Best Shots Comic Reviews: GENERATION HOPE, BATMAN, More

Kieron Gillen Introduces GENERATION HOPE

Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the fine recruits of the Best Shots Team! We've got a heck of a lineup for you, and we're pleased to announce two more reviewers to our team — Scott Cederlund of Wednesday's Haul, and Jennifer Smith of Fantastic Fangirls. As the team takes on books from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, IDW and more, we've got tons of looks at this week's releases — and if you want more, just check us out at the Best Shots Topic Page! And now, let's let Jennifer start us off with a look at the newest mutants of all in Generation Hope...

Kieron Gillen Introduces GENERATION HOPE
Kieron Gillen Introduces GENERATION HOPE
 

Generation Hope #1

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Salvador Espin and Jim Charalampidis

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jennifer Smith

Click here for preview

There’s a lot to like about Kieron Gillen and Salvador Espin’s first issue of Generation Hope, the new ongoing X-title launching out of the current plot in Matt Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men. Gillen does a great job reintroducing the newly-activated mutant characters who recently debuted in Uncanny, giving each of the “Five Lights” a distinct voice as they muse on what being a “light” means to them. “Light” is a word with many possible definitions and connotations, and Gillen cleverly uses a different interpretation for each character, binding the story threads together thematically while illuminating (pun entirely intended) the way the characters see themselves and the world around them. Idie grapples with self-loathing, Laurie just wants to succeed, Gabriel deflects his fears about his powers with levity, and newest light Kenji tries to make sense of his changing body and mind with musings on the nature of art. The only weak link is Teon, whose feral powers and limited mental vocabulary give him little distinct personality. It’s troubling to see the other characters, mutant messiah Hope in particular, treating him like an animal, but I trust Gillen to complicate and interrogate that treatment as the series goes on.

Espin’s sketchy, cartoony art is lovely – his facial expressions are especially distinct and varied, and he draws some fabulous cityscapes. Letterer Dave Sharpe deserves credit for creating distinct narration boxes for each character, which manage to mitigate the confusion that usually accompanies a story with multiple narrators. I also appreciate that this team of newly-activated mutants is multi-ethnic, multi-national, and gender-balanced, which makes statistical sense and adds to the proud legacy of X-Men comics, which have been at the forefront of diversity in superhero comics since 1975. Finally, Gillen displays a great talent for dialogue and character interaction, last seen in this universe in the sadly-cancelled S.W.O.R.D. I love the interplay between these new characters, and Rogue, Cyclops, Wolverine, and Hope all have engaging roles to play as well.

However, though I enjoyed this issue, I find myself puzzled about the book’s function. Since the search for the first four Lights happened in Uncanny, this issue feels like a strange coda, as if they chopped off the end of the Uncanny story and displaced it for no discernible reason onto another book. And since the driving action of this entire plot has been the search for the Lights, I have absolutely no idea where this story will go now that they’ve found them all. The cliffhanger at the end of this issue is enough to make readers come back for at least one more, to discover the fate of the fifth Light, but once he’s saved, what is this book’s mission statement? Why does it exist? I don’t know how much of this was Gillen’s choice and how much was an editorial decision, but it seems strange to me that the first issue of a new ongoing title begins in Act V of a five-act structure and presents no clear plan for a sequel.

The last eight pages of this $3.99 book are taken up by The Saga of Hope, a handy condensation in prose and images of the history of Hope Summers, from House of M to the present. I’ve always been a fan of these sagas, which represent a commendable effort on Marvel’s part to help readers who may want to jump onto new books without reading everything that came before. However, unlike some recent sagas, like the one in Hawkeye and Mockingbird framed as a married couple telling each other’s stories, this one doesn’t feel at all authentic for the first person voice (Hope’s) that it uses. Writer Mike O’Sullivan relies heavily on the slang and attitudes of 2010 teenagers, complete with sarcastic parenthetical asides, which is hard to justify for a girl raised exclusively in a dystopian future by a man from another dystopian future. The information was useful, but the voice was extremely distracting.

Overall, I’m willing to give Generation Hope another chance, due largely to my admiration for Gillen’s writing and Espin’s art. But if the book doesn’t at least hint at forward momentum within the next issue or two, I can’t see myself sticking around, and I’m not sure other readers will, either.

 

Batman and Robin #16

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Cameron Stewart, Chris Burnham, Frazer Irving and Alex Sinclair

Lettering by Patrick Brosseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by Patrick Hume

Grant Morrison has taken Batman to some strange places over the last four years, and his objectives in doing so haven't always been clear; large swathes of his run don't work for me at all. Batman and Robin, however, has been a pleasure from the get-go, largely due to the dynamics between Dick and Damian, as they become accustomed to performing roles they had never believed would one day be theirs to play. Very little of that is in evidence in Batman and Robin #16, as the return of Bruce Wayne from the depths of time and the (partial?) resolution of plotlines stemming back to Morrison's first days on Batman tend to overshadow what there is in the way of character interaction. Morrison writes relationships better than most people give him credit for, but that lack of recognition stems from the fact that he so often gets in his own way, caught up in whatever bizarre narrative he's constructing and not giving the characters room to breathe. While I recognize the necessity of the showdown with Dr. Hurt, I also wish that both we and the rest of the cast had more time to adjust to Bruce's return.

That said, Morrison's success as a writer largely stems from the fact that he makes said bizarre narratives so darn interesting, and that's certainly the case here. The revelation of Dr. Hurt's connection to the history of the Wayne family ties in beautifully with both Dick's investigations in this book and Bruce's adventures in The Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries, and it's a true pleasure to see the two Batmen and Robin going into action against the 99 Fiends. The disposition of Dr. Hurt seems a tad anticlimactic, even with the assist from a certain clown prince, but I doubt that's the last we'll see of him. After all, as Morrison is so fond of pointing out, once it's in the comics, it's part of the character and their history. It might not all make sense together, but it's there nonetheless.

Which brings us to Morrison's latest controversial move, the press conference that concludes the issue. It's been thoroughly spoiled elsewhere, of course, but I will refrain here. Suffice to say that I think it's a bold and interesting move, and will prove fertile ground for Morrison going forward. That said, as with so many of his creative decisions, it seems as if Morrison made this one in haste. Despite his devotion to comics history and lore, Morrison has a tendency to be short-sighted when it comes to his own work, seeing it as self-contained rather than as part of a larger continuum. Will it really be possible for Batman to continue as he has been after Bruce Wayne's announcement? Absolutely not, which is fine for Morrison's purposes, but in all likelihood will not be for whomever might follow him on the franchise. For now, though, I am looking forward to seeing what he does with the concept.

On art, the three credited pencillers and two colorists manage to avoid creating a patchwork monstrosity, but the visual tone does seem off throughout. The style in the opening pages seems a bit too cartoony for the subject matter, though I loved the kinetic panel layouts during the fight with the 99 Fiends. The entire Professor Pyg sequence, meanwhile, was delightfully creepy. I assume that, given that this is Morrison's final bow on this series, he wanted to work with both of the main pencillers from the run one last time. Given the dizzying amount of plot covered herein, however, it might have been wise to stick with one so readers would not have to keep adapting to visual shifts while staying on top of what was going on.

 

Iron Man/Thor #1

Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

Art by Scot Eaton, Jaime Mendoza and Veronica Gandini

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

With a flood of Avengers titles hitting the market, Iron Man/Thor doesn't attempt to reinvent the wheel, giving you a healthy dose of uncomplicated, straightforward superhero action. And while Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning don't really need a high concept more than "bad guys attack" to get into the swing of things, there's a certain spark lacking between the two lead characters that I think keeps this first issue from reaching its full potential.

Of course, considering how hot the two characters are, it's understandable to see how Abnett and Lanning jump into the action first and foremost, focusing on the unknown quantities — the villains — rather than waste a lot of space examining characters we already know. But for me, that's the real heart of the story — I like seeing what a writer's take on Thor and Iron Man, what their relationships with one another are, what's important to them. So while it's refreshing to see Thor and Iron Man get to strut their power sets early, I'd say this first issue plays too strongly to previously established feelings about the characters, rather than building up some good will of its own.

But, if I had to focus on one strength of this issue, it would definitely be the art. Scott Easton has a really clean line that's almost like a smoother Howard Porter in his heyday, especially with the lush inks of Jaime Mendoza. Colorist Veronica Gandini also makes a great first impression here, with some really bright hues for all the major characters that pop rather than fall flat. Through it all, there's a real simplicity to Easton's execution, playing up the expressiveness of a design like Iron Man's without getting too encumbered by the details. And just seeing Baron Mordo on the first page alone, boy, does Easton know how to draw a punch.

In certain ways, this book is what a lot of people have been asking for — it's no-nonsense action that cuts to the quick, taps a bit into prior continuity and doesn't waste time telling people what they already knew. And I get that, particularly when there's going to be a Thor movie in theaters next year, and Marvel will want a lot of Asgardian product on the stands. In that regard, action junkies will have plenty to enjoy about Iron Man/Thor — but while there's some real punch behind the straightforwardness of this book, I feel that with a little bit more characterization, this introduction could have gone from standard actioner to a real slam-dunk.

 

Superboy #1

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Pier Gallo and Jamie Grant

Lettering by John J. Hill

Published by DC Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

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The concept of Connor Kent has always come across as a bit depth-less. His various incarnations as an angst-ridden teenager grappling with being the result of a science experiment was merely par for the course in DC comic book continuity. Jeff Lemire eases the general discomfort with a lighter, more endearing approach to the character.

“I’m kind of over it now ... I’ve moved on,” Connor acknowledges within the first couple of pages, opening up the door for Superboy to truly have his own story. As the stage is set, Connor cares about his impact on Smallville, considers his friends and family, and wants to move forward in his life. Teenagers are so much more interesting when compassion and thoughtfulness is thrown into the equation, and Smallville is an appropriate setting for growing the character in this way. When Connor is confronted with a good old-fashioned brawl with Parasite in the middle of downtown, we see that Superboy has more up his sleeve than the typical Kyrptonian beat-down.

Pier Gallo’s art style is clean and straightforward, and it meshed well with the tone of the story. Gallo definitely put me in a Smallville kind of mood. There is quite a bit of color, which adds a youthful quality to the pages without being campy. Raphael Albuquerque’s cover art is spectacular, simple and iconic. I think it is quite perfect for a number-one issue, and it’s probably one of my favorite covers for 2010. Even if I had not enjoyed the story, I would have been pleased to have the issue for the cover art alone.

Superboy #1 lays the groundwork for some authentic character development, and some classic capes and tights action. There are some great charming moments in the book, as well as unexpected and rich story elements. I found Jeff Lemire’s Superboy to be easy and enjoyable, and I think Lemire is going to do good things for the Supes world.

 

Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale

Written by Joss Whedon and Zack Whedon

Art by Chris Samnee and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Michael Heisler

Published by Dark Horse

Review by Scott Cederlund

One of the many narrative casualties of the early cancellation of Joss Whedon’s television show Firefly was Shepherd Book, the preacher who was traveling with the crew of the ship Serenity. Here was a holy man traveling with rogues and scoundrels who did not appear to belong with such a motley crew. Except that he did fit right in with the crew of Serenity as he had his own dark side that he got the better of him once or twice. The man had a past that he wasn’t talking about and looked like he could be more dangerous and deadly than anyone else on the ship. But before Joss Whedon could really explore Book’s character or past, the show as cancelled. In the follow-up film Serenity, Book had a brief but crucial part. After that movie, it appeared that his story was going to remain untold until now. Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale, an original graphic novel, finally tells Book’s story as Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon and Chris Samnee show us the events in Book’s life, leading up to his final scenes in the movie Serenity.

Actually, it’s probably more apt to say that the movie begins with his final scenes in the movie as the Whedon brothers show us his life backwards, starting with the most recent events and progressing back to his past, when he was just a child living in an abusive household. Joss and Zack Whedon fill in the blanks of Book’s past, finally showing us who he was before he joined the crew of Serenity. We see him as a teenage criminal, rebel, soldier, priest and friend in these flashbacks to his life. They run down the events of his life and we witness what shaped him into being the holy man he became but we never really understand why he became that man.

One of the true joys of Firefly was its cast of characters. You had the noble but roguish captain, the goofy pilot, the trusty first mate, the loutish hired gun, the innocent and the outsiders. We watched them over the course of the show and the movie become a family. They maybe didn’t all love one another but they were going to be loyal to the captain and, more importantly, to the ship. And the show made its audience part of that ship as well. We were right there fighting with the crew against the universe. With the Whedon’s involvement, it is surprising how far off this book is from recreating the same sense of camaraderie.

As they focus on just one character, this book never becomes more than just a list of events. They show us what happened to Book over the course of his life but before they ever really show us the impact those events had on him, they move from one event into the next event and just repeat the same cycle. We see a much younger version of the man we know and he is torturing someone. How did he get there? What was he doing and why was he doing it? What did performing torture do to him? These are all questions that need to be asked but never get answered. The Whedons show that they know what happened to this man during his life but if they even know who this man is, they seem unwilling to let us know. They are far more interested in the events themselves than in the repercussions of those events.

Chris Samnee, part of the reason that Thor: The Mighty Avenger is a must read, provides the art for The Shepherd’s Tale. His artwork is a mix of his older, more chiaroscuro-based style artwork and his recent more rendered work. Working with Dave Stewart’s coloring, there are moments in this book where Samnee is reminiscent of Guy Davis’s work on B.P.R.D., a bit sketchier than Samnee’s normal style. It’s really enjoyable to see how Samnee suggests the shapes and forms that he’s drawing and allowing Stewart to be a artistic partner by enhancing or completing the images with splashes of color.

I guess Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale achieved its goal; we know about the events of Shepherd Book’s past. But there’s a difference between knowing about events and understanding how those events molded and affected a man and the decisions he made. With this book, we understand what Book has done during his life but we’re still left wondering why did he do those things and how did they change him to make him the man we knew on Firefly.

 

Avengers Academy #6

Written by Christos Gage

Art by Mike McKone, Dave Meikis, Rebecca Buchman, Andrew Hennessy, Rick Ketchum, and Jeromy Cox

Lettering by VC's Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jennifer Smith

Click here for preview

In each of the first few issues of Avengers Academy, Christos Gage has thrown a spotlight on one of the brand-new characters that make up his freshman class of superheroes in training. With Issue #6, Gage provides insight into Reptil, the sixth and final member of the teenage cast, and demonstrates two of his greatest strengths as a writer: introducing engaging, complicated new characters quickly and efficiently, and using the wide array of established Marvel characters in roles that perfectly suit both the characters and the story.

Gage is well aware of the successes and failures of various teen-focused books full of brand-new characters, and in interviews he’s spoken reverently of his positive influences, including Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways, which did a similarly admirable job of introducing new characters quickly and compellingly. But Gage’s strategy in Avengers Academy reminds me more of the strategy used by Matt Fraction in the late lamented The Order, with a focus on one new character per issue paired with an ongoing plot. Gage balances the two impulses – introducing characters and diving right into a story – with aplomb, as evidenced by this issue, in which Reptil’s attempt to assert himself as team leader allows us to learn about his character while discovering more about his teammates’ activities, which he’s observing.

Reptil, of course, is not as new as the rest of the Academy kids – he was previously featured in Gage’s Avengers: The Initiative and is a main character on the Super Hero Squad cartoon. But he’s by no means a long-established character, and Gage wisely introduces him without expecting any previous knowledge on the part of the reader. We learn a bit about his past, particularly as it affects his current motivations, and we learn about his current struggles – to be a superhero, to control his dinosaur-morphing powers, to relate to his teammates, and to recover from the loss of his parents and his torture at the hand of Norman Osborn.

To illuminate all of those issues, however, Gage shies away from telling too much explicitly in Reptil’s narration boxes, choosing instead to display Reptil’s struggles within the context of his memories and interactions with others, as well as his therapy session with Jessica Jones. It’s the appearance of Jessica that brings me to my second point – Gage knows the Marvel Universe like the back of his hand, and he seems to have an intuitive sense of which characters work best in a particular situation. The teaching staff of the Academy already consists of heroes who have overcome checkered pasts, including Hank Pym, Quicksilver, and Tigra. In this context it makes perfect sense that Jessica Jones, who was created by Brian Michael Bendis as an emblematic example of someone scarred by contact with the world of superheroics, could provide a similar mentoring function. Jessica has previously been used as a counselor of superpowered teenagers in Young Avengers, but this is more than a mere copy of that plot point; instead, it feels like an extension of a role she’s already reluctantly taken up. Her interaction with Reptil is perfect and natural (in the sense that it works for the story – the conversation itself is appropriately awkward and tentative on both their parts), and it makes me excited to imagine what characters Gage might introduce in the future to propel his stories.

As for the art, Mike McKone is doing brilliant work on this book, with clean, attractive figures and panels that transition easily from a grid style in talking scenes to more creative, angular layouts in fight scenes. This issue’s four inkers blend together seamlessly, and colorist Jeromy Cox complements McKone’s art with bright hues. Cox also deserves a special commendation for not shying away from using darker skin colors on the non-white characters, something that unfortunately is not always true of superhero comics.

Avengers Academy has consistently been one of the best Avengers books – and, for that matter, one of the best Marvel books – on the stands, and I can’t wait to see where Gage, McKone, editor Bill Rosemann, and the rest of the creative team take the story next.

 

Secret Six #27

Written by Gail Simone

Art by Jim Calafiore and Jason Wright

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

I'll admit, when I first started reading Secret Six #27, I was a little underwhelmed.

Gail Simone's twisted sense of humor notwithstanding, I felt I had seen this sort of villain-on-villain fracas one too many times before. I was ready to chalk it up to coming in too late on this four-part arc — and then, about halfway through this issue, we suddenly take a 180-degree turn into one of DC's more overlooked franchises, showing that the Secret Six are truly the types of characters that you can throw into any situation, and they'll always come out on top.

Where Simone I think gets tripped up, ironically, is the fact that she is trying to make this third chapter of the arc accessible, to the detriment of the actual characterization. Six on Six means there's a lot of exposition to get out of the way, and with the second-hand information from a narrator, unfortunately there's more telling than there is showing. Sometimes that's the peril of knowing the characters as intimately as Simone does — sometimes a line or two of dialogue isn't quite enough, and you need to really get to the heart of what makes these characters tick.

But as I said before, there's really two different stories going on in this book — and the second half is absolutely rockin'. I always think it's a kick when comic companies put a new spin on forgotten franchises, and putting the Six in the world of the Warlord is an absolutely inspired choice. The second half of this book is absolutely worth the price of admission, just backed to the brim with axe-wielding strongmen riding dinosaurs and a new hero for a new Shamballah. I'm a big believer that there's always some gold to be mined in a book that has proven it's had some legs, and Simone reclaiming the Warlord shines some real light not just on the potential of the Six, but on the wonder of the DCU as a whole.

Yet with all this examination on the writing, you can't overlook Jim Calafiore's contributions, which run hot and cold throughout the issue. During the first half with the two warring Secret Sixes, you get a sense that things are a little too densely packed — in particular, there's a panel of Black Alice trying to slash the Silver Banshee that's so small that it barely even registers against a huge image of Scandal Savage holding up Bane. But perhaps part of that is just the content, particularly with the exposition bomb Simone had to drop to get everyone on the same page — because he absolutely tears out in the second half of the book, with his unorthodox panel composition really giving some freshness as Giganta explodes through a bridge filled with jungle warriors. Yeah, if that last sense has any sort of appeal to you, you'll really, really enjoy this issue of Secret Six.

Now, this issue is far from perfect, and considering the pacing problems in the first half, if you don't have any love for the Six, this might not necessarily be the best place to start. But if you've got an appreciation for overlooked DC lore that's been repurposed for a larger audience, well, this issue is one heck of an achievement.

 

Hawkeye & Mockingbird #6

Written by Jim McCann

Art by David Lopez, Alvaro Lopez and Nathan Fairbairn

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

Click here for preview

It's a real shame that Hawkeye & Mockingbird is going on hiatus. Granted, writer Jim McCann has stated that he and artist David Lopez are not done with the characters, but they were really, really hitting their stride with this book. This issue is definitely one of the best of the admittedly limited run, but it still really stands out. It's one of those rare issues that was mostly characters interacting with each other, but it really moved, and the lack of action should not be taken as a lack of forward momentum. Hopefully, the interruption for the upcoming "Widowmaker" mini-series won't break that trend.

This issue deals largely with the fallout from the book's first arc, specifically with Clint and Bobbi's falling out over the latter's willingness to get the job done by any means necessary, and the mean streak that willingness brings out in the former. The mystery of Dominic Fortune is finally addressed, and it's almost certain that this is a thread that will be picked up by McCann in whatever format he continues to work with these characters. Further, Hawkeye gets some advice from his mentor, Steve Rogers, in a scene that McCann and Lopez absolutely nail. I also really, really enjoyed the brief interplay between Hawkeye and Spider-Woman. It's scenes like that one that really add to the strength of this book. It's brief, it's natural, and it's rich with implication.

David Lopez also steps up his game, perfectly portraying Mockingbird's intensity, and Hawkeye's conflicted countenance both in the brief scenes of action and the more low-key moments. Even characters that appear out of costume, such as Jessica Drew, are recognizable, which is no mean feat. David Lopez is one of those rare talents, like Marcos Martin, whose art manages to feel both modern and classic all at the same time. Too often I see artists like Lopez paired with inkers or colorists that just don't gel, but the art team on this title is perfectly suited to each other, with Alvaro Lopez's use of clean blacks and weighted lines, and Nathan Fairbairn's laid back, almost cell-shaded style perfectly complementing Lopez's style.

I'm gonna say this right now; McCann and Lopez deserve to be on a higher profile book. Bring back “West Coast Avengers,” or “Avengers Spotlight,” and let them run wild. If it could also include Hawkeye and Mockingbird, as either of those titles would, that would also be nice. Their level of talent and chemistry makes them easily one of the most charismatic teams in comics right now. With the Black Widow crossover “Widowmaker” on the horizon, and McCann having stated that he and Lopez are still working with Hawkeye and Mockingbird in the near future, I'm very hopeful for what's to come.With this level of writing and art, I'm on board for the long haul, where ever that ends up taking me.

 

Scarlet #3

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Alex Maleev

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Icon

Review by Amanda McDonald

Click here for preview

I'm not sure there's ever been a more endearing, sexy, and ruthless vigilante character than Scarlet. In this third installment, Scarlet realizes she can't do this alone and turns to her dead boyfriend's best friend for help. By all accounts, I feel like I should not like this character. Yes, her boyfriend was murdered. Yes, the police force is corrupt. But she goes above and beyond seeking justice and takes it to a level in which she exacts torture and revenge. And damn, does she look good doing it.

The relationship between the boyfriend and the best friend is told to us in snapshots, in the same way that we learned about the milestone events of Scarlet's life in the first issue. This gives the reader a more intimate view into the history of these characters. Could this same sequence of events be told via a traditional panel set up? Yes, however it would take many more panels and not provide us the feeling that we've been let into the character's most treasured and influential memories. These are the things you imagine will flash before your eyes at the end of life: first love, first heartbreak, and so on — by allowing us this insight on Scarlet, and now Brandon, Brian Michael Bendis gives us a much more intimate connection to these characters.

Bendis and Maleev are a proven successful team. With their upcoming work on the Moon Knight franchise, Bendis assures us in the back of this month's Scarlet that this book will stay on schedule, and that we can even keep up with Scarlet in between issues via her Twitter account. If you have been looking for a book that will give you a sense of exhilaration and tug at the heart strings a bit too, this is definitely a book to pick up.

 

Mystery Society #4

Written by Steve Niles

Art by Fiona Staples

Lettering by Shawn Lee

Published by IDW

Review by Amanda McDonald

This series is really kicking into high gear as we see Nick get locked up, and find out he's got some tricks up his sleeve. As well as down his pants. You read that right. While he does seem like a pretty debonaire guy, it's not what you think. Alongside the Nick/Anastasia/twins story, Verne and Secret Skull are closing in on their hunt for the skull of Edgar Alan Poe rumored to still hold stories to tell.

This book has facets that will appeal to a variety of readers. For the fan of high suspense, we've got the Nick vs. Percy situation. For the fans of strong female characters, we've got Anastasia keeping everything as under control as it can be. For the sci-fi and supernatural fans, the twins with teleportation and mind reading abilities along with Jules Verne's brain in a robotic body play major roles in the story. Steve Niles has created a world that has wide appeal, and the potential for high commercial success. I mean really — who wouldn't want to watch a show with Vernes' brain in a robot body? Oh, and did I mention that it can travel via butt rockets?

Sadly, my store asked me this week if I want this title on my pull list because they are going to cut back orders on it. I thought it had been on my list, but after finding out it wasn't I answered with a resounding "yes!" This issue really showcases Niles at his finest, and exemplifies Fiona Staple's ability to add to the story via her visuals. Niles steps up the action and moves the story forward considerably this time around, while Staples injects the panels with sex appeal and humor. If you've dismissed this book as not being Niles' typical fare, you'd be correct. Mystery Society is a new Niles style, sure to appeal to a wide audience.

 

Berlin #17

Written by Jason Lutes

Art by Jason Lutes

Lettering by Leonard Letterer

Published by Drawn & Quarterly

Review by Scott Cederlund

In Berlin, Jason Lutes has shown us the great joy that existed in the post World War I Germany and the gradual social and political decadence that took over as the Germans began to feel invulnerable once again. That sense of power and freedom came with a cost as Germany’s re-emerging pride opened the door to the competing forces of socialism and fascism. Berlin #17, the beginning of Lutes’ third narrative movement titled “City of Light,” opens with a divided and broken Germany. Kurt Severing, Lutes’ pacifist reporter, has witnessed his countries’ moral descent and doesn’t know what to do or how to react as people he’s known for years become unrecognizable to him.

The issue opens with some farmers, working and joking together as a train speeds by. On that train, Hitler talks with his aides, discussing where he has support in his country and how to win over the areas where he doesn’t. Berlin has always been about the politics of its time and about how those politics were pulling apart an already unstable country but it is still shocking to see just how matter-of-factly Lutes presents Hitler. He is just a man riding a train. This scene recalls the opening of Berlin #1, as Severing met another traveller on a train. Then Severing was meeting a future lover; here Hitler is planning the take over of a country. The hopefulness and newness that once existed in Berlin is now replaced by the dread and shadow of a history that we already know.

There is little joy or hope to be found anywhere in Berlin #17 as Severing, looking haggard and lost, stumbles around city streets until he wanders into a Socialist Party recruiting and training center. It’s not quite clear why Severing goes there. Is he there by accident? Just to see if the Socialist Party has any answers for healing Germany? To join up? But just as he stumbled around the outside streets, he stumbles around the training center as he’s proudly shown just how young Socialists are being trained for the upcoming revolution. People are offering political solutions to Severing but he can’t accept them.

We continue to see the children, the orphans and the homeless of Germany in this issue, all victims of a power they can’t understand. These heart and souls of Germany are also its victims. Some believe in the revolution, some believe in the spirit of Germany but most, maybe too many, are just hungry and want to eat. All of these characters are left to wonder where they belong and where’s the life that they dream of but, like Severing, there are no answers or beliefs to guide them.

To go along with this story, Lutes has a sad and melancholy art style. The starkness of his images make it impossible to hide what’s happening in his character’s lives. He is a very natural cartoonist using his images to plainly present his story. The story in Berlin #17 is very plain and soft spoken as his characters have all been beaten down and his art reflects that but it can also show some joy as the opening and closing pages show friends and lovers who can find a smile or a laugh in these tough times. Lutes shows us that even in terrible times, it is possible to find a brief moment or two of happiness. What he doesn’t tell you is how long those moments will last.

 

Reading With Pictures, Volume 1

Written By: Various

Pencils By: Various

Published By: Reading With Pictures

Review by Jeff Marsick

All of us avid comic book readers and collectors know there’s more to a ‘funny book’ than the visible upper third: bright costumes and fisticuffs by men of brawn and babes of bodacity crammed beneath often ridiculous soap-opera storylines. The two-thirds below the waterline is where the magic lies and where we all have personal anecdotes about how the comic book medium has been engine to our imaginations, magnetic north for our moral compasses, cultural commentator, therapist, teacher, coach and best of all: escape hatch. Thirty years ago, comic books in school were verboten, a detentionable offense, and now graphic novels are one of the fastest growing sections in the library.

The non-profit organization, Reading With Pictures, has a fantastic mission. Founded by Dr. Michael Bitz, their motto is “Getting Comics into Schools and Schools into Comics”. With comics as a tentpole in their campaign to promote global literacy engagement and reinforcement, Dr. Bitz is championing creativity and learning through the use of comic books in the classroom. This anthology is the organization’s first step in that direction. What a step it is, too.

One-hundred and ninety-two pages, thirty-seven stories. And lest you think it’s a collection of never-heard-ofs as contributors, here’s a partial roll call of some of the more notable names: Jill Thompson (who did the cover), Fred Van Lente, Gabriel Bautista, Chris Eliopoulos, Rich Faber, Steve Horton, Kevin Sacco, Jay Piscopo, Russell Lissau. More than sixty creative types (writers, artists, colorists and letterers) built this book, and I would defy anyone to find a better collection of kid-friendly stories in one package.

Now, when I hear kid-friendly I typically think of silly cartoonish scrawling, with sophomoric action sprinkled liberally with playground humor and a fart joke or three. Not here. All of the stories in Reading With Pictures are smart, engaging, fun, and yes, educational. Galieleo’s square-cube law is a formula in a dry physics text, but after reading Josh Elder’s “Mail Order Ninja” not only are you likely to never forget it, but you’ll question why Titano ever gives Superman pause. One of my favorite characters for the classroom, Jay Piscopo’s marine adventurer Capt’n Eli, encounters a monster in “The Goblin of the Deep”, and story becomes an interesting lesson in the shimmering effect and a creepy-cool species of shark.

But it’s not all about the eggheady stuff. There is poignancy and subtle morality lessons as well. “High Noon at Junior High” turns answering questions in class into a daily showdown between two students and the competition only makes the contestants better for it. “So Much More” sums up why comics are so important to a child’s learning endeavors. And one of my top three, “Dr. Stevelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Talk To Girls” is a highly relatable story that pretty much nutshells many a high school missed opportunity.

Had I a few more pages I’d wax eloquent on every other story in this book as they are certainly deserving (so my apologies to every creator that I missed). The artwork is also terrific, neither overly silly nor gravely artistique and what’s interesting is how the styling matches the writing. Nothing here feels phoned in. Each story is simple, straightforward and accessible by its target audience, which spans the gamut from early grades to those in high school.  

If you’re a teacher, administrator, or librarian, buy a few copies of this book. It would be a bargain at twice the price. If you’re a parent, buy a copy for home. It’s hard to find quality kid-friendly titles that are as delightful to read as this one is.

Pellet reviews!

From FRANKEN-CASTLE to IN THE BLOOD
From FRANKEN-CASTLE to IN THE BLOOD
 

Punisher: In The Blood #1 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Jeff Marsick): I was never a fan of the Franken-Castle concept, but that sure is a purty cover by Francesco Mattina so now my wallet is four dollars lighter. The issue is the intro to Rick Remender's swan song on the title and he clearly means to take someone with him before the end of chapter five, be it Frank, Jigsaw, or Microchip. Personally, I think the six-one-six would be better off with the axing of all three and a new Punisher arising, but then again I think Twinkies deserve to be classified as a food group. The issue starts off with old school Punisher on the hunt for Microchip; Mr. Remender keeping the staccato dialogue so sharp and noirish that I can almost hear Frank's I-gargle-with-chunks-of-concrete voice. But then henchman Henry (aka Son of Jigsaw) has to wax the stereotype of his old man being a drinker and a beater who vented his Punisher angst on the family unit. Making a sociopathic thug like Jigsaw a husband and father is a cop-out (a wholly unreasonable and quite silly one at that), a too-easy way to make Henry the pawn to be played and a trap to be set. The pyromaniac hottie (pun intended) from Frank's past gussied in leather S&M gear could be the fly in the ointment, though. As a book it's an okay start to the series but burdened by the weight of the cliché and the fact that you can pretty much guess the last page six before it happens. In the end you'll realize that you should have waited for the trade.

 

Bela Lugosi's Tales From The Grave #1 (Published by Monsterverse Entertainment; Review by Jeff Marsick): I loves me the horror comics, so I'm a sucker for every new title that hits the shelves. In this outing, Monsterverse knocks off Creepy by boasting Bela Lugosi on the marquee, but it's about as comparable in quality as Moon Mist Shasta is to Mountain Dew. There's seven stories of 'horror' here, but only two are very good (“Mark of the Zombie” by Rob E. Brown is the pick of the litter that really evokes the classic horror comic stylings) and one, by the always exceptional John Cassaday, is cutesy fun with characters deserving to be spun out into their own series. Historian Gary Rhodes provides an interesting short bio on Bela Lugosi, but taken as a whole, it's not quite enough to justify the $4.99 price tag. Dark Horse still does it best with their Creepy series.

What was your favorite comic of the past week?

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