Best Shots Reviews: DR. STRANGE #4, SWAMP THING #1, A-FORCE #1

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

Doctor Strange #4
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Al Vey, Mark Iwrin, John Livesay, Wayne Faucher, Victor Olzaba and Jaime Mendoza
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

"Every punch comes at a cost."

Jason Aaron has been hinting at this for several issues now, but he finally reveals his big twist for the Sorcerer Supreme in Doctor Strange #4, an installment which is far and away the best issue of this series yet. By establishing firmer rules for wizardry and witchcraft in the Marvel Universe, Aaron has given a once-omnipotent character some hard and fast guidelines, ramping up the tension of this story and bringing some method to Stephen Strange's madness.

From the opening sequence, Aaron finally hits his sweet spot between humorous and analytical, as we see Doctor Strange learn an important lesson from the Ancient One - that magic comes at a cost, and the more potent the sorcery, the more harrowing the consequences. But Aaron doubles down on this - not only does magic exact a deadly physical cost to the Sorcerer Supreme, it also makes him a fierce character to follow, as he defiantly tells himself, "Never stop punching." It's Aaron's characterization, not the magical settings, that now makes Doctor Strange stand apart from other genius superheroes like Tony Stark or Victor Von Doom, because his powers come at great personal cost... and yet he still dives into the fray regardless.

This new wrinkle in Doctor Strange's status quo also retroactively gives some meaning to some of Aaron's goofier elements in the previous issues. The Bar With No Doors has become an assembly room for all of Marvel's magic users, including fun new additions like Mahatma Doom and El Medico Mistico. What about Strange's Cthulu-esque stir fry? It's actually sustenance designed to gird him for mystical battle (especially important since those battles have prevented Strange from eating normal food for the rest of his life). What about Strange's random ailments? Now we know it's just the cost you pay fighting Dormammu and his hordes using corrosive black magic. Even Zelma Stanton, Strange's new assistant, feels more substantial now, not only as a point of view character to highlight the wonder of Stephen's adventures, but also a human voice to ask the questions we readers are probably wondering.

Doctor Strange #4 also happens to be the best issue from Chris Bachalo yet. Some of this is due to Aaron's script, which doesn't have a lot of action until later in the book, which means instead of using the sword-and-adventurer imagery that's felt a bit antithetical to Strange as a character, he's instead focused on bumping up the imagery for Strange's weird world - and that is a great fit. Whether it's the Ancient One's monastery (complete with beautiful black, white and blue colorwork to showcase its starkness), the warping bookshelves of the Sanctum Sanctorum or the Bar With No Doors filled with snazzy-looking magicians ranging from Magik to the Son of Satan, Bachalo absolutely dominates with this issue. Even his layouts look more clean and inviting - while there are no less than seven inkers credited on this book, if that's what it takes to make this book look as strong as this issue does, then keep that army of inkers enlisted.

While this series' first arc took a bit of getting used to, now that Jason Aaron has finally set up his new mythology, Doctor Strange is looking fantastic. This book not only establishes some stronger parameters for one of Marvel's most inconsistently-handled characters, but also sets up a potent threat that could affect a huge corner of the Marvel Universe. This book has some great artwork, some striking characterization, and sets up Stephen Strange for readers just in time before his big screen debut. It may have taken a bit to perfect this treatment, but if this issue is any indication, Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo are just what the doctor ordered.

Credit: DC Comics

Swamp Thing #1
Written by Len Wein
Art by Kelley Jones and Michelle Madsen
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein reanimates the dead in Swamp Thing #1, a shameless and well-crafted throwback to a simpler time, replete with luridly descriptive narration and illustrated in a grotesque fashion by Kelley Jones.

At an unorthodox college close to the bayou, a mad professor murdered a student in a bid to bring him back from the dead. That student eventually awoke, Pet Semetary style - rotting and hungry for flesh. With nowhere else to turn, his heartbroken parents wander into the bayou for Swamp Thing's help. He obliges, but finds a much stronger creature than he had initially anticipated... After a short and sharp two-page retelling of Swamp Thing's origins, Len Wein slips seamlessly back into the character he helped to debut in 1971. Wein narrates the tale throughout with blocks of wonderfully gothic prose that makes Swamp Thing #1 feel more like a Victorian ghost story than a comic book. Wein clearly enjoys setting the scene. A panel of alligators, otherwise unrelated to the plot at hand, is captioned, “The sibilant hiss of the primordial alligator, lounging in stoic anticipation of its next meal.” It's overwrought, but it's still a lot of fun. Swamp Thing #1 takes us all back to a simpler time in comic book history; when creators wrote and drew to satisfy the imaginations of entertainment-starved children.

Dialogue-wise, Wein restores Swamp Thing's speech patterns to... its more... traditional style... making the former Alec Holland sound labored, as if he's struggling for words beneath the green. Wein colors his dialogue with the same hyperbolic tone as his narration. Politics are unfathomable, catastrophes are planet-shaking and the zombie's strength is impossible; it's easy to get swept up in the moment with Wein at the helm.

Artist Kelley Jones depicts the titular muck monster as an ape-like beast, as thick as a tree trunk and intimidatingly large. He renders the Swamp Thing in disgusting detail, melding moss and mold with human organs to great effect. Outside of the gory details, though, Jones' art seems almost unfinished. Clothes lack texture, backgrounds are often reduced to their basic geometry, and minor characters are mere silhouettes. In one panel, Wein describes vulnerable students rushing back to their dorms, clutching their tablets: Jones draws two outlines jovially walking into the panel, their faces totally featureless and their devices nowhere to be seen.

Despite this seeming lack of attention, there's some real diamonds in the rough here. A gorgeous splash page shows the issue's hideous zombie exposed by moonlight, and Jones' take on the Phantom Stranger is an appropriately mysterious herald of darkness in a billowing robe. Taking cues from the rest of the creative team, colorist Michelle Madsen goes to back to basics with a lurid palette of greens, browns and reds. The entire issue seems covered in fungus and lit by candlelight; a fitting treatment for the title character.

Sometimes, a legendary creator will step back into familiar shoes only to embarrass him or herself (Batman: Odyssey, I'm looking at you.), but that thankfully isn't the case here. Swamp Thing #1 feels like a lost issue from the '70s, lovingly dusted off by DC and placed proudly alongside the books of today. Although Wein's script breaks almost every rule of modern comic book storytelling, and Kelley Jones' artwork neglects the finer details, there's a wonderful spirit to Swamp Thing #1 that permeates every page. A tremendously entertaining read.

Credit: Marvel Comics

A-Force #1
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by Jorge Molina and Laura Martin
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

And lo, there came a day unlike any other - a day when the Secret Wars began. Cracking the Marvel Universe into a patchwork realm of parallel universes, one stood apart from the rest - Arcadia, a world protected by the greatest superheroines of any world. A world protected by A-Force.

But now, that world has gone away. But can G. Willow Wilson get lightning to strike twice, and bring her absent team back together again? The answer, surprisingly, is yes - now in the main Marvel Universe proper, A-Force proves itself to be a beautifully drawn, action-packed read that really cuts to the heart of many of Marvel's leading ladies.

Wilson, who has already struck new character gold with the creation of Ms. Marvel, seems right on track with Singularity, whose starry-eyed (literally) innocence makes her a fun point of view character to meet all these established superheroines. She's precocious, exuberant and definitely not from around here, but you can't help but warm up to her the same way that professional tough gals like Captain Marvel and She-Hulk do. But in many ways, Singularity also acts as a plot device, but one that is engaging enough to follow - she has a very set idea of what her home team should look like, and she's able to bounce quickly enough from space to New York City to actually start assembling them.

With Singularity as our focus, Wilson also does some great work at starting to establish the rest of A-Force's voices. Captain Marvel is the type of no-nonsense leader who will dive into the fray, regardless of whether or not she seems outmatched, while Wilson hints at She-Hulk's wild streak when she agrees with Singularity that "clothes are silly." That said, other characters, like Nico Minoru or Dazzler, don't actually appear in this book, while Medusa of the Inhumans might be the book's most controversial character, filling the niche of ruthless royal that Namor the Submariner once did. (And I can't write this review without mentioning a very funny scene featuring two New Yorkers who find Singularity after she crash-lands in the city: "Maybe we should adopt it!" "No way. Child-free, remember? We agreed.")

The real coup for this book, however, has to be the artwork. Jorge Molina has been growing a ton as an artist over the past few years, but A-Force is a new highlight for him. His work reminds me a lot of Olivier Coipel, but with a fluidity of inking that I don't think even Coipel has achieved. Molina does some beautiful work with body language - which winds up looking even more spectacular with Singularity thanks to Laura Martin's starry colorwork. Whatever Wilson calls Molina to do, he does, and does it well - his action looks fluid, his characters look expressive, and his page layouts are super-smooth. Molina makes each of these characters look dynamic and powerful, and honestly, I can't wait to see what he has in store for future issues.

With the one-two punch of a fun new character and some show-stopping artwork from Jorge Molina and Laura Martin, and you can't go wrong with A-Force. While this book starts off with a shaky foundation - namely, that you have to have read a Secret Wars tie-in to understand where Singularity came from - Wilson does a great job at firming things up, with her new heroine proving to be a fun addition to the Marvel Universe. With many of her heroines now in play, I can't help but look forward to seeing what Wilson does with Earth's Mightiest Heroines assembled.

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