Best Shots Comic Reviews: LARFLEEZE, IRON MAN, More

LARFLEEZE Xmas Special Official

Hey Newsa-revelers, Brendan McGuirk here subbing for David Pepose, who is taking a well-earned end-of-year vacation. Well the gifts are unwrapped and the snow has slowed the East Coast to a standstill, but Team Best Shots has broken out the shovels to make sure you're still covered with looks back on the Best of last week's batch of comics.

LARFLEEZE Xmas Special Official
LARFLEEZE Xmas Special Official
 

Green Lantern: Larfleeze Christmas Special

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Brett Booth with Andrew Dalhouse

Lettering by Nick J. Napolitano

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brendan McGuirk

Could there have been any doubt that Larfleeze would find Christmas to be his favorite holiday?

The most ravenous Muppet this side of Cookie Monster loves nothing more than the act of acquiring things. Knickknacks, power rings, space- oddities, Larfleeze has to have it all. So when he gets wind that there's a magic man who spends one night of the year dishing out gifts from itemized order sheets, he gets giddier than a hyena with an oxygen tank. Naturally, Larfleeze goes through a series of greed-oriented of events that illustrate the error of his ways until he comes to learn the true meaning of Christmas.

That might sound like pretty direct “Christmas Special,” fodder, regardless of medium, but that's just the A-to-B of the story. Sure, that's a formula, but it's a tried and true one. Nostalgia is a central component to holiday spirit, and the familiarity of the materialistic miser always serves as the perfect reminder of Santa's season of generosity. Larfleeze's histrionics make a cartoonishly awesome bridge to the holiday season as it is lived in the DC Universe. Johns can always be counted on to find pitch-perfect use for all toys in the toybox , and one can't help but think that Geoff Johns has had this story in his head since the moment he created the hilariously greedy Orange Lantern with Ivan Reis and Ethan Van Sciver.

Brett Booth's loose and feathered linework brings the same vibrancy to Larfleeze's mangy fur that it does his orange power-projections. The style stands out as distinctly suited to the character here in his big one-shot close up. There seems to be a ton of joy poured into the script, and the execution of each page matches with melodramatic flair. There are activity book-like stocking stuffer pages strewn about the book, punctuated by an Art Baltazar and Franco funnypages-style comic strip to wrap up.

The Larfleeze Christmas Special nods to the crass commercialization of Christmas, but ultimately reassures its resilient innocence in a way fans of today's DCU should really enjoy. So maybe pour that last glass of egg nog and observe the first Christmas of an uninformed otherworlder.

 

Invincible Iron Man #33 

Written by Matt Fraction 

Art by Salvador Larroca, Frank D’Armata, and Jamie McKelvie 

Lettering by VC's Joe Caramagna 

Published by Marvel 

Review by Jennifer Smith 

Click here for preview

While Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s run on Invincible Iron Man has been excellent since the beginning, this last arc has been a bit weaker than the rest.  Too many new characters have been introduced with too little time for the reader to get to know them, and the techno-babble and geopolitical babble have been on the heavy side, sometimes at the expense of character.  The arc hasn’t been bad, by any means, but compared to the book’s past, particularly the tight, character-based stories during Tony’s disassembling, this story has felt just a bit too loose and scattered.    

After reading Invincible Iron Man #33, however, I find myself reevaluating that opinion.  The conclusion to Stark Resilient is everything it needed to be and more, tying up the loose ends in all the best ways and setting up an incredibly compelling future.

This is a story about collaboration.  It’s a story about Tony Stark, a man who has, for so long, tried to obsessively control all that surrounds him and accomplish everything by himself, finally reaching out to others.  He doesn’t do so particularly willingly, and in fact most of the time the help is forced upon him by those strong-willed people in his inner circle who are incapable of backing down for anything.  But when Pepper insists on being Rescue, or Mrs. Arbogast takes the reins of the day-to-day business of Stark Resilient, or Tony’s new employees engineer new solutions to old problems, or Maria Hill insists on using S.H.I.E.L.D. resources to help Tony out of a jam, both Tony and the reader are forced to realize that, brilliant as Tony is, he can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything himself.  There are many people around him – particularly some kick-ass women – who help to make his life, and the whole world, better, and they deserve as much credit as Tony himself receives.

The irony of this collaboration theme, of course, is that the villains have already discovered its benefits.  We’re heading into spoiler territory here, but the spoiler fits so perfectly with what’s come before in this book that I’m sure many readers were as glad as I was to have their suspicions confirmed.  Throughout his history, Tony Stark has arguably had three main villains – Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, and the Mandarin.  Now, with the daughter of Justin Hammer, Justine, teaming up with the Mandarin to produce a daughter of their own, Sasha, and with Sasha partnering in turn with the brilliant Stane scion, Zeke, all three Iron Man rogue dynasties have become intertwined.  The seeds for this collaboration have been sown for years, from the first appearance of Zeke Stane in The Order through the Invincible Iron Man Annual that reintroduced the Mandarin through Sasha Hammer’s conspicuously Asian features. Here Fraction finally reaps those seeds with an inevitable, but deeply satisfying, reveal.  While Tony is just now learning to rely on others, these villains have already become a close-knit family, and I can’t wait to see what destruction they will bring with their combined power.

Other moments stand out in this issue.  The resolution of the Detroit Steel fight, one that involves more diplomacy than superheroics, is delightfully unsatisfying, a reminder that real world conflicts don’t always end neatly and that sometimes pretending to make peace with an enemy is the smartest course of action, however uncomfortable it may be.  The scene also neatly parallels a scene between Tony and Obadiah in the first Iron Man movie, a film of which this book has always been a spiritual, if not completely literal, descendent.  Also notable is the backup story drawn by Jamie McKelvie, which tells a gorgeous, completely comprehensible story about a day in the life of Tony Stark with no words at all.  McKelvie’s sharp storytelling skills only serve to throw in sharp relief what may be the book’s only flaw, Salvador Larroca’s overly-photoreferenced, difficult-to-follow art.  But Larocca’s art is still serviceable, and Fraction’s writing does more than enough work to make the story clear and profoundly enjoyable.

The monster that is Iron Man #500 is coming up next, and I’m sure Fraction has stockpiled more than enough storytelling plans to keep readers happy for a long time to come.  After this conclusion to Stark Resilient, I couldn’t be more excited.

 

Batman Incorporated #2

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Yanick Paquette, Michel Lacombe and Nathan Fairbairn

Letters by John J. Hill

Published by DC Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund 

Remember about five years ago when Morrison first started his Batman run and he talked about going back to the bare-chested love god Batman of the 1970s?  We briefly got the Adam Kubert story with Jezebel, Talia and the Man-Bat army that harkened back to the old Neal Adams days, but after that, Batman plunged into the world of Zur En Arrh, Doctor Hurt, time travel, Final Crisis and the death of Batman.  There wasn’t that much bare-chest happening as Grant Morrison has spent the past three years tearing down and rebuilding Bruce Wayne.  Now, with that done, we start to get something resembling what Morrison promised in Batman Incorporated.  There still may be no bare-chested love gods running around but we get a globe-trotting Batman, looking to expand his “Bat family” beyond the boundaries of Gotham.  First stop: Tokyo and Mr. Unknown. 

Batman Incorporated #2 moves briskly, beginning with one of the greatest traps ever thought up-- an octopus in a flooded apartment.  Through Jiro Osamu, the protege of the late Mr. Unknown, Morrison acknowledges the fun absurdity of the trap but quickly moves onto the race through Tokyo between Batman, Catwoman, Jiro and Lord Death Man, a Japanese madman who can’t die.  Morrison’s Batman has finally become a straight-forward action hero.  There’s no detective or time-traveler here.  It’s Batman in chasing down a lunatic without esoteric plot device distractions.  That’s something that we haven’t seen out of Morrison’s Batman for a long time. 

The usually self-contemplative Morrison here gives way to the action-packed Morrison.  Channeling his inner Michael Bay, Morrison reminds us of that, like in his JLA run, he can still write a blockbuster action sequence.  Batman Incorporated #2 is one long sequence but it also shows us how this new, improved Bruce Wayne operates.  Sure, like always, he’s fighting the bad guys and imprisoning them where they can hopefully do no harm, but it is Batman's allies that make this a bit different.  In Catwoman, we’ve got the on again/off again relationship and the tension of Bruce Wayne being infatuated with a thief, but you’ve got to wonder what do they get out of their strange relationship?  Is it the thrill of getting to walk on the other side of the street, to embrace their dark side without ever giving totally into it?  And what does it say that Morrison begins this new series pairing Batman up with Catwoman, as opposed to Tim Drake, Damien or Dick Grayson? 

Building on the adrenalin action, Yankick Paquette and Michel Lacombe are a great artistic pairing.  Lacombe brings a boldness to Paquette’s line, reminiscent of the impact that Kevin Nowlan could have on almost any penciller.  Too often, Morrison’s artists get lost in his story, muddying up the artwork and creating more confusion than clarity.  That’s been the biggest problem recurring in Morrison’s Batman.  For every Frank Quitely, who knows how to move through a Morrison story, there’s a Tony Daniel, who feels like he’s hanging on to dear life.  Paquette and Lacombe don’t let Morrison’s subtext get in their way of creating a great looking action comic. 

With Batman Incorporated #2, we see the first steps of Bruce Wayne enlarging Batman’s sphere of influence.  You don’t get much farther away from Gotham City than Tokyo.  Morrison and Paquette are set to tour the world, finding new crimefighters.  In Japan, Wayne’s new empire battles caped gorillas.  How can it get much better than that?

 

To Stop Dreaming of Goddesses

Written by Vera Greentea

Art by Ben Jelter

Published by Greentea Publishing

Review by Jeff Marsick 

I love the website Kickstarter.com, and can always count on finding an interesting comic project looking to be funded.  This was where I found Kody Chamberlain’s Sweets, Oliver Mertz and Mike Isenberg’s First Law of Mad Science, and the way-cool Johnny Recon from Popgunpulp Comics.  Even industry veteran Tony Harris has a project up, a samurai tale called Roundeye, that’s worth a look.  Since I’m always searching for something odd and dark, a little project called To Stop Dreaming of Goddesses caught my eye.

Selene is the guardian goddess of the corpulent Louise Ponfert, a walking exhibition of gluttony and sloth if ever there was one.  “Louise was massive.  I could drink a liter of bouillon from inside the dimple of her thigh.”  Selene the goddess is the polar opposite:  beautiful, vain, proud, and in want of large Louise’s handsome lawyer fiancé.  It’s understandable, then, that Selene tires of watching over one whose indulgences are fatty foods and living vicariously through her drawn stories about goddesses.  So Selene offs her. 

But even goddesses are not immune from repercussions for their actions, and while Selene trots off confident that she’ll just find another vessel with which to have the rich lawyer swoon over, it turns out that fate has a different ending in store for her, one deserving of someone who thought they deserved to fly so close to the sun.  You’ll be hooked from the beginning to the wonderfully wicked and twisted end.

It reads like a disturbing Sandman story, with gods and goddesses playing at their games, and this time they are more vicious with each other than they are with their human chesspieces.  Other than a nitpick (Selene is actually the daughter of Theia, not Themis), it is a wonderful story that gets better with each re-reading.  Ben Jelter’s artwork is befitting the tone, a loose style that more artsy than cartoony, and he manages to blend austere beauty and sinister to Selene, along with perpetually crazy hair that belies the measure of character that exists beneath the surface.  “The Egyptians modeled Queen Nefertiti after myself.  I am beautiful.”  Maybe so, but the Joan Crawford-from-Strait-Jacket look kept me waiting for her to blame Louise’s demise on the latter’s penchant for wire hangers.  It’s beautiful stuff.

The project was fully funded, so the comic is available now over at http://GreenteaPublishing.com/gallery/products/4.  My recommendation is to buy two copies, one for you and one for a friend (it makes a great last-minute belated holiday gift, y’know).  While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Vera’s Recipes For The Dead, another delightfully devilish book drawn by manga artist Ein Lee.

 

Secret Avengers #8

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Mike Deodato and Rain Beredo

Letters by Dave Lanphear

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

Mike Deodato’s artwork on Brian Bendis’ Dark Avengers was nearly perfect.  He captured the shades of grey in Norman Osborn’s villainous Avengers team.  As that team walked the tightrope between being villains and heroes, Deodato captured the shadows that they lived in. With Secret Avengers, Deodato stays in the shadows, but this time with heroes as Steve Rogers leads a team of secret Avengers (hence the name..) into the darker, unexplored corners of the Marvel Universe.  Where Dark Avengers was about villains exposed to the daylight, Secret Avengers is about heroes operating under the cover of night. 

In Secret Avengers #8's latest storyline, it’s fascinating to see how Ed Brubaker is bringing a lot of his Marvel work together.  It’s obvious that he’s extending his larger Steve Rogers story in a way that explores the fascinating continuation of his views of the character.  In his Nick Fury-like role, Steve Rogers is the man who’s trying to hold everything together but the shadows are not the place where we’re used to seeing him operate.  But we are used to seeing him pull people together and making a team.  We saw it with the Invaders, Cap’s Kooky Quartet and almost every iteration of the Avengers since.  Brubaker’s Steve Rogers is such a strong force in this issue that while he’s leading a team, it doesn’t feel like we’re actually reading about a team.  It feels like Steve Rogers is ordering a lot of people around. 

Adding Prince of Orphans to the mix from his Immortal Iron Fist run is a mysterious choice.  That character exists on the periphery; a mystery wrapped in an enigma.  How we functions and what larger role he plays in Secret Avengers is just as shrouded as he is.  If that wasn’t enough, Brubaker pulls in John Steele, the first super soldier showcased in The Marvels Project; a hero there but apparently working for the bad guys here.  And like Steve Rogers, he doesn’t look a day older now than he did in World War II.  The Shadow Council that the Secret Avengers are facing, made up of former heroes and SHIELD LMDs, seem more familiar and all the more dangerous because we know only a few of its key players. 

With a lot of characters running around though, it gets tough to know who’s who or why they’re in the story.  The team ends up being supporting characters to Captain America and there’s only so much room for supporting characters.  What are War Machine, Valkyrie or Black Widow doing while Steve Rogers and Shang-Chi are running around?  They make brief, token appearances, reminding us that they’re hanging around but that they won’t be the focus of this story.  While they’re part of the team, they’re also part of Steve Rogers’ army, soldiers whose only purpose, it seems, is to ask “how high?” when Roger’s orders them to jump.   

Brubaker is trying to cover a lot of ground in Secret Avengers #8.  In bringing Shang Chi, and his troubled family issues, John Steele, a war hero now operating with the bad guys, the Prince of Orphans with his own unknown connections to Steele all together with the Avengers, Brubaker and Deodato are crafting a fine but packed espionage story.  With so many characters to try and focus-in on, this issue comes off feeling more like an issue of Marvel Team-Up starring Steve Rogers and a bunch of second and third string characters who wouldn’t be on the main Avengers team.  Maybe that’s why they’re a secret.

 

Invincible #76

Written by Robert Kirkman

Art by Ryan Ottley and Cliff Rathburn with FCO Plascencia

Lettering by Rus Wooten

Published by Image Comics

Review by Brendan McGuirk

Click here for preview

Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley know exactly what Invincible readers want, and they have delivered it with each and every panel of The Viltrumite War. And they don't need any #%* jingling bells.

When this book gets violent, it gets so ridiculously violent that it gives the sense that you just might be observing the apex of superhero sparring. The trading of Viltrumite punches is straight cosmic ballet, but with less tutus and more mustaches. Issue #76 is just the latest proof that month in, month out, Ryan Ottley is the best artist in superhero comics. No one else does more, or does any more effectively. His visual humor hits every mark, his action hits like a hammer, he can tell big stories and little ones, and he gets better all the time.

Kirkman is no slouch himself, but in contrast to peers his strengths are less in the lyricisms of his scripts than they are in the grandness of his ideas. The authority with which he navigates this series is absolute, and the result is the most singular superhero story in comics.

This war is the biggest and baddest story yet, and this issue reads like that war's D-Day. So strap in for this one, because you won't see more blows-to-the-mustache til the NHL Playoffs.

 

X-Men Legacy #243 

Written by Mike Carey 

Art by Paul Davidson and Brian Reber 

Lettering by VC's Cory Petit 

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jennifer Smith 

Click here for preview

X-Men: Legacy is an epically schizophrenic book.  After its early incarnation as a spotlight for Professor Xavier, the book has drifted from concept to concept, loosely building itself around whatever characters aren’t the primary focus of the other X-books on the shelves.  The quality, through all of those changes, has vacillated wildly, with writer Mike Carey showing much more skill and confidence in focused, character-based short stories than in drawn-out action plots.  Issue #241 finished up the most recent of those underwhelming action plots, and now we find ourselves in the middle of what appears to be a series of short stories much more within Carey’s wheelhouse: stories about single characters reacting to very specific events.  The result, in X-Men Legacy #243, is an issue much more indicative of Carey’s ample talent (on display each month in Vertigo’s The Unwritten) and much more satisfying for the reader.

The focus of this issue is Julian Keller, an angry young telekinetic who lost both of his hands in the battle for Utopia.  While the fact that his hands have not been replaced by cybernetic attachments or regrown by a healer continues to stretch the limits of any X-Men reader’s suspension of disbelief, Carey’s insight into Julian’s anger and feelings of powerlessness are worth the illogical premise.  Structured primarily as an interrogation of Julian by Cyclops about the death of Karima Shapandar, the issue allows the reader to experience the full fury of Julian’s emotions and his reasoning for all that he’s done.  Julian has never exactly been a likable character, but this glimpse into his head goes a long way toward making him comprehensible, if not sympathetic, and the final pages, in which he ignores Rogue’s stern warnings about his behavior and turns away from his only friends, are particularly haunting.

The actual plot, which Julian reveals over the course of his interrogation, is interesting as well.  Moral questions have always been at the heart of X-Men comics, and here the reader is asked to grapple with the nature of humanity and the morality of taking another’s life in an extreme circumstance.  Julian must kill Karima because her Sentinel programming has taken over her body, shattering her humanity and threatening to destroy all of her mutant friends.  She begs Julian for death as a last grasp at dignity, and Julian complies.  Yet, as Cyclops points out, the level of violence and relish in the act is far more than would be required, and reflects more on Julian’s rage and need to feel useful to the X-Men than anything else.  While I hesitate to celebrate the killing off of yet another female character AND character of color, the story is well-executed, and Karima’s sacrifice represents a clear bit of agency for a character who always struggled to sustain her autonomy.  The moral issues surrounding murder in the name of saving innocents, meanwhile, resonate with recent goings-on in comics like X-Force.  When Julian calls out Cyclops on his willingness to condemn others for actions he himself has committed, the reader is forced to reflect on Cyclops’ recent actions and wonder where the lines between heroes and villains actually lie.

Paul Davidson’s art is a striking departure from the usual style of X-Men Legacy artists; an angry, angular style that is not pretty in any way but fits the tone of this particular issue perfectly.  Davidson is more interested in expressing emotion on his characters’ faces than making them attractive, and everything from Julian’s anger to Karima’s anguish to Cyclops’ stern disappointment is visibly etched in their eyes and mouths and creased foreheads.  The action scenes lack a bit of clarity, but in an issue that focuses more on talking heads than explosions, Davidson was an inspired artistic choice.

The final page of X-Men Legacy #243 promises to turn away from Julian Keller next issue and throw the spotlight on Blindfold, of Astonishing X-Men fame.  If this issue is anything to go by, that’s sure to be another standout, and I look forward to what I hope will be a long streak of great Legacy issues to come – at least until the next big action plot.

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