Best Shots Comic Reviews: SUPERMAN, X-MEN 2ND COMING, More

Good and Evil Deeds Stimulate Surprising

Face front, Rama Readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here! We've got a ton of reviews for your enjoyment, coming from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, IDW and more! And if you're interested in more reviews, just check us out at the Best Shots Topic Page! Now let's start the column off, as I take a look at Superman's new status quo, in Superman #701...

Superman #701

Written by J. Michael Straczynski

Art by Eddy Barrows, J.P. Mayer and Rod Reis

Lettering by John J. Hill

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

Well, one thing's for certain -- this is a different take on Superman, all right. But the question is: Do we still like this guy?

I don't mean that in a "is Superman unpopular" sort of way. This is a character with vast amounts of untapped potential, judging by his longevity and for books ranging from Superman and the Legion of Superheroes to Superman: For All Seasons. And in DC's defense, they've tried pretty hard the past year or two to get a writer who "clicks" with the character. James Robinson, Greg Rucka -- nobody since Geoff Johns, and even he has stumbled a bit with his Superman: Secret Origin series -- has quite managed to hit a home run with the guy.

And it's a shame to say that, at least in this opening issue, J. Michael Straczynski doesn't, either.

Much of that is due to an extremely rough introduction. For someone who has been so well-regarded for hitting the "voice" of a character -- seriously, check out Straczynski's work on Spider-Man or Thor if you don't believe me -- this doesn't sound like Superman. And I hate being the guy that says that. I mean, seriously, I'm usually fairly forgiving when it comes to new takes, but from the very first line, Superman comes off as, well, kind of a jerk. "So why aren't you flying?" a reporter asks him. "I'm not flying because I'm walking," Superman replies. "Are you sure you're a reporter?" As opposed to the eternally understanding and ceaselessly gracious Superman we're used to, we get kind of an abrasive celebrity, a cultural tourist, a formerly mild-mannered reporter who seems to snub the measly humans in his midst.

Without giving too much away, however, the later third of the issue shows some potential. It's a riff on a key beat in Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman -- and if you know what beat I'm talking about, yeah, you knew it was going to be tough to top in seven pages what Grant accomplished in three panels. But Straczynski does ask some important questions, ones that do touch us all. But when it comes to this story, it looks like the motto to follow is "don't ask any questions that you don't know the answer," because Superman's answers are, well, a bit hollow. In certain ways, Superman's brusqueness is both a harkening to his pro-populist roots as well as an answer to the pedestal that many creators have recently placed the character. But the question remains: Isn't Superman supposed to be inspiring?

But the one person who I do owe an apology to is Eddy Barrows. In my review of the last issue of Superman, I wondered if having Eddy Barrows as the artist of this series was a clean enough break, if he wasn't A-list enough to work with this artist. I have to say, even if he doesn't have the electric appeal that many of the breakout stars have in their style, you can tell that this guy is trying his damnedest to draw the hell out of this book. His expressiveness with Superman does clash with Straczynski's script, but to be honest, I prefer Barrow's take on the Man of Steel. He may come off a little brusque, but he at least looks like he cares. Rod Reis's colorwork, while occasionally a bit too bright in certain area, works its best when there's shadows, giving the pages some weight and mood. But as far as the art goes, what I'm not such a fan of is the panel layouts -- there are a ton of stacked letterbox panels on many of the pages, and some variation would have really helped propel the story. That's kind of a big deal.

For those who are concerned about Superman's walk through America, it's not the idea that's the issue. But with some questionable choices about the villains of the piece -- who, in certain ways, is everyone and anyone, from stereotypical drug dealers to apathetic everymen who care more about their day jobs than Thoreau's standard of civil disobedience -- to some downright abrasive characterization, this is a concept that doesn't quite stick the landing. As a longtime fan of Straczynski's, I'm willing to keep an eye on what he's got going -- he is a writer who, when he connects, has always been good for a home run. But if Superman keeps up with the attitude, they might find that a lot of readers -- a lot of people who really missed the Man of Steel -- might just let him go walk by himself.

X-Men: Second Coming #2

Written by Zeb Wells, Mike Carey, Craig Kyle, Chris Yost, and Matt Fraction

Art by Ibraim Roberson, Matt Milla, Esad Ribic, Matt Wilson, Greg Land, Jay Leisten, Frank Martin, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, and Brad Anderson

Lettering by Joe Caramagna, Clayton Cowles, and Joe Sabino

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Patrick Hume

The latest event designed to change comics' biggest franchise forever winds to a close, and, in the grand tradition of such events, appears to have reversed the consequences of a couple of previous, similar game-changing incidents. If you've ever read an X-Men crossover, particularly in the last several years, then this should come as no particular surprise.

Second Coming #2 serves as a coda for the climactic events of X-Force #28, in which Cable sacrificed himself and his ward Hope obliterated Bastion and his forces. In the four stories featured here, we see most of the primary X-characters dealing with the repercussions in their own way, also setting up much of what is to come for the franchise. The writers do an able job of making us feel the pain these characters experience even in victory, whether it's the pain of loss, of betrayal, or of the end of a friendship. Particularly affecting were Cable's funeral and the conversation between Wolverine and Storm, two old comrades not quite able to believe how far they've come.  

Outside of those moments, though, it was hard to get invested. Some characters leave, bound for other areas of the Marvel Universe, others arrive, and it all feels like so many chess pieces being moved around. Franchise-spanning resets like the one we're given here often do both the fans and the creators a disservice, creating the illusion of change and innovation while invariably falling back on the same tropes these books have relied on for years. Even the two big reveals at issue's end are underwhelming. Though they appear to reverse some events that I was never a fan of, by doing so they undermine the value of those previous stories. It gets harder and harder for us to take seriously anything that's to come, knowing that it can be rendered invalid in one panel a month, a year, or five years from now. This phenomenon is, of course, endemic to superhero comics from the Big Two, but that doesn't make it any more palatable.

The art throughout is universally excellent, without the jarring transitions that often mar multi-artist books. I particularly liked Ribic and Wilson's stark establishing splash at Cable's funeral (although what's the deal with Bling looking like someone goosed her?), as well as the sequence in Beast's lab from Roberson and Milla - nothing too flashy, just efficient, clean storytelling. Dealing with such a huge cast on a visual level and coordinating your efforts in doing so is no mean feat, so kudos to all of them.

At the end of the day, though, comics like X-Men: Second Coming #2 are not there to be admired on their own merits, but to serve as a lynchpin for yet another iteration of Marvel's Merry Mutants. I think the book sets up some intriguing scenarios with a lot of storytelling potential, but will creators be allowed to run with them, or will their efforts be curtailed when someone in the office decides it's time to shake things up a little? I know which option I'd prefer - what about you?

Batman #701

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Tony Daniel and Ian Hannin

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by DC Comics

Review by Erika D. Peterman

Whatever your opinion of Grant Morrison in general or Batman: R.I.P specifically, there's no denying that he writes a compelling Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne's layers of angst and anger make him an easy target for caricature (See: Batman, The G-damn), but Morrison always brings something unexpected and, somehow, ever-more chilling to the Prince of Gotham's story.

Batman #701, which fills in the blanks between Batman's mind-warping encounter with Dr. Hurt in Batman: R.I.P and his "death" in Final Crisis easily could have been a throwaway issue. However, Morrison finds ways to shed more light on the world's greatest detective — a notoriously menacing crime-fighter who can survive helicopter crashes and psychological torture, but who is also kind to formerly troubled street kids who just want to say hi. He remembers their names; he even smiles. There are a handful of those humanizing moments in this issue: Bruce enjoying a cup of Alfred's (probably gourmet) Mulligatawny soup moments after crawling out of the Gotham River, or mourning the loss of a costume that his beloved father once wore to a masquerade ball.

Illustrator Tony Daniels' version of Batman is physically massive but weary, not to mention visibly haunted by the whiff of dark family secrets that may or may not be real. After being drugged and buried, and surviving the aforementioned chopper crash, Batman is stoop-shouldered when he finally walks through his mansion's gates. He's tired. In that single panel, we're reminded that, for all his heroic feats and ability to keep going while seriously compromised, Bruce Wayne has no metahuman advantages. Shortly thereafter, when Superman demands his services to help investigate the murder of the New God Orion, Batman considers the fact that his own colleagues — "Super-people" — forget that he's only human. But Morrison doesn't, which is what makes this Batman issue a worthwhile, substantive read.

Invincible Iron Man #28

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Salvadore Larroca

Lettering by Neurotic Cartoonist Inc.

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Kyle DuVall

Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s acclaimed Invincible Iron Man run is an interesting study in the identity crisis of modern mainstream comics. Invincible Iron Man’s story arcs unfold with the pacing and slickness of a Hollywood film, and, no doubt, the current “Stark Resilient” arc of Iron Man would make a pretty good movie. The web of corporate intrigue Fraction weaves is cunningly conceived and suspenseful and the first four issues have everything you would need to ratchet up the suspense in the first act of a good screenplay. Larroca’s art flows like a Hollywood storyboard. It’s drafted in a very realistic style with a minimum of wild angles. His breakdowns unfold as consistently as film frames scrolling through a projector. Larroca even emulates the widescreen composition of a panavison film screen in many places, using repetitive panels pretty close to the cinematic 2:35 or 1:85 ratio whenever possible. From the perspective of both writing and art Invincible Iron Man is a series that exemplifies the comics-as-frozen-movie aesthetic at its most well executed.

But comics aren’t films, and for all its careful execution Invincible Iron Man #28 is also a pretty fair case study in the drawbacks of telling a cinematic story in tiny chunks that come at 30-day intervals and cost 3 bucks a pop. Issue #28 has Shellhead and Rhodey finally facing Hammer Industries mechanized merc Detroit Steel. It’s a face-off  that has been building for 4 pretty talky issues. However, for the meticulously-plotting Fraction, a face off doesn’t mean a robo-suit royal rumble with guns blazing and repulsor rays repulsing, it means Tony Stark getting snubbed for a handshake. The only battle here is a PR one, with Stark getting his butt kicked by his rivals at Hammer corp. The reader can’t make the claim that this book is going nowhere, or that this issue is filler. Every scene has a plot point, every page a narrative thread is pulled, but as the arc continues, Fraction and Larroca are definitely pushing at the edges of the interest a “slow build” can sustain in a monthly comic.

Sure, Fraction has found an excuse to get Tony suited up in every issue of this arc, but they’ve all been pretty obligatory. The first was suiting up for a commute after Pepper ditches Tony for a ride home, the second involved Stark dramatically ripping open some crates to impress an IT geek, and now, we get Rhodey and Stark flying to Tokyo, arriving to find the threat resolved, and then going home after doing nothing. (and, to put my fanboy cap on for a second, is Fraction trying to say that neither Stark nor Rhodes, with their bleeding-edge neuro-linked battle armor have comm-tech in their helmets monitoring the situation on the ground as they fly? You know Stark would have not only access to military feeds in his helmet but also a hook-up to CNN, AND The Spice Channel.)

Invincible Iron Man might be better titled Occasional Iron Man at this point. It’s a testament to Fraction and Larroca’s skill and commitment that the book is still as engrossing as it is. Imagine having to write solicits in the old-school mighty marvel bullpen style for this arc based purely on the events of each issue: “Thrill as Iron Man gives Maria Hill a Flash Drive!! Be Shocked as Tony turns down a startup loan from Thor!!” Still, Fraction is injecting a lot of life into these decidedly non-superheroic struggles of Tony Stark: Invincible Entrepeneur, and seeing a comic-book Billionaire spending so much page-time actually being a business man is a novelty in its own right.

But there’s still a balance to be struck with this kind of story telling, and what Fraction is building to had better be pretty spectacular. Fraction and Larroca have done a fine job of making their Stark Resilient arc like an unfilmed Iron Man movie (albeit a movie where Stark is apparently played by Sawyer from Lost rather than Robert Downey Jr.), and their work shows just how far comics have come in converging with a cinematic aesthetic. But the frozen film style also throws away a lot of the advantages of the comics page…the potential plasticity of layouts, the use of stylization. Fraction’s scripting in combination with Larroca’s art creates the comics equivalent of the continuity style of film editing: every visual choice is subservient to conveying a straightforward narrative, with the art never calling attention to the form. It’s fluid, its elegant, but it ignores the sorts of visual and artistic statements you can make by pushing the boundaries of the medium.Invincible Iron Man’s ethos is a far cry from the compressed, commie tin-can of the month stroytelling of the old days but it is going to take a clear vision and confident hand to keep Invincible Iron Man man from going too far in its big-screen ambitions. So far, Fraction and Larroca are still on the right side of the line, but unless it starts raining payoff soon, it may only take an issue or two to push them over it.

The Bulletproof Coffin #2

Written by David Hine

Art by Shaky Kane

Letters by Jimmy Betancourt

Published by Image Comics

Review by Matt Seneca

Well, kid, if you're fed up with comics that are just "good" and want to read the stunner that people will still be talking about in a decade, look no further -- it's called The Bulletproof Coffin.  Last issue we were introduced to Steve Neuman, a comics-obsessed voids contractor who stumbled upon some crazy Silver Age gems in the house of a murdered old guy who'd been dressing up in superhero drag before he got cut short.  Nice find for Steve, except that the comics aren't supposed to exist, come with a black Mercedes full of eerie Shadow Men that tail around their owner -- and, this issue, it all starts start acting on him.

A genre-bending funhouse ride through the dark side of imagination, Bulletproof Coffin never allows the reader a moment to take a breath, much less figure out what's going on.  Wry commentary on comicky geekishness gives way to a similarly jaded look at dried out nuclear-family life before paranoia closes in and turns it all into a superhero thriller, or is it a horror comic, or is it still a satire?  Hine's script never lets up, tightening the noose with every page while never once showing his cards.  The stakes are high in here, with a hell of a lot of big things going down, but we're only getting bits and pieces, riveting shards of a narrative whose master plan looks more and more exciting by the panel.  This is a comic with some massive themes -- the obsessions that comics seed in us their readers, the allure of imagination over reality, the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia -- and if Hine (who's working from rough story concepts by Kane) can pull it all together into somehting meaningful, or even coherent, Bulletproof looks like it'll stand as a comic that can take all comers.  Myself, I'm just happy to have a comic that countenances modern American life with the devastating proclamation that "a rat's cage is a beautiful thing."

Kane's art is perfect for this stuff, jagged and wide open with linework so strong and assured it looks almost graven into the pages.  The flat, day-glo colors he throws over everything give a superficially cheery air to the darkly inscrutable goings-on, catching the eye with a cobalt-blue cockroach skittering through an acid-green trash heap or the sudden flight of chroma from the page in the wake of the dada-noir Shadow Men's driveby assault-by-pointing.  Despite the monster hunks of Kirby flava in his action scenes and figurework, Kane is an adept artist of realism, or at least the comic book version of realism.  You can almost feel the air conditioning in Neuman's house, taste the bubblegum his kids pop on their faces -- by lending the Kirbyist exaggerative eye to the mundane sinistry of the Curt Swan suburb and its inhabitants, Kane turns daily life into a strip-mall-sized panorama of creeping unease.  And hand in hand with the spot-on caricature run big action and bigger heroes, drenched in the vaguely familiar strangeness Kane brings to his characters screwing in lightbulbs and impaling rapists of fence posts and everything in between.   

It's the strangeness, the logic-defying quality of Bulletproof Coffin that make it such a vital, gripping read.  Kane and Hine throw conventional methods of storytelling out the window and boil everything down into a gloppy stew of things that are cool about comics.  It's those things that inform the plot more than anything like story or character logic, and indeed -- this is a comic about comics.  As such, it blasts out sass and formal daring by the page, whether it be generous Marvel-and-DC baiting, an eight-page shoutout to newsprint and Ditko-style uncompromising heroes, or the main plot conceit itself, which turns the life of a comic book nerd into a bombastic adventure amidst the dangers of the committed fanboy's obsession, isolation, and separation from society.  It's not every comic that makes you think, and it's really not every comic that calls you to the mat and asks you to account for yourself and your dirty little sequential art habit, but Bulletproof is a comic like no other.  Full marks.  Seek it out at any cost.

Thanos Imperative #2

Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

Art by Miguel Sepulveda and Jay D. Ramos

Lettering by Neurotic Cartoonist, Inc.

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Kyle DuVall  

After masterminding two giant crossover events and shepherding two ongoing series in Marvel’s cosmic line, writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have assembled the ultimate array of interstellar characters for their new, intergalactic opus, The Thanos Imperative. Thanos, The Silver Surfer, Gladiator and The Imperial Guard, Nova, Quasar, The Inhumans, Galactus ...all are lined up on DnA’s gameboard opposite an extra dimensional enemy that can muster weirdly monstrous counterparts of any character in the Marvel Universe. After two issues of The Thanos Imperative, DnA have delivered a narrative of deliriously breakneck action and machine-gun plotting. A lot happens in issue number two, and a lot of it is jaw-droppingly cool. But, still, in some ways it’s just not enough.

Issue 2 is both narratively and visually tighter than its predecessor. Artist Miguel Sepulveda’s compositions have become more lucid and his inking is beginning to counterbalance the smudgy, smoky style of pencil shading that was so distracting in issue number one, and, although his renderings of the creatures of the cancerverse draw a little too heavily from overly familiar sources (too many resemble Alien’s face-huggers) Sepulveda pulls off squishy horror book moments and gigantic cosmic money shots with equal and considerable power.

But Sepulveda and DnA are working against the potential of the Thanos Imperative with this six issue series. There are so many awesome elements at play in the background that they constantly remind the reader of story aspects that may never get fully developed. Characters like Silver Surfer, Gladiator, and The Inhumans could and should be top-lining their own related limited series. A concurrently running continuation of the on-hiatus Guardians of the Galaxy series could have taken the rushed battle between the Guardians and the cancerverse version of the Defenders in this issue and turned it into a full 23 page extravaganza. If Thanos Imperative’s plot threads were farmed out to separate books and separate artists, Sepulveda would not have so many benchmark characters to visually juggle, preventing small yet irksome art flaws like the panel of  a Silver Surfer with a pig nose or the weirdly flabby and oblong rendering of Namorita on page 23.

The Thanos Imperative is the prototypical embarrassment of riches. It’s a space opera that can pin the reader to his chair, but one that has to move so rapidly that the rhythm of Abnett and Lanning’s witty dialogue is sometimes off and the plot itself seems like a highlight reel of a much bigger much more phenomenal story. Sure, maybe this is a big criticism to make after just 2 issues, but once you consider the fact that the next chapter will mark the halfway point in this bursting at the seams saga, one can’t help but think that this series can’t be what it should under the constraints of a limited page count.

The Thanos Imperative is still highly recommended, yet, as a fan of everything that DnA have done with cosmic Marvel, I can’t help but lament what might have been with this scenario. It’s a showbiz maxim to leave your audience wanting more. But you don’t want them going away with hunger pangs either. With Thanos Imperative it’s like Abnett and Lanning have spent years cooking up a deep dish pizza of cosmic awesomeness for their fans, and now that we’re all at the table, Marvel’s publishers are only allowing us to nibble at the edges of the crust. Still, there’s are a lot to love here, and how much you enjoy Thanos Imperative will depend on how much you focus on what is instead of what could have been.

The Sixth Gun #2

Written by Cullen Bunn

Art and Letters by Brian Hurtt

Published by Oni Press

Review by Lan Pitts

It took Drake Sinclair several days of hard riding to reach the town of Brimstone...

Imagine the supernatural ordeals of Hellboy, crossing paths with the set of "Deadwood". That's what you get with Cullen Bunn's and Brian Hurtt's Sixth Gun. I picked up my copy on this year's Free Comic Book Day and was hooked. If you missed it the first time around, Oni is re-releasing the first issue (sadly, not of the awesome price of free) and the second issue, so you can get caught up.

The second issue packs a punch, much like it's previous installment. Gunfights, zombies, revenge, explosions, and of course, the accursed General free from his iron chains and free to hunt for his beloved gun. There's a lot to take in with characters being slung at you like whiskey shots, but it doesn't feel like a lot. The story moves forward here, and keeps it rather simplistic, which makes it for a quick, and fun read. Bunn has crafted a fine world here without burying the excitement with needless backstories or heavy narratives. You just can just pick up the book, and lose yourself in an exciting story.

Brian Hurtt's art does no harm either. From the easy-on-the eyes panel layouts to the character design, it all looks incredible. The colors match with the tone of the book, too. The General's skin looks ghoulish, and the red tones used while Becky's in her dreamscape just add a nice touch to the overall experience.

Bunn and Hurtt have crafted a great story and have really gotten the adventure in motion with just two issues in. So check out The Sixth Gun if you're looking for something wild and original, pick this one up.

The Brave and the Bold #35

Written by J. Michael Straczynski

Art by Jesus Saiz

Colors by Tom Chu

Letters by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by George Marston

I've had my ups and downs with DC Comics lately, but The Brave and the Bold remains a bright spot among the publisher's line up.  There's a lot to be said for comics that aren't afraid to be fun, and at the hands of talent like J. Michael Straczynski and Jesus Saiz, "fun" can often also mean "heartfelt," "peerless," and "exciting."  This issue hits on all possible angles, delivering a lighthearted romp through the time-space continu-whatzit of the DCU, and bringing together some of its most memorable (or forgettable?) characters.

This issue ties in with last issue's Doom Patrol/Legion Of Super-Heroes team-up, with the Legion of Substitute-Heroes travelling back in time to beat the Legion to saving the Earth from a growing black hole.  They enlist the help of the Inferior Five to do so, with predictably disastrous results.  Let's be honest; the Legion Rejec- er... Subs... and the Inferior Five aren't exactly the group of lords and ladies you want galavanting through the timestream together.  Sure, Polar Boy and Night Girl eventually made good in the Legion, and Merryman sort of showed up in "Superman Beyond," but really, they don't have a lot going for them.  Fortunately for us, what they do have are plenty of goofy gags and meta-humor, though to JMS's credit, he manages to strike a fine balance in the humor and the telling of the story, and his jokes never get away from him or derail things.  

Jesus Saiz continues to prove with this issue that he is the most versatile artist in the DC stable, and one of the best.  Artistically, there hasn't been a misstep on this title since he took over the regular art chores.  He always manages to find the right balance of bright color and deep blacks, and his sense of lighting and pacing belie a classic sensibility that is perfect for these lost tales of the DCU.  JMS also proves that he's earned his reputation in the comics industry, consistently delivering a spot-on voice for nearly every character in the DC panoply.  There have been a few failed efforts in his run, such as the overly sentimental "girls night out" issue, but this is not one of them, and coupled with last month's issue, this is a great, fun, and exciting story in the grand tradition of DC Comics.  

X-Force: Sex and Violence #1

Written by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost

Art by Gabriele Dell'Otto

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

X-Force is one of those titles that's all about balancing the tone.

Yeah, the book can sometimes be accused of having video-game, beat-the-boss-to-get-to-the-next-level plotting or some of the visual excesses that cause some to sneer at superhero comics. But as far as high-concepts go, I think X-Force is one of the strongest of the X-Men franchise: the black-ops team that hunts down mutantkind's enemies to the ends of the earth.

But ultimately, you need to have an artistic tone that can carry that premise -- and that's a balance that Gabriele Dell'Otto absolutely nails. Dell'Otto's painterly style has a real dingy, streaked quality to it that's reminiscent of a high-speed nightmare, the bleached out tones giving the mutant mercenary Domino a real archetypical look to her as a bloodied angel of death. And Dell'Otto's Wolverine? Oh man, his Wolverine looks angry, dirty, a consistently scary but always human figure that just looks absolutely cool. Combine that with the futuristic looking antatgonists and the way that the panels start to slide with the action, and it becomes clear that this is the sort of book that Dell'Otto was born to draw.

As far as the writing goes, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost don't necessarily give the most in-depth looks as far as characterization goes, but what they do succeed in is writing the sort of blockbuster Michael Bay shoot-'em-ups that the team is known for. There's a sense of this moral slippage, the dirty pasts that come back to haunt not just one person, but an entire people. When you're an endangered species on the run, everything goes back to sex and violence, and while it's not exactly reinventing the wheel, Kyle and Yost go manage to bring some atmosphere back to the high-concept killing machines.

If you're interested in getting a taste of what this team is all about, you should definitely check out X-Force: Sex and Violence #1. With the creators' high-concept being presented in the best possible light with Dell'Otto's slick visuals, it's almost a shame that there will be a new creative team taking over the book -- Punisher vets Rick Remender and Jerome Opena -- in the months to come. But if you're interested in saddling up with the dark side of Xavier's dream, take a look at this book.

Orc Stain #4

Written and Drawn by James Stokoe

Published by Image Comics

Review by Matt Seneca

Let me tell you some stuff that happens in this issue of Orc Stain.  A living man gets covered in lubricant and used as a marionette.  The king of the orcs wears a giant headdress made out of severed bird parts and gestures around with a flopping severed penis.  The main character eats an egg containing a live fetal chick that secretes a mind-controlling sweat.  Two guys get covered in pus-filled boils that swell up until their heads pop off and their entire bodies explode.  A girl sticks her finger in an orc's eye socket, then puts it in her nose and sniffs.  Later, this same girl's life is saved by the sentient fur coat she's wearing.  You want a plot summary?  Too bad.

Orc Stain is both a throwback and a vision of the future.  It's absolutely steeped in the noxious fumes of old comics, which is hardly remarkable for a mainstream book, but what enlivens Stokoe's work is the source material he's pulling from, potent from-left-field stuff that's even more potently resurrected on the page.  While the superhero comics continue to cannibalize the Silver Age and maybe take a pinch here and there from genre garbage like "Star Wars", Stokoe is bathing in the rawbone madness of the 1970s' post-undergound comics scene, with large gulps of Heavy Metal mixed in too, and plenty of the stylisms of early translated-manga artists like Otomo and Kojima.  What might just seem derivative in a lesser artist's hands is magic from Stokoe, who throws it all in a can and shakes it up into a pure, addictive, high-in-trans-fats sludge.   

The artists emulated are proof of Stokoe's taste; his fusion of three continents' best into a single, monolithic aesthetic vision more than proves his talent.  Orc Stain takes the ersatz sword-and-sorcery of Richard Corben and Vaughn Bode as a genre, spinning out a massive tale of like, fighting orcs and warriors and babes and shit, bubbling up as searing and passionate as a fifteen-year-old's basement D & D game.  That's a good thing, Stokoe's utter conviction carrying his story beyond mere genre into a strangely archetypal place.  What the story lacks in originality it more than makes up in verve, be it druggy extravagance, over-the-top body humor, "high style" declaiming crossed with the patter of Beat dialogue, or the sheer mind-boggling slam of his drawings.  The art bears it all out in the end, and so much more.  Double-page splashes sprawl with Geof Darrow levels of detail, manga forms rub up against Moebius lux perpetua coloring, layouts engorge and pinpoint, breathing with the action, and everything looks like some long-imagined Platonic ideal of the "dirty fantasy" genre, the cartoon crude to Frank Frazetta's illustrative refinement.

Orc Stain has been incredible right from page one, and this issue bangs right along to Stokoe's grinding prog-punk beat.  The Cecil DeMille-on-magic mushrooms set pieces sit next to cracked character sequences and epic action scenes that stretch on for pages, with every panel topping the previous one until it all (literally, here) explodes.  Stokoe's no Brian-Michael Bendis when it comes to plotting out a long-term story, but the subplots lope along acceptably and every moment of the comic is so well-drawn and weirdly engaging that what's happening now is all there is to think about, and if we can survive that maybe then we'll see.  In the best tradition, Stokoe's stories are by and large elegant excuses for him to go nuts drawing wild sequences that push the "action comics" form to its limits.  If you're looking for your next comic after Watchmen you better find something else, but if you want to see some gorgeous art and marvel as the bizarre Tolkien/Burroughs ante gets upped with every page, by all means hasten.  Comics this odd and this smart and this good don't come along every day.

Uncanny X-Men: The Heroic Age #1

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Whilce Portacio, Steve Sanders, and Jamie McKelvie with Ed Tadeo, Jaime Mendoza, Brian Reber, Ian Hannin & Chris Sotomayor

Letters by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brendan McGuirk

While bridging the events of Second Coming to those of The Heroic Age, this one-shot seeks to answer one question, and it isn't the one you might think. It's not a matter of who are the X-Men -- but why?

The story focuses on three principals: Cyclops, the uber-responsible leader who once again seeks clarity in his responsibilities; Beast, who has simply been through too many battles and seen too many compromises to continue on as an enlisted X-Man; and Hope, the savior to the mutant race and the new girl, who may find being an X-Man as close to normalcy as she's had in her life.  

Since his work on Iron Fist, Matt Fraction has shown an aptitude in telling stories with multiple artists holistically, without feeling like a hodgepodge of conflicting visual voices. Each artist is tasked with his own character and chapter by which to showcase his talents. Those installments are craftily interwoven in celebration of the diversity of both the art styles and the characters. Portacio strikes heroic postures with rugged action. Sanders gets another chance to share his amusingly feline take on Hank McCoy while showcasing his punchy sense of comic timing. McKelvie captures Hope's quiet moments as she comes to grips with her life without Cable. Since each artist has a unique purpose, this feels less like too many chefs in the kitchen and more like a unified chorus.

While the harmonious visuals are a treat, the real payoff of this story is seeing how each character's adventure speaks to the plight and fight of the X-Men.  

Beast has had it with Cyclops' by-any-means-necessary extremist X-Men group. Avengers fans already knew that the good doctor would likely be taking his leave, but seeing him flat-out reject Summers' vision to his face was a new leap. Still, a teacher will always be a teacher, and when Hank stumbles into Molly Hayes, of The Runaways, he slips into that same old professorial role. The X-Men will always be there to teach and nurture the next generation, even when the future is uncertain.  

Hope got a raw deal. She had less of a childhood than a kid in Hollywood, she lost her dad, and now everyone expects her to save the world or something. She's the perfect young X-Man- troubled, powerful, and orphaned. Introduced to the worldly heroes of Earth, she meets Franklin Richards, who has also bore the weight of a world on his shoulders. Given a new chance, and a new family (however reluctantly), Hope will join the X-Men to do what they have always done; survive. And should she survive long enough, even thrive.  

Which brings us to Cyclops, the undoubted central star of Fraction's Uncanny X-Men. In Second Coming, Cyclops won the war he'd been preparing for. But now there is a new world, and new objectives will need to be met. While Scott seeks to decompress (`Isn't that a thing for ladies?' is easily the line of the week), he is reminded by Captain Steve Rogers (nee America) that there is one final responsibility of the X-Men; to inspire.  

Teachers. Survivors. Inspirations. That is a pretty comprehensive set of guidelines for who the X-Men are meant to be. Let the world fear and hate them. Heroic Age, Dark Age, Middle Age, Stone Age -- they persevere.  

Age Of Reptiles: The Journey #4

Written and Drawn by Ricardo Delgado

Published by Dark Horse

Review by Kyle DuVall

In these days of $4 comics and EVERYTHING CHANGES FOREVER!!!! Storytelling, sometimes its hard setting a few bucks a month aside for the simpler pleasures. Of course, for a comic fan, a simple pleasure may not be something like watching clouds float by or blowing on dandelion seeds.  It could be reading a wordless comic book featuring a Tyrannosaurus Rex fighting a primordial sea-beast in the raging surf of a prehistoric ocean.

Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles: The Journey, has served up a veritable banquet of savory, yet unashamedly straightforward sequential art treats. The visuals are lushly immersive, with a playful sense of detail, the action is kinetic and savage, and the dialogue is nonexistent. This is storytelling purely with pictures. Pictures of dinosaurs taking a long walk and occasionally eating each other, and although Delgado’s plot may be minimalist, the ins and outs of his world, from the geography of the action, to the tiniest movement of each terrible tyrant lizard on the page, are conceived with the clarity of vision of the most baroquely plotted crossover superhero extravaganza.  

Without a single word bubble or caption box Age of Reptiles conjures a lost world of juvenile fantasy, inviting the reader into a prehistoric age that does not exactly jive with the fossil record yet still exists the imagination of every child who ever daydreamed their way through the pages of a dinosaur encyclopedia. Species that never occupied the same strata of time cross paths, and the lizard kings are rendered without the wild color flourishes and avian aspects that current evolutionary science postulates were part of Dinosaur physiology. It’s the familiar scales-and teeth world of pre-adolescent speculation, and it’s a world that teems with giant reptiles in multitudes most likely unthought of even at the height of the Jurassic era. Its hard to imagine the sort of person who wouldn’t want to spend some time there.

Delgado’s art renders it all with enthusiastic explosions of detailed linework. This last issue is executed with a brio that calls forth both the work of Geoff Darrow and Japanese print artist Hokusai...if Hokusai had grown up obsessed with Ray Harryhausen films. Almost every panel rewards the attentive reader with tiny details and flourishes, be it an infinitesimal shark jumping form the waves, or the tiny remora’s clinging to a monsters flank.

Although they're seldom noted in comics, Age of Reptiles should also garner praise for its graphic designer Tony Ong, whose work on the frontispice of each issue calls to mind old national geographic magazines, and whose sprinkling of little surprises in the margins of the pages add whimsy to an otherwise ferocious book.

Although this is a series that really deserves to be collected in an oversized, ultra-deluxe prestige volume, The climactic issue of Age of Reptiles: The Journey is an irresistibly giddy slice of cold-blooded reptile on reptile action that will most likely have you mounting a paleontological expedition into the back issue bins. After reading #4, trade-waiting on this one might feel like a million years.

Richard Stark's Parker: The Man with the Getaway Face

By Darwyn Cooke

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Brendan McGuirk

Darwyn Cooke is nearly peerless among modern cartoonists. His work is distinctive, emotionally versatile, and clear as a freshly squeegeed windshield. His adaptations of the Parker series are a testament to the infinite potential of comics when removed from familiar genre trappings. The oversized (and under-priced!) format of the one-shot makes for a lush canvas, allowing Cooke's storytelling to shine.

Packing a full novel adaptation into 24 pages is no easy feat, but Cooke uses a few cagey tricks, like a date-stamp watch flourish, to pace the story without rushing it. His pages are terse and dense, punching the reader like a flurry of jabs. The story is smoother than the heist it portrays, and even the title page sequence reveals Cooke as a master of the craft.

With the next full-length Parker installment, The Outfit, due out in October, The Man with the Getaway Face is something like the stiff drink you get at the bar before the main course. It ain't dinner, but it's damn satisfying nonetheless. Simply put, Parker makes crime sexy. But don't try it at home.

Suck It, Wonder Woman!  The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek

Written by Olivia Munn and Mac Montandon

Published by St. Martin's Press

Review by  Jeff Marsick

Unless you've spent the past four years sequestered in the Hapes Cluster, you'll recognize the name Olivia Munn as that hottie from the G4 Network's Attack of the Show".  She's the cheerleader for geekdom, the bright spot of validation amongst male gamers and hero worshippers that our hobbies are indeed cool and that yes, we are diggable by chicks.  Ms. Munn has legions of followers and it is for them that she has penned this intimate look behind her pie-loving veil.

Right from the introduction you're comfortable with her voice, as she writes conversationally and without pretense, as if she's right there next to you chatting away like the coolest girl you'll ever know.  She takes us on a trip in her shoes, growing up awkwardly as a part-Chinese, part-white Air Force brat ("and geek all the time") in Oklahoma before heading off to Los Angeles to make it in the big time.  Strange first loves, the strategy of friendships, her peculiar predilection for pie, and why geeks make her tick are all touched on in a series of vignettes, quirky snapshots that taken as a whole are intended to paint the picture that is Olivia.  Interspersed with the rather shotgun and meandering approach to her tale are stops along the way for witty asides and "take it from a girl who knows" advice.

That desire to be the coolest girl is the major problem with this book.  Ms. Munn tries too hard to be Chelsea Handler by way of Artie Lange (with whom she shared a set on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon).  She can clearly tell a story, such as the chapter "My Worst Day Ever", which is poignant and endearing.  Even the chapter about the goat rope that was her  Playboy cover shoot or the one of her shining moment on Fallon are witty and give example of her ability to be naturally funny.  But mostly throughout the book she tries to be "one of the guys", dropping f-bombs and a couple c-nukes like a sailor on shore leave, as if they add a necessary coating of flair and flavor (which they don't).  I also found it interesting that she would name-drop Evander Holyfield in a moment when he apparently propositioned her to sleep with him, yet she demurs and goes opaque when telling salacious tales of directors and actors, even providing an author's note that "names and identifying characteristics of some people have been changed".  Outing the former heavyweight champ has zero effect on her upward mobility, so he's cannon fodder.  Yet the fat director she could have filed a dozen complaints of sexual harassment against or the producer with the antique dildo collection should be protected since Ms. Munn's orbit at some point is likely to spin within their sphere of influence.   

While it's billed at 288 pages, it probably only weighs in at around half that, given the dozen or so filler chapters like "How to Make Love Like a Zombie" and "Princess Leia Tweets Star Wars".  These blatant and vapid attempts at a stand-up routine exist only to pad the page count, which leaves this reader thinking this was a strained effort to extend Ms. Munn's marketability, if the sum total of quality material was a better fit for a brochure than an actual hardcover book.  Sure, there are pictures of Ms. Munn in various states of cosplay (in black and white), but you can cleave better pictures from a Google search and I could care less about seeing pages of her favorite pieces of fan art submitted by sycophants the world over.

Is the book entertaining?  Certainly.  For a little under three hours on the beach, it's perfect.  Is it worth the $23.99 cover?  Absolutely not.  One pass through and you're never likely to read it again and chances are you won't recommend it to family or friends.  If you're not a rabid Olivia Munn fan and this is one of those "gotta have" items, get your fix by borrowing it from the library or at most purchase it on a Kindle platform.

Pellet Reviews!

Amazing Spider-Man #637 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by George Marston): Man, I've really enjoyed the hell out of "The Gauntlet," but this ultimate chapter took a little bit out of me.  The machinations of the Kraven family have been built up slowly over the last year, and while, at three issues a month, almost a full year of storytelling may seem decompressed, the chapter-by-chapter nature of the story really worked, making it feel more like a full season of a TV show than a slow year of comics.  Unfortunately, after last issue super-solid characterization, and hard-hitting final page, this issue feels a little bit crammed.  Kraven's attitude towards his resurrection hasn't exactly improved since last issue, but his determination to make the most of it certainly has.  The problem lies less with the villains, and more with the hero.  Spider-Man's decent into madness and bloodthirsty rage seems kind of haphazard and rushed.  It's not that he doesn't have reason to go nuts at this point, it just happens so quickly that it almost seems like putting on that black costume is like flipping a switch.  Fans of "Kraven's Last Hunt" will have plenty of little moments to rejoice over, but all in all, I honestly would have liked another issue to wrap this thing up.  The weight of the tale was lost in the slapdash cuts and bits of dialogue meant to clarify the odds and ends of the story, and while this has been, overall, a fitting end to what's looking like the penultimate chapter for "Brand New Day," it's a little too expected and ending, especially when what may be a (now pointless) return to status-quo for a title that's been top of the stack since it made its most drastic changes in decades only a couple years ago.

Avengers Academy #2 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by David Pepose): It's a gutsy move, having your second issue basically be a character study of an unknown character (and not even the narrator of the first issue), but Christos Gage and Mike McKone stick the landing, with the highest-concept Avengers book on the stands. Taking a look at the character of Finesse is fascinating, because in certain ways she's the ultimate unreliable narrator -- she's cold, detached, manipulative, but there's no malice behind those eyes, and in that regard, she could make for a fantastic hero or a stone-cold supervillain. And isn't that what this series is all about? The only weakness I see here is that the professors are getting a bit more depth than the students themselves -- then again, this is their story, too, because this pack of superteens aren't the only ones who need to be redeemed from their dark side. With a fun narrator and an unexpectedly sharp cliffhanger, this is definitely the Avengers book to pick up.

Titans #25 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Robert Repici): Out of all the DC books that currently fall under the "Brightest Day" banner, this one is by far the most frustrating at the moment. After all, although the whole "Villains for Hire" concept has been controversial among a plethora of fans from the very beginning, many in the comic book community (including myself) have maintained that, if done right, there's definitely an interesting story to be told with Deathstroke and his new Titans team here. Unfortunately, there just hasn't been anything remotely interesting (or even entertaining, for that matter) with the story writer Eric Wallace has been telling so far, and Titans #25, Wallace's third issue with this newly-formed group of mercenaries, does absolutely nothing to remedy the situation. For one, like Wallace's first two outings on the title, this month's installment is chock full of cringe-inducing fight scenes and contrived character moments that, taken as a whole, just bring the story to a grinding halt. To make matters worse, after the main conflict in this issue comes to a rather abrupt end, Wallace makes an attempt to effectively advance a couple of the subplots that he introduced in his set-up special with these villainous Titans (which, by the way, aren't that intriguing yet either), but his effort here is, at best, ill-conceived. As far as the artwork is concerned, there's no question that Fabrizio Fiorentino has tremendous talent (with his splash pages continuing to amaze here), but he really seems to struggle when it comes to staging action sequences in a coherent manner. That being said, there were several instances when Fiorentino's artwork actually pulled me out of the story this issue, as I constantly found myself revisiting various panels just so I could try to figure out what was supposed to be going on with the visuals. All in all, Titans #25 is a lamentable train wreck on a number of different levels. I'm still holding out hope that Wallace and Fiorentino can somehow manage to salvage their inaugural storyline on this series, but they definitely need to go back to the drawing board.

The X Files/30 Days of Night #1 (Published by IDW and Wildstorm; Review by Jeff Marsick):  On paper it's rather intriguing, but in execution is about as exciting as a sleepwalk.  It takes too long to set up, percolates too much in the second act with some stock antagonism between Mulder and other federal agents, then is ladeled to us with thick narration as a lead-in to the second issue.  The cover price would have been better justified had the story started on page eleven and if writers Steve Niles and Adam Jones had reigned in the need to tell us the final four pages and simply allowed artist Tom Mandrake to show it to us.  Then again, Mr. Mandrake has done better work elsewhere, and the opening pages are surprising in their amateurish sequential storytelling.  This book feels like it was phoned in, and I don't get the sense that it's going to get any better with the next issue.

The Stuff of Legend: Volume 2, Part 1 (Published by Th3rd World Studios, Review by Amanda McDonald): While at the LCS earlier this week, a friend and I compared books we picked up. Upon seeing my copy of The Stuff of Legend he said "so it's toys. . . that go into battle?" Yes sir, it is! "Like Toy Story? Uh, no. Definitely not. While this is a kid-friendly book, I hesitate to say it's all ages. Rife with violent battle scenes, this is not a book for the Tiny Titans crowd, but older kids, and of course adults, will enjoy it. Set in 1944 Brooklyn and centered around a boy and his toys, the book has a dark tone. The boy has been trapped by the Boogeyman and the toys are out to find him. Visually, the toys appear differently in battle and become more like their counterparts, for example the teddy bear becomes a real bear. Much like in Fables, you forget that the characters you're reading are animals. The characters have distinctive voices and it's easy to sympathize with them.  Mike Raicht and Brian Smith write dialog among characters that flows smoothly. In addition, the art style draws you in. Charles Paul Wilson III's highly detailed pencil sketch style reminds me of Caldecott Award winning illustrator Brian Selznick with its expertly executed realism. Jon Conkling and Michael DeVito's coloring completes the amazing art with a color palette that makes you feel as if you're reading an aged storybook or looking at vintage photos from the 1940s. Don't judge this book by its cutesy cover -- The Stuff of Legend is a book that will have you cringing in nervous anticipation for the characters, and is worth picking up for a well crafted reading experience.

Cinematic Shot!

Inception

Featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, and Marion Cotillard

Filmed by Legendary Pictures and Syncopy Films

Review by Patrick Hume

After singlehandedly rescuing the Batman film franchise, director Christopher Nolan accumulated a lot of credit with audiences and studio executives alike. Just as savvy with Hollywood politics as he is behind the camera, Nolan parlayed that goodwill into support for a film he's been working on for almost a decade, a film that cements his status as one of the most exciting filmmakers of our time.

Inception revolves around Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a corporate intelligence specialist who uses dream-sharing technology to extract information directly from his targets' subconscious. Energy mogul Saito (Watanabe) hires Cobb and his team to reverse the process by planting an idea in the mind of his rival, Fischer (Cillian Murphy). What follows is a thrilling amalgam of heist film, psychological thriller, and science-fiction mystery, as the job forces Cobb to confront some truths about himself that could have dire implications for everyone involved.

Nolan is known for his precision and control as a filmmaker, and those talents are on full display here. I can't recall a film since The Matrix which had to establish a set of rules this complex, and did so with such aplomb that you barely noticed the exposition as it was happening. Inception teaches you how to watch it, and manages to do so while still being enthralling. Depending on how you look at it, most of the film's last hour is operating on four or five different levels of reality, but Nolan's finely honed script and sense of timing, combined with the deft editing of longtime collaborator Lee Smith, guide you through the labyrinthine action with an expertise that is dazzling. The other leg of Nolan's production tripod, cinematographer Wally Pfister, outdoes himself again, virtually guaranteeing a fourth successive Oscar nomination for his work with Nolan as he captures the incredible imagery of the surreal dreamscapes constructed by Cobb and his new apprentice, Ariadne (Page).

For all the filmmaking brilliance on display, the one place where Inception sometimes falls short is in maintaining an emotional connection to the story. This is not to say that the film is cold, merely that the human through-line is occasionally lost amidst the bravura set-pieces and astonishing action sequences. DiCaprio delivers the stellar work that we've almost come to expect from him - never flashy, but always present in the achingly real pain he feels at the the tragedy that drove him away from his wife Mal (Cotillard) and their children. Page, meanwhile, makes us care about her audience-surrogate character while simultaneously showing how much of a kindred spirit she is to Cobb, grounding him as he threatens to spin out of control. The hidden gems of the cast, however, are Gordon-Levitt as Cobb's right-hand man, Arthur, who features in the single best fight sequence since Eastern Promises, and Tom Hardy as Eames, the fey con artist of Cobb's group.

I realize that I've talked around any details of what actually happens in the film, but Inception is not about particulars of story so much as it is about the feeling you get at the boundary between sleep and consciousness, and how about how the burdens of guilt can change your entire world. Drawing on influences ranging from 1940s noir, to science fiction epics 2001 and Blade Runner, to modern classics such as The Matrix and Heat, Inception easily proves itself worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as any of them.  

What were your fave reads this week?

Twitter activity