Best Shots Reviews: MONSTERS UNLEASHED #2, MIDNIGHTER & APOLLO #5, KARNAK #6

Karnak #6
Credit: David Aja (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Monsters Unleashed #2
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Greg Land, Jay Leisten and David Curiel
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Superheroes! Fighting! Classic Marvel monsters! Mystery! Did I mention fighting? On paper, Monsters Unleashed should be the easiest home run for Marvel since Marvel Zombies. Mix one part “the thing we’re known for” with one part “a thing that people seem to love,” mix in a couple of talented creators and watch the money roll in. On the surface, it looks like Marvel followed the formula to a tee, but by #2, it’s clear that’s not the case. A weak script by Cullen Bunn is dragged down by Greg Land’s art, failing to capitalize on any of the goodwill they might have built up with the debut issue.

Monsters fighting superheroes is the kind of evergreen concept that should practically write itself, and in Monsters Unleashed, it kind of does. But Bunn fails to build on the conceit of his first issue. Instead of really moving any of the plot threads forward, Bunn barrages us with more and more and more monster battles. That’s all well and good but the heart of the book lies with Elsa Bloodstone and young Kei Kawade (a.k.a. Kid Kaiju). Despite their importance, those characters are relegated to the B-plot while we get page after page of the Avengers and other Marvel heroes dealing with the monster outbreak. After a first issue that was centered around that idea, it’s starts to get a little old in this second installment. Part of the problem is Bunn’s stale dialogue and the subsequently dull wit of his heroes. Their quipping is taxing, and exposes the fact that the plot spins its wheels until the last few pages.

The first issue ended with a reveal that felt straight out of Mark Millar’s 1985 and gave an impression that maybe Bunn was going to dig much deeper into his concept that the title might suggest. There’s still room for that, but we’ve spent two issues in nearly the same spot, foreshadowing a rushed conclusion if Bunn doesn’t play his cards right. There’s a very tedious aspect to this book. I never thought I’d get tired of heroes punching monsters, but here we are.

And a large part of that boredom with the core concept has to do with the art. Marvel was smart to maintain the same inker and colorist for (hopefully) the duration of this mini, because it helps lend a certain visual consistency. But there’s such a clear drop-off between Steve McNiven and Greg Land that it’s impossible to ignore. Land’s monster designs aren’t particularly memorable and we have yet to really see the classic monsters we were promised throwing down. Land’s tendency to trace his figures and faces does not discern ages or intricacies of each individual character. Instead, we’re give a stock male face and a stock female one that only vary slightly in expression. If you enjoyed the first issue for McNiven’s work, this issue will feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under you. Jay Leisten and David Curiel do their best to maintain the look of the book and the colors are fairly consistent but the overall quality of the pages has sunk considerably.

Monsters Unleashed doesn't live up to its potential so far because it can’t even live up to the Pacific Rim-style inanity of its conceit. It’s hard to get readers invested in a concept when you fail to execute the most basic part of that concept well. Marvel did Cullen Bunn and themselves a disservice by choosing to switch artists from issue to issue. Rather than create something cohesive, the script almost seems to be fighting with the art. There’s no fluidity. There’s no grace. The end of the book is promising but even the most optimistic readers are going to have trouble finding something to love here.

Credit: DC Comics

Midnighter and Apollo #5
Written by Steve Orlando
Art by Fernando Blanco and Romulo Fajardo, Jr.
Lettering by Josh Reed
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Over the two years that Steve Orlando has written the Midnighter, the Wildstorm antihero has been defined by his characterization as an ultimate and unstoppable fight machine.

So who wants to see him punch out the Devil?

Putting Midnighter against Neron himself, Midnighter and Apollo #5 is an intimate but hard-hitting issue that's equal parts fist-fights and deception. With plenty of twists, turns and Midnighter's trademark bravado, this comic proves to be one of DC's best this week.

With his lover Apollo trapped in Hell like a superpowered Persephone, Midnighter is a hammer who treats even this problem of Heaven and Hell like a nail - namely, nobody is too big to have their jaw broken, even Neron himself. To that end, Orlando raises the crazy factor of this comic dramatically with Midnighter's scrappiness in the face of eternal damnation. Watching Neron get his smug face punched in is worth the price of admission, but as Orlando keeps moving the goalposts for success, you feel the tension with every new twist.

Part of what I think has held back this series a bit is the departure of artist ACO from the title, but Fernando Blanco acquits himself nicely with this issue, working alongside colorist Romulo Fajardo, Jr. While Blanco's panel layouts can occasionally look a little stiff, such as when Neron and Midnighter trade punches, he sells the manic smile on our protagonist's face as he grins through the blood and agony. He also leans into the dichotomy of Midnighter and Apollo well - whereas Midnighter is dark and ultra-rendered, Apollo is clean and economical, a being of all light and no shadow. Fajardo's colors, meanwhile, keep the gritty mood of the series intact, selling this bleak hellscape without sacrificing clarity.

If there's one critique I might level against this series, it's that Midnighter's headstart against his boyfriend in the characterization department has only continued to increase since the first issue - for a title called Midnighter and Apollo, the latter character still doesn't feel as wonderfully defined as his dark, brooding and witty counterpart. But if having too much Midnighter is the worst complaint I can give, I think this book is still in the running for one of the best superhero titles of the week.

Credit: David Aja (Marvel Comics)

Karnak #6
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Roland Boschi and Dan Brown
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“I take time and care to teach the people of this world one ultimate, vital truth. I teach them that they are nothing.”

Magister Karnak is as nasty as he wants to be in the grimly fun finale of Karnak. Writer Warren Ellis dispenses with the little pleasantries this dark little tale has offered and presents the final showdown between the Magister and his elusive megalomaniacal quarry, who is bent on remolding the world with his “wish granting” ability.

Though there are plenty of gracefully violent displays of Karnak’s fighting skills from the art team of Roland Boschi and Dan Brown, Ellis opts to make this a more philosophical duel, peeling the final layer away from the servant of the Inhuman royal court and laying him bare to readers before the final curtain. Karnak hasn’t been the easiest series to champion, with its nihilistic tone and its erratic release schedule, but #6 stays true to the darkness that sustained it from the start, culminating in a cynically entertaining finale issue.

After slipping from his grasp, Karnak has the Roderick boy and his death cult in his sights. One of the main selling points of these limited issue jaunts that Warren Ellis takes through the Marvel Universe are their forward momentum, and thankfully Karnak #6 more than makes up for the staggered energy of this series which was unfortunately plagued with delayed releases. Armed with a focused structure, Ellis condenses most everything that made this series fun into this finale issue while also providing a final piercing look into Karnak and his philosophy.

With the aid of S.H.I.E.L.D., these scenes peppered with Ellis’ acerbic take on Jemma Simmons and Karnak’s adversarial relationship with Coulson, Karnak faces the boy and his own reasons for tracking him down so fervently. Bookended by charcoal-like action sequences from Roland Boschi and colorist Dan Brown, whose work look like a nightmarish mish-mash of Frazer Irving and the late great Steve Dillon, Ellis provides a thematically heavy resolution instead of one that devolves into a colossal battle. The boy, who attempts to reason with the Magister, just wants to know why he hates him and doesn’t want him to have his miraculous and devoted followers.

To Karnak, the boy’s existence is an affront, but to Ellis, both sides offer interesting narrative ground to tread, which he does to great effect in this final issue. Through each issue, Ellis has revealed a new facet of the man and his way of thinking and by placing him against his diametrical opposite Ellis can get to the heart of both men; a sort of narrative “two birds, one stone” kind of deal. This comparing of doctrine gives this sixth issue an unexpectedly small yet in tone sort of conclusion for the kind of off beat and occasionally dour story this has been; one that proves that though Ellis’ time in the 616 will surely be short, he will still find a way to deliver precisely the kind of book he wants to.

I mentioned before the richly rendered action sequences of Roland Boschi and Dan Brown earlier, but special consideration should be given to just how much they have grown and changed over the course of this nasty little book. Though still occasionally shaking with the kind of sketchy energy that came from the early issues, particularly in the scene where Karnak faces down a tunnel full of giant spiders, Boschi’s pencils have taken on a stony, almost engraved look through the rest of the pages. That hardness and rigidity gives the finale’s second action sequence, a trippy manifestation of both men’s skills, a sort of off-putting, otherworldly feeling only to come to a jarring stop once Karnak finds the flaw and puts his quarry down. Colorist Dan Brown accentuates Boschi’s pencils well with heavily shaded almost acrylic looking colors that deepen the grained texture of the entire issue.

It wasn’t exactly timely and it wasn’t exactly sunny, but Karnak #6 ends its run as it began, as a darkly funny, beautifully drawn, and sometimes troubling exploration of one of Marvel’s most enigmatic figures. As Warren Ellis aims to unleash a Wild Storm on us all, he ends his time with Marvel with an biting and weird Strange Tales-like story of his own, one set just on the fringes of the 616 in the dark areas no one likes to talk about. Though he was just a linchpin in a line wide event, Karnak #6 shows that his everyday life is so much more complicated.

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