Best Shots Comic Reviews: THUNDERBOLTS, ZATANNA, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews

Happy Monday, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming back from the weekend with the crackshot reviewers from the Best Shots team! We've got tons of books for your perusal today, including new releases from Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, Dynamite and more. Looking for more back issue reviews? We've got hundreds of reviews for your reading enjoyment at the Best Shots Topic Page! And now, let's bring down the lightning with Marvel's mightiest malcontents, as Patrick takes on Thunderbolts ...

Thunderbolts #148

Written by Jeff Parker

Art by Declan Shalvey, Frank Martin and Fabio D'Auria

Lettering by Albert Dechesne

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Patrick Hume

Click here for preview

I'm the first one to say that mainstream comics need more ambition, more focus, more drive to exceed the dull, interchangeable array of books that fill your LCS or newsstand week in and week out. Every once in a while, though, I'll admit it's fun to read a book that has no lofty goals, no aspirations towards high art, that tells an entertaining story about superhumans in spandex and does it well. Thunderbolts is one of those books.

Since its first issue, with its famous twist ending, Thunderbolts has gone one to be one of the few success stories of '90s superhero comics, having been in production almost continuously for 13 years. Despite its continued popularity, however, it's a book that's never really settled on a consistent identity or tone; perhaps that ability to reinvent itself is part of its durability.

In recent years, Thunderbolts has become Marvel's version of Suicide Squad, with imprisoned supervillains forced to work on behalf of the law to in exchange for privileges and more lenient treatment. Writer Jeff Parker, who's been bouncing around DC and Marvel as an artist and writer since the mid-90s, takes on his highest-profile assignment yet and delivers a dark, fun, over-the-top action comic starring a random assortment of Thunderbolts veterans (Songbird, Mach V, Fixer, Moonstone) and new arrivals (Ghost, Crossbones, Juggernaut, Man-Thing), all supervised by Luke Cage.

Parker does a nice job giving us various facets of the T-Bolts' daily lives; this month, that takes the form of a sequence on the Raft showing what the other prisoners think of the high-and-mighty operatives, and how the Thunderbolts in turn deal with that disdain. It almost seems as if some camaraderie is starting to develop between the team members; it might be based on violence and retribution, but it's there. Most of the rest of the issue revolves around the fact that it's a Shadowland tie-in, which of course gives us the opportunity to see the team fighting hordes of ninjas in the sewers of Manhattan. Like I said, big dumb action with the added edge of supervillains as protagonists. Lots of fun.

Artist Declan Shalvey comes from an indie/small press background, which is particularly obvious in the Raft sequences at the beginning; turn it to black and white and tone down the costumes, and I would believe it as a gritty prison drama from Fantagraphics or something. It's an interesting aesthetic for a superhero book, but handles everything from conversations in the cafeteria to Juggernaut getting swarmed by ninjas rather well. I particularly liked Shalvey's take on Ghost, utilizing his almost featureless costume to create an unsettling effect.

Thunderbolts isn't going to reshape your comics-reading world, but for Dirty Dozen-style supervillain action, it doesn't get much better than this (and Secret Six, naturally). Parker, Shalvey and crew make the best of a bad bunch of people, achieving just the right mix of humor ("Damn things are even on our ficus."), intrigue, and violence. I'm going to go ahead and call this one a winner.

Zatanna #5

Written by Paul Dini

Art by Chad Hardin, Wayne Faucher and John Kalisz

Lettering by Pat Brosseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

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"Jeez, Girl. They're only flowers. What's up with you?"

After I was forced to emote, and my tear ducts were deemed operational by Paul Dini in Zatanna #3, last month's installment seemed a tad non-climactic. Of course, I knew it was just a set-up issue for things to come. Zatanna #5 brought us right back up to awesome.

Every time I read Zatanna, I'm amazed how quickly she rambles off her spells. Still, I'm always slightly tense because I'm just waiting for something to happen to where she can't speak, and then she's screwed. But Zee is not just a one trick pony. No one thinks quicker on their feet, or when their lungs are burning with hellfire. She auspiciously gets herself out of the clutches of Mammon's minions, only to inevitably find more trouble. Mammon is collecting souls like I collect comic books, and Zee is the Hardcover Deluxe Edition.

Paul Dini's writing is like excellent craftsmanship. It is solid, all the parts work well together, and I think it will be the standard for how Zee is written in the future. His story is not affected by plot device, or accentuated by niche. He has created substance and wonder in Zatanna. It's like there never was a Zatanna until Dini wrote her. Few times have I seen a character executed so flawlessly.

Zee's inner dialogue when battling the "love potion" is simply delightful. Dini displays just how well Zatanna knows herself, and clearly she wouldn't be falling all over a man just because he brought her flowers. "Sonny- Honey?" Yup, she was goofed on something. The whole scene exemplified authenticity.

While Zatanna is endearing as ever, Dini changes the tides and writes the creepiest bad guys too. Chad Hardin brings Mammon to life, and he is gluttony in the worst way. Generally speaking, I try to steer clear of avarice gods, but nothing waves a red flag like nipple piercings on a demon. Seriously.

Hardin's pencils of Zatanna are pretty much adorable. The way he draws her feels like Zee, not some non-descript female in fishnets. He is definitely a fine fit for the book. There was a good visual balance between pretty and magical met with grotesque. I cannot go without mentioning Stephane Roux's splendid cover art. While Hardin is very good, I do miss Roux on the book.

Basically, if you haven't started reading Zatanna yet, there may be something wrong with you. Yo Dini! Keep bringing the goodness.

The Bulletproof Coffin #4

Written by David Hine

Art by Shaky Kane

Published by Image Comics

Review by Matt Seneca

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Oh boy, issue 4 of 6. That’s make or break time — any comic can show some flash in the first two, and just about any left turn in issue 3 can keep readers interested, but 4 means half over, the race for the finish starting up, the material without the benefit of novelty. As such there are probably more bad issue 4’s than any other issue number out there (except maybe 1), and the ones that do well here are usually the ones that you’ll want to keep an eye on. Bulletproof Coffin #4 is one of those.

This comic just keeps expanding and expanding, starting simple but strong with the creepazoid Silver Age pastiche of issues 1 and 2, ripping big hunks out of our expectations with issue 3’s sexy Geof Darrowisms, and now bearing down into a dark, adults-only mystery with issue 4. The 1960s glitz is still here in abundance, with Shaky Kane continuing his post-Dick Sprang virtuoso performance on page after page of superflat Technicolor linework and David Hine having a blast with the narrative captions (“Choking on the stench of flash fried flesh, Coffin Fly swings his trusty bat and Babe Tooth hits another home run!”). But there’s something else saturating the pages, a deep, very modern cynicality and surrealism.

Put plain, these aren’t Silver Age comics: blood flies, nipples are visible through bras, and the surrealism of yesteryear’s fantastic worlds becomes overt, the lynchpin holding all the craziness together. It’s as if all the sublimated violence and sexuality of those old, dusty Comics Code-restrained back issues has boiled under the surface long enough, and now it’s finally breaking free in all its sleazy dazzle. The superheroes start cursing like sailors this issue, the baseball bats break heads like watermelons, and the fanboy main character’s wife asks him point blank if his comic book escapism is “some kind of weird sex thing.” There are straight hero comics and there are satires, but Bulletproof Coffin lives in the cracks between with the dirt and the weeds and the insects, a beautiful spoiler that’s as happy to point out the classic Kirby motifs in Gary Panter’s work as it is to remind us that the biggest influence on Watchmen was Wood and Kurtzman’s “Superduperman”. It’s not one or the other, it’s both: the beauty of sinewy hero art and brazen four-color declaiming locked in a room with the cynicism and grit of the more vicious strains of alt-comics like it’s some kinda kinky biology experiment.

But back to issue four. I’d imagine this is the last issue of Bulletproof Coffin about which I’ll be able to say I have no idea where it’s all going. I’m as excited as anybody for the big finish, to see the meaty sinews of at least three different in-comic realities pulled together and tied up in a big gristly bow. But the mental workout of this stuff as it is now! The wondering, the uncertainty about absolutely everything! Right now I’m lost in this comic, drowned in a pool of zap-art ink, and in a medium where iconic status quos and clever homages are not just accepted but strived for, that‘s a unique feeling to be savored. Is anything real? What are the comics telling me? Is the world a sick place with no time for this nonsense, or is this stuff what’s sick, am I the one who’s sick for even reading it? Can it possibly all come together in the end? I don’t know, and that’s a hell of a lot more important and addictive than yet another thirty-day cliffhanger. No ordinary comic, this.

The Unwritten #17

Written by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Art by Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Chris Chuckry, Jeanne McGee

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by Vertigo Comics

Review by Amanda McDonald

Upon hearing that this issue would have a "Choose Your Own Adventure" format, I was curious to see how that would work. My initial thought was that there was no way that it could be a very in-depth experience in such a limited number of pages. So of course I was excited to open this issue up and see if it could prove me wrong, and indeed it did. First off, the book reads in landscape orientation, so each page has two smaller "pages," greatly increasing the amount of story in the book. This is a plus to those of us that love the series, as we are getting way more content than a regular issue, however anyone just flipping through the book is likely to be completely overwhelmed and put it back on the shelf. Unfortunately for them, this issue would actually be a good jumping in point, as it explains much of the series up to this point.

Subtitled "The Many Lives of Lizzie Hexam," the issue features Lizzie (a.k.a Jane Waxman), who been a secondary character in the series until recently, when she traveled back to Dickens-era England to see the life of her name-sake — a character from the Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend. She's a hard character to explain, but this issue does answer a lot of questions about her, depending on your choices. We get to find out how she got involved with author Wilson Taylor, and the Tommy Taylor universe. We also have a current plot line dealing with her catatonic state and efforts by Tom Taylor to save her.

The cover depicts a game board that is at first very visually appealing, and upon reading the issue apparently also intends to clue in the reader to some of the twists and turns the story makes depending on one's choices. The art style in this book varies, depending on which story you are following. Mike Carey and Peter Gross have once again exceeded my already high expectations for them with this unique issue. This is one that fans of the series should definitely not miss, but also deserves a look by any fans of the comics medium who would like a look at what comic books could be when the creators are as in depth with their storytelling as these two are.

Amazing Spider-Man #643

Written by Mark Waid

Art by Paul Azaceta and Javier Rodriguez

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

It's funny — Mark Waid has always had a lot to say about the media, whether it's his series Irredeemable or going all the way back to his first issue of Fantastic Four. But I think he and Paul Azaceta say more about the ubiquitousness of the press with two pages of Amazing Spider-Man #643, a fast-paced, tightly-wound romp that might be some of the pair's best work with the character yet.

Do you have high stakes? Check. Do you have personal fallout? Double-check. Do you have villains galore? Triple-check. If you want a master class in how to construct a second issue, Mark Waid delivers in Part Two of "Origin of the Species" — he gives you the exposition and the situation by the first page, and launches our hero into action by the second. From then on in, it's a straight run — Spidey bobs and weaves through the city, and seeing how he gets out of situations is as fun as it is inventive. And what I particularly dig about this issue is that Waid doesn't beat you over the head with his theme throughout the issue — there's a trap to be sprung, by the time you realize that you're a part of it, it's far, far too late.

And artist Paul Azaceta — man, this is his best work on Spider-Man yet. For those who bemoan superheroes as either overmuscled steroid cases or anorexic cartoons, Azaceta gives Spidey a sense of comparative realism that's almost reminiscent of a sketchier John Romita, Sr. Some might argue that his faces aren't the prettiest in the world, but I think Azaceta's pouty lips and squarish noses give all the characters some real character. And one thing I think he won't get enough credit for is his figure composition — seeing Spidey swing down a street, almost running on the air, it's a striking image that pops from the page thanks to Javier Rodriguez's warm colorwork.

As someone who hasn't had a particularly strong stake with Spider-Man's recent stories — even the Gauntlet, outside of the superlative Rhino issues, wasn't my particular cup of tea — I have to say, this issue really made me sit up and take notice. It's issues like Amazing Spider-Man #643 that really are the complete package — you feel the tension, you feel the stakes, and most importantly, you really appreciate the smarts. With our friendly neighborhood wallcrawler up against New York City itself, I can't wait to see where this story winds up.

Brightest Day #10

Written by Geoff Johns and Peter J. Tomasi

Art by Ivan Reis, Scott Clark, Joe Prado, Oclair Albert, David Beatty, Peter Steigerwald and John Starr

Lettering by Ken Lopez

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

If the last two issues of Brightest Day have proven anything to me, it's this: less is more.

Whereas the beginning of this series was all over the place, jumping from Aquaman to Martian Manhunter to Deadman to Firestorm to Hawkman and Hawkgirl, the last few issues have had a more controlled scope, focusing on only a handful of characters at a time — something I think has only benefited readers in the never-ending juggling act of mythology versus character development.

With this additional breathing room, writers Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi connect with the reader a little bit more, as we focus on Firestorm and the introduction of the new Aqualad. Out of the two stories, Aqualad's is the one that really feels the most archetypical — hearing his reaction to finding out that he was adopted is pretty sad, yet the bond between father and son (or in this case, fathers and sons) really plucks at the heartstrings. Yet there's still the sort of fireworks you'd expect from an "event" comic like Brightest Day, and it doesn't disappoint. It's definitely the coolest we've seen Aquaman in quite some time — no beards, no harpoon hooks, just a King of Atlantis being played straighter than he has been in years. It's good stuff.

I think a lot of the heft for this book is due to artist Ivan Reis. There is a surprising amount of emotion in Reis's work, whether it's the look of vulnerability on Mera's face as she gives an infant to complete strangers, the tears on Aqualad's face as he questions whether or not "Jackson" is even his real name, or the sadness on his adopted father's face as he knows he has to let his son go. It's that sort of resonance that hits me harder than the action sequences — but let's be frank, seeing Aqualad hit Black Manta with a pillar of water is a pretty rockin' moment, too.

As far as the second story, Scott Clark and Joe Prado, give a bit more of a scratchy, scary vibe with their Firestorm tale — yeah, sometimes the faces aren't particularly consistent, but it's not quite enough to draw me out of the story. Where I think Firestorm is a bit weaker, however, is the fact that the visual element of the script doesn't convey the stakes as much as the actual word balloons. Is it cool that Firestorm is now more dangerous than ever? Sure — and that's not to say that the cliffhanger image at the end of the book isn't appropriately scary-looking — but there's far more telling than showing as far as Firestorm's future goes. Either which way, the visuals of this book as a whole are all the smoother with two storylines as opposed to more.

But that said, is Brightest Day #10 a worthwhile read? As far as single issues go, absolutely — Aquaman and his supporting cast alone is getting more respect than they have in years, and as much as Aqualad isn't redefining the comics landscape with his origin, his story is iconic enough that you don't really care. This book isn't perfect, of course — no matter how many cool twists and turns there are, I'm not looking forward to seeing Hawkman and Hawkgirl again — but the last few issues of Brightest Day have been really overhauling this maxiseries. It may have had a too-busy start, but don't count this book out just yet.

Birds of Prey #5

Written by Gail Simone

Art by Alvin Lee, Adriana Melo and Nei Ruffino

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by Erika D. Peterman

Each Bird gets a chance to shine in this emotionally charged issue, but for my $2.99, it’s Huntress who steals the show. Now that the team is on the wrong side of the law, Helena Bertinelli is even more of a force to be reckoned with. In an issue full of high-impact scenes, both tender and tough, Huntress emerges as one of the fiercest crime-busters in the DCU, period — especially when she’s mad.

In part one of “Two Nights in Bangkok,” the team sure has plenty to be mad about. Simone’s storyline plunges its members further into outlaw territory and puts Black Canary at the mercy of her ruthless adversary in white. As expected, it’s a well-written issue that displays Simone’s knack for dialogue and her obvious respect for her characters. All team books should be as much about relationships as dropping villains, and what elevates Birds of Prey is the chemistry between the players. When Lady Blackhawk tells Huntress she feels naked without her guns, Huntress responds, “In that skirt you can say that?” Simone has a way with words, and the banter always feels authentic.

Regular Birds of Prey artist Ed Benes is sometimes criticized for unapologetically serving cheesecake, but his pencils were sorely missed here. Two illustrators tag-teamed on this installment, and certain parts — like those scenes of Huntress in an alley fight — are far more appealing than others. The Birds’ faces get the Betty Boop treatment in some panels, and it’s doubly distracting when the art changes hands within the same sequence. That’s unavoidable sometimes, but the abrupt changeover gave me optical whiplash.

That's a minor hiccup, though. Birds of Prey has had a strong relaunch, and even if this isn’t the most memorable or visually striking issue, it’s still pretty darn good. One night in Bangkok down, one to go.

Green Hornet: Parallel Lives #3

Written by Jai Nitz

Art by Nigel Raynor and Inlight Studio

Lettering by Bill Tortolini

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Review by Lan Pitts

Click here for preview

I think I get it now. I think I've been viewing Dynamite's Green Hornet franchise, more the most part, as a deviation from what I want out of a GH series. I think I see where they've been trying to go with the series, which is a more generational, dare I say, legacy character take on the story. Though the third issue of this series doesn't really concentrate on Hornet that much and centers on Kato's background, it still is an insightful story of what drives Hornet's most trusted ally.

Growing up in China, Kato's passions were American rock music and muscle cars. He also was in love with a girl named Lily, who had ties to the Chinese mob. Well, Kato eventually gets caught in a love triangle with Lily and her boss/lover and things get a little hairy for a second, but as we all know, Kato is the original sidekick bad ass and manages to come out smiling. Well, sort of. I'm sure this book adds a little something-something extra in retrospect once the movie comes out. In addition to a bit of Kato's origin, you get the Black Beauty's "origin" as well.

Jai Nitz's idea to make Kato knowledgeable about American sports cars and rock'n'roll is a nice touch to the character who is just seen as a daredevil. There's hardly any dialog compared to the inner narration, but it gets the characters across, even if the dialog when spoken is a bit cheesy. The real superstar of the show is artist Nigel Raynor. While his work is mostly Dynamite series, his style can't be ignored for too long. It's a visual feast that mixes the serious parts of Mark Brooks and the cartoonish style of Humberto Ramos, that adds a certain level of fun to the book that might have been lost on a lesser storyteller.

Simply put, Green Hornet: Parallel Lives is an interesting take on the characters (which are based on the ones in the upcoming movie) and I'm sure will add a certain depth and experience to the motion picture.

Best Shots Extra: MYSTERY SOCIETY #3
Best Shots Extra: MYSTERY SOCIETY #3
Mystery Society #3

Written by Steve Niles

Art by Fiona Staples

Lettering by Chris Mowry

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Amanda McDonald

When a book starts with a woman dressed as a skeleton driving a motorcycle with a robot containing Jules Verne's brain riding in the sidecar, you know you're in for. . . something different. Indeed, Mystery Society is that something different. For the most part it's a pretty serious book, but those touches of humor put it onto a different level of entertainment than the Steve Niles work you're used to. For those unfamiliar, the group consists of husband-wife team Nick and Anastasia, two girls from mid 20th century that have been trapped under government control until recently, a woman who goes by the moniker "Secret Skull," and Jules Verne. Well, his brain — in a robot's body. It is their mission to discover and expose the great mysteries of the world.

As this issue progresses, we find out more about how Nick and Anastasia work, as well as more about the two young girls they liberated from government control (hello, teleportation skills!). Especially touching is a scene in which Anastasia has prepared a DVD for the girls to catch them up on the historical events they've missed over the past 50 or so years. While their lives are at stake as their secret headquarters were discovered, somehow she took the time to do this. Now they are getting set up in their new HQ and trying to clear Nick of a murder accusation. Secret Skull and Jules have diverged on their own mission to find the stolen skull of Edgar Allan Poe, visiting the cemetery in which Poe is buried.

Fiona Staples has a style that is very complimentary to the feel of this story, with muted color palettes and a simple, not overly-rendered, sketchy style. While the style is sketchy, it is by no means sloppy — these characters are sexy and hip, and I love their expressions of frustration, surprise, and disappointment. It would have been easy for an artist to read this script and go very cartoony with it, and I am infinitely happy that we have an artist like Staples at the helm rather than someone who would have done that. Niles is crafting a story that has a playfulness about it, despite the heavy subject matter of murder accusations and grave-robbing. This is a book I've really been looking forward to each month. While the story is not progressing especially rapidly, it is a fun read. In hindsight, I would have waited for it in trade form, but now that I'm sucked into the story, I will dutifully look forward to each issue.

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