Best Shots Reviews: SPIDER-GWEN #3, JUSTICE LEAGUE: DARKSEID WAR - LEX LUTHOR #1, ULTIMATES #2, More

Marvel December 2015 cover
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Gwen #3
Written by Jason Latour
Art by Robbi Rodriguez and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Harry Osborn makes his Earth-65 debut and the Spider-Woman of Earth-616 drops by for a visit in Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez's Spider-Gwen #3, an emotionally exhausting issue that leans less on flashy action sequences in favor of quiet scenes of poignant emotion.

Latour has always heavily rooted Spider-Gwen in emotional drama - it's why the character's been so successful - and this issue is a non-stop parade of character evolution. From the bittersweet return of a Harry Osborn deeply affected by Peter Parker's death to the trip to that bridge in Earth 616, Gwen makes a few important steps here on the road to forgiving herself for Peter's demise. The entire Spider-Gwen concept is predicated on that classic Marvel question; “what if?”, and Latour hits just the right amount of morbid wonder you'd expect from visiting the place your alternate universe self died.

Elsewhere, Latour's take on the heavily pregnant Jessica Drew leans heavily on the “boy, pregnant women sure are hungry!” trope, which could seem a little disrespectful depending on the readers' sense of humor. As far as villainy is concerned, Matt Murdock continues to be a quietly insidious menace lurking in the background, whilst a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from this universe's Benjamin Grimm is another in a very long line of inspired revamps of well-worn characters.

Even though this issue contains less of the explosive fight sequences that Robbi Rodriguez is known for, his distinctive character designs and malleable facial expressions ensure that Latour's issue of conversation is as visually arresting as possible. Rodriguez often shows Gwen's face in profile, which often leads to an unintentional and distracting focus on a distorted large ear. Rodriguez' work has always been heavily stylized, but there's a few panels here where even he got a little carried away with the extremities. Granted, it's a small quirk in an otherwise impeccably composed comic book, but its enough of a distraction to warrant a mention. To finish off the issue's distinctive look, colorist Rico Renzi's world of purple and green gives off just the right “alternative universe” vibe that Latour aims for with his script. After all, purple's a color we're all familiar with, but not for the sky.

As expected, Spider-Gwen #3 is another stellar issue of a book that continues to justify its status as one of Marvel's hottest new series. Jason Latour's clear ambition has paid off with this issue, which stands as one of the most important issues of Spider-Gwen yet, as well as a great example in how to write compelling drama. Although Robbi Rodriguez's stylized pencils hits new heights of extreme this issue, his great panel composition and evocative character expressions ensure that Latour's story is told with maximum effectiveness. If you're not on the Spider-Gwen train yet, its still not too late to grab a ticket.

Justice League: Darkseid War - Lex Luthor #1
Justice League: Darkseid War - Lex Luthor #1
Credit: DC Comics

Justice League: Darkseid War: Lex Luthor #1
Written by Francis Manapul
Art by Bong Dazo and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Marilyn Patrizio
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The broader "Darkseid War" saga under Geoff Johns has been one of the more inspired runs in the flagship Justice League book, which is saying something given how strong it has been under the writer when all the pistons are firing. In this one-shot that ties into the earth-shattering consequences of all the League members suddenly becoming gods, writer Francis Manapul plays with a notion that Johns initiated several arcs ago, exploring the motivations behind Lex Luthor’s driven personality.

Since joining the Justice League last year, Luthor’s allegiances have naturally been called into question more than once. Yet for someone to be so single-mindedly against the idea of a powerful alien benefactor, even in the face of all the good they have done, requires a special kind of concentration. As with the other spin-off singles in this event, Manapul takes the opportunity to explore Lex’s past and why he has such an iron-willed determination to do things independently, especially when finally being granted the ultimate power to do those things.

Luthor proves to be an interesting dichotomy with the other Leaguers, as he does not start from a place of heroism. When the heroes have been granted power – just look at Batman for a chief example – it has begun to corrupt them and reveal their personal motivations for a life of vigilantism. Yet the Omega power Luthor now possesses wants to know what kind of a man he is, and through a series of flashbacks to his troubled relationship with his father and his bratty business dealings, we learn without any real surprise that he has a lot of anger in the basement. It’s a fairly lightweight analysis of the classic anti-villain, offering very little new information or insight into Luthor, although it does fit readily in with the canon Johns has presented us so far.

There are moments of real power in Bong Dazo’s art though. Best known for working with Deadpool for Marvel, he opens with an equally gnarled version of Luthor on the first page. Much of this issue is filled with two people talking to each other, albeit on the dramatic edge of a fiery cliff, with parallels found in the titular character’s flashbacks. As such, Dazo’s main objective here seems to be in finding new angles to sketch these long scenes from, but then just as suddenly dazzling us with the unleashing of the Omega power in a powerful and (literally) symbolic awakening. Hi-Fi’s colors switch up between deep reds and blacks in the present, to the more traditional faded kind in the flashbacks, but it is the former that seems more dynamic ironically.

While this isn’t the most groundbreaking or revelatory of the one-shots released in this series to date, it is still a solid character-based approach that gets to the heart of what this event is really about. After all, if absolute power is said to corrupt absolutely, the exploration of what that same power does to already corrupt is just as interesting.

Credit: Marvel Comics

The Ultimates #2
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Kenneth Rocafort and Dan Brown
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Galactus has been many things over the years. He's been the Devourer of Worlds. He's been the benefactor of the Silver Surfer. He's been a universal constant, a necessary evil across the Marvel Universe.

But to The Ultimates, he's just another problem to solve.

Once the incubator for what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Ultimates have now evolved to something a bit headier, a bit funnier, and perhaps even more ambitious. The Ultimates #2 is set up as a superhero/sci-fi book from its opening page and only grows in scale as it progresses.

Whereas the debut focused primarily on Spectrum and Miss America Chavez, The Ultimates #2 focuses almost entirely on the perspectives of Black Panther and Galactus. The tight focus helps the high-concept book retain an emotional connection with the reader as Ewing investigates the pasts of both Black Panther and Galactus. These reflections serve to give new and returning readers insight into who these characters are, as well as setting up their potential development. For Black Panther, this is a more human development, as his emotional core has been defined by his living in the shadow of his father. As he is transported across space, he seems to slowly be rejecting his father’s ideology.

Galactus’ change, however, is the primary focus of The Ultimates #2. The issue shows how an explorer, Galan, became Galactus, a telling that not only helps new readers get a bearing on the purple planet-eating giant, but also pushes the story of Galactus forward. The Ultimates have come, not to destroy Galactus, but to further his development.

If there is one disadvantage to this tighter focus, it’s that the other characters feel a bit like plot devices. Miss America Chavez and Spectrum get some action beats in the back half of the issue, and after their focus in the debut, it doesn’t feel like they’re being neglected in the same way that Blue Marvel and Captain Marvel are. While Ewing is able to give Blue Marvel and Captain Marvel some moments of dialogue highlighting their character, they really do feel under-utilized here as they watch T’Challa propose the team’s plan to Galactus.

Galactus does not approve of the plan, and a small but tactical bout breaks out between the Ultimates and the cosmic being. Artist Kenneth Rocafort’s skill as a storyteller really shines here. The issue is full of two-page splashes embellished with smaller panels to balance the high-scale action with smaller moments. The combination makes The Ultimates #2 an incredibly epic book that also contains more intimate sensibilities. These are high stakes, and readers can connect to the characters experiencing them.

Rocafort’s artwork is full of detailed lines that keep the book visually engaging. The light lines that provide detail also evoke design sketches, enhancing the book’s science fiction feel. Colorist Dan Brown uses a wide palette in this book. While the backgrounds are often rendered in an appropriately cold blue, purple, or gray, the foreground and the characters are given a broader and more vibrant color scheme. This contrast really helps the characters pop on the page and helps develop the balance that Ewing and Rocafort have built into this narrative.

The Ultimates #2 is an extremely well-crafted piece of comic book story telling. Ewing’s tight focus, while it does relegate some of the team to merely being plot devices, helps to develop the issue’s two leads in Black Panther and Galactus. Rocafort’s artwork not only makes the book a visual marvel, but his layouts guide the pacing of the book, preventing this issue from feeling rushed or overstuffed. As the close to a two-part opening arc, The Ultimates #2 sets a good foundation for a series that aims to push the boundaries of the "All-New, All-Different" Marvel Universe.

Credit: DC Comics

Detective Comics #47
Written by Ray Fawkes
Art by Steve Pugh and Chris Sotomayor
Lettering by Wes Abott
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

There's something charmingly old-school about Detectic Comics #47, as the "Robin War" continues to heat up. Crossovers, at their best, let each chapter of the narrative tell a different angle of the same story, and similar to last year's Superman "Doomed" event, DC is getting some great mileage out of a simple, character-centric concept.

From the first splash page, you get the kind of thrill that Ray Fawkes and Steve Pugh are shooting for, as Dick Grayson looms over Jim Gordon, his boot resting on his throat. Given Scott Snyder's recent shakeup of the Bat-family, Fawkes and Pugh are actually tapping into some very cool iconography with the main story of this issue. Jim Gordon and Robin have always been two of Batman's greatest allies in the war on crime, and to watch them essentially be fighting over the terms of vigilantism is a great bit. It helps that Fawkes uses characterization to inform just how these characters would fight: Grayson is the superheroic acrobat, literally kicking Jim off a fire escape. Jim, meanwhile, is the rank-and-file cop, bringing a taser to a nightstick fight.

Of course, taking the baton of a crossover means you've got to lay down some exposition for the next person in line, and Fawkes does so dutifully without cutting down his momentum too much. He wisely focuses on Damian Wayne here rather than Jason Todd or Tim Drake, which keeps this book from horning in on the already solid Batman and Robin Eternal. But Fawkes does some interesting things here, bringing the concept of teen vigilantes into a somewhat more realistic sphere. While Damian plots an escape, for instance, We Are Robin ringleader Duke Thomas immediately realizes how outgunned his untrained team is, pleading for his colleagues not to escalate tensions with the police further. Given how we've seen real-life tensions with the police flare up in Ferguson and Baltimore, suddenly Duke's comments start ringing more true than ever before. It's a fine line that "Robin War" is threading here - on the one hand, you have Jim Gordon as a by-the-book police officer who is horrified to see minors incarcerated without their parents or lawyers, while on the other, you have a conspiracy that goes from the police to the city council to shadowy groups deep in Gotham City's heart.

The artwork by Steve Pugh also serves the story nicely. His work reminds me of a cross between Bryan Hitch and Alan Davis, and his take on Jim Gordon as Batman is one of the highlights of the book. (Granted, this is Jim's black undersuit - unfortunately, nobody seems to be able to nail the super-stylized blue Batcop armor besides Greg Capullo. Thankfully, the armor only makes a handful of short, perfunctory appearances.) Pugh's action choreography also looks spectacular - just the opening sequence featuring Gordon falling into an alleyway looks kinetic, and sets up Grayson's entrance nicely. (Indeed, Pugh's body language is so strong that you'll likely know it's Grayson before the page turn.) The B-story featuring the rest of the Robins, however, feels a little low-energy, which is to be expected given that these teenagers (and 20-somethings, in the case of Jason) are just trapped in a jail cell.

There are a few things that keep "Robin War" from being more than just a light, entertaining read - ultimately, unlike a conflict-ridden story like Civil War, the ultimate outcome of "Robin War" is never really in question, particularly when we see Jim Gordon immediately be won over by Dick Grayson, even when Grayson is engaging in breaking and entering, not to mention attacking a police officer. (Gordon immediately recognizing Grayson is another continuity wrinkle, given the Spyral hypnos masking his identity in his own title, but I digress.) Ultimately, this issue isn't going to win any awards, but it's solid and entertaining, and like "Doomed" before it, ties together one of DC's franchises in one action-packed story.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Scarlet Witch #1
Written by James Robinson
Art by Vanessa Del Rey and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Someone is tampering with the laws of magic in the Marvel Universe, and Wanda Maximoff is determined to find out who. But Wanda hasn’t exactly had a sterling career as a hero over the years, and it's this lack of stability in her costumed life is what makes Scarlet Witch #1 such a compelling read. Writer James Robinson leans into Wanda’s troubled past and uses it to inform her new mission to keep New York safe from errant magic and evil auras. Robinson’s mood-heavy script coupled with Vanessa Del Rey and Jordie Bellaire’s noir-inspired visuals make Scarlet Witch an unexpectedly emotional and thoughtful debut for one of Marvel’s most woefully underused characters. Wanda Maximoff may have caused more trouble than she solved way back when, but this new solo series aims to change all that in a very stylish fashion.

Operating from her new high-rise apartment in the Upper East Side, the Scarlet Witch has now dedicated her efforts to keeping New York safe from dangerous magicks and spells. Her first case involves a magical rage virus spreading through the city’s downtrodden, causing them to murder both cats and the city’s wealthy in fits of rage that they cannot remember after the deed. At times, Scarlet Witch #1 feels more like an old-school Vertigo title and less like a new Marvel solo hero series. Part of this is due to James Robinson’s pathos-filled narration. Robinson starts Wanda from a lower place than we are used to seeing her, aging and isolated, aside from her ghostly companion, Agatha Harkness, her former magical mentor. Wanda is unsure of her new magical crusade, but still determined to make a go of it, after numerous disastrous outings. Robinson smartly takes Wanda far away from the hustle and bustle of regular Marvel hero life and presents a problem that only she is uniquely qualified to solve, marking a distinct change from the usual team based books we usually see her in. The Scarlet Witch may have made her name as one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but Scarlet Witch #1 is determined to give her an identity beyond being an Avenger.

While Robinson’s script throws out some major '90s supernatural comic book vibes, it is the artwork of Vanessa Del Rey and the colors of Jordie Bellaire that truly hammer that feeling home. Armed with a fantastic costume redesign from Kevin Wada, Del Rey and Bellaire jettison the shine and glitz of the Avengers’ New York and replace it with a smoky, almost drab version of the city’s streets, allowing Wanda to be a crimson focal point as she makes her way to her first case.

Del Rey’s hazy, dreamlike pencils are well-suited for Scarlet Witch #1‘s darker tone and plotting. For proof of this readers need not look any further than the scene in this debut in which Wanda finally unleashes her powers. Gone are the clean hex bolts and energized hands of the Wanda of old, and in its place is a wild, flame-like manifestation of her chaos magic that dominates the page. Along with the rich, trippy colors of Jordie Bellaire, this debut issue presents a look that is unlike anything else being offering in All-New All-Different Marvel. While the majority of its contemporaries are concerned with slick visuals and tightly plotted fight scenes, Del Ray and Bellaire aim for feeling over flash which sets Scarlet Witch apart from the rest of the cape centered comics that share shelf space around it.

A lot of comics chase the feeling of '90s supernatural titles, but few have captured it like Scarlet Witch #1 has. Employing a defined sense of emotional intelligence, as well as a more horror leaning plot and fantastically wicked visuals, this new solo debut is sure to strike a chord with Wanda’s legion of fans as well as readers who want something more than tights and fights from their superhero comics. Wanda may have been a danger to herself and others in the past, but now she is back on the scene and looking for redemption in the dark places of New York. Let’s hope she finds it before someone or something finds her first.

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