Best Shots Advanced: STRANGE, S.W.O.R.D., Much More

Marvel #1 Previews: S.W.O.R.D. & DARK X

Best Shots Advanced

11-03-09

By Newsarama’s Best Shots Crew; brought to you by ShotgunReviews.com

Your Host: Troy Brownfield

Greetings, readers!  Remember, you can keep track of all our Best Shots columns, including the new Best Shots Advanced and Best Shots Rapid Fire, and stand-alone reviews right here: The Best Shots Topic Page.

Spoilers on, gentle readers.

Strange #1

Written by Mark Waid

Art by Emma Rios

Colors by Christina Strain

Letters by Todd Klein

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

The Hoary Hosts of Hoggath. The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak. The Eye of Agamatto.

For years, so many people have seen Doctor Strange as defined by incantations and witchcraft -- ultimately, to the point where he became less of a character, and more of a plot device. So reading the first issue of Strange was a welcome experience -- it's almost assuredly not what you'd expect, but this book not only brings Stephen back to his roots, but manages to build upon him as a person in a way that's both unexpected yet unmistakably fun.

Without giving too much away, writer Mark Waid puts Stephen Strange in a delightfully crack-tastic, almost Silver Age situation that is just so crazy, that just this once, it somehow manages to work. The reason for this is twofold -- first and foremost, Waid takes Stephen Strange and gives him just a few touchstones that make him relatable again. His dry sense of humor? The fact he played baseball in college? These are all great little details that keep us invested.

The other thing Waid does is he establishes rules that not only help define how magic is cast, but also sets up a challenge for Strange to overcome. It's through this framework that Waid builds the logic in his off-kilter world, which sets up a climax at the end of the story that, well, I can't remember a superhero comic ever actually hinging on before. It's certainly well off the beaten path, and it's that refreshing element that really sticks with you.

Well, perhaps I'm speaking too soon -- I have the feeling that Waid wouldn't have been able to get away with half of what he's done without the art team of Emma Rios and Christina Strain. The art, to be succinct, is beautiful. There's emotion, movement, a nice sense of composition -- Rios and Strain are really the magic behind this book. It's a good thing, too: there's a lot of subtleties in Waid's script, but Rios not only manages to pull them off, but there are some other panels -- such as a hint of a grin as Strange vanishes away -- that are just marvelous. Strain's colors are especially wonderful, with the "real" world and the magic world having distinctly different palettes, but still managing to make all the images pop with energy. Even the lettering by Todd Klein stands apart from the pack, with the slightly angular font really reading well and lending to the urgency. In other words, you can't say enough good things about the visuals in this book.

All in all, the first issue of Strange is certainly not what you'd expect from the Sorcerer Supreme -- there's certainly a more down-to-earth quality to this book than its companion title, Doctor Voodoo -- but I think that's what will give this book its charm. Marvel was right when they said it was a new age for Doctor Strange -- but instead of it being the bleak repetitions of the Vishanti, the Wand of Watoomb, or the Book of Oshtur, Mark Waid, Emma Rios, and Christina Strain actually give us people to root for. And that's why this first issue of Strange -- in more ways than one -- hits a home run.

S.W.O.R.D. #1

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Steven Sanders and Craig Yeung

Letters by Dave Lamphear

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

It may not be quite what you expected, but that doesn't mean that S.W.O.R.D. isn't sharp. Playing off Agent Abigail Brand and her boyfriend, the gregarious X-Man Hank McCoy, this series is sort of a sci-fi Nick and Nora Charles with a quirky art style that is leavened by effective guest stars and a light sense of humor.

From the very beginning, writer Kieron Gillen takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to this story -- this isn't the grand space opera that Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are cooking up, these are weird aliens with a taste for North Carolina and UFOs emitting M.S.S.s, or "Mysterious Spooky Signals." In a lot of ways, Gillen's dialogue is reminiscent of (admittedly a tamer version of) Warren Ellis, as Abigail shouts: "One: What the hell are you doing in my chair? Two: Why are you so hideously deformed?"

All this wit fits together nicely with Abigail's new nemesis -- Henry Peter Gyrich, going to infinity and beyond after quitting the Initiative a while back -- as well as her relationship with Hank McCoy. There's one page in particular when Hank and Abigail interact -- split right down the middle between Gillen and artist Steven Sanders -- that is just pitch perfect hilarious. Even the secondary characters, like Lockheed and Sydren, have own moments, and the two villains of this book have a lot of potential.

So what about the art? This is important for people to know -- the interior art really doesn't bear almost any resemblance to the John Cassaday cover, which may confuse and turn off some people. But for those who get over the initial shock, Steven Sanders is a great, if occasionally rough, choice for the tone of this book. Sanders uses lots of blocky lines and shapes to design his characters -- the Beast especially looks jarringly different from the cover, but Sanders makes up for it by giving him some hilarious expressions, including a scene of a blueberry muffin delivery gone horribly wrong. While occasionally Sanders' composition looks off, thereby inadvertantly seeming to cut off a person's chin or the top of their head, the colors look fantastic, really establishing a nice sense of balance to all this.

Combined with a really well-thought sciency back-up, written by Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie, S.W.O.R.D. #1 is definitely an issue that does everything right for itself. The real question for now is whether or not it will get enough readership to stay afloat, in a market with a lot of X-Men and space opera titles as is. But for my money, if you're looking for a comic that has the science as well as the smarts, the humanity as well as the humor, a book that is both down-to-earth and out-of-orbit -- give this S.W.O.R.D. a swing, because despite first impressions, it really is a cut above the rest.

Dark X-Men #1

From: Marvel

Written by Paul Cornell

Art by Leonard Kirk and Jay Leisten

Color by Brian Reben

Letters by Rob Steen

Review by Troy Brownfield

Y’know, I really wanted to like this one.  Given that this was the writer and artist that had one of the best super-hero books of the last couple of years cancelled as it was hitting its absolute stride, I wanted Cornell and Kirk knock the cover off the ball.  I’m sure that this will sell around a metric ton since it’s cross-branded between “Dark Reign” and “X-Men”, but it’s still a let-down.

Why, exactly?  By this point, the “Norman assembles a team of villains analogous to heroes” has been done repeatedly.  In fact, it’s already been done with the X-Men once within “Dark Reign”.  So, between Dark Avengers, the “darkening” of the Initiative, the Dark Young Avengers, the first round of Dark X-Men, the dark Illuminati known as the Cabal, and this, I’m about dark-versioned out.

That doesn’t mean that the issue is devoid of original moments.  The fact that Mystique chooses to make her public face that of Jean Grey is sick and wrong; the fact that she basically does it to mess with Wolverine is hilarious.  I think that there are moments with Omega that could work, but he seems a bit too much of a combo of JSA’s current Starman and The Sentry; he recalls the former because of his stream-of-consciousness crazytalk, and the latter for circumstances pushing his extremely powerful self out of battle.  I do like the brief glimpse of Mimic’s awful future; not that I liked what he saw, but I like that seeing such an event can give a character edge and drive.  Dark Beast doesn’t do a lot for me.  It’s probably for the best that they’re playing him insane, but I was more or less over the character in the ‘90s, and I haven’t been real thrilled that he was pulled out of mothballs earlier in the first place.

In terms of the issue-ending return/surprise, I could take it or leave it.  I know that the character has his fans, but I’m hard-pressed to recall really enjoying the character on his first go-round.  Perhaps Cornell and Kirk have something interesting to come, and this is the slow build.  As it is though, I felt like I could safely miss the next issue of Dark X-Men and wait for Cornell and Kirk to get their hands on something that they could really make their own again.

Casper and The Spectrals #1

From: Ardden Entertainment

Written by Todd Dezago

Art by Pedro Delgado

Review by Russell Burlingame

The first issue of Ardden Entertainment’s Casper and the Spectrals miniseries by Todd Dezago and Pedro Delgado will hit store shelves around the country tomorrow, setting the stage for the first “full-length” Casper comics adventure (that is to say, the first time that there’s been a continuing story between two or more issues of a “Casper the Friendly Ghost” comic book). Borrowing a beat from “Monsters, Inc.”, Casper and his friends aren’t “evil” ghosts. While Casper is still substantially nicer than the rest, wanting to befriend humanity, the ghosts in Spooky Town are scaring because they need to keep people in terror to keep their town alive, and to keep an ancient evil called Volbragg in check. The origin story for Volbragg alone could cover the length of an entire old Casper story from the Harvey Comics days.

Artist Pedro Delgado does a great job of what’s proven time and again to be one of the most delicate balancing acts in comics—taking a character with an iconic look from a bygone era, and making it “work.” I honestly think that what he carried off in this issue is one of the hardest things to do in comics and animation; think of how the '80s episodes of "The Flintsones" just had an overwhelmingly shabby, second-rate feeling. And it'd be even harder to pinpoint the difference in animation styles between the original show and that, than it is to put your finger on the difference of how Casper was handled in the '40s versus now. He balances the new and the classic perfectly to make the new title look like a contemporary extension of the originals, rather than a complete reinvention or, worse, a reprint of old material that can’t catch the eye or capture the imagination of new readers. The major exception, of course, is Wendy the Witch, who takes on a more emo/anime look. I don’t like it myself, but since she dresses a lot like my sixteen-year-old cousin, I suppose Delgado and Ardden can’t be faulted too much for drawing from the world around them. One of my favorite reinventions, actually, was that the “goblins” living in the borough of Goblin Gulch look quite a bit like Jeff Smith’s rat creatures from “Bone”. Probably just a coincidence, but when you’re looking at an all-ages comic, a lot of stuff harkens back to Jeff Smith.

It should be stated that I love Todd Dezago to pieces for making the you’re/your distinction a joke in the title; when I first saw it, I found myself wondering whether it was a lettering mistake or just a play on the fact that many American teenagers don’t use proper spelling or syntax while sending text messages. Instead, it was revisited five pages later to help put us (at least those of us irked by those kinds of mistakes) firmly on Casper’s side during the “to scare or not to scare” debate at school.

By the time Casper and Wendy meet for the first time, the writing has been on the wall; even for kids, Dezago has made it easy to understand how and why the group of titular heroes will come together; Casper goes out into the other boroughs (where he’s been told not to go his whole life) in search of like-minded people, and finds Wendy almost immediately. After a rough start, they have a whirlwind…well, if this were a book meant for an older audience it would be a courtship, but anyhow, a montage sequence built around a great two-page splash of the pair together. I loved the interaction between the characters in the splash page; without dialog, a sequence like that is often even stronger, using expressions and body language to pack a bigger emotional punch than you can do with words. It felt a bit like the "watching their lives unfold" sequence in Disney's "Up," which was so far and away the best sequence in the film to me that it could have been a Pixar short all by itself. Hot Stuff is just gravy, really, providing some cheap laughs, getting the pair into trouble and then, as of the end of this first issue, still not actually on the side of the angels yet.

All in all, it’s a fun, funny, charming read and a worthwhile investment for fans looking to enjoy Casper’s 60th birthday with a little more pizzazz than is offered by reading decades-old reprints. Dezago makes kids’ stuff seem vital for grown-ups, making this comic something that can be entertained by just about anybody willing to give it a chance.

Lava-Roid #1

From: Viva la Flarb Comics

Written by Kevin Conn and Stephen Lindsay

Art by Leanne Hannah

Review by Russell Burlingame

Lava-Roid #1, from Viva la Flarb Comics, will be hitting IndyPlanet.com and comic shops in the Northeast U.S. this week. Its creator, Kevin Conn, describes the book as “a cross between ‘The Tick’ and ‘South Park’,” which isn’t totally inaccurate. Co-written by Stephen Lindsay (“Jesus Hates Zombies”) and drawn by Leanne Hannah, this book seems like what a full issue of DC’s Human Flame character might have been like, if he had turned good back before “Final Crisis” established him as more character than punchline. A chubby dude with a goatee who has fire powers and uses them to fight for justice…just not very well. But that’s alright, because the twits he finds himself facing are even less competent than he is; I guess that’s where you can draw a big line of differentiation between Lava-Roid and The Tick, whose victories always seemed to be fueled by dumb luck, since all his villains were way smarter than him.

The cartoonish art style suits the book well, and it’s got more polish than a lot of small press books, making it feel like it could compete in a comic shop market. The artist also clearly knows the perfect level of ridiculousness with which to depict some of the goofy characters contained herein, showcasing “The Villainous Destructors” as a group of middle-aged guys (and a bear) whose powers and weaknesses would have them at home in the pages of Garth Ennis’s “Hitman” comics.

The issue, based on a webseries that Conn wrote and stars in, feels like the start to a miniseries but is, by its own admission, kind of an experiment. “Will the adventure continue?” asks a narration box where you would customarily talk about the next issue, and then directs you to the Lava-Roid website for more information. Presumably the stories will keep coming if Conn makes enough money off the comic to pay his artists and not have to hock that awesome Lava-Roid suit. I kinda hope he does—there’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s a fun, funny book and right now superhero comics outside of the big two are getting so good (see things like The Life and Times of Savior 28 and Irredeemable) that they’re no longer guaranteed to be afterthoughts.

Witchblade #132 

Written by Ron Marz

Art by Stjepan Sejic

Letters by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow

Review by Lan Pitts

"There's something in these woods that the dogs don't like." Sara Pezzini, Witchblade

What can I say about Witchblade that hasn't already been said as of late? It's a great page-turner and since being turned on to the series after a lengthy absence, it's constantly in my pullbox. Marz has the book set in more of a noir setting with a supernatural edge and it's better than ever. After this past Summer's "War of the Witchblades" ended, it's a better time than ever to jump on the title.

This issue is particularly good in the fact that it shows Sara being a woman, a cop, and the bearer of the Witchblade. Sara has become a multi-layered character under Marz's hand, and these sort of issues are always a treat. Though this issue is just mainly a set up for the next issue, it doesn't take away from the fact that it is still a solid read.

Marz handles an intimate moment between Sara and Patrick with care that isn't too explicit, but still shows adults acting like adults. They're supposed to be on vacation in New England, trying to patch things up from the events that occurred in "War of the Witchblades", but of course the supernatural likes to follow them like a shadow and the vacation is abruptly ended. I have to admit, it was nice to see the story take place outside of the New York limits, it just to freshens things up a bit.

Now, I've made comments about Sejic's art being a bit stoic sometimes. He's still getting there, and this issue shows a great improvement with those quieter moments. It was nice to see how he handled Sara in a more relaxed environment, even if only for a few pages. There is one scene that comes to mind where she's just opening a bottle of wine with the Witchblade, and it may be just a "talking head" page, but there are subtle changes to her face that really sell the dialouge.

I'm curious to see where Marz is taking this take on a fairy tale. As I mentioned, if you haven't jumped on yet, give it a look. Marz's dialouge catches one up quickly as well as the recap in the opening of the issue. It's a great time to be a Witchblade fan.

Phonogram 2: The Singles Club #5 [of 7]

From Image

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Jamie McKelvie

Review by Russell Burlingame

“Phonogram” is a great read every time a new one comes out—it’s like a more referential, less hard-to-follow version of “Young Liars”. It’s got the sex, the rock and roll and the vaguely sketchy narrator (we open this issue on Laura cutting herself)…but from month to month it’s a lot less common to suddenly realize that everything you know is wrong than it would be in Lapham’s musically-tinted dark opus.

…I mean, so far. We’re only five issues in, after all.

There’s something refreshingly honest about Laura’s voice in this book, though, and particularly in the open disdain for Penny (the beautiful, fun-loving best friend who’s so popular that, let’s face it, she’d be pretty hard to like if you had half a brain). The comic is full of cleverly-worded insights into the human condition, particularly as it relates to pop culture, pop music and the club scene, and while the editor’s notes are copious and maybe a little redundant when, after a while, every other page is citing the same song (“You Could Have Both,” Young Blondes), it’s a nice device and it’s always good to see creators willing to stretch out and use something like the asterisks that were such a staple of the mainstream superhero comics of my youth, as something more than just a way to say “Remember last issue?”.

Still, like Ted Mosby on “How I Met Your Mother”, it’s necessary for Laura to be taken down a peg because even when she’s right, she still has a pretentious and self-righteous way of communicating it (Ted’s friends call him a “douche” at least once a season). Surprisingly enough, it comes in the form of another, equally pretentious girl in the bathroom who sees her for what she is, calls her on her crap and even knows the Long Blondes lyrics she’s quoting the whole sequence feels like something that has to happen about once a week in a club somewhere, when some kid who’s trying too hard runs into someone a little older, who used to be just like they were at that age.

Resurrection Vol 2 Issue 5

Published by Oni Press

Written by Marc Guggenheim

Art by Justin Greenwood

Reviewed by Kevin Huxford

I haven’t read an issue of Resurrection in a long time. I picked up the first few issues of the original volum, finding the premise intriguing and the execution promising. If asked about the execution of this issue, much like an old Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, I’d answer, “I’m in favor of it.”

Marc Guggenheim is a talented writer, both of comics and television. So I found it surprising that this read like a really bad hour long drama script. The dialog is stilted, the situations aspire to be cliché and it even resorts to stunt casting. If you’re going to write real life famous people into your work, you better do a damn good job or else it is just going to emphasize your failures. That’s exactly what the “casting” of Bill Clinton as the surviving President does here.

While you’re taken out of the story just a bit by the inclusion of the real life President, it is all too easy to notice weaknesses in the dialogue and hack scenes. A character notes just how unbelievable the circumstance of a development is a few too many times and you can’t miss it. Someone coming to the rescue of a character with less subtlety than a direct-to-cable Z movie action flick sticks out like a sore thumb. Being taken so far out of things, you’re, also, infinitely aware that the writer is capable of so much better and can’t help but wonder if the issue didn’t suffer from an over-filled schedule (Marvel and Hollywood work).

The art here is solid, if unspectacular. At no point does the story suffer from the artist’s storytelling or the somewhat cartoony style. Some pages and panels look like they received a bit more care than others, but might not be as noticeable if the writing didn’t prevent you from being completely immersed in the story. Then again, it is entirely possible that, had the artist stepped it up a few notches, that the art might have been able to mask the shortcomings of the script.

This issue really doesn’t give me any reason to come back to the Resurrection property. While this may be the weakest issue in the latest volume, for all I know, I can’t imagine a set of circumstances where I buy the next one in hopes that it redeems the mini-series.

Punishermax #1

Published by Marvel Comics

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by Steve Dillon

Reviewed by Kevin Huxford

F*ck!

I can say that here, right? I mean, I’m reviewing a Max title about the Punisher written by Garth Ennis, so why not?

What? Motherf*cker!

In working with Steve Dillon, Jason Aaron really does evoke so many of the things Garth Ennis seemed to get right with an over-the-top Punisher book. The unrealistically extreme violence and overwhelmingly sadistic nature of Frank’s war on crime are all well executed here and, had you not checked the credits on the cover, would do very little to make you realize this wasn’t the work of Ennis. I mean that as a great compliment, as Garth’s work on the character is the only time I’ve really gotten into the property.

In writing the beginnings of the Kingpin into this tale, Jason Aaron puts his own stamp on things, though. While I was originally set that the level of deviousness (deviosity?) that we see from Fisk is more than you’d get from Frank’s opposite number in an Ennis-penned tale, I realized that it being a marquee character only makes it seem that way. Instead of being wholly unique, it is just an example of Aaron stepping it up a notch and taking a risk that, so far, seems to pay off.

Steve Dillon’s artwork is the same as it always is. You either love ‘im or hate ‘im, with my opinion being firmly in the “love ‘im” camp. He’s a perfect fit for over-the-top Punisher tales. While his art sometimes can seem a bit stiff, I believe the colorist was able to soften things up in several panels a bit, with the final product only being better for the effort.

After finishing this issue, I’m more excited to read the next than I can remember being for any comic book in a long time (a stretch that encompasses many line-wide events, mind you). Aaron and Dillon have me hooked.

In Case You Missed It . . .

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #4

“The New World According to Peter Parker”

From Marvel

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by David Lafuente

Color by Justin Ponsor

Review by Chanel Reeder

In this issue of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, the story is putting all of the characters through a period of growth.  MJ works to adjust to a life without Peter Parker as her boyfriend, Peter begins his new relationship with Gwen Stacy, and the Parker household has to learn to welcome a new guest:  Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.

The story flows pretty well, beginning with MJ’s attempted kidnapping, which is foiled by a hooded superhero.  Johnny becomes acclimated to the Parker household, from learning to find a common ground with Peter to getting accustomed to performing chores.  Drama ensues between the “love triangle” at the high school when MJ, Gwen and Peter find themselves discussing friendship and relationships.  Thankfully for Peter, an attack on the Queensborough Bridge from someone who appears to be the Hulk draws him away from the drama.  However, a surprise faces Peter when he fights the Hulk, lending an exciting cliff-hanger to set the stage for the next issue.

As far as this particular book goes right now, I think it would be best suited for a younger audience.  I found the story to be a little juvenile, and it took some effort to sustain my interest.  The artwork has a unique feel to it.  It is very structured and stylized, which adds a different dimension to the story.  Frankly, I would say that the art is the weakest aspect of the issue.  Its detail and depth lacked continuity throughout; more consistency could have strengthened the comic.  Overall, it was a decent issue.  Its storyline was easy to follow and would be an easy book for a first time reader to pick up.

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