Best Shots Advance Reviews: MOCKINGBIRD #1, NINJAK #13, More

"Ninjak #13" preview
Credit: Valiant Entertainment
Credit: Marvel Comics

Mockingbird #1
Written by Chelsea Cain
Art by Kate Niemczyk and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Pubilshed by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Barbara Morse might be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent extraordinaire, but Mockingbird winds up reading as more of a paranoid medical thriller than anything else. Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk deliver a book that is undoubtedly original in the grand scheme of Marvel's current output - it shifts between humor and foreboding with an unsettling ease, even if it inevitably raises more questions than it solves.

If I had to point out one thing that I think Mockingbird #1 does best, it's that Chelsea Cain knows how to lead her audience, playing up the potential disorientation that comes when you're on perpetual medical evaluation under S.H.I.E.L.D., like Bobbi is since she has the Infinity Formula and the Super-Soldier Serum running through her veins. At first, Cain plays up the humor behind the constant check-ups, with sight gags like a Sarcasm Chart or a Patient History Form that asks whether patients are spies, superheroes, sidekicks or henchmen. But very quickly, she turns this comedic-sounding premise on its ear - showing that maybe there is something to be paranoid about. Maybe there is something going wrong with this master spy. It's not paranoia if you're going out of your mind, right?

As soon as the question is raised, Cain wastes no time in keeping readers off-balance. Suddenly, characters vanish. Bobbi arrives in different costumes, with different props, different excuses. What about ominous silent pages showing that Bobbi's alcohol consumption has been rising steadily? And why do they keep asking if Bobbi is having visions? As the sense of dread rises, you can really appreciate how Cain uses her knowledge as the omniscient author to remind us she knows more than we do - that a story like this is all about keeping you on your toes. Even without gore and viscera, it winds up being a pretty scary debut issue. Unfortunately, where it all falters a bit is in the cliffhanger, as all that ambiguity gets suddenly and forcefully resolved, and without context, Cain's answers feel a little unwieldy and awkward.

The more I think about it, the more I think that Kate Niemczyk was an understatedly perfect choice for working with Cain. She has a clean linework to her characters that keeps this series from getting too creepy and weird - the artwork works in tandem with the script to confound expectations, which serves to sustain an unsettling tone without potentially alienating readers with overtly grotesque imagery. Like Cain, Niemczyk bounces between comedy and dread with surprising ease - in particular, little sight gags like watching Hercules sit in a waiting room with an icepack on his head are hilarious, while little details like Bobbi reading The Rules of Table Tennis only serve to keep readers wondering what is going on. Perhaps most important, however, is Cain's use of layouts, which give plenty of space for this story to unfold, but occasionally snap up into claustrophobic panels to show something's not right. Combine this with some great '60s-inspired colors by Rachelle Rosenberg, and you have yourself an interesting-looking read.

When I first sat down to read this book, I had initially planned to give Mockingbird #1 a lower score - but as I read and reread this issue, I realized that very few superhero books result in this kind of brain-teaser of a read. If there's a word I would use to describe this debut, it would be deliberate - I don't think any of the choices in this book were made out of haste or desperation, but instead this book feels like very dedicated attempt to get inside our heads. It might not be the spy thriller you'd expect out of Mockingbird, but I'd still call this first issue a serious mission accomplished.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Ninjak #13
Written by Matt Kindt
Art by Doug Braithwaite, Brian Reber, Juan Jose Ryp, and Ulises Arreola
Letters by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Bombast is the name of the game for Valiant Entertainment, and Ninjak #13 is no exception. Mixing magic, martial arts, and dry British wit, writer Matt Kindt ends "Operation: Deadside" with a bang, but hampers himself with a clumsy cold open that takes place after the dust has settled. Aside from the clunky cold open, Ninjak #13 still delivers a lot to love like a trippy setting, an engaging epilogue, plus an emotional Shadowman team-up complete with some choice sword-slinging from artist Doug Braithwaite and colorist Brian Reber. While it stumbles a bit right out of the gate, Ninjak #13 confidently sticks its landing and stands poised to bounce back next month with even more tales of British spy ninja insanity.

#13 opens with our hero, Colin King, exhausted and back on our plane of existence, having just completed his mission and awaiting debrief from his superiors. While it is always interesting to see the mundane inner workings of a super spy organization, these two pages start the issue off on too pedestrian a note and take away from the nuttiness that fans have expected from this arc's finale. Thankfully, Matt Kindt doesn’t spend too much time on this and quickly shifts into what we actually want to see and that’s Colin and Punk Mambo taking it to some villains on then edge of reality. I am happy to report that reading the story found in this month’s Ninjak is just as crazy as actually trying to explain it.

Though the setting of the mission is anything but ordinary, the objectives themselves are fairly straightforward. As Punk Mambo attempts to distract an out-of-control Shadowman, Ninjak uses the opportunity to scoop up Mambo’s missing unit and get them out of the Deadside. But, of course, things don’t go to plan and Ninjak and Punk Mambo quickly find themselves facing both Shadowman and his thrall, Ember, one of Ninjak’s rogue’s gallery. Kindt, having set up all the narrative he needed before this finale, smartly focuses on the action, with sparse narration from Colin in the near future. One the future cold open is done, Ninjak #13 hits the ground in a frantic sprint that doesn’t stop until the final page.

Though the story may be moving fast, artist Doug Braithwaite and colorist Brian Reber make sure that the fast pace of the script doesn’t dominate their panels. Though Kindt is barreling toward their ending, Braithwaite and Reber’s pages are still rendered methodically and are allowed room to breath so the characters don’t look too packed together or the action too dense to follow. One of Braithwaite’s strengths and one that makes him well suited to a book like Ninjak is his character posing, especially our lead, Colin King. Even though King’s armor is bulky, Braithwaite makes him look like a coiled spring at all times, ready to strike.

Look no further than the panels in which Ninjak finally takes it to Ember, sword in hand. Braithwaite doesn’t allow a single movement of King’s to go waste as each time he strikes, he already looks ready to deliver another blow thanks to Braithwaite’s strong posing and blocking. Colorist Brian Reber also adds a layer of depth to the proceedings with striking color choices in the Deadside. While Ninjak’s bold purple costume is a visual focal point for the issue, Reber also goes for the gusto with the otherworldly aspects of the Deadside with glowing blue ropes that keep Shadowman in check, florescent green attack gas, and the luminescent magic creatures that both Punk and Shadowman employ for their battle. Doug Braithwaite keeps the action coming and Brian Reber makes sure that it looks as weird as possible and Ninjak #13 looks all the better for it.

And so reality is safe once again and Colin King has earned some long overdue vacation time, but how long can it really last for Ninjak? While this finale moves fast and furious, I still found myself quite entertained by the issue’s mix of paramilitary action and Dr. Strange-like mysticism. Matt Kindt, Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber, along with the backup story drawn by Juan Jose Ryp and colored by Ulises Arreola have cornered their odd little slice of the Valiant universe and seem to be having an absolute blast bringing us into this crazy world. Reality may be safe for now, but I’m sure it won’t be long before we see Colin King taking up his sword once more and delivering more crazy spy ninja action with aplomb.

Credit: Tim Sale (Marvel Comics)

Captain America: White HC
Written by Jeph Loeb
Art by Tim Sale and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Richard Starkings
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Better late than never, so the saying goes.

Originally announced in 2008, long before Chris Evans donned the stars and stripes turning Captain America into a bonafide movie star, Captain America: White continues the Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale "colors" book series. Cap fans clamored for this for what seemed like an eternity and now the wait is over for the trade-waiters out there. All six issues of the miniseries are collected in a beautifully put-together package, but if the wait was worth it is something else entirely.

"White" offers a glimpse of a simpler time in Marvel history and follows the themes of the rest of the "color" books with a slice of a character's history expanded on. For Captain America: White, it takes place between the 40's during his time as a soldier up against the Red Skull and moments of living in the "modern" world. It makes Steve Rogers seem more mortal despite the hero worship that young Bucky emits. The Golden and Silver age nods are abound, even outside the page borders with Sale making small "Thanks, Jack" notes as Sale delivers Kirby-style fight scenes throughout.

What White is lacking is any sort of expansion of who these characters are. With Hulk: Grey or even Daredevil: Yellow there was a sense of elaboration on these classic characters, but with Cap here it plays out things we've seen before. Not necessarily done better, but definitely not treading any new ground here. What was most interesting was Steve and Bucky's relationship during this time. Bucky was yet the man he is now and still a boy wonder archetype; a kid who wanted to be his hero. The dialogue within Steve's mind is curious as it does go into the intimacy of being surrounded by men who are willing to die. It's more than love, it's something completely different entirely.

Tim Sale knocks out some dynamic action with serious Kirby cues, but the lineworks' sharpness seems lackluster as the trade goes on. Spider-Man: Blue still has Sale's best work in this series with him doing a solid John Romita impression, but with White it just can't compare. Even with Dave Stewart's darker color palette here, it doesn't come across as rich. If you enjoyed Loeb and Sale's series of collaborations, you'll have no problem, though.

What Captain America: White gets right is the essence of who Steve and Bucky are. There's no denying that. Loeb's focus on taking these staples of Marvel's mythos and selling them as the legends they are is what he's good at, even if some moments are overly saccharine. The horrors of war are very real here, and it's a nice take on this time in Marvel's history, but did fans have to wait this long for another homage? Probably not.

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