Best Shots Advance Reviews: TRANSFORMERS #50, STREET FIGHTER X G.I. JOE #1, BLOODSHOT REBORN #11, Z-MEN #3

Valiant February 2016 cover
Credit: Valiant Entertainment
Credit: IDW Publishing

Transformers: Robots in Disguise #50
Written by John Barber
Art by Andrew Griffith, Josh Burcham, John-Paul Bove, Josh Perez, Casey W. Coller, Jamie Snell and Joana Lafuente
Lettering by Tom B. Long and Chris Mowry
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Anniversary issues have to strike a balance in their stories. By their nature, they are both meant to reward longtime readers for their loyalty, as well as provide a big event that will draw in newcomers. For Transformers: Robots in Disguise #50 the challenge is arguably harder because of the wide fanbase of the property. Fortunately, the issue is up to the task as the war between Autobots and Decepticons reaches a new status quo.

The issue opens with a bang; Optimus Prime informs the general populace that he is annexing Earth, signaling a huge change from the get-go. By opening with Optimus Prime’s broadcast, John Barber’s script immediately sets the stakes for the rest of the issue, allowing readers to jump right into the story. As one expects from the Transformers franchise, this issue is action packed. But the splintering of factions makes for a more complex fight than one might assume from a saga that has historically been depicted as good versus evil.

While there isn’t a lot of riveting character work, writer John Barber has a great grasp on the iconic cast. One can practically hear Peter Cullen deliver Optimus Prime’s lines as he fights to defend Earth with relentless vigor. The characters never quite move beyond their archetypes, but the story allows for that, providing the right amount of action and plot twists to keep the issue bustling along. Optimus’ actions also don’t go over well with everyone and even some of his most devoted allies question his drastic decisions. Allegiances are fluid on both sides of the war, creating some nice dynamics for the future.

The artwork throughout the main issue is handled by series artist, Andrew Griffith. The lines here are fantastic, and Griffith shows a great talent for staging action. The Autobots and Decepticons all look great and are instantly recognizable. Griffith is able to keep their blocky shapes from the classic designs and still give just enough detailing to make them feel real, adding cracks in their metallic bodies from damage to the battle. He does this without falling into the pitfall of including every rivet and seam of their metalwork, which would have muddied up the comic, considerably. By keeping the classic designs of the characters, he allows them to pop off the page.

Three colorists handle the duties of Transformers: Robots in Disguise #50: Josh Burcham, John-Paul Bove and Josh Perez. The three come together and make for a seamless issue, with only subtle differences in their styles. The colors throughout the issue are vibrant without becoming a sensory overload. With such vibrantly colored characters, one would be worried about how so many robots would mesh on the page, but the colors work great here. The human scenes are, almost by necessity, a bit duller in design, but the military greens and grays keep in line with the action vibe of the comic.

The issue concludes with a back-up story, “New Worlds Order.” It’s a smaller piece, both in length and scale, focusing on the new union between Earth and the Cybertronians. John Barber keeps a couple reveals from the main issue for this second piece, making it feel just as essential to the overall story rather than filler. The artwork here is handled by penciller Casey W. Coller, inker Jamie Snell, and colorist Joana Lafuente. Coller’s pencils really allow for the both the human and the robot characters to emote as the story demands, and inker Jamie Snell is able to punch up the detailing in the human faces in a way that ultimately makes the robots appear appropriately smoother and less organic. The smaller nature of the story allows Lafuente to strike a better color balance between the robot scenes and the human ones than what the main story can.

Transformers: Robots in Disguise #50 is a issue with a blockbuster feel. The story has just enough depth to engage readers both new and old to the series, and the artwork throughout the issue is a blast. This isn’t a series with an overly complex plot or powerful characters, but it’s a fun chapter in the franchise and certainly worth any Transformers fan’s money.

Credit: IDW Publishing

Street Fighter X G.I. Joe #1
Written by Aubrey Sitterson
Art by Emilio Laiso and David Garcia Cruz
Lettering by Robbie Robbins
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

When it comes to diehard fandoms, are there any as rabid as that of Hasbro's G.I. Joe, which has lived on for decades through toys, cartoons, comic books and even several movies? How about Street Fighter, a Capcom staple that has inspired its own multimedia spinoffs as well as generation after generation of arcade standouts? With that peanut butter-and-chocolate mentality in mind, a new challenger has entered the arena with Street Fighter X G.I. Joe #1, which pits the World Warriors against the Real American Heroes in a tournament for the ages. But while lifelong SF and Joe fans will relish this bare-knuckle fan service, others not quite as consumed with these franchises may see this series as threadbare self-indulgence.

Looking at the credits for this series, you immediately see why Aubrey Sitterson would be considered a slam-dunk for this clash of the titans - not only does he have plenty of comic book cred under his belt as a former Marvel editor and budding writer himself, but his post-Marvel career has been built on WWE, through his writing on WWE.com as well as his work on WWE Games. This is a guy who clearly knows his target demo, and perhaps it's fitting, as Street Fighter X G.I. Joe feels a lot more like a bombastic wrestling match than a traditional comic book narrative.

From the outset, readers are dropped into the thick of things, as M. Bison and Destro open the World Warrior Tournament to 16 fighters, conveniently split amongst the G.I. Joe and Street Fighter lines. How has Destro and Bison's unholy alliance come to be, and why the largely heroic Street Fighter and G.I. Joe characters are willingly taking part in this tournament, is almost totally glossed over, which may frustrate readers who are looking for a little bit more substance to go with all this sizzle. But sizzle is exactly what Street Fighter X G.I. Joe is peddling here - this issue has a simple episodic structure to it, as Sitterson and artist Emilio Laiso basically just choreograph "What if?"-style bouts between characters such as Snake Eyes versus C. Viper and Ryu versus Jinx.

Aside from being punctuated by Sitterson's dialogue, much of this issue almost feels like an illustrated reenactment of Street Fighter's beat-'em-up gameplay - each four-page bout feels appropriately frenetic, with the highlights being Snake Eyes' acrobatics against C. Viper, and Rufus' whirlwind of attacks against the Baroness. Granted, there are a few hiccups along the way - Roadblock gleefully pulling out a gun feels like the opposite of fair play, while one bout results in a totally unbelievable (and arbitrary) upset - but this ultimately feels like a book that is laser-focused not on a traditional comics reader, but on diehard fans of pro wrestling and Street Fighter 2. It doesn't hurt that Emilio Laiso makes it all look beautiful - his artwork evokes a bit of Stefano Caselli and Mark Brooks, with a cartoony fluidity that makes this combat feel fast and furious. That said, none of it is particularly deep, and the almost throwaway level of characterization and lack of stakes doesn't do much to add tension. You're expected to know what you're getting into inside and out - even Sitterson's expository captions don't quite capture the histories of all these characters - and that can be pretty alienating to a reader.

It's a challenge reviewing a book such as Street Fighter X G.I. Joe, because it deliberately eschews so many conventions of the comic book form. Ultimately, there isn't really a story here - and if you're coming here looking for a super-smart high concept tying two franchises together, you are definitely out of luck. This book thinks with its fists, and for some readers, that will be all they need - but if you're not a G.I. Joe or Street Fighter aficionado, these matches will feel repetitive and shallow very, very quickly. Yet in other ways, given how heavily it caters to its target audience, it's also hard not to call this book a little bit revolutionary - given the readership attrition of the past few years, why wouldn't you want to court the massive ranks of the gaming industry? While some readers will snub this book because of its lack of sophistication and others will simply shrug and wonder what the hubbub is, there may be plenty more readers who consider Street Fighter X G.I. Joe a real knockout.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Bloodshot Reborn #11
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Lewis Larosa and Brian Reber
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Valiant Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Immortality has its price and no one knows that better than Bloodshot. After retreating into the desert away from the city of Los Angelus with his love Magic, Bloodshot has now taken to protecting the lost in this new post-apocalyptic landscape. But, of course, Bloodshot’s war is far from over as Bloodshot Reborn #11 finds the warrior forced back into fight thanks to the death of his love and the destruction of his camp all while L.A. is tearing itself apart due to the sentient goo that has assaulted the city. Writer Jeff Lemire gives ample page time to Bloodshot and his attempts to build a new life beyond the never ending war, but Bloodshot Reborn #11 also makes the most of a Ninjak team-up all while selling the threat of the goo. Coupled with the smooth pencils of Lewis Larosa and the striking colors of Brian Reber, Bloodshot Reborn #11 is an engaging read that is sure to convert more readers over to Valiant.

Though this eleventh issue is mostly about Bloodshot's refusal of the call, Jeff Lemire still manages to frontload the issue with a harrowing opening in Los Angelus thirty years from now. As Bloodshot, Magic, and their Shadowman refugees make camp on the outside of the walls, Ninjak, Faith, and the rest of the psiots make a desperate stand against the rampaging X-0 Manowars and the cascade of goo. Rendered in slanted, Dutch-angled panels, both starting and ending with a dynamic splash page, artist Lewis Larosa, doing his best impression of a rough edged Alex Ross, along with the rustically muted colors of Brian Reber, really sells the immense odds that Ninjak and the psiots are up against as well as their futile final volleys. After escaping by the skin of his teeth, Ninjak finally makes his way to the outland to deliver a desperate plea for help from the ultimate soldier.

It is here that Bloodshot Reborn #11 displays a major downshift. As the smoke clears on the opening battle, the fighting in the streets is replaced by a low-key almost Unforgiven-like vibe as Ninjak appeasl to the hero within Bloodshot, attempting to enlist him in the war against the goo and whoever and whatever may be controlling it. Lemire does an admirable job of making Bloodshot reluctant but not childish in his refusal of Ninjak’s plan, citing that he has fought enough for many lifetimes and is no rush to abandon his new home for another war that he might not win. Of course, war always finds a way back into Bloodshot’s life as his love Magic is murdered by rogue Shadowmen and his makeshift camp is destroyed, thus once again severing Bloodshot’s ties to humanity. While it is disappointing to see yet another woman fridged to get a man back into the fight, Lemire smartly doesn’t linger on it. Instead he allows Bloodshot a touching burial scene, supplemented by a flashback of Magic and Bloodshot first arriving to their new home. And, like always, Bloodshot is back on the hunt, with Ninjak in tow, and promising bloody retribution in the next issue and we shouldn’t expect anything less than a total bloodbath.

While I spoke a bit above on Larosa and Reber’s action sequence blocking, its with these quieter scenes that they really excel. Gone are the angled panels from before and in their place are more traditional panel grids filled with dusty, sun-baked backgrounds and rich character expressions from Larosa. Though slightly exaggerated in places, Larosa more than sells the pain Bloodshot feels as he realizes that his camp is lost as well as the determination on Ninjak’s face as he delivers the hard-sell. While some publishers revel in a house style, Bloodshot Reborn #11 proves that Valiant has no plans to develop their own and seem instead hell-bent on delivering more Heavy Metal-inspired visuals coupled with engrossing character work.

In a landscape dominated by difficult to penetrate ongoing titles, Bloodshot Reborn #11 stands as an entertaining and visually engrossing jumping on point. Jeff Lemire, Brian Reber, and Lewis Larosa take what could have been another grim and gritty tale of revenge and bloodshed and transformed it into a rich yarn that makes the most of Valiant’s diverse cast of characters and sheds a new, fresh light on one of its most recognizable leads. Though not without a tired comic trope that desperately should be put to pasture, Bloodshot Reborn #11 seems to be making a real effort to live up to the reborn in its title.

Credit: Double Take

Z-Men #3
Written by Jeff McComsey and Bill Jemas
Art by Kurt Tiede, Allison Rodrigues and Maxflan Araujo
Lettering by Elysia Liang
Published by Double Take
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Zombies have always been a frightening metaphor for man's inhumanity to man, the worrisome fragility of our social systems, and the fear of losing one's very self to a vicious invading force. It can encapsulate war, disease, the economy - there's plenty of nightmare fuel to go around, as Robert Kirkman, Danny Boyle and Zack Snyder have all proven in the last decade. So with that potent imagery at its disposal, why does Z-Men feel like it's lacking teeth?

Perhaps the reason why is that zombies, as a subcategory of horror, are defined by their visceral nature - they're decomposing and ravenous, covered in blood and gore, oftentimes with their very entrails leaking out of their bodies. Yet Z-Men feels almost more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as two Secret Service agents have to contend with glassy-eyed humans wreaking havoc across a sleepy Pennsylvania countryside. While the first two issues were all about lighting the fuse, this third issue is meant to be the explosion to this undead powder keg - but ultimately, the execution feels lacking.

Double Take has a peculiar style when it comes to exposition, with 25-panel pages meant to establish what has gone on before. Unfortunately, it winds up being a huge chore for new readers, who wind up having to really squint to pick up these tiny thumbnails - ultimately, they'll likely be led by Elysia Liang's lettering, which is not good news given how unpolished and awkward it looks. It's rough going by the time readers get to the quasi-zombie apocalypse - of course, these zombies are also weirdly coordinated, particularly as one seemingly normal woman rips out a car's seat belt and somehow turns into a makeshift sling to take out a news helicopter? But despite this near-Olympian level of coordination, there's no follow-through - we see the victims suddenly go glassy-eyed, but there's no real threat of violence, so having our human heroes stage a last stand in someone's basement doesn't elicit much in the way of stakes. (Aside from the fact that why would these trained professionals decide to hole themselves up in a basement they know to be filled with zombies?)

In terms of the art, Kurt Tiede reminds me a little bit of Steve Dillon in terms of his character designs - but ultimately, his pages don't make you feel the slightest bit of dread. It's a strange choice to basically pull back from the central threat of this alleged zombie book - in previous issues, we've seen more decrepit members of the undead, but here, everybody looks pretty squeaky clean, and we don't even get to see many of their expressions to catch a glimpse of why they might want to swarm our protagonists. In terms of sheer destruction, there's really no follow-through, and no deep reason for us to be concerned about this potential apocalypse - even a downed helicopter lands without a scratch, rather than resulting in fire and gore. There are a handful of moments that do make you say "ouch," like seeing a guy's neck fold just a little too far after he's hit with a rake, but it's not enough to hinge a horror book on.

As the flagship to Double Take's publishing line, things do not bode well for Z-Men. Zombie stories are a dime a dozen in the era of The Walking Dead - so if you want your title to succeed, you need more than just setting your story in the 1960s. Right now, it's kind of unclear what Jeff McComsey and Bill Jemas want out of this series - is it meant to scare us? Is it meant to make us think? Is it supposed to be pure, uncut action? At the moment, Z-Men is none of these things, and after three issues, that might mean this series is dead on arrival.

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