Best Shots Reviews: CONSTANTINE: THE HELLBLAZER #1, MARVEL ZOMBIES #1, EARTH 2: SOCIETY #1, SPIDER-GWEN #5

DC Comics June 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Constantine: The Hellblazer #1
Written by Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV
Art by Riley Rossmo and Ivan Plascencia
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

One of the most highly anticipated relaunches in the new DC Universe, Constantine: The Hellblazer returns the brash, bisexual black magician to his former glory. When John first joined the DCU, first in Justice League Dark and then in a watered-down solo outing, many readers were disappointed to see a Constantine that looked and sort of acted like the character they knew but was incongruous with the New 52 DCU. Thankfully, Ming Doyle, James Tynion IV and Riley Rossmo have righted the ship. By embracing what made Hellblazer work in the first place (and keeping John in a corner of the DC Universe that seems to be all his own), the creative team has crafted a comic book that honors the character’s legacy while still providing a strong jumping on point for new readers.

The first time we meet John Constantine he’s standing in a clothing store stark naked and covered in blood. That’s a helluva way to kick of this title’s new direction, and it’s very indicative of what we can expect from this creative team. Most importantly, the writers are able to set the tone quickly. This book is irreverent, nontraditional and a bit cunning, much like John himself. Plus, having John display his skills quickly allows readers to understand him quickly without worrying about his previous 300-plus appearances.

Doyle and Tynion bring back John’s ghosts as well. They don’t dig into them much in this issue, but their presence keeps John from having to do the outmoded “hero talks to themselves in caption boxes because they are so alone” trope. It gives us a chance to see a side of John that we don’t see when he’s dealing with demons or flirting with the man behind the bar. Kudos to the writers for ignoring the paper thin characterization of John’s recent superhero adventures and giving readers a much more complex and mature character.

The plot of this issue ditches the “monster of the week” nature of the recently canceled TV series as well as the superheroics that Hellblazer was being subjected to the last couple of years. The writers give us a sort of day in the life of John Constantine to serve as introduction to the kinds of situations he’ll find himself in. And while many of the characters that show up here aren’t meant to stick around, they allow the reader to get familiar with a “normal” day for John. Well, as normal as helping your demon ex-lover banish some other demons to hell can be. But if you’re onboard for this, it seems the writers have a lot more in store.

And Riley Rossmo’s art is a great fit for John Constantine's world. It’s almost like there’s a film of grit and grime over the corners of the world that Hellblazer exists in. Rossmo’s art is evocative of that darkness bubbling beneath the surface and in turn, the book begins to embody all the urban legends and scary campfire stories you heard as a kid. But they don’t feel like imaginary stories. They start to feel a little bit real. So while the writers are busy nailing the tone of this title, Rossmo is creating a world for Constantine and his ghosts to live in.

That said, I’m not sold on Rossmo’s character design for the titular hero. The problem with the Dc Comics-era of Constantine has been a lack of desperation that I felt was always inherent in his previous iterations. John’s always had a sort of punk rock-dandy thing going on. He’s dressed sharp at first glance, but then you notice that the tie is a bit undone, the jacket’s missing a button and Constantine’s sporting a shiner that looks like he got it from the Devil himself. Rossmo’s design looks sharp, no doubt. But those little details don’t exist to tell you more about the character. and I don’t know what’s going on with John’s blond Astroboy haircut.

This is a great debut for this creative team and this iteration of the character. It doesn’t require any knowledge of Constantine before this point and it’s a fun, self-contained story. Doyle and Tynion are clearly attuned to the charms of Hellblazer and put them on full display here. Rossmo is particularly talented at exploring John’s corner of the DCU and rendering it in such a way that it looks like nothing else in any other DC book. This Constantine isn’t as weathered as many readers are used to him being but this book is sure to satisfy new and old fans. You’ll feel like there’s real darkness and evil here but that Constantine can handle it with a one-liner, a shot of whiskey and a half-remembered incantation. This is the Hellblazer we know and love and have missed.

Marvel Zombies #1 First Look
Marvel Zombies #1 First Look
Credit: Marvel

Marvel Zombies #1
Written by Simon Spurrier
Art by Kev Walker and Frank D’Armata
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Shield - Battleworld’s barrier between its kingdoms and the undead and symbiotic hordes that threaten them. Since its gory introduction in Secret Wars, the question of who exactly mans this wall has surely crossed the minds of some readers. Who else, but the achingly cool Elsa Bloodstone and a legion of trained monster hunters? With that, Marvel Zombies shambles back into shops this week in hilariously violent fashion. Written by X-Men: Legacy scribe Simon Spurrier and illustrated by Marvel Zombies 3 and Marvel Zombies 4 alum Kev Walker, Marvel Zombies #1 is a sharply written and deeply emotional trek into the wilds of Battleworld and yet another star turn for Elsa Bloodstone.

Right from the jump, Simon Spurrier lets the audience know what kind of comic this is going to be by dropping the first of many killer lines of dialogue. “You. Spilled. My Tea,” Elsa growls as she shotguns the head off the offending zombie invader. Make no mistake, Marvel Zombies #1 is a hilarious book, thanks in large part to Spurrier’s terrific take on fan-favorite Bloodstone. But once things truly kick off it isn’t all zingers and sass from our leading lady - after the horrible spilling of tea, the Shield is assaulted by a zombified Azazel, heretofore known as Red Terror, the first of many gruesome cameos from artist Kev Walker. Once Azazel's teleporting has been halted by Bloodstone’s sharpshooting and she starts the unpleasant job of removing his head, Red Terror gets the last laugh and BAMFs our lead far beyond the Shield into the depths of the wastelands. This is where Marvel Zombies #1 goes from a good comic to a great comic.

While the draw of Marvel Zombies #1 may be its hilarious one-liners, Spurrier doesn’t just deliver comedy; he also mixes in a hefty bit of tragedy as well. As Elsa wakes and befriends a human child with no memory lost in the deadlands, whom she drly names "Shut Up," she is constantly experiencing flashbacks of her hard upbringing at the hands of her overbearing father, legendary monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone. From the age of seven, Elsa was subjected to insane training rituals and told only to never surrender, never stop and never relent. Spurrier uses these flashbacks to not only inform Elsa’s hardass exterior but to justify the fully heroic turn she takes toward the end of this debut issue. Elsa Bloodstone became a fan-favorite thanks to her constant sass and penchant for innovative violence, but Marvel Zombies #1 gives us all that plus the bag of chips that is emotional character development. That’s not half-bad for the reboot of Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four arc turned insane franchise line.

Guiding readers down the road of the dead with some truly fantastic art is penciler Kev Walker along with colorist extraordinaire Frank D’Armata. Walker, who tackled this franchise along with writer Fred Van Lente way back in the day, delivers boxy, yet emotive character design along with a keen eye for the grotesque that matches Spurrier’s script note for note all while delivering fantastic visuals. The zombie cameos alone are worth the price of admission as Walker gleefully gives us a full panel to soak in a limbless Doc Ock whose only mode of transportation is a single robotic tentacle or a Chris Bachalo-inspired undead Juggernaut. Walker also keeps each action sequence intimate to allow each fight to feel like a properly tense encounter with a flesh-eating monster.

Aiding in the tension, fun, and emotion of Marvel Zombies #1 is colorist Frank D’Armata who absolutely goes all out this month. D’Armata gives Marvel Zombies a sumptuous look which is a sentence that no one would ever think to type or read. That doesn’t stop it from being true, however - D’Armata gives this debut issue a distinctly different look throughout as it moves from the burnt ambers and sandy browns of the Shield to the sickly greys of beyond the wall as well as the pale purples of Elsa’s flashbacks. Walker and D’Armata delivered some great issues of New Avengers back when reality was still whole, but Marvel Zombies #1 shows that this pairing wasn’t just a flash in the pan and that they can acquit themselves to rendering the dead just as beautifully as they did the Illuminati.

Marvel Zombies #1 has no business being this good but thanks to a keen script and dynamite visuals, it is and we should be grateful. Simon Spurrier takes the name recognition of a Marvel cult hit and transforms it into a thrilling, hilarious and engaging character study that just happens to have zombies running around. With big events like Secret Wars, it is assumed that we, as readers, will be inundated with many forgettable tie-ins and a handful of special ones - Marvel Zombies #1 is one of those rare handfuls. Whether you want jokes, pathos, or to see an amazing lady carrying a great title on her shoulders, Marvel Zombies #1 has you covered.

Credit: DC Comics

Earth 2: Society #1
Written by Daniel H. Wilson
Art by Jorge Jimenez and John Rauch
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Jorge Jimenez. Remember his name, because he's going to be DC's next big superstar.

I've seen this story too many times to count. Aaron Kuder. Russell Dauterman. David Marquez. Artists who seemingly exploded out of nowhere, all from the strength of a so-called "minor" book. Well, make no mistake about it - Earth 2: Society is Jimenez's book, and his dynamic take on DC's rebooted JSA makes for a superb read.

If I had to describe Jimenez's artwork, I'd say it's a cross between Olivier Coipel and J. Scott Campbell, or perhaps a cousin of Duncan Rouleau - he's got a real sharpness to his edges, as the book opens with a brand-new Batman, as he clings to a building while shielding himself from laser fire. Jimenez's style is cartoony, sometimes to the point of distortion, but he's the kind of artist who you want to see his spin on these characters. And he seems to really enjoy it - whether its Batman leaping through the air or the survivors of the Earth-2 escape shuttle exploring their surroundings, there's a real fluidity and speed to all of his pages.

And that's a good thing, as Daniel H. Wilson's story starts to slowly unspool. As one of the writers of DC's third weekly, Earth 2: Worlds' End, it's easy to have been skeptical, as that series was nigh-near impenetrable for even die-hard readers. But without being tied down to a cohort of co-writers, Wilson's vision is much clearer, much more streamlined, and it makes for a much more enjoyable read. New Batman Dick Grayson acts as our narrator, as Wilson bridges the gap between the exodus at the end of Earth 2 to the dangerous land of New Gotham.

While I don't necessarily buy that the survivors created an entire city in just a year - Rome wasn't built in a day, you know - I also have to accept that as a necessary evil in order to relaunch this world into something a bit more coherent. Right now, Wilson still has a little bit of growing pains left, as he jumps from the present to the past, which can leave new readers scratching their heads a bit. That said, there's also a ton of potential for many of these characters, including Alan Scott's sudden aloofness in the face of nigh-omnipotence, or Terry Sloan being responsible for crimes against humanity.

Ultimately, though, since this book doesn't progress tremendously far in its first issue, the real hook for Earth 2: Society #1 rests on the strength of its artist. This is a book that's really gorgeous, and best of all, it's apparent that Jimenez is only going to go up from here. This is a quirky new take on an alt-world Justice League, but thankfully, Wilson and Jimenez look damn good doing it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Gwen #5
Written by Jason Latour
Art by Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Clayon Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

"Remember, Felicia... steal only what they cannot lock away. Take only what they can't take back--steal their hearts."

Consider it done. If Spider-Gwen is a first-class remix of the Peter Parker mythology, then consider Le Chat Noir - the Black Cat - Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez's hottest new single. There's always been a punk rock style and sassiness to the tangled web of Gwen Stacy, but this book absolutely outdoes itself with yet another smart reimagining of a classic supervillain.

There's a thin, thin line between being stylish and being silly, but Latour and Rodriguez walk that tightrope with panache. With only four pages of exposition, Latour has remade Felicia Hardy into Gwen's worst nightmare - she's not only a French-speaking master cat burglar, but a rock goddess with her own deadly cadre of cat-themed henchman ready to do her bidding. Felicia's dialogue - complete with subtitles - gives Spider-Gwen #5 a loopy but poetic spin.

It's almost enough for readers not to realize that Gwen herself actually is second-banana here, even if Latour makes up for it with some electric dialogue ("Pajama Friday erry damn day, yo!" is my new battle cry). It's perhaps fitting that Felicia actually steals Gwen's comic book right from under her, but that also makes you feel like the action ends just a touch abruptly, since Gwen gets in basically at the end of Felicia and slimy lawyer Matt Murdock's tete-a-tete.

Artwise, Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi continue to impress. Renzi's colors, in many ways, are the engine behind this book's boundless energy, whether its the hot orange flashbacks to Felicia's past, or the cool purples of the night sky. Rodriguez also knows how to play up the mystery behind Gwen's new adversary, never really showing Felicia in full - she's always turned away, or shown just with a smirk, or even having her features masked by her platinum wig. While I don't necessarily buy Felicia's metallic digs once she takes the stage, all in all, this artwork is positively arresting.

Spider-Gwen is the kind of comic that's been so fun for new and veteran readers alike because it captures that alchemy that made Spider-Man so interesting, and gives it a brand-new spin to keep it fresh. And with the all-new Black Cat, this is about as fresh as it gets - this is definitely the best guest star in this series, and that's coming from someone who was going crazy over Spider-Ham's appearance in #2. So don't hesitate to pick up this virtuoso effort, because despite Felicia's felonious actions, to miss this book would be downright criminal.

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