Best Shots Comic Reviews: THE SHADE, ULTIMATE X-MEN, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Zonked from all the New York Comic Con coverage? Good thing Best Shots never sleeps, as the team has taken on a number of this week's big releases. Marvel, DC, Drawn and Quarterly, even some new creator-owned books get some love. So let's kick off the column with Scott Cederlund, as he looks at James Robinson's return to Opal City with this first issue of The Shade...


The Shade #1

Written by James Robinson

Art by Cully Hamner and Dave McCaig

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by DC Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"October brings melancholy."

James Robinson opens The Shade #1 with that line and repeats it again at the very end. The Shade, sitting on a rooftop patio, enjoying the company of an old friend, the blue-skinned Starman Mikaal. The line is the same at both points in the story but ends up meaning two completely different things thanks to James Robinson's story in between. It's been far too long since Robinson bid adieu to Starman and Jack Knight, as he left his home to find his true love out west but Robinson's simple and playful story in this issue brings all of the memories of the action, of the characters and of the Shade flooding back as he steps comfortably back into Opal City. Shade was one of Robinson's more complicated characters in Starman, a villain but never a bad guy. Shade was as much Jack Knight's mentor as Ted Knight, Jack's father was, able to teach the hero lessons that another hero couldn't. By the end of the series, Shade still wasn't a hero but he also wasn't necessarily a villain. He was a man who fought to protect the city and the people he loved.

This issue is expressly about the search for an adventure. "October brings melancholy" is not a mission statement or a resignation but a symptom of an ennui brewing in Shade. Mikaal recognizes it on the patio and maybe feels the same way as Shade. The issue opens with Mikaal trying to coerce a story out of Shade, an origin story. All Shade is willing to give up is that October's melancholy is partly caused by the fact that Shade received his powers in this month. Later, Shade finds himself in the same funk around Hope O'Dare, his lover. She tries to snap him out of it, telling him to go off and find an adventure. She wants the rapscallion that she fell in love with, not the morose man before her who has lost his focus.

That adventure, for better or worse, ends up finding him. An assassin is sent after him and while he thinks this is just the type of adventure that Hope told him to find, he cruelly discovers that he is not quite as clever or quick as he once was. He is not the heartless villain of the past and he's not the unbeatable hero that his world seems to be so full of. "October brings melancholy" at the end of the issue means something completely different than it did at the beginning. There's a melancholy of the soul and a melancholy of actions at work in this issue as Robinson returns to Opal City and returns to a character that he once spoke as clearly through as he did Jack Knight, his hero and his Starman.

This first issue begins with bright and bold art, thanks to Cully Hamner. Recalling a bit of original Starman artist Tony Harris's bold line work, Hamner's clean linework and clear storytelling nicely compliments Robinson's wordplay. About half of the book feature characters talking, trying to diagnose Shade's melancholy and spur the character into some kind of action. Hamner uses these pages to show who the characters are in the way they lounge around or share a bit of pillow talk. These moments are not action packed or particularly exciting but Hamner makes them that way because he takes Robinson's story and helps give the characters life, whether it is Shade's pride or Hope's confidence or Mikaal's longing. Robinson gives them words but Hamner gives them a presence on the page.

That is not to say that Hamner cannot do action. The character work he accomplishes in the more quiet scenes is on display as well in this issue's two big action sequences. The first, introducing German detective William Von Hammer, builds that character the same way that Shade's rooftop scene built him. Von Hammer is a man of action; he's a fighter and a brawler and Hamner draws an exciting and energetic action scene. The second action scene features the less contemplative and more confrontational part of Shade. Hamner shows the confidence and pride that Shade has going into battle and the shock when the fight does not go the way he expected.  

James Robinson is at his best when he is able to play with words and that’s what Shade gives him; a character who enjoys words as much as the author does. Returning to Opal City and Shade, Robinson steps into the past, picking up where he left off with these characters and he expresses a joy of storytelling that has been lost in a lot of his recent work. These characters feel special to him and that comes through in Shade #1 as Robinson proves that Opal City is where he belongs.


Ultimate Comics X-Men #2

Written by Nick Spencer

Art by Paco Medina, Juan Vlasco, and Marte Gracia

Letters by Joe Sabino

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Click here for preview

In the spirit of walking through new doors, I've decided in the last few months to take my first excursions in Marvel's "Ultimate" line. I dove in with Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Ultimate Comics X-Men. So far, between the two titles, I'm 50/50 in my continued interest. In the case of Nick Spencer's X-Men, for someone who has no concept of these characters, this isn't a great place to get to know them. Things start out at a breakneck pace, and while that's often a good thing in these introductory arcs, in this case it seems like important beats are just passing me by, with characters coming and going in a single scene, and references to an overarching plot that feels like it started somewhere else. I feel like the ball is quickly rolling downhill, and Spencer is just kind of running after it, hoping to pick it back up after he catches his breath.

For starters, it's hard to get a handle on who the characters actually are. It's only the second issue of the series, and I already feel like I need a recap page to explain everything that I wasn't a part of. Two of the big through-lines in this issue are Rogue's former relationship with Iceman, and I guess, Kitty Pryde, and the idea that "God," or some concept thereto, is playing a major role in shaping the outcome of these events. In the case of the former, it just makes me feel like I'm a guest at a party where everyone else knows each other, and I'm standing there with a drink, nodding my head and trying to find a way in to the conversation. In the case of the latter, I feel like the "God" angle is a reference to something I never read, like if I got where it was coming from, I'd be getting much more out of the story. That may not be the case, either, but the rest of the book sure makes me feel like it is.

While the plotting isn't Spencer's best work (and he's done some great stuff in the past), the actual dialogue is fun, and convincing. Paco Medina's art is also a highlight; his lines are clean, and his storytelling is clear. He's able to wrench out some very dynamic panels without sacrificing layout and readability. He's very much coming into his own after a strong but choppy run on "X-Men" proper.

Really, when you get down to it, this isn't really even a poorly written comic; it's just a terrible gateway into a world that's bogged down with continuity just as intricate as the one it was designed to replace. The whole time I was reading the book, I felt how someone must feel when they pick up their first issue of a long running series, with no idea of which way is up, no way to get to know the characters, and no tour guide into a very thick and foreboding jungle. Fans of previous incarnations of Ultimate Comics X-Men will probably find a lot to love in this continued saga, but those readers just trying to make their way in will feel lost and a little bored.


Green Lantern #2

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Keith Champagne, and David Baron

Lettering by Sal Cipriand

Published by DC Comics

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Click here for preview

Of all the #1 DC books I picked up, I think that Green Lantern was one of the most disappointing. It felt like no effort at all was made to make the book new reader friendly, and the comic should have been titled Green Lantern #68, because it felt like an epilogue to War of the Green Lanterns. The whole point of the DCnU is to attract new readers to DC’s books, but if I were an Average Joe who had just seen the Green Lantern movie, and then picked up the first issue of the series, I’d at least expect to see Hal Jordan in the role of GL. As it is, we got a story that felt bogged down by continuity, featuring a depowered and downtrodden Hal Jordan, and Sinestro as a newly appointed GL. Even as someone who read the entirety of Geoff Johns’ run on the title, I found the issue to be quite a false start, and completely uninspired.

Sadly, the plot of this second issue feels to be just more of the same. The entire issue centers around Sinestro trying to teach Hal that he’s been squandering his powers, and has never fully utilized the true potential of the ring. The argument is preachy and somewhat flawed, and the fact that Hal just ignores the advice makes him look impetuous and arrogant - it’s like the character hasn’t grown at all in the last six years! We do at least get to see Hal back in his role as a GL in this issue, but the ring that Sinestro gives him only grants him with limited powers. The most confusing part of the story is that Sinestro’s powers seem to have been amped up significantly - and his ring can now make permanent physical structures, as see when he reconstructs a collapsed bridge with very little effort. He’s even able to create a brand new ring for Hal! How this came to be, we are not told, and Hal never seems to wonder.

Johns uses no narration, monologue, or exposition of any kind in this issue, and tells the story entirely through dialog and the artwork. Exposition has become a bit of a dirty word in comics these days, but when used properly it can provide important background information to the reader. Therefore, a little exposition wouldn’t have gone amiss here, and would have been incredibly useful to help new readers out! Johns’ dialog in this issue is pretty good, but doesn’t really make up for the other flaws in the story.

Doug Mahnke is a great artist, who has worked on a lot of great DC titles that I have enjoyed. However, I don’t think that he is being used to his full potential on this book, as the book has a very standard superhero style look to it, which seems to unify the whole Green Lantern family of titles. That is to say that it has nice clean linework, where all the men are muscle bound and have chiseled jaws, all the women are beautiful and buxom, and the action is clear and easy to follow. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it just seems very stylized and lacks creativity or individuality. He does get to draw a few light constructs in this issue, but not really anything spectacular.

Christian Alamy and Keith Champagne both ink the issue, and it’s hard to see the seams between their styles. That being said, most of the inking seems to be just tracing over Mahnke’s pencils with a medium line-weight, or filling blacks. There are a few nice finishes here and there, but all in all, there is very little flare to the inks.

David Baron is the colorist on the book, and much like the inking, the colors are pretty much by the numbers. It’s not a bad color job at all, but it’s just a bit plain and average. There’s very little in the way of shading or texturing going on, and there are a few too many Photoshop light effects going on for my taste.

Green Lantern #2 continues the disappointing start to the new series, with an underwhelming story, and some artwork that at best could be called average. If the series doesn’t pick up soon, this could become one of my first “New 52” titles that I drop.


American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #5

Written by Scott Snyder

Art by Sean Murphy and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Pat Brosseau

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Last year, it seemed like every comic book I read had vampires in it. It got to the point where I became so sick of them that I dropped every comic featuring vampires in any capacity. Well, it wasn’t long before I regretted this, as I soon began to suffer serious withdrawal from American Vampire, and had to rush to the store and pick up the issues I had missed! What sets American Vampire apart from the other titles I was reading was that it wasn’t just jumping on the bandwagon, but was telling fascinating and original stories in which vampirism was an essential component. In addition, it took a different approach to the mythology, to create a new and unique slant on the immortal bloodsuckers!

The ‘Survival of the Fittest’ spin-off revisits some of the more interesting characters from previous arcs, as they are sent to Germany, during the height of WWII, to investigate rumors about a cure to Vampirism. The miniseries thus far has been gripping and tense, and has revealed fascinating new details about the world of American Vampire.

In this final issue, everything comes to a head as our protagonists make their escape from a remote German castle, pursued by Nazi vampires, while they also fend of an attack from an ancient breed of gigantic vampires. Oh, and did I mention the gun that shoots sunlight?! It’s an issue packed with thrilling action scenes and electrifying drama. These scenes are well paced, and Snyder brings the fray to a close in breathtaking and heartbreaking fashion! While it’s undoubtedly a climactic issue, Snyder leaves room for a touching epilogue that brings the book to a poignant conclusion. Being an action packed issue, Snyder refrains from using exposition or thought boxes, and lets Sean Murphy’s artwork do most of the storytelling, setting an exhilarating pace, which carries the reader along in its wake! Snyder’s dialog has a natural feel to it, which is mostly due to the fact that he has developed the lead characters so well in previous issues that you feel like you know them. The scene where Cash sings the opening of Star Spangled Banner... well, I won’t ruin it for you, but that’s some smart writing right there. I also love the fact that he closes the issue with the same monologue that he opened issue #1 with, but now it conveys quite a different message. Bravo!

Sean Murphy’s artwork on this comic is just astonishing! His linework has an amazingly detailed, and yet somehow sketchy feeling to it. His characters have realistic and well-defined anatomy, and an array of highly expressive facial features. His Nazi vampires are ferocious and threatening, and their ancient cousins look grotesque and monstrous. All of the military vehicles and machinery that he draws is intricately composed, and he’s obviously done a lot of research on WWII ordnance. The battle scenes in the issue are incredibly busy, but Murphy manages to keep the reader’s eye focused on the main characters, and the flow of the action is always clear.

The slightly sketchy feeling of the linework extends to Murphy’s inking, where instead of just filling black spaces digitally, you can see his brushstrokes as he’s filled them by hand, and can see little gaps of white space left peaking out through the blacks. It’s a wonderful inking job, and he pulls all sorts out of his back of tricks, with some great finishes on figures, brilliant use of force lines to make motion look fluid, and some gorgeous texturing with hatching and screentone dots.

Dave Stewart colors the book, and you couldn’t ask for a better colorist. Whatever the scene, Stewart has an uncanny knack for picking exactly the right hue, shade, tint, and tone to bring the images to life, and jump off the page! Here, he uses color to add even more nuance to characters and backgrounds, and uses panel washes to give the book a unique and somber look. I also applaud the fact that he never resorts to tacky digital lighting effects on explosions in the battle sequences. In fact, one of my favorite panels from the book is a tank explosion, where Stewart has recolored Murphy’s beautiful brushwork in dark orange, and used a lighter orange in the background to give the sense of illumination. The whole panel is very simple, and only uses two or three colors, but is incredibly striking!

American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #5 is an amazing climax to a thrilling miniseries. With a great story and amazing artwork, it excels on all fronts. I hope we see this team reunite for future minis with these characters!


Batgirl #2

Written by Gail Simone

Art by Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes and Ulises Arreola

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Click here for preview

Why Batgirl?

It's an honest question. Considering the controversy of turning Barbara Gordon from a paraplegic information broker to a jumping, leaping and kicking superhero, there has to be a reason with more depth than simple brand recognition. Unfortunately, two issues into the new run on Batgirl, Gail Simone hasn't answered these questions yet, resulting in a book that's high on low-calorie action without the striking artwork to back it up.

In a lot of ways, it feels like Simone is trying to channel Chuck Dixon in this script — fast pace, lots of fisticuffs, and a personable internal monologue to keep everyone in the loop on what's going on. Yet there are a number of missteps in the script, ranging from the juvenile ("Batgirl may have choked, mister… but I won't.") to stuff that sounds like teenage poetry ("Why are the questions I'm asking so dark to me?") But considering accessibility was priority one for the New 52, Simone is "mission accomplished" there.

But it's hard to get invested in a fight sequence when you care neither about the hero or the villain: Barbara's M.O., either as the daughter of a cop, a recently-recovered paraplegic, or even someone who's (presumably) worked under the shadow of Batman either never gets fleshed out, or is touched upon so late in the game that you're already snoozing. They say a hero is only as good as the villains they face, and that's the other big problem that Barbara Gordon faces here: her bad guy is totally bland. The Mirror has a standard my-family-is-dead origin, a fairly standard lots-of-strength-plus-lightshow power set, and his design is about as unmemorable as it gets.

That last critique brings me to Ardian Syaf. If he's the one responsible for the Mirror's design, he definitely missed the mark — black cape with a white chest oval and a hood? Come on. But just on the technical standpoint, his sense of composition really doesn't make good use of the page — I mentioned Chuck Dixon earlier, but the reason why his Nightwing scripts worked so well is because Scott McDaniel knew how to make every shot line up for the maximum amount of spotlight and speed. One panel of the Mirror suplexing Batgirl looks particularly impossible, and even small continuity details — like Batgirl's hair popping in and out of panels on the same page — get lost in the mix.

Combine all this with still no explanation behind Barbara's status quo, and you wind up with a sophomore issue that has little weight behind its knuckles. It's fine to not answer that question, but there needs to be something a little bit deeper than fighting about "miracles." The real question at hand: Why Batgirl? Until Gail Simone can answer that question, it feels like Barbara Gordon's relaunch could have used a little bit more preparation.


Power Play #1

Written by Kurt Christenson

Art by Reilly Brown

Available on ComiXology

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

What's most revolutionary about Power Play isn't so much the storyline or even its slick-looking art, but the method in which Kurt Christenson and Reilly Brown have delivered their book to readers. As popular as the ComiXology platform has been, it's always been an imperfect translation from the printed page to portable devices such as iPhones and iPods — but no longer.

Power Play is a comic for the portable generation. Instead of turning your phone sideways and upwards from panel to panel, there's a smoothness in transition in this book, particularly through Brown's art, and that alone makes this a book worth looking at. (99 cents doesn't hurt, either.) Just small details like the "cut" moving diagonally to match the action is a great effect, and is really one of the first comics I can remember to take full advantage of the ComiXology platform as a reading experience, not just a distribution center.

So how does this work in terms of story? There's an exuberance to Power Play, buoyed much by Brown's clean, cartoony art, even if there are also a few rough edges that could be smoothed out along the way. The plot reminds me a lot of Top Cow's Freshmen, showing that superpowers and college dorms can mix together about as well as Jameson and Coke (or tequila and warm Gatorade, depending on how much your friends hate you).

Kurt Christenson is clearly more at home with the superpowered tournament known as Power Play, in which "the baddest of the bad" play a knock-down, drag-out game of capture the flag, giving a kinetic introduction to the various heroes and powers of this world. It's when we introduce our main college-aged characters that the story does drag down a little bit, as these protagonists still feel a bit like stock characters rather than something more three-dimensional. It's not entirely their fault, but seeing a comic book-loving geek in the lead is something I've seen before, and it's something I rarely see actually get justified by a series' end.

The real selling point for this book, however, is the artwork. Reilly Brown was criminally underappreciated on his run on Incredible Hercules, and he's really going for the jugular in this creator-owned book. Brown's sense of design is particularly sharp, with characters like Ice Queen having a Dazzler-esque vibe, while the hoodie-wearing, tentacle-wielding Gowanus Pete has a wild energy underneath his baggy clothes. Brown has a very open and inviting style to his artwork, and he's able to really make the most out of some comedic beats just due to the expressions he gives characters. It's no understatement to say that it's Brown's involvement that really elevates this book and makes it a memorable work.

While the Freshmen-meets-Mortal Kombat theme isn't necessarily the most original concept in the world, there's no denying that this team is having a blast, and that level of joy in these pages can become contagious. The ease of reading on a portable platform is the real win for Power Play, as Christenson and Brown are recognizing an underleveraged platform in an era when innovation is crucial to the comic book industry. Everyone has a comic shop in their pocket, so why not tailor your reading experience to fit the bill? But just because it's small screen doesn't mean it's small time — Power Play gets in on the action early, and with Reilly Brown drawing it, this is a 99-cent investment that definitely makes good.


The Death-Ray

Written by Daniel Clowes

Art by Daniel Clowes

Published by Drawn & Quarterly

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Death-Ray is Daniel Clowes at his captivating best, a story that's brutally stark as Andy, a teenager who discovers that he gets super strength when he smokes, realizes he has the power to change the world even if he doesn't have the maturity or wisdom to do it. It sounds ridiculous and childish, maybe even reckless- gaining super strength through smoking but that is not really what Clowes' story is about. There's an adventure story here but it is just a wrapper for the author's real story about the uncertainty of growing up and how at one time or another we all think we've got the world figured out and know how to fix it. Of course, most of us come to realize that we don't have the answers or have control over anything more than our own lives. Somehow or other, few of Clowes's characters ever learn those real lessons or figure out how to live in the real world. They get by somehow, lonely in a world that's full of people.

Clowes' stories are about relationships, how we want them to work and how they ultimately fail. The Death-Ray focuses begins with a focus on Andy's relationship with his best friend Louie but there's also a long distance relationship with a girl who Andy believes is his girlfriend, a relationship with a schoolwork/bully, a relation with an aging grandfather and a relationship to a dead father. Clowes's story is more about defining Andy through those relationships than through any fantastical powers or wish fulfillment.

Andy is a character that none of us wish to be but who we may see a bit more of ourselves in than we are comfortable with. A high school kid who can easily see how unfair the world is, Andy thinks he knows how to make the world better and that he has the responsibility to do so. After all, if he is not going to save the world, who is? Clowes hits on that moment in our lives where we mistakenly believe we've become an adult while we're even more childish than ever. That's where Andy is and really all of the people around him. They see the world in clearly defined right and wrong; basically they are right and everyone else is wrong. It's a child's view of the world that Clowes' characters have.

While Clowes' story is about Andy trying to figure out what he can do to try and make his life better, Clowes does give him the powers and does throw the bit of action/adventure into this book. This is Clowes' Spider-Man story. He even goes as far as homaging Amazing Fantasy #15 to give Andy his "with great power comes great responsibility moment." Unfortunately, it's only in a fantasy sequence and Andy focuses more on the tragedy of Uncle Ben's death rather on the lessons that Peter Parker (i.e. Andy himself) was supposed to learn. Andy is Peter Parker without the comic book clear wisdom of right and wrong. Like many of us, Andy has probably grown up on Marvel comics, where it's easy to get caught up in the flashy costumes and incredible powers of those stories without ever really understanding the characters or themes that were built behind those costumes.

Daniel Clowes is a brutal storyteller. His artwork is stark and unflinching because he doesn’t pull any punches in it. He doesn’t try to be exciting or pretty but his art is still shocking because he shows his of how plain it is. Even when he tries to show Andy in a super-hero costume, he draws it looking as ridiculous on the page as it would in real life. His characters can’t hide because Clowes’ story reveals them even as it breaks them down. Clowes is a very traditional comic book artist; his pages are designed as pages and not as collections of images that just happen to be put together. Clowes finds his excitement and energy not in the individual drawings but in how they’re arranged together on the page because Clowes isn’t just a writer or an artist but he is a comic book storyteller. The Death-Ray is an exciting book not because of Clowes frank drawings but because of the way his blunt images lull the reader in and then smack them in the face as the story reveals just how little any of the characters actually grow up. 

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