Best Shots Reviews: VISION #6, BATGIRL #50, UNCANNY X-MEN #6, SECRET WARS HC

DC Comics March 2016 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

The Vision #6
Written by Tom King
Art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Vision is a series that continues to ask us to expect the unexpected. The temptation for a version of the Vision trying to make a life for himself and his family in the suburbs could be one of comedy, accentuating the “fish out of water” nature of his quest to be accepted. Instead, writer Tom King has taken us on an often-disturbing slide in the psychological horror end of the spectrum, with a group of characters willing to kill to protect their own sense of normalcy.

To date, the uncomfortable sense of foreboding has come from a secret that Vision’s wife Virginia has been keeping - a literal body in the backyard that is about to be uncovered by a neighbor’s dog. What’s been wonderful about the series is seeing how the leads normalize their behavior, from a logical response that comes across as strangely affectionate, while the attempts at emoting often read as misguided creepiness. Throughout the series, the Vision family – and by extension, the reader – has been able to justify the increasing acts of violence as they appear to be perfectly normal through the eyes of the protagonists. Here, Virginia leads a neighbor through their trashed house, casually explaining she is remodeling based on an article she read. Her daughter Viv sits in the fetal position just out of view; a classic horror motif that is just as readily accepted.

The concept is pushed further by the active participation of the Vision in the cycle of lies and violence, not only lying to the police in the previous issue, but now taking the secrets even further to protect his fragile family. After all, this is an issue that has a recently-introduced hero of a blockbuster franchise unflinchingly covered in the blood of a recently departed dog, as he transplants its brain into a cyber-mutt “for the children.” It’s a disturbing sequence precisely because of its lack of emotion, punctuated by a tender gesture to his children and wife that is all the more unsettling for him still being blood splattered.

Gabriel Hernandez Walta has remained consistently instrumental in maintaining this tone; a David Lynchian vista of perfect suburbia with the darkest of outcomes laying underneath the surface. There’s something simultaneously horrifying and wickedly comic about the aforementioned dog frozen in place by an electric shock, and tightly-paneled pages give a rapid motion to the disturbing sequences, like flashes of the true terror that is taking place. Jordie Bellaire’s autumnal color palette accentuates the detached uneasiness that permeates the piece, a subdued approach for a group of characters that sees the world in different shades.

While King has managed to keep his closed world in a discreet pocket of the Marvel Universe for the last six months, the twist ending is a jolt to the system precisely because it drags us screaming back into the mainstream. It will be fascinating to see how this saga plays out now that the Vision and his dysfunctional family unit must deal with reality, or at least the version of it that is replete with capes and powers.

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #50
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Babs Tarr, Roger Robinson, John Timms, Eleonora Carlini, James Harvey, Cameron Stewart, Serge LaPointe and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It’s the end of an era for Barbara Gordon, but the creative team that so reinvigorated the character isn’t going out without one last hurrah. Teaming up with a collection of stellar artists, Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr absolutely kill it with their final issue of Batgirl, bringing together Babs’ new and robust rogues’ gallery together with a who’s-who of female Gotham vigilantes.

When it first debuted last year, Stewart and Tarr’s redesign of Batgirl was an Internet sensation, due largely to the fact that this brand-new Barbara appealed so heavily to the twenty-something college crowd, and it’s fitting that this final issue really doubles down on its millennial tone. Down to John Timms’ stunning “versus” pages, this isn’t just a fight comic book; it’s a video game brawl, as Batgirl assembles Black Canary, Spoiler, Bluebird and Operator to take down a cabal of bad guys assembled by the memory-rewriting Fugue.

Yet on paper, this bout-style structure could come off as scattered or episodic, but it’s a testament to Stewart and Fletcher’s skill with dialogue that even with characters like Bluebird, who appeared very little in this series, still sound natural and endearing, as she snarks about Killer Moth’s glue-flinging “booger gun.” Indeed, watching Babs’ roommate Frankie come into her own as the Operator - a cheeky nod to Barbara’s own past as information broker Oracle - might be the highlight of the book, as Stewart and Fletcher tie into recent Bat-lore and turns it on its head in a surprisingly and clever way.

But with an oversized page count, Batgirl isn’t the only person who can’t handle this alone - and that’s why it’s so gratifying to see Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr be joined by such a striking collection of artists. While Tarr grounds this book with her trademark cartoony expressiveness, she’s followed up by a striking set of pages by Roger Robinson, who absolutely sells the kinetic action sequences featuring Bluebird, Spoiler and Operator. (In particular, there’s a great panel of Spoiler getting ready for a motorcycle jousting match against the Jawbreakers that shows just how fluid the artist has gotten over the past few years.) Meanwhile, I’ve already discussed John Timms’ splash pages that punctuate each fight sequence, but man are those gorgeous - like, if that’s not a case to put him on a book like Teen Titans, I don’t know what is. Combine that with a beautiful expository double-page splash by James Harvey, not to mention a short but solid Black Canary sequence by Eleonora Carlini, and you’ve got yourself a real treat.

With all this going on, it’s forgivable that Batgirl herself might be the least compelling bit of her own finale. It’s not to say that Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr do a bad job with the character - it’s just that there is so much new stuff being thrown at us with all the cameo characters that it can take some effort to slow yourself down to dig into the admittedly dialogue-heavy plot of the Fugue. Additionally, Stewart and Fletcher dig a little too deep into Batgirl’s history for the finale of this issue, given the otherwise continuity-free approach they’ve taken for the series - there’s an important plot point regarding the cybernetic implant that allowed Barbara to walk again following her assault by the Joker, and that might test your suspension of disbelief if you’re not already hooked.

But that all said, it’s very, very easy to be hooked, given the sheer scale and amount of fun this finale is. Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr have really reinvigorated this character, letting Barbara Gordon really stand out visually and thematically amongst an increasingly crowded lineup of Bat-books. Given that this series has been defined by its lightness and beautiful artwork, Batgirl #50 proves to be a fitting send-off to one of the best new DC books in recent memory.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Uncanny X-Men #6
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Ken Lashley, Nolan Woodard, Paco Medina, Juan Vlasco and Jesus Aburtov
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The Uncanny X-Men have an Archangel-shaped problem this month. As this title and Extraordinary X-Men deal with the ongoing "Apocalypse Wars," writer Cullen Bunn attempts to add yet another layer onto the ever-growing genesis of Angel, with mixed results. Though bookended by an interesting backup story about Magneto coming to terms with his new public persona, Uncanny X-Men #6 ends up being a dry mishmash of Angel’s complicated origins and Bunn’s new but equally weird additions in the wake of the war as well as an inert plot starring M and Sabertooth as they make contact with the Morlocks. Though Bunn has assembled an interesting team and an even more interesting group of artists for this installment, Uncanny X-Men #6 still never quite takes flight.

Casting Psylocke as our lead character this month, #6 finds her attempting to connect to her former love, but in doing so is assaulted by visions of Archangel standing amid the ruins of a town; a town under attack from a legion of Archangels. Visions of doom and destruction are nothing new for the X-Men, but Bunn thankfully gives this one a hefty amount of emotional stakes, thanks to the inclusion of Psylocke. Unfortunately, it is here that the spark of Uncanny X-Men #6 begins and ends.

After the vision, Psylocke naturally takes it to the leader of the team, Magneto, and it is here that the issue truly starts to sink. As Psylocke brings Erik up to speed, Bunn takes this opportunity to bring the readers up to speed as to the state of Angel’s origin up to this point and, even as a long-time reader, its a huge mess. Though gorgeously rendered in a double-page splash by artist Ken Lashley and colorist Nolan Woodard, attempting to detail Warren’s insane origin up to this point is like trying to catch smoke. While it is great that Bunn is attempting to put it all in perspective in regards to the story that he’s telling, it is still a bit much for a reader to wrap their head around in just a single splash page. Add the new developments that Uncanny X-Men #6 throws into the ring toward the end of the issue, and you have a story that is sorely in need of new, less head scratching, direction.

While Magneto and Psylocke chase down her vision, M and Sabertooth attempt to make contact with a secret source with information vital to the survival to mutantkind. After venturing into the tunnels, the contact reveals herself to be Callisto and she reveals that the Morlocks are once again dying and it is the X-Men’s responsibility to help. Though it is always cool to see the Morlocks pop up in a book, this plot, though still just starting, offers up nothing new. Bunn even succumbs once again to making Sabertooth an object of friction for side characters as he and Callisto start to fight almost instantly. The plot point of having a villain turn good is par for the course for a title like Uncanny, I’m just disappointed to see that characters are still throwing down with him as soon as they see him, until someone can talk sense into them. It’s fun a few times, but Uncanny X-Men #6 shows that the shelf life on the trope has long since expired.

While Cullen Bunn’s script never fully gels, the artwork of Ken Lashley and Paco Medina, along with inker Juan Valasco, and colorists Nolan Woodard, and Jesus Aburtov gels very well and provides this issue with a few truly great visuals that raise readers out of the fog of Bunn’s script. The aforementioned origin splash page from Lashley and Woodard is just one example of this art team’s prowess. Lashley and Woodard also detail Psylocke’s vision as a desolate double page splash, complete with swooping and snarling Archangels and ruined buildings given dusty and crumbling life by the visceral colors of Woodard. Artist Paco Medina, along with inker Valasco and colorist Aburtov, finish out the issue with the back up story entitled “Going Public”. Though not given as much to do as the main art team, Medina, Valasco, and Aburtov still make the most of the dialogue heavy story with ever-shifting points of view and almost metallic looking colors, on top of heavy inks.

Uncanny X-Men #6 might not be the best entry into this series, but it is still refreshing to see the team’s ambition. While not quite the teen adventure of All-New nor the soap opera-esque tale of Extraordinary, Uncanny X-Men occupies its own story space, even though it loses the plot this month. Despite this issue’s missteps, there is still plenty of time for Bunn and company to get things back on track for next month. Let us hope that Archangel hasn’t totally ruined everything (again) before then.

In Case You Missed It!

Credit: Alex Ross (Marvel Comics)

Secret Wars HC
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina
Lettering by Chril Eliopoulos and Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

There is a parable about blind men and an elephant wherein the blind men do their best to describe one aspect of the strange creature before them. In many ways that is similar, though less difficult, to what Secret Wars had to accomplish. This elephant didn't have over a half century of often brilliant, if sometimes convoluted stories to tell, nor were the blind men in questioned ever delayed in their reports. It's fair to say Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic's Secret Wars had something of a shaky rollout. The hardcover is interesting because it calls into question how much distribution and hype might have soured some of the readers to the concept and execution. Make no mistake; it reads exponentially better all at once.

Hickman's story has been thoroughly discussed and reviewed throughout the past year on Newsarama, and at this point fans of the medium know the story. Universes have been colliding into one another and obliterating. Victor Von Doom managed to save parts of the multiverse and pieced it together to create Battleworld. With Owen Reece's help, Dr. Doom became God Doom and oversaw the kingdoms of his domain with his wife, Sue Storm, and children, Franklin and Valeria. Things spiral out of control, interests compete, and it all concludes with a fight between not just Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom, but between Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom.

In addition to variant covers and Secret Wars #0, the hardcover rearranges the final chapters in the way that Jonathan Hickman originally intended, since Secret Wars #7 had to be split up in its original form. If anything, that's an indication of how non-episodic the entire series really was.

The first half of the series establishes the separate paths a myriad of heroes and villains are taking to Doomstadt, the capital of Battleworld. The primary players include Earth-616 Reed Richards and Earth-1610 Reed Richards with their dream team of Peter Quill, Miles Morales, Peter Parker, T'Challa, and Namor. Thanos also spends his time on Battleworld plotting to overthrow God Doom. The second half goes completely operatic and sees all of these separate characters, actions, and schemes coalesce in a sweeping and impressive manner. Thanos convinces Ben Grimm, who had been spending his time in Battleworld as a literal giant wall, to stand and face the god of this world. Peter Quill uses his dying breath to resurrect a shard of the blown apart Groot upon Yggdrasil. T'Challa gets a fully-loaded Infinity Gauntlet and puts the whole King of the Dead thing to good use when he gets the Marvel Zombies to join the fight for good. These moments are all great climaxes to their own respective plot threads, and could have served as the culminating moment of any typical story. This is not an ordinary story, and all of these moments serve as equally breathtaking and beautifully rendered steps to the aforementioned Doom/Richards showdown.

This was billed "The End of the Marvel Universe as You Know It". Most of the focus has been on the "end of the Marvel Universe…" part – the real significance is found in the "…as You Know It." While I understand the frustration among some readers over the lack of long-term impact of character deaths, which litter the pages. Character deaths on Battleworld might not have particularly long-lasting consequences for Marvel, but in the story of Secret Wars, they are as powerful as they are unavoidable. Hickman's understanding of these characters is consistent and strong throughout. Nobody becomes a mouthpiece. Doom in particular is nuanced to the point of redemption. Despite his flaws, he is a savior in the story. The significance of the final fight between Doom and Richards cannot be overstated. Though that particular rivalry has been overshadowed by other stories in recent years, it is the most representative of what Marvel was and indeed what comic books were decades ago. Concluding what was in many ways the definitive Marvel rivalry was the best possible way to establish a paradigm shift.

Esad Ribic's artwork is stellar throughout the run, matching the epic scope of Hickman's story. Ribic's art is at its very best when dealing with the polar extremes of elaborate, densely populated action sequences and the more abstract and minimal work demonstrated during the scenes with Molecule Man and the ending scenes with the now godlike Reed Richards. The latter in particular has a strikingly beautiful panel wherein Richards' family and the future foundation are watching as new universes are being constructed. The juxtaposition of traditional comic book art in the foreground and cosmic ambience in the background perfectly encapsulates just where the story has gone. Ive Svorcina's coloring is also worth mentioning. It would have been really easy for the kingdoms of Battleworld to blend into one another. Svorcina is able to use various distinctive palettes to show that this really is a world stitched from other worlds.

Secret Wars’ greatest weakness is perhaps its complete disregard for not only new comic book fans, but even casual comic book fans. The beginning can seem disorienting if you aren't familiar with, at the very least, Hickman's Avengers and New Avengers. It takes until around #3 for the comic to be anything but overwhelming from a storytelling standpoint. Once you get past the sheer difficulty in understanding the plot, it then becomes difficult for newer fans to fully understand the significance of certain moments in the story. There are a number of events throughout the story that have an intense amount of narrative weight, but only because of the significance they have against the backdrop of Marvel lore. Not the least of which is the culmination of decades of struggle between the Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom. Newer readers should read a few summaries of previous arcs and look up character backgrounds to fully grasp what the story presents them with.

It's easy to fall into a trap of cynicism and think of shelving the Fantastic Four as a response to Marvel's lack of their film rights, the destruction of Earth-1610 as a result declining sales of Ultimate Marvel, the prevalence of Star-Lord and the incredible surprise appearance of Groot as capitalizing on the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy film, or even just taking care of the worldbreaker that is Franklin Richards. This is all outside of the text. Even if those circumstances were at play, the team behind this major event has created an intricate and relentless piece of art. From cover to cover, Secret Wars is bombastic, overwhelming, and truly something fantastic.

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