Best Shots Reviews: HYPERION #1, WONDER WOMAN #50, ULTIMATES #5, CIRCUIT-BREAKER #1

DC Comics March 2016 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

The Best Shots crew is back with more reviews of some of last week's top titles, including the milestone Wonder Woman #50 and new work from Eisner-winner Kyle Baker in Circuit-Breaker #1. We'll kick things off with a look at Hyperion #1 from Joey Edsall.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Hyperion #1
Written by Chuck Wendig
Art by Nik Virella and Romulo Fajardo, Jr.
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Hyperion has more than a passing similarity to Superman. It's very hard to discuss the character without looking at his established origins from the 1970s as the sole surviving member of his race, his hailing from a distant world, his occupation as a news reporter in the city of Cosmopolis, the alliterative names of both him and his coworker love interest (Mark Milton and Lonni Lattimer, respectively), and his various powers of super-strength, flight and heat vision. All of that is problematic and left the character stale and boring upon his early appearances, which was thankfully mitigated with his appearance in Jonathan Hickman's Avengers. Despite this derivative origin, Hyperion has been ripe for a revival; his stranger-in-a-strange-land vibe has potential for great character moments and observations on American culture. While Hyperion #1 briefly touches upon social criticism, Chuck Wendig's script largely succeeds in the creation of a narrative space where this kind of subtext can be gracefully explored.

Wendig's decision to make Hyperion, now going by Marc, a gruff truck driver passing through Nebraska is largely responsible for making that kind of environment. This somewhat claustrophobic setting is varied well enough by Nik Virella, who does an excellent job on the designs of both Marc and Doll, a runaway from a horrific carnival who is implied to have some superpower dealing with machines. Virella's art is at its best in the middle of the comic during an incredible tense scene where Bennie, a member of the aforementioned sketchy carnival, accosts Doll. Many of the frames are also imbued with a rustic aesthetic through Romulo Fajardo, Jr.'s specific application of yellow and amber shades.

An interesting narrative thread that is present is Wendig's observation of American gun culture. An early frame shows a few nameless farmers shooting cans off of a fence, immediately by a frame of presumably conservative political ad that shows a family of four standing in front of an American flag while each holding a firearm. The words "One Nation Under God" adorn the left side of the sign. Doll, who later searches for her gun to defend herself, discovers that Marc threw it out. When she expresses her frustration, Marc talks about how his friends (presumably the Squadron Supreme) often resort to violence as a solution to problems, and how he is personally apprehensive of aggression. This links the imagery of guns with Marc's personal struggle with resorting to violence. I am extremely curious with where this story with thematically pursue this, and I'm hopeful that it continues to be done so subtly. It is refreshing to not feel like a writer is spoon-feeding thematic content. The strength of the story lies in the subtle touches in the writing. There is minimal handholding. We are not given much background to Hyperion. We don't know why Doll has dotted lines around her neck, or even really anything about her potential powers or what happened to her before the story.

The actual mechanism by which Doll winds up in Marc's passenger seat is a little clumsy. She sees him at a truck stop just as she is running away from the carnival, briefly entertains the notion a few times that he is not Hyperion before fully embracing the idea, and being a very persistent hitchhiker. While I enjoyed the moments of Marc and Doll in the truck enough to mostly forgive the particulars of how she got there, I would have liked some more work on Wendig's part to make it feel more organic. The other awkward instance of storytelling comes at the very end of the comic. After heat-visioning carnival contortionist Connie, Hyperion flies Doll to safety before appearing in the very next panel in a full superhero costume. Did he change mid-flight? Did he have the costume, cape and all, under his clothes? While I understand why this the case from a storytelling perspective (Marc has the resolve to truly be Hyperion and save Doll), it all just feels like a very Silver Age throwback in what was up until then a modern affair.

While writing this, I found it difficult to use the name Hyperion and not Marc. This intense focus on characterizing the person and not the hero is a strength that I hope carries through the series. The dynamic of Marc and Doll is such that if this issue had none of the action sequences it has, I would still recommend it based on the moments they share in the truck alone. It suffers a little from a common first-issue ailment of forcing the premise it wants without much set-up, but ultimately that can be overlooked for the strong material that is present.

Credit: DC Comics

Wonder Woman #50
Written by Meredith Finch
Art by David Finch, Johnny Desjardins, Scott Hanna and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

While Diana Prince's Q-rating has never been higher thanks to a certain movie involving a Dawn of Justice, the ongoing Wonder Woman series has been often maligned since it was passed to Meredith and David Finch. And with this milestone 50th issue, it likely won't change many people's minds - while there's a handful of good moments in this issue, there's a lot of roughness in execution, as well as a fundamental conflict between the writing and art styles, that makes it difficult to fully embrace.

That's not to say, of course, that there aren't some diamonds in the rough here - but ultimately, it's going to take some digging to really bring those gems to light. Part of that has to do with the fact that this series is definitely overwritten in Meredith Finch's hands - there's 25 narrative captions in the first three pages alone - and that can make this issue move slowly, as this comic does way more telling than showing. (After awhile, a subplot about Zeke and the other gods being sick doesn't really have a lot of punch, since we never actually see it on the page.) Additionally, Finch brings out a twist that feels a bit tired even as it unfolds, with even so-called "friendly" Olympians secretly being jerks when they think Diana isn't around.

But there are also some good moments here, when Finch reminds us that there's some actual humanity to all these deities. Watching Diana learn that the Cyclopses of Hephaestus are actually gentle giants is definitely a moment that plucks on the heartstrings (even if a more jaded reviewer might say that Diana is a good enough judge of character not to make that mistake in the first place), and despite some creaky dialogue, having Diana throw down against Ares, the original God of War, is a great way to (eventually) set up the close of that chapter in Wonder Woman's life. But perhaps most importantly, this works because we see Diana as a more active character in her own story, rather than being someone who just absorbs all the exposition that is thrown at her.

Reading this issue, it also struck me the big problem with Wonder Woman as a series right now - David Finch and Johnny Desjardins are talented artists in their own right, but they're not the right fit for this project or for the tone of Meredith Finch's writing. Part of it has to do with Finch's layouts, which make the already overstuffed writing flow poorly on the page. If there's a book that's going to have this much dialogue in it, we need the artist to pull off emotion and reactions - and that's not David Finch's strength. He's all about darkness and grit and fighting and savagery, and that undercuts some of the more tender moments that are unexpectedly sprinkled into this book.

Ultimately, we know that the Finches' time on Wonder Woman is coming to a close, and with a dream team like Greg Rucka, Liam Sharp and Nicola Scott taking the baton, it's going to be hard to look back on this particular run warmly. But there are glimmers of something deeper underneath this journeyman work, which might have to be enough until Diana leads the post-Rebirth charge.

Credit: Marvel Comics

The Ultimates #5
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: 7 out of 10

One of the great things about the All-New, All-Different initiative at Marvel is the variety in types of story readers are getting to pick from the publisher. Yes, these are all still primarily superhero comics with an established set of tropes that are expected from the genre, but the variation within has seemingly expanded with comedic books for all ages to darker spy stories. The Ultimates represents a foray into the cosmic realm of science fiction, a world of concepts and theories. But even the wildest of concepts needs to keep the reader engaged, and that is where The Ultimates #5 struggles.

The balance issues between the cast members that have plagued prior issues are mitigated here, not necessarily due to a more even focus, but rather the fact that the principal cast finds themselves overwhelmed by the scale of the events around them. The Ultimates are lost in the void outside the known universe and as their ship falls apart around them, they are saved by Galactus. There’s a great deal of discussion about time and the nature of it (as well as a nice explanation for retcons), but it falls flat because of the heroes’ inability to engage these concepts in a more tangible way. Where Al Ewing’s shines is on the more intimate scale as he looks into Miss America Chavez’s personal life, creating a natural dialogue between Chavez and her love interest, Lisa. As one might expect, delving into Chavez’s relationship allows the reader to see her in a state where she is more vulnerable, but Ewing crafts it in a way that prevents her from seeming weak.

Kenneth Rocafort’s layouts shine in The Ultimates #5. The trapezoidal panels instantly differentiate the book from its competition on a visual level and, combined with the negative space they create on the page, allow for an increased sense of scale to the proceedings. The layouts also add to the flow of the story, naturally leading the reader’s eye across the pages (for digital readers, I would suggest taking the comic out of guided view to get the full effect. The trapezoidal panels also echo the burst effect of Miss America’s interdimensional travel and make for a visual motif that the story is able to utilize in the reveal of a cosmic entity toward the issue’s end.

Dan Brown’s color art works beautifully with Rocafort’s lines. With this series, Brown has found a sweet spot in terms of the saturation levels of his palette. The colors here aren’t overly vibrant, but they don’t feel unnecessarily cold either. While Black Panther, Spectrum, and Blue Marvel all have darker covers that may more easily fit the science-fiction tone of the book, Brown doesn’t shy away from the intense colors of Captain Marvel or Miss America. And Brown subtly frames Rocafort’s panel in purple, giving the pages a flavor all their own.

In a nutshell, that describes The Ultimates. Ewing has made a conscious effort in his story to avoid the punch-em contests that so readily frequent superhero books, opting instead for a slower paced and more contemplative book in which the heroes analyze their problems. This is easily one of the drawing points of the book, but The Ultimates #5 pays the price for the lack of apparent conflict. Because neither the heroes nor the reader truly understand the stakes of the story at hand, this issue lacks tension, even as Galactus offers clues to the truth. While creating a superhero book in which the heroes think out solutions to their problems rather than resort to violence is an admirable task, one has to wonder how long Ewing and Rocafort can keep their readers engaged if the heroes aren’t given more agency in the story.

The Ultimates #5 is an interesting read, but not necessarily an entertaining one. Al Ewing shows a clear grasp of his characters and the artwork by Rocafort and Brown make the issue as visually grand as the cosmic Marvel universe demands. But the story suffers a bit as the heroes are subject to an exposition dump. The scale to the challenge is huge, but the heroes have yet to take action. The promise of Thanos’ involvement should change that in future issues, and hopefully the groundwork Ewing and Rocafort have laid here pays off.

Circuit-Breaker #1
Circuit-Breaker #1
Credit: Image Comics

Circuit-Breaker #1
Written by Kevin McCarthy
Art by Kyle Baker
Lettering by Kyle Baker
Published by Image Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a robot girl is tasked by her human “father” to protect mankind and show them robots can be good. While Circuit-Breaker’s story might not be anything overly innovative, that’s not the reason it fails. In fact, writer Kevin McCarthy does an acceptable job at crafting the protagonist Chirin by clearly showing her motivations and giving her something to work towards in the series. Artist Kyle Baker, similarly, has moments where his art works well with the intent of the book and shows his skill as an Eisner Award-winning artist. Unfortunately, what was intended to be a humorous parody of Japanese manga fails to be effective in its satire because of how caricatured McCarthy and Baker present the material.

Circuit-Breaker is set after World War IV and tells the story of Chirin, a robot created to pass as a human and protect them from the robots that turned on mankind after the war. As said before, the plot isn’t anything new, but that’s not where this book fails. There’s so much potential in a book like Circuit-Breaker to tackle real issues through a narrative like this: the relationship between us and technology, what it means to “pass” in society as something other than what we are, or the dangers of exploiting groups. That expectation doesn’t come out of nowhere for Circuit-Breaker’s story to focus on that. Chirin’s first line of dialogue is, ““Nowadays, all PDAs are made with PDAs! But still no love for robots. Explain that to me.” However, rather than delve into topics like these, McCarthy and Baker try—and largely miss the mark—at satirizing it without making a point.

The most obvious suggestion that this book takes influence from Japanese manga is Kyle Baker’s art. The ridiculous proportions, large eyes, and cartoonish features are all reminiscent of stereotypical manga and anime. However, Baker’s style is haphazard and over simplified to the kind of illustration we see in manga today. It’s clear that everything that landed on the page was intended to be there: his command of perspective is masterful, as are his abilities to render busy streets and a bustling metropolis. It’s just that the aggrandized style doesn’t work because it doesn’t feel like a professional mangaka’s work and simply doesn’t fit the narrative well.

It doesn’t help that, beyond Chirin’s motivation and goals made clear, the all other aspects of the narrative are bombastic and hard to find reason to feel invested in. The major part of the first issue is a fight between Chirin and the robots that set up the obstacles she’ll have to overcome as a robot trying to protect humanity. After that, McCarthy focuses almost exclusively on exposition thereafter, setting up the story for future issues. All the other events—the mysterious robot Renzler appears, the pursuits of the Robot Police, and the appearance of a mystical new character in the final pages—feel consequential. Whereas the first scene was grounded by the fact that Chirin had to save the people around her, nothing else in the book felt like there was something at stake.

Ultimately, Circuit-Breaker is a book that attempts to satirize a medium and fails to do so because it doesn’t comment on it in any meaningful way. At one point, a woman turns around and says, “This place has become a parody. A perverse western stereotype!” That’s true, but it’s McCarthy and Baker that have made this “perverse western stereotype” by focusing on all the superficial aspects of the medium without really delving deeper into this kind of media. What results is a lackluster story that has very little reason to warrant a second look.

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