Best Shots Reviews: JLA #3, E IS FOR EXTINCTION #3, SUPERMAN #43, CIVIL WAR #3, NINJAK #6

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

Justice League of America #3
Written by Bryan Hitch
Art by Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

If you’ve been worried about the pacing of Justice League of America, Bryan Hitch puts those pangs of anguish to bed immediately in this third outing with the JLA. Opening on nothing less than an epic widescreen shot of the Flash and Green Lantern being pummeled by an ancient legion, it only picks up pace from there, dealing with time travel, departed gods, and a returned savior. And that’s just the first 10 pages.

If the strength of the Justice League is in their unity, Hitch has spent this issue and the last surgically keeping them apart. Green Lantern is seemingly on ancient Krypton, the Flash has been thrown back to the 1960s, and Wonder Woman is in the dead realm of the gods. Back on Earth, another figure has seemingly taken their place, promising the kind of utopia that the League can only dream of providing. Or in the case of the cynical Batman’s arc, the kind of utopia that can never be trusted. The series began with a fully functional team working at the height of their powers. So in breaking up the team in this manner, Hitch manages to get to the fundamentals of what makes each member tick.

Before Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ classic Green Lantern/Green Arrow “Hard Traveling Heroes” run, comics saw the obvious problems with dealing with the problems of the real world. If superheroes could actually end poverty or war, then why wouldn’t they do that? The answer was pretty straightforward: because then the story would be over. Social issues remain a part of comics to this day, but more often than not they are dealing with narratives analogous with our own. Yet Hitch goes straight into that territory with the character of Rao, a god-like entity who is literally healing the sick and reinvigorating impoverished nations. Superman embraces it, while Batman remains cautious. After all, Bruce’s modus operandi is to prepare for the day that beings like Superman realize that they are gods - and he spent last month’s issue in a theological debate with Alfred. More fundamentally, Hitch is showing us what the world would look like if the League only existed to solve the world’s problems, and it may not be the ideal that it appears to be on the surface.

The deep and meaningful aside, Hitch knows how to serve up a cracker of action comic boo as well. It would be very hard to top the aforementioned opening shot, were it not for Lantern ground-pounding the alien legion a few pages later. As Wonder Woman explores a decaying Olympus, it’s as if Hitch has stumbled onto to a set of floating space ruins in his dreamscapes and just transcribed them onto paper. Color artist Alex Sinclair also gets a few magnificent moments, not just on the lighting around Rao, but in a magnificent wide shot of an African vista, presumably Victoria Falls.

Picking up on themes explored recently in Geoff Johns’ "Men of Tomorrow" arc in Superman (not to mention J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One and the Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice notes it inspired), Hitch couches his ponderings in some heavy-hitting action as well. Operating three concurrent storylines that all promise to intersect at some point, Hitch has not let us down in thus run so far, and shows no signs of doing it any time soon.

Credit: Marvel Comics

E is For Extinction #3
Written by Chris Burnham and Dennis Culver
Art by Ramon Villalobos and Ian Herring
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

X-books come in all shapes and sizes. They can either be thoughtful allegories for race relations, thrilling superhero yarns, or balls-to-the wall crazy expressions of artistic intent. E is For Extinction #3 is most certainly the latter, which in turn makes it one of Secret Wars' most interesting ongoing tie-ins. The X-Men and the students of the Atom Institute are facing down an army of Beasts from across the multiverse for the most powerful prize on Doom’s green Earth: a Phoenix Egg. Writers Chris Burnham and Dennis Culver throw a lot all the wall and much of it sticks, but this entry into the Battleworld canon wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting without artist Ramon Villalobos and colorist Ian Herring rendering the oddball script with properly insane panels and character design. If you like your X-books with an extra dash of lunacy and creative vigor, then E is For Extinction #3 is the book for you.

After last month’s explosive cliffhanger, the newly un-retired X-Men are now squaring off against an Sublime-infected army of Hank McCoys in order to gain possession of Magneto’s secret weapon, a soon-to-be-hatched Phoenix Egg. While that might sound like E is For Extinction is sacrificing characterization for the sake of sheer spectacle, writers Burnham and Culver stuff this issue-long fight scene full of character moments and opportunities for the art team to cut loose.

As this titanic tussle for the fate of mutantkind rages, Burnham and Culver exhibit a firm handle on the huge personalities at play during the fight and even give us a few interesting inversions on regular X-Men tropes. E is For Extinction #3 isn’t nearly as cheeky or quippy as the previous entries, but what it lacks in humor it makes up for in screwy action beats, like a brand new fastball special starring the 'ol Canucklehead and Glob and the mysterious No-Girl leading Angel and Beak’s kids into the fray with baseball bats swinging furiously. These little moments, as well as Burnham and Culver’s innate understanding of the X-Men as a field team, make this large scale battle feel more personal than ever.

While Chris Burnham and Dennis Culver make the large scale struggle for the future of mutants feel more intimate than ever, Ramon Villalobos and colorist Ian Herring do the script one better by rendering this issue in sketchy, bright colored pencils with a hefty dose of psychedelia on top. Villalobos has been E is For Extinction’s main selling point since the beginning, and even though this issue will seem to longtime fans his most tame book in a long while, he still gives this third entry an indie edge that puts it a leg up above other Secret Wars tie-ins. While Villalobos’ character design and interesting style is still alive and while here, its the actual formatting and composition of the panels that take a hit in #3. While the first and second issues were filled with innovative and interesting panel layouts, much of this third issue is rendered in medium- to long-shot panels that keep the action clearly defined, but sacrifices much of the wild energy of the first two issues. E is For Extinction still doesn’t look like anything else on the shelves, but this drop in layout creativity is a letdown even amid the striking costumes and clear action beats.

Juggling the large cast along with the many variants of Hank McCoy, Villalobos keeps the blocking for each panel of the battle as dynamic as possible, giving each character their time in the spotlight. Of course, it is Emma Frost and her Cuckoos that steal much of this issue’s limelight with a gorgeously insane splash page inspired by Indian iconography. As Frost and Cuckoos meld their minds together for a powerful psychic attack, Villalobos builds a beautiful splash around the characters, with Frost’s head anchored in the center around the Cuckoos all with their third eyes wide open. Not to be left in the cold, colorist Ian Herring more than proves himself up to the challenge of coloring Villalobos’ nutty panels with muted, yet striking yellows, pinks, teals and grays keeping in lock step with the grounded yet crazy visual style of this unabashedly strange tie-in.

While mutants are being hunted and ostracized in other Secret Wars X tie-ins, they are letting their freak flags fly high and proudly in E is For Extinction #3. While Secret Wars rages and raves, its tie-ins have given creators free reign to pretty much do whatever they please with the characters that live in the outlands. E is For Extinction may very well be one of the purest examples of that free reign. Writers Chris Burnham and Dennis Culver along with artists Ramon Villalobos and Ian Herring took one of the X-Men’s most iconic eras and spun into into something wholly new yet recognizable and entertaining, all while never compromising their strange and singular artistic vision. X-books don’t all have to be gloom and doom - they are at their best when they are all-new and all-different, and E is For Extinction #3 is about as different as it gets.

Superman #43
Superman #43
Credit: DC Comics

Superman #43
Written by Gene Luen Yang
Art by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, Scott Hanna, Dean White, Leonardo Olea and Blond
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

This was supposed to be a home run. Gene Luen Yang doing a Superman book with John Romita, Jr. is the kind of thing that you rush to the comic book store to buy, but this arc has been a mess. As I mentioned in my last review, we’ve known the outcome of this arc for a while, and that removes a lot of the intrigue. But superhero comics are fairly formulaic. We always have a pretty good idea that the hero is going to win. It’s on the writer to show us how and to make that process interesting. Yang tries to modernize the outing of a superhero’s identity, but in the process, he fails to say anything about the character. Why is his identity so important? What makes now the right time to divorce the supporting cast from the idea that Clark Kent and Superman are two different people? What is gained?

Arguably, we’ve seen what could be gained - unfortunately, we’ve just seen it in an entirely different book with an entirely different creative team that has been able to write a serviceable Superman story with some gravitas without having to navigate the treacherous waters that Yang is drowning in. Superman #43 sees Yang really trying every trick in the book to distract us from the fact that this has been a dull arc devoid of any larger meaning or emotion. There’s some humor. There are tender moments between Lois and Clark. The new villain proves that he’ll stop at nothing to harass our hero. But it’s empty. I am by no means saying that every superhero comic book has an obligation to be anything more than musclebound gods punching each other, but it would be nice for a flagship book like Superman to stretch a little further than that. And it would show that DC has a commitment to creating a more nuanced world of story than the one the post-Convergence status quo has left us with. Give the readers some credit. We don’t need much, but we do need something of some substance to get excited about.

And even more so, I’m baffled by Yang’s plotting. He seems to have included hostages and Lois’ relationship with Clark in the issue in an effort to drum up some stakes, but there’s little indication of how important this situation is. Instead, Lois acts impulsively and essentially ruins Clark’s life. How are we supposed to read into that decision by the creative team? Is this meant to further the divide between two characters who have traditionally been romantically linked? If so, it’s an awkward and unearned way to do it. It feels more like the result of a wrongheaded editorial edict than a meaningful bit of story evolution.

The art team doesn’t help. John Romita Jr.’s art has taken a step back the more and more the plot has meandered into nonsensical territory. A legend is being squandered because he’s been tasked with drawing the same thing over and over again. And it’s hard not to read into the additional help that the art team has needed to employ. Scott Hanna was added on inks, and two additional colorists join Dean White. I think the colorists do a better job of mirroring White’s style, but Hanna adds an inconsistency to the inking that hurts the book. Without stakes and solid pacing, Romita’s lines wander. The details are less sharp. The medium shots lose some of their clarity. A lackluster John Romita Jr. comic book in 2015 is still better than most artists on their best days, but the art here is as stale as the story it’s trying to tell.

With the release schedule the way it is, this creative team seems like they were doomed to fail. And that’s a shame. But this title has burned through any goodwill it might have had. That’s something that DC should take note of - you can only add a new creative team or relaunch a book or introduce a new status quo via a poorly executed event so many times before readers are going to start to feel like they’re being fleeced. I’d love to write about how good Superman is. I really would. But DC hasn’t given me a reason to, and they don’t seem all that concerned with trying to.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Civil War #3
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Pubilished by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Who'd have thought that the best thing about Civil War would be ditching its two main characters?

The war between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark has been a slow-building one in this Secret Wars tie-in book, but Charles Soule and Leinil Francis Yu remind us that wars are won on the battlefield, not in the barracks. By expanding their scope to other members of the Marvel Universe, Civil War continues to gain some solid momentum.

While the original Civil War focused ad nauseum on the feud between Captain America and Iron Man, with this issue, Charles Soule spends more time focusing on their main generals - namely, Spider-Man and She-Hulk. And what a difference that makes. This book has a much fresher tone when we see these two characters - each being defined by a very powerful set of morals, whether its Peter's inflexible "power and responsibility" mantra or Jennifer's nimbleness as one of Marvel's premier trial attorneys - as they each delve deep into enemy lines.

By jumping between Spider-Man losing soldiers against the Iron Legion or She-Hulk discovering a third party in the mix, Soule is able to have his cake and eat it, too - he's able to draw some striking action, as the mysterious new Venom lands one hell of a knockout blow to a twisted recruit of Iron Man's, and Soule is particularly incisive as Peter realizes how numbed he is to the cycle of violence he's engaged in for years. My favorite moment in the book, however, might be seeing Soule really reunite with She-Hulk, as she goes head-to-head with a surprising member of the Punishers. "Just give yourself up before you get hurt," the Punisher says. "Hurt? Brother, I'm the She-Hulk," Jennifer snipes back, as she punches him the length of a city block. "It's the other guys who get hurt."

Perhaps this is just my surging enthusiasm talking, but this is also Leinil Francis Yu's best issue yet. Gerry Alanguilan's inking is as lush and controlled as I've ever seen it, and that allows Yu to draw some beautiful cityscapes while still showing off some great character designs, such as Jennifer Walters in her human form or the unsettling visage of a foe known only as "King Ock." (Venom's body language is also superb, giving away exactly who is underneath that symbiote even before Peter names him.)

Comic books, in many ways, are always fighting a battle of attrition. They go for broke with their first issue, and then are constantly fighting to maintain both their sales numbers and their level of quality. Civil War, however, turns that script on its ear, as it's consistently improved issue after issue. If Soule and Yu can keep this upward trend going, I foresee a spectacular payoff for this clash of the titans.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Ninjak #6
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Raul Allen, Stephen Segovia, Patricia Martin, Borja Pindado and Ulises Arreola
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's amazing how a new artist can alter a book's tone. The gleaming golden gods of Clay Mann's world make way for a more subdued and atmospheric approach as new artist Raul Allen makes his mark on Matt Kindt's Ninjak. One memorable new villain later, and it's clear that Ninjak will continue to be a high-quality title, even if its strength now lies in a different place under Allen's pen.

After assuming full control of the anonymous arms dealership known only as Weaponeer, Colin King (codename: Ninjak) hides in plain sight to disrupt their operations. After setting his sights on the reclusive billionaire la Barbe, Ninjak heads to the south of France to take him out...

Matt Kindt continues to follow the blueprint he set six issues ago, splicing Ninjak's current operation with snippets of his grave childhood, but he has also altered the pace of his script to accommodate Allen's style. Gone are Mann's wide and cinematic diagonally spliced two- or three-panel pages, replaced with a more traditional six-panel grid that opens out to two panels or so during action sequences.

Raul Allen immediately establishes the tone of his Ninjak by shrouding Colin's Weaponeer dealings in darkness. Allen is not afraid to let nothing but silhouettes tell his story, which fits Ninjak's stealthy approach perfectly. Allen's characters are muscular without seeming like steroid users, well-proportioned and effectively posed. His facial expressions are equally well rendered, lacking some of Mann's dramatic prowess but adding several degrees of subtlety to each character's “performance.” All in all, Allen and Kindt's Ninjak stresses the espionage element of Colin King's MI6 persona, whereas Mann's interpretation leant heavily on Hollywood-style action to establish our hero’s credibility.

As the centrepiece of the issue, the bearded french lunatic by the name of la Barbe is a true comic book villain. Part modern day billionaire recluse and part gibbering Saturday morning cartoon villain, La Barbe's tin-hat 'n' hair design combines with his mastery over all electronic devices to make for an amusing and highly memorable adversary. Allen's la Barbe is the direct opposite of Ninjak, a wild and undisciplined fighter who is nothing without his gadgets.

Despite a wild and entertaining villain, the real star of the show here is Borja Pindado's evocative coloring. Running from two extremes of bright red to aquatic blue, Pindado's painterly approach to coloring soaks each page in tone and texture. Pindado shows us Ninjak's world through tinted lenses, elevating Allen's artwork whilst hammering down the tone of Kindt's script.

Capping off another issue is another installment of "The Lost Files." No longer a murky and noirish spy tale, Stephen Segovia's lantern-jawed characters provide a big budget feel to the back-up strip. Kindt has adapted to the change, switching "The Lost Files" up a gear with some martial-arts action.

Ninjak #6 is a complete tonal reversal of the previous issues. Whereas Clay Mann brought classic superhero aesthetics to the main story and Butch Guice injected a darker tone into the back-up strip, now Raul Allen dominates the issue with a more subdued take whilst Stephen Segovia brings the muscle in the back-up story. Matt Kindt's solid and bombastic storytelling continues uninterrupted, taking cues from the strengths and weaknesses of his new creative team and tweaking the script appropriately. Ninjak continues to be one of Valiant's strongest properties, even if he's a little less handsome and a little more sneaky under Raul Allen's hand.

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