Best Shots Comic Reviews: FLASHPOINT, X-23, More

FLASHPOINT Central

Greetings, Rama readers! Team Best Shots is back and ready for action, with a number of the latest releases from Marvel, DC, and more! Want some more back-issue reviews? We've got you covered at the Best Shots Topic Page! And now, let's kick off with the Fastest Man Alive, as Brendan McGuirk takes a peek at the latest issue of Flashpoint

 

Flashpoint #4

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Andy Kubert, Jesse Delperdang and Alex Sinclair

Lettering by Nick J. Napolitano

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brendan McGuirk

By now, we all know the purpose of Flashpoint. While there are particulars to be sorted out, we know where this race ends. By its conclusion next issue, nothing, as comics' readers have so often been told, will ever be the same again.

But I am struggling to recall the last time a story of such great consequence resonated so little. And made such little effort to.

By stripping away all the familiar trappings of the DC Universe, one thing is made extraordinarily clear; this is not a love letter to the comics of old. Sure, that need is being addressed in an obvious and perfunctory way with the DC Retroactive specials, but this story is cut from entirely new cloth, where nothing that has come before in any way informs the present.

This is noteworthy for a few reasons. Stories that reflect on past glories and enrich them with neat thematic bindings and modern sensibilities have long been the trademark of writer Geoff Johns. Nearly all of his high-profile successes have, in some way, looked backwards as they marched forwards. And historically, DC's game-changing series have also been reflective in nature. Every Crisis has been comics about comics; comics that were an appreciation of the past, and that addressed the particular foibles of the genre.

The drawbacks of this approach have been made obvious; it has proven difficult to draw new readers through conversations about things with which they are unfamiliar. Like jazz, the audience with a full  appreciation of the nuanced creativity that harkens to the past grows smaller and smaller. And perhaps ever more troubling, the core audience that has stuck around has grown numb to the grand promises. DC has become the brand that cried `CRISIS!'

So it makes sense that Flashpoint would reject parallel world out-clauses for a differing, clean approach. With the first issue, in a blink of an eye, DC's world changed. It came without a harbinger's warning. Everything was different, fine, but why was it different? Not because of Professor Zoom, the plot's agent of change- why were Wonder Woman and Aquaman re-purposed to be totalitarian dictators? How does the supposition that, had a bullet's trajectory been altered, Bruce Wayne's father could have proven generally just as capable a Dark Knight do anything but cheapen Batman? What are the creators trying to tell us about the characters, or about we the readers' relationship with them?

Despite feeling like one, this is not an Elseworlds story. The better of those generally give a novel perspective and appreciation for the familiar. Alterations, both cosmic and cosmetic, remind readers of the core iconic strength of these characters. The ones where the changes are arbitrary feel like just that.

So Flashpoint is neither a story about DC Comics as a whole nor an Elseworlds. If it is not a nostalgic commentary, that means it is instead, clumsily or not, a preview of the new DC. Not the DCnU, the cohabited world that will house these future stories, but for the new method by which things will be created, or, perhaps, abandoned.

Maybe the failure here is with my own expectations. Maybe by looking at Flashpoint as a ending, I am failing to see the new beginning it portends to. Maybe the fact that things are and will be different are enticement enough to usher in a new dawn of creativity.

Barry Allen has spent the majority of this miniseries trying to convince Thomas Wayne's Batman that this world matters, that these actions are consequential. This message seems an awful lot like an attempt to convince the readers of that same point.

But comics don't matter because a publisher decides they do. They matter when they resonate. They matter when the audience finds that they have discovered a new way to appreciate something they already loved. Flashpoint's Superman is a caged, enfeebled, and scared experiment. Maybe that means that the powers-that-be think that as the company's flagship icon, a bastardized Superman speaks more to its current state and current readership than a stately and powerful one would. Or maybe it means nothing beyond a plot-driven need to remove an influential piece from the playing board.

Stuff happens in Flashpoint #4. An innocent character is struck down by a harsh world full of cruelty and arbitrary violence. Sometimes that means something. It's rendered as capably as any commercial comics.

There seems to be a lot of excitement and opportunity awaiting once Flashpoint crosses the finish line. Maybe amidst the rush we'll find out why we're going there.

 

Flashpoint: Batman, Knight of Vengeance #3

Written by Brian Azzarello

Art by Eduardo Risso and Trish Mulvihill

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

Move over, Flashpoint — there's another book that's taken the crown for Best Event Book at DC Comics. And it's called Batman, Knight of Vengeance. Forget the batarangs and laughing fish, seeing the drama between Thomas and Martha Wayne is a shockingly compelling Batman-Joker dynamic, with these two scarred sides of the same coin having a powerful, emotional last stand.

The magic of a writer like Brian Azzarello is that when he's on, he is on, acting like a magician with his artists. And there's no artist that works better with him than his 100 Bullet co-conspirator Eduardo Risso. The result? Azzarello let's Risso carry the mood, not getting in his own way with flowery dialogue or horrific flights of fancy. The plot is smooth, streamlined, as Thomas recalls how the Clown Princess of Crime came to be, showing how, in any universe, a lone thug's pistol can cause enormous shockwaves.

And the ending… wow, the ending absolutely kills. Considering we've only had a handful of issues to really understand Thomas Wayne — really, just as a foil against the Batman we've always known — the ending makes perfect sense. It's sick. It'll make you feel dirty. It's the only way it could have ended.

And so much of these amazing moments have to do with Risso's artwork. I'll be honest, I can remember when he did Batman: Broken City, and I remember not feeling particularly thrilled with the end result. The reason? The man's got character to spare, but the tone of the story didn't feel right, felt forced. This is absolutely a case of putting the right artist on the right job, and seeing quiet moments like Martha's scarred face, or the look of horror and madness in her eyes when she realizes that saving her son's life is just the same as ending it, these are beautiful, terrifying beats.

With the DC relaunch hitting soon, I have to say this — I pray that they print more books like Batman, Knight of Vengeance. It's self-contained, it's gorgeous, it's got a writer and artist who are the same wavelength for craft, for ambition, for their respective artistic egos. This is a book that will haunt you, like laughter against a blood-red sky. This isn't just a crime story, this is a love note written in ransom type. It's Gotham City. And Azzarello and Risso own all of it.

 

X-23 #13

Written by Marjorie Liu

Art by Phil Noto

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

Click here for preview

Hello, Noto.

When I opened X-23 #13, I felt like it was my birthday. It is a treat when Phil Noto is the artist on a book. He creates such a unique and beautiful comic experience that I feel almost guilty for indulging in twenty pages that are drawn so well. His stylized pencil work is crisp and his colors are classy. There is also an interesting duality in Noto’s art. The inking is light, and seems very selective. It adds a wispy, arty texture to what is otherwise a feeling of authenticity; a quality that suits the pitch of X-23 quite well.

Issue #13 finds X-23 back in New York City. She has a wounded Gambit in tow, reminders of a wicked past life all around her, and the name of a boy she once chose not to kill. While the setting is the city, backgrounds and action take a backseat to the character moments. There was plenty of reflective strife for Noto to shine his artistic brilliance on. Panel after panel with not much more than a facial expression, a look in the eye, and subtle body language; Noto says a thousand words. This issue is not completely without action, of course. Noto succeeds with dynamic movement by using realistic proportions of the body and space that create a relatable, visual story.

I really like that he doesn’t sex Laura up. She is wearing jeans and a leather jacket that are not particularly fitting. But it makes sense that Laura, given where she is in her mind and in her life, that she’d be barely concerned with the trappings of fashion. She would wear whatever is functional … or available. That cuts both ways, one could make the argument then that if she was in something more revealing, she wouldn’t care about that either. But here, in New York City, as X-23 is surrounded by an unsavory past, dressed casually with a look of contemplation, Noto really nails the emotional tone on the head.

Through Laura’s inner monologue, Marjorie Liu delicately shows Laura’s progression as a person. Once a prostitute letting others make choices for her, there is a slow warming in Laura by the empowerment of making her own choices, now. Liu shows her gradually breaking away from the dissociative nature that was forced upon her. Every choice Laura makes in this issue, even if they are minute, you can feel the gravity of them and the new perspective it is bringing her.

We also see Laura’s change through her relationship and interaction with Gambit. The bond between them is one that you know Laura needs and makes for tender moments like this: “Gambit, I smell blood, your wounds have opened. We need to fix you.” I kid, a little. But Liu does a good job of not forcing plot points. X-23 and Gambit’s friendship feels organic. As does the super-star cameos in this issue. Inevitably, Laura runs into trouble in the city in the form of fiery, mysterious symbols in the sky and falling buildings. Spider-Man to the rescue, of course, but Laura’s problems are far from over.

X-23 #13 is the part one of Chaos Theory and Marvel does an excellent little run-down of what has happened so far. If you haven’t already, this is a great jumping on point. Liu will make you care about Laura, and adding Noto to the equation makes this book a must-have.

 

Secret Six #36

Written by Gail Simone

Art by Jim Calafiore and John Kalisz

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

"I am bound for Hell, Miss Spencer. I will not go there as a comedy."

While Bane is the mouthpiece, ultimately, these are Gail Simone's last words of defiance, reader conventions be damned, in her final issue of Secret Six, a long-overlooked but astonishingly consistent gem in DC's publishing lineup. Whereas Marvel's Thunderbolts always seemed firmly planted in darkness and malice, Simone did something different: She made the Secret Six violent, flawed, conflicted, and most surprisingly of all, funny.

Well, no one's laughing anymore. And for Secret Six, that might be the best exit of all.

Maybe it's because Bane is going to be in The Dark Knight Rises — maybe it's because this was the last issue. Either way, Gail Simone wipes the smile off everyone's faces with her finale, reminding everyone that our heroes are still the bad guys. This is the last score, the final hurrah, and the man who broke the Bat isn't going to go quietly into the night. No, he's hatched a plan to break Bruce Wayne at his most vulnerable — but Simone smartly rides the wave of seventy years of superhero stories, and takes a whole new angle on the idea of good guys always winning. This is a sad ending for a team that, when you dig down deep, has always been a bit of a sad group: "We're the Secret Six," Catman says. "We're always outmatched. And we never win."

But the reason why you're sad? Because Simone has always, always made you care about this team, no matter how dark, screwed-up, or just plain horrible they can be. And while this last issue occasionally has some issues with pacing, that's only because Simone is being incredibly ambitious, really giving a nice sense of closure to so many characters in the span of 20 pages. Bane of course steals the show, as he shrugs off the softening effects of being a leader, a father figure, and a lover, but even smaller moments, like Catman and Deadshot getting their last digs in at each other, really rewards the long-time reader while giving a little pang of sadness to even new readers.

Of course, Simone is racking up quite a lot of plot beats and action for 20 pages, so it's a good thing she has Jim Calafiore in her corner to make it all happen. In certain ways, Calafiore tosses aside the dictums of widescreen storytelling, because for Heaven's sake, he's got to make everything fit — and you know something? That works out just fine for this story, which focuses more on Calafiore's sense of mood, expression, and sheer body language. Thankfully, that's where an artist like Calafiore shines — in particular, the look of rage and desperation in the Six's faces as they hold their last stand is really powerful, and is a fantastic way to close the door on the little DC team that could.

While this is a top-notch issue, there are a few hiccups, with Simone's wrap-up of the Scandal-Liana-Knockout triangle coming off as a little too easy, and characters like Amanda Waller or Black Alice being shoehorned in with a little bit less context than they deserved. But that's an issue of ambition, not of craft — and Secret Six has never lacked both. This is a comic that's proved itself time and time again, and it's to Simone and Calafiore's credit that they topped their already high standards for this finale. Never will you cheer more for the bad guys.

 

Thunderbolts #161

Written by Jeff Parker

Art by Declan Shalvey, Frank Martin Jr., and Fabio D'Auria

Lettering by Albert Deschesne

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

In certain ways, Fear Itself is a saga that's a little bit double-edged. On the one hand, it's uncomplicated enough that it's easy to get into… but at the same time, having these flourishes of mythology on such a broad scale means there's a certain repetitiveness that washes out the diversity of the Marvel Universe.

Case in point: Thunderbolts. Don't get me wrong — from a visual and production standpoint, this series is still delightfully iconoclastic, with sharp, angular characters from Declan Shalvey being awash with burning greens and oranges from Frank Martin and Fabio D'Auria. But from a sheer story perspective, Fear Itself has put the Thunderbolts in a million different directions, and aside from one effectively tense scene, nothing takes enough to time to stick with you.

I guess the big problem that I have with this issue — and this isn't something I'm accustomed to saying about Jeff Parker — is that it's character overload. We've got Songbird, Ghost, Fixer, Mach-V, Moonstone, Satana, the Underbolts, the Fixer, the Worthy, Baron Zemo (?!), a horde of what you could call killer sea monkeys… it's a lot to take in, and even hardcore readers are going to have some issues picking up all the threads, especially when the Juggernaut pops in just long enough to zoom off into the distance. That's not something that's necessarily Parker's fault — Fear Itself is not exactly his baby, and I imagine in the grand scheme of plotting, Thunderbolts is pretty tangential to everything else — but as a single entity, it really doesn't grab.

Artwise, though, Declan Shalvey and colorists Frank Martin Jr. and Fabio D'Auria are still making Thunderbolts a real treat visually. It's far from the beaten path, but tonally, that's perfect for these characters and for Parker's writing style — scratchy lines, eye-popping colors, and a real flair for some nice action. One of the best scenes in this book involves Moonstone having to stop a runaway missile, and the sneer on her face makes for such a memorable image. She might save your life, after all, but don't call Carla Sofen a hero.

Despite how this review might read, this is not an indictment against Jeff Parker — he's not the only writer at Marvel who's had to tackle as nebulous a beast as Fear Itself, and the hazy focus and theme has popped up in plenty of other tie-ins. I do find myself looking forward to a post-Worthy Thunderbolts, however, because I know from experience what a fun, frenetic read this series can be. Once the Marvel Universe is done being hammered by beings from the other side of Asgard, I see nothing but sunny skies for the Thunderbolts.

 

Vampirella: Crown of Worms TPB

Written by Eric Trautmann

Art by Wagner Reis, Fabiano Neves, Walter Geovani and Inlight Studio

Lettering by Marchall Dillon

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Review by Tim Janson

When I was a kid, buying the old Warren black-and-white Vampirella magazines, I remember smuggling them in the house and hiding them from my mom in the closet.  I was worried I’d get in trouble over the very risqué covers of those old mags.  Vampirella has been kicked around a bit since the Warren days.  Harris Comics published the adventures for about a number of years although their stories were generally little more than titillation for teenage boys.

Dynamite acquired the rights in 2010.  This book collects Vampirella #1 – 7.  Despite the cover featuring Vampi in her trademark barely there one-piece that hallowed costume is barely seen in the context of the story.  This Vampirella is decked out in pants and a leather trench coat.  It might not be as sexy but it’s a lot more practical.  Eric Trautmann’s story has Vampirella investigating a nightclub that she believes is home to a nest of vampires.  However she ends up getting much more than she bargained for when she battles LeFanu, Dracula’s Lieutenant who has been mutated by a horror older than time itself.  Vampirella soon has to team with her old enemy to defeat the ancient evil.

Crown of Worms has a definitely Lovecraft influence.  The ancient creature even has a very Lovecraftian name—Yad-Ath Vermellus—and its origins certainly hint at being something from outside of our world.  Vampirella is all bad-ass.  She dispatches enemy vamps with precision and gusto.

Trautmann’s story is complemented by beautiful artwork from Wagner Reis, Fabiano Neves and Walter Geovani.  Their art is squirms with dark delights and bubbles off the page with blood, worms, and maggots.  Frankly I haven’t enjoyed Vampirella this much since I was sneaking those old magazines many years ago.  And look, if you’re disappointed that Vampy isn’t dressed in her usual garb, don’t worry.  Dynamite has include a 30 page cover gallery of all the regular and variant covers from the likes of Alex Ross, Joe Jusko, Joe Maduriera, J. Scott, Campbell, as well as the three story artists, and the all feature Vampirella in the costume we know and love.

I’m ecstatic to see Vampirella in the hands of Dynamite Studios who have revived Red Sonja as well.  They have an excellent track record and I think they will do great things with the character.  If I can get up on the soapbox a bit, I do think it would be a nice thing for Dynamite to include a byline saying “Vampirella created by Forrest Ackerman.”  I think that would be a great gesture to the late, great Ackerman.

 

Black Jack Volume 15

Written by Osamu Tezuka

Art by Osamu Tezuka

Published by Vertical Inc.

Review by Scott Cederlund

An actress whose secret surgeries were performed by a mysterious doctor.  A boy who is sprouting leaves all over his body.  A family who has a tragic weakness to sunlight.  A young man who had to leave his island home when everyone on the island fell sick and died.  A brilliant artist who seeks only a bit more life.  The mysterious doctor whose hands suddenly fail him when he’s performing surgery.  These are just a few of the short tales found in Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack Volume 15.

Tezuka spent about 10 years writing and drawing the adventures of Black Jack, the underground surgeon whose skill comes with a heavy cost to those seeking his service.  As the tales in this volume show, Black Jack is a difficult character to get a handle on.   On one hand, Black Jack is a mercenary, going where ever the money is.  In the story "A Happening At Dawn," he hounds a family for payment after he saved their son with an emergency operation. He tracks down everyone even remotely associated with the family to find someone ultimately responsible for the boy's condition and, therefore, responsible for his payment.  But the mercenary side of him is only one part of his personality.  In another story, "Dialogue with the Dead," he helps out two people, a medical student and a prisoner, change their lives by almost simply being a presence in both lives.  More often than not, he's a comforting and healing man but Tezuka doesn't paint him as being merely a simple man.  He's full of contradictions, more like one of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti western heroes than a simple healer.  With Black Jack Volume 15, Tezuka demonstrates how he can tell simple stories but how he created a complicated hero.

It's interesting to see in Tezuka's artwork how he will do anything he needs to do in order to tell his story.  This book showcases his animation-influenced style, often owing more to Walt Disney than any other artist, as his characters are always in motion.  His clear style gives the reader a lot to work with to help fill in the space between the panels.  While he sticks mostly to his simple but descriptive style, he's also willing to go ultra-cartoony or truly realistic as the story demands.  Whenever he shows clear details of the surgeries that Black Jack performs, the drawings become very detailed medical drawings, owing a lot to his own past medical studies.  When he needs to exaggerate a reaction or an emotion, he's willing to go far into the realms of cartooning and fantasy, showing people with pig heads to show their greed or stupidity.

Any volume of Black Jack is a good introduction to Tezuka because you can see the range of stories he can tell.  Sometimes it's difficult to reconcile the meditative cartoonist of Buddha with the energetic storyteller of Astro Boy or the darkly morose writer and artist of Ayako but you see evidence of all of those sides of Tezuka and more in each volume of Black JackBlack Jack is Tezuka's career wrapped up in 20-page stories as he explores personal ethics, vanity, pride, the environment and personal responsibility in the pages of this latest volume.  His larger works dive into those themes far more than these short stories do but you can see Tezuka exploring the same thoughts and ideas in Black Jack that he does in his other work.  While there is far better Tezuka to dive into, Black Jack Volume 15 (or any volume of this series, for that matter) provide an excellent introduction to the artist and his work.

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