Best Shots Comic Reviews: SECRET AVENGERS, WONDER WOMAN More

Best Shots Comic Reviews

Happy Monday, 'Rama Readers -- your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here! We've got a virtual smorgasboard of books reviewed for you this week, running the gamut with DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Oni Press, Fantagraphics, Top Cow and a whole lot more! As always, if you're looking for some more reviews, all you have to do is check out the Best Shots Topics Page here! And now, let's let Brendan start us off this week, as he checks out the brave new world of Diana Prince in Wonder Woman #601.

Don Kramer Joins JMS on WONDER WOMAN
Don Kramer Joins JMS on WONDER WOMAN
Wonder Woman #601

Written by J. Michael Straczynski

Art by Don Kramer, Michael Babinski & Alex Sinclair

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brendan McGuirk

Biff! Pow! Leather jackets aren't just for the 90's anymore!

The all-new, all-different Wonder Woman is here to stay for some indeterminate period of time, and in this first full issue JMS, Don Kramer and crew begin to shed some light on how it is she came to be. It is a tale rife with tragedy, brutality, and, however unlikely, spy-clowns. Young Diana was not raised by her mother Hippolyta on the idyllic isle of Themyscira, but was whisked away after her mother was savagely murdered, and raised as an orphan. Now, Diana is more hardened than readers might remember, and she is as clueless as readers about the details of her past. And so does her path of re-self-discovery begin.  

Alex Sinclair is DC's ace in the hole. His inspired touch brings a heightened sense of vitality to the work. Paradise is burnt orange, and the modern world is green and grimy. When a colorist is this “on,” every image he touches reaches a new level of weight and importance. On a status-quo changing story like this one, it becomes all the more important.

But what of the new Wonder Woman? Well, she does seem rather... new. In fact, she seems almost like a new character entirely.

There is an inferred weakness to the character implied by this entire exercise; that despite all the talk of “Big 3” and memories of Linda Carter, Wonder Woman is an inferior character in comparison to other industry stalwarts. Because this isn't a retooling akin to JMS' Thor work, where he looked backwards for certain details and used them to draw up a new scenario for the character to operate in; this is a new backstory, new costume, and a new attitude about and from the character. With all that, it's hard not to perceive that as an indictment.  

Much was made of how this soft reboot harkens back to Denny O'Neil's costume-less Diana Prince: Wonder Woman experiment, but with talk of murder and a home lost, it feels just as close to the Loebs/Deodato Artemis iteration. This is okay, and shouldn't damn the entire retooling exercise, but it is a reminder that these things are all cyclical. Risks are taken, gambles are made, and in the end the titles generally return their definitional core. Just one full issue in, it couldn't be any earlier in this NEW DIRECTION, but there is already one vital question it poses:

What is at the core of Wonder Woman? And how can we recognize her?  

Maybe that core will reveal itself in coming stories. Or maybe readers will come to recognize it in its absence.

Secret Avengers #3

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Mike Deodato, Jr. and Rain Beredo

Lettering by Dave Lanphear

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Patrick Hume

Click here for preview

Can I just say how much I love the idea of this book? Secret Avengers seems like something I would have come up with when I was 8 -- Captain America putting together a team of random, awesome Avengers - but done with the style and panache that a team like Brubaker and Deodato can bring to the table. 

That said, setting up a situation where half the team is out of commission (two unconscious, one mind-controlled, one teleported away) in the very first arc is perhaps not the best choice. Given the disparate personalities and lack of existing relationships between many of these characters, it seems like the better choice would have been to provide a set-up that would give them more of a chance to bond and start creating whatever kind of "team vibe" Brubaker intends to have.

Outside of that, however, what we have here is nothing more or less than a solid, well-written story that draws on the rich history of the Marvel Universe to give it some depth and character. The prologue gives a great sense of the epic background of the Serpent Crown, as does the Archon's speech on the reasons behind his creation. I'm a sucker for this kind of cosmic story, and Brubaker and Deodato really nail the tone of grandeur and mystery as Steve Rogers and company stumble across yet another piece of their universe's secret history.

Speaking of Deodato, I'm not hugely familiar with his work but found it really appealing, especially for the kind of story Brubaker tells here. It's very dynamic without being flashy or overstated, and takes great advantage of silhouetting and the non-terrestrial lighting conditions. I particularly appreciated Valkyrie's battle near the beginning, which just had great movement and pacing to it. Also, a shout to colorist Beredo, who took on the challenge of a story set largely on Mars with aplomb -- it can't be easy when your whole background has to be variations on one color.

Secret Avengers isn't going to change the face of superhero comics, but with such an eclectic cast and Brubaker's keen knowledge of Marvel lore, I think it's going to be a consistently fun book. Steve Rogers has a history of assembling odd Avengers rosters -- his first consisted of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch, all major villains at the time -- and forging them into a powerful unit. I'm looking forward to watching that process unfold, especially with newly-minted fan favorites like Nova and Ant-Man alongside representatives from the old guard. In an interview in February, Brubaker said he "hope[s] it feels different than any Avengers team, ever," and once we see them actually operating as a team, I think he's going to have a lot of success in that regard.

First Wave #3

Written by Brian Azzarello

Art by Rags Morales, Rick Bryant, Bob Almond and Nei Ruffino

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by DC Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

The third installment of Brian Azzarello's pulp mystery is just that, an installment. That is not necessarily negative, but if you were expecting high-stakes in this month's game, think again. After eagerly waiting three months for this issue, I was a bit too hopeful. Here's my best shot at objectivity.

Just to recap (for your sake, and mine): At the end of the last issue we learned that Doc Savage served up a giant kuckle-sammich to the Blackhawks in order to save The Spirit's eccentric ass. Why? Well, Spirit claims to have seen the deceased body of Savage, Sr. Said body is the cargo the Blackhawks are so violently determined to deliver ... to Hidalgo? Monk and Ham have commissioned The Avenger for an impersonation gig. Anton Colossi is a sick, twisted bastard. And, The Bat-Man finally made an appearance, at the end. 

Issue #3 quickly reminds us how crooked police officer Dolan is, and how smart Doc is. We get a smarmy Bruce Wayne by day and (after months of hoopla) a heat-packing Bat-Man by night. A naked, ego-maniacal leader of an elitist world domination organization takes a swim. The Blackhawks continue with their unethical approach. Mix that with explosions, natives in the city, and some slow-motion face punching; you just get more questions. I double-check the cover to make sure this is a six issue mini-series. It is. At the end of #3, I've got a ton of enthralling characters, yet I haven't the slightest where this story is going. I am not displeased about this. I am just doubly curious how Azzarello is going to execute the pay-off in three more issues.

Azzarello's measured words and dramatic imagery is poetic. It is unfortunate that the staccato of switching between points-of-view rapidly turns this into a cacophony. The narrations of a character's thoughts set over panels of events that are occurring elsewhere require a great deal effort on the reader's part. I found it to be confusing. Something I think could be remedied by a different style of lettering for each character, and/or distinct colors for each character's dialogue box. The writing is too smart to be convoluted by ambiguous lettering.

I consider myself a Rags apologist. I've been a fan of his work for a long time. He is to comic art what Chanel is to fashion, classic and evergreen. And, the man can draw a face like nobody's business. As I was reading, there was something slightly off about the art that I could not put my finger on. After referencing the first two issues' credits, it revealed that this issue was not inked by Rags as the books had been previously. You can tell the difference. So, the usually phenomenal art is just really ... really good. Such is life when you are on a deadline that has already been pushed back. Nei Ruffino's colors save the day as she makes the pages glow.

First Wave is an interesting and sharp story. The "First Wave Universe" is building up to be as swank as Sinatra. I would just like a little more satiation in my individual issues. Based upon Rag's character sketches that were previewed a while back, I am waiting with baited breath for the first appearance of this world's Black Canary. As of now, I cannot imagine how she'd play into the story. Maybe Azzarello is a genius, and is making the noir style of this book a double entendre, because I am completely in the dark. 

Glamourpuss #14

By Dave Sim

Published by Aardvark-Vanaheim

Review by Matt Seneca

In between "good comics" -- Acme Novelty, All Star Superman, you know the kind -- and "trainwrecks" (not going to name any names but I'm sure you can think of some from the past year or so), there's a peculiar strand of comic.  Ever read a book where it felt like the only thing keeping it from self-destructing was the creator's utter skill?  I have: Steve Ditko's Mr. A is a good one, so's Sin City, so's Lost Girls.  There's a certain white-knuckle pleasure to be had in watching these kind of high-wire comics unfold, creators mired in their worst excesses but still possessed of enough basic talent for the medium that it all somehow holds together.  The push and pull between appeal and repulsion, chaos and control.  It isn't everybody's favorite kind of comics, but it might be mine.

And that's why Glamourpuss is my favorite ongoing series right now.  Dave Sim made both "good comics" and "trainwrecks" again and again during his 300-issue epic Cerebus, but he'd typically alternate between the two, giving his readers splashes of breathtakingly hateful, masterfully-written misogynist ranting in the middle of stellar historical-adventure comics.  Glamourpuss, then, unifies the two.  Every issue, whatever else may ensue, can be counted on for meticulously researched reconstruction of the lives and times of mid-century photorealist comics artists like Stan Drake and Alex Raymond,  in addition to massive amounts of gender politics-related spleen.  If that sounds schizophrenic, well, it certainly is, but the jarring transitions are smoothed over by the gorgeous pen-and-brush work that langours on each page, as well as the sense that these are the two topics, for better or worse, that obsess Sim most.

Most Glamourpuss issues lack balance.  Either Sim's unearthed a choice historical nugget on some old newspaper hack's favorite brand of hard alcohol or whatever to make the historical segments rivet -- or he's in a particularly grouchy mood about, uh, women (pretty ones especially), and goes off in all directions with his fashion magazine parodies like a chauvinist Lester Bangs.  Last issue was more the latter; this issue zones in on Alex Raymond's last day of life with laser-beam intensity, alternating the book's usual meticulously copied daily strips and photos with some honest-to-god comics storytelling, a rarity for Sim these days. It's a bravura performance, transforming a middle-aged man's shuffling around a rainy Connecticut suburb into something full of wide-open, Hitchcockian tension. Sim may not draw a lot of straight comics anymore, but his construction, pacing, and skill with the ink are still head and shoulders above most everything else.

The parody section is pretty good, but it lacks the sheer demented force of Sim's best work in the vein.  There are some pretty good lines to quote at your next cocktail party ("Because women want it and because it victimizes men, restrictions against it have about as much chance of success as the ridiculous attempts to ban creams and lotions from airline flights -- 'Give me moisturizers or give me death!'"), but the one-note Facebook snub lacks the vitriolic nuance that last issue's bristling attack on Bitch magazine splashed across the pages.  And of course, readers' ability to enjoy or even tolerate this aspect of Sim's creativity will vary. That said, though, it's always gorgeously drawn and even the cheapest of head doctors could go for miles on the amount of effort Sim obviously puts into his portraits of the "female voids" he so vigorously rails against.

If any of the above sounds at all appealing, you should seriously consider giving Glamourpuss a try: it's a totally unique, consummately illustrated journey deep into one of comics' most idiosyncratic minds.  Sim is a true artist, one with no regard for what anyone else may think or how any market might treat his work, and the fact is that he's also a hell of a talented and knowledgeable comics artist.  For some, a cursory look at this book will be more than enough, but those who like their creators as interesting as their characters, their comics wildly experimental, their reading material right on the bleeding edge of taste and sanity, there's a whole ocean to dive into here.

Artifacts #1

Written by Ron Marz

Art by Michael Broussard, Rick Basaldua, Sal Regla and Sunny Gho

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow Productions

Review by Amanda McDonald

Click here for preview

I'm pretty open minded, so there are a lot of kinds of books I love for a variety of reasons. What's so lovable about this one? This is the kind of book you read, and immediately want everyone around you to read it too so you can all talk about how awesome it was.

The concept is simple enough -- thirteen artifacts are placed with bearers around the world. These artifacts represent primal powers and are all balanced by the witchblade, however the thirteenth artifact is hidden. The thirteen book series will assumedly focus on a different artifact and bearer each issue. In addition to the main story, the issue also includes a short origin story explaining the witchblade.

The key here is Ron Marz's storytelling. For this series to succeed, it needs an author that can mesh the stories of each of these characters in a meaningful way, without coming across as too convoluted. If anyone can do this, Marz can. His talents are evident in the Witchblade, Magdalena, and Angelus plots. One detail I really respect in this book is the ease with which someone new to the Top Cow Universe can pick this up and enjoy it with no prior knowledge of the characters. I admittedly have a number of Witchblade trades on a shelf in our home that I've never picked up because I was afraid of being overwhelmed by continuity. However, upon reading Artifacts I've gone ahead and started reading them. Why? Reading this book has left me hungry for MORE. In a good way, of course.

Another caveat many seem to have about the Top Cow Universe is the visual style, myself included. I teach my young library patrons to never judge a book by its cover, and yet I'm terribly guilty of it myself. I think most of us are, at least at times. I don't think anyone can deny that the publisher is partially known for its sex appeal. What you'll see in the interior of the book is that the art is not over-wrought with the need to be all sexy, all the time. It really is high quality visual story-telling.

I can not recommend this book enough to those who enjoy expertly crafted sequential storytelling. THIS is what comics should be. Each week so many of us collect our subscriptions from our local comic shop, rush home, read our books, and think "ah, well that was pretty good." When you read Artifacts, you'll be left saying a whole lot more.

Punisher MAX #9

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by Steve Dillon and Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

Forget the uru hammers and gaudy spandex for a minute -- because Punisher MAX is the real deal. Equal parts savage lunacy and crystal-clear characterization, this is a book that forgets the spectacle and goes straight for your throat. By looking at the world through the assassin named Bullseye, Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon make this down-to-earth take on Frank Castle and his opposite number into a disturbingly compelling read.

Now, perhaps it's no surprise to hear this, but it's Aaron's deft take on voices that really sells this story. There's some real gems of dialogue here, with hints of Ennis, hints of Morrison, even hints of Heath Ledger's Joker in the mix, as Bullseye adds an almost mystic quality to the proceedings. "Watching you kill is like watching Rembrandt paint or hearing Mozart conduct his 4th Symphony," he says. "You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, Frank Castle. I think I'm going to cry." What's so cool about Aaron's structure here is that he doesn't just build up his characters through action -- in fact, a lot of it takes place off panel -- but through the eyes of the other players on the board. But while it's an unorthodox method of characterization, it works really well, giving a poetic vibe and also showing that not only should we fear these twin storms of death and destructure -- but that they do, too.

Steve Dillon, meanwhile, is a chameleon if I've ever seen one. He doesn't draw the splashy fights or high-concept designs like in traditional superhero books (or even in the "mainstream" Franken-Castle book by Remender and Moore). But what he brings to the table is this razor's edge of horror and comedy. And make no mistake, there is some coal-black laughs in this book, whether it's Bullseye's first question to Frank, or his conversation with Mrs. Fisk. His work is extremely expressive -- and it's particularly cool to see all the lines of horror and grief and war that are etched across the Punisher's face, after 30 years of bringing the terror back to the criminal underworld. Colorist Matt Hollingsworth also deserves some real praise -- sometimes he goes for a moodier shot, like the low-rent reds and purples of a seedy hotel room, and other times, during big dialogue scenes, he pulls out the old-school yellows and reds. Hollingsworth adds so much to the art here, and his willingness to try a little bit of everything is commendable not just because it's ambitious, but because it always works.

While this book might not be flashy, Punisher MAX's voices and outright craziness comes at you as sharp as a power drill to the temple. There's no glory to what these bad men do, but there is a willingness to go out there, do something, be somebody -- somebody who's as far removed from the confines of civilized society as one might get. This may be the most innocent Bullseye you've ever seen -- but to be honest, it's been clear from the get-go that Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon have been looking to put their own unique spin on Frank Castle's single-minded pursuits. And in that regard, seeing the heart and soul beneath the blood and bones, it's clear they're right on target.

Pilot Season: Stellar #1

Written by Robert Kirkman

Art by Bernard Chang, Felix Serrano, Mark Silvestri and Sunny Gho

Lettering by Tony Peteri

Published by Top Cow Productions

Review by Erika D. Peterman

The opening pages of Stellar are as deceptive as they are pretty. Just when it looks like Robert Kirkman's Pilot Season comic is going to be your standard butt-kicking-heroine-in-space romp, things take an unexpected turn when the title character's spilled blood burns the ground beneath her. That's because Stellar is not only super-powered, but also highly radioactive. Like futuristic lepers, she and a handful of other unlucky metahumans have been exiled because of their toxicity — a side effect of unexplained experiments that gave them their powers.

While the narrative shows promise once it finds its footing, it's just not as strong as the visuals. Bernard Chang contributes some classically beautiful illustrations, and the title character herself is striking: With her short, silver coif and occasionally glowing eyes, she's like a mash-up of Ultimate Comics Aunt May and Storm. The images of her bolting through space and taking on a nasty, tentacled parasite are rich pieces of eye candy that give the comic a significant upgrade. Not a single panel is wasted, and Felix Serrano's colors are simply luminous.

I wish the story's opening were more compelling, because eventually, there are some sparks that a potential reader might miss during a casual, LCS flip-through. Stellar is a good Samaritan who seems driven by loneliness and guilt, telling a sympathetic old flame that her group's banishment was justified. Her solitary life is a heavy burden. She's so starved for human touch that she allows her ex to kiss her, despite the obvious risks to him, the non-radioactive party. It's certainly a smoking-hot moment of intimacy ... just not in a good way.

Blogosphere reaction to Stellar #1 has been a mixed bag, which is understandable. However, I think this book has some legs, even if some elements fall a bit flat in this introduction. Kirkman's snapshot of a complicated heroine hints at a richer portrait to come, and I wouldn't mind seeing what else he has in store.

Gotham City Sirens #14

Written by Tony Bedard

Art by Andres Guinaldo, Lorenzo Ruggiero, JD Smith, & Tomeu Morey

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by Amanda McDonald

Click here for preview

Let's just put the past two issues of this book behind us, and pretend they didn't happen until Selina's crazy sister shows up again. Sound good? Good. The series bounces back a bit with this issue.

This first part of a new arc, "Strange Fruit," returns us to Star Labs and Ivy's storyline involving her identity being discovered by a disgruntled employee. As the story goes on and Ivy learns more about her predecessor's seemingly impossible project, Selina and Harley worry about her and both wind up at the labs in a rather humorous way. That however is the only glimmer of humor in this plot line, with Ivy's choices resulting in the resurrection of an alien plant form that desires to take over the Earth.

What makes this issue better than the ones immediately preceding it? For starters, the story is stronger. I first became familiar with Tony Bedard when he was on Birds of Prey and I really enjoyed the way he wrote stories that involved the ensemble cast of characters, the way they worked together, and the way their strengths played well off each other. With this story arc, Bedard is able to play up to those strengths of his own. While this is definitely Ivy's story, the other ladies of Gotham have a role in it, appealing to more of the Sirens fan base as a result.

Visually, this issue is enjoyable and free from the heavily distracting problems of previous issues. The setting makes a world of difference. Thanks to the intricate labs and lush foliage at Ivy's workplace there is a lot more visual interest and it is much better executed. Andres Guinaldo and Lorenzo Ruggiero team up, however there is no clear delineation of who did what, as it should be on such a partnership. JD Smith and Tomeu Morey's colors pop from the page and help tell the story as Ivy goes through changes through the issue. As heavy as the subject matter may be, the book has a bright and appealing feel to it that hopefully will draw in some previously disdainful readers.

I'm still on the fence as to how I feel about this series. Do I like this issue based on its own merit, or simply because it is an improvement over the previous couple of issues? I can't really say. I can recommend that this is a good jumping in point for anyone new to the series. As for those of us who have cheered for it from the beginning, I think the team of women has a strong enough following to keep this one going for awhile, but I'd be remiss in not saying that I hope it starts to pack some more WOW factor.

Super Pro K.O.! Vol. 1

Written and Drawn by Jarrett Williams

Published by Oni Press

Review by Brendan McGuirk

What happens when you mix equal parts old skool WWF wrestling farce with high energy Dragon Ball Z- style action-drama?

Something totally *@!&$' awesome.

Without the fireworks-laden grand ringside introductions usually associated with pro-wrestling, cartoonist Jarrett Williams makes his impressive debut in this latest Oni digest series. Williams' tale is one of chasing dreams, the pitfalls of success and the ugly side of business. It's full of colorful characters and caricatures, title matches, and clear, concise, bombastic storytelling. Williams is clearly enjoying himself, and he does everything in his power to make that joy inclusive for readers.

Super Pro K.O., or S.P.K.O., is the epitome of excellence in pro wrestling. It is the big leagues, and young Joe Somiano has finally gotten the call. But, like many who get a taste of lifelong ambitions, the reality of the world he has idealized is not quite so polished as he'd imagined. He enters a world where corporate interests force cut costs, acclaimed heroes fall into despair, and the workplace is rife with interpersonal agendas and bickering. Joe is a paragon of enthusiasm, though, and no office drama is going to stop him from being THE GREATEST CHAMPION OF ALL TIME, and so on and so forth.

S.P.K.O. is a total trip. There's a synergism to the Shonen-influenced art coupled with the flamboyant world of wrestling that hits the perfect pitch. Williams' style is his own, but his use of visual tells and tropes gives no small nod to the art of many an action/ adventure Manga saga. When characters' emotions bubble over into physical representations, the responses are familiar without feeling derivative. And while S.P.K.O. is not a proxy for any one particular wrestling entertainment federation, the inclusion of rival leagues makes for high drama for anyone who can remember when that one hulking guy when Hollywood on everybody. 

The real fun of S.P.K.O. is the sprawling cast. As Williams' work suggests, the colorful, hyper-melodramatic and garish world of pro wrestling is one ripe for comics, and S.P.K.O. capitalizes. From Joe, to Prince Swagger, El Heroe and the Wild Childs, there are enough various and sundry Superstars to sell out mega-arenas twice over. And while all of the wrestlers are caricatures, Williams gives the readers just enough depth to grow attached, and to feel the impact of sometimes brutal consequences.

For wrestling fans and hungry comics readers alike, S.P.K.O. is a romp. Better written than its “real”-world counterpart, and with more likeable personalities, Williams' vision of how wrasslin' oughta be has all the bubbling exhilaration embodied by Joe himself. A wrestler's career follows a certain arc; from rookie to contender, maybe all the way to champion. With Super Pro K.O.!, Jarrett Williams moves from rookie to established contender. As long as he keeps on making comics with this level of fanaticism and craftsmanship, he'll get his title shot sooner rather than later. The great ones pull no punches.

28 Days Later #13

Written by Michael Alan Nelson

Art by Alejandro Aragon and William Farmer

Lettering by Ed Dukeshire

Published by BOOM! Studios

Review by David Pepose

I have to say -- if there's any description I'd use to describe 28 Days Later #13, it would be "most improved." While the voices have been there, there's always been a little something missing on the art side -- namely, that visceral sense of fear.

So on that track, I have to say that seeing artist Alejandro Aragon take the reins is definitely a step in the right direction. There isn't quite the photorealistic look that Declan Shalvey had -- it doesn't look as much as Selena -- but there's this inky vibe to the whole thing that just feels a bit scarier. By the time we see our first Infected -- seriously, that introduction is both unexpected and really scary, thanks to the color work of William Farmer -- it looks like there's some potential for some real bite in this book.

Of course, writer Michael Alan Nelson is going to get overlooked in this a bit, especially with the new artist on board, which is a shame -- he's a funny guy. Whether it's Derrick making self-deprecating jokes about driving while blind or Clint learning the hard way the difference between U.S. and U.K. cars, there's a lot of great character moments in this book. And the structure of this issue definitely feels reminiscent of the original film -- down to the surprising dangers of a fallen infrastructure. It's Nelson's timing that really helps push the book emotionally, whether for humor or for fear.

Now, is this book perfect? No -- with it's biggest competition, The Walking Dead, taking the luxurious route, 28 Days Later needs to bring on the zombies, and bring them on fast, since they don't have the uncontrollable time that the films do to scare you out of your seats. There's definitely some voice here -- and what Nelson and company need to do is what they're doing in this issue: Bring on the fear.

Conan: The Frazetta Cover Series #5

Written by Timothy Truman

Art by Cary Nord, Tomas Giorello and Richard Isanove

Lettering by Richard Starkings and Comicraft

Published by Dark Horse

Review by David Pepose

If you're into swords and sorcery, this is place to be. Even as a reprint edition, Conan: The Frazetta Cover Series #5 is a great way to get with the most famous barbarian in pop culture, with more than 60 pages of hard-fought tension that is hugely refreshing.

Why do I say that? Well, to be honest, I've been a bit of an agnostic when it comes to Conan in the past. I've read some books, done some research, but the character never really jumped out and mugged me, even as his most famous quote is now an ironic riff for college kids and hip teens. This book, I have to say, has really changed all that. Timothy Truman in particular deserves a lot of credit for this -- you know how most fully-fleshed stories say you can't punch your way out of every problem? That you have to discover something about yourself before you can be redeemed? Truman's story structure makes a brilliant inversion of all this, showing that sometimes, all you can do is punch your way out -- that is, if you're backed by Cimmerian steel.

Cary Nord and Tomas Giorello, meanwhile, make a seamless transition due to the color work of Richard Isanove. There is some serious pop to these pages, with Isanove adding painterly brushstrokes to Nord and Giorello's lines. Images such as Conan breaking into a sewage has an otherworldly shadow to it, as if the barbarian is no human, but a killing force of sharp angles and no features. But what's great about the art is that it's all about the tension, the near-miss -- for example, there's one sequence where Conan is fighting against an inhuman foe, and there are multiple people in the proceeding panel. You don't get to see enough of Conan's face to know for certain if it's him -- but then you see those striking blue eyes. And even the lettering -- seeing the rough shapes of Conan's word balloons -- it's a great little tough that adds so much. In general, visually, this book is rough, it's challenging, and it's really a pleasure to drink in.

I never thought I'd say this about Conan the Barbarian, but it's true: this is the rare book that doesn't just withstand criticism, it invites you to look at it with a critical eye -- and you're actually rewarded when it matches your expectations. Considering Frazetta's name on the cover, perhaps that's fitting -- this is a book that really is all about the storytelling, and manages to make the inevitable violent catharsis of comics seem organic, even necessary. For a barbarian who thinks only with his fists, who'd've thunk Conan had so much to teach?

The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective

By Rand Holmes

Edited with text by Patrick Rosenkranz

Published by Fantagraphics Books

Review by Matt Seneca

This is why we have reprints: to recover the lost bits of genius that float away without anyone noticing.  Rand Holmes created comics of strange and powerful beauty for underground papers, hot rod zines, underground anthologies, small press print runs, and no matter how incredible the material was those methods of delivery are all too impermanent.  Old newsprint crumbles, old publishers dissolve, old comics sit in warehouses -- it effervesces until someone brings it back.  It's wonderful to get Buscema Silver Surfer reprints and the like, don't get me wrong; but the archeology that editor Patrick Rosenkranz has put into bringing Holmes back in this book is the real force and reason behind resurrecting old comics.  Rosenkranz gives us the life of a forgotten genius, and as much a public service as that is, Holmes is the star of his own story from the cover in.

Holmes was probably the pre-eminent underground cartoonist of Canada, best known for creating the drug-laced adventures of everyhippie Harold Hedd from his outpost in Vancouver, tapping into the pulse of radical America from across the national border.  Taken alone, the prime Hedd material is first-class: Holmes was a sharp, vividly imaginative cartoonist with a real wit about him, not to mention a skill for pure drawing that outpaces just about anyone who drew comics at the time, both among his underground contemporaries as well as the craftsmen working in the superhero mainstream.  But Rosenkranz's book grounds that sparkling body of work deeply in the man who produced it with as indelible a biography as I've seen written on a comics artist.  Full of diary and sketchbook pages, firsthand testimony from Holmes' friends and acquaintances, and perfectly colloquial, incisive prose, the book never fails to get at the heart of the man and the meaning of his work.  

It's a hell of a job, and it's backed up with a deluge of comics from every phase of Holmes' career, putting the isolated genius of the '60s Hedd pages into the full progression of a prodigious talent.  Holmes' early guys 'n' cars strips shine, resembling nothing less than Robert Crumb set to work on a mid-century-modern version of Gasoline Alley.  A mass of his covers and shorts for various publications speak not just to their artist's ability as a draftsman but his skill for the single-image story.  And then there's the evolution of Harold Hedd, as Holmes slowly moves from the typical dense, meticulous pen lines of the '60s garde into tight, supple, sumptuous brushwork powered more by the cracked-classical spirit of EC Comics than anything else.  Holmes' stories undergo a similar transformation, growing through drug gags to politicized sex shorts, then to frenetic, madcap adventures and finally to a crystal-clear synthesis of the pre-Code horror formula with the anything-goes content of the undergrounds.  These final stories are unlike anything else: beautifully drawn with a cleanly colored post-Wally Wood certainty, bombarding the reader with Hitler's cocaine, incinerated skeletons, sex-dragons, and the deep, cold grit of outer space.

It isn't every day such a formidable body of work gets handed to us on such a shining silver platter -- there are too few artists like Rand Holmes for that to be possible.  But when it does happen, the comics world ought to stand up and take notice.  Holmes may have been forgotten once, but Rosenkranz has put forth all mortal effort to make sure he won't be again, and in the process created what might be the best reprint book of the year.  A must for fans of great comics art, the undergrounds, or the medium's history, The Artist Himself is in the end most essential as a truly great read.  Don't let it pass you by.

The More Than Complete Action Philosophers

Written by Fred Van Lente

Art by Ryan Dunleavy

Published by Evil Twin

Review by David Pepose

Hey, teachers! Want to get your students interested in philosophy, but you don't have any idea how?

Pick up Action Philosophers -- while regular fans of Van Lente's Incredible Hercules will likely look at this book searching for some sort of superheroic implications, it's really more of a comedic form of didacticism, taking the term "funny book" and making it literal. It's like the commercials say: Anything goes with Plato.

Of course, this will likely preclude those with little attention spans -- I mean, even though this is a streamlined look at philosophy, it's still a look at philosophy! But those who are intellectually curious will find some great bits of knowledge in this book, not to mention some of Van Lente's trademark humor. Whether it's meeting Action Philosopher #1 -- Plato, who apparently took his name not as a wizened thinker but as a pro wrestler -- or seeing Action Philosopher #10 Karl Marx go Rambo on our capitalistic asses, it's a real hoot.

Obviously, comics are the sugar that the medicine is supposed to go down with, and the sketches that Van Lente really fleshes out -- Plato, Marx, or my personal favorite, Immanuel Kant: Epistemological Attorney! -- that are the most memorable. But what's most impressive about Van Lente's writing is the fact that he synthesizes it all so well, without really taking sides or pushing for or against anything. This is a discovery for the reader to make, and he acts as a funny, down-to-earth tour guide throughout the ages.

For artist Ryan Dunleavy, the best bits are the small details. Things like Plato's wrestling mask, or seeing a neurotic bee humping a fire hydrant. (It's Freudian, don't ask.) What's great is that he doesn't shy away from stuff, whether it's breasts or talking genitalia, or even drawing the entirety of Thomas Hobbes' history on a two-page spread of the Leviathan itself (the sea creature, not our society). Dunleavy's shorthand for the philosophers is what really gives the book its character, and lets you laugh while you pick something up.

Now, there's plenty of people who are going to be disappointed, thinking that this book is about the amazing adventures of Marx, Plato and Hobbes fighting crime with big sci-fi guns. That is absolutely, patently, positively not what you will find in this book. It's not so much a "story," per se, as much as an illustrated textbook. But if you're looking to get a little bit more from your funny books -- and get to see a hit creator early on in his game -- Action Philosophers is the book for you.

Time Bomb #1

Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray

Art by Paul Gulacy, Charles Yoak and Rain Beredo

Lettering by  John J. Hill

Published by Radical Comics

Review by Jeff Marsick  

A dormant doomsday biological weapon from the Nazi regime is unearthed and inadvertently fired from beneath modern day Berlin.  Within sixty hours the entire human race will have gone the way of the dodo unless a special team of operatives can go back in time via chronosphere with an atomic bomb booster (Time bomb.  Get it?) and prevent the weapon's launch.  There wouldn't be a mini-series if they were successful, so natch they overshoot their destination and wind up just outside a concentration camp in Dubya Dubya Two.  Will they be successful?  Will they end up killing each other?  Will their actions ripple the time stream and undo major historical events as we know them?

Who cares, is what I yawn in response.  It's a decent enough idea and a book I was expectant for since I first heard of it.  I mean come on, Nazi doomsday weapons and time travel, what's not to love, right?  Wrap it all up in fifty-one ad-free pages and throw Radical's good name on the cover; on paper this should be the makings of a summer tentpole from Warner Brothers.  In execution, however, this cheese-fest feels like something destined for either direct-to-DVD or late night Syfy, probably right after Sharktopus.  This certainly isn't the creative duo of Palmiotti and Gray's finest moment.  The script they scribbled is leaded down with enough narrative dead weight that half the issue is better skimmed than read.  The panel upon panel of cringe-inducing dialogue gets tedious very quickly, and the team of heroes is your stereotypical motley crew built-by-Benetton enveloped in a plot that wasn't very well thought out (you can't go FORWARD in time, only backwards, but when the time comes for extraction, you'll return to ground zero in the present…which means you're essentially going forward in time, which you're not supposed to be able to do.  Oh, and what to do when you go back in time and tell the locals that there's a Nazi death weapon waiting to be activated and they think you're fruitier'n a bowl of Loops?  Just show them a video that they can reference, "convincing them that you are the real deal." Hi, I'm from the future.  Don't believe me?  No prob, check out this YouTube I've got that's proof of my future selfness.) and riddled with holes.

This isn't Paul Gulacy's best foot forward, either.  For some reason he can't seem to maintain a consistency with heads and faces from panel to panel.  And necks?  Forget it.  All of his women have heads that look like melons propped atop lollipop sticks, the effect made worse when he poses them with dramatic bends or twists that appear as if they are but only a few degrees away from going full-Regan MacNeil.

This could have been better.  Much better.  It's a rare miss from both Radical and the creative team that is a solid C-effort.  Maybe it will read better when collected in trade format.  Hoping for that, I'd say save your money and wait for the trade.

Pellet Reviews!

The Outsiders #31 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Robert Repici): Well, I think it's safe to say that Dan DiDio's run on this series is no longer wallowing in a state of vexatious mediocrity. It's just plain awful right now. Not only is The Outsiders #31 DiDio's worst outing on the title so far, but it's also one of the worst comics I've read this year. For one, like the majority of DiDio's previous installments on the book, this month's issue is chock full of clunky dialogue and forced character beats that, taken together, really just run this story into the ground. That being said, it certainly doesn't help that one of DiDio's latest creations, a super-powered screwball named Freight Train, plays a central role in this month's issue alongside the book's usual cast. Suffice it to say that Freight Train is an incredibly ill-conceived character that I hope to never encounter in a comic book again. To top it all off, DiDio even goes out of his way this issue to poke fun at some legendary weapons from the Marvel Universe, DC Comics Publicity Manager Alex Segura, and Arizona's controversial new immigration law. I kid you not. It's all in there. Unfortunately, despite DiDio's best attempts, it's hard to find the humor in any of these little quips, mainly because they all just feel so pointless and contrived here. All in all, while I don't think I'll ever fully understand how anyone at DC could let this title fall so far in such a short amount of time, there's no question that DiDio should either go back to the drawing board to rework his existing plans for these characters or just relinquish the book to a more seasoned writer. At this point, it really is as simple as that.

Driver For The Dead #1 (Published by Radical Comics; Review by Jeff Marsick):  This book answers the question:  "What if John Constantine was The Transporter?"  Alabaster Graves is a driver for the dead, "what you might call a specialty driver.  I do the jobs the other drivers won't take."  Such as carting a vampire to his final resting place and doing what needs to be done to make sure dead means dead (cut off the head, cross the legs, bury him upside down.  But you knew that, right?).  Now he's got to take a LIVING passenger, the great-granddaughter of the legendary medicine man Mose Freeman (who looks just like Morgan Freeman), and run her to the funeral on time.  Problem is, he's got a rough hombre named Fallow (who's bad enough to make the Devil run for a fresh change of shorts) on his tail and you just know Hell's a-comin' with him.  This is kooky cool fun, folks, gorgeously painted and filled with enough weirdness to make Hellblazer look G-rated.  Sure, making Mose the spitting image of Morgan makes the book feel more like a collection of storyboards, a showcase for what it would look like as a movie as opposed to an actual original comic, but it's so purty that you get over it real quick.  And it MOVES.  Not a dull moment in all of its ad-free glory, effectively marrying pedal with metal.  I didn't care for Time Bomb this week, but my faith in Radical is restored with Driver For The Dead.  Highly recommended.


What were your hits and misses this week?


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