Best Shots Reviews: AVENGERS: RAGE OF ULTRON, GOTHAM ACADEMY: ENDGAME #1, SPIDER-GWEN #3, WONDER WOMAN #40, RICK & MORTY #1

DC Comics March 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered with this week's installment. So let's kick off today's column with Silver-tongued Scott Cederlund, as he takes a look at Avengers: Rage of Ultron...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers: Rage of Ultron
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Jerome Opeña, Pepe Larraz, Mark Morales, Dean White, Rachelle Rosenberg and Dono Sanchez Almara
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The story of Ultron has always had weird daddy-issue undertones. A creation of Avenger co-founder Hank Pym, the robotic Ultron has been written as the bad seed child of the superhero team, seeking a Greek-style revenge against his "father" and the rest of the "family." Sometimes all of this has been deep subtext in the comic books and sometimes it's been painfully overwritten. Avengers: Rage of Ultron is obviously a tie-in to the second Avengers movie but Rick Remender, Jerome Opeña and Pepe Larraz tell a story that is built off of all of the Ultron comic stories even as they segue into Remender’s current explorations of family dynamics in books like Uncanny Avengers, Low and Black Science. Rage of Ultron is the story about a son who doesn't fit into his father's idea of family.

With two artists, one supplemental inker and three colorists, Rage of Ultron is the poster child for deadline doom and illustrates mainstream comics' need to distribute product instead of art. Opeña is a blockbuster artist, as shown in the opening sequence. Featuring the classic George Perez/ John Byrne-era Avengers, the comic opens with the perfect melding of current superhero quasi-realistic aesthetics and classic Marvel fast paced/big action storytelling. In the early issues of Uncanny Avengers, Remender showed that same approach to his writing, delivering a classic style with a modern flair. Working in synch with Remender here, Opeña's art is a throwback to the classic days without feeling dated or forced. It's a nice reminder that kind of storytelling can work in a modern environment.

Whether in the heat of battle or debating around a meeting table, Opeña’s figures carry themselves with the grace and beauty of ballerinas. They're not gentle or fragile but there's great fluidity to his artwork. But that's also where the problem starts when you begin introducing inkers or secondary pencillers into his comics. The structure of Marvel's Infinity event allowed Opeña's work to work together with other artists but here when other artists are introduced, it disrupts the comic and completely undermines any emotional resonance that Remender is trying to build. Mark Morales is a fantastically clean inker over Jimmy Cheung or Oliver Coipel but his smooth line takes the characteristic grit away from Opeña. Credited with "additional inks by," Morales' contribution can be seen here and there throughout the book but it feels heavy and weighty over Opeña's textured artwork.

More problematic is the huge sequences left to Pepe Larraz. For lack of a better term, Larraz's style is much more "Marvel." It's big, bold and in your face. Larraz has the Mighty Marvel power in his artwork but his work here lacks any emotion to the characters. They're angry; they fight, they win or they lose. It's melodrama without subtlety. Now Opeña isn't the most expressive artist either but the conflict between Hank Pym and Ultron is played out on the characters faces in his pages of this book. Larraz has the responsibility of the big emotional conflict of the book but even though it is only three pages, the characters ability to portray that conflict is totally drained by the sudden shift between Opeña and Larraz. That shift in art at key moments in this story is symptomatic of the larger issue at Marvel and DC where their artists are reduced to commodities and are shifted in and out of a story just so long as the trains keep running on time.

Remender is as guilty, if not more so than, of undercutting the ending of this book by introducing a Deus Ex Starfox into the story. His story of the generational conflict between fathers and sons (Hank Pym and Ultron, Ultron and Vision) is a story that's been played out many times but his focus on the cold actions of Hank Pym reframes the emotionally-damaged Pym not as a hero or villain but as a conflicted parent. There's both love and hate for his "son" and, by extension, his grandson. Rage of Ultron looks like some big superhero epic but at its core Remender's story is on a much smaller and personal stage. And in the end, he starts moving toward a moment when these three characters must have their big cathartic blowout. It's what he's been building to all along but instead of allowing Pym, Ultron and the Vision to generate their own conclusion, he introduces Starfox, a character who manipulates other characters, into the scene. Through Starfox, Remender forces these characters into a narrative and emotional resolution that they haven't earned the right for. It's as if he got to the conclusion and realized that he ran out of space so he'll force it to end the way he needs it to.

Avengers: Rage of Ultron had the potential to be the next X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills or The Death of Captain Marvel. Remender, Opeña and Larraz have the story and the characters to create a ,ighty Marvel Graphic Novel that could have all told this great, timeless conflict that would define what these kind of stories would be for years to come. There's so much in this comic that's excellent but the inconsistent art and the cheated resolution damage any weight that this story could have had. And sadly it feels like all of these pieces were rushed just to have this comic book out before some big Hollywood event. Art and story were sacrificed at the altar of deadlines and bottom lines. What could have been a great, character defining comic ends up having all of the emotional impact of a inconsequential one shot comic that will be retconned in two to five years.

Credit: DC Comics

Gotham Academy: Endgame #1
Written by Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Clio Chiang, Joy Ang and Vera Brosgol
Art by Jeff Stokely, Clio Chiang, Joy Ang, Vera Brosgol, Jenny Donovan and Sonia Oback
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Gather 'round the camp-fire everyone, it's time for some scary stories... Gotham City style! Gotham Academy regulars Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher invite Clio Chiang, Joy Ang and Vera Brosgol into the hallowed halls of Gotham Academy for a unique anthology of chillers revolving around unearthly grins, a hugely effective little one-shot that has more in common with urban legends, ancient myths and R.L. Stine-style fables than the traditional Bat-book.

Cloonan and Fletcher open the issue, introducing the idea of “Joker Stories”: spooky tales that all revolve around the power of the permanent smile. It's a nice take on the idea of “The Joker as literal boogeyman” that's popped up a few times in recent history, without resorting to having Olive and company recount the Joker's thwarted plans (which given the Joker's history of mass ultra-violence, would seem akin to children swapping ISIS stories whilst roasting s'mores). The idea that the Joker's smile is a memetic entity that's been haunting children throughout the world for centuries is powerful, and it's the kind of thing that helps make Gotham City feel like a breathing settlement instead of a decaying stage for its flamboyant players.

As Gotham City battles the Joker virus, Olive, Pomeline and Maps are locked inside the Gotham Academy gym, huddled together in a tent whilst waiting for it all to blow over. Jeff Stokely's artwork is a lot looser than Gotham Academy penciller Karl Kersch's razor-sharp animated look, whilst colorist Jenny Donovan fills the inside of Olive's tent with burnt orange. Alongside the night sky's dark,, the warm orange lends an appropriately Halloween-y tone to the frame narrative. This is old-school scary, not the vomit-tinged and rust-covered aesthetic of modern horror.

One-woman creative-team Clio Chang handles Pomeline's story, a four-page chiller about a boy who steals a peculiar leering mask from his local costume shop, only for the mask to take up permanent residence on the boy's face. It's a classic moral fable, wrapped up in a crayola-colored manga aesthetic and a mask with a more than passing resemblance to the Clown Prince of Crime. The format: a four-page comic story with a twist in the tale, is an effective form we don't see often enough in U.S. comics, and although the stinger here is a little predictable, Chang's haunting artwork makes it work.

Joy Ang's contribution really shines with Macpherson's story. A bright and vivid folk tale, Ang tells the tale of a sinister Scottish jester, whose morbid show makes people laugh... and laugh... and laugh. Ang's artwork takes much of the same manga influence as everyone who draws for Gotham Academy, but her depiction of the devilish jester is particularly disturbing. Eternally smiling and initially with gleaming white teeth, the jester's true nature soon becomes apparent in a 3-panel sequence that will surely stick it everyone's minds long after they put the issue down. Ang's story is understated yet creepy, played out entirely in narration boxes; which adds to its folksy oral history tone.

Last up is another cautionary tale for naughty children: Olive's story by Vera Brosgol. Much the same kind of story as the first, Brosgol's story concerns a little boy who tells a particularly lewd joke to the mirror in the school bathroom, which soon lead to him seeing his own grinning visage stare back at him whenever he gazes upon his own reflection. Naturally, this drives him insane. Brosgol's wide eyes and pointed chins bring to mind the Joker without directly mentioning him, and colorist Sonia Oback's blue/green palette does the same. Overall, Olive's story is a little too reminiscent of Pomeline's to really leap out and grab attention, but in a vacuum it's a decent enough short.

Gotham Academy: Endgame #1 is a nice little "Endgame" palate cleanser, a break from the unrelenting grisliness of this Bat-crossover. It's a a quality book in it's own right: a good example of a tie-in done right. It's incredibly rare to see an anthology title from one of the big two in 2015, and it's a fitting testament to DC's refreshing new initiative that it found a home at Gotham Academy.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Gwen #3
Written by Jason Latour
Art by Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Three issues in, and perhaps what's most impressive in Spider-Gwen #3 is that each chapter feels not just unique, but singular. The first issue was an action-packed table setter that felt like classic old-school Spider-Man. The second issue was a bit more avant garde, with a hallucinatory Spider-Ham helping Gwen tackle some deep internal conflict. The third issue, meanwhile, brings it all home, as Gwen Stacy tackles a question that's long plagued webslingers: What's more important, the mask, or the woman underneath?

Like any typical teenager, Gwen Stacy is prone to over-the-top gestures, and sometimes saying one thing and acting in the complete opposite manner. But it's refreshing to see Gwen go to an extreme in three issues that took Peter Parker more than 30 years to reach: Namely, is it worth even maintaining a secret identity? "It's Gwen Stacy, Dad. Gwen Stacy is the problem," she says - it's an adolescent move, but it's one that also shows just how committed Gwen is to great power and great responsibility. But Jason Latour doesn't let Gwen off the hook so easily - while Peter Parker was prone to screwing up his own life with melodramatics, there's an irony to Gwen's predicament. She's talking about abandoning her identity to her very own father, a police captain who's risking his job just by protecting her. Perhaps it's no surprise that a living George Stacy can do so much more to influence a young superhero than a dead Ben Parker ever could.

With this family dynamic centering this comic, Latour also knows how to appeal to the action junkies. This comic might actually have more action than the previous two issues, as Gwen not only tackles the Vulture one more time, but she goes head-to-head with Liutentant Frank Castle, a man most Marvel fans know of as the Punisher. Looming over her with a gas mask, combat batons and a SWAT vest emblazoned with an eerie skull, Frank is a great villain for this super-cool street fighter. Latour choreographs his fights well, whether its Gwen turning household items into homemade nunchucks or Frank having a secret weapon to deal with being overpowered by the proportionate strength of a spider, there's a lot of cool twists and turns that'll keep you on the edge of your seat.

Artwise, Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi continue to be an impressive duo to be reckoned with. Renzi's hot pinks and greens play nicely off the cool blues and purples of the city, and that lends a lot of energy and mood to each page. (Not only that, but he's able to use bright bursts of color to really draw a reader's attention to pivotal panels.) Rodriguez, meanwhile, paces his pages out so nicely, with great expressiveness, and his take on the Punisher looks like a riot cop from Hell. Rodriguez's greatest strength might be the sense of forward movement all his fight sequences have, including Gwen bouncing around a room or simply the way that the Vulture's toxic gas engulfs an entire room.

All in all, Spider-Gwen is a strong showing that seems to have an effortless, singular creative voice, thanks to the edgy artwork of Rodriguez and Renzi and the truly insightful scripting by Latour. Gwen Stacy is a teenage hero for the overclocked, overconnected, overthinking and overfeeling demographic of the 21st century, and she embodies all the qualities that a teen today might. Showcasing an impressive amount of range for both the character and the creative team, the third time definitely proves to be the charm for Spider-Gwen.

Credit: DC Comics

Wonder Woman #40
Written by Meredith Finch
Art by David Finch, Jonathan Glapion and Peter Steigerwald
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

For the first few issues of Meredith and David Finch's run on Wonder Woman, it feels as though the Amazing Amazon had a target painted on her back, and everyone on the Internet was ready to lock on. The reasons were many, and they weren't wrong: The book relied too much on the Justice League to prop Diana up, after dozens of issues where she played second fiddle to Brian Azzarello's revamped pantheon, and what's worse, Diane came off as a tearful flake, unable to choose between her duties to Themyscria and the rest of the DC Universe. But thankfully, while there's still plenty of room left for improvement, this issue feels like a definitely upswing for the Finches.

It may be reductive to reduce a feminist icon like Wonder Woman to her looks, but at this point, the visuals are still this book's greatest appeal. With colorist Peter Steigerwald lending a serene beauty to a duel by fire, the artwork here looks dynamic, and I like the differences in fighting styles between Wonder Woman and her newest foe, Donna Troy. In general, David Finch knows how to set up a fight sequence, and there's a beautiful double-page spread featuring the battle-hardened Amazons in action that's an image for the ages.

But in terms of the writing, well, it could still be better. To her credit, Meredith Finch ends this comic on a superb cliffhanger, even if it might take a little bit of rereading to understand exactly what horrors went down. But pacing is still an issue here - while Finch opens the comic effectively by having Diana and Donna square off, the battle ends arbitrarily, cutting away to an interlude and then another guest appearance by the Justice League. This seems to be a problem that's endemic to Wonder Woman writers in the New 52 - instead of relishing the premier female superhero in comics, they seem to be eager to get away from her, or to dilute her presence by adding on as many guest characters as possible.

But much of that might have to do with a shakiness with Diana as a character. There's a surprising patronization to Diana, as she immediately dismisses Donna Troy as a "child" and a "pawn" - I'd hope that comes back to haunt our heroine in the future, but I have the feeling that is too nuanced a view for this particular storyline. It feels like, in general, the theme for this story is "you can't have it all" - but instead of juggling a career and children, it comes down to "being a goddess, dating a Kryptonian and being a member of the Justice League." Why does Diana need to keep proving herself to be respected? And why does she keep having all of her mistakes exploited by those around her - whether its a group of insectoid creatures who have delivered payback for Diana's treatment of the First Born in Azzarello's run, or the way that Donna and company sneak around Diana's back when she's engaging in League business.

Yet given the problematic interpretation of the character in issues past, it might be damning with faint praise to call this issue of Wonder Woman the best one yet. The artwork feels more refined here, and with less outrageous digressions - like Wonder Woman holding a teddy bear for dramatic effect - it might be possible for more readers to give this book a chance. But if Meredith Finch can give Wonder Woman a chance to really be the unstoppable heroine that the popular imagination has built her up to be, then this series might stand a fighting chance.

Rick and Morty #1
Rick and Morty #1
Credit: Oni Press

Rick and Morty #1
Written by Zac Gorman
Art by C.J. Cannon, Marc Ellerby and Ryan Hill
Lettering by Crank!
Published by Oni Press
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s Rick and Morty lives and dies based on its own manic, meta energy. Throughout the entirety of the first season the show established its own lunatic continuity and constantly let viewers in on the joke through either constructed bits or just outright talking to the audience. The same thing that makes it great TV should also be a hindrance when it comes to the comic adaptation, right? Well, don’t even trip, dawg, because Oni Press absolutely nails Rick and Morty #1 by basically condensing an episode into one killer debut issue. Writer Zac Gorman not only understand the characters, but the structure of the show as well, balancing the human drama with sci-fi hijinks. Rick and Morty #1 has it all; a tale that is sure to please the diehard Rick and Morty fans that also functions as a rollicking intro to the worst Back to the Future cosplayers in the universe.

Zac Gorman splits Rick and Morty #1 into a clearly defined A and B plot, taking full advantage of one of the show’s hallmarks. Rick and Morty #1 is fun and hilarious and all those things that you really want from a comic, but one of its main strengths is just how well plotted the whole thing is.Gorman keeps the bits and wacky turns coming, but he never once allows the reader to grasp at anything. Both plots are kept at arm’s length from each other and they stay clearly defined, yet still affect one another to coalesce into a great story well told. I’m sure somewhere Dan Harmon and his patented story wheel are mighty proud of Zac Gorman because Rick and Morty #1 surely passes it with flying colors.

The plot, which finds Morty wishing to stand up to his father Jerry by getting a job and then becoming entangled in temporal stock fraud with Rick, is filled to bursting with jokes and meta nods. I’m sure fans of the show were worried just how well Rick and Morty’s acerbic and trippy sense of humor would translate to the printed word, and I am happy to report that it mostly all lands. Sure, Rick’s burps aren’t nearly as funny to read as they are to hear, but for every failed burp there is an awkward attempt at a turn of phrase from Morty or an extended conversation about how one of Rick’s catch-phrases feels forced. Zac Gorman understands what makes these characters tick as well as what makes them funny to an audience and he delivers on that. Rick and Morty has always been a genuine family sitcom, tropes and all, that just happens to be out of this world insane and that’s exactly what this debut issue aims toward.

Rick and Morty #1 stands as a great adaptation structurally, but artist C.J. Cannon takes this debut one step further by making it look as close to the TV show as possible with great results. The world and characters of Rick and Morty can range from the deceptively simple to vast and complex, but C.J. Cannon takes it all on, rendering the mundane day to day of Jerry’s house to the alien filled space stock exchange with equal life and detail. Cannon even goes to far as to add the little squiggles that make up the character’s pupils and how could you not love that? Aiding Cannon with a arsenal of flat, understated colors is colorist Ryan Hill. Hill colors the entire issue in muted, pedestrian color choices, but that just adds another layer to the look of this adaptation. Cannon and Hill just want to draw what they have seen on TV, not give us some overblown transformation for comics. That’s what makes Rick and Morty #1 so damn easy to love; it both looks and reads exactly like what you’ve seen of the show, just in a different format.

Bottom line, if you love the show, you’ll love the comic, and if you’ve never watched the show, this debut issue will make you want to run out and buy the DVDs as soon as you are humanly able. Oni Press has struck gold with Rick and Morty #1. Zac Gorman, C.J. Cannon, Ryan Hill, and back up artist Marc Ellerby have given audiences, both in and out of know, a solid debut issue chocked with comedy and pathos that can go nowhere but up. Sitcoms are always tricky for comics to really take to, but the breathless insanity and solid emotional core of Rick and Morty may be the latest one that the medium embraces and takes to a whole other crop of fans. To sum it all up, WUB A LUB A DUB DUUUUB!

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