way that the male mind works compared to your average 16-year-old, so it's not really a surprise that a first date with Speedy that goes south in a hurry leaves her especially heartbroken. There are some goofy scenes with Aqualad and Kid Flash being, umm, kids, and Robin showing the old man his team's HQ is good for a laugh. Each issue of this Year One miniseries has seen Amy Wolfram deliver a soulful early years exploration of the pillars of DC's second generation, but collectively I've been stumped as to the direction or agenda of the overarching story. Aside from the first three issues, it seems like it's been more like Teen Titan vignettes steeped in humor and lighthearted characterization. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily. Karl Kerschl's art has been nothing short of breathtaking with notable assistance from Serge LaPointe (inks) and John Rauch (colors). Every vibrant page just pops. It stands to reason that with DC running four different Teen Titans books right now (six if you count the minis dedicated to Raven and Cyborg), law of averages dictates that good (this, Tiny Titans) is going to come with the bad (Titans). This kind of quality production needs to find its way to other books since we only have another issue to go here with Teen Titans: Year One.

The Incredible Hercules #118 (Marvel; by Troy): The ridiculously entertaining ride that is this book continues as The God Squad hits the realm of Nightmare. You know that the main intention of this thing is “fun” when you open the book; the recap page breaks down the characters in baseball card style. This thing fairly crackles with energy as we see what the gods fear. Hercules turns out to be a better leader than expected, but two bigger surprises await: a hook-up, and that last page. Great stuff.

Guardians of the Galaxy #2 (Marvel; by Troy): And speaking of fun . . . I’m really digging this book as well. Part of the fun is Rocket Raccoon (a subcorollary of my “There is nothing that cannot be improved with the addition of a Muppet” theory is now, “Raccoons make everything funnier, except taking out the garbage”), but the banter and interplay of the entire team make it worthwhile. For me, the humor seems natural; this oddball group of characters has survived two universe-threatening wars, so how could they possibly take anything else as seriously? The plot of this issue turns on a nifty callback to an older bit of continuity, and there’s action aplenty. This one’s a good time all around.

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