Best Shots Comic Reviews: ANNIHILATORS, BRIGHTEST DAY, More

DnA Stay Cosmic with ANNIHILATORS

Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the rockin' reviewers of the Best Shots Team. Your crack team of critics has looks at books from Marvel, DC, Vertigo, Dynamite and more! And for some back issue reviews, you better believe we've got you covered over at the Best Shots Topic Page. And now, let's take one small step for Marvel and one giant leap for geek-kind, as Aaron Duran takes to the stars with Annihilators #1

 

Annihilators #1 


Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning 
Art by Tan Eng Huat, Timothy Green II, Victor Olazaba and June Chung

Lettering by Joe Caramagna and Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

Click here for preview

Let's go ahead and address the 500-pound gorilla on the spinner rack. Annihilators #1 clocks in at $4.99. Now before you start grumbling about comic prices, you are getting two complete stories, almost. Annual sized in terms of hard page count, both the Annihilators proper and Rocket Raccoon segments are each only turning in a partial story. Dropping five bucks isn't so bad in the long run if you feel like you're getting your monies worth of entertainment. For almost six years, Abnett and Lanning have done just that. Picking up immediately after “The Thanos Imperative”, we're dropped into the single greatest collection of space heroes the world of comics has ever know. And don't forget, you also get Rocket Raccoon doing his best Office Space moments whilst fighting an evil space clown. (Is there any other kind)? With all that in store, maybe $4.99 isn't so bad. But it could be better.

Annihilators starts with a couple of panels setting up a mysterious and powerful villain, Doctor Dredd, then immediately cuts to Quasar. He's staring at his team of cosmic heavy hitters and immediately thinks, “I have my doubts”. Coming off the high of re-reading The Thanos Imperative, I had my doubts too. I expected the same level of excitement Abnett and Lanning usually deliver. What I got was Cosmo, Quasar, Ronan, Kallark, Silver Surfer, and Beta Ray Bill all wondering if their team was even a good idea.

Part of what made Annihilation, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Thanos Imperative so much flarking fun was the seemingly endless enthusiasm the creators had for the characters and the events. With Annihilation, there was a genuine sense that the Marvel Universe was in some serious trouble. In Annihilators, well, things might not be that bad. With Guardians of the Galaxy, it was a blast to read about these galactic misfits trying to keep everything together. In Annihilators, everyone just feels tired, like they don't really want to be there anymore. Even the introduction of Ikon, a Space Knight from Marvels obscure toy past, isn't enough to raise the excitement.

That isn't to say the Annihilators #1 isn't without it's merits. Abnett and Lanning know these characters and the banter between them truly shows. While not their strongest debut issue by a long shot, reading Ronan's rather adolescent complaints of “you will show respect or...” just as Ikon hands him his hammer makes you chuckle. Even though I enjoy reading Beta Ray Bill's Asgardian chivalry as he tries to talk down the rather aggro Space Knight, I'm reminded I dropped $4.99 for this book. I need something to happen. This isn't an issue of New Avengers where I'm used to characters sitting at a table and bantering for five or six pages. I need something to explode, or crash into a planet or something.

Still, the real star of this book is that hard-talking former member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket Raccoon! Lamenting the loss of his responsibilities and friends, Rocket's become a lowly mail-call clerk at Timely, Inc. The Rocket Raccoon back-up is the real saving grace in Annihilators #1. Even delivering mail to various cubicles turns into a chance to show off quick one-liners and bleeped out vulgarities as poor Rocket hands out the memos and TPS reports. The Rocket Raccoon feature is an unbridled action scene played out in the four-color format. Timothy Green's art in the Rocket feature is simply a joy to look at. This is an artist having all kinds of fun with his bizarre office aliens and Rocket's reaction to them. By the time that killer clown shows up and Rocket whips around with a couple of Swingline staplers and goes all John Woo, you can't wipe the grin off your face.

The same cannot be said for Tan Eng Huat's art in the Annihilators story proper. That isn't to say Tan's art isn't good. He gets the story done, and were this any other book I might be more forgiving. Alas, his pencils lack the energy and excitement I've come to expect from Marvel's recent cosmic books. There is some potential in Tan's art, and given time he'll hopefully improve.

"Hopefully improve." That's the problem with Annihilators #1. I went into this comic expecting pure genius — an expectation that is not without precedent, considering what came before this issue. What I got was not bad, but when you're dropping $4.99, "not bad" isn't enough. Save the woefully short Rocket Raccoon back-up story, which really does feel like it deserves it own title, Annihilators #1 is simply okay, with room for improvement. Hopefully it improves fast, because even with Horse Thor and a foul-mouthed raccoon, five bucks is a lot to swallow.

 

Brightest Day #21

Written by Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi

Art by Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, Joe Prado, Mark Irwin, Keith Champagne, Norm Rapmund, Christian Alamy, Peter Steigerwald and Nathan Eyring

Lettering by Rob Clark, Jr.

Published by DC Comics

Review by Jamie Trecker

Click here for preview

Once upon a time, a single company’s “big event” comics sold millions of units. These particular comic books featured interchangeable men and women in impossibly revealing costumes, laughable headgear, and dialogue so stilted it wouldn’t have made the first draft for an episode of “General Hospital.” But, the books sold like mad, and it wasn’t until folks started taking these titles out of their polybags and actually reading them that the whole thing fell apart. I am speaking of course, about X-Force and X-Men, two books that set sales records in the 1990s. They were popular, flashily drawn — and also incomprehensible.

Today, a comic book is considered successful if it sells 30,000 units, and some very good books from major publishers can’t even break 5,000 units. So, I cannot blame DC for wistfully looking back at the days of Liefeld and Lee — which is exactly what they are doing with their year-long “Brightest Day” storyline. Just as X-Force and X-Men were then, the flagship Brightest Day book is well drawn and well colored. It's also just as painful to read. In fact, despite strong sales figures, it is perhaps the worst big-name "marquee" comic book on the stands today. Or at the very least, one of the most disappointing.

The overarching year-long storyline has focused on what most people would consider B- or C-list characters, and the general premise that that a series of heroes, revived by the light of a mysterious White Lantern, have a second chance at life — and some very difficult decisions to make. This particular issue, third from the end, sees Martian Manhunter breaking free of a toxic relationship on Mars, as well as assorted heroes dealing with the apparent death of Aquaman.

To start off with at least one positive note — the artwork is compelling. The best man on the title is Ivan Reis a neo-realist with a taut, sharp line. I suspect he spent a great deal of time devouring Dick Giordano and Neal Adams’ works as a kid, to our benefit. Patrick Gleason's work is a bit blobby for my taste, but I credit him for making the villain electric, all teeth and sinew.

But the art is definitely let down by the writing. As has been the case all series long, this book’s dialogue is loud, thoughtless — and at times, even unintentionally hilarious. Some examples from the current issue:

— Martian Manhunter, in what is supposed to be a climactic moment, says: “Consider your telepathic control of me over! I have shredded your veil of lies, D’kay!” (D’Kay, a poorly named character even for comics, rebuts with: “Is the baby I’m carrying inside me a fantasy too?”)

— Hawk, apparently channeling Chicago tough guys: “Is Deadman gonna be gunnin’ for me too? … God, you’re gonna make me barf.”

— The White Lantern, which is supposedly god-like in its powers, also speaks like a mid-80s video game, saying things like: “Life returned;” and “Your sense of devotion and duty is now pure and singular in purpose.”

Gonna make me barf, indeed.

I wish I could tell you more about the plot. I can follow the twists and turns of Charles Dickens, but I cannot make heads or tails of what is going on in this book. I don’t mind continuity-heavy books — I happen to admire DC’s recent Legion series — but this book is opaque to me. I was baffled to see Martian Manhunter, a truly ingenious creation of 1950s paranoia, wrestle with grotesqueries while spouting nonsense. After awhile, it gets to the point where action and mystery has been replaced with just bloody confusion.

That ubiquitous violence troubled me after awhile. On the very first page of this issue, we are “treated” to a close-up of Aquaman’s severed hand. Why is this stuff appearing in a book that is, at least in theory, supposed to be suitable for all ages? I don’t know — it just felt sleazy. I couldn’t give this title to the kids on my block in good conscience, and I suspect that a number of retailers out there would silently agree with me.

Unfortunately, at least for those of us who like a good read, this book is selling — as did a lot of the mid-90s Marvel schlock. That means we may be condemned to more books like this. It doesn’t have to be this way: DC was, after all, the company that published 52, which is rightly admired as a deep-continuity book done the right way. Brightest Day could have been the book its creators initially promised: a book about second-tier heroes and second chances. I would have enjoyed reading that book, but it never made the stands. This title is neither daring nor fun — it’s ugly and depressing.

 

Ultimate Captain America #3

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by Ron Garney, Jason Keith and Matt Milla

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

The best kinds of Captain America stories are the ones that examine Steve Rogers' relationship with the American Dream. Whether it was a disavowed Cap putting aside his differences to rescue Ronald Reagan or seeing the Star-Spangled Avenger react to 9/11, there's a lot of allegory that still remains untapped. And while I feel that the first two chapters of Ultimate Captain America went a little slow, this third installment finally brings the goods. U.S. history has never been as cut-and-dry as many would like you to believe — so what happens when Captain America is confronted with the living embodiment of the U.S.'s mistakes?

In that regard, Jason Aaron makes the character of Nuke more interesting than he's ever been. How do you break Captain America? You don't just torture him physically — you lord over everything he's missed in six decades of suspended animation. "I have never betrayed the United States of America," he says. "It was the federal government that betrayed me. Who used me as their thug, to try and remake the world in their image." Kent State, Nicaragua, Darfur — it might have taken a few issues to do so, but Aaron brings up a legitimate question: Captain America might be a hero, but does the country he represents even deserve him?

This question really helps influence the structure of this issue, which is about as tight of a 22 pages as I've seen in a long while. It's almost surprising how enthralling it is, even as Cap is getting tortured through most of it. The reason why? There are two very defined perspectives in this book — and in particular, Steve's stubbornness really is a nice riff off of Mark Millar's Ultimates — and it's really refreshing to see these men clash. Nuke is no longer just a two-dimensional druggie, but, in a lot of ways, disillusioned by war and deranged with his isolation. And perhaps even scarier — Nuke really does feel like a reflection of Steve, the terrible "what if" that could happen if Steve's cynicism outweighed his sense of duty.

Artwise, Ron Garney is — well, he's hard to describe. When he's on, he's absolutely on — but on the few pages he isn't, it's definitely apparent. Closer to the end of the book — such as when Nuke is stabbing a captured S.H.I.E.L.D. agent — looks a little rougher, a little sketchier, and a sequence with some Super-Soldier-Serum-empowered villagers did take a couple of rereads to recognize. But outside of these late-game hiccups, Garney does know how to bring it with his sense of layout and composition — the look in Cap's eyes are so intense it's scary, and he really works well with Aaron's stop-and-go pacing, punctuating these scenes with bursts of speed and power. Jason Keith and Matt Milla really makes the colors on this book pop, as well, particularly with a scene of Nuke questioning himself as he pops a red — that looks otherworldly, almost like Richard Isanove.

This third issue of Ultimate Captain America, put simply, is a huge leap in quality over the previous two issues — which, while a little slow, weren't that shabby themselves. But with some really striking visuals propping up a particularly dangerous war of ideas — no, a war of ideals — this is a single issue that really stands at the top from this week's stack. This is set-up that is really excellent, and definitely makes me want to see how Ultimate Captain America wraps up.

 

Joe the Barbarian #8

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Sean Murphy and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by Vertigo

Review by Scott Cederlund

Our stories are very important to Grant Morrison. From the moment in Animal Man, when Buddy Baker looked up, out of the page and into the face of the reader, proclaiming, "I can see you," the lines between fiction and reality have been blurred. It's the way that words were used as drugs and weapons in The Invisibles or the way that the Phoenix could wipe out a diseased storyline at the end of his New X-Men run; words and stories have power. And now, it's the central concept of Joe the Barbarian #8, where a sick boy can be the champion in the real world that he imagines himself to be in a fantasy world.

Joe the Barbarian #8 concludes Morrison and artist Sean Murphy's story about a boy, sick and alone in his house, finding his strength and courage in a world populated by his pet rat and his toys. For Morrison, it's a fairly straightforward and simple ending as Joe's struggles have one final time of mirroring themselves before the more important reality asserts itself and Joe finds the answers and strength he has been looking for.

Sean Murphy confidently moves between the fantasy and the real. Too often, artists don't seem to know how literally to take Morrison's stories and try to emphasize the wackiness over the heart of Morrison's scripts. Too many Morrison stories are sabotaged by too literal-minded artists. Murphy captures the soul of Joe and of Morrison's story, keeping the unreal and the real as concrete as possible. This is all real to Joe, as his illness works in his mind, and it has to be real to us, as we read the story and want to help Joe, whether it's defeating death in the fantastical realm or getting him a candy bar to deal with his low blood sugar.

Exploring how we interact with our fantasies is nothing new for Morrison. In fact, you can look at Joe The Barbarian as the third part of a trilogy, following up on Flex Mentallo and The Filth. Over the past 15 years, Morrison has kept coming back to this idea of our stories, our fictions and our heroes invading our world. In these stories, it’s not so much the journey that Morrison took the reader on but the destination where he usually left the ending ambiguous enough to leave it open for interpretation; the reader has to be involved in the ending of Flex Mentallo or The Filth to dive into it and almost come to their own conclusion of Morrison’s story. For Joe the Barbarian #8, Morrison gives a very clear-cut ending and it’s far less satisfying than either of its predecessors.

Joe the Barbarian #8 has a made-for-movie ending. It’s an ending we’ve seen so many times before that it may as well end “and they lived happily ever after.” It’s not an inappropriate ending for this series but it is an oddly concrete and standard ending for one of Morrison’s stories. Joe the Barbarian was a very sweet, innocent tale and its ending supports those characteristics by producing a very sweet, innocent and heart-tugging final page where Joe the Barbarian becomes Joe the Hero. There’s no challenge or defiance in the ending like Morrison usually has. The story ends and it’s just time to move on to the next book.

Grant Morrison’s endings are about the nature of stories. He writes about how we exist within our stories and how they change the ways we look at other stories or even the world around us. It’s the way that every Batman story ever told can be in continuity or the way that The Invisibles become an inhale-able game to get their subversive message out to the masses. His endings can often be seen more as a new beginning or a new chance to examine everything that you see, touch, smell or experience. The end of his stories often lead you right back to the beginning with new keys to understand what you are going to read again. Joe the Barbarian #8 showed signs of being that kind of Morrison conclusion, but pulled out an easy and un-challenging ending. It’s sweet, but ultimately not as memorable as it could have been.

 

Secret Six #31

Written by Gail Simone

Art by Jim Calafiore and John Kalisz

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

With the black comedy that's gone to define Secret Six, you might be forgiven if you thought that's all Gail Simone could offer these days. I'll be the first to admit, I thought that Simone was starting to rest on her laurels with this series, rattling off Ragdoll joke after Ragdoll joke, and no one would say anything. But thankfully, Secret Six #31 shows that this book isn't just jokes — there's the potential for some real emotion here, reminding us that this team is more dangerous than the gags necessarily let on.

For those who haven't read previous issues of this book — and to be honest, you don't need to know that much — this issue follows up on last year's arc, which had the Six competing for a literal "Get Out of Hell Free" card. With Scandal Savage feeling compelled to rescue her former lover Knockout from the underworld, Simone finally gets serious with this story — what would you do if you could bring somebody back from the dead?

That question really brings out the worst in the Secret Six — and I mean that in the best way possible. If you thought Ragdoll was a great character because he's a comedic foil, Simone proves that that's not the only thing that makes this guy tick. "You're one of those… one of those enemies who think I'm adorable, and not a threat to be measured most carefully," Ragdoll says, a horrifying look on his face. "Do you know how many of those people are corpses right now, Scandal Savage?" This is an exercise in using continuity as leverage, to really bring up these moments as characterization rather than homework.

Jim Calafiore excels the most at these cathartic moments, rather than necessarily the moments in costume or where Simone is building up the fires of Hell. There's some real rage in his expressions, those sharp lines turning into some really scary shouts and gritted teeth. Sometimes, of course, it doesn't quite hit — seeing the characters in costume in a shopping mall, for example, doesn't quite grab you. John Kalisz, meanwhile, really makes Hell pop off the page — the last page in particular bleeds red, giving Claire’s design work an extremely malicious edge.

The fact that Simone is able to "turn off" the humor in this issue is proof that there is more to her writing than I think she lets on. It's easy to sit back and coast with "what works," particularly when the industry is hemorrhaging readers. But as far as the artistic vibe, variety is the spice of life, and as I've said in the past, that's the secret to Secret Six — you can tell a lot of different stories with this cast of characters. And I, for one, am really glad to see Simone stretch herself in this issue.

 

Captain America and the Falcon #1

Written by Rob Williams

Art by Rebekah Isaacs and Andrew Dalhouse

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jennifer Margret Smith

Click here for preview

In 1969, Sam Wilson made his debut in Marvel Comics as the Falcon, the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics. Originally a tool of the Red Skull used to infiltrate Captain America's inner circle, he later shook off the control and became Captain America's partner, co-headlining the title then known as Captain America and the Falcon for almost 90 issues. Given the times and the fact that Marvel comics were written almost exclusively by white men, his appearances were not unproblematic, and the portrayal of Black Power politics was particularly suspect. But he was, overall, a strong, competent hero, and would continue to be for decades to come.

Then, in 1975, Steve Englehart ended his run on the title with a retcon of Sam's backstory. Though Sam had always been portrayed as a morally-upstanding preacher's son and social worker from Harlem with an affinity for birds, this retcon introduced his past as “Snap” Wilson, a criminal/gang member/possible pimp. Suddenly, his worthiness to stand next to Captain America was in question, and though in the end the comics showed that Sam had renounced that past and become a better man, it still hung over his head.

Since then, and especially in recent years, writers have studiously tried to ignore this highly problematic retcon. Turning the first – and, to this day, one of the only – African-American superheroes into a thug was troubling and completely unnecessary, and most modern writers have acknowledged this fact. So imagine my surprise upon discovering that this month's Captain America and the Falcon one-shot, written by British scribe Rob Williams, centered almost entirely on Sam's “Snap” backstory, introducing a whole generation of newer readers to a story that should have been left behind permanently.

This reintroduction of the “Snap” history might have been somewhat justifiable if used in the service of a thoughtful story interrogating racism, both personal and institutional. But however well-intentioned this issue may be, with a sympathetic look at Harlem and its denizens through Sam's revisiting eyes, Williams ultimately weaves a tale about choice, free will, and personal responsibility, indicating that hard work and positive choices are the only things black children need to escape the ghetto. The explicit message is that, since Sam was able to escape his criminal past and become a superhero, so can everyone else in that neighborhood. But as sunny and heartwarming as this message might be, it completely ignores institutional racism and the culture of poverty that combine to keep these children in untenable situations and make leaving them next to impossible. And it's downright disingenuous to pretend that children of color can grow up to be whatever they want to be when the number of heroes of color in superhero comics remains tiny and always secondary to the plethora of white heroes – and when even the very first African-American hero continues to be depicted as a former criminal.

This issue does have its high points. Rebekah Isaacs' art is lovely, particularly her rendering of Sam in flight, and I hope she continues to get plenty of work from Marvel. An early sequence depicting a fight between the Avengers and the Grey Gargoyle is well choreographed and a great example of old-fashioned, wittily written superhero fun. And the reprint in the back, of the second half of Gary Friedrich's Captain America and the Falcon #144, is a perfect (and at times unintentionally hilarious) glimpse into the Falcon's portrayal in the early 1970s, complete with painfully “hip” dialogue and Steve Rogers' borderline-creepy issues with codependency. But I would have expected the comic published in 2011 to be an improvement by leaps and bounds from ham-handed 1970s “relevance,” and its failure to accomplish that goal is a disappointment both to current fans of the character and to all the new fans this issue might otherwise have garnered him.

 

Green Lantern #63

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Ed Benes, Adrian Syaf, Rob Hunter, Vicente Cifuentes and Randy Mayor

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

There’s a fascinating question that’s echoed a couple of times in Green Lantern #63, “When’s the last time you took the ring off, Hal?” There’s potentially a great story there about a hero who has let his friends, teammates and the universe down once before now trying to make up and atone for past sins. Honestly, it’s a story I would have liked to read in this issue instead of getting the usual multi-colored ring bearers and more mysteries involving the past of the Guardians of Oa.

Johns continues his unrelenting march onto the latest and greatest Green Lantern story. It started with Rebirth and nicely built into the Sinestro Corps storyline. From there, the book was directed and focused on getting to Blackest Night. The ending of Blackest Night and the follow-up stories have been a straight line to the newest mega-story, War of the Green Lanterns. The question of when Hal last took of the ring is valid because as Johns has been writing the book, the last couple of years have been about Green, Red, Yellow and Purple lanterns and have only featured Hal Jordan in a few panels. Even in this issue, Hal Jordan is relegated to a supporting character in a book with no lead characters.

So, how long has it been since Hal Jordan hasn’t worn the ring? It’s a question worth asking and Johns almost fits in a nice moment between Hal Jordan and his purple-ring wearing lover Carol Ferris. In the few moments of this issue that aren’t plot building, we get to see Hal wondering about this and looking forward to getting back to his life but it’s only a brief 5-panel sequence that gets railroaded by the plot, prophesies and secrets of the universe, as if we haven’t had enough of those things in the past 5 years.

Ed Benes and Adrian Syaf split the artwork. Benes mostly handles the past sequences, featuring the Guardians and Krona’s history while Syaf handles the present day story of Hal Jordan and the other colorful ringslingers. It’s a bit disappointing not to have Doug Mahnke’s usually excellent artwork but both artists keep the story moving along. Syaf particularly has some fantastic panels, capturing the heroic nature of Green Lantern. It will be exciting to watch him as he continues to develop and learn how to tell stories about super heroes.

Green Lantern #63 treads along at the same pace it has since the days of the Sinestro Corps War. In other words, it’s barreling along headfirst into yet another event storyline. That seems to be all that Geoff Johns knows how to do anymore. There is no pausing or moments of reflection in Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern. There are no characters anymore; just rings and the people that they wear.

 

Warlord of Mars #4

Written by Arvid Nelson

Art by Lui Antonio and Adriano Lucas

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Review by Shanna VanVolt

This is not Warlord of Mars, but it is Edgar Rice Burroughs. These first issues capture scenes from A Princess of Mars, one of Burroughs’ first serials in All-Story Magazine. Collected, Princess became the first of eleven books in the “Barsoom Series” (Warlord of Mars was the third). Trivial naming details aside, Dynamite has rescued these pulp gems from history and collectors’ shelves and made true on their promise to “enhance” the series for a broader audience. 

Warlord of Mars #4 takes place at a critical moment in Burroughs’ first book: a point when John Carter is making sense of his new world, his new four-armed, green-men companions — and steals his first glimpse of their princess, Dejah Thoris.

They say the mark of a good Shakespearean actor is one that can speak the exact Elizabethan text on stage in a way that retains its relevance to a modern audience. Edgar Rice Burroughs is not Shakespeare, but Burroughs achieved great things for a pulp writer: he set out to write just enough crap to feed his family, and ended up renowned for literature. It is to Arvid Nelson’s credit that it is hard to tell where, if anywhere, Burroughs’ words leave off and Nelson’s begin in this book.

In fact, much of the text is straight out of the books, and ERB’s existing serialization lends the stories easily to the comic format; but I do not mention this to diminish the skill with which Dynamite is presenting it. Nelson is abridging and directing the plot more than he is writing it but the product is properly nuanced, intensifying the experience of ERB’s dry wit. It had me returning to my own dusty copies of Burroughs’ pulps with joy.

Case in point: In this issue, Carter remarks that he did not know if an enemy fleet knew of their presence. The next panel, filled with explosions and heavy artillery is captioned only by: “They learned of our presence soon enough.” In the original book, for lack of visuals, Carter narrates: “in any event, they received a rude reception.” Both statements are tongue-in-cheek understatements of the Rebel fighter turned accidental interplanetary traveler. Nelson adapts this tone well, using the graphic medium to expand the interplay between the stoic narrator and the fanciful brutal Martian things that are happening to him and around him.

Lui Antonio’s art assists in enhancing the actions surrounding Carter. His Martian cityscapes are ethereal, merging Aztec structures with 1920s Futurism. His monsters and aliens are compellingly fearsome; this issue jumps right in with battle of epic proportion involving our hero and a large white four-armed ape. His Thorks (the green men) pay homage to the 1970s Marvel books John Carter, Warlord of Mars, but are beefier and more mongoloid than their predecessors. Antonio is particularly strong with Carter’s dog-like Martian companion; it comes off as both grotesque and adorable, stealing panels with an array of dumb-dog expressions plastered on a bloated insect-like chassis.

My only disappointment lies in the depiction of Carter himself. Antonio delivers a John Carter who looks like he just stepped off the pages of a male underwear advertisement. When ERB started writing these stories, he was a failed pencil sharpener salesman with a wife and two kids. His own fierce desperation and grit naturally seeps into his narrator. Burroughs does describe him has handsome and well built, but Carter had just lost a war and was often placed in dire circumstances from which he never fled. Antonio’s Carter looks more like doe-eyed member of a boy-band with a personal trainer than a war-trained fighter with fire in those steel-grey eyes.

It’s a minor thing to be too pretty of course, and should Nelson and Antonio continue to hew the course, there is plenty of complexity coming in Carter’s future. Dynamite seems to know it has a solid thing going: next week they will release Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris, a spin-off that tells of the years before the Princess and Carter met. That was a period and a subject Burroughs never wrote about, and it will test Nelson’s mettle. I hope he and the book continue to succeed, for there is a whole lot more yet to see of Barsoom.

 

Takio OGN

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Michael Avon Oeming and Nick Filardi

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

You'd think with their relatability and style, having Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming collaborating on a Big Two, all-ages OGN would be an easy slam-dunk. Yet, somehow, Takio manages to be less than the sum of its parts. Telling the story of a teenage girl, and her young sister, who gain "kung-fu telekinesis" through some kind of freak energy accident, Takio aims to be a rags-to-riches superhero story for the manga generation. However, in its attempts to appeal to a younger audience, Takio makes the cardinal mistake for "all-ages" books: it treats its readers like kids. It's clear that Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming are reaching for a "Spider-Man" like element of fan recognition and relatability, but Takio lingers too long on moments that don't endear the reader to the characters, while glossing over opportunities to do just that.

Takio moves quickly, and still drags. Three pages of somewhat more puerile humor than I expect from Bendis sets the stage right off the bat; what could've been an immediate opportunity to meet our two main characters, Taki, and her younger sister Olivia, is instead a scene where they are immediately reduced to "annoying kid sister," and "long-suffering older sibling." Bendis proved with "Ultimate Spider-Man" that he can write believable teenagers and children — so why does he strip these girls of anything besides their expected roles at his first opportunity? It's okay to linger on archetypes, but this barely even establishes the basis of their relationship. Little else is revealed about Taki and Olivia for the large part of the book, save for a scene close to the end when Taki and Olivia discus the death of their father, and the fact that Taki is adopted, but really, these seem like afterthoughts.

The book really starts to lose momentum after the kids gain their powers. The rest of the book is divided between scenes of Olivia and Taki arguing about what should be done about their newly discovered super-powers, granted by the energy blast, and some token moments wherein they discover what it is they can actually do. The book climaxes as their friend Kelly Sue's father and his goons try to capture the girls, setting the stage for an inevitable confrontation between an also-super-powered Kelly Sue, and Taki. And that's really the sticky wicket; there are no real surprises here. No twists, no turns, no hook that sets Takio apart from any other story of a young person given great power. The premise that these girls are sisters who don't necessarily get along, and yet must stick together to ensure their safety is promising, but it's not enough to sell the book on its own.

The main characters themselves are very insular, relying on supporting cast only when it serves to briefly illustrate a point that's already been made, or to function as a one-off device for a particular plot-point. The fact that Taki, Olivia, Kelly Sue, and her father (who is never even named) are all incidental to the purpose they serve in the story only puts a finer point on the lack of meaningful interaction in the book. With books like the "Harry Potter" series, "Percy Jackson," and even the "Twilight" series dominating the youth market, it's clear that children can handle large casts, high concepts, and moments of gravity. In fact, they may be even more receptive to these things than an older audience. Takio simply never challenges anyone, even a young child, to imagine themselves in the story, to feel out the characters, or to inhabit the situation.

Bendis and Oeming both just seem uncomfortable with what they aim to do. Oeming's style is markedly different on this title, all but eschewing his strong sense of blacks, and his simplified take on the human form, for an almost impressionistic and cartoony aesthetic that never quite hits its mark. It's too warped to be childish, and too childish to be experimental. Takio works as a love letter to Bendis's daughter, Olivia, and her real-life adopted sister, Taki, but it may have been better served as a bedtime story told between father and daughters. Bendis seems lost without his sense of irony, and the moments where he allows it to poke through are almost too adult. It definitely comes across as an inability to speak to children without speaking down to them. He never strikes the balance between making a child feel like an adult, and making an adult feel like a child. It seems as though he's hesitant to give his intended audience the credit of understanding and relating to characters beyond their intended story function, when what really kills this book is the lack of relatability between the reader and the page.

Takio almost seems like a pitch for a cartoon series, and in that sense, it may have worked better, There's a lot more breathing room in an hour of television than there is in even 90-odd pages of a comic. The bathroom humor, the lack of nuance to the characters, and even the shallow plot may have played out more cohesively with a better visual flair, or a better sense of pace. The point remains, however, that there's little to latch onto in this title. Kids need some substance, and some sort of hook beyond costumes and fart jokes to bring them back for more. With the popularity of shows like "Ben 10," "Avatar: The Last Airbender," and even "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" hitting right in this book's wheelhouse, kids are clearly drawn to a narrative that appeals to their sense of fantasy without pandering to their age group. Bendis's usual strong point is the way his characters interact, and his ability to give the reader insight into their world, and their relationships. He simply doesn't allow that to come through in this title, perhaps because he's unsure of what a kid could understand, or perhaps simply how to relate to them in a general sense. Either way, Takio suffers from an execution that undermines its desired intent. What could still be a promising concept falters under the weight of a generic approach, and the sense of what might've been had the creators only let it happen naturally.

 

Styx & Stone #1-3

Written by Adam Gregg and Darren G. Davis

Art by Stefano Cardoselli, Matias Balsa, Willie Jiminez and Balsa

Lettering by Jaymes Reed

Published by Bluewater Comics

Review by Shanna VanVolt

Bluewater Comics’ main draw is biographical and political comics that capitalize on cultural icons. They make most of their money on comics about Betty White and Justin Bieber and, to their credit, use that money to release comics that are on the fringe. I was initially drawn to this book because it promised an edgy noir story that was decidedly away from the mainstream. I found instead that the art, dialogue, and production on Styx & Stone just leaves the reader on edge.

I am all for free form layouts and dark overtones. Cardoselli's art, however, pushes the book a little too far into the shadows. There is so much grime and black ink on the pages, I felt like I could've used Windex and a squeegee to figure out what was happening in some panels. Literalism and legibility aside, I grant that at points there is an anarchist feel, with smears of ink invoking the grisly murders that are taking place in the plot.

In the first issue, Balsa lends his pen, to the book’s vast benefit. These first few Balsa-governed pages are well laid-out, thoughtful, engrossing, and genuinely creepy. His depictions are not pretty—nothing in this book is — but they have good shadow and depth. Cardoselli, bizarrely taking over halfway through the issue, goes a different direction — he apparently has an aversion to straight lines. Bluntly, the book would greatly benefit from a stricter layout. Many of the pages that could have straightforward narratives are chopped up into inexplicable rhombus and trapezoid shapes against a border background of what looks to be broadcast static. Instead of heightening mystery and suspense, sucking in the reader, these irregular borders seem to keep the reader from engaging in the story.

The story, however, is relatively engaging. Stone talks too much and has too much inner turmoil for a pulpy noir detective, but it works. Add in Stone's own inner demon — which, frankly is just weird and left unexplained —and the story does work in a way that should be familiar to fans of popular cop shows.

But the writers don’t seem to know when to stop. There’s a dash of Egyptian mysticism, a pinch of a love story, and a hunger for smut sprinkled on top of too many storylines. The effect is that the pacing suffers from too many words, and too many digressions.

This review was based on copies provided by Bluewater. Unless these were galley copies, it is fair to point out that there is also sloppiness everywhere. “Semen” is not spelled “seman;” (issue #1) it’s “cleaned for prints,” not “cleared;” (#2) words are dropped (issue #2 is missing the word “be” on the second to last page) and the continuity is atrocious in every issue. The most egregious example is that in issue #2 characters are ambushed while sitting at a bar in the cliffhanger, then find themselves in #3 defending themselves on a sidewalk.

I actually had high hopes for Styx & Stone — I’d love to see a pulpy noir mess. That said, the book isn’t hopeless. If the Bluewater crew gave the art a once-over with a Brillo Pad, ironed out the storyline and edited it, the foundation is there. This could be a book about a gruesomely haunting mystery-busting team that is, like the mythical river in its name, a bridge between life and death. If the series does not gain a little more clarity, a reference from the other Styx will be more appropriate. I quote the band: “Hangman coming down from the gallows, and it won't be very long.”

Pellet review!

 

Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth #1 (Published by Dark Horse; Review by Lan Pitts): I am still not quite sure what I read here. I just know it was pretty damn fun. Then again, what does one really expect from the imagination of a 6 year old? I've heard ramblings of this comic for a while but never really investigated it on my own. After finding it online and going through the archive all I can say is God bless comics. In a transition from the web to actual mini-series, we get more of the same randomness and weirdness that fans of the series have come to love. We have Axe Cop and Dinosaur Soldier out on a mission to save the Earth from a Bad Guy planet that is about to collide with the planet. Along the way we encounter brainless chickens, gun fights, rocket cars, Good Guy Machines, a professor with a unicorn, and so, so much more. The fact that the artist and letterer are in on the absurdness just heightens the overall experience. There were some pages where I laughed so hard I had to move away from the book for a minute just so I could recompose myself. Malachi Nicolle is, to my knowledge, the youngest comic writer out there and I hope his imagination never gets too old for him. I feel the best way to describe this book is that it just shouldn't be read, but it should be enjoyed. And not just by fans of the series, just by about anybody that can pick up a book and read.

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