Best Shots Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE #43, HOWARD THE HUMAN #1, SUPERMAN/WONDER WOMAN #20, More

Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #4
Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #4
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Howard the Human #1
Written by Skottie Young
Art by Jim Mahfood and Justin Stewart
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It's a jungle out there, and who better to navigate the urban zoo that makes up this unique corner of Battleworld than Howard... The Human?! Jim Mahfood's graffiti-influenced artwork runs headfirst into Skottie Young's scripted slice of 1970's exploitation in yet another high-concept Secret Wars tie-in. Yet, under a tight script and stylish artwork, Howard the Human #1 is a reinvention with one fatal flaw.

In human form, Howard's Donald Duck-style fire has been tempered. Mahfood's Howard is calm, collected and ice-cool under pressure; even if he retains the duck's knack for the insult. And therein lies the problem: the entire concept of Howard the Duck hinges on Howard's Acme-esque responses to a realistic world. In Young and Mahfood's Howard the Human, both animal and human play to noir archetypes; there's no culture clash here. Whilst the original intention may have been for Howard to appear more subdued against his animalistic accomplices and foes, that difference isn’t present in an extreme enough form to justify toning down Howard’s most defining characteristic.

Despite the lack of commitment to the anthropomorphic animal kingdom, there's some fun reinventions here. Character-wise, Black Cat survives the transition to animal-hood pretty much unscathed, whereas Curt Conner's appearance as a surly bartender seems to have been added in simply because he's... y'know, a lizard. Matt Murdoch the blind mouse is an issue highlight in Young’s tightly plotted little crime story, filled with back-alley informants and blood-thirsty heavies. Yes, Young's script hits all the trashy hallmarks of that sordid sector of '70s cinema. It’s ninjas and afros ahoy, not to mention a color palette that seems ripped right out of Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat movie. On the script side of things, Howard the Human #1 is a fully-formed and perfectly satisfying one-and-done tale.

Mahfood's design-work is on point here. His 'fro and 'tache combo for human Howard not only evokes his traditional beaked form, but also harkens back to the '70s ideal of cool. His “Mouse Murdoch” brings to mind Master Splinter by way of the three blind mice, frail in the office but impossibly agile in combat.

Colorist Justin Stewart paints Mahfood's vertically built city in purple and blue, daubing Howard’s head with a baby chick-like shock of bright yellow hair. When shadowy conversation turns to violence, Mahfood's pencil breaks free of the confines of the straight line; his characters' silhouettes gesticulating wildly against the night sky. At his best, Jim Mahfood feels like a radical underground 'zine artist suddenly thrown into the Marvel Bullpen. Clearly aware of Mahfood’s enthusiasm for action, Young’s script switches into widescreen mode for an especially impressive double-page splash, featuring solid red ninja monkeys (Stewart's clearly a Barrel of Monkeys fan!). As the icing on the visual cake, Young and Mahfood aren't afraid of inventive onomatopoeia (Does the sound of escrima sticks cracking a monkey's head sound like “SALSA!”? This reviewer certainly hopes so.)

Howard The Human #1 is a stylish and witty book, but there's just no denying that the main draw of the character has been eradicated by its concept. Despite these misgivings, Mahfood and Stewart’s wild, energetic artwork work with Young’s tightly plotted script to make this a book worth a glance. Still, there’s a reason he's supposed to be a duck.

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #43
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson
Letters by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

What do you get for the Batman who has everything? A Mobius Chair and a one way trip into omnipotence, of course! Justice League #43 finally gets to the actual war part of the "Darkseid War" and for the most part it is pretty thrilling stuff. Geoff Johns, a writer who made his name on bombast, keeps the plates of this arc spinning admirably, but there's still a little too much to keep track of. While the League and the newly Mobius’d Batman form a battle plan, Superman and Luthor fight the hordes of Apokolips to stay alive and get back to Earth, Kanto and Lashina hunt down Mister Miracle, and Grail and the Anti-Monitor attempt summon Darkseid himself to get the merry old war started. If this sounds like a lot, it really is and even though it is all rendered beautifully by Jason Fabok and colorist Brad Anderson, you can’t help but feel that some fat needs to be trimmed.

First things first, Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson are absolute beasts. Justice League #43 is yet another blockbuster-looking issue from Fabok and Anderson who both have breathed new life into the title with chiseled chins and darkly evocative color choices. While the character designs are still very much on point and the blocking of the action scenes are tense and easy to follow, Fabok does this issue one better by employing the Boom Tube sound effects in a few neat ways. For example, every time someone goes through a Boom Tube the entire panel is framed within the big block letters of a "BOOM." Justice League #43 may have an overabundance of characters to track, but its visuals are sharp and thrilling thanks to a fantastic art team.

Visually, Justice League #43 is a treat, but the script could use a slight paring down. The dynamic between Superman and Luthor that Geoff Johns has employed throughout his run is wonderful and throwing them into the most dangerous place in the universe has just made it all the more interesting. Johns also displays a firm handle on the interplay between the League and their New Gods allies as the battle draws near, with Wonder Woman contextualizing it as the DC version of Odysseus’ impossible choice at the Strait of Messina. Unfortunately, the thread of Kanto and Lashina hunting Mister Miracle still feels just like page filler, as they are always one step behind Miracle and not really adding anything of value to the plot. It's just too bad that the rest of the denizens of Apokolips don’t add much more than weird names and a middling narrative thread.

Justice League #43 is a good comic book, but it could be a great one. Surely at some point the hunt for Mister Miracle will yield something great in the home stretch of the "Darkseid War," but as of now, its just distracting from the real meat of the plot. Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson have great issues in them and have delivered them before, but they can’t all be rock solid. Justice League #43 is solid enough but it could be more if it was just a bit more focused on the plots that are continually interesting. At least now we have a explosive start to the "Darkseid War" and the only thing left to do now is see who makes it out the other side once the dust settles.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #4
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Adam Kubert, Scott Hanna and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

On the whole, Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows has been a fun little throwback to what some might consider a better status quo for Peter Parker and Mary Jane. #4 sees the miniseries start to show its Secret Wars roots a little bit more. Dan Slott uses the issue to dole out some necessary exposition to slow the series down before revving up for a big finale which could be a masterstroke for the series. Adam Kubert’s works suffers a bit here, however, and I can’t help but feel that the loss of inker John Dell on the title is the reason.

Supervillain plots are as old as time itself. They usually consist of someone wanting to rule everything, kill everyone or some combination of the two. The Regent has been about as cookie-cutter as they come, but the biggest difference was that it seemed like he was actually winning and growing stronger as a result. Slott digs into his motivations in this issue, and they’re interesting. Stealing the powers of every hero and villain is expected, but stealing them to fight God Doom is something else entirely. By giving the Regent a mission and one that the heroes that are left wouldn’t necessarily disagree with puts them in an awkward spot. Defeat the Regent and no one else dies, but Doom rules all. Submit to the Regent and Doom might be defeated. But how is the Regent’s rule really any different than Doom’s? It’s a classic conundrum, and one that a clever writer like Slott is surely equipped to handle.

The most fun in the issue comes from Peter and Mary Jane’s daughter, Annie. Slott’s characterization is what makes her so compelling, and he plays Annie well against MJ. Annie’s definitely got Peter’s conscience, and it’s more than a little sad that we might not see more of her after this miniseries. She gets to meet the Power Pack kids in this issue, makes a costume and defeats the Sinister Six practically on her own. Spider-Man has never really been a legacy character but an adult Peter Parker mentoring a 8-year-old Spider-Girl sounds like a concept that I think most Spider-fans could get behind.

The art suffers in this issue, though. Don’t get me wrong, Adam Kubert is an immense talent who rarely missteps, but the quality of pages in this issue are wildly inconsistent. While his character renderings are generally very strong in the action scenes, Kubert loses them in smaller sequences. Body proportions frequently fly out the window to force an angle in a panel rather than come across naturally and any panel that’s zoomed out more than a close-up (medium and wide angle shots), completely loses any clarity of facial expression. Where John Dell’s inking in the previous issues (and even as part of a team of inkers in #3) served to sharpen Kubert’s work, Scott Hanna seems content to trace Kubert’s scratchy lines rather than give them clear definition and it hurts the work. Justin Ponsor’s colors continue to be a good complement for this title and he’s quietly become one of the best colorists working today.

Renew Your Vows is a solid book, though. The concept is strong, the Secret Wars tie-in is enough to pique interest but not overwhelm the book, and the return to this family dynamic for Peter and MJ is really refreshing. Slott lets us all take a breath here while also giving Annie May Parker a chance to show us what she’s made of. The art team’s work as whole may not be the best that it’s been but they have an issue to pick up the slack. Overall, this is a well-balanced issue that readers who have been sticking with the series will enjoy.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman/Wonder Woman #20
Written by Peter Tomasi
Art by Doug Mahnke, Jaime Mendoa, Sean Parsons and Wil Quintana
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Hearkening back to the days of "the Death and Return of Superman," Clark Kent's adventures have seemingly been at their best when they've resulted in seismic, linewide shifts, and the recent "Truth" arc has been the latest example. While Greg Pak has spearheaded Clark Kent's newer, more street-level modus operandi over in Action Comics, Peter Tomasi takes a more global view on the outed Man of Steel in Superman/Wonder Woman, a contemplative read with one major misstep.

What Tomasi excels at here is thinking about the greater ripple effect from Clark Kent being outed to the world - namely, what might an interested government do to his friends and family? With Superman's entire supporting cast in a black site prison, Clark winds up having a face-to-face with A.R.G.U.S. Commander Steve Trevor. Tomasi hearkens back to a similar tone as DC's initial relaunch with Action Comics - it's not just Superman's powers that make people wary, but the fact that there's so little people know about him. Even something as seemingly personal as a secret identity suddenly causes plenty of alarms to go off, because if Superman can lie to the public, what can the rest of the Justice League be hiding?

Yet for my money, my favorite bit about this book has to be checking in with Superman's supporting cast. Greg Pak has touched upon this a bit in his books, but here, Peter Tomasi really demonstrates his grasp of characters like Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang and Perry White. While we automatically assume these people would be friendly to Clark, no matter what his secrets, Tomasi actually shows why that thinking doesn't make any sense. Superman as a concept might be about truth, justice and the American Way, but so many of his relationships were built on a foundation of lies and omissions. While it's obvious why Jimmy Olsen might stand up for his friend - after all, Jimmy was the first person Clark told - why wouldn't Perry White feel betrayed, knowing his star reporter made a mockery of his own newspaper? Why wouldn't Lana Lang feel disappointed that the world's greatest superhero couldn't save her parents? It's a great sequence, and one that gives Wonder Woman something to do as one of DC's greatest arbiters of truth.

For a book that's fairly light on the action, artist Doug Mahnke really milks the drama in this book, with so many pensive stares and subtle expressions. With Tomasi's script cutting back and forth between Superman in the White House and Wonder Woman breaking out Clark's friends and family, Mahnke does a great job at tying everything together - especially with one page where Superman and Wonder Woman are standing in almost exactly the same pose. Mahnke's character designs also look superb, as he gives a ton of personality to the fiesty Lois Lane, the scrawny Jimmy Olsen and the metallic, almost otherworldly John Henry Irons. For the most part, colorist Wil Quintana does a nice job alternating between the light of the White House and the darkness of the government prison, but sometimes his fine detail work could use some tweaking, like how unnaturally bright orange Jimmy Olsen's hair is, or the computerized gradient he uses for the White House lawn.

What might hold back Superman/Wonder Woman #20, however, might just be a result of the initial high concept - namely, that Superman is looking for a conversation with the Commander-in-Chief himself, President Barack Obama. Quick cameos from real-life presidents have long been a thing in comics, whether it was Bill Clinton appearing in "Reign of the Supermen" or George Bush showing up in Ultimates - it's a quick, cutesy way of showing these superheroic universes could be the world outside your window. But to have an extended, almost beatific sequence featuring Obama being the only calm presence in the White House feels like some weird pandering that comes about eight years too late. Not only that, but it immediately undercuts all the tension that this issue had been building up - if President Obama and Superman are both so obviously on the same side, what possible government repercussions could happen to this very vulnerable Man of Steel? It ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity.

Between a weird extended cameo and the fact that the title characters feel oddly separated, Superman/Wonder Woman #20 still proves that Clark Kent's new status quo is one that is rife with storytelling potential. Seeing Clark and his supporting cast in such a raw, emotional position gives us a lot to relate to, and while his execution is occasionally flawed, it's nice to see Tomasi giving some thought to the global ramifications behind Superman's unmasking. As far as interludes go, this one's a strong one.

Credit: Marvel Comics

House of M #1
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Art by Marco Failla and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

It's been said that winning a revolution is easy, ruling a nation is hard. No one knows and feels that expression greater than King Magnus. Once villain to Charles Xavier and his children of the atom, he is now master of all he surveys within his slice of Battleworld. As writer Dennis Hopeless states eloquently, if slightly cliched, through Magnus - the warrior is dead. Long live the king. While the concept of the bored and tired king would make for an interesting exploration within House of M #1, it is certainly not the focus, and the book is a better read for it. As the title suggests, this debut issue is an even greater look into the near human free future, in which Magneto has achieved everything his heart desired. Or so he once believed. As is the case in all victories through combat, the passion within is only slowed, never satiated, as this calm king hides his desire to again take himself, and his people, into glorious combat.

And therein lies the core concern with this comic book. The stakes don't feel real, or at least they lack the potential of a lasting impact upon the Marvel Universe. We've already seen House of M have a massive influence on the setting at large. This time around, it feels like we're reading an addendum. A What If to a What If, as it were. Granted, this is only the first issue, and perhaps Hopeless has a few surprises up his sleeve, but as it stands, most of the story elements in the comic are blatant and obvious. That's not saying some moments are not enjoyable. Hopeless has a good voice when it comes to a tired Magnus, and Wanda as the burned out mother trying to reign in her rebellious children is interesting, if slightly stereotypical. While those moments don't quite hit spoiled “celebriteen” status, they comes close.

Visually, there is some real potential with artist Marco Failla. There is a strong kinetic style to his line art. With heavy angles playing into the features of both character and setting, his art suggests a very binary world. A world were right and wrong are very clearly defined, yet the people that define those rules are not righteous themselves. And while that's a bold statement to make about the art, it's not without its flaws. As stated, Failla has potential, but his style still isn't quite hitting the mark. Which is a real shame, because there are some panel designs and layouts that simply want to leap of the page, yet fall slightly flat. The primary example being the major battle between Magnus' enforcement team and Luke Cage's weary resistance fighters. The moment should be filled with action and high-stakes tension. Frustratingly, the very thing that makes Failla's art interesting in design then fails him here. Everything is static, almost motionless. Still, there is something to the art, and given time and more work, Marco Failla is an artist that is going to shine.

Matt Wilson's colors are functional in telling the story, but does little to truly add to the line art. But, nor does it take anything away, though there are times when some of the backgrounds get washed out with the forward characters. It's a style that would work with less aggressive line work, but within this book, misses the mark. Which seems to be the theme throughout this entire issue. There is nothing truly bad about the title, but nor is there anything that lets it stand out. Especially within an already crowded Battleworld setting where we really have seen some high stakes. Perhaps as the series progresses to it's suggested conflict we'll see something special. As it stands, this house has some shaky foundations.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Power Up #2
Written by Kate Leth
Art by Matt Cummings
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Kate Leth and Matt Cummings keep things light in the second installment of their six-issue BOOM! Box miniseries, giving us a strong follow-up to a charming debut issue. Even if “super cute heroes” generally isn’t your comic genre of choice, there’s something for everyone in Power Up #2. You may not have the cute penguin hoodie pajamas Amie sports in the opening pages, but no matter your pajama preferences, the judgy Netflix screen that admonishes her for her eight-hour binge will definitely feel familiar to you.

And honestly, if you were attacked by a monster at your workplace, you’d probably do the same thing, judgy Netflix screens be darned. As a genre, superhero media in general sometimes feel as if they’re trapped in a neverending cycle of surprisingly similar origin stories (see: the perpetual youth of live-action Peter Parker). But scenes like Amie’s horror movie binge are what make Power Up feel fresh and new - this is a light-hearted take on a legitimately unconventional team of heroes, in whom any reader could see some reflection of themselves.

And after Amie finds herself in the middle of yet another surprise monster attack, we finally get the opportunity to see the entire team in one place. There’s Kevin, a construction worker we saw briefly in issue one who wears both a very impressive beard and a very traditional magical girl costume with confidence. Sandy is a good-natured mother of two whose first run-in with Amie led to her developing super strength and flight after the first attack. And, of course, Silas the goldfish, to whom Kevin gives the first superhero moniker of the series: “tiny laser whale.”

It’s probably Kevin who makes the biggest impression in Power Up #2, with a skirt and a big pink bow that would look right at home in a season of Pretty Cure. But to Leth and Cummings’ credit, Kevin’s superhero armor isn’t played off as a joke or a cruel gag, as some series tend to do when a stereotypical “superguy” gets stuck in all the costumed trappings of womanhood.

Amie is immediately smitten, and Sandy is nonplussed - as a parent of two very untraditional kids probably would be. He’s the only one with an “official” costume, but he doesn’t mind. It’s a testament to both Leth and Cummings’ skill that the story introduces Kevin in such a matter of fact way, and that the way Cummings illustrates him in common magical girl fight poses seems like a playful nod to the genre at large rather than a jab at his costume. Cummings’ art overall is stellar, and the perfect fit for Leth’s punny, playful writing. The bright colors never feel overwhelming or obnoxious, and his sometimes simple faces are still surprisingly expressive. Leth and Cummings are definitely a dream team for BOOM!

Introducing the rest of the team and their abilities also helps Power Up #2 improve on the minor pacing problems of the first issue. Last month felt too short, and lacking details in a way that made giving this story arc a satisfying conclusion in just six issues a stretch. This month, the monsters reveal bits and pieces of their mission and our heroes finally have a clear purpose (even if they don’t fully understand what it is). There’s still plenty of mysteries about these four left to solve. Aafter Power Up #2, it feels like we may actually get to solve them all, and Leth and Cummings’ work is a sure guarantee we’ll have tons of fun doing it.

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