Best Shots Comic Reviews: WONDER WOMAN, IRON MAN ANN, More

WONDER WOMAN Officially Renumbered: 600

Happy Independence Day Weekend, Rama Readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you to introduce you to two more members of the Best Shots team! Joining our crackshot band of reviewers are Erika D. Peterman and Vanessa Gabriel, the dynamic duo behind the awesome site Girls Gone Geek!

A tag team of comics connoisseurs in their own right, Erika, Vanessa and the rest of the team are helping celebrate the holiday weekend with TWENTY-TWO new releases, including DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, Top Cow, BOOM! Studios, Radical Comics, Fantagraphics, and even some reads from some very industrious independents. That's right -- Best Shots doesn't sleep. Want to read more? We've got you covered: Check us out at the Best Shots Topic Page here! Now, let's give our new recruits some Internet applause, as Erika takes on the Amazing Amazon herself...

Wonder Woman #600

Written by Gail Simone, Amanda Conner, Louise Simonson, Geoff Johns and J. Michael Straczynski

Art by George Perez, Scott Koblish, Hi-Fi, Nicola Scott, Jason Wright, Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert, Rod Reis, Amanda Conner, Paul Mounts, Guillem March, Greg Horn, Francis Manapul, Brian Buccellato, Phil Jimenez, Eduardo Pansica, Bob Wiacek, Pete Pantazis, Jock, Scott Kolins, Michael Atiyeh, Don Kramer, Michael Babinski and Alex Sinclair

Lettering by Travis Lanham, John J. Hill and Nick J. Napolitano

Published by DC Comics

Review by Erika D. Peterman

So, heard any good jokes about Wonder Woman’s costume lately?

For all the hoopla surrounding Diana’s new sartorial and editorial direction, J. Michael Straczynski’s timeline-shifting story, “Odyssey: Prologue” is easily the least interesting part of this stuffed-to-the-gills special issue. It’s a perfectly serviceable introduction to an edgier and (allegedly) more modern Wonder Woman, but the real stars of issue #600 are the gorgeously illustrated, affectionately written tributes to Classic Wonder Woman.  

Opening with Lynda Carter’s heartfelt essay about her ‘70s TV alter ego, this comic is a love letter to longtime Wondy fans. It’s a particularly great pleasure to see George Perez’s instantly recognizable drawings in a story written by Gail Simone. Few artists can fill a panel with action and detailed fury quite like Perez, and his pencil work fits nicely with Simone’s moving, past-referencing script. By surrounding Wonder Woman with a slightly star-struck, female super-team -- even Batwoman is in awe -- Simone gives readers a sense of why Diana is such an inspirational icon. Sentimental? Yes, but in the best possible way.

Amanda Conner’s writer/artist contribution is another standout. Those of us who loved Conner’s work on Power Girl (and secretly wished she’d get a shot at drawing the Amazon princess), are rewarded with an intimate, just-gals-talking story featuring P.G. and Diana. It also includes one heck of an Easter egg (wink) in the opening pages. Conner’s style is playful without being cartoony, and she embraces the starring heroines’ sexiness without compromising their authority.

Louise Simonson’s Wonder Woman-Superman team-up story won’t win any prizes for originality, but it’s solidly OK. Eduardo Pansica’s corresponding illustrations are similarly workmanlike and a tad generic. It would have been a real treat if one of the many guest pin-up artists -- particularly Guillem March, Adam Hughes or the superb Nicola Scott -- had been able to strut their stuff here.  

And now for that JMS story that everyone’s talking about: The good news is that Wonder Woman is as fierce a warrior as ever, even in that Hot Topic-inspired getup. Don Kramer draws a lovely Diana, though the flotation device boobs look silly in this sleeker, more athletic context. I’d say that jeggings and a choker are just as impractical in an alley fight as a star-spangled bathing suit, but that’s just me.

On the run from unknown forces, Diana’s primary emotion seems to be anger -- especially toward her faceless, mysterious “protectors,” who look like extras from an ’80s Bonnie Tyler video. While her age in this scenario is unclear, the attitude comes across as adolescent peevishness instead of righteous indignation. It’s too early to judge whether Straczynski’s vision merits such a radical reinterpretation of an icon, but I have my doubts about whether it will persuade previously indifferent readers -- the ones who are fond of saying Wonder Woman is dull -- to buy issue #601. It’s also hard not to get the feeling that this will be undone in six months anyway. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing how Diana ended up in a graffiti wonderland, what happened to her home, and what the deal is with those creepy Bonnie Tyler extras.

IRON MAN ANN. Debuts Online & In-Store
IRON MAN ANN. Debuts Online & In-Store
Invincible Iron Man Annual #1

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Carmine Di Giandomenico and Matt Wilson

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

Click here for preview

When Don Heck and Stan Lee introduced the Mandarin in the 1960's, he was representative not only of everything that Tony Stark and his armored alter-ego fought against, but the collective fear of the American people in the time of the Cold War.  Tony Stark was the symbol of the American ideal, a man who had embraced his responsibility to protect those weaker than him, and to use his considerable resources and ingenuity for the good of not only his own people, but all people of the world.  He stood for the power of capitalism, the freedom of democracy, and the "can-do" spirit of the baby-boomer generation.  The Mandarin stood for communism, and the corruption inherent in the governments that embraced it.  He stood for the danger of greater science in the hands of hostile foreign powers.  He stood for the arms race, the space race, and the threat of espionage.  It is for these reasons that the Mandarin has long been considered Iron Man's arch-foe.  They are two sides of the same coin, guided only by circumstance to different ends.  In this single story annual, Matt Fraction embraces this concept, propelling it even further, and defining the threat and impact of the Mandarin for a generation that no longer views the world in the black and white terms of the Cold War.

The tale presented here is predicated on the idea that there are three sides to every story: What we hear, what we know, and what we're told.  As we find out here, there is a little of each of those elements in the history we've heard of the Mandarin to this point.  Long thought to have been born to noble parents, raised by a strict aunt, and schooled in the finest boarding schools in China, we learn that these are lies long propagated by the nameless man who claims to have descended from Ghengis Khan.  Truthfully, the Mandarin was born to an American prostitute and an unknown father, raised in a slum, and educated in the streets by brutal criminals.  After finding the rings that give him his fantastic powers, the Mandarin became a valued asset to Chairman Mao, and eventually built a criminal empire with the consent of the Red Chinese government.  With the truth now told, the Mandarin is, in almost every way, Tony Stark's true opposite number.  Stark was raised in wealth, educated in fine schools, and earned his power through hard work, and invention.  The Mandarin was raised in poverty, stole everything he ever had, and simply lucked into power.

Fraction's framing device, which presents the Mandarin's story through the eyes of a kidnapped filmmaker, blackmailed into filming a movie based on the Mandarin's life, cleverly draws parallels to Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, drawing a contemporary through line for those of us not old enough to remember Mao Zedong.  It also appeals to one of the free world's greatest fears in the age of the Internet: Disinformation.  Fraction's script is perfectly executed, and the bits he throws in tying the Mandarin's origins tangentially to Iron Fist, and synchronizing Iron Man's comic origin with that of his film counterpart play out very well, and elegantly provide the Mandarin with more context for the modern day.  Fraction also manages to introduce us to the "real" Mandarin, without removing the mystery that has always shrouded the character's origins.  Carmine Di Giandomenico's art is beautiful, echoing elements of Eric Canete and Scott Kolins.  At times his layouts are a bit crowded, but overall, this is a great showing from an artist whose work I'd never seen before.

All in all, this was a very entertaining read, and while the superhero who's name is on the cover shows up rarely, and even then only in effigy, there is enough of his presence in the tone to make this a great first annual for the current volume of the title.  Add to that the fact that the book is all killer, and no filler, with no reprints or needless back-ups, and this is a great start to what I can only hope will be a return to form for one of Marvel's most creative and important villains.

Green Lantern #55

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Doug Mahnke, Christina Alamy, Tom Nguyen, Keith Champagne, Randy Mayor and Gabe Eltreb

Lettering by Nick J. Napolitano

Published by DC Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

Click here for preview

This month's issue of Green Lantern is over-the-top hilarity. With Lobo headlining, I suppose that was to be expected. The dialogue and panels are so ridiculous that I managed to enjoy myself by accepting it for the “Rainbow Beefcake” that it is. The story isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination. It is just sort of what I have come to expect from Johns - depthless entertainment featuring big-hitters of the DCU with lots of pretty colors. Just to be clear, I like Hal Jordon and Sinestro, so I can roll with it.

The opening is quasi-ominous with the Spectre searching for the Rage Entity. Perhaps the Spectre's roll will be revealed soon or maybe Johns thinks we are forgetful, but we so knew that already. John's then revs the pace to max speed with an intense splash-page of Lobo launching down from the sky for a brawl with Atrocitus. The absurdity of this scene (and many of the following) is palpable only because of Mahnke's epic art. I have witnessed his art improving issue by issue since Final Crisis. His penchant for detail and wicked facial expressions is nothing less than amazing.  

The book forges ahead with wanton battle scenes and vapid one-liners that are only funny sometimes. I am not sure what “Feetal's Gizz” is, but it sounds gross. Thank goodness for Sinestro's apathetic snobbery. He adds a much needed element of decorum to the otherwise tacky vibe. The real stars of the show though are Dex-Starr and Dawg. It is wildly charming that two creatures as vile and vicious as Lobo and Atrocitus have pets, pets with master appropriate personalities. Readers also get a bonus at the end with the uber-cute origin story of Dex-Starr which offers perspective to the Red Lantern Corps.

I am certain many Green Lantern and Geoff Johns fans will enjoy this issue outright. It was very much what comic books are known for and probably why the bibliophiles turn their cheek at our particular brand of geek. All in all, a fast-paced, fun story that my 10-year old daughter might enjoy were in not for the extra teeth-baring. The nuggets of plot development were few and far between, and not nearly juicy enough for a book of this caliber; adding up to not much more than fluff in my mind. But Doug Mahnke's work is beyond impressive, and he brings the action exquisitely, panel by panel. The art carries this book, hands down. Sometimes, that's okay.

Batman Beyond #1

Written by Adam Beechen

Art by Ryan Benjamin, John Stanisci and David Baron

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by Matt Seneca

It must be pretty tough to write a comic like this, where the goal isn't "tell a story" or "show people something new" but "combine a pre-existing character with current continuity in a way that appeals to fans of both".  That's a way taller order than "make good comics", or at least one that less people are able to do successfully.  But Beechen and Benjamin are nothing if not game to try, and their squeezing some energy and verve from this creatively moribund exercise in advanced superhero-editorial mechanics is no mean feat.

Of course, it's not a perfect comic.  Beechen, who was such an adept writer of teen heroics over his Robin run a few years ago, barely acknowledges the delightfully snotty, punky kid that lived beneath Batman Beyond's full-face mask in the TV show, instead blowing pages getting all the continuity chessmen in place to tie in with one of the most mediocre aspects of recent Batman backstory.  The idea of aligning Batman Beyond with the DCU as it stands doesn't sound bad in concept, but in execution it's just a slog, with the kineticism and adolescent angst of the cartoon and its (non-continuity) tie-in comics replaced with an aged, boring Amanda Waller and a great deal made of discarded bandages.  Beechen does well when he can just cut loose and write action or characters, but unfortunately that stuff shares apce here with dull nerd fodder that accomplishes nothing of actual interest.

Benjamin's art is similarly patchy.  His fight scenes are full of speed and impact, distended limbs and glancing blows flying everywhere -- it's a good fit for a character that most readers are familiar with as an actual moving picture.  Where he falters is in the action pieces' staging; the characters occasionally come unglued from their settings, floating through empty space for a few panels before a recognizable environment reappears.  Colorist David Baron is similarly inconsistent, his garish digital tones distracting from the story as often as they add to its futurism.

Still, this isn't bad as a first issue, placing you immediately into a fully-realized world and jumping forward with a sense of purpose that's all too rare in modern hero comics.  There's urgency and motion to this stuff, and that's a pretty big recommendation in the current market.  Whether it keeps up will remain to be seen, though -- a property that relies so much on Ditko/Lee done-in-one concision seems ill-suited to DC's current model of multi-issue arcs, and the lack of any real character moments for the protagonist is a significant problem.

All in all, how much a reader enjoys Batman Beyond #1 will likely depend on the expectations they bring to it.  As yet another issue of yet another Batman spin-off miniseries, it's fairly impressive.  As a successor to some of the best work by guys like Darwyn Cooke and Paul Dini, it's subpar.  As a superhero comics pamphlet -- eh, give it a try.  There's stuff to like about it.

Captain America #607

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Mitch Breitweiser, Butch Guice, Dean White and Elizabeth Dismang

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

In a lot of ways, issues like Captain America #607 both proves the viability and potential of a character like Bucky Barnes -- even as it slightly undermines it.

What do I mean? Just from the beginning, you see something in Bucky Barnes that you wouldn't have seen from his predecessor -- a sense of vulnerability. You can only see the saintly ubermensch (and now top cop of the Marvel Universe) Steve Rogers angst so much before it comes off as melodramatic and whiny -- Bucky, however, has flaws, hang-ups, human limitations and a bit of a temper. In other words, this Cap is quite the character, and in that regard, Ed Brubaker succeeds as always.

But that said, in other ways I feel like the rest of the Marvel Universe has tied Brubaker's hands a bit. With the Heroic Age banner on the cover, it's no surprise that Steve Rogers makes an appearance in this issue -- but Brubaker, in my mind, hasn't quite cracked the code to have the two characters in the same book without making Bucky seem a little, well, incapable. Baron Zemo's plot against the one-time Winter Soldier runs deep, and in that regard it's a little too bad that Brubaker stops it before it really do some damage. After all, Brubaker has shown that with Bucky, conflict builds character.

As far as the art goes, Mitch Breitweiser's pencils look much sketchier than most of the previous artists of the run, but he benefits greatly from Butch Guice's moody inks. Occasionally, Breitweiser's composition feels a bit shaky -- in one of Brubaker's fun workout scenes, he has an image of the Black Widow in a spine-shattering backflip that seems more jarring than impressive. I do, however, enjoy Breitweiser's expressiveness for Bucky -- again, he's got a reason for his moodiness, and Breitweiser manages to do so much with so little.

This comic doesn't reinvent the wheel, but that's okay -- this is rightfully Bucky Barnes' world, and the rest of the characters should be just living in it. It's that command of character from all members of the creative team that makes Captain America a treat -- ironically, it seems to be the original Star-Spangled Avenger that brings this series down. In that way, Brubaker is a victim of his own past successes -- if he can balance out Bucky's necessary progression with the mere presence of the saintly Steve Rogers, this will be the Marvel book to beat.

The Flash #3

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato

Lettering by Sal Cipriano

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

Finally -- this is something that's more my speed.

While Geoff Johns' take on Barry Allen has stumbled a bit coming out of the gate, this third issue of The Flash finds its footing quickly, giving readers a foundation for future stories and building up our main character's world.

In many ways, that's because the story is streamlined and simple -- Barry Allen versus the Renegades, a future version of the Rogues from the 25th century, armed with police badges and weapons unlike anything you've ever seen. While the first fight with the Renegades in the last issue was a bit anticlimactic, Johns really sets up a satisfying first half of a battle royale. But it's not just the fighting that works here: We're finally starting to get a sense of who Barry is -- or at least what he does. The idea of the DCU's top cop righting wrongful convictions is a nice spin on a typically uncomplicated character.

Yet you also really have to give credit to the art team of Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, who finally seem to have gotten into their groove for this series. Manapul has a great sense of intensity to people's eyes, allowing him to give a great emotional shorthand for an otherwise inscrutible character like Barry. But where Manapul has improved the most is with his portrayal of superspeed -- while it's still a little flat in some areas, he seems to excel when he can portray the forward motion of the chase. Buccellato, meanwhile, does some really interesting things with the colors -- it isn't just the Flash who is a red-and-yellow blur, but the entirety of Central City. In a lot of ways, due to Buccellato's influence, you know: This is Barry Allen's town.

There are a few imperfections in this book, however -- namely, the cliffhanger of last issue being more of a fake-out than a game-changer, or Manapul not quite taking enough risks with the superspeed combat -- but I will say that this third issue is one heck of an improvement over the past year's worth of Barry Allen stories. Finally, the Flash is gaining a quality that's eluded him since before even Infinite Crisis: Momentum. With the action interesting and the foundation for stories coming into place, here's hoping Johns and Manapul can keep it up.

Gotham City Sirens #13

Written by Tony Bedard

Pencils by Peter Nguyen & Andres Guinaldo

Inks by Jack Purcell & Raul Fernandez

Colors by Tony Avina

Letters by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by Amanda McDonald

This issue is the conclusion of the "Sister Zero" two part arc by Tony Bedard. With Paul Dini absent, the story has taken a turn for the more serious, diving deeper into the psyches of the ladies of Gotham. Correction, not the ladies of Gotham -- specifically Selina Kyle and her sister Maggie. Harley's role in the story seems superfluous, as merely another target for the mentally ill and possessed Maggie, and Ivy is not seen or mentioned.

Part of the appeal of this series for me is the ensemble cast. I enjoy the way these women play off each other's strengths and weaknesses, and so I couldn't help but be disappointed with this arc focusing just on Catwoman. While I don't mind having each character have their own stories going on, I would rather see all three story lines happening in each issue and intersecting. Sure, stories would not be wrapped up as quickly, but I would be able to enjoy all three of the characters. Also, I can't help but think that such a set up would be more marketable to readers and fans. If I don't like Catwoman, I'm not likely to buy a book that just focuses on her character in hopes that one of the characters I do like will make an appearance. Truth be told -- as much as I like the concept of this series, if it continues to be so heavily based on one character I will likely drop it from my pull list and just flip through it at the store.

I also really had trouble enjoying the art in this issue. I mentioned in my review of the last issue that the inks were heavy, and they seemed even heavier this issue. There were panels in which I stopped reading and just stared at the art wondering how this could have been considered finished. Facial expressions were merely sketched on, and backgrounds were sloppy in the graveyard scenes.  Mind you, I like this series and was by no means looking for things to nitpick about it. The visual problems were just that glaringly obvious. Furthering the puzzling art in the issue was the fact that while the graveyard scenes were messy, the church scenes and splash pages were detailed and well done. We had two artists working on both pencils and inks in this installment, and there was simply way too much inconsistency to really just relax and enjoy the book.

Even Guillem March's cover hits a foul ball with this issue. While I usually admire March's sexy and kinetic style, this cover is dull, muted, and stoic. Depicting only Maggie and Selina, looking at it on the shelf I would think it was just a Catwoman book. The ray of light coming down to the pair is just flat white, and there doesn't even seem to be an attempt at any dimension. Why are they in the mountains? And why is Maggie dressed in white when she wears black in the book? I understand the cover artist may not have all the details of the story when the cover art is being completed, but that is no excuse for an unappealing cover such as this one.

Now, all of these things wouldn't have bothered me so much if this wasn't a book I usually look forward to and enjoy. This arc just has not lived up to the expectations of the book that I developed as a result of the previous eleven issues. The next issue will be the start of a new arc, and I will give it a chance. While he doesn't have the light-heartedness that Dini has lent to the series, I do usually enjoy Tony Bedard's writing. His previous work on Birds of Prey is proof positive that he can successfully write an book with an ensemble cast of strong female characters. Hopefully the art issues get ironed out, and this book can get back on track.

Velocity #1

Written by Ron Marz

Art by Kenneth Rocafort and Sunny Gho

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow Productions

Review by Erika D. Peterman

Click here for preview

Speedster Carin Taylor -- AKA Velocity -- will be familiar to Cyberforce fans, but you don’t need a primer to enjoy this spin-off on its own merits. Carin, a heroine with a quick wit to match her feet, tells readers everything they need to know early on: “I run fast.”

How fast? So fast that she’s been spotted in two places at once -- or at least so it seems. However, Velocity isn’t a Bionic Woman by choice, and she’d much rather watch old movies in peace than dodge gun-blasting robots. If this issue is any indication, she’s going to spend a lot of time doing the latter.

There’s a fine line between witty and snarky, but writer Ron Marz makes Velocity’s brand of sass endearing. Her assessment of “that whole vibrate your molecules thing” might not go over well with some hardcore Flash fans, but it is funny. She’s confident with hints of vulnerability, and most importantly, she keeps her cool when all hell breaks loose — even when confronted by the former Dr. Erasmus Paine, who is easily one of the most disgusting villains in comics.

I could do without the nipple action, but Kenneth Rocafort’s angular, detailed pencil work is striking. Colorist Sunny Gho’s minimalist color palette is also a good showcase for Velocity, who often appears as a streak of crimson (hair), emerald (bodysuit) and gold (killer metal gloves) against a dreary industrial backdrop. Velocity is a character to root for, and Marz has written an intriguing story that should increase her fan base.

Prince Valiant Vol. 2: 1939-1940

By Hal Foster

Published by Fantagraphics Books

Review by Matt Seneca

Prince Valiant has lost its place of pride in comics history, probably forever.  Hal Foster's diamond-brilliant masterpiece, once held up by a generation as the Platonic ideal of "good comics," is merely a curiosity today, afforded the vague praise and low-end sales of everything else touched by the wave of ressurections that is the Golden Age of Reprints.  But it's the culture that's changed, not the material, and if Prince Valiant must be a historical curio, then it's certainly among the best, most vital ones we've got.

The first thing you notice, as in all good comics, is the art.  Foster was quite simply the best pure draftsman ever to have worked in the medium -- his grasp of shape and form, motion and gesture, environment and perspective, impact and texture, is unmatched in comics history.  Prince Valiant's panels are doorways into a place whose illusion of total reality is equaled only by its sheer beauty.  The fight scenes sizzle with a sinew-steel grace, the finery of costuming and architecture outpace anything Hollywood ever offered, the characters are striking in their human physicality, and it's all fully rooted in panoramic landscapes on par with any fine artist's best.  Foster could draw everything, and do it better than anyone else.  There is an entire world printed on these pages.

The scripting is no less impressive.  Grand without pretention, eloquent but never wordy, it effortlessly evokes a romantic, achingly beautiful past, a day when knights were bold and maidens fair, when dragonslayers were men with human hearts and minds and every pocket of the world was filled to bursting with adventure.  Foster's epic action set pieces hum with a desperate vigor that puts anything in modern superhero books to shame, a real sense of life and death and struggle boiling in the blacks of every frame.  Just as impressive, however, are the quieter moments, which glory in the haunting beauty of Foster's ink-and-dot-screen world or lend near-novelistic depth to characters in a handful of panels.  The meat of real life is in Prince Valiant's every word just as much as its every line, and as pure escapism goes, it simply has no equal -- not in comics, not in movies, not in television.

Foster's opus has lost its Olympian status not to quality defects, but to a change in comics itself.  The post-Kirby/Crumb trend in the medium is toward cartooning, a simplification and abstraction of form to enhance motion and speed up the movement of readers' eyes through the panels.  Foster, comics' greatest illustrator, is left behind in all this -- his disciplined precision and meticulous linework often criticized as beautiful stuff that makes for poor comics.  True, you'll have a hard time finding books that hew this much to the look of the real anymore, but Foster has more cartoonist in him than his detractors give him credit for.  Prince Valiant is full of the human form at its apex of motion, intensely exaggerated facial expressions, and a sublime, unparalleled harmony of line and color art that could teach anyone working in modern comics a lesson or two.  This stuff may be beautiful, but it bangs as hard and moves as fast as anything else when it the spirit takes it.

Though it may not be recognized as such anymore, Prince Valiant is one of the best comics ever created.  A tour de force in art and story, in feeling and fighting and gusto and glory, it is simply unmatched by anything since.  Perhaps the medium's turn away from this kind of lushly illustrated high fantasy was inevitable -- after Foster, there was no hope of anyone doing it as well.  Looking better than it has for decades in Fatagraphics' painstakingly restored, beautifully designed hardcovers, this jewel is primed to reassert its place in comics' pantheon as the ultimate action fantasy; all it needs now is a new failthful.  If you like battles, or romance, or art, or stories -- if you like comics at all -- this is absolutely essential stuff.

Justice Society of America #40

Written by Bill Willingham

Art by Jesus Merino, Jesse Delperdang and Allen Passalaqua

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by Erika D. Peterman

Click here for preview

With its presentation of an alternate, Nazi-ruled future, Bill Willingham’s “Fatherland” storyline pumped some much-needed life — and real suspense — into one of DC’s flagship books. This five-chapter arc arguably has been more powerful than anything involving Lantern rings and the trash talking undead. Willingham and penciller Jesus Merino have been an excellent team from the beginning, allowing individual players to shine without undermining the book’s team dynamic.  

Of course, wrapping up an Elseworlds-like scenario is tricky, but Willingham pulls it off deftly in the story’s concluding chapter, “Reset.” In more ways than one, this comic unleashes Obsidian, who turns out to be key in preventing the future Fourth Reich takeover. And by the way, Obsidian is really pissed about having been degraded and used by Kid Karnevil (aka alternate-future Fuhrer) & Co., and he telegraphs that displeasure with an extremely satisfying fist memo to Karnevil’s face.

Merino’s clean-lined illustrations, particularly his knack for facial expressions, are top-notch. Some of the best moments in this arc have been his interpretation of familiar heroes — everyone from Mr. Terrific to Blue Beetle Jaime Reyes — as older versions of themselves. Most of issue #40 focuses on Obsidian’s return, and as he comes to terms with a now-divided JSA, he’s determined to keep his darker side in check. Time will tell whether he’s overly optimistic about being more of a protector than an avenger, but his interactions with his former teammates — and an awfully nice reunion with his father, Green Lantern Alan Scott — are sincere steps in the right direction.

There’s also a touching resolution for Mr. Terrific, who, to put it mildly, went through the wringer in previous issues. But alas, before longsuffering Doc Midnight can even file Mr. Terrific’s health insurance claims, another hero lands on the operating table. Whatever drama Willingham has planned next, it’s sure to be an interesting ride.

Johnny Recon #2

Written by Scott Dillon

Art by Mitch Gerads, Kyle Latino and Mitch Gerads

Published by Pop Gun Pulp

Review By Jeff Marsick

I found this book during an afternoon perusing the projects on  I'm a sucker for action-adventure tales that harken back to the pulps of yore, and all it took was one look at the artistic stylings of Johnny Recon to hook me in.

Now, I've been trying to get my retro fix by reading Dynamite's Buck Rogers but that book's been missing the mark for me.  Every issue seems like it's trying to find its identity: Is it retro sci-fi adventure or the Adam Strange variation of Buck Rogers?  With Johnny Recon, however, straight off the book's first panel you know you're in for some throwback-to-the-serials goodness, half-expecting the lead to  resemble Buster Crabbe.

Earth has been watched for millennia by an ancient alien race called Marshans who have grand designs for a peaceful coexistence with humans somewhere out there past the third star to the right.  The Marshans have done their homework and shortly after we've dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, they come for one man, William Recon, to be progenitor of this new society.  Flash forward a couple thousand years and William now exists as a hologram on board a space station called the Well of Roses, in orbit over the planet Threa.  Turns out William was sold a faulty bill of goods on that promise about a future devoid of violence, and the space station now functions as a surveillance post and base of operations for William's descendants, Kierra and Johnny Recon.

The titular character is a roguish troublemaker, equal parts Han Solo, Dan Dare and Jake Cutter whom we meet at a poker game on Threa.  Across the table sits Jules Leville, head of one of the planet's most powerful crime families.  Naturally, our chocolate milk swigging hero tries to pull a swindle which seemed a decent idea on paper, but the situation skips bad for worse when an alien invasion suddenly crashes the planet.  Cut off from the Well of Roses, Johnny and sister Kierra race to the city of Sinutra to rescue their parents from the attacking fleet, only to run afoul of an indigenous threat on Threa:  killer grass.  No, not a typo.  Man-eating grass.  And just when you think you've heard it all, right?

This is just a FUN book.  Crisp writing with witty dialogue that hums along and never drags the book down.  With most sci-fi comics there's too much expended effort to make the story operatic, with characters largely ignored in order to focus on technical mumbo-jumbo and weaving a direction more convoluted than a Gordian Knot.  Scott Dillon eschews that familiar trap and gives us the goods straightforward and accessible, boosted along with terrific pencils by Mitch Gerads.  Describing Mitch's work is tough, because at times he invokes Daniel Acuna, or Chris Samnee (who does the title page in issue #2), and even some Paul Azaceta.  What's especially pleasing about the artwork is that the panels aren't inked heavy as if by Sharpie, what seems to be the standard for most indie books.  It's beautiful artwork that really captures the retro feel.

Hands down this is the best space book I've read in a long time, and an impressive effort by a couple of regular guys and longtime friends trying to make a go of this comic book thing.  You can order the first two issues of the series from the Popgun Pulp website ( and I highly recommend that you do.  In fact, buy two of each.  Reading Johnny Recon is a reminder of why you read comic books in the first place: High quality escapism that you will want to read over and over again.

The Muppet Show #7

Written by Roger Langridge

Art by Amy Mebberson and Eric Cobain

Lettering by Deron Bennett

Published by BOOM! Studios  

Review by Erika D. Peterman

For a certain generation (mine), The Muppet Show is sacred territory. Can a comic book possibly capture the zany, let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of the TV original? And do you have to be a child to appreciate stories about puppets in the entertainment industry? Seven issues in, the obvious answers are yes: as in, The Muppet Show comic is loads of fun, and no: as in, there is no age limit on enjoying it.

All the characters are just as lovable as you remember — or just in the case of Miss Piggy and the champion dissing team of Staler and Waldorf, just as irascible. The main story centers on struggling comedian Fozzie, who has greatly embellished his credentials to his mother. And since she’s coming for an unexpected visit, Fozzie naturally cooks up a nutty cover scheme. Some bears never learn.

Roger Langridge’s story echoes the original show perfectly, complete with dream sequences and narrative-interrupting asides like “A Poem by Rowlf” and the venerable “Pigs in Spaaace!” The characters’ personalities also come through in Amy Mebberson’s appealing artwork, whether it’s longsuffering Kermit banging his head against a doorjamb in frustration, or Miss Piggy hurling a seashell at … well, just pick someone. And who knew Sweetums had a subscription to World of Doilies magazine?

Boom!’s The Muppet Show comic book series is a great way for parents to introduce a childhood favorite to their offspring. Not that you need a kid as an excuse to buy this thoroughly delightful comic.


Written by David Hine

Art by Ray Allen Martinez, Wayne Nichols, Kinsun Loh and Jerry Choo

Lettering by Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt

Published by Radical Comics

Review by Jeff Marsick

Click here for preview

FVZA stands for Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency, and the conceit has as its origin a unique and entertaining website of the same name that started in 2001.  In essence it is a supplement to world history, positing that vampires and zombies and ghoulies have walked these shores since the days of the first settlers.  Organized in 1868 by Ulysses S. Grant to combat the growing vampire menace, the troops of the Vampire National Guard, or "Vanguard", have functioned in a protective capacity as a branch of the armed forces until their disbandment in 1975 once humans got smart enough to develop a vampire vaccine.  The trade paperback of FVZA takes place relatively recently in the vampire and zombie timeline, when the long-time director of the organization, Dr. Hugo Pecos, gets a phone call from the Department of Homeland Security about the reformation of the Agency with Pecos reinstated as the organization's honcho.  His and the FVZA's purpose is to break the back of an underground vampire movement bent upon releasing a zombie virus as as biological weapon of mass destruction.

What follows is an interesting, if uneven, story.  See, Pecos has a couple of horses in this race, namely his granddaughter, Landra, and his grandson, Vidal.  Both have been raised and tutored in all things vampire and zombie, including the techniques for dispatching them.  Their destiny is effectively secured the moment we meet them so naturally this means they are destined to become squad leaders in the FVZA and eventually lead strike teams into the heart of the vampire nation.  The plot becomes a little more hackneyed when we discover the Who that is leading the vampire nation and what their relationship is to Pecos.  It was disappointing to realize the FVZA is really nothing more than a family affair, for the most part just an airing of grievances under the auspices of a government agency when it could have--no, it SHOULD have--been played much more Tom Clancy "Splinter Cell"-ish.  Take away the fancy bureaucratic title and the special forces sugar coating and you're left with a story that would have had the same result if it had been simply Landra and Vidal pledging their lives as vigilantes to the cause of vampire eradicaten.  The ending is far too abrupt, neatly wrapped up in a big blue bow, one that borders the ridiculous.

Writer David Hine seems to have taken every idea that came to him and thrown it against the wall, hoping for something to stick.  There's a zombie mother showing maternal feeding instincts to her zombie children.  An enigmatic interrogator named Mr. Mouse, simply because once upon a time he bit off the head of a rodent to intimidate a suspect.  Vampires at a clan meeting hor d'oeuvreing on leeches plucked from a live captive.  A love interest slash sex scene for Landra that occurs randomly and out of place halfway through issue two, ending in a single page confrontation with Vidal that's so incestual in tone that it's almost more horrifying than a vampire attack.  Because these and other scenes are largely ignored instead of developed, their effect is more punchline and filler than actual plot movers.

But you're not going to buy this book for the mediocre story.  Nope, you're going to shell out fifteen bucks because it's gorgeous artwork.  The painted panels by Kinsun Loh and Jerry Choo leap off the page and give the feel of it being a movie in trade paperback form.  And it's because of their talent that the writing is so frustrating:  the few panels of FVZA special operators in action leaves the reader clamoring for more.  Let's see these men and women in combat action against the undead hordes.  The concept art by Darek Zabrocki and Daryl Mandryk hints at how jaw-droppingly awesome this book could have been if only the story had been taken in a better direction.

I really want to rave about this book as I do about nearly all Radical books.  The website that provides the inspiration is a routine stop in my daily internet browsing, and the artwork is fantastic.  But the story falls flat.  It's just another vampires versus humans yarn with a zombie gimmick that never really finds its potential.  Ultimately it's just more of the same old same old, and for me that's a big disappointment.

Invincible #73

Written by Robert Kirkman

Art by Ryan Ottley, Cliff Rathburn and Fco Plascencia

Lettering by Rus Wooton

Published by Image Comics

Review by David Pepose

Leave it to Invincible to remind you of the old idiom: Don't judge a book by its cover. Because while things look dire on the packaging, this book is surprisingly... cute?

I know that's not what you'd expect. But after months of bloody combat and angst from Mark Grayson and company, it's a good thing that Robert Kirkman uses this issue as a palatte cleanser. While Kirkman is a bit guilty of using a misleading cliffhanger, it's a nice change of pace to see all the characters interacting -- particularly Omni-Man and Kid Omni-Man having a laugh over Invincible's not-so-secret sex life, or the surprising One True Pairing of Allen the Alien and former Kirkman castoff Tech Jacket.

Is there a whole lot going on? Not necessarily, and that may turn some people off. I, however, see it as welcome characterization, as some of the necessary connective tissue for some of the longer-term sci-fi plotting. It's nice to see the supporting cast get some love -- especially Omni-Man, a character whose complexity gets deeper by the issue -- even if the main character is more or less sidelined.

And what can you say about Ryan Ottley, Cliff Rathburn and Fco Plascencia that hasn't already been said? Ottley's work is as clean as it is dense -- a veritable Holy Grail in this industry if I've ever seen one. There's a lot of range in these pages, whether it's star-spanning violence, a father and son enjoying a nice helping of space grub, or Tech Jacket beaming over his non-existent war beard. And I have to say, Plascencia is just kicking up his work with his colors -- they're bright and draw the eye, but are never overwhelming or garish. Love it.

While I wouldn't necessarily say this is the best jumping-on point for new readers -- heck, there are a boatload of trades for that -- I would say that it's issues like these that remind you that Invincible owes much of its success to the living, breathing, seamless story Kirkman and company have created. The craft in this book is as wonderful as ever -- even if it's a breather, Invincible #73 is still as fun to read as the series has ever been.

Madame Xanadu #24

Written by Matt Wagner

Art by Marley Zarcone

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by Vertigo Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel  

I have been beyond thrilled with this title as a whole, and this issue is no exception. Madame Xanadu #24 is the beginning of the six-part story arc, Extra-Sensory. Each chapter will focus on a supernatural element of one of the five senses, and the sixth will explore Madame Xanadu's clairvoyance. The highlight of Extra-Sensory is that each installment will feature a different artist of the female persuasion ending with Amy Reeder, the book's usual artist. Issue #24 explores a young woman's ability to SEE what is to come and is drawn by Marley Zarcone.

Rosy Mays is a young black woman living in Harlem in 1963. One day on the train, she begins to have horrifying visions which lead her to venture down to Greenwich Village to seek the council of Madame Xanadu. Matt Wagner's story is solid and interesting. I certainly cared about Rosy, and became invested in what might happen to her. I did not care for the dialect portion of the show. I realize it is '60's Harlem, but his lingo rendering was over-simplified leaving a lot to be desired, and me, mildly offended. Even so, it was not so glaring as to ruin a perfectly good story. Madame Xanadu is but a supporting character for the first five of the six chapters in the arc. The effect in this issue offers a greater impact when she appears on the page, and one is pleased to see her.

Zarcone's art is the true gem of this story. Her stylized and simplistic approach is one I am becoming very fond of. Sometimes less is more, and here that is absolutely the case. She did both the pencils and the color thus the reader benefits from the cohesiveness. The color palette is of muted earth tones, punctuated powerfully by bright, blood red. Long ago, I tired of gore and gratuitous imagery, but I am still very much a realist. I want to feel what the writer intends for me to feel. Zarcone conveys the grotesque nature of Rosy's visions so smoothly, like receiving terrible news while sitting at the Ritz-Carlton Spa. She's also an ace at reflecting emotion on the face, with such a clean style; I'd say that's no small feat.

With a different artist every month and Matt Wagner continuing to bring his A-game; if you're not reading Madame Xanadu, now would be a great time to start. Issue #24 is a winner, the beginning of what I am certain will be an intriguing run, and what will eventually be a sweet collected edition (hardcover deluxe, please and thank you). An extra slice of awesome, the covers for this series are done by Mark Buckingham of Fables fame. This series is an opportunity to support up and coming female artists in the industry, and enjoy a good book to boot. Win.

Smoke Signal #5

By Various Artists

Published by Desert Island

Review by Matt Seneca

The most interesting anthology in comics right now isn't a big book with a spine, or even a pamphlet with staples.  Nope, it's Smoke Signal, a free newspaper published and distributed online by Brooklyn comics shop Desert Island, a blast of dirty, inky purity where alterna-comix stars share page spreads with total unknowns.  Like all the best anthologies, its quality varies wildly from page to page (though this is definitely the most consistently excellent issue yet).  What remains the same is the tone, the sense of freedom and experiment, and the high quotient of ideas informing the work of every artist included.

Where previous issues of Smoke Signal were pretty New York-centric, this one spreads out a bit, incorporating stellar work from a nationwide sampling of art-comics' finest, and even a few international voices.  The result is something like an ultra-low-rent issue of Mome or even Kramers Ergot; a place for ersatz work by viciously talented artists, for sure, but also a vehicle for no-pressure fun from creators who can let their hair down a little in such a welcoming venue.  We get free-flowing sketchbook pages from the usually meticulous pen of Tom Gauld and delightfully crude shit jokes from the typically uber-witty Michael Kupperman.  There's a looseness and spontaneity to everything here, the feeling of a roaring comics party -- right down the pulpy, slightly smeared paper the stuff is printed on.

The highlights are numerous, especially given this issue's stellar inclusion of a few multiple-page stories in addition to the usual center spread.  Michael DeForge's sweaty strip is a nightmarish blaze through birth, adolesence, and YouTube where smiling baby faces and cute dogs and ducklings become sinister totems of doom.  Benjamin Marra steps out of his usual gritty "Miami Vice"-on-PCP milieu for a dangerously steroidal, sexualized barbarian short.  Tim Lane crafts a labyrinthine, epic noir packed to the gills with dwarves, transvestites, French sailors, and, uh, a Desi Arnaz cameo.  Gabrielle Bell and Malachi Ward do their usual strong work.  Appropriately, though, the showstopper is found in the color centerfold, where Taylor McKimens comes on like a Brendan McCarthy for the recession-dried, post-everything 2010s, turning crayons and an obsession with gushy textures into weapons across 33 gloriously sludgy day-glo panels.

The best thing about Smoke Signal, the thing that really makes it something worth paying attention to and seeking out (and writing about on Newsarama) isn't the work of one creator.  It's the strength it speaks to, the showcase it provides for the obscene amount of talent lurking in the current non-Diamond distributed art-comics scene.  There's something for literally everyone in these pages -- it's an affordable, democratic, completely unpretentious exibition of the very best the medium has to offer.  Whether you're the world's biggest comics fan or a man on the street, you can't help but be impressed by the material compiled here, and I'll wager I'm not the only one who gets excited by the issue's last three words: "To be continued"....

Casper & The Spectrals #2

Written by Todd Dezago

Art by Pedro Delgado and Kieran Oats

Lettering by Richard Emms

Published by Ardden Entertainment

Review by Russ Burlingame

After so many months of waiting, it's hard to get really jazzed about most new issues of a "monthly" comic. Certainly Casper and the Spectrals will likely sell better in collected edition, or at least generated more interest on the part of reviewers and casual fans that way. Still, an all-ages comic by Todd Dezago is almost always irresistible and this one's no different.

The plot really gets moving in this episode, which sees the imprisoned series villain escape, as well as accounting for the first time that Casper, Wendy and Hot Stuff all get in trouble with their parents together.

Meanwhile, in the human world, a pair of hapless scientists are introduced whose desire to use spectral energy to create an alternative to traditional power sources creates a rift with Casper's world that's likely to both empower the villain and lead to a crossover between the five heroes by the time all's done.

Ultimately it's really too bad that Casper gets a continuity and an ongoing story for the first time, only to have delays make it impossible to remember what happened in the previous issue--but it's entertaining enough to make going back and getting caught up worthwhile.


Death of Dracula #1 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Kevin Huxford; Click here for preview): There doesn't seem to be a real purpose to this book. It is heralded as the starting point for the new X-Men book debuting Thursday, but has no X-Men present or any mutants. What bits it might help set up about the vampires here is likely to be restated early and often in the actual X-Men series. I mention this not only because it can factor into how much one enjoys the read or feels satisfied in their purchase, but because this lack of point or purpose seems to be reflected in the quality of the story. The story lacks a soul and serves to put forth info about this group of characters as dispassionately as the protagonist reacts to his father's demise. It certainly doesn't bode well for what is to come from Gischler's X-Men vs vampires storyline.

Justice League of America #46 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Kevin Huxford): I'm a sucker for the JLA/JSA crossovers, so I picked up this issue despite feeling Robinson's run thus far has been a major disappointment. While hoping that this may have been an example where he stepped his game up for a special event, I was confronted with a book where the severity of the writer's flaws were multiplied instead. One of the major problems is Robinson's insistence on attempting multiple character narration. Switching back and forth as often and as rapidly as he does is jarring on its own, but his tendency towards maximum verbosity sets him up to fail. The brain-numbing amount of exposition used to spoon feed everything to the reader is clunky and serves to frustrate/insult the reader at every turn. The dialogue suffers for reasons beyond that, though. Robinson writes a scene where Jesse Quick seems like she just stepped out of Gone With The Wind and leaves me expecting Hourman to step in and say, "frankly, Jesse, I don't give a damn!" Towards the end, he writes Mikaal's narration as if this Starman is trying to channel the worst William Shatner delivery into something that fits a tweet. The art is NOT strong. Bagley looks rushed and his pages with many costumed heroes shoehorned in (read: much of the book) look terrible. He's not helped by his inkers or a colorist that decides to have the JLA & JSA discussing tactics inside the Aurora Borealis (judging by the background they created). Issues like this will no doubt lead readers to look back and say, "you know, JL Detroit wasn't so bad."

Abe Sapien: The Abyssal Plain #1 (Published by Dark Horse Comics; Review by Russ Burlingame): In an attempt to recreate the dark, muddy look of Mike Mignola's Hellboy art, the good folks at Dark Horse have created a comic book that's good, but extremely hard to get into. I say that because, honestly, the art and story are very strong in this book, but the font used on the letter that opens the issue is incredibly difficult to read. It's a little too much like an actual person's handwriting, with all the attendant problems that poses. Getting past that and into the plot of the story, however, is a quick (if frustrating) proposition, and the result is a story that gets the miniseries' plot moving early and sets up a story with the same creepy, irreverent fun of the series Sapien is drawn from.

Thor #611 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by George Marston; Click here for preview): Thor #611 marks the beginning of the end of Kieron Gillen's run on Thor.  With this final arc, Gillen aims to wrap up the remainder of Loki's machinations and schemes from "Siege."  Focusing on Loki's deal with Mephisto and Hela, and the resulting chaos caused by the ever-hungy Asgardian outcasts known as the Disir, this issue sees the cursed spirits making their own deal with Mephisto and feasting on the souls of the Asgardians recently killed in the siege on their homeland.  Hela entreats her more celestial brethren for aid, and the issue ends with Thor proclaiming "To Hell!" as he and his warriors ride to Mephisto's realm.  Gillen's writing is much improved from his early issues, and feels much more natural.  Despite some early hiccups, it's nice to see that Gillen is using the last few issues of his run to tell a good story, rather than spin his wheels.  Artist Rich Elson's work is decent; his storytelling is strong, though his figures occasionally look a little inflated.  All in all, this is aiming to be a strong finish to a great era for this title, leaving a clean slate for Matt Fraction and Pasqual Ferry when they take over in a few months.

Toy Story #4 (Published by BOOM! Studios; Review by Russ Burlingame): Not only is this month's box-office smash Toy Story 3 not canon in this comic yet (Andy's still young and playing with the toys here), but neither, apparently, is a lot of the character work that went into making Woody less whiny and more self-confident in the first film. Granted, it's a comic for kids who don't think about things like character development, but I'm not sure I like the idea of an entire issue dedicated to Woody being jealous of Buzz...ya know, just like he was for the whole first flick. That's really the only complaint I have with the book, though; the story isn't great, but it's enjoyable and if feels like the kind of thing that would happen on a Toy Story animated series or sitcom. And while the romantic subplot is kinda ho-hum, it's nice to have a fun adventure story where good guys fight a bad guy, but the imaginary aspect it takes on makes it certain that nobody's going to get really hurt. And, unlike your average mainstream superhero story, when the villain pulls an appendage off of the hero, all it takes to get him back together again is getting the right peg in the right hole on Mr. Potato Head.

What were your Best (and worst) Shots of the week?

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