Best Shots Comic Reviews: IRON MAN #500, SUPERGIRL, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews Jan 24

Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the reviewers of the Best Shots team. We've got a ton of big releases from last week from DC, Marvel and more, and we're not stopping there -- we've got plenty more at the Best Shots Topic Page! And now, let's move on to a new Iron Age, as Scott takes on Invincible Iron Man #500...


Invincible Iron Man #500

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Salvador Larroca, Frank D’Armata, Kano, Nathan Fox, Javier Rodriguez and Carmine Di Giandomenico and Matthew Wilson

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

Click here for preview

In Invincible Iron Man #500, Matt Fraction with artists Kano, Nathan Fox and Carmine Di Giandomenico tells the story of the last days of Tony Stark in the not-to-distant future as his son and grand daughter lead the fight against the Mandarin’s forces.  In the future, Tony Stark is no longer a futurist but a victim.  A victim of what, we don’t know, but he’s now a tool and a lackey of his longtime enemy the Mandarin, who’s turned Stark’s designs into fully functional weapons.  Running parallel to the story about Stark’s future, Fraction and Salvador Larroca tell a modern day Iron Man story, about the fear that drives Tony Stark; the fear that the weapons that exist in his head could actually be built by madmen who would use them.

The modern day story with art by Larroca feels like a fairly standard Iron Man story.  Fraction and Larroca continue their story about the fall and redemption of Tony Stark and they’re still in the rebuilding process. Bringing in Peter Parker to act as Stark’s conscience this issue, Fraction returns to the themes that he began this series with as he explores Tony Stark’s nightmares. The thought of one of his more deadly designs getting into the hands of men who are desperate enough to use them drive Stark to hunt down anyone who shows even the slightest inclinations, including The Bastard Sons of Wilbur Day, an anti-hero militia who uses the Stilt Man as their patron saint. You could actually pull out the modern day sections of this book and you’d have an issue that would basically be a character-building story. There’s nothing particularly strong in these sequences other than Fraction’s babbling Spider-Man, proving once again that Fraction needs to write a Spider-Man comic book one of these days.

Luckily, Fraction's modern story are wrapped around his story of the future of the Stark family and that’s where this issue gets really interesting. The fears and worries of Tony Stark in 2011 are the realities of Tony Stark in 2052. Those designs that exist in his mind that no one but him could actually build with modern technology are possible for his enemies to build and control. And if it’s a weapon, someone like the Mandarin won’t just build one of them; he’ll build ten. Providing the balance for the modern-day sequences, we see the reality of Stark’s nightmares and his own failures at controlling them. By playing out this future in Iron Man #500 Fraction shows us why today’s Tony Stark should be as desperate as he is. The future sequences justifies the modern day story in this issue and create something more than just another Iron Man story.

This issue works because of the diversity of artists that have been recruited to tell the story of Tony Stark and his descendants. Larroca delivers his usual work, alternating between wonderful action and clunky quieter moments. Outside of armors and costumes, his characters appear lifeless, just drawings on a page without any energy or excitement. It’s ironic that working on this title, his Iron Man is much more organic and natural than his Tony Stark. Kano, Fox and Di Giandomenico create a stripped down future for Stark, as the Mandarin wages his war, these artists are drawing soldiers and weapons. Their dingy future is a sharp contrast to the clean lines of Larroca’s present.

Iron Man #500 may end up being the linchpin of Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s run, tying together the story of Tony Stark’s hubris and fall with his redemption. The future sequences of this issue make this, with the fantastic artists pulled in, create a real weight to Tony Stark’s fears. So far in Fraction and Larroca’s run, we’ve just heard what would happen if one of Stark’s enemies got their hands on everything Stark knows; in this issue, we see what could really happen. Fraction paints a hazardous future for Tony Stark that until now has just been conjecture.  For all of the talk about how dangerous Tony Stark’s mind is, Fraction finally shows us just why Tony Stark should always be afraid.


Supergirl #60

Written by Nick Spencer and James Peaty

Art by Bernard Chang and Blond

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

Move over, Clark, because Metropolis has a new S-wearing sweetheart: Her name's Supergirl. And pound for pound, just based on this issue alone, she's the strongest Kryptonian there is.

I don't say that lightly. The previous run on Supergirl -- with Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle -- certainly was an underrated but consistent run. But this new team is bringing some real heat to this little title that could, showing an energy and enthusiasm that DC has been cultivating with a vengeance in the tail end of 2010. If this opening is any indication, this could be the best Super-book on the stands.

As far as the writing goes, it's tough to parse out how much praise should be given to Nick Spencer, and how much should be given to his collaborator, James Peaty. Spencer's clearly got the industry weight behind him, and for anyone wondering when his increasingly superhuman winning streak is going to end, it ain't here. There's a real accessibility to Spencer and Peaty's Girl of Steel, that sort of reassuring humility -- "The yellow sun that orbits this world gives me some very special powers and I use them to try to help and protect people" -- mixed with some stylized teenage staccato. "So... battle?" Supergirl asks a horde of bad guys. "Battle." Game on.

And the artwork? Wowza. There's a two-page spread of Supergirl that's more iconic than the cover of this book: Bernard Chang really toes that fine line between superheroic perfection -- which can get a little tiresome if we see it too much -- and that hint of character to the design that shows not all women in comics should look like the super-endowed Power Girl. Supergirl, for example, has a really long nose, and a thinness to her frame that reminded me of Ursula from Spider-Man 2. She's built like an actual girl, as opposed to a mid-20s woman. Outside of the designs, though, I really appreciated Chang's fluidity with his movement -- with few exceptions, there's some real thought put into the composition, whether it's Kara judo-chopping the Kryptonite Man, or watching Perry White loom over the hapless denizens of the news desk.

But in certain ways, like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Infinite Vacation before it, this issue really explores the world of Supergirl, even moreso than the character herself. Some people will find that a dealbreaker -- but for me, I think it encapsulated some of the more memorable parts of the book. I mentioned last week that Spencer ties into the themes of escape and second chances in his work, but the thing I feel like I overlooked was his other overarching theme: his interest in technology. I won't give it away, but the real villain of this piece has a wickedly smart idea -- one of those spins on real-life that should be more prevalent in the overall DCU. All too often in superhero comics, the rest of the world is composed of bystanders -- but what happens when you have a Lex Luthor in the making?

With some of the missteps in this book -- like an overly cramped first page, and the somewhat scattershot pacing of the last third of this book -- it isn't a perfect read. But in terms of the visuals and the ideas, it really is a breath of fresh air, reminding readers not just why they root for Kara, but how the DC Universe as a whole can really surprise you. Will this book be able to keep up with the comparatively unknown Peaty as sole writer, as the Image wunderkind Spencer rides off into the sunset? That remains to be seen -- but as far as first impressions go, Supergirl absolutely scores a knockout.


Amazing Spider-Man #652

Written by Dan Slott and Fred Van Lente

Art by Stefano Caselli, Reilly Brown, Victor Olazaba, Edgar Delgado and Andre Moss

Lettering by Joe Caramanga

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

Just a handful of issues into his solo run, Dan Slott has already proven his worth as the captain of the twice-monthly ship many times over. I thought that "Big Time's" debut issue was a fluke; it felt like reading an entire trade, a full story arc in a single comic. While not every issue since has had quite that depth, each has been a complete chapter in Spidey's ongoing saga.  While it's likely that the expanded format has made it easy to give each issue the needed weight, most of the credit comes down to Slott's masterful sense of pacing, dynamic action, and effective characterization. Even smallest moments between characters are allowed to speak volumes, and Spidey's scenes always serve to move things along, rather than spin wheels and fill pages.  Issue #652, Big Time's first with Stefano Caselli on art, marks the beginning of a new story arc, sees the return of several classic Spider-Man villains, and sets the stage for many of the threads hinted at in the opening issue to be picked up.

The book opens with a trip to one of Carlie Cooper's roller derby matches, attended by most of Pete's family, including Aunt May and John Jameson, Sr., and Mary Jane. Hilarious moments abound, culminating in a scene where Peter attempts to convince Carlie he has no physical coordination, mostly so she can teach him to skate.  Mary Jane feels some pangs of jealousy as she attempts to convince Peter to tell Carlie his secret, and Carlie suggests setting Mary Jane up with Spider-Man. Meanwhile, preparations for a shuttle launch that is to carry John Jameson (the younger) into space are observed from afar by the newly rebuilt Scorpion, Alistair Smythe, and a new crop of Spider Slayers, all of whom are plotting revenge on the Jameson family for actions committed by J. Jonah Jameson in his pursuit of Spider-Man. Feeling something amiss, Jonah agrees to allow Peter, scientist Max Modell's newest recruit, to take part in overseeing the launch, reluctantly admitting that Peter is brilliant, and that he would trust him to help with the launch. The next day, as Peter is helping oversee the launch, the Spider Slayers and the Scorpion attack, sabotaging the launch, and sending John Jameson hurtling towards space in a rocket set to explode. As Spider-Man desperately attempts to save the bystanders, Jonah begs him to go after John instead, insisting that he's the only one capable of stopping the rocket from exploding. As Spider-Man narrowly manages to reach the shuttle, he is confronted by the Scorpion, who is hell bent on stopping him from saving John Jameson, and the other astronauts.

Throughout all of this, Stefano Caselli's art is a definite treat.  This issue differs in style from his older work; the colors are more muted, and the anatomy is a little more straightforward.  It's still recognizable as his work, but it fits more seamlessly with Humberto Ramos's style on the previous arc. Caselli manages to maintain Ramos's sense of action and kineticism, while staying a bit more grounded and a bit less exaggerated. This pairs perfectly with Slott's script, which never loses its forward momentum, despite an abundance of pages spent on Peter and his family. That's the thing about Spider-Man; he's gotta have that balance between his normal life, and the life he spends swinging through the streets in tights, and Slott has, so far, managed to provide a great balance between those two aspects of the book.  I was a bit skeptical of Peter getting everything he ever wanted; a stable relationship, a good job, and enough time to balance his heroic life and his time as Spider-Man, but it seems like he's still got plenty to deal with even when most of his mundane worries are taken off the table. Bottom line: this IS Spider-Man, and this IS the way his book should be. If you're not reading this every month, you're insane.

Oh, and P.S., this book also includes a back up by Fred Van Lente and Reilly Brown wherein The Looter tricks the new Power Man into fighting Spider-Man so he can steal the Key to the City. If that alone won't get you to read a Spider-Man comic, then probably there's no hope for you.


Young Justice #0

Written by Kevin Hopps and Greg Weisman

Art by Mike Norton and Alex Sinclair

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

Having rescued Superboy, a clone of Superman from Project Cadmus, in the first two episodes of the Young Justice television series, Young Justice #0 shows what Kid Flash, Superboy, Aqualad and Robin do for three days while Batman and the Justice League decides their future. Hopps and Weisman’s story focuses on Kid Flash and Superboy who end up having a three day slumber party. It’s filled with watching TV and trips to the local mall. In other words, it’s Kid Flash and Superboy trying to act like normal kids until they run into the Terror Twins -- and then shopping turns into a free-for-all at the mall.

This issue is essentially a bonus episode of the cartoon series, trying to show the character of its heroes but ultimately just showing a standard story that reminds us that Superboy is always angry and that Kid Flash is impulsive.  For what is the first issue of a new comic series (don’t let the #0 gimmick fool you), this issue doesn’t show any ambition to begin creating stories of its own.  It fills in the blanks between the second and third episodes of the cartoon, showing us a day-in-the-life of the characters as they await judgement from Batman but it can’t build any interest in those characters beyond surface elements of them.

The problem is that as Hopps and Weisman try to show us the downtime in these characters lives, those characters haven’t been built up enough.  We barely know these versions of Kid Flash and Superboy; we haven’t seen enough about them yet.  And while this issue tries to be the “character building” story, we still don’t learn anything more about them.  Why is Kid Flash as impulsive as he is or why is Superboy as brooding?  You don’t have to answer these questions in this comic, but if you’re going to try to show them as “normal” teenagers, you need to show a bit about why they’re not normal -- and it has to be more than “he runs fast” or “he’s Superman’s clone.”  Issues that focus primarily on building characters should show us something more than what we already know about those characters.

It’s not that this is a bad comic book but it’s more that Young Justice #0 really isn’t much of a comic book story.  It spends too much time showing characters sitting around, waiting for something to happen and not enough time showing showing why those characters are who they are, something that plenty of comics, whether aimed at kids or adults, can do.


Avengers Academy #8

Written by Christos Gage

Art by Mike McKone, Rebecca Buchman, and Jeromy Cox

Lettering by VC’s Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel

Review by Jennifer Smith

Click here for preview

In his Marvel projects, Christos Gage has proven a reliable cleanup hitter.  From his Civil War oneshot about Captain America and Iron Man to his brief run on the Thunderbolts to his work on Mighty Avengers and Avengers: The Initiative, Gage has displayed an uncanny talent for taking the scattered bits and pieces left unfinished by other writers and bringing them home into a beautifully-constructed whole. So it’s no wonder that Avengers Academy #8, the followup to a Brian Michael Bendis New Avengers story about Tigra and The Hood, is such an excellent issue.

Avengers Academy #8 may be the most thoughtful and nuanced look at abuse and post-traumatic stress that I’ve ever seen in a comic, and it does a similarly fantastic job handling the themes of revenge and retribution that crop up so frequently in superhero comics.  When the tape of The Hood’s attack on Tigra hits the internet, Tigra is forced to face her trauma and shame all over again -- and her current students, the young heroes of Avengers Academy, have to decide for themselves how they’ll respond to visual evidence of such a brutal attack on someone they’ve come to respect as a mentor.

Some of the responses are ugly.  Finesse sees Tigra’s victimization as a sign of weakness, of an unforgivable inability to withstand pressure. Mettle can’t look at his teacher without imagining her torture and feeling pity. And Veil, Hazmat, and Striker (an abuse survivor himself, though his teammates don’t know that) decide that the best way to seek justice is to attack the now-powerless Hood themselves, and put it on film.

But the stand the issue ultimately takes on the situation, while acknowledging a variety of common reactions, is a strong statement for the dignity of abuse victims. When Tigra appears on an Oprah-like talk show, she acknowledges that she still hasn’t completely recovered from her ordeal, and may never do so. She acknowledges the difficulty that survivors have in admitting to the fact that they need help, that they haven’t recovered, because they want to appear tough, and because they fear what others will think.  But she knows that she has nothing to be ashamed of, that the attack was not her fault, and she channels her own pain into something constructive: the development of an “Always an Avenger” center for abuse victims, so she can help others who have lived through similar experiences. It’s a powerful statement, particularly in a medium that is usually much more concerned with moving onto the next big thing than dealing with long-term emotional consequences.

Revenge, meanwhile, is both condemned -- Tigra is far from happy with what her students did -- and explored as a natural reaction to anger, since Tigra herself had, in the past, gone after the Hood’s men. While his statement on abuse victims is unequivocal, Gage takes a more multi-layered approach to the issue’s thornier moral questions, and the question of vengeance in particular is one that will surely continue to be a theme as the series continues. He even manages to handle with delicacy the gendered issues of the story, making sure to have a character point out that Tigra was not raped (a point Bendis made when his original story was criticized) while simultaneously showing how such a tape of violence against a woman (violence that resulted in near-nudity) could be mistaken for pornography. And the issue’s look at the dissemination of video in the digital age, and the irrepressibility of information once it’s uploaded to the internet, is an incisive take on the ways that technology has added new kinks to the application of morality and justice in the modern world.

Departing series artist Mike McKone remains a powerhouse, and his strong character work and dynamic action scenes will be missed. But with eight strong issues in a row and no end in sight, Christos Gage’s Avengers Academy looks to remain one of the best books on the stands, throughout 2011 and beyond.


Streets of Gotham #19

Written by Paul Dini

Art by Dustin Nguyen, Derek Fridolfs, and John Kalisz

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by Lan Pitts

"Remember what Aristotle says, 'a common enemy unites bitter enemies.'" -- Tom Elliot, aka Hush

For the past twenty years, Paul Dini has more than penned great Batman stories; he's added to the overall mythos of the character. His and Dustin Nguyen's Heart of Hush arc from three years ago, remains one of my favorite Bat-stories of the decade. Dini and Nguyen and company may have caught lightning in a jar once again with the ongoing House of Hush arc.

The thing about this particular issue is that there is so much character depth added, that it makes the overall story that much enjoyable and lively. From Hush's past, to his ties with the Wayne's and the rise of his criminal factions, to even a scene that ties Thomas Wayne and John Zatara together, it's more fleshed out than how most comic writers handle Batman and company. Batman just isn't Bruce Wayne, Prince of Gotham. Batman is also about the city he protects and how each denizen has a thread that weaves a bigger web.

Streets of Gotham #19 gives a good deal of insight to the Anthony Marchetti character as Dini establishes more of the character's past and tells the story of a one-time encounter with Gotham's favorite clown, the Joker. Truth be told, this issue is more of a character piece that explores a little-known character and expands what we should know, adding to the criminal underground, and also adds to what we already knew: the Joker is bat-nuts crazy. There is not a single fight scene or action sequence. Just a story of a child that grew up in the crime business in Gotham, but still somebody who Hush considers valuable to align himself with. Batman (Bruce Wayne) doesn't show up until almost at the end, where the Thomas Wayne/Zatara scene comes into play.

This creative team is one of the best working in comics today. Dini never disappoints, and Dustin Nguyen is a workhorse that knows no limits. His use of painted art-deco backgrounds adds that extra bit of beauty that certainly makes it stand out. Derk Fridolfs inks over Nguyen's pencils are superb. I've seen others try to handle Nguyen's style, but none quite capture the angular look that Nguyen brings without looking jagged or too sharp. John Kalisz adds the perfect color pallet that complements both Nguyen and Fridolfs, but that's exactly breaking news, as he's another colorist who is always on top of his game.

With Streets of Gotham coming to a close soon, I'm sure the finale will deliver the proper curtain call that this book has deserved.


Wolverine and Jubilee #1

Written by Kathryn Immonen

Art by Phil Noto

Lettering by VC’s Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel

Review by Jennifer Smith

Click here for preview

This is easily the best Kathryn Immonen comic I’ve read.  In the past I’ve found Immonen’s work difficult to follow, with inscrutable leaps of logic between panels and issues and non sequitur dialogue that frequently obscured plot and characterization.  This may be a simple incongruity of personal preferences and style; I would never go so far as to say her past work was objectively poor, but my brain never quite connected with it.  In Wolverine and Jubilee #1, however, Immonen has stripped away her characteristic flights of fancy and non sequitur flourishes, and the result is a solid and thoughtful introduction to a story about two characters whose friendship has been largely neglected by X-Men writers in the past few years.

The recent Curse of the Mutants storyline in the adjectiveless X-Men title wasn’t especially kind to Jubilee.  After spending several years in limbo following the loss of her powers, the character reemerged only to be transformed into a vampire by the son of Dracula.  Her vampiric qualities dampened by transfusions of Wolverine’s healing-powered blood, Jubilee is angry, scared, and trying to find a place in the world as a young woman who isn’t truly human, mutant, or vampire, but can’t escape her past as all three.

This issue captures her struggles beautifully, and sheds full light on the variety of reactions her current state brings out in others -- guilt, fear, concern, anger, and a host of other strong emotions.  Scott and Emma have no idea what to do with her, Hisako is downright angry with her, Pixie and Rockslide can’t break through her caustic shell despite their best attempts, and vampires just want to use her for their own purposes.  Even connections to her past, like her memories of meeting the X-Men in a mall in her first appearance, or a conversation with former teacher Emma Frost, can’t sooth Jubilee as she abandons Utopia for the lights of San Francisco.  Ultimately, it’s Wolverine, the closest thing Jubilee has to family, who must track her down and help her out in his own gruff, loyal way.  As the issue ends, Immonen sets in motion a mystery that will likely carry through the rest of the miniseries, giving the miniseries momentum and providing this unorthodox father-and-daughter team with something to fight.

If this is a case of a relatively new writer improving her chops, it’s also an example of an artist on the verge of superstardom demonstrating his immense talents.  Phil Noto is the only credited artist on this comic, and everything about the art, from the linework to the colors, is beautiful.  The silent panels at the beginning, as Jubilee pounds at the walls of her temporary holding cell in anger and frustration, are particularly effective, and Noto continues to excel at expressive faces throughout the rest of the comic. Noto’s rendition of Pixie, a personal favorite character of mine, is especially lovely, and he does a great job bringing out the humanity in Santo Vaccaro, a character whose body is composed entirely of jagged bits of rock.  The colors, meanwhile, are perfectly attuned to the mood of each scene, from the stark whites of the science lab in the beginning to the warm oranges of a scene set in a hotel bar near the end.

Though it’s too soon to tell how the story will end up, Wolverine and Jubilee miniseries is off to a great start, and I sincerely hope it marks both a renaissance for Jubilee as a character and the beginning of great things from Immonen as a writer.

Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2

Art by Steve Ditko

Published by Fantagraphics

Review by Tim Janson

How mysterious and enigmatic is Steve Ditko?  The black and white photo of him from the 1950s that’s inside this book is one of only a handful of photos I’ve ever seen of Ditko.  In the 1950s when most artists were content to just be able to find regular work after the downturn in the comic book business, Ditko was content to still do his thing and refine his craft.  Fantagraphics presents their second volume collecting Ditko’s work from the 1950s with over 200 more full-color pages.

While most of the stories are collected from Charlton titles such as Strange Suspense Stories, Unusal Tales, Tales of the Mysterious Traveller, and Out of this World, the book includes two stories from Marvel/Atlas Comics’ Journey into Mystery, including Ditko’s very first story for Marvel from Journey into Mystery #33 in 1956.

This story is entitled “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and already you can see how far ahead Ditko was compared to many of his peers with his extraordinary fine detail work.  A poor inventor tries to change the past by using a machine to kill an ancestor before he can squander his fortune.  The ending is perhaps a little too happy compared to EC Comics style stories but it still drips with irony.

You get the sense that Ditko was pushed to finish his work at Charlton much quicker and as such, his detail in some of these stories is not as great…or they could have simply been edited out.  You see a lot of static, solid color backgrounds in some of these stories.  Most of the content is in the Sci-Fi genre that features unexplored worlds, alien attacks…standard stuff of the era but in Ditko’s talented hands nothing is ever standard.  When Ditko steps away from the science fiction material he comes up with some truly unusual stories like “Calvin’s Stupid Mule”, a whimsical tale set during the Civil War about soldier and his mule who seems to have a knack for good luck.

Besides the stories there are over a dozen Ditko covers reprinted and a fascinating introduction by Blake Bell.  Bell provides an outstanding overview of this period of Ditko’s career.

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