Best Shots Reviews: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, THUNDER AGENTS, More

Dan Slott on All Things SPIDER-MAN

 

Amazing Spider-Man #656

Written by Dan Slott

Art by Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Teresa Jusino

Spider-Man has never been more interesting than it is right now. In the aftermath of Marla Jameson’s death, all of Peter Parker’s newfound self-esteem and strength is being put to the test to remarkable effect. The title of this issue, “Resolve,” is appropriate not just because of Spidey’s resolve to not allow anyone to die when he’s around, but because of J. Jonah Jameson’s resolve as mayor to have zero tolerance for murderers in the city. That juxtaposition between two men who each understand what it means to have lost so much is heartbreaking. What makes the story even more heartbreaking is the nostalgic quality of the artwork. It’s similar in style to the comic book art of decades ago, lending the story an air of innocence at a point when both Spider-Man and JJJ are at their most cynical.

ASM’s success is in the details. What would Spider-Man do without the use of his “spidey sense?” Answer: he’d have to use his brains, which has been his true strength all along, and is thankfully getting more of a focus these days. Having him work somewhere like Horizon Labs opens up storytelling that can be so much more complex. So he doesn’t have spidey sense. So, what? He’ll create something that he probably should have created long ago: a bulletproof Spidey suit. Using a villain that is a true sociopath, who can’t be reasoned with and has no ulterior motive, was a great move, because it forces Spider-Man to truly test who he is, and even in the face of that, Spidey is someone who will not kill on purpose. When he makes the resolution that “no one dies,” he means even the criminals. The thing is, Jameson isn’t made out to be a villain for feeling the opposite way, for wanting criminals like Massacre to die. They are set up merely as two different, yet valid, ways of seeing the world. However, Spidey is the hero because of the two, he chooses the one that’s more difficult. However, this is after Peter Parker is called on his crap, after he attempts to reprimand his Horizon coworkers for talking about “trivial” things after the city’s recent tragedies. Sajani reminds him that “maybe that’s how some of us deal.” She also brings up the fact that it isn’t like he gets worked up over every death he hears about, certainly not the deaths in remote places where people might not have the same skin color as he does. Peter gets the message about not taking his own grief out on others, then employs it later. It’s a lot easier to lash out than to forgive, but doing the harder job is what makes heroes. It is here that ASM stops being “just a superhero comic” and becomes something that might actually have something to teach us about the way we live our lives.

The truly miraculous thing about the title these days is that, despite feeling responsible for someone’s death, Peter doesn’t feel weighted down by angst, merely a resolve (there’s that word again) to do better, try harder, and hold fast to his hope. This might have been a character trait of Peter Parker all along, but after the events of Big Time, this resolve feels more like the conscious decision of a man rather than the naive hope of a teenager. Spider-Man feels like a mature adult, and this title is all the better for it.

 

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5

Written by Nick Spencer

Art by Cafu, Bit, Ryan Sook and Santiago Arcas

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Jamie Trecker

Nick Spencer is the new “it boy” of comics, with the well-regarded Morning Glories and Jimmy Olsen already under his belt. Sadly, since he signed an exclusive with Marvel last week, the book under review is likely not long for this world. This is either tragic or ironic.

The original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was part of a brilliant and doomed line published by Tower Comics. Overseen by Wally Wood, it is rightly prized for having some of the most gorgeous art in 1960s comics. Unfortunately, Mr. Wood had several substance abuse issues, and this, combined with erratic financial backing, doomed this line of books to an untimely end. And that would be it if not for the fact that there’s something about this series that has inspired fanatic devotion. This is just the latest attempt to revive T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents: the book has seen several different publishers and rights-holders, and endured a number of fits and false starts since the 1970s.

Now, with Spencer jumping to DC’s bitterest rival — and the fact that despite admiring reviews, this book ain’t selling like hotcakes — the end could be near. And I have to tell you that that would be a shame.

Simply, his work on this book is quality, and it is a standout from a company that of late is showing a lot of editorial holes. Instead of the forced, unfunny palaver all too common in modern literature, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents actually has true wit. It also has real, three-dimensional characters, and has meaningful action instead of trite superhero slugfests. Spencer has also made a particularly dark gamble on his readers. The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents are actually powerless; it’s the suits they don that carry all the juice. Spencer’s catch is that wearing these suits ultimately kills the user, in gruesome fashion. As the late Dwayne McDuffie did in Damage Control Spencer’s tales deal with the messiness of superheroics and collateral damage — and how the bosses cajole and con folks into wearing these outfits.

One of the cleverest juggling acts in the title is that each month, regular artists Cafu and Bit are joined a guest artist that shines a light on the Agents’ past. The most recent issue has art by one of comics’ true gems in Ryan Sook, whose sinuous lines and soft shadows make just about any book better. Cafu and Bit’s work is a bit more stark and spare, and frankly, it is not to my taste. That said, his faces are expressive and he is particularly good at generating real fire from his characters’ eyes.

I realize full well that the leads in this book — Menthor, Lightning, Dynamo and NoMan — aren’t household names. But in an age when people are willing to embrace two nameless barbarians (in the satisfying Skullkickers) and a D-List Greek god (the also satisfying Incredible Hercules) I think folks could spare $3 to check out a savvy, snappily written title. If you do, you won’t regret it. And if you don’t, well, those of us who are reading it now will.

 

Fear Itself Prologue: Book of the Skull

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Scot Eaton and Sunny Gho

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Teresa Jusino

I have to admit, it’s thrilling to see Red Skull’s daughter, Sin, take up her father’s mantle as the new Red Skull. There’s always talk about there being a need for more female heroes in comics, but female villains are important, too. Showing that women can be just as horrible, evil, conniving, and lustful for power as men is as important as showing how heroic and noble they can be when creating a comic book universe that includes well-rounded portrayals of women. This is perhaps the biggest contribution that The Book of the Skull makes to the Marvel Universe.

Brubaker introduces the fact that Sin and her very loose partner, Baron Zemo, are going to have large roles to play in the upcoming Fear Itself event. Sin is on a quest in the Egyptian desert looking for something of her father’s that will help her “reshape the world.” She goes to her father’s old hideout and finds a book — the Book of Skull — which is horrifically bound in the flesh of Atlanteans. Listening to Sin explain her childhood — how she used to interact with these swastika-covered security drones as playmates when she was six, as well as reading her thoughts about her father, how when Zemo calls her a lunatic and as bad as her father, she corrects him by saying that “[she’s] worse! And better at the same time” — was the more fascinating portion of the issue. Less interesting, and much slower to read, was the flashback in which Captain America, Bucky, and Namor fight Red Skull in an attempt to stop him from raising something that will help the Nazis win the war; something for which he needed to sacrifice Atlanteans.

So the connection is made between past and present, and Sin is clearly expecting to succeed where her father failed all those years ago. That connection is important, but its execution felt a bit lazy. The purpose of this prologue seemed to be to introduce Sin as a major player in Fear Itself and explaining her involvement without giving too much away, maintaining a sense of suspense and foreboding. Having a heavy-handed flashback in the middle that makes the connection between the past and Sin’s current mission really obvious seems counterproductive, especially since even with that flashback, we don’t completely know what’s going on. It would have been interesting to have the whole issue revolve around Sin, and have her deliver the important bits of information about the past through dialogue with Zemo, or in her thoughts — a device that Brubaker set up wonderfully and with which he bookended the issue. Instead, we have a flashback that not only slows up the read, but feels very much like an info-dump. Also, Namor lost a bunch of his people in a sacrifice, but Bucky’s cold so let’s not go after Red Skull? Really, Captain America? Really?

Scot Eaton’s artwork is crisp and clear, and there’s never a question about what’s happening in each panel. His style is also evocative of both war films of the 1930s-40s as well as stuff like Indiana Jones, both of which are extremely appropriate for this story. I should also make special mention of Gho’s colors — light and bright in the modern-day section, deep and dark in the flashback — highlighting the distinction between the two sections and, like Eaton’s artwork, successfully evoking a time period and a specific genre of film.

The Book of the Skull contains some important information, but is mostly an unnecessary, only slightly entertaining read. Had Brubaker focused more on Sin, this might have been different. As it stands now, the important information conveyed here could’ve just as easily been conveyed in Fear Itself #1, or scattered throughout the inevitable tie-in books. If I’m looking forward to Fear Itself at all, it is in spite of, not because of, this book.

 

Hulk #30.1

Written by Jeff Parker

Art by Gabriel Hardman, Tom Palmer and Jim Charalampidis

Lettering by Ed Dukeshire

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

The Red Hulk has been around the Marvel universe for a few years now, and in that time no one has liked the guy. First the characters within the Hulk titles, and soon the readers. Sure, the whole “Who is the Red Hulk” mystery was fun for a little while; in a “Who Shot J.R.” kind of way. But, unlike that pop culture phenomenon, most readers grew tired of the Red Hulk incredibly fast, myself included. In less time than it took to say HULK SMASH, Jeph Loeb's creations felt tired and predicable. With all that in mind, it is all the more impressive that Hulk, starring the Red Hulk by Parker and Hardman has become one of Marvel's most constantly entertaining books.

Becoming that which he hates, General “Thunderbolt” Ross is the Red Hulk, and after his destructive crusade against Bruce Banner he was given a choice. Work for Steve Rogers and the Avengers to atone for his crimes, or rot in a specially designed prison cell. A disgrace to the country he so deeply cares about. At his core, Ross is a good soldier and a patriot. There was no choice, and ever since then it's been one hell of a ride. Hulk 30.1 is no different as Red Hulk must face his own past as a solider that once served under the now assumed dead Thunderbolt Ross comes looking for epically violent revenge. Good thing all Hulks can take a beating.

Writer Jeff Parker has a gift for mixing classic comic book action with insightful character dialogue. In the opening page, the Red Hulk is in the midst of aerial combat with an unknown enemy. Even in this full tilt start, Parker makes sure the Red Hulk takes a verbal jab at some skiers when he proclaims, “Out of the way, trust fund babies”. This isn't the intellectually gifted Banner, nor some pseudo aristocratic hero in tights. This is General Thunderbolt Ross. No one gave him a dang thing in a life and to hell with anyone that he doesn't believe worked hard for their position. Still, Parker has a clear understanding of Ross as a human. When Red Hulk finally confronts this unknown enemy, only to learn it is a solider of his own hubris, a subtle but very important change occurs. Ross spent his whole life hating and hunting the Hulk, and now finds himself the very target of the hate he created. Within Hulk 30.1, Jeff Parker gives the reader, new or longtime, something very important. Growth. This Hulk knows he simply can't ignore or run from his past. He understands you sometimes must give your enemy the fight they want; the fight they deserve. Banner's Hulk only fights when his back is against the wall or enraged; Ross' Hulk knows that sometimes you just gotta slug it out. You gotta take and give your lumps.

Those lumps rarely look better than when the art is by Gabriel Hardman and Tom Palmer. When you first look at their art, you could be forgiven to think the lines and character designs are simple, easy, and even. It is only when you truly take in the pages that you understand the more clean and simple a line looks, the greater the skill required. Hardman and Palmer have been a welcome change in the world of superhero books. The characters still look larger than life, but there is something extra tossed in. Not any hyper-detailed lines like Jim Lee or the almost comically muscle on muscle look of Ed McGuinness. Hardman's Hulk is a force of nature. An unstoppable mass barely contained by the mind behind the body. So much so, that when the story demands it, the art feels violent. It breaks the panels and bleeds into the other scenes. Then, almost as quickly as it started, Hardman and Palmer pull it back. Within one or two panels in Hulk 30.1, the Red Hulk goes from rampaging beast to tired and slightly melancholy General Ross.

Together, Parker and Hardman are breathing fresh life into a character most fans thought as a one trick pony. His entire life, General Thunderbolt Ross knew the world was split between right and wrong. Without question he believed he was on the side of right, until the day came that the world showed him otherwise. It would have been easier to simply make him a classic villain, an almost Bizarro Hulk, but Parker and Hardman didn't want that path. They know Ross wants to do what is right, and what is right is rarely the easy road. Which is good for us readers, because the journey is gonna be damn fun to read.

 

Invincible Iron Man #502

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Salvador Larroca and Frank D'Armata

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Teresa Jusino

As of issue 500.1, Invincible Iron Man seems to have become less about big plot and more about what makes Tony Stark tick, which to me has always been the reason why the title is so interesting. The latest villain of the month always pales in significance next to delving into why Tony Stark is Tony Stark, and Matt Fraction excels at capturing both this character’s arrogance as well as his heart and good intentions. In the current story arc, “Fix Me,” Stark goes head-to-head with an unexpected yet appropriate villain; one who matches Tony in intellectual arrogance, even if not in intellect: Doctor Octopus.

The premise intrigues from the start. Doc Ock is dying. He also has a huge grudge against Tony Stark for his inability to admit when something is beyond him. So, with the threat of a nuclear detonation in Manhattan, Octavius challenges Tony to cure him and help him live, or admit that he can’t. Otherwise, he will set off the bomb, which would take both of them out, as well as the city. Fraction sets up a tension between them that builds in this issue. Watching Tony change tactics, from asking Octavius to translate crazy for him with regard to the saboteurs at Stark Resilient, to genuinely attempting to help by offering to take Octavius to someone more qualified to deal with him medically, like Reed Richards, to finally giving up and admitting defeat in the hopes of simply saving the city was a wonderful insight into the way Tony’s mind works, and is always working. But the real miracle of the issue, and of this story arc, is the way Fraction manages to make one of Spider-Man’s villains, and not a particularly compelling one at that, more three-dimensional than he’s ever been, allowing us to see Doc Ock’s pain as well as his insanity.

Salvador Larroca has a huge hand in this, as he does an amazing job capturing a character’s emotions in a series of single panels. He does this to wonderful effect not only with Octavius, who silently considers Tony’s admission of defeat before realizing that it isn’t enough for him, but also with Pepper Potts, who in a concurrent story is dealing with Electro and Sandman in Broxton, Oklahoma. He allows us to see the wheels turning in her head as she makes the decision to use her repulsor as a defensive weapon, and it’s an empowering moment for the character. There is, however, some inconsistency in Larroca’s artwork, particularly with Pepper. There’s one panel in particular, as she’s being attacked by Sandman, where he seems to have forgotten how to draw her, putting a lumpy, generic version of her in Pepper’s place. There’s also the matter of the way he handled the action in this issue. Usually, his action panels are just as clear as the emotions he gives the characters. In this one, it was often difficult to tell what was going on in the action sequences, or who was attacking whom.

Despite this, however, Issue #502 was a fast-paced, enjoyable read that provided complex character studies, the likes of which are all too rare in comics. I only hope that in next month’s issue, the resolution is worthy of the set-up, which may prove difficult as there’s a bomb going off. I feel some sloppy, generic bomb clean-up coming on, but we’ll see.

 

Power Girl #22

Written by Judd Winick

Art by Sami Basri and Kholinne

Lettered by John J. Hill

Published by DC Comics

Review by Shanna VanVolt

Power Girl #22 is a breath of fresh air. With so many superheroes these days involved in drawn-out enmities and psychological battles, it is nice to see a girl hanging out with her “cuz” Superman and fighting dinosaurs.

I must admit that I have only recently begun reading this series. I missed Power Girl's ascent to the A-list under Palmiotti, Grey and Conner. Some have said that the title lost some humor and gained some dragging plots under Winick's stewardship, but the whimsy seemed right on point to me in the most recent issue. There are not as many outright jokes per se, but none of the characters are taking things too seriously. For example, what could have been a tedious, soul-searching secret-identity conversation between the two Kryptonians is instead punctuated with a boob joke. It’s lighthearted, and allows Winick to make his points without weighing things down.

The book feels like a variety show at points, and why not? The character Power Girl is based on — Supergirl — often hosted confabs with other costumed folk. It’s not a bad thing; it’s actually kind of fun to see characters move in and out of Power Girl's realm the way that she used to cameo in theirs. (Where this game gets arduous is at the end of the issue, when you’re teased to go buy another title altogether.)

Sami Basri's art contributes to the refreshing nature of the series, though not necessarily in a predictable way. After initially being put off by the lack of attention paid to the backgrounds, I started to find the sparse rooms and landscapes befitting to a book that doesn't try to pretend it is more than a fun romp through herodom. The depth in the depictions is then not found in the settings, but in the characters. Hair and capes seem to catch the wind quite often, with wisps of Power Girl's coif going this way and that, and Superman's cape billowing a proper amount for a hero of his magnitude.

At times, Basri's characters get a little blocky. When he is working with little noise of setting in the backgrounds, his forms need to be strong. The people generally are well-drawn, but there are some panels that call for more dynamic poses. Power Girl and Superman may be treading lightly and not taking things seriously, but getting chomped by a dino calls for a little more contortion than offering your arm to the teeth and looking down at the bite. And, it doesn't help his case for movement when many panel elements are obviously reused throughout pages.

Overall, Basri's forms are solid and easy to follow, much like Winick's dialogue. And: there are dinosaurs in Power Girl #22. Dinosaurs are cool. If the magnitude and variety of Power Girl cosplayers I saw at this weekend’s C2E2 in Chicago are any indication, this simple, simply fun series continues to resonate. I’m seeing why.

 

Uncanny X-Force #5.1

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Rafael Albuquerque

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

In fine X-Force fashion, 5.1 brings the pain and blood … and death. Remender writes this book so well; I might be inclined to worry about him. But, it’s just comics, right? In all seriousness, 5.1 is an intense, character driven episode that is, at times, hard to read, but I couldn’t look away.

This mission pits the team against the ruthless bad that is Lady Deathstrike, and the Reavers, placing the Reavers in the sights of Psylocke. The story centers on her rage at what was done to her by the Reavers, and her delight at the opportunity for revenge on this mission. The line of the anti-hero is a fine one, and Wolverine makes sure to remind Betsy of that in an insightful yet classically gruff manner. Through Psylocke, Remender exemplifies why X-Force exists, and why it shouldn’t. It is a fascinating dichotomy, and makes for some poignant character moments for Wolverine and Psylocke. 5.1 does what it means to and is a page-turner for already devout readers, and gives an interesting enough jumping on point for the uninitiated with some solid X-Men continuity nuggets.

For this Adamantium slashing, revenge rodeo, Albuquerque’s art is rightly superb. His Lady Deathstrike is as vicious as ever. He conveys the tone of grit and gloom with dynamic action and gruesome perspectives. His work makes 5.1 the darkest issue thus far. There are moments where details of facial expression are a bit blurred; I think this is more a result of the coloring than the art. I’m not one to buy a book for the covers, but Uncanny X-Force has some great ones. Simone Bianchi’s cover is no exception, it is exquisite. In short, Remender and Albuquerque make a memorable team. Uncanny X-Force #5.1 is brutal, but brilliant.

 

Captain Action Winter Special

Written by Beau Smith, Tony Lee, Joe Gentile and Matthew Baugh

Art by Eduardo Barreto, Reno Maniquis, Giovanni Timpano, Bob Pedroza and Eleonara Carlini

Lettering Marshall Dillion

Published by Moonstone Comics

Reviewed by Jamie Trecker

The short version: This book is a baffling hodgepdge, filled with one spectacularly drawn piece, three mediocre stories and one outright howler. It also contains a curiosity, a prose appearance by the Green Hornet, a character currently being published under license by Dynamite. What it is doing here is a mystery.

Moonstone is a publisher I’d like to like, purely on principle. It’s a low-rent version of Dynamite, a house that has acquired the rights to some second-tier characters from the pulp era and the swinging sixties. Among their titles are the book under review, TV’s ill-remembered Kolchak The Night Stalker, and pulp archetype The Spider.

Captain Action was one of the first action-figure/comic book tie-ins, and his late ’60s appearances in DC Comics were illustrated by greats Wally Wood and Gil Kane. Moonstone has completely tossed out his old continuity — which basically served to reinforce the notion that your child could and should buy lots of different outfits for this toy — and Cap is basically now your standard-issue super spy. In other words, he’s dated from the get-go.

All that said, his tale is the standout of this book, purely because it’s drawn by a slumming Eduardo Barreto. Barreto has had a rough go of things lately; a former DC man (Batman, Superman), Barreto jumped to the big-time with work on syndicated strip Judge Parker, replacing the famed Harold LeDoux. Then, he contracted meningitis, forcing him to step down. This is one of the first things he’s published since that time, and it is sleek and shiny— and sabotaged by an uncredited colorist.

This is a tragedy, for Barreto is all class, an illustrator in the mold of Al Williamson, Al Toth and George Perez. His spot blacks are strong, his line fluid, and he is able to conjure up characters with a minimum of fuss. His art has an old-fashioned grace about it, making him perfect to draw a tale of handsome men, deadly blondes in tight clothing, and fisticuffs. Sadly, the coloring betrays him. It’s hard to make out some of his fine details: a whole page looks as if it was drenched in orange paint; another is washed out in purple. These choices are inexplicable.

The rest of the book’s art is only serviceable. Reno Maniquis has a nice touch with shading on the Lady Action feature, but his outlines are a bit too fizzy for my taste. Giovanni Timpano’s animals are well-drawn in his Action Boy strip, but he needs more work on his human beings.

The stories themselves range from the tepid to the atrocious. Beau Smith is better than the tame James Bond rip-off he delivers; his Cap is a brute, only saved by Barreto’s light touch. Matthew Baugh’s forgettable prose piece attempts to channel Dashiell Hammett. Joe Gentile’s piece is baffling. It seemed as if several panels and maybe a page or two of script were missing from my copy, because I’m not entirely sure what happened to any of the characters.

But special notice must be paid to Tony Lee’s painful Lady Action tale, with its strained attempts at hipness and some so-bad-it’s-just-bad dialogue. Some samples: “I have a squadron of ski-ninjas trying to kill me! Again!” and “Now how am I supposed to tweet this?” (Reader, you don’t want to follow her.) This is shocking stuff coming from a man whose resume has credits in 2000 AD, Doctor Who and on the New York Times best-seller list. I’ll chalk it up to a bad day (or maybe a weak paycheck) but it’s astonishingly poor for a seasoned pro.

Twitter activity