Best Shots Reviews: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, ACTION COMICS, More

Best Shots Reviews

Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the rockin' reviewers of the Best Shots Team. We've got plenty of books for your reading enjoyment this week, including releases from Marvel, DC, Image and Archie! And that's just the beginning — we've also got a ton of back-issue reviews over at the Best Shots Topic Page. And now, let's see what happens with Spidey's adventures with the Future Foundation, as we take a peek at Amazing Spider-Man #659!

 

Amazing Spider-Man #659

Written by Dan Slott and Fred Van Lente

Art by Stefano Caselli and Marte Gracia

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

It took a lot of thinking about the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, but I think I finally got to the heart of what this issue feels like, in just two simple words:

Wakka wakka.

In a lot of ways, Dan Slott and Fred Van Lente are showing just how far the concept of Spider-Man can stretch, going from the action-packed (See: The new Hobgoblin) to the dramatic (See: The funeral of Marla Jameson) to, in this issue, the family sit-com. While the action is more rooted in comedy than anything to really punch those fanboy action buttons, this issue is a decent showing, a lighter stress release after some of the more heavy issues that Slott has been previously punching out.

The first thing that I'd argue with Slott and Van Lente's latest issue is that they do a great job balancing Spidey with the rest of the FF — the Thing and in particular the Invisible Woman get some great face time in this issue, and in certain ways the characterization for those two reminds me a lot of Mark Waid's. And in a lot of ways, Van Lente's jokier characterization — with Spidey and Ben trading Beastie Boy lyrics, or showing Valeria scoffing at her mother's attempts to scold her — is emblematic of the tone and the plotting, as well. It's occasionally a bit loose as far as the fighting is concerned — a little more visual beats and choreography might have stuck in your mind a bit more — but that also fits the jokier tone.

Artwise, Stefano Caselli's got a really striking style, with his character design just being really lovely to look at. Where I think Caselli isn't quite as strong — and considering the density of Slott's scripts, it trips him up — is his panel layouts, with some of the establishing shots of locations and new characters and big action beats not quite hitting as hard as it could have. The less compact pages — namely, Peter's ticked-off girlfriend Carlie Cooper making a very, very poor life choice — are among the best-looking pages of the bunch, as the focus in action gives Caselli plenty of room to breathe. As far as colors are concerned, occasionally Marte Gracia goes just a bit too bright on the colors — but again, that's personal taste, and I'll be the first to admit that given the lighter tone of this issue, the color scheme does work.

Now, is this the best issue that Slott and company have come up with? I'd argue that that's not the case — it's good, but coming off of even the last issue, which was funny but also had a nice bit of sentimental weight, Amazing Spider-Man #659 does feel more like a light sitcom, with no real knockout moment to drive the issue home. That's not to say that this is a bad issue, and to be honest, if a Spidey-FF team-up against zombie pirates is the "breather" story before ramping up to the event-style storytelling of Spider-Island, this title is in some seriously good hands.

Superman Renounces US Citizenship
Superman Renounces US Citizenship
 

Action Comics #900

Written by Paul Cornell

Art by Pete Woods, Jesus Merino, Brad Anderson and Blond

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

Click here for preview

Action Comics #900 opens cinematically with, for the lack of a better term, the camera swooping through the foundations of Superman. The open plains, the great city of Metropolis, adoring public looking up in the sky, and finally the danger Superman must confront. It works so well, I can almost hear John Williams' score rising from the darkened theater. Turning the page, there he hovers in all his glory. Superman is back in Action Comics; though truth be told, I think I am going to miss Lex Luthor. The primary story in Action Comics #900 brings to an end the Black Ring saga, while ushering in the Reign of Doomsday.

For over a year, writer Paul Cornell worked on a Superman book that wasn't allowed to feature the Last Son of Krypton. It was all about Lex Luthor and his ongoing obsession with the rings of power after Blackest Night. It worked, and it worked very well. Cornell sent Lex, and the readers, all over the globe and beyond. It had killer robots, Vandal Savage, the Secret Six, Neil Gaiman's Death, and all manner of cosmic oddities. With Superman back, Cornell forces Lex to confront all that he hates within the Man of Steel. Cornell also brings out an interesting character development within Lex.

For years, DC has painted Lex as a man that wants humanity to live without interference from “some alien”. In Action #900, we see Luthor's true reason, and it isn't pretty. At his core, Lex is a villain and as such, when his soul is finally laid bare by Superman, that evil shows in all its purity. The Black Ring comes to a very satisfying conclusion and rolls directly into Action Comics joining the Reign of Doomsday. Sadly, that portion of Cornell's writing feels tacked-on and even a little jarring. I find myself wishing editorial had split the two stories. Instead, events within Reign of Doomsday almost cheapen the reasoning behind the Black Ring.

Pete Woods continues to stretch his pencils within Action #900, something I've noticed him doing over the past year. Already skilled at drawing heroic action, Pete's evolution truly shows when he moves in tight and we see close facial expressions. In an arc that is so focused on personal obsession, Pete Woods' art really elevates Cornell's script. Still, this is Action Comics and when the action kicks in, Pete Woods turns in some insane work. The confrontation between Superman and the enhanced Lex Luthor is stunning. Colorist Brad Anderson augments Woods with such grandeur, I found myself wondering if I was reading an old school Green Lantern title. Colors, lines, and energy fly off the page. But, unlike the GL titles, it all comes back to being human and Pete knows how to pull you back.

Of all the shorts in the issue, “Life Support” is the standout story in Action #900. A heart-wrenching tale about the final days of Krypton, we see the choices Kal-El makes and how it effects those he loves. We all know what happens and yet writer Damon Lindelof really knows how to get the tears to well up. Artist Ryan Sook uses understated poses and character design to drive home the desperation felt by Kal-El and the man he asks save his only son. Again, we all know how this is going to end, but that doesn't stop Life Support from capturing your imagination.

“Autobiography” by Paul Dini and RB Silva is a fun little conversation between Superman and an alien hippo. The tale does a good job of cheering you up after reading “Life Support,” but also provides those slice of life moments many fans enjoy. Nothing earth-shattering, just a conversation between two beings that live with us, but will never be us. Indeed, while reading the short, I found myself saying, “so this is what Brainiac would be like if he wasn't evil”, and it worked. Silva's art borders on cute, but works for Dini's charming tale.

“Friday Night in the 21st Century” by writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank is total fan-service. Lois Lane wants a fun night with Clark and their friends. Friends that just so happen to be the Legion of Superheroes. Like downing one of those Throwback bottles of Coke. It is short, sweet, and goes down with a smile. You just can't drink one everyday.

Leaving all the political grandstanding aside, “The Incident” by writer David Goyer and artist Miguel Sepulveda is an interesting evolution of Superman. The Man of Steel has always been about protecting the innocent and catching the guilty on a global scale. Sometimes we forget that, because he does make his home in Metropolis. Still, this is the case with most superhero comics. Batman is from Gotham, but crime knows no borders. Spider-Man lives in New York, but swings wherever he's needed. Cast aside your political beliefs and enjoy a Superman that places human life over borders and religions. I want to see more from a Superman that doesn't bend a knee to any government.

The issue ends with an interesting storyboard tale from Richard Donner, Derek Hoffman, and Matt Camp. A duel between the Man of Steel and a power-suited Cliff Carter. Donner's tale had me wishing he was somehow involved with all the craziness in bringing Superman back to the big screen. He knows bug blue and it shows.

Getting to issue #900 is a stunning achievement within the realm of pop culture. Entire generations have come and gone. Global wars fought. Countries rose and fell. All while the Last Son of Krypton continues to be a “defender of law and order, champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice, who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice.”

Thanks, Superman.

 

The Flash #11

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Scott Kolins and Michael Ariyeh

Lettered by Sal Cipriano

Published by DC Comics

Review by Shanna VanVolt

I jumped into this series one issue ago, and I can’t stop kicking myself for not recognizing this gem sooner. Problem is, I may like it for different reasons than Johns is trying to portray. The Flash #11 combines time travel, crime-fighting, and familial melodrama into a fun — and even funny — book.

The first thing that came to my mind, on my trip to Central City, is that we’re dealing with a whole lotta Flashes at this point. It is not the first time Johns has created a Flash family to play with, and he is here again juggling the faintly ridiculous notion of having an Old-Flash, Nephew-Flash, Future-Flash, Doppleganger-Flash and Flash-Flash existing simultaneously. We are, indeed, on our way to “Flashpoint,” a mysterious singularity set to change the DCU. Johns sews an all-too-human undercurrent into unrealistic ground.

Kolins’ art, taking over duties from the easier-to-digest Francis Manapul, punches these realms of unrealism into higher gear. It is hard to get used to a new look. Kolins takes the series from a more industry-standard look, with thick inks and solid colors, to a less consistent, more painterly, stylization in Flash #11. What is lessened in figural-literalism is gained in composition and complexity. Kolins’ sympathies and jaw lines read as embedded in a 1950s style, featuring strong chins and pristine shapes—exaggerated instead of proportionate. With an atomic bomb of a nuclear family (the aforementioned Flash-o-palooza) taking up the bulk of this issue, the familiar naiveté of the pencils unites with the modern stylized inks and colors to drive the hilarious confusion home: there is a hero with a world to save (a nostalgic simplicity), but his family is worried about his psychological health (absurd modern complications).

Johns’ writing is playing with almost as many ideas as there are Flashes. Instead of building till convoluted, his plot succeeds through its failures. Johns avoids commitment to any one of many far-fetched aspects of the issue. Supernatural murders transition into extramarital flirtations and extended-family conversations under a narrative of multi-universal immediacy. It is a full ridiculous agenda packed that feels more fun and lighthearted than monumental and rushed.

Granted, the many strands in the issue make it a little confusing for someone to just pick up off-shelf. A lot of underlying relations skirt their tails around the margins of the storyline, and that complexity may be off-putting to a new reader. I think the key is to not take things too seriously. As an ultra-serious soap opera, this book doesn't work for me — I found myself laughing at the moments when most would insert a touching sound cue. It is The Flash, after all, a superhero whose many multiplications have made him that much more outlandish and delightful.

In the end, I found myself caring; not about the particular stated struggles of the book, but about a good story. Time- and interdimensional-travel will both meet their flaws in current human understanding and logic. Johns does a good job at sprinkling in enough seeds of plot, and Kolins’ art crosses enough boundaries of its own, to engross and engage the reader without coming to odds with the inherent fantastical nature of the issue. I give The Flash #11 two enthusiastic thumbs up with a regretful nod at not having read the whole story up to this point. An exciting end twist solidifies my hoisting onto the bandwagon of this book, and I hope the unintentional silliness continues as this cluster-flash reaches critical mass.

 

The Bulletproof Coffin TPB

Written by David Hine and Shaky Kane

Art by Shaky Kane

Lettering by Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt

Published by Image Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

Comic books need to be dangerous again. They need to be full of seditious ideas that create more than simply an audience of consumers. Comic books need to lead the revolution of storytelling and what a better place to begin that revolution than with David Hine and Shaky Kane's subversive The Bulletproof Coffin, a paean to almost every evil and every mind-warping scenario that Dr. Wertham warned us about in Seduction of the Innocent back in the 1950s. After the comic burnings and Senate hearings, comics may have tucked their tails between their collective legs but Hine and Kane kept on producing their EC like books in secret, continuing The Unforgiving Eye, Shield of Justice and Ramona, Queen of the Stone Age for more issues than any price guide is willing to catalog. At least, that's what The Bulletproof Coffin would have you believe.

The Bulletproof Coffin is about those comics, maybe once deemed lewd or dangerous, and the worlds that those comics created. Of course those comics never existed as Hine and Kane create a fictitious history for themselves as the potential Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in the day until their creations were bought out by Big Two Publishing, the megalithic comic powerhouse that also never really existed. Those characters were commoditized, popularized and became bigger than ever even as their creators became recluses, sellouts and footnotes in comics history. Steve Nyman grew up on those comics but now spends his nights cleaning up dead people's homes, scavenging for any pop culture relics that the dead's survivors probably aren't going to miss. The discovery of a box of old comics, comics that shouldn't even exist, opens up a world to Nyman where his heroes become real and he may be the only person alive that can save them.

David Hine and Shaky Kane shoot for the moon in, holding nothing back as they try to create a murder mystery, a romance story, a horror comic and a metafiction where they themselves play key parts as the "Creators" and could potentially be the saviors of the world if only Nyman can get to them on time. It is everything we read comics for and more. Hine and Kane bring every dream we have about comics to life as Nyman, their main character, gets to find out not only are his favorite superheroes real but that he himself is one and he has to defeat the bad guys to discover his one true love.

The Bulletproof Coffin contains fictions within fictions within fictions. At first, it's easy to identify Steve's "real" life with a wife, kids and a dog-like creature in the suburbs. He's got a job and he looks like an honest to goodness grownup. It's the life we all lead to one extent or another. Hine and Kane are always playing with this discrepancy between the "real world" and a world that exists on four-color pages and in our dreams. One is not more real than the other as the "real world" is obviously still a fictitious world. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred from the very beginning as the creators are playing with levels of fiction. As Alan Moore would say, "it's an imaginary story but aren't they all?"

From beginning to end, The Bulletproof Coffin looks like all of the comics its creators obviously love, right down to the publisher's indicia for each individual issue that's reprinted in this book. Kane fills the book with bright, day-glo colors, never really wanting the reader to forget that they're reading anything other than a comic book. HIs bright colors and flat artwork never let you pretend that you're looking at any kind of reality just as his and Hine's story does everything it can to blur the lines between fiction and reality. Kane's world is vivid and everything is as solid as everything else. With his art, it's hard to tell which characters are "real" and which are fictions but isn't that the point? They both exist and that's the point of everything. Our dreams are just as real as anything else.

Hine and Kane lock into that part of our brains that want to be superheroes and that want to be in love with other superheroes. Obviously that doesn't happen but we want it all the same. In the back of our minds, we all run around with capes tied around our necks, patrolling our neighborhood streets and protecting our loved ones against Doctor Doom or Lex Luthor. That's the wish fulfillment that comic books give us. It's the desire we've all hopefully felt to one extent or another as we watch Superman save Lois Lane from the clutches of Brainiac. Hine and Kane pull us into Nyman's fictions while he gets lost in them as well. Or maybe he's waking up from his dreams of a dull, mundane life to discover that the world is more colorful and vibrant that what any of us is capable of seeing.

The Bulletproof Coffin shows us that comics can be a dangerous business. It captures that rebelliousness that makes Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns the milestones that they are as it forces us to wonder where the lines are drawn between the concrete and the imaginary. It starts out as a comic book and it ends as a comic but everything else in between is up for grabs as Hine and Kane give us a main character that's too easy to identify with as he just wants his real life to be nice but he wants the dangers and excitement of his fantasies too.

 

Xombi #2

Written by John Rozum

Art by Frazer Irving

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

Two issues into Xombi, and I'm already conflicted. On the one hand, Frazer Irving is one of those artists who is so good at what he does, his name becomes a selling point. And John Rozum, to his credit, has enough weirdness and craziness to make this book his own.

But at the same time, the question remains: Do I care about David Kim yet?

Unfortunately, the answer, at least for me, is still no. There's plenty of pizzazz to this book, and even to its supporting cast, but I still don't get what makes the lead hero tick. I know his weaknesses, and I think I know his goals, but two issues in, this hero and his sidekick nuns are still preaching to the choir, rather than drawing willing converts.

But stepping back just a second, rereading this book shows me why that might be the case. Yes, Rozum opens up with a threat against David, but considering he's an immortal who can regenerate using any material nearby, the stakes aren't that high. The nuns on the other hand? They get the lion's share of the explanation here, as Rozum discusses novena bullets, energy discharges and shrinking abilities. And the fact that they are mortal, and can be overrun, that makes me care about them, and to really feel the stakes for them.

And it's cool enough — to be honest, if this book was called "Sister Smackdown," I'd be all over it. But it's called Xombi, and before he gets to talking about David, Rozum's also got to throw in a ton of backstory about James Church, the prisoner the team is trying to find, and that is tough to follow. Because Rozum has to go through all these hoops, he's leaving out the one key ingredient — which is, how do you make David sympathetic, likable, someone you want to root for? Sure, David has a nice-guy persona that's a bit refreshing, but two issues in, I still don't quite have a bead on who he is, to really resonate and follow him.

Now, Frazer Irving, meanwhile, is a guy who will either make you run screaming to buy this book, or someone who will turn off the more traditional comics fan. Me personally? Irving is what makes this book something to read, his powerful, moody style absolutely being the right fit for the weirdness of Xombi. That all said, there are a couple of hiccups here in terms of the storytelling — there's a gag in this book, for example, with David stabbing a possessed child in a Green Lantern costume that's all but lost because of the composition and color. As far as Irving's color is concerned, it's an interesting choice, where he largely sticks to one color for each page — it's a powerful technique, but I think using a couple more colors per page to really clash would have been even more striking.

It's weird, because I can appreciate Xombi for its stylistic choices, but at the same time, I'm not hooked by it — and this is exactly the kind of book I would expect to be doing backflips in the comic shop over. As much as I think the nuns are great supporting characters, part of me wonders now if they should have been held for the second arc, just to get new readers acclimated with the lead character. There's more choice apparent in Xombi than most comics DC puts out — now if we could get more character to support all of Rozum's psychic coins and wasp's nest-headed creatures, I think we'd have an even better finished product.

 

Life with Archie #9

Written by Paul Kupperberg

Art by Norm Breyfogle, Joe Rubenstein, Andrew Pepoy and Glenn Whitmore

Lettering by Janice Chiang

Published by Archie Comics

Review by Jamie Trecker

Life With Archie, Archie Comics’ thrilling and strange magazine has done three things I never thought possible.

The first was to make me care about Archie, a character and a shared universe I’ve never warmed up to. The second was to bring actual adult subject matter into kids’ comics in a way that feels slyly subversive and deeply heartfelt. The third is to make me care about the fate of a magazine that has Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber on its covers on a too-regular basis.

And it’s the third thing I’d like to address first, if I may. Life With Archie is not, technically, a comic book at all, but rather an oversized 80-page bimonthly glossy that has the aesthetic of Teen Beat but the content of a very grown-up Archie Digest. Here in Chicago, it is almost impossible to find at comic book stores. When you do find it on the shelves, it’s usually smushed between copies of books that, frankly, 40-something men are better off not being caught espying.

This is a shame, because there’s a real tension between the content of this magazine —the most grown-up of anything Archie publishes — and the trappings that surround it. This is not a book that to cries out for features about Taylor Swift or Tyler Lautner. And yet, that’s what this book also brings to the table. I realize Archie is a “kids’ comic book” company, but wrapping this book in such chaff feels almost like an act of concealment.

Putting teen stars on the cover is also unnecessary. This book is brilliantly drawn (by ex-Batman great Breyfogle, with the underrated Andrew Pepoy) and written with true heart by Kupperberg. Breyfogle’s rubbery lines and expressive faces are worth the price of admission alone, as late 80s DC fans already know. Pepoy, who rebooted the late Little Orphan Annie a few years back, will remind some of Rick Burchett or Ty Templeton, all rounded lines and sly asides.

The shock is Kupperberg, a former DC editor and Superman scribe who went weird a few years back and took over the editorial reins of the Weekly World News. A lifelong hack —and I mean that as a compliment; the guy’s prose output is superhuman — Kupperberg seems to have come out of this experience determined to leave Bat Boys behind and write passionately about real life. He’s succeeding. Under his guidance, Life With Archie is hands-down the best book Archie is producing. (I know because the book inspired me to check out what the rest of the company is doing.)

Based on the ground-breaking (for Archie, anyway) stories by Michael Uslan (themselves inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”) Life With Archie sees Archie, Betty and Veronica all grown up — and in a neat bit of split-screen, married to both of them. The first half of each book focuses on Archie’s marriage to Veronica and his long-running battle with her father, Hiram Lodge; while the second half focuses on Archie’s marriage to Betty and their work as new teachers at Riverdale high school.

With adulthood comes adult issues: Kupperberg has already had Marmaduke “Moose” Mason confront his anger management issues, thrown Reggie Mantle in jail, and seen longtime teacher Geraldine Grundy marry Principal Waldo Weatherbee, then die from cancer. Hiram Lodge is portrayed as a bitter, greedy and deeply manipulative industrialist in both stories, scheming to destroy Archie for marrying Betty in one story and plotting against Jughead Jones and Pop Tate’s “Chock'lit Shoppe” in the other.

The current issue, with Breyfogle’s first feature sinuously inked by Rubenstein, sees Hiram Lodge planning to finally get rid of his new son-in-law once and for all while turning Riverdale into a monster mall. In the second, Pepoy handles the duties solo as Archie and Betty dive headlong into the new school year while Lodge, as always, lurks in the background. Hiram Lodge is the linking thread in this series, and Kupperberg is fully aware of the irony that in one feature, the industrialist can’t wait to get rid of Archie, while in the other he’s desperate to get him under his wing to make his daughter Veronica happy.

There is real cruelty in this book for sure. People die and people hurt each other. But there is nothing mindless about it. Some kids might find this subject matter difficult, but most will see it for what it is: sophisticated entertainment for kids of all ages. It is a credit to the entire team that they have pulled off one of the toughest high-wire acts in literature: making children’s entertainment mature without making it crass.

Now, a plea: go buy it. Life With Archie has been a hit with folks who pay attention to comics, but not on the shelves at large. It costs $4 and delivers more of just about everything than most other books. If we had ratings here, this would get five stars.

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