Best Shots Comic Reviews: UNCANNY X-FORCE, 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 a ton of publishers covered in today's column, ranging from DC, Marvel, IDW, Archie, Dynamite, and more. And if you're looking for more back-issue reviews, just check out the Best Shots Topic Page! And now, let's see what happens to Marvel's black-ops mutants when a new artist comes on board, as we take a look at the latest issue of Uncanny X-Force


Uncanny X-Force #8

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Billy Tan and Dean White

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

Man oh man, what a difference a colorist can make.

I've been thinking that a lot lately — in particular, with some of the books I'm reviewing today — but the unsung hero of Uncanny X-Force #8 has to be Dean White. In superhero comics especially, we often see the victims of mismatched coloring, but in White's case, this is about a colorist giving inkerless artist Billy Tan a whole new lease on life.

The reason why? Well, even as artists have shifted in this book — four artists in nine issues, to be exact — the style of color have remained constant. Dean White, taking the reins back from the similarly stylish Matthew Wilson, set the visual tone for this series early on, with its weird purples and grays, almost like Frank D'Armata did with Captain America and Iron Man. Even as the styles change, the world of Uncanny X-Force feels moody, unsettling, a psychedelic run of black-ops.

That's all just the tip of the iceberg for Uncanny X-Force, which in all ways but one is exactly the kind of comic book I'd like to see more of. In addition to a so-good-I'm-surprised-it's-the-same-artist turn from Tan and company, this book is action-packed, it's self-contained, and it's got an interesting bit of character progression from a character that, well, a year ago I had all but written off.

Which is funny, to me — while I think most people would see the intrinsic value of Uncanny X-Force as Wolverine, Fantomex and Deadpool, the real characters to watch are Archangel and Psylocke, as they try to stop a nuclear launch by the psychic parasite known as the Shadow King. Rick Remender has a slick, punchy pacing to all the action, and Tan absolutely brings his A-game to accommodate. Seeing Archangel casually flick his steel-edged winds to slice a man in half, or watching Psylocke crouch across two pages, transforming into a set of astral ninja armor, well, these are some great visual moments that press all the right fanboy buttons.

And structurally, I have to say that Remender puts together, well, a pretty flawless product. Setup, resolution, more than a hint of malice leavened with some humor, if you haven't been keeping up with this book, now is a perfect time to jump on. Even hearing the difference in voice between Warren Worthington and his darker alter ego is a bit unsettling, and Fantomex's constant snarking about his romantic rival — "Worthington suffers from an elderly woman's love of worthless nick-nacks" being an early example — shows that Remender's greatest strength is voice.

That all said, if there's one thing that I think keeps Uncanny X-Force from perfection, it's that we're also starting to see a pattern in the story arcs. Not to say that a good twist at the end of the story isn't a good thing, but between Fantomex suddenly killing Apocalypse, Deadpool suddenly killing the Father of the World, and Archangel's admittedly sweet coup de grace, the stories are feeling just a hair too similar for their own good. Because the theme of this book isn't quite as overt as the previous iteration of this title, there becomes a danger of it being fight + misdirect + kill + repeat.

Still, if you're going to repeat yourself, it's not bad to have Rick Remender's track record with Uncanny X-Force. With his secret weapon Dean White keeping the evolving art shifts of this book in order, this issue is one worth reading — and applauding — because of its accomplishments in execution rather than story. To say that this is one of Marvel's best books — and certainly the best X-book on the stands today — is an understatement: They're the best there is at what they do.


Batman #709

Written by David Hine

Art by Guillem March

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

Is it just me, or does it feel like the Batman line, which previously seemed to be defined by Grant Morrison leading the pack, seem to be a franchise that's becoming increasingly defined by the artists on board?

Not that this is a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination — with Morrison's Batman Incorporated getting back on schedule and Batman and Robin still finding its vibe after two additional creative teams, having artists like J.H. Williams III, David Finch, Jock and, in the case of the original Batman book, Guillem March is a good way to stir up interest. And while continuity addicts are likely turning up their noses at the lack of impact a mini-crossover like "Judgment on Gotham" might have, visually, the book does bear watching.

March, in certain ways, is still the baby of the flagship Batman artists, but that's because of the high bar his colleagues have already set. At his best, March evokes the dynamic poses and smooth linework of one of the Kuberts — it's that sense of design, that hint of Japanese manga to those expressive eyes, that makes him an interesting artist to watch. Batman as a character has always had that dramatic edge to him, so even having him brood in the rain makes for an evocative visual.

That all said, March also has room to grow in two critical areas — his layouts and his colorwork. The first part may be difficulties in the script, just packing too much in at once, but there are a lot of distance shots — such as Azrael pulling out a flaming sword at Dick Grayson — that doesn't quite have the oomph that you might expect. And the colors… well, the colors do feel a little self-conscious here, with the Game Boy greens and TV blues feeling a bit more intrusive than moody.

But you're also probably wondering about the storyline, right? Well, this is part three of a crossover, but it's to David Hine's credit that at least the whole thing makes sense without reading the preceding chapters. But as Azrael rants in this surprisingly actionless conclusion — counting one sword slash, one (muffled) explosion and a gang beating in flashback — the one thing Hine isn't able to do is make the readers bond with the characters. Part of that is part and parcel with Azrael as a character — he's been written so long as Batman's Kooky Kultist that it's hard to take him as anything other than someone who's delusional, or under someone else's thrall — but part of it also is that repressed memories by Dick Grayson feels artificial, rather than a legitimate lesson learned.

In certain ways, having a comic that's defined by the art is an interesting twist in a visually based industry that I think has gotten extremely preoccupied with writers. The truism stands that good art can salvage bad writing, whereas bad art can tank even the smartest script. But at the same time, I think without that steel of theme, personal stakes and learning — not out-and-out character changes or redesigns, but simple lessons learned — it's harder to get invested in the fireworks in Gotham City, no matter how pretty they might look.


Avengers #12

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson and Dean White

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

Click here for preview

Avengers #12 brings to a close a full year of Heroic Age tales. Sure, that highly distracting banner over the title has been gone for a while, but with Fear Itself looming over the book, it is safe to say we're done with self-contained stories. Issue 12 finds the Hood staring right into the epically square jaw of Thanos, a trick that had many Marvel cosmic fans scratching their heads, as he's neck deep in the Cancerverse. While I wasn't all that shocked by the opening twist, I couldn't help but think about the line from the modern Battlestar Galactica. “This has all happened before”.

Overall, I like the idea of the Hood making a grab for the Infinity Gems. Even though he's been granted colossal power in the past, I still like the guy as this villain underdog. Yeah, he's evil. Yes, he will betray you. Sure, he'll shoot you in the face if it means making a few extra bucks. And yet, you can't help but pull for the guy on some level. He's just another everyday dude trying to make a place for himself and his family in this world of super soldiers, men of iron, and Asgardian deities. Which is perhaps why I'm finding this conclusion so very hard to swallow. Brian Michael Bendis paints the Hood as a, for the lack of a better term, a nihilist. It's not that he's only out for himself, it's that he isn't out for anything. At all. The gems only seem to be the means to an end of everything. I know one character misstep doesn't necessarily make or break a story. Still, when that character is the core of an arc it does tend to affect the rest of the book. Thankfully, the Hood isn't the standout figure in this issue.

This new Infinity Gems event is all about bringing the Red Hulk into total hero zone. I have to give credit to Bendis (and Jeff Parker over in Hulk) in redeeming a character that to many Marvel fans was best forgotten. Thunderbolt Ross is indeed a good soldier. He steps up in ways I never would have imaged a year ago. I also like Bendis' take on Red Hulk — though nowhere near the scientific mind of Banner, the Red Hulk is a tactical thinker. He understands that sometimes you need to take your licks if you want to come out ahead. Watching him play rope-a-dope with the Hood is one of the real pleasures in Avengers #12.

Which brings me to John Romita, Jr.

Commenting on Romita's art is tricky business. His art is definitely a matter of individual taste. While I don't understand why some fans are utterly enamored by his work, I do recognize the energy in his lines. What Romita lacks in refinement, he more than makes up for in crazy energy. When Red Hulk and Hood have their literal dimensional shifting thrown-down, it looks flat out nuts. You can feel every blast, punch, kick, and the random head-butt.

Alas, these moments are instantly brought down once the action stops and we see talking heads and rather bland character profiles. I just kept wondering if I would have enjoyed the issue, indeed this full Avengers relaunch, had another artist been on board. While on the art, I think it is very important to give credit to inker Klaus Janson and colorist Dean White. I think both their skills in bringing out the potential in Romita, Jr.'s art is the real visual savior. In an issue that focuses on cosmic events, mystical gems, and world-shattering fights; Janson and White add some much needed color and depth to less than flattering pencils.

As this issue — and the second Bendis/Romita Avengers arc as a whole — wrapped up, that little voice in my head claiming “this has all happened before” kept getting louder and louder. They aren't really reinventing the wheel with this title. Not that they need to — over the past few years Bendis already rewrote what it meant to be an Avenger. Still, when I'm reading a book about Earth's Mightiest Heroes, I guess I want a little more. I want to wonder just how the heck the team is going to pull this one out, only for Bendis to pull the rug out from under me with a wink and a “how you like that one, kid?” moment. What I got was not bad and even little fun, if a tad predictable. On any other book, I'd be okay with that. This isn't any other book. This is the Avengers. I need great.


Betty and Veronica #253

Written by Dan Parent

Art by Jeff Schultz, Bob Smith, and Digikore Studios

Lettering by Jack Morelli

Published by Archie Comics

Review by Erika D. Peterman

As someone who remembers when Chuck and Nancy were the only minorities in Riverdale, I’m pleased with how publisher Archie Comics has deliberately pumped up the diversity in its books. It makes sense, given that the children reading these stories are coming of age in an era where it isn’t a big deal. So while parents might be pleasantly surprised to see a gay character or more than one non-white face in a single Archie story, it's barely noteworthy for many members of Gen Z.

So what does this have to do with Betty and Veronica #253? In this prom-themed issue, the two BFFs/frenemies are seeking dates, and potential suitors include boys who are black, Native American and Indian. Of course, it’s a typically lighthearted B&V story with classic and modern touches. Writer Dan Parent uses the perpetual Betty-Veronica-Archie love triangle as a launching pad, as B and V argue over who gets to be the redhead's date for the big dance. (I don’t know whether it’s intentional, but Archie’s wearing an awfully smug expression in one panel.) It’s hard to believe that these two are still fighting for the affections of Mr. Average, but why mess with the template now?

Veronica, ever the strategist, suggests that with all the new hotties at school, she and Betty should sample “a whole menu of new dishes” instead of settling for the “same boring entrée.” Ouch. This leads to prom tryouts at Pop's, and there's quite a range of applicants: a silent, angry sociopath, a smooth-talking gentleman, and an indifferent sort who's just there for kicks. It’s humorous stuff, and Veronica’s rich-girl ego is in full comic effect.

This is a good-looking issue thanks to Jeff Shultz’s pencils and Digikore Studio’s bright coloring. They haven’t strayed too far from the timeless Dan DeCarlo model, and everything looks appropriately contemporary without trying too hard. While I miss the high level of detail that defined earlier Archie comics, that’s a quibble for us older folk. The line work here is smooth and attractive, and the colors pop. That's aesthetically sufficient for the elementary school set, which will enjoy this fun, age-appropriate story. Meanwhile, grownups will get a kick out of reading a very familiar story in a 21st-Century setting.


Suicide Girls #1

Written by Brea Grant, Steve Niles and Missy Suicide

Art by David Hahn, Cameron Stewart and Antonio Fabela

Lettering by Shawn Lee

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Shanna VanVolt

Fighting a dystopian empire just got really pretty. Suicide Girls #1 could have easily fallen into a merch trap, but Brea Grant, along with fellow creators Steve Niles and Missy Suicide, have delivered a cute romp with more heart than boobs.

The most refreshing aspect of this IDW/Suicide Girls partnership is that it looks like SG is actually trying to put out a comic book, and not just trying to “increase their brand.” The story itself is nothing new. Evil rich people buy government with money and buy society with religious overtones. Indict dissenters. Enter heroes. Rinse. Repeat. Yeah, I’ve heard it a lot, but it gets me every time.

For a site that built their reputation on galleries of naked ladies, the casting of said ladies as the heroes in this scenario comes off as surprisingly innocent. The “bad girls” are the good guys. Grant pulls this off by successfully flushing out strong personalities for the buxom band of badasses. They each have their own skills and interests, suspicions and stubborn points. They’re like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but hot chicks.

That said, casting five characters in a first issue does take some steam out of the plot. Suicide Girls #1 shadowboxes around the enemy. There is a lot of talk, narration, and after-effects of what evils the Big Bad, the “Way*Of*Life Corporation” has injected into society, but not much engagement. The fistfights in this first issue are mostly between the girls themselves. Without a concrete nemesis, the end cliffhanger fails to thoroughly rope in the reader. I’m ready to get in a car with these girls, but I am not sure if they know where they are going.

I do know the scenery on that trip would be well-drawn. Cameron Stewart’s inks really make David Hahn’s pencils pop. The benefit of having reality-based models shows in the facial expressions Hahn is able to pull off. Each has a distinct and unique look and this helps the heroines stand out from appropriately dingy institutional-blue backgrounds. A relatively standard well-used panel layout moves the action, and also furthers the aim of making Suicide Girls #1 comfortably comic-booky.

Under Grant’s writing and Hahn’s art, the Girls wear their stylish clothes well. In fact, they wear their clothes for most of the book. There are some gorgeous NSFW pin-ups from Cameron Stewart tacked on to the end of the issue, but the story itself feels more personal than pornographic, tastefully risqué.

Overall, Suicide Girls #1 comes off as a good-looking comic of underdogs fighting the man. If you are sick of that storyline, don’t buy it. However, Grant touts attitudes over assets and Hahn fills pages with beautiful tattooed women fighting to show that they are not the bad apples, but the crème of a mundane crop. Call me a target audience member, but I’m hooked.


Thunderbolts #156

Written by Jeff Parker

Art by Kev Walker, Jason Gorder, Frank Martin and Fabio D'Auria

Lettering by Albert Deschesne

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jennifer Margret Smith

Click here for preview

The remarkable thing about my love for Jeff Parker's Thunderbolts is that I've never cared about villains. I know there are plenty of people who are inherently drawn to the evil and tortured and delightfully twisted, but I've always been more interested in the purely heroic types. As a result, I've not only avoided villain-centric comics like Thunderbolts in the past, I've also never paid much attention to the villains in any of the stories I have read. With a few A-list exceptions, Marvel's villains are a blank spot in my comic book knowledge, so all of the characters in the prison from which Parker has drawn his cast are, for me, essentially new characters.

Parker must realize that I'm not alone, however, as evidenced by Thunderbolts #156, which features an extended sequence of interviews for the “backup” Thunderbolts team of Raft prisoners, cleverly referred to as the “Underbolts.” Under another writer’s pen, this story might have been little more than a parade of unfamiliar names and faces, clever Easter eggs for villain fans but meaningless for the uninitiated. Yet Parker eschews this kind of writing, choosing instead to cram in as much characterization and subtle exposition as possible into the scenes with each villain. I may know next to nothing about Mr. Hyde’s previous appearances, for instance, but by the end of his sequence in this issue – which manages to reference how his powers work, how he relates to his fellow prisoners, and how the “Stevenson novella” influenced his choice of name – I felt I knew all I could possibly need to know to follow this character into the next issue and beyond.

Doubly impressive, however, is the fact that these long, talky sequences make up only half the book. Parker packs every panel of the book with action, excitement, and forward momentum, making it feel much longer than its scant 20 pages. In the issue’s secondary storyline, Luke Cage takes the established Thunderbolts team, including new recruit Satana, to investigate a mysterious German castle that has been mystically attacking anyone who enters. The actual adversaries are what has become standard Parker fare – creepy-looking monsters, ghosts, and zombies. But the scenes shine for the way they manage to highlight characterization in the way each Thunderbolt responds to the situation. Villains may not be my thing, but Jeff Parker has made these characters so complex and fascinating in such a short amount of time – a skill he’s honed to a science on books from Exiles to Agents of Atlas — that I don’t think anyone could stop themselves from becoming invested in their trials and tribulations.

Artist Kev Walker does more than his share of the heavy lifting, too, with characters that all have distinct, expressive features even in massive crowd scenes. He can draw monsters, superhero costumes, and prison uniforms with equal proficiency, and his action sequences feature clear storytelling and dynamic action. While his early issues sometimes felt stiff and static, with too-sharp lines that dulled expressions, he’s truly come into his own, growing by leaps and bounds as he settles into this book and this constellation of characters. Jeff Parker has one of the best track records in recent comics of attracting fantastic artists, and Walker has proven that he’s no exception.

It’s possible that this book isn’t for everyone, but as someone who would never have guessed it would be for her, I encourage anyone with even the slightest interest to check it out. With Parker and Walker and the rest of the creative team at the top of their game, Thunderbolts has quietly become one of the very best of Marvel’s books. Give it a chance to be your pleasant surprise.


Black Dynamite #1

Written by Brian Ash

Art by Jun Lofamia and JM Ringuet

Published by Ape Entertainment

Review by Scott Cederlund

Black Dynamite is the sex machine to all the chicks, the man who would risk his neck for his brother man and the man who won’t cop out when there’s danger about. It may sound like I’m talking about Shaft, but I’m really talking about Black Dynamite, the hero from the 2009 blaxploitation homage. The movie Black Dynamite actually walks a fine line between being a tribute and a spoof of 1970s movies like Shaft, Foxy Brown and Three The Hard Way. The movie Black Dynamite captures all of the excitement and all of the foibles of those movies, including the bad acting and the occasional boom mike dropping into the picture frame. It’s a fun movie that reminds you why those old blaxploitation movies are so great.

Black Dynamite, the comic book, is a long, tired piece of work that sadly misses all of the charm and fun of the movie. The story of Black Dynamite having to rescue modern day slaves from a lavish resort island is actually a nice beginning point for this book, following up on the repression and history faced by its characters. Jun Lofamia draws an incredible looking book, recalling other Fillipino artists like Estaban Maroto, Alex Nino and Alfredo Alcala. The lush artwork and flat coloring by JM Ringuet recreates the newsprint feel of those old DC and Marvel comics. The only thing missing from this book is that strong whiff of aged newsprint. Visually, down to the Luke Cage homaging cover, this book captures the look and feel of 1970’s comics.

Maybe that’s what Ash was going for in his story; a fairly straightforward recreating of what a 1970’s-era Black Dynamite comic would have looked and read like. Black Dynamite’s infiltration of the slave island and the freeing of the slaves should be a larger-than-life story of pain, of heroism, of wine, women and song. The movie is a good movie not because it told a strong story, but because it lovingly and equally embraced everything that was great and horrible about those movies, from the passion behind them to the lousy craftsmanship that was often on display on the screen. Ash’s script in the comic is played too straight laced to be either homage or spoof. There’s no love for the material or humor in the situation anywhere on display in this book. There’s no exaggeration in this book that gives you any sense that there’s any feelings or love behind this book.

Like Shaft, Black Dynamite is a sex machine. There’s a lot of humor, exaggeration and play that could be done with that simple character trait. And if this book is trying to mimic a 1970s comic book, more specifically a Comic-Code approved comic (though it is stamped with a “Comics Soul” approval stamp on the cover,) there’s a lot of ways to hide and suggest that sexual prowess through in innuendo and subtle humor that this book just completely passes by. “Bought” by a rich, white lady on the Slave Island, the book shows a brief and non-titillating sex scene followed by the caption “61 hours later.” Any indication of how sublime this scene should be is glossed over and quickly moved past. Sure it shows up as a punchline in a later situation, but the book is so focused on trying to tell a story that it comes off as dry and unaware of what else it could be.

The odd thing is that we practically got a Black Dynamite comic book last year in Jim Rugg’s Aphrodisiac. Rugg’s book, while it has nothing to do with Black Dynamite, homages the same blaxploitation movies as well as comics from the 1950s to 1970s. The movie Black Dynamite and the comic Aphrodisiac are both as much about the medium of film or comics as they are about the genre of blaxploitation. While spoofing the genre, both lovingly skewer it while playing with and celebrating the mediums they exist in. None of that is present in Ash and Lofamia’s Black Dynamite comic book.

If you want a loving spoof/homage to the blaxploitation genre, you can’t go wrong checking out the movie Black Dynamite. In its mission to recreate every gaffe and cliché of those movies, it creates a fantastic meta-story about the power of movies to capture our imaginations. The comic Black Dynamite lacks the heart of the movie. Instead of producing a work that captures a love of comics, Black Dynamite tries too hard to recreate an action book from the 1970s and loses the heart and spirit of the movie. Black Dynamite should be Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, full of life, energy and abandon. Instead, it’s Samuel Jackson’s Shaft, shiny and bright but missing the true essence of the original.

Can you dig it?


Red Sonja: Break the Skin #1

Written by Jen Van Meter

Art by Edgar Salazar and Caesar Rodriguez

Lettering by Marshall Dillon

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Review by Lan Pitts

Aside from her ties to Conan the Barbarian, I've always been curious about Red Sonja, the She-Devil with a Sword. Aside from the sword and the chain-mail bikini, she's a character that I haven't known as well as I'd like. I've seen that Dynamite has given her a solo title, but always feel intimidated when jumping in to series like this. However, Red Sonja: Break the Skin eases me into her world of sword and sorcery.

Sonja answers the call of princess Zepur, whose uncle is under a curse and her cousin is coming to take the reigns of leadership from her. In this interesting sort of spin of "the monkey's paw" fable, as the symbol of leadership in that kingdom was a monkey god's hand that was severed by Zepur's uncle long ago. Of course, you don't just take a god's hand without some form of retribution. It had cursed the king, and in an interesting turn of events, was trying to spare his niece of the accursed object by offering it to her cousin, who was willing to accept the burden. Though, it's not that simple as the hand falls into a less-than-worthy subject, and things don't exactly go according to their plans, but Sonja, sword and fortitude at the ready, takes down yet another foe to add to her scorecard.

Comics veteran Jen Van Meter (Black Lightning: Year One) takes hold of this adventure, sprinkled with political intrigue, and she does a good job of blending a lot of elements here. The story isn't straightforward and has some twists that engage the readers' thinking cap, but nothing too epic where an index or glossary are needed. There's a bit of symbolism here, but if you don't "get it", it doesn't hinder the story, which at its basics is action almost anybody can appreciate and enjoy.

The art here is what throws me off a bit. It does have a modern flair to it with thin lines and light inking, almost reminiscent of later Michael Turner work. Edgar Salazar does a good job here with the figure constructs, but keeps the backgrounds at minimal. Take into consideration the color pallet by Caesar Rodriguez, and something just doesn't mesh well on some pages. The angles used by Salazar feel closed in, and I hate to say it, but boring at times. Now, I can understand when you want to train the readers' eyes to the characters, but when the backgrounds aren't up to par, it comes across as not that well put together.

The title from the story comes from Robert E. Howard himself, stating: "Break the skin of civilization and you will find the ape, roaring and red-handed." Very fitting considering the adversary here. This being my first real foray into Sonja's world, I'm not hesitant to jump back in, but I'd love to see some equally striking visuals next time around.

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