Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the rockin' reviewers of the Best Shots Team! We've got a ton of bite-sized reviews for your reading enjoyment, including releases from a look at Fear Itself, the Man of Steel and the return… of Phoenix? And if after you CTRL+F that last statement and finish hyperventilating and/or swearing, we've got a ton of back-issue reviews for your reading pleasure, over at the Best Shots Topic Page. And now, let's let the prologue to hammer time commence, as Aaron Duran checks out the prologue to Fear Itself…
Fear Itself: Book of the Skull (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Aaron Duran; Click here for preview): For almost seven years, the primary stories and events within the Marvel universe have been driven by Brian Michael Bendis and it's been one heck of a run. With Fear Itself, Matt Fraction takes the reigns as the architect of the primary Marvel universe. While Bendis' take on Marvel has been fun, it will be interesting to what Fraction brings to the table. In Fear Itself: Book of the Skull, writer Ed Brubaker kicks off the Marvel event of 2011. Acting as a prologue to Fear Itself, Book of the Skull details how Sin, the insanely evil daughter of the Red Skull, acquires the items that promise to bring down all the heroes of Earth and Asgard. Teaming with Baron Zemo, Sin dives deep into her father's past and we readers get a glimpse into what her father failed to accomplish in his life. Book of the Skull reads a little choppy, though Brubaker's talent for mixing fun dialogue with action shows in the flashback scenes with Captain America, Bucky, and Namor. Scot Eaton's pencils have an exciting vibrancy to them, but his skill really shines when he gets in close with characters. His Namor is intimidating, his Cap is pillar of confidence, and his Sin is down right creepy. Marvel and Matt Fraction have been doing a great job in promoting and getting the reader interested in Fear Itself. So much so that we really don't need a one-shot prologue. Brubaker and Eaton turn in an enjoyable read with Book of the Skull, it just doesn't feel all that necessary.
Superman #709 (Published by DC Comics; Review by David Pepose): Chris Roberson is finally hitting his stride, and while there's a little bit of shakiness to the story logic in this book, he packs in plenty of fan service and characterization that'll charm the pants off of you. Remember how in the very first issue of the JMS run you got that vibe that something was "off" about his characterization of the Man of Steel? Roberson does the exact opposite, kicking off the issue with a really warm exchange with the redesigned Super-Chief. Eddie Barrows, meanwhile, is really improving, as he and Roberson click creatively — there's no more cramped panels, and his composition in both the quiet moments and the super-speed race with the Flash is looking increasingly sharp. But that said, if you're into having water-tight story logic, this story might trip you up — the motivation behind the Flash racing Superman feels a little too goofy (don't put on random headbands you find in craters, Barry!), and I still don't quite get why he kept running away once he got Superman's attention. And the weird thing — although I can't think of a better alternative — is the fact that Roberson has to so overtly say, "ha, just kidding!" to parts of JMS's run. Yet these speed bumps aside, Roberson's getting a stronger handle on Superman's exploits, and this is definitely the best issue he's put out yet.
Avengers Academy #11 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Jennifer Margret Smith; Click here for preview): It’s hard not to sound like a broken record when it comes to reviewing Avengers Academy. Christos Gage is such a consistently good writer that it’s sometimes hard to vocalize new and original praise for his work. Yet what struck me about this particular issue of Avengers Academy was its ability to operate on three different levels: as a showcase for the intricacies of Marvel continuity (the return of Korvac), as a stand-alone story about a new character coming into her own (Veil), and as a feminist treatise on self-empowerment, filtered through three different women (Korvac’s wife Carina, Veil, and the late Janet Van Dyne) at three different times learning to depend on themselves and their own power rather than relying on abusive and/or overprotective male figures for approval. Gage manages to weave these three stories into a seamless, cohesive whole, foregrounding Veil’s narrative while using older Marvel continuity in a way that won’t confuse unfamiliar readers and letting his themes come through in character interaction and plot rather than explicit, heavy-handed narration. Add veteran penciler Tom Raney’s lovely art into the mix (including a stunning two-page splash of various Avengers ready for battle), and you have a comic that fires on all cylinders and continues to be the best Avengers title on the shelves.
Ruse #1 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Scott Cederlund; Click here for preview): Every Holmes has to have his Watson, that assistant who is so integral to the detective process that you have to question who is the real detective and who is the assistant. Mark Waid gets to return to his Holmes and Watson, or in this case his Simon Archard and Emma Bishop, his girl Friday who is identified in the newspapers as “a blond woman was also somehow involved.” Waid keeps the banter between Archard and Bishop quick and witty as these two Victorian characters have to solve the mystery of a murder of an Archbishop. Mirco Pierfederici’s artwork recalls Butch Guice or Michael Lark’s moody naturalism even if the art team does occasionally go overboard with the computer coloring effects. For fans of CrossGen’s original Ruse series, Waid and Perfederici recapture the snappy tone of the series while making this a completely new and original series with no ties to anything that came before.
Xombi #1 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Aaron Duran): When Milestone launched in 1993, it was a breath of fresh air for comic readers that were bored and perhaps a tad insulted with the lack of minorities in the comic medium. But, even with the welcomed diversity, most of the titles and characters from the Milestone universe were traditional, at least in their powers and iconic nature. Save for Xombi; the immortal, nanomachine infused, and nigh indestructible Korean-American hero that dealt with more esoteric events and paranormal villains. It's almost 20 years later and Xombi is back as a part of the return of the Milestone universe with DC proper. Writer John Rozum wastes no time in bringing the readers up to speed with Xombi's abilities and history, while introducing a new threat to the world. Readers that were there for the original run of Xombi will find many familiar faces, with some new cast members to make things interesting. New readers might find themselves a little confused, but Rozum's choice to dive right in keeps the story intriguing and should hook new folks. Artist Frazer Irving has an otherworldly style that really lends itself to Xombi. What Frazer lacks in dynamic action, he more than makes up for with his choice of coloring. Going with single shades of one color per panel only adds to the mystical tone of the book. Xombi isn't a perfect debut and at times feels like it belongs in the Vertigo world. Still, in a sea of capes and cowls, Xombi is exactly what Dwayne McDuffie wanted. Something different.
Invincible Iron Man #502 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by David Pepose; Click here for preview): Matt Fraction is one of those writers who can sometimes falls a little too in love with certain details. When it's about the minutiae of repulsor technology and the future of Stark Resilient, the story starts to drag. But when it's issues like Invincible Iron Man #502, the laser-sharp focus on Tony Stark's personality tics is what makes the book an unexpected treat. In a lot of ways, the high concept — Otto Octavius demanding a cure to his brain damage, or at least Stark admitting he cannot solve everything — isn't going to instantly light the world on fire, but Fraction's execution is what makes it. "I mean — if Spider-Man could take down an unbelievable little clown like you, why even bother?" Doc Ock proves to be a fantastic foil for the patented Stark snark, and the moment where they both bond over their recent head traumas is a clever little bit for continuity hounds. I also have to give Salvador Larroca some serious props here — he's packing in a ton of panels in this book, and it's surprising that it all plays out smoothly. And his design for Tony's secret weapon is absolutely killer. With some slick art balanced out with some really nuanced character exchanges, this issue is an absolute upgrade for Fraction and company.
Adventure Comics #524 (Published by DC Comics; Review by David Pepose; Click here for preview): There are some artists out there who don't feel right unless they're with their home company. Case in point: Phil Jimenez, who never really clicked with Marvel's eclectic characters, but fits right at home with the retro classicism of Adventure Comics. Now, this book is far from perfect — outside of some very surface-level action, I had a pretty tough time trying to figure out where this book was headed — but Jimenez's artwork totally elevates this story to the next level. Hi-Fi's colors just pop off of Jimenez's smooth lines, really giving an energy and easy put-togetherness that many comics just can't match. All that eye candy ultimately bumps up Paul Levitz's story a notch — the characters, while easy to understand, are also a bit of stock archetypes, and the plot is so simple that it might turn off more sophisticated fans while also pushing away newbies. It's easy to look at this book as a stylishly drawn tale of rebellious youth — but a little bit more resonance and complexity to the plot would bring the Legion Academy to the next level.
Iceman and Angel #1 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Jennifer Margret Smith; Click here for preview): This one-shot is everything that fun superhero comics should be. Iceman and Angel, the two most lovably useless members of the original X-Men team, find their spring break visit to New York City interrupted by a rampaging rock monster that no other heroes are around to stop. What follows is a laugh-out-loud adventure full of hijinks, banter, and affectionate mockery, both of the guys themselves and of some of the weirder points of X-Men continuity. Juan Doe’s artwork takes some getting used to, especially when it comes to his stylized faces with chins that would make Frank Quitely look photorealistic, but he draws a mean rock monster and some lovely action scenes. And writer Brian Clevinger is such a gifted humorist that it’s hard, while reading this comic, to stifle the urge to quote every single word balloon at anyone who might care. A page in which Warren scoffs at the practicality of Bobby’s suggestion of “wings made of knives” is particularly hilarious for X-Men fans, but this is the kind of charming, out-of-continuity, one-and-done comic that anyone – X-fan or not, child or adult – would enjoy. Bobby and Warren might not be the most exciting or powerful superheroes, as both the comic and they themselves are well aware, but what they lack in competence they make up in social skills, creativity, and plain old fun. If any of that sounds like something you’d enjoy, Iceman and Angel #1 is the comic for you.
Phoenix #1 (Published by Atlas Comics/Ardden Entertainment; Review by David Pepose): For those keeping score, the newly relaunched Atlas Comics has been 1-1 as far as Team Best Shots is concerned — while Wulf was a decently strong start with an unexpectedly iconic villain, The Grim Ghost proved to be unfocused and just plain sloppy. So where does Phoenix stack up? Somewhere in between — there seems to be a bit stronger of a foundation craft-wise than with Grim Ghost, but at the same time, this story doesn't really quite get very far with either the character or the content. Dean Zachary can be a bit uneven with his work — his characters at the end of the book feel a little disheveled compared to the beginning of the book, and the lack of backgrounds gets a little annoying after awhile — but at the same time, his scratchy lifework combined with Mai's colorwork does give the book some real voice. But the writing — by Brendan Deneen and Jim Krueger — doesn't quite hook me. There seems to be plenty of action, but at the same time, I know nothing about the character of Ed, nor do I know about the circumstances of his capture. This issue is basically, alien kidnap victim escapes from a spaceship until more aliens bust in the door to capture him. With an industry this competitive, you need a little bit more to compel readers.