Best Shots Reviews: CIVIL WAR II #0, SUPERMAN: AMERICAN ALIEN #7, TWILIGHT CHILDREN

"Twilight Children" cover by Darwyn Cooke
Credit: Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Civil War II #0
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Olivier Coipel and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Well, I didn’t see that coming.

By “that,” I mean enjoying this zero issue for Civil War II. On its surface, there’s the whiff of cash-grab all over it, with the theme of predicting and stopping crime before it can even happen feeling like less like a fresh idea and more a naked attempt to ride on the coattails of a certain blockbuster movie starring Chris Evans. But no one (unless they’re an Inhuman) can predict the future, and much to my surprise, Brian Michael Bendis delivers a tightly focused, character-driven opener that’s elevated by some spectacular artwork by Olivier Coipel. War might be hell, but Civil War II’s opening salvo proves to be some pretty compelling stuff.

For those who expect some hard-and-fast action right out of the gate, though, you might be disappointed — this issue is largely just setting up Captain Marvel and She-Hulk’s perspectives and points of view, which I think is necessary given that they’re not nearly in the public consciousness as much as Captain America and Iron Man were in the original Civil War. But Bendis does some terrific work elevating these two heroes’ Q-ratings ahead of this impending conflict, giving them believable motivations based on their roles as a legal defender and director of Alpha Flight. She-Hulk’s opening speech, defending the rights of a former supervillain, is the particular highlight of the book, nicely establishing this book’s main theme — can you punish someone for actions not taken? And when do we draw the line of punishing someone for thought?

For Bendis, whose scripts can often come across as scattered or decompressed, this is actually some pretty thoughtful work, with most of his characters having a nice bit of humanity to them, such as Captain Marvel having a surprisingly compassionate drop-in in the form of super-psychologist Doc Samson, or War Machine getting a very interesting job offer from the Commander-in-Chief himself. While the three main characters don’t interact in this story just yet, Bendis is doing his homework here, giving readers an adequate rationale for why these heroes might be at each other’s throats in the next few months — and unlike the original Civil War, which did alienate some readers because of Cap and Tony’s clashing egos, this is an almost more humane dilemma. Carol and Jen aren’t bad people, and they don’t even seem to hate each other (at least, not yet) — they’re two good people who happen to have two very different backgrounds and two wildly different ideas of how to make the world a better place.

It also doesn’t hurt that Bendiss is able to sell this issue with some superb artwork from Olivier Coipel and Justin Ponsor. Aside from a single page of War Machine preparing for battle (a battle which never actually materializes, tellingly), there’s no action in this book, but Coipel makes you forget all that with some lovingly rendered conversation scenes. She-Hulk in the courtroom looks dynamic and dashing with well-placed contrast of light and shadow as opposed to her chic and super-cool aviator glasses she wears on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, while you can’t help but smile as Captain Marvel warmly places a hand on Doc Samson’s chest when she greets him. (Indeed, while the She-Hulk scene might show off Bendis’s chops the most, Coipel excels with Carol — there’s so much great body language at play here, as there’s a real sense of nervousness to this guardian of the spaceways, who views the Earth the same way a parent would an accident-prone child.)

The only downside to this issue so far is when Bendis has to strike out outside of previously established heroes, with two soon-to-be Inhumans feeling a little underdeveloped as characters. Some of this isn’t Bendis’s fault, however — the Inhumans still feel a bit like the “fetch” of the Marvel Universe, but shoehorning them in as a prospective catalyst to Civil War II still feels like a bit of stretch, with the Terrigen Cloud still moving around and transforming vast swathes of people years after Infinity took place. But once you accept this somewhat bitter pill, Bendis does what he has to do establish this plot point, making it clear for readers for future issues. That said, it’s not nearly as down-to-earth and understandable as, say, the Stamford accident in the original Civil War, which I think keeps this conflict from feeling like Marvel’s trademark “world outside your window.”

Minor flaws in the premise aside, Bendis and Coipel deliver some surprisingly charming work with Civil War II #0, which — at least thus far — doesn’t feel like the shameless cash-in that you might expect from this summer event sequel. While it remains to be seen if this creative team can stick the landing once tensions escalate, this is a great way to further establish some deserving Marvel characters outside of the Captain America/Iron Man bubble, and a strong foundation for some bigger fireworks down the line.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman: American Alien #7
Written by Max Landis
Art by Jock and Lee Loughridge
Letters by John Workman
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

This is how Max Landis’ grand Superman story ends — not with a bang, but with yet another jumbled story built on the back of another gratuitous cameo, severely divergent characterization, and more dead Metropolis civilians. Landis, a long-time comic book fan, set an odd measuring stick for himself in the lead up to Superman: American Alien, saying that he wanted his series to be the direct opposite of the seminal All-Star Superman. By that metric, he’s succeeded with flying colors, as his seventh installment ends the series with Clark having learned nothing and barely growing beyond the headstrong youth of the opening issue. Quickly leading up to another brutal super slugfest and little else, Superman: American Alien #7 is more self-indulgence from a writer who seems uninterested in characters that grow as people beyond their power set.

Opening on a crowded morning commute on the Metropolis railway, American Alien #7 finally presents a story about a Superman who has finally embraced his costumed persona and became the Man of Tomorrow — but instead of taking his time and really analyzing how his protagonist has evolved as a hero, Landis sends Clark headlong into yet another brawl, this time against the baddest bastich in the galaxy, Lobo. Though it will always make me smile to see Lobo’s original design gracing the pages of a major DC release, rendered in a blend of beauty and volatility thanks to the rough edged pencils of Jock and the rich colors of Lee Loughridge, Landis quickly glosses over the narrative reason he’s there. While there’s something about a Thanagarian, who we never meet nor hear anything else about aside from a lone bit of dialogue, Lobo’s motivations are murky as to why he wants to send a message to that the Earth is not safe.

This seventh issue quickly sidesteps any kind of development in order to get right to the fisticuffs, drawing close comparisons to the Parasite encounter in American Alien #5. Like that chapter, Landis once again displays an almost gleeful tendency to motivate Clark with dozens of dead bystanders. American Alien #7 is much more Zack Snyder than Richard Donner, and while these deaths were at least committed off-panel, piling dead bodies at the feet of a hero just to light a fire under his ass isn’t stirring, it’s a cheap device that rings false to me as a reader, even regard to this younger Superman. On a narrative and tonal level, Superman doesn’t need death to motivate him or to give his stories high stakes — he is simply good for the sake of being good, always attempting to better his adoptive home no matter the cost to himself. However, Max Landis seems to have a very different idea about Superman, his motivations, and the stories he is featured in, and has no problem spilling blood in order to illustrate that.

Though Landis does give us the briefest glimpse of a Superman we can get behind as he attempts to reason with Lobo right before they throw down, this seventh issue fully solidifies one of the glaring problems with Landis’ series and his take on Clark in general: Clark Kent hasn’t learned a single thing about being a hero. Instead, he ends in the precise place he started, as a huffy, sullen, volatile, and, most damningly, static character. The argument could and surely has be made that because this is still Clark in the early days of his hero career that he is still attempting to solidify his costumed persona as well as his responsibilities throughout the city and world at large, something Landis danced around in the last two issues. Unfortunately,yet again, Clark is a passive character in his own story as Lobo lambasts him, jabbing at his unsure demeanor and delivering cringeworthy anecdotes about how him and his Czarnian buddies used to take the skulls of dead Kryptonians and use them in truly vile ways. Landis then tops that dubious achievement by having Clark fire back (on live TV) that he plans on shoving Lobo’s bike where the sun don’t shine.The Big Blue Boy Scout this isn’t, but that's exactly what Max Landis promised, and for better or worse, he made good on his claims.

While this issue’s battle royale between Superman and Lobo may be vicious, it also winds up being this issue’s saving grace, thanks to the artwork of Jock and Lee Loughridge. Jock’s sense of scale is on full display here as he renders much of the scenes in wide angles, making Superman and Lobo look like small die-cast figurines against the expansive skyline of Metropolis. Jock’s keen eye for action blocking is also played to the hilt as you feel each punch and tackle as Lobo and Clark take it to the streets and throw everything they have at one another, detailed by his trademark panels within panels style, famously used to great effect in "The Black Mirror." Jock’s wild style and heavy inks are further enhanced by the colors of Lee Loughridge, who is working a bit darker than I like to see him work in this finale, but in doing so, allows Clark’s makeshift costume to truly pop, giving Superman: American Alien #7 a much-needed streak of bold color amid the drab watercolor-esque skyline and the stark metallic gleaming of the Metropolis skyline.

Between this and the thudding “Final Days of Superman” crossover, DC Comics clearly has a Superman problem, and it may take Rebirth to truly solve it. Heavily promoted by the man himself, Max Landis’ Superman: American Alien doesn’t amount to much other than another disposable creative exercise from a famous fan accompanied by another hard to swallow “grounded” take on Superman that either makes him look petulant at best and a super-jerk at the worst. American Alien’s Superman isn’t a character, he’s a collection of super powers posing as a character. Though Superman: American Alien features some of the best artwork and covers that DC has produced this year, its finale reveals the series true form: a story about a Superman that cares little about actually being or becoming Superman.

Trade Review!

Credit: Darwyn Cooke (DC Comics)

Twilight Children TPB
Written by Gilbert Hernandez
Art by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Darwyn Cooke
Published by Vertigo
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Gilbert Hernandez and Darwyn Cooke might have set up a mystery in Twilight Children, but this book doesn’t seem that involved in wanting to solve it in a nice, neat package. When an otherwise sleepy town is invaded by mysterious white orbs and a white haired woman named Ela, it brings together secret agents, scientists and lovers to try and figure out why these orbs are kidnapping adults and blinding the children of the village. While these are important aspects of the narrative, these plot points are really just the readers’ entry point into the characters. Much like Hernandez’s Love and Rockets stories, the magic realism in the plot exists to drive the development and interactions of the characters in Twilight Children.

Even with this final work, Cooke has proved he still had multitudes of untapped potential. Coming from a storied body of work that encompassed superheroes, action and pulp, Twilight Children is another great fit for Cooke’s style, but also is a more purely character-driven story than anything Cooke had done before. It’s the relationship and reactions of the characters within the panels that create the drama of the story. Unlike the Parker adaptations or even DC: The New Frontier where Cooke was able to punctuate his stories with large action scenes, Hernandez’s story is built around how characters occupy their space (usually within the panels of the page) together, allowing Cooke’s characters to act with and against each other.

It’s these character actions, the way that they love, argue, fight and care for each other, that provides a strong platform for Cooke’s work. It’s fascinating to read this book, because Cooke very well could have been a possibly long-lost Hernandez brother with this kind of artwork. The way Cooke’s characters are arranged in a panel feels akin to Gilbert’s “Palomar” stories, while in other ways, Cooke’s art evokes Gilbert’s brother Jaime Hernandez (see his Love Bunglers book) with simple yet emotive lines.

Hernandez’s story isn’t really about the white orbs or the blind children, even as he uses that to set all of the characters in motion. His story is about Tito, the woman who has every man in town wrapped around her little finger, Ela, the mysterious woman who enchants the town and is somehow related to those orbs, and the men who get pulled into the orbit of both of these women. Twilight Children spends far more time playing with the characters than its sci-fi premise, putting them together in different combinations, to see the relationships and conflicts that develop between them. Thanks to Hernandez and Cooke, almost all of the characters have distinct personalities and roles in the story that make Twilight Children a book that’s a fun and immersive story.

The book needs the characters to be that strong and engaging because the two creators have left an awful lot of details out. For instance, there a a lot of secret agents that show up to investigate the mystery of the orbs but never really drive any of the plot. Children become blind because of the orbs, but there’s never any reasoning or explanation given to why. The orbs are used as a MacGuffin just to drive the characters, but when Hernandez has to wrap up the stories of the orbs, the ending feels extremely incomplete because nothing has really been done with these things to make the conclusion all that satisfying. Only one character has anything close to a resolution that’s in any way connected to the orbs.

Even if the plot resolution isn’t completely satisfying, Gilbert Hernandez and Darwyn Cooke’s Twilight Children succeeds in the strength and personality of its characters. It’s the women and men of this small village that give this story its life and intrigue, giving this comic a timeless but modern feel. The book exists in the here and now for the characters; most don’t have a future or a past, but but they all have this time now, and that’s the creator’s approach to the story. The plot devices serve just to bring everyone — including Hernandez and Cooke — in a room together, just to see what kind of magic could happen next.

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