Best Shots Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #5, DARTH VADER #13, More

DC Comics November 2015 solicitations

Today is new comic book day, which means it's time for the Best Shots team to hit us with their day-of reviews of the week's biggest books. This time, we'll kick things off with a review of Darth Vader #13 from Justin Partridge.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Darth Vader #13
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

They’ve got him cornered. They’ve got him outnumbered. They’ve got him outgunned.

The Rebel Alliance is in trouble.

After an explosive opening one-shot, Marvel’s first Star Wars crossover, "Vader Down" continues in Darth Vader #13. Darth Vader, a character Kieron Gillen has been adding layer after layer to since #1, becomes more of a force of nature in Darth Vader #13 as he cuts through every line of resistance standing in between him and his prey; Luke Skywalker. Though this issue isn’t just Vader cutting through faceless troops like a slasher from a horror movie. Kieron Gillen also gives us ample time with the forces standing in Vader’s way - in particular Luke, Leia and Han, as they attempt to mount some sort of offense against the unstoppable Sith killing machine. Tied together by Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado’s grounded artwork, Darth Vader #13 is an emotional and hard hitting second chapter in Marvel’s first convergence of the Star Wars titles.

Vader Down #1 sent readers out with the powerful image of Vader being surrounded by a battalion of Rebel soldiers with giant pieces of artillery, all ready to gun him down at the slightest movement. Darth Vader #13 wastes little time showing us exactly how little that matters to the Dark Lord of the Sith. I’ve said before that Kieron Gillen has worked doubly hard to not only make Vader a compelling lead, but to also make him scary again, playing his ruthlessness up along with his deeply buried humanity. In this 13th issue, however, Gillen sidelines all the pathos that he’s been working with until now and full commits to the Dark Side, as Vader easily dispatches scores of Rebel troops with both his Force powers and his own resourcefulness. Gillen’s vision of Vader in this crossover isn’t killing to just kill or taking pleasure in the slaughter, he is simply removing obstacles from his path with extreme prejudice, making for a chillingly entertaining read.

But this issue isn’t all wholesale slaughter of Rebel forces. Darth Vader #13 also gives us a closer look at the people caught up in the wake of Vader’s crusade. Aphra, once again a scene stealer along with her hilarious murder droids, races to either find Vader or Skywalker first in order to have some sort of leverage with the Sith lord. While Aphra races to implement her plan, Han and Leia butt heads over if they should risk resources to rescue Luke or commit more guns to task of killing Vader once and for all. Gillen doesn’t tip-toe around Leia’s icy resolve as Rebel commander, knowing that this is their one and only chance to take Vader off the board permanently. Han, of course, is the headstrong hero type, missing the forest for the trees and only thinking about Luke’s safety. It an interesting track to take with these characters, as both characters’ stubborn natures make sense. While the draw of This issue is about seeing Vader commit some truly innovative violence toward his enemies, it is Kieron Gillen’s character first approach to this issue that makes it all the more satisfying beyond the explosions and lightsaber stabbing.

Giving the action a more tactile feel throughout this issue are the photorealistic pencils of Salvador Larroca. Larroca and Delgado start out the issue with chaos, fire and blood as Vader stands his ground against the Rebel battalion and sends them to their fate with Force-controlled thermal detonators. Larroca properly captures the terror on the soldier’s faces as they realize just how fragged they are, not to mention the insanity of a battlefield featuring a harrowing dust cloud that dominates the panel. Larroca’s realistic style also adds a layer of visual emotion to the scene of Leia and Han debating their options. Larroca makes his character renderings look as close to the original actors as possible - a trick that has paid large dividends for Stuart Immonen over in Star Wars as well - giving Darth Vader #13 a legitimate feeling as it moves through its story. We aren’t just seeing an artist’s take on these characters, we are seeing an artist deliver these characters as closely as possible, and that makes this story feel all the more important.

Darth Vader #13 is a darkly fun and emotionally heavy issue that shows that the Vader Down has no intention of screwing around at all. Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca all deliver fantastic work that shows that even though they are in crossover mode, they can still deliver a great single issue that stands on its own even without the added strength of the opening one-shot. This issue not only shows just how terrifying Darth Vader can be, but just how a man like him affects those around him, whether they are on his side or standing in his way. No one is safe in Darth Vader, and that’s what makes it so much fun.

Justice League of America #5
Written by Matt Kindt and Rob Williams
Art by Philip Tan, Jason Paz and Jeromy Cox
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Bryan Hitch’s Justice League of America arc has to date been magnificent, careening from the cinematic widescreen action of the opening issues to the deeper themes he pulled on in the last few outings. It’s challenged notions of what it means to be a hero by presenting something that is the anti-thesis of the League, a seemingly benevolent self-proclaimed god that is causing actual peace and happiness in the world. This fifth issue, however, is none of those things.

After leaving us on a cliffhanger with the last issue, this outing is for all intents and purposes a filler issue, loosely playing around the edges of the main storyline without contributing anything that is necessarily new or meaningful. It’s a Martian Manhunter solo story, lurching from the Nevada desert to Tokyo for a series of battles of the will with demons both literal and figurative, all the while J’onn J’onzz doing a bit of self-reflection to discover if he truly is a hero. Which would be great if this was simply a backup as Matt Kindt did in the former Justice League of America series, but here it simply feels like the sudden fill-in issue that it is. For those who tend to find the Martian Manhunter one of the least interesting characters in the League, this is not going to do the green shapeshifter any favors.

There are times when the artwork soars in this issue, most notably the depiction of Nevada’s Death Valley as a sinister red landscape that is undoubtedly meant to evoke the hero’s homeworld. The art is certainly accomplished, albeit a very different style to Hitch’s cinematic leanings, although due to the nature of the story there is no singular theme tying it all together. One image follows the next, and like the narrative itself, parts of it simply feel rushed.

Like a Trojan horse arriving in plain sight, the kicker for fans is that this issue ends with a final “Discover the truth about J’onn and Mars in Martian Manhunter.” One has to wonder if there would be this overwhelming sense of feature-length advertising if the issue had dropped at the ended release date, following the end of the "Rao" arc. Released out of order as it is, there is no sense of urgency to the issue, and it’s just a leisurely romp through the mind of a character that had only recently been fully restored to the DCU. Nevertheless, the next issue of Justice League of America will be highly anticipated as a return not only to the story that as captivated these last few months, but hopefully a return to form as well.

Credit: Archie Comics

Archie #4
Written by Mark WaidArt by Annie Wu, Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn
Lettering by Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Archie’s invigorating reboot under Mark Waid and Fiona Staples has been successful because it’s tried to change the formula, but because it has so seamlessly updated it. Waid has recognized that the essence of these comics is not in the clothes they wear or the devices they carry, although both have undoubtedly received the twenty-first century treatment, but in the characters themselves. In a few short issues, Waid has kept us guessing by playing on our expectations of what comes next, as universally familiar as we collectively are with the basics of the Archie universe. Here he goes back and tells us what caused the rift between Betty and Archie: the infamous Lipstick Incident.

Triggered by Jughead offering him a Goo-Bar treat, Archie thinks back to the inseparable relationship he had with Betty. The carefree days when they would hang out, pull pranks, and everything was “perfect.” Urged on by the other girls, who insist she changes her name to “Lizzie,” Betty has a total makeover for her date with Archie. That’s when things get a bit weird between them, with Archie lashing out at how different she has become from his expectations. Thus, the infamous “#lipstickincident” is born.

One of the great things about this issue is that it manages to quickly get to the heart of two big social issues facing young people today: the incredible pressure peers put on each other to look and act a particular way, and the related expectations that young men have about women from a misguided sense of entitlement. Betty outright protests to her friends that she dislikes all the changes they want to make (“Is there anything you like about me?”), yet part of her also feels empowered by frocking up for Archie. The titular character in turn is unable to face anything changing from his preconceived notions of how his girlfriend should behave. Betty points out the hypocrisy that he likes looking at women in similar clothes, but he claims the lipstick in particular “is the crap that doesn’t belong on you! Where’s the Betty I know?” In a very clear message back, Betty lashes out with the lipstick across Archie’s face: “Funny. You’re still you.” On the surface, it’s the literal “Betty or Veronica” type argument, but it’s an important lesson for young men too: minds change, and that doesn’t mean you have a right to be annoyed by it.

Black Canary artist Annie Wu takes over from Fiona Staples this month, and after a literally electrifying opening (resulting from a guitar mishap) she brings her distinctive style to the templates Staples has put in place for Riverdale 2015. While it doesn’t always look as stylized as her current DC work, there’s a terrific double-page montage showcasing the fun and loving relation Betty and Archie had before the incident. The four dynamic panels that make up the incident itself are perfectly laid out, switching between point-of-view shots, over the shoulder angles and close-ups to heighten the dramatic tension around a handful of moments.

In updating the formula, Archie is no longer just about the hijinks surrounding teen romance, but about the complex landscape that youth have to navigate in learning to become adults. The plots are not so much soap-operatic as reflections of the heighten sense of drama and immediacy that surrounds every moment of emotion as a teenager, and Waid has tapped into the psyche of the youth without having to pander.

 
Credit: Marvel Comics

Venom: Space Knight #1
Written by Robbie Thompson
Art by Ariel Olivetti
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Whoever the host, the nefarious intergalactic symbiote known as Venom has always been the epitome of comic book shades of gray - at least, until now. Ridden of its trademark hostility, the tamed symbiote and its host Flash Thompson take to the stars in Venom: Space Knight #1, a gorgeous but ultimately sterile issue that offers a solid slice of space opera but fails to capture the dangerous essence of Marvel's archetypal antihero.

Robbie Thompson's take on the purified Klyntar symbiote ultimately robs Venom of its identity. Rick Remender's initial Venom run in 2011 was a great take on Spidey's distorted reflection, making good use of Peter Parker's high school bully and the unpredictable nature of the symbiote itself. Here, Venom is an Agent of the Cosmos: an unashamedly good guy in total control of himself and the symbiote. It's worth bearing in mind that foisting complaints about Venom's current direction on Thompson is not entirely fair, as all these newly heroic traits stem from Brian Michael Bendis' Guardians of the Galaxy run. And to Thompson's credit, he writes a solid little tale here, involving a chemical weapon from an innocent source and a sufficiently gribbly looking space pirate. While it's entertaining enough, none of this is uniquely Venom.

Tonally, Thompson tips his hat to Venom's new home with the Guardians by lacing in a few jokey moments that fall flat (specifically, Venom's encounter with a buxom owl-headed alien who sells time-shares), but also makes sure to add in a few little nuggets of darkness that hint at something a little more fitting for the character. A suicidal robot here and a quick reference to the symbiote beginning to feed on Flash's rage there improve the issue's general tone, but the light-hearted touch ultimately fails to engage with this specific character.

Visually, Venom: Space Knight #1 is gorgeous. Artist Ariel Olivetti's painterly style is technically excellent. Surfaces are realistically finished and the aforementioned owl-person is a simple design brought to life with a disturbing sense of realism. Olivetti's take on Venom himself is as classically heroic as Thompson's script makes him out to be: a white and black tower of stoicism and rippling muscle. Atop his own pencil-work, Olivetti colors with acute attention to detail. Each surface, whether organic or mechanical, is intricately textured.

Despite Olivetti's strengths, however, his Achilles heel is undoubtedly his lack of fluidity. Thompson's script calls for explosive action, and there's nary a motion line to be seen here. Venom seems to jerk from panel to panel, always perfectly proportioned and thoughtfully posed, but never plausibly in motion. As a piece of sequential storytelling, it lacks dynamism; even if the issue's individual panels are beautiful in isolation.

Between Thompson's solid but safe script and Olivetti's stellar yet static artwork, Venom: Space Knight #1 is a good issue that should have been a great one. While the concept of Venom as an unambiguously good superhero is questionable, there's no denying that the vast and varied backdrop of outer space is a good fit for Flash Thompson and his pet symbiote. Although Venom: Space Knight #1 is an enjoyable issue, it's tonally at odds with its main character.

Peanuts: The Snoopy Special #1
Peanuts: The Snoopy Special #1
Credit: BOOM! Studios

Peanuts: The Snoopy Special #1
Written by Charles M. Schulz and Jason Cooper
Art by Vicki Scott, Alexis E. Fajardo, Paige Braddock, Nina Taylor Kester, Whitney Cogar, Donna Almendrala, Justin Thompson and Katherine Efird
Lettering by Donna Almendrala and Denis St. John
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Since 1950, Charles M. Schulz’s creations of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the Peanuts gang have been a part of daily newspaper strips, countless reprints, television specials, and theme parks. With a new computer animated feature hitting cinemas, Kaboom! has released a special of Snoopy based stories based on the original Schulz strips, with new artwork but a familiar sense of the wryly socio-psychological quirk that made the almost 18,000 strips stand out from the crowd.

Apart from fighting the Red Baron as a a World War One Flying Ace, one of the most memorable Snoopy personas was the Legionnaire. In the first story, "Les Legionnaires," Jason Cooper adapts some of the classic tales into a story of Snoopy waging his own private war. It’s really an excuse to throw in all of the favorites in the gang, including his brother Spike, and it’s a wonderful tribute to the original stories. "The Hedge Toad" is another Schulz story, a piece of gentle whimsy in which Linus (and several others) are roped into helping Woodstock uncover the identity of the “strange creature” that has found its way into his nest. Finally, there’s a so-called “sneak peek” at the already released original Jason Cooper graphic novel Where Beagles Dare!, casting Snoopy as the aforementioned Flying Ace.

Cooper and the other adapters do a wonderful job of taking the essence of the original stories and crafting them into a modern comic book format. Each page uses the format of a strip, with a set-up for a gag and a punchline appearing in the final panel of each page. It is easy to imagine these stories being released as is in their original syndicated form, but they also work wonderfully as a cohesive short story as well. This is because Schulz effectively told a continuous story over the course of half-a-century, and that spirit remains here. They aren’t just timeless either, but wholeheartedly all-ages, with the humor being of the welcome silly variety, with few traces of the deep-rooted cynicism of modern animation.

Vicki Scott and Donna Almedrala’s primary pencils are spot-on, not deviating from the formula one iota. The colors might be more lush, and the the line-art a little cleaner, but each of these classic characters remains unmistakably on model, right down to Alamendrala and Denis St. John’s lettering. The "Where Beagles Dare!" excerpt plays around the edges of a variation in style, but the strict adherence to the designs that only slightly evolved over the course of Schulz’s record-breaking run makes these tales all the more familiar and easy to slip back into. There’s a genius layout of Linus and Snoopy stuck in a tree and unable to find each other that’s simple old-school slapstick, and anything more complex in terms of layout would smother the neatness of the gags.

The Peanuts: The Snoopy Special #1 is effectively a sampler of the work that Kaboom! has been doing over the last few years in bringing Snoopy and the crew back to life. It’s a bit of a cop-out that this tie-in special contains a chunk of material from a book that was only released two months ago, but peppered as it is with some actual Schulz strips, it’s a timely reminder of how sharp and adaptable these characters and scenarios were in the 1950s and today.

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