Best Shots: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, SUPERMAN/BATMAN, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews

Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you this fine Monday with the rockin' reviewers of the Best Shots team! We've got books from DC, Marvel, Vertigo and Top Cow to start off your week, and that's not all — we've also got tons of reviews over at the Best Shots Topic Page. So let’s start things off with a review of the new Venom's full-fledged debut in Amazing Spider-Man #654.1.

 

Amazing Spider-Man #654.1

Written by Dan Slott

Art by Humberto Ramos, Carlos Cuevas and Edgar Delgado

Lettering by Joe Caramanga

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

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Meet Thompson. Flash Thompson. Or maybe I should call him by his new codename — Venom.

I'll admit, even though Peter Parker barely makes an appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #654.1, I'm still really enjoying what Dan Slott's doing in this book. Because in a lot of ways, he's been retooling the Spidey mythos, bringing up characters that act as some really great foils for our friendly neighborhood webslinger.

Hobgoblin, for example, is the flipside of power and responsibility — meanwhile, Flash's journey is about someone aspiring to be Spider-Man but lacking the hero's emotional iron. The tension of this high concept is palpable: Will Peter find a new ally in his now-empowered greatest fan — or is the symbiote going to take one more victim? Add in some fast-paced superspy action, and you've got yourself a recipe for some fun.

So as far as that is concerned, I'm okay giving Peter a quick respite. After all, it's really fun to see Flash's new status quo, in many ways, riffs off of BOOM! Studios' Soldier Zero — but the advantage of having decades of continuity means that readers learn very quickly that Flash's symbiotic "partner" is far from benign. That's the human element that Dan Slott brings, and will likely be played up during Rick Remender's solo run on the series — when you see him fall out of his wheelchair, forgetting that he can't walk, that's the hook. With great power, doesn't just come great responsibility — it can bring great freedom, too.

But there's a line of some seriously black comedy here, which I think Remender will have a ball with later: seeing Venom lash out and bite someone's hand off could be too much for readers — that is, until someone shouts at him that he's a cannibal. You can't help but laugh when Venom spits out the severed hand, then adds: "What? Doesn't count. We didn't ssswallow." That's a great moment.

Humberto Ramos, meanwhile, is proving to be a fantastic fit for Slott's high-density scripting. There are a lot of panels per page, but Ramos actually packs them in with style — in particular, I love the sequence where Flash is dancing the tango with a beautiful countess, where your eyes are drawn really smoothly across less than two-thirds of the page. Something I don't think Ramos will get enough credit for, however, is his expressiveness — and I don't just mean with faces. The body language in particular is really fantastic, especially a moment where Flash sits quietly, realizing just how bad an enemy the symbiote can be.

There have been plenty of people who have faulted this issue for not being a good starting point, but part of me would argue back that these Point Ones maybe aren't supposed to get you in on the status quo of the character as a whole, but to get you in on the ground floor of the next six to twelve months worth of stories. If that is the case, it's hard to fault Dan Slott for just having a blast with another character, one that broadens the Spidey mythos and gives a lot of potential for conflict with our hero. Let's just say, as far as Amazing Spider-Man #654.1 is concerned, the good guys really do wear black.

 

Superman/Batman #81

Written by Cullen Bunn

Art by Chriscross, Marc Deering and Brad Anderson

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

If I had to describe Cullen Bunn's strengths in one word, it would be this: Voice.

That's not something that every writer has, even with iconic characters like Superman and Batman. But this issue — Bunn's first for the Big Two — has that knack. In a lot of ways, Superman/Batman #81 reads like an episode of the dearly departed Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated series. To call it an "upgrade" might just be an understatement.

And that's kind of surprising to me. I'll be honest in saying that on the face of it, the World's Finest battling sorcerous doppelgangers is not immediately gripping. But what Bunn does is he really makes it a mystery — who is the man in the eldritch armor? Who killed him? And who is the knight in the bat-themed armor, and what magic does he have in his utility belt? That's the sort of execution I can get behind — particularly, as I said before, because Bunn knows how to make these characters sound "right." Even Batman flatly saying "pass" when Detective Chimp offers him a beer — there's an art and a science to the back-and-forth, and it's clear Bunn knows how to play it.

I'll also add that Chriscross really gives this book a visual overhaul that it didn't even have during the recent Chris Roberson two-parter. There's a nice weight to all these characters, sort of a mesh between Pete Woods and Paul Gulacy — and while sometimes there's a hiccup in the design (I'm looking at you, modern-day Superman with your spitcurl!), Chriscross makes up for it by drawing a hellacious medieval Batman complete with a giant bat-themed battlesword. There's that action-figure-variant guilty pleasure to this, but hey, for a first-issue set-up? That's plenty permissible.

Ultimately, the thing that will make or break this book now is whether or not Bunn will have a suitable solution for the cloak-and-dagger mystery, and whether or not the world he's hinted at in this first issue will continue to compel upon closer study. But one thing is clear: This book isn't trading in on the big names of its protagonists anymore, but is actually bringing some strong artistic talent to the table to make it worth your while. Count me on board to see what happens next month.

 

Uncanny X-Force #5

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Esad Ribic, John Lucas and Matt Wilson

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Patrick Hume

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The only thing I really take issue with about Uncanny X-Force thus far is the series' name. I can't be sure who in the Marvel offices thought that saddling the gritty, black-ops mutant series with a throwback adjective-based title was a good move, but I'm here to tell them that it was not. Otherwise, I'm loving what Remender and crew are doing so far with this cast and premise. The X-Men have always existed in a somewhat liminal space in the Marvel Universe — not heroes for altruism's sake, but instead what amounts to a guerilla paramilitary struggling against repeated attempts to exterminate their race. Years of counterinsurgency would drive anyone to desperate extremes, and that's what X-Force is all about: how far will the children of Xavier go to keep his dream alive?

We saw one example in the conclusion of the first arc, when the team got the chance to enact the famous time-travel question of whether you would kill Hitler as a child, as Fantomex assassinated a reborn Apocalypse. The focus on the mysterious Fantomex continues into this issue, as we learn more about his outlook on the world and his plans for the World, the pocket-universe incubator of the Weapon Plus project and Fantomex's birthplace, in his possession since the events of Dark Reign.

Fantomex is one of my favorite elements to come out of Morrison's New X-Men, and Remender helps put a human face on him here as we watch him deal with the moral consequences of killing a child. A short interlude with the rest of the team delivers a parallel sequence centering around the team's other masked assassin. I appreciate Remender's efforts here to make his characters struggle with some of the situations and decisions they are forced into; it would be all too easy to let a book like this devolve into mindless men-on-a-mission arcs, but there seems to be no danger of that here. If the X-books have ever had any deeper merit beyond entertainment, it has almost always come from the characters' philosophical conflicts, and Fantomex's internal and external debates are a great example of that merit.

Of course, we also get a dose of killer cyborgs on the loose, ably handled by the series' art team. I would have liked a greater contrast between Fantomex's fluidity and the brutal power of his opponents, but Ribic still gives us some great tableaus and keeps the pace jacked up throughout. He's adept with the surreal, as evidenced in how well he captures the bizarre interiors of the world, ably assisted by Matt Wilson's colors. He also manages, however, to capture the quieter moments, opening up his panel arrangements to give even a static scene like the argument at Cavern-X a little pop.

A certain turn in the plot near the end struck me as a bit cheap, but my disappointment was made up for by the cameo on the last page, which is spoiled by the arc's title but nonetheless warmed the heart of my inner child, student as he is of the 1990s Marvel B-list. I appreciate any series that can make room for both discussions of multifaceted ethical issues and a mutant ninja versus cyborg Avengers-doppelgangers in the Alps, and if you've read this far, I imagine you can as well. Check it out, folks.

 

Legion of Superheroes #10

Written by Paul Levitz

Art by Yildiray Cinar, Wayne Faucher and Hi-Fi

Lettering by John J. Hill

Published by DC Comics

Review by Jamie Trecker

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Legion fans tend to be a hardy bunch. We’re used to seeing our beloved characters tramp through one cancelled book after another. We’ve also learned to lump it when some genius at DC decides to “reboot” a team that has proved to be far more durable than the slew of forgotten creators who have “handled” this squad. Without a doubt some of us cringed when the current editorial board — which seems overly enamored of DC’s 1980s product and storylines — decided to hand the reins back to former publisher Paul Levitz.

I was one of those folks, and I raise my hand now to say: Sorry. Yeah, a lot of the other product you put out is bloody, loud and forgettable, but DC, you’re finally doing Legion right.

Since Geoff Johns’ superb take on the team during Final Crisis, Levitz has adeptly steered the team away from the wrong-headed “Threeboot” approach back to the ground that birthed memorable storylines such as the “Great Darkness Saga,” while retaining the maturity of the “Five Years Later” era that many of us feel was a high water mark for artist Keith Giffen.

This issue is like every other so far in Levitz’ two-book Legion cohort: snappy, smart and more sophisticated fun than your average superhero comic. Sure, they’re in tights and they live in an upside rocket ship. No matter; the Legion continues to be the team that intelligently discusses issues and builds keenly observed storylines — in sharp contrast to a certain super-team now based in San Francisco that seems more soap than substance. (I grant that Fantomex is far cooler than Wildfire, however.)

The secret weapon may be the art of spell-check foiling Yildiray Cinar, whose bold lines and sharp angles have given the series a hard gloss. His facial expressions need work — they are far too uniform. But his panel composition and flow are light-years ahead of where we would expect this young Turkish artist to be, and this particular issue, which subtly showcases Braniac 5’s talents and weaknesses, is a treat. This title, and its sister book Adventure Comics, should be on your pull-sheet.

 

Silver Surfer #1

Written by Greg Pak

Art by Stephen Segovia, Victor Olazaba and Wil Quintana

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

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For some reason, Marvel keeps coming back and trying to do a regular Silver Surfer monthly comic book? Joining Stan Lee, John Buscema, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers this time is Greg Pak and Stephen Segovia who have a new Silver Surfer #1 and a supposedly new story about the character to tell.

Pak and Segovia's Silver Surfer #1 begins with a very familiar setting as the Surfer seeks a time for rest and contemplation on Earth. Back in service of Galactus, the devourer of worlds, The Surfer returns to Earth after leading his master to a bountiful feast. Having doomed a solar system, Surfer observes humanity and mourns his own. The actions of the Surfer are not those of Norrin Radd, the man he once was.

Pak's story covers a lot of ground, trying to establish the Surfer's lost humanity while constructing an earthbound story for him involving drug deals and the High Evolutionary. The cover of this issue claims that it is "an all-new beginning" but nothing in the story feels new. This is all ground that's been covered before with the Silver Surfer. The Surfer is an accomplice in the death of many worlds and that is acknowledged but glossed over to try and show the Surfer as the hero he purportedly is. Pak introduces a twinge of guilt in the Surfer but quickly moves on to show him trying to discover his humanity again, a quest that's as old as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's introduction of the character. Any guilt that he may have over the countless deaths he has caused is wiped away as the Surfer gets involved in something that looks like a drug deal gone bad and ends up becoming a narc.

As Pak jumps around the story, trying to find something to latch onto, the art jumps around with him. Segovia’s artwork is loud, brash and as unfocused as Pak’s story. Over the course of 22 pages, there’s not a single quiet, reflective moment even though that’s what Pak’s script is trying to get to. Instead, there are over-rendered, obvious pages full of generic characters. It’s a good thing that Surfer and the High Evolutionary, introduced in the end, are so distinctive because the rest of Segovia’s characters are cut from the same cloth, virtually indistinguishable from any other character. Each page features these characters going through the motions of the script but there’s never any connection made between the tone of the script and the tone of the artwork.

There’s nothing new in Silver Surfer #1. Instead of seeing the Silver Surfer in new locales and new situations, we see him doing the same old navel gazing almost every story about the characters seems contractually obligated to have. This issue also manages to graft on the villain-tries-to-steal-Surfer’s-power plot as well, almost trying to get extra credit for retreading tired plots with the same character.

 

Magdalena #5

Written by Ron Marz

Art by Nelson Blake II, David Marquez, Sal Regla and Dave McCaig

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow

Review by Scott Cederlund

There should be something more to get out of this book. There should just be something to Magdalena #5, Top Cow’s pseudo-religious/supernatural thriller, to make it interesting and compelling but Ron Marz, Nelson Blake II and David Marquez’s story in this issue lacks one key thing — an actual story. The issue features characters standing around, talking and punching but there’s nothing like an actual plot to move the story along.

From the recap page, we find out that Magdalena, a supernatural enforcer for the Catholic Church, is trying to find the son of Satan who’s being raised by a Satanic cult. There’s more information and plot development in that one page than there is in the whole issue. Ron Marz’s story quickly stalls as Magdalena and an accomplice run around the cult’s secret hideout, battle a demon or two and ultimately find the kid being used in a ritual to summon his father.

For someone reading this comic series for the first time (like me), there’s nothing to see or learn in this issue. Who are these characters? What’s their drive and motivation? Why does someone become a mercenary for a church? Instead the only thing we learn about the Magdalena is that she was shot in the wrist by an arrow sometime previous to this comic book. Who she is and what she is are questions left for another issue. This issue’s only concern is moving characters from point A to point B.

Nelson Blake II and David Marquez’s art is reminiscent of Karl Moline or Georges Jeanty’s clean cartooning styles. Like their artwork, Blake and Marquez’s artwork is very utilitarian, illustrating Marz’s story. But also like the script and unlike Moline or Jeanty, there’s no life in this artwork. The by-the-numbers pages for this issue only highlight the weaknesses of the script. There’s no emotion in any characters face that isn’t a grimace or a frown. There’s no line or drawing put down on paper that shows any joy or energy to help make up for the scripts lack of either.

The lack of character or energy makes Magdalena #5 a generic book, with its pages full of words and drawings that mean nothing to the reader. Maybe the characters progress somewhat along a timeline but there is nothing behind those actions to let you know anything about these characters, their situations or the world that they exist in.

 

Hawkeye: Blindspot #1

Written by Jim McCann

Art by Paco Diaz and Tomeu Morey

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jennifer Margret Smith

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Mainstream comic book superheroes by their very nature are written by committee, with no one writer able to claim sole ownership. But sometimes, through a long and significant run on a title, a writer can become strongly identified with a character or characters, influencing reader and industry perceptions and shaping the character's destiny for years to come. From Walt Simonson's Thor and Chris Claremont's X-Men to the more recent examples of Ed Brubaker's Captain America and Geoff Johns' Green Lantern, the industry has witnessed time and again the advantages of near-exclusive, if temporary, control over a character.

With the first issue of Hawkeye: Blindspot, Jim McCann has solidified his position as the next in that long line of influential creators. But what's remarkable about the work he's done with the Clint Barton Hawkeye is how quickly he's managed to assert his well-earned dominance. At the start of only his fourth miniseries with the character, Jim McCann has already redefined Hawkeye for a new generation, weaving his history into his present and setting up this oft-neglected character for a prominent and exciting — if tumultuous — future.

Hawkeye: Blindspot #1 builds off of the action of Widowmaker and the late-lamented Hawkeye and Mockingbird, but it also does double-duty as a fantastic jumping-on point for readers new to McCann's work or to Hawkeye in general. That's because McCann wisely uses the issue to retell Clint's origin, from his troubled childhood through his circus training to his introduction to the Avengers. The information may be old news for some fans, but McCann manages to make it organic to the story at hand as Clint, facing the prospect of permanent blindness, reflects on everything that brought him to this point. Since he's never had an ongoing series of his own, Clint's origin has rarely been retold or used in interesting ways, and here the repetition of loss in his history — loss of his father and successive father figures, loss of his brother, loss of his wife, and now, loss of the one ability that has made his life worthwhile — gains a beautiful resonance.

Beautiful is also the word to describe Paco Diaz's art, which definitely shines here. The characters themselves are all quite attractive — this reviewer is only human, and must admit that Clint in his tanktop and Tony Stark in his turtleneck were definite treats — but they're also laudably differentiated from each other. The core present action of the issue involves Clint in a room with Tony, Steve Rogers, and Donald Blake, but despite the fact that there are three blond white guys with similar haircuts in the same scene, the action is never confusing. Their faces, the shape of their jaws and the set of their brows, even the ways they carry themselves, are all clearly defined – Steve rigid and commanding, Clint slouching and ready to run at any moment, Don hunched and quiet. Diaz also does a fantastic job with body language, not just with the aforementioned carriage of the heroes' bodies but with their gestures, the little touches that emphasize without words how close these men are and how long they've known and cared about each other. In a book sadly lacking in Mockingbird, Clint needs all the friends he can get, and these three core Avengers fill the role ably.

The major conflicts in the story — Clint's encroaching blindness as a result of a head injury, and the villains setting out to make his life even more difficult — are still in their early stages, too early to fairly evaluate, but they do a great job of piquing reader interest in the issues to come. I hope that Clint's blindness is treated with all due sensitivity, considering the relative dearth of heroes with disabilities and his own history of temporary deafness. I also hope that, even if Mockingbird can't be involved in the story for shared-universe reasons, female characters will be able to enter the tale at some point, as the presence of the Black Widow on the cover and in flashbacks indicates they might. But for the first issue of the next chapter of Jim McCann's definitive Hawkeye story, I have zero complaints — and more compliments than I could possibly fit into this space. If you've ever been intrigued by what McCann is doing with this character, make every effort to pick up this issue. I can guarantee you won't be disappointed.

 

Doom Patrol #19

Written by Keith Giffen

Art by Matthew Clark, Ron Randall, Art Thibert, Sean Parsons and Guy Major

Lettering by Pat Brosseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

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I try to make it a point as a reviewer to pick up one new book every week, just to see what all the hubbub is about. I had heard some good things about Doom Patrol, about how it was an underrated, humorous gem. Add in the Secret Six — which I know is good — and I thought this would be a great place to dig in.

Sadly, this book wasn't the most user-friendly read I've ever picked up. With so many characters having to get their moment in the sun, their characterization, not to mention the whole point of this fracas, gets lost. Far from reading smoothly, this book kind of felt like a chore, and didn't do much to bring to me to speed on Oolong Island's wackiest protectors.

Now, this isn't my first read of Doom Patrol ever, and I'll say that it was disappointing to see Giffen go back to using a couple of giant text boxes at the beginning of this issue. The worst part? Those text boxes didn't do anything to further the story or give any need-to-know information about any of these characters, so it just freezes the reader in place while trying to read some lettering that's just a bit too small.

The other problem with this story is, well, it's less of a story and more of a giant fight sequence. Don't get me wrong, these things have their place — but the first part of this two-parter didn't really endear me to Oolong Island and the Doom Patrol, and this issue doesn't either. Who cares if a volcano devours the entire country? Instead, everybody has to get their licks in — and maybe it's just Giffen's sense of humor not really meshing with me, but things like Silver Banshee getting locked inside a living house or Ragdoll being dispatched by a wild pelican just didn't really bring the chuckle factor.

Now, as far as the art — I think this is more of a clashing of tone than necessarily a shortcoming by the artists themselves. Matthew Clark and Ron Randall really have this menacing, shadowy tone to a lot of their characters that I think runs counter to the black comedy that both the Doom Patrol and the Secret Six can provide. For example, on the third page of the book, Black Alice has a nigh-homicidal grin to her face that screams "bad guy," whereas Jim Calafiore has always played her up as a more vulnerable teenager. Ragdoll in particular looks creepy as hell, but I think that undercuts the point of this crossover — it's no fun if you have to say "Doom Patrol must win." You have to be rooting for both sides.

When DC was discussing the 20-page model, I'll admit I had my concerns — and Doom Patrol is absolutely one of them. There's an extended epilogue dealing with whether or not the team will remain on Oolong Island — hopefully just a story concern rather than a metatextual signal of this book's demise — but again, there was no hook. The art doesn't endear, and the story doesn't give you the backstory or the characterization to have you get to know either team. This seemed like a match-up made in Heaven, but this issue of Doom Patrol just felt flat.

 

Marvel Girl #1

Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov

Art by Nuno Plati

Lettering by Jeff Eckleberry

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jennifer Margret Smith

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Joshua Hale Fialkov's Marvel Girl one-shot hinges on two major thematic elements. The first is Jean Grey's survivor's guilt regarding her childhood best friend, Annie, whose hit-and-run death kickstarted Jean's powers and put her in a coma. Fialkov does an excellent job painting Jean's panic and fear of that traumatic past moment, and the scenes in which the older Jean interacts with the ghostly images of her friend and her younger self, trying to work through her pain and regret, are touching.

It's a story that's been told before, but it's told especially well here, and though artist Nuno Plati's heavily-stylized, manga-esque characters aren't always to my personal taste, he does a great job conveying the youth and innocence of the child characters as contrasted with the experience of their older selves. His colors deserve special mention, too – Plati uses shades of pink to illustrate Jean's telekinetic and telepathic powers, and the corresponding pink of the flashbacks and monsters provides the first clue that the scariest parts of the story are all a product of Jean's powerful mind.

The second thematic element, however, is far less successful. When Jean goes back to her suburban hometown after having a bit of a meltdown with the X-Men, she finds that nothing has changed — her parents are just as clingy, and the people she knew as a child are still doing the same things as adults, never changing or growing. Eventually, this leads to the realization, helped along by Professor Xavier, that she must rise above that, stop going through the motions and truly live her extraordinary life, growing and changing like Annie, and the rest of the people in her past, never can.

For some characters, this would be a powerful statement, and the parts that intersect with the aforementioned survivor's guilt do work effectively for Jean as a character. But in the context of mainstream superhero comic books in general and Jean Grey in particular, the epiphany feels more like cruel and frustrating irony than anything else. Putting aside for the moment the question of stereotypical suburban stagnation — something that this reviewer, as a child of the suburbs, would like to eradicate as a condescending, too-easy trope — the fact is that superhero characters are even less likely to grow and change than real people (even suburbanites) are. Never-aging and stuck in a stifling status quo that ensures their longevity, superheroes are constantly subject to regression and resetting of their personal histories to survive. I don't think this is necessarily a problem — in many ways it helps to sustain the genre, and the industry. But to imply that a superhero is going to grow and change in a way that normal people can't is disingenuous at best and ludicrous at worst, particularly in the context of an issue that primarily rehashes a hero's oft-repeated backstory.

But what makes this even more galling is the fact that we're talking about Jean Grey, a character who has been dead in regular continuity for over 6 years and whose last words were “all I ever did was die on you.” I don't think the irony is lost on Fialkov — he does, after all, call the story “From the Ashes,” referencing Jean's Phoenix future. All the subtext that I've mentioned here might be entirely intentional. But intentional or not, I find it incredibly frustrating that Marvel would release an issue all about how Jean Grey is going to grow, thrive, and live when, in reality, they seem intent on keeping her in the grave, holding her up on a “dead means dead” pedestal that applies to no other character. This issue, like the X-Men: Origins one-shots (one of which also featured Jean), trades in nostalgia rather than growth, and unlike the forthcoming one-shots about the other “first class” X-Men, it's trade in nostalgia for a character who lacks even the possibility of growth. If Marvel truly wants to cash in on the popularity of Jean Grey, they'd do better to give her a real future, rather than a one-shot that emphasizes the fictitious, and ultimately depressing, possibility for growth.

Pellet review!

 

Hellblazer #276 (Published by Vertigo; Review by Jamie Trecker): I stopped reading Hellblazer about 70 issues ago. The book seemed to be less about the everyday horror that Alan Moore and Jamie Delano made indelible, and more about John Constantine as some sort of tortured superhero for the goth set. The former was unsettling; the latter was unsettling primarily because it made for an awful Keanu Reeves movie. Mercifully, Milligan and Bisley — on the evidence of this issue, at least — seem to have made a conscious decision to return the book to its roots with a nasty little tale of revenge and real estate that’s equal parts O. Henry and Henry Lee Lucas. Bisley’s art seems to have gotten a bit softer round the edges since the days of ABC Warriors and Lobo, but his enviably plastic villain is sharply sweaty and wonderful in the best Bernie Wrightson tradition. Milligan’s brilliant skewering of an overindulgent developer also makes this reviewer wonder if the author has personal experience with this acutely modern strain of slime. It wouldn’t be the first time revenge was served in a literary manner, after all. This book is recommended.

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