Best Shots Reviews: SECRET WARS: SECRET LOVE #1, JUSTICE LEAGUE #43, STAR WARS #8, POSTAL #6, RUNAWAYS #3

Marvel August 2015 covers
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Secret Wars: Secret Love #1
Written by Michel Fiffe, Felipe Smith, Jeremy Whitley, Marguerite Bennett, and Katie Cook
Art by Michel Fiffe, Felipe Smith, Val Staples, Gurihuru, Kris Anka and Katie Cook
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

One of the opportunities presented by a vast event like Secret Wars is the chance for Marvel to branch out in genre from the traditional superhero fare. This can be seen in titles like Master of Kung Fu and Where Monsters Dwell, but Secret Wars: Secret Love represents one of the larger departures in genre from Marvel’s recent fare, as a bevy of talented writers and artists bring five stories detailing love in Battleworld.

The issue opens with “Guilty Pleasure” by Michel Fiffe. Channeling both the hard edge of Frank Miller as well as some of the classic melodrama of Marvel’s old romance comic books, Fiffe tells the story of Karen Page as she spies on her lover, Daredevil, under the belief that he is having an affair with Typhoid Mary. Fiffe’s artwork, with its muted colors, really evokes a ‘70s-style noir comic, providing a great background for a Daredevil story. This story is the most overtly melodramatic of the issue, and editor Emily Shaw is wise to use this as the opener rather than inserting it in the middle or a closing chapter.

The events in Fiffe’s story also lead nicely into Felipe Smith’s “Fan of a Fan,” which features the cover’s fun love rectangle as Lisa and Bruno, both supporting characters and potential love interests for Ghost Rider/Robbie Reyes and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan, respectively, look on as their crushes seem to fall into each other’s arms. Smith’s art is highly kinetic, and so when the action hits, it’s an entertaining affair. But Smith’s character work is also strong, and his understanding of the personalities of Ghost Rider and Ms. Marvel will leave the fanbases of both characters in a happy spot by story’s end.

The third segment is “Misty and Danny Forever” by writer Jeremy Whitley, and art duo Gurihuru. Gurihuru’s art possesses a manga feel, and the characters pop off the page. Whitley has a tremendous grasp of the dynamics between not only Iron Fist and Misty Knight, but also Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. While these are alternate-universe characters, the issue makes for a good Heroes for Hire tale.

Meanwhile, “Squirrel Girl Wins a Date with Thor” is exactly what it sounds like. Written by Marguerite Bennett with art by Kris Anka, this is the shortest segment in the issue, but Bennett and Anka craft a humorous interlude before the final story, “Happy Ant-iversary.” This finale, brought to life by Katie Cook, makes the most of the Battleworld concept by featuring bug versions of the Avengers as Wasp follows the clues from her teammates to find her husband’s location for a date. In addition to the whimsical artwork and design, Cook adds some hilarious captions that break down the fourth wall, not only to address the story, but to look at what Cook did for research into the story. It’s a great story to close out the issue.

One major omission from Secret Wars: Secret Love is the depiction of anything other than heterosexual love. It’s disappointing that, within the “anything-goes” context of Battleworld, there isn’t a story depicting a same-sex couple. Considering the myriad of fan-art depicting hypothetical relationships between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, as well as Steve Rogers and Bucky, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity on Marvel’s part to not have fun with the pairing possibilities.

This lack of imagination with the partnering goes beyond sexual orientation. While Marvel should be commended on focusing on characters that aren’t necessarily top-tier in terms of popularity, none of these pairings seem particularly adventurous. How fun would it have been to see Black Panther and Namor on a double-date with Namora and Shuri, considering their feud in the main Marvel universe? Or seeing God Doom with his wife, Susan? There were plenty of matchmaking opportunities that Battleworld brought to the table, and it’s unfortunate that readers didn’t get to see more.

Luckily, what readers do get is high quality. With five stories, each with different tones, there’s a lot to digest and readers should be able to find at least one segment that makes Secret Wars: Secret Love worth their while. The quality of the art and writing really gives the issue a lot of energy, and the arrangement of the stories by editor Emily Shaw allows the issue to carry momentum forward. Secret Wars: Secret Love may not be a title for everyone, but for those looking something different from Marvel will, pardon the pun, find a lot to love here.

Justice League #43 preview
Justice League #43 preview
Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #43
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Superman and Lex Luthor - trapped on Apokolips. Batman - possessed by Metron's Mobius Chair. Wonder Woman - forced to lead a battered Justice League against not one, but two of the DC Universe's greatest villains.

This is why readers buy books like Justice League. Even as they are merely setting up this arc's major conflict, Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok know how to keep the stakes big, resulting in a comic book that feels urgent and expansive. With its strong characterization, stellar artwork and larger-than-life villains, Justice League continues to cement its must-read status across the DCU.

In an era where characterization can be flipped with a semi-annual relaunch, writers like Geoff Johns are all the more important for not just books like Justice League, but for the DC Universe as a whole, as he very clearly establishes each Leaguer's personality and voice, and is then able to riff on these characteristics for dramatic effect. Following Grail's one-woman assault on the League last issue, Johns has backed DC's greatest heroes against the wall, and their reactions are particularly interesting to read. Batman, for one, undergoes an unsettling personality shift after taking over the New God Metron's Mobius Chair - Johns realizes that Bruce's intellect is one of his most pronounced qualities, and so by cranking Bruce's knowledge to an extreme, he now comes off as arrogant or even aloof. It's a fun status quo for the Dark Knight, and one that all but promises some major payoff in the issues to come.

But while it's easy for writers to give undue focus to DC's already oversaturated Caped Crusader, Johns' take on several other characters is welcome - particularly Wonder Woman, who has struggled for solid characterization ever since the relaunch of the New 52. Here, Johns seems to really give proper reverence to Diana's place among the classic Greek pantheon, as she leads her weakened warriors headlong into the battle between Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor, likening them to Scylla and Charybdis. "Sometimes whatever you choose, you lose," says the resolute Goddess of War, and as someone who's seen thousands of years of conflict, you can't help but believe her. You can also sense Johns' enthusiasm as he comes back to Superman and Lex Luthor, whose tension has provided a nice undercurrent for the last few arcs of this series. While we've always worried about what Lex's motives were for joining the League, Johns gives readers a nice twist on the Superman-Luthor rivalry that serves as a stellar cliffhanger.

While this story is largely set-up for a bigger payoff later, artist Jason Fabok makes Justice League look so strong and iconic that every issue feels like an event. Darkseid appearing on the battlefield is a big, scary moment in this book, and I love the expressiveness he gives both Wonder Woman and a Tron-esque Batman as they eye each other up. Colorist Brad Anderson keeps Fabok's linework firing at all cylinders, as he lends such a great amount of energy to this war of the worlds, with his use of layered reds and yellows reminding me a lot of Marvel's Frank D'Armata. With this clean linework and widescreen presentation, Fabok has established himself as the benchmark for most other DC artists to emulate.

Admittedly, some readers might cry foul at the continued set-up, particularly since characters like the Flash, Cyborg and Power Ring get so little face time, and others might still find the pages following Darkseid's forces to be a bit impenetrable - and they're not wrong. But ultimately, that's not what the pull of a book like Justice League is about. This is a book that's supposed to showcase DC's best and brightest, teaming up with over-the-top adventures too big for any one of them to face alone. Justice League is a book about the heroes, first and foremost, and it's such a welcome sight to see Johns and company really digging into these powerful, potent archetypes.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Star Wars #8
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger, and Justin Ponsor
Letters by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

You know the old saying “happy wife, happy life”? Well, Sana Solo isn’t happy, which means that Han’s life is about to get that much more difficult.

Thus is the crux of Star Wars #8 main plot, which finds the newly discovered smuggler’s wife threatening to sell Princess Leia to the Empire for the ludicrously high bounty they’ve placed on her head. While Jason Aaron’s script once again neatly balances the banter with swashbuckling action, the real star of #8 are the slick and expressive pencils of new series artist Stuart Immonen, along with inker Wade Von Grawbadger and colorist Justin Ponsor. Star Wars was a fun book before, but now with Immonen, Von Grawbadger, and Ponsor at the artistic helm, it’s about to ascend to a whole new level.

Our story begins on an unnamed planet near the Monsua Nebula, where an Imperial Star Destroyer has tracked our heroes to the planets surface. From the jump, you can tell that Star Wars #8 is a whole different beast when it comes to the artwork. While John Cassiday nailed the lived in look of the Star Wars universe, Stuart Immonen goes full space opera epic, starting this issue off with a gorgeous space vista as the Star Destroyer looms in the planet’s orbit, spilling TIE Bomber squadrons into the planet’s atmosphere.

The art team’s skill doesn’t stop in deep space, as evidenced by the amber tinted showdown between Han, Leia, and Sana on the planet’s surface. Immonen’s trademark expressive style is a perfect fit, as this trio bickers, argues, and stands off against one another. Von Grawbadger’s heavy inks also add a whole other level of dimensionality to Star Wars #8 as the characters and settings are more clearly defined than they ever have been in the series, making this issue look more like the multi-million dollar film franchise that it takes its name from. John Cassaday may have been the big name that started this series off, but the team of Immonen, Von Grawbadger and Ponsor are poised to make Star Wars looks better than ever.

While the tense showdown between Princess Leia and the Solos make up the majority of this issue’s action, Jason Aaron also gives us a more motivated Luke Skywalker than ever before as he struggles to understand the lessons imparted by Obi Wan’s lost journal and takes it upon himself to find a way onto the Jedi, and Imperial homeworld, Coruscant. Of course in order to infiltrate the most dangerous place in the universe, he first has to go to yet another horribly dangerous place in the universe, Nar Shaddaa, the Smuggler’s Moon. Three guesses how this turns out. Aaron has displayed a firm handle on the voices and personalities of much of the Star Wars cast, but his take on Luke is definitely one of the strongest and most interesting of the bunch.

While the movies only gave us hints at the headstrong young padawan, Star Wars #8 shows us first hand just how far Luke is willing to go to embrace his destiny as a Jedi Knight. He willingly and confidently strolls into yet another hive of scum and villainy in order to get to his destination – yet since he’s not quite the hero of Return of the Jedi, Luke has to scramble as everything goes predictably pear-shaped, igniting his lightsaber and standing like a true hero in the middle of a swarm of hardened criminals. Luke Skywalker was just a farmboy in the movies, but Star Wars #8 shows that the boy is all but forgotten and in his place in a hero poised to fully embrace his birthright, even though he may not go about it in the smartest way.

Star Wars #8, though just the latest issue in the new Marvel Star Wars canon, feels like an entirely new comic book. Jason Aaron’s script once again flips our expectations of what a Star Wars story can be while still employing numerous tonal touchstones to the original series, while the new art team delivers page after page of gorgeous, expressive, and kinetic panels. Star Wars was a good book to begin with, but now it feels on the cusp of being a great book with a solidly consistent writer handling the plots and a dynamic art team delivering blockbuster visuals.

Credit: Image Comics / Top Cow

Postal #6
Written by Bryan Hill and Matt Hawkins
Art by Isaac Goodhart and Betsy Gonia
Lettering by Troy Peteri
Published by Image Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Postal began with the genuinely intriguing concept of a mystery in a small town with the chief investigator being Mark, a postal worker with Asperger's syndrome. Presented with a problem he simply could not let go, we saw the world through Mark’s eyes, not only giving us a completely fresh perspective, but bringing us a little closer to understanding the emotional intelligence of people on the autism spectrum. As the book moves away from that initial story, some of this book’s biggest strength gets lost in the mix.

Much of this issue focuses on Mark’s mother, Laura. In the early issues, she was portrayed alternative as heartless, and then ruthless, when it came to matters concerning her son. With her estranged and terrifying husband seemingly returning, this issue aims to give us a more sympathetic view of the character, holding her small town together while she attempts to figure out a massive problem of her own.

The second arc of Postal has not been as compelling as the first, and this deviates from the setup so much as to almost be a different book. On the one hand, writers Hill and Hawkins are to be praised for not getting stuck in a one-track rut. By the same token, much of this issue removes Mark, save for a handful of code-breaking scenes, and these feel perfunctory at best. The story had some intriguing moments, including the revelation of scenes from Laura’s past that still haunt her, but in shifting the focus - and indeed the narrative - entirely onto her, the book has lost at least some of its uniqueness in the telling.

The art of Postal has never been super flashy, and Isaac Goodhart’s designs are simple but effective. It’s an issue of juxtapositions, between a young Laura and her life now. Between the suicidal Emily, scarred physically and emotionally, and the brief glimpses we see of her in her youth. Aided by color artist Betsy Gonia, there is a distinct line between past and present, with the former being a murky blueish-green, punctuated by a splash of red blood, with the present feeling even more cold and distant.

Much of this issue is a build-up to something that never pays off, and there is a confrontation still brewing. While Hill and Hawkins do a good job of maintaining that tension for much of this issue, the immediate payoff seems a little bit of a cop-out. Perhaps it is simply because the first half of this series to date has been so superb that deviations feel poor in comparison, but Postal is still at its heart a book with a unique view, and works best when that view is allowed to take center stage.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Runaways #3
Written by Noelle Stevenson
Art by Sanford Greene and John Rauch
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Kelly Richards
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

With the genre-bending patchwork world of Secret Wars, the fan-favorite Runaways has leaned into its alt-universe setting, with Noelle Stevenson and Sanford Greene delivering what could be described a dystopian high school alternate universe fan fiction – and that’s not a bad thing. Secret Wars, like fan fiction, has given writers and artists the opportunity to conduct nuanced investigations of characters and their motivations without the constraints of canon, and as such Runaways is a smart and well-written dystopian adventure that will thrill fans of the genre.

By dropping reader’s straight back into the action Runaways #3 has, without a doubt, the most actual running away of the series yet. Travelling between domains, Jubilee and her band of runaways search for safe haven far away from what awaits their return to the Victor Von Doom Institute for Gifted Youths. With Runaways, writer Noelle Stevenson has taken an interesting approach to dystopias that allows for the discussion and deconstruction of how Battleworld’s “educational” systems are created and maintained. This issue gives readers further insights into how the Doom Institute’s students are selected and eventually made complicit in wrongdoing, often being forced to remain in a corrupt system thanks to an unholy combination of indoctrination, manipulation or guilt. The Runaways, however, stand as an exception to Doom’s brainwashing, and while their chances of escape are becoming increasingly unlikely, they still exist as a symbol of hope and redemption.

Stevenson’s character choices and characterization thereof has allowed her to use the relationships that existed pre-Secret Wars to drive the story’s exposition. The characters are not explaining things to the reader, but instead explaining them to each other. Stevenson’s use of dialogue is effective in delivering information as well as creating a clear and distinct voice for each character, a voice that is ably brought to life by artist Sanford Greene. Doom’s daughter Valeria, for example, may coldly order the Runaways’ deaths, but it’s increasingly disturbing when Greene has her hanging over the back of her chair or opening her mouth wide to show Bucky where she has lost a tooth. Valeria may be a key member of Doom’s frightening apparatus, but Stevenson and Greene also remind us that she’s still a child. Valeria’s demeanor paired with her changing tone of voice allows the scene to run in a manner that is unpredictable but still feels organic to the character.

Greene’s artwork is fun and kinetic as the loose sketchy lines give every panel a sense of motion. His use of facial expressions are wonderful, especially those found on the hyperactive Molly Hayes, as she instigates a bar fight before being dragged away by the gamma-powered Skaar. While there is a little irregularity between panels, it does not detract from the story but rather gives the book something of an impertinent edge that is in keeping with the characters personalities. With colors from John Rauch, Runaways takes on a further depth with the creation of a unique palette of colours and textures to suit each of the domains readers will encounter throughout the third issue of Runaways .

Runaways is a fascinating story that features an equally intriguing cast and delivers on multiple levels. With the help of an excellent creative team, Stevenson is rebuilding these characters from the ground up without betraying either their history or their fan bases by pitting them against each other in worlds they would otherwise have never encountered.

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