Best Shots Reviews: DOCTOR STRANGE - THE LAST DAYS OF MAGIC #1, CYBORG #10, FAITH #4

Valiant April 2016 cover
Credit: Valiant Entertainment
Credit: Marvel Comics

Doctor Strange: The Last Days of Magic #1
Written by Jason Aaron, Gerry Duggan and James Robinson
Art by Leonardo Romero, Jordie Bellaire, Danilo Beyruth, Dan Brown, Mike Perkins, and Andy Troy
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

With Marvel Studios set to debut Doctor Stephen Strange on the big screen in the back half of this year, it’s unsurprising that the comic book division is investing some time developing his solo title as well. Writer Jason Aaron’s take on the Sorcerer Supreme has so far been accentuating the “Strange” element in superb fashion, using artist Chris Bachalo’s often impressionist vision of the Marvel Universe to show a man who walks the world to the beat of a different drum. With Doctor Strange: The Last Days of Magic, Aaron and some familiar names explore the wider world of magic in the Marvel Universe, as the nasty Empirikul and their leader, the Imperator, threaten to wipe out the sources of magic everywhere.

This plus-sized companion volume to Doctor Strange takes on a similar format (and narrative thrust) to the one-shot bookends that came with the "Spider-Verse" event, suggesting deeper stories behind some of the characters we will see popping up in this war on magic. Framed around Aaron’s linking segments, with artist Leonardo Romero’s contemporary style of line art matched by the equally dynamic color art of Jordie Bellaire, it follows librarian Zelma Stanton as she sorts the collection of books and oddities that make up Strange’s library. Amidst the books that burn and cause a rash, Zelda learns of some of the other characters that walk the mystic planes of the planet, leading to several stories-within-a-story. The first of these takes place within Aaron and Romero’s piece, concentrating on el Medico Mistico, Doctor Strange’s counterpart south of the border. With large parts written in Spanish, it’s a visual feast for non-cunning linguists in the audience, capped off by brilliant splash page of an ancient statue battling Empirikul hordes. Similarly, another bookend piece introduces us to Mahatma Doom, a floating Monk who took Doom’s mantle to balance out the villain’s evil with his own good.

The second of these vignettes is a solo adventure for Doctor Voodoo by Gerry Duggan, who has previously been using the character in Uncanny Avengers. “I’m on a team with Deadpool,” the mystic quips. “I know all about suffering.” The wonderful point of difference with Voodoo is his Earth-based magic, so that Danilo Beyruth gets to play with more Caribbean fueled iconography, including shriveled hands in jars and wearable totems. Dan Brown matches this with an earthy color spectrum, with purple being the predominant hue used as light in an otherwise murky world. His desperation of the failure of Earth’s magic is palpable, and Duggan instantly paints him as a character worthy of exploration in his own right.

Arguably the most fascinating character is James Robinson’s spin on “The Wu,” who begins her magic career as the daughter of a mystic and inherits her mantle through tragedy. Artists Mike Perkins and Andy Troy bring a suitably dark sensibility to the material, a gritty street-level series of sometimes wordless images bathed in shadow. There’s a flashback sequence that takes a panel straight out of Steve Ditko’s playbook, when Strange first met Dormammu, and while there’s no credit to suggest that this is an original panel, it’s a testament to that classic style of art that it readily stands alongside modern interpretations of the character. That said, it’s hard to beat the imagery of a pink-haired character toting a twin set of magical handguns.

If you don’t feel like wandering outside of the main continuity of the ongoing series, it doesn’t currently seem necessary to pick up a copy of Doctor Strange: The Last Days of Magic. Instead, it serves as an excellent introduction to the wider magical universe and some Marvel characters that may not be familiar to newer audiences. It also serves as further evidence that Aaron’s skills as a writer don’t simply lie in the ability to tell a good story, but rather in the ability to build a world around them.

DC Comics April 2016 solicitations
DC Comics April 2016 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Cyborg #10
Written by Marv Wolfman
Art by Ivan Reis, Felipe Watanabe, Daniel HDR, Julio Ferreira, Oclair Albert and Adriano Lucas
Lettering by Corey Breen
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Underneath all the intrigue of Cyber-Tech, Technosapiens and the Cybernetic Regulation Act, there’s some compelling human drama going on in Cyborg #10, as Marv Wolfman and a well-coordinated army of artists provide a user-friendly wrap-up of this book’s latest arc. While the overarching threat of this book still feels a little nondescript, Wolfman’s shrewd use of Vic’s supporting cast gives some real stakes to this surprisingly soapy narrative, even if you’re largely unfamiliar with this Justice Leaguer’s current status quo.

While oftentimes superhero titles want to dive into the action immediately, Wolfman goes against the grain from the very beginning, establishing Vic in a serene digital landscape, recalling a childhood story with a holographic avatar of his mother. But not only does Wolfman imbue his hero with some real likability — it’s hard to not feel some warmth seeing the way Vic’s mother smiles at him — but he also subtly touches upon Cyborg’s adaptability, his sheer readiness to tackle anything that comes his way. And that bit of planning and counterplanning winds up playing a big part of this issue, as Wolfman brings Vic into the lion’s den, as he willingly surrenders himself to the corporation known as Cyber-Tech.

Now, when it comes to Cyber-Tech, this is where Cyborg #10 still feels a little underdeveloped, as it’s no surprise this obviously malevolent company (complete with its Agent Smith-like figurehead, Holmes) winds up being up to no good. Ultimately, Wolfman’s reveal of a Technosapien threat doesn’t have much in the way of teeth, especially when they’re defeated almost as soon as they make their presence known through some somewhat clunky exposition. But Wolfman isn’t really focusing on the greater Technosapien war, but a major human cost at home, and seeing Vic learn about a wolf in his midst makes for a heartbreaker of a final scene.

Something else that is praiseworthy in this book is seeing how cohesively this art team has worked together, considering there’s no less than a half-dozen artists credited for this 20-page book. Led together by the layouts of Ivan Reis, this book has a consistent style of composition that really plays up the drama and action, with Wolfman and Reis working together nicely to punctuate this book with some well-timed splash images. Meanwhile, finishers Felipe Watanabe, Daniel HDR and Julio Ferreira are largely consistent with their inks — while some pages are a little more lush with their shadows (particularly the Shazam pages), their talents are fairly consistent across the board, making no pages stand out as runts of the litter. Given how many people were involved in this book, making it look coherent at all is high praise, and when you have great beats like Vic and his mom or a final sonic cannon to exorcise a digital demon, I’d say this book has succeeded.

But perhaps the highest compliment I can give Cyborg #10 is that while it doesn’t always hit its mark dramatically, Wolfman has the old-school mentality that every issue is someone’s first, and even though this is the conclusion of a bigger story, he’s got all the information you would need if this was your first time reading the adventures of Victor Stone. And given that he’s not one of DC’s most mainstream characters — at least not in the popular consciousness, although that may change once his movie comes out — you need to be able to get invested in Vic’s personal journey quickly. And in that regard, Wolfman and company have done a great job here.

Credit: Valiant Entertainment

Faith #4
Written by Jody Houser
Art by Francis Portela, Marguerite Sauvage, Andrew Dalhouse and Pete Pantazis
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by Valiant Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Stories hold power in Faith #4, the conclusion of her debut miniseries. As Faith and her new ragtag group of allies prepare to assault the Vine’s Hollywood Hills stronghold and rescue those they have taken captive, writer Jody Houser eschews the normally bombastic finale to instead deliver a stirring rumination on the power of stories and the community of fandom. Though not without some superhero action that is valiantly rendered by series artist Francis Portela with colors by Andrew Dalhouse and Pete Pantazis, Faith #4 takes a much quieter approach to this finale as it closes the chapter on Faith’s first major case as solo hero and sets her up admirably for the ongoing Faith #1, hitting shelves July 20th. Faith Herbert may be a superhero, but she was a fan first and that proves to be her ace in the hole for this rock solid finale issue.

Opening with a cheeky recap in the form of Faith rattling off the story so far to the guest starring Archer, Faith #4 wastes little time throwing Faith’s heroic trio, rounded out by the Vine defector and TV star Hadley, into the thick of things. Writer Jody Houser, still displaying a firm handle on Faith’s earnest and geeky voice, mines a great deal of humor and chemistry from this hastily assembled strike force, all while keeping the stakes high and the odds stacked against our heroes. But that isn’t to say that this finale delves into the grim; in fact, Faith #4 may be the most hopeful issue of the series to date.

And the lion’s share of that hope comes from Faith herself, who proves in this issue that she isn’t your run of the mill superhero. After a fun and flirty assault on the Vine HQ, Faith, her team, and a newly un-mind controlled Torque come face to face with the villainous Director, who still holds humanity responsible for the slaughter of his people and the turning of their greatest weapon, X-O Manowar, against them.

While this kind of encounter would usually lead to some kind of superhero dust-up, Jody Houser take an entirely different approach; opting to give Faith a big speech, instead of a big set piece. What follows is a beautiful monologue from the superpowered fangirl about how the Vine have inserted themselves into humanity by telling stories that make us feel like we are part of something bigger; the very thing that saved Faith’s life and set her on the path to become a costumed hero. While Faith’s fandom has provided ample opportunity for Houser to drop some hilarious references and provided her a relatable voice in which to endear her to readers, this comic uses it as a weapon as Houser allows Faith to use her words and deep-seated goodness in order to win the day. It's a fantastic high note to end this miniseries on and one that shows that stories, fandoms, and culture at large can and will be there for you, even when people aren’t. Faith #4 is a love letter to comics starring one of comic’s biggest (and most powerful) fans and I couldn’t hope for a better constructed ending for her first major solo outing.

While Jody Houser brings the emotion and humor in her script, artists Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage, aided by the colors of Andrew Dalhouse and Pete Pantazis, make this finale pop visually along with its thematic richness. Portela, who’s work has gotten stronger and stronger as this miniseries has gone on, throws himself into the trio’s assault of the Vine HQ with confident bravado, once again employ widescreen like panels and long vertical shots when things take to the sky between Faith and a controlled Torque. Marguerite Sauvage also provides this finale with another smooth and perfectly placed dream sequence as Faith appeals to Headley’s sense of right and wrong by referencing the insane “Night Shifters” TV show in which she starred. Though Sauvage has been mostly used for comedic or heightened effect, her dream sequences have provided fun and stylish high spots for Faith in the middle of Portela’s dynamic panel layouts and characterization.

The end is just the beginning for Faith as she is poised to close this chapter and to open a new one as a full fledged leading lady. Though the character made waves as a avatar for under represented fans all over the world, Jody Houser, Francis Portela, Marguerite Sauvage, Andrew Dalhouse and Pete Pantazis transform this final issue into not only a tight wrap-up of her first case, but a love letter to all of those who found strength and a sense of belonging in the pages of comics just like this one. Stories matter to people and even though she may have superpowers and a burgeoning career as a hero, Faith Herbert is still a fan just like we are. Faith #4 is a book for the nerds and a shining example of Valiant Entertainment’s continued commitment to character.

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