Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for some bite-sized, super-filling reviews of this week's latest releases? Then clear your plates and take a seat, as Best Shots is cooking with some serious fire in this week's Rapid-Fire Reviews! So let's kick off with a... unique father-son experience, as Erika takes a look at the fourth issue of Batman and Robin...
Batman and Robin #4 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Erika D. Peterman; ’Rama Rating: 8 out of 10; Click here for preview): Technically, Batman and Robin is a superhero comic. But when you get down to it, it’s really a story about a man who is learning to become a father and the psychologically damaged, infuriating child he’s trying to raise. That’s what has made this book one of the best of the re-launched bunch, and required reading for Bat-fans. I’ll say it again: Damian, that polarizing little devil, is one of the most riveting characters in the DCU, and Peter Tomasi knows exactly how to write him. The boy’s overconfidence and lack of self-control have landed him (and now Batman) in a frightening fix with the villain NoBody, making for a terrifically intense opening scenario. It’s an exciting nail-biter to be sure, one that is vividly illustrated by illustrator Patrick Gleason. However, the intimate character moments are what make Batman and Robin more than just a good capes saga. The exchange between Bruce and Damian in the Batcave is perfectly executed, and it should resonate with any parent who has tried to reason with a headstrong child. John Kalisz’s moody color scheme is just right for this issue. I loved his use of dark teal and softly glowing yellow in a quiet scene of Damian on the manor grounds, surrounded by fireflies. Maybe NoBody isn't the most memorable villain on Gotham’s deep roster, but his presence serves the story just fine. Batman and Robin is taking readers on an unpredictable and very satisfying journey.
Uncanny X-Force #18 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by David Pepose; 'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10; Click here for preview): Why can't more comics be like this? Rick Remender, Jerome Opena and Esad Ribic score a home run with the conclusion of "The Dark Angel Saga," a haunting, sometimes even beautiful ending for an often-overlooked member of the X-Men family. Heck, I should say several. With Warren Worthington having been fully corrupted by the Archangel persona, Remender ties together all the various threads from the past 18 issues with a manic intensity that is scary with how much it makes sense. Yet for me, that speed and reckless energy only helps to make the slower moments have more meaning, with a final reckoning between Psylocke and Archangel that is one of the saddest and most heart-breaking sequences I've read in years. Jerome Opena takes a little bit to loosen up, but once he does, you know why he's the master, creating some nice big panels that play with camera angle and composition, making every image look powerful, imposing, even realistic. There's a great sequence with Archangel zooming down the side of a building, with Chinese street signs littering the wall like a deadly obstacle course. Esad Ribic's artwork looks a little bit off in comparison, with his expressions for some older characters looking a little distracting, particularly with their eyes, but that's not to say his pacing and composition isn't still rock-solid. But it's the emotional heart to this book — seriously, am I really talking about the emotional heart of Uncanny X-Force? I guess I just did — that makes this book so powerful. Action, twists, soul? To paraphrase a character in this book, you did enough, Rick. You did more than enough.
27: Second Set #4 (Published by Image Comics; Review by Vanessa Gabriel; 'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10; Click here for preview): Charles Soule and Renzo Podesta conclude another great mini-series in 27: Second Set #4. Soule tells an edgy story, anthropomorphizing fame and darkness. They play god with the lives of Garland, legendary guitarist, and former pop star Valerie Hayes. Garland and Valerie are made to give a performance for their lives for literally the entire world to see. Garland sees the depravity in such a gamble, but Valerie desperately and blindly thirsts for fame. While Valerie would die to shine again, the art is the true star of this show. Podesta outdoes himself in Issue #4. The simplicity, bold lines, striking perspectives, and stylized design make every page beautiful or brilliant or both. The way he uses color and light are fantastic, and the expressiveness that he gives the characters tells the bulk of the story. If you dream of being famous, take a gander at the face of Fame on page 15. You might reconsider. When Garland realizes the price that Fame is charging to do what he loves, how will he make it worth it? 27: Second Set #4 is figurative meets literal in a bold commentary on the cost and curse of celebrity. I think an encore is in order. Demon Knights #4 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Edward Kaye; ’Rama Rating: 6 out of 10; Click here for preview): Demon Knights got off to a bit of a rocky start, due to the fact that Cornell introduced about 20 characters with long names in the first two issues, which I think may have scared off a lot of new readers. I stuck with the book though, mainly due to my affinity for the legacy DC characters that the book featured, and I think by the third issue the story had really begun to hit its stride. However, this fourth issue throws us a bit of a curve ball, because right as it feels like we’re abut to enter a big battle sequence, Cornell decides to have Shining Knight receive a vision from Merlin. This vision, which lasts for about 75% of the comic, consists of a flashback to the fall of Camelot, and Merlin giving a rather lengthy lecture that reveals that Shining Knight must seek the Holy Grail, which forgive me if I’m wrong, is something that she was already doing. It’s not that it’s a badly written sequence per se, but it just feels terribly out of place, and ruins the flow of the story completely. The artwork on this issue is rather fantastic, and evokes an enchanting feeling of adventure, more so even than previous issues, I think due to the much improved color job by Marcel Mailo. Demon Knights #4 feels like a bit of a misstep as far as story goes, I’m sticking with it for now, but if the next issue doesn’t solidify the plot, then I may be forced to drop it.
Baltimore: The Curse Bells #5 (Published by Dark Horse Comics; Review by Edward Kaye; ’Rama Rating: 10 out of 10): I was a fan of Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola’s original Baltimore novel, but the character really came to life for me with the first comic series, and this latest mini has cemented the series’ position as one of my favorite horror comics. What I love best about the series is that while the story features a vampire as the protagonist, it’s anything but a vampire story, and is really the story of this grim determined man, so intent on his revenge that he seems to have lost part of his own humanity. Baltimore has become a stoic and unshakable character, who has seen so much horror in his life that he takes everything in his stride, even great atrocities. This final issue of the current series is packed full enough horrors to delight even hardened veterans of the macabre, we get zombie nuns tearing a corpse apart, a crazed preacher torturing innocents in the name of god, a resurrected witch whose body is composed entirely of vampire blood, and much more. It’s definitely a gory climax, and Ben Steinbeck brings it all to life with some wonderfully eerie visuals, particularly those featuring the witch. Together with Dave Stewart he’s composed some creepy panels where she is illustrated just in black and red, evoking a haunting feeling that will likely give you nightmares. Baltimore: The Curse Bells #5 is a perfect finale for an outstanding miniseries. I can’t wait for more, it’s a great time to be a fan of horror comics!
Suicide Squad #4 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Aaron Duran; 'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10; Click here for preview): I will admit, when Issue #1 of Suicide Squad hit, I got swept up in the DC nerd rage over the new costumes and supermodel Amanda Waller. After a decidedly lackluster debut, I wrote the book off. Four months later, I have to go looking for Issue #2 and #3. Suicide Squad is the very definition of growing with a title. The story isn't all that groundbreaking. The Squad faces insurmountable odds, all while doing their best to not kill each other. Like I said, nothing all that special. However, writer Adam Glass is really getting a handle on these characters, particularly Deadshot and Harley Quinn. While Glass hasn't brought this book to Secret Six levels of awesome (which is really what we readers want), he's sowing the seeds for such growth. For now, the title's greatest hindrance is penciler Federico Dallocchio. While his panel layout and design are strong, the overall linework is rather inconsistent. Character proportions go a tad wonky, with characters suffering from "big body, tiny head" syndrome. And while I should probably get over the whole Amanda Waller thing, I can't tell if Federico is slowly trying to draw her back into the size we all know and love. Again, it comes down to a case of consistency. Thankfully, a good colorist can cover a lot of mistakes and Val Staples deserves much of the credit for raising Dallocchio's line work. Indeed, Staples' shadowing and color work provide most of the emotional resonance with the characters. Suicide Squad still has a long way to go. That being said, if this growth continues we're going to start looking at this book as one of DC's most enjoyable reads.
Star Wars: Agent of the Empire #1 (Published by Dark Horse Comics; Review by Jeff Marsick; ‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10): This book is basically out to answer the question: "What if James Bond existed in the Star Wars universe?" It's an interesting concept that departs from the usual Jedi-versus-somebody-rinse-and-repeat formula many of these Dark Horse stories subscribe to, but John Ostrander's script is so on-the-nose with the double-oh-seven mimic that it quickly pulls the reader out of the book. A pair of notable groaners are when rakishly cool Jahan Cross, special agent for Empire intelligence, meets with the two Q analogs in the Imperial Intelligence tech research and development: one being Alessi Quon (get it? His last name starts with 'Q') and Pew (get it? Rhymes with 'Q'). Their disdain for Cross using their equipment without regard for returning it in one piece is practically lifted straight out of the movies. The plot is a little convoluted and I wish there had been more show than tell because the most interesting part is when Cross literally runs into Han Solo and his companion on the run from jilted sabacc players. Stephane Roux's artwork is excellent, coupled with nice inking work by Julien Hugonnard-Bert, although I question why Cross's female droid, IN-GA 44, would be designed with stiletto-heeled feet. It's a pretty book with a nice action sequence, but prone to being overly wordy and occasionally slapstick-y. I hope the next issue steps it up.
Doctor Who #12 (Published by IDW Publishing; Review by Scott Cederlund; ‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10): For once, the Doctor plays the part of companion as he helps Santa Claus deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. Stumbling across Santa being accosted by robots dressed as him and trying to steal his bag of toys, the Doctor defends Santa and helps him recover the bag and get all of Santa’s work still done in one night. Tony Lee and Paul Grist present a story that has fun excitement, sweet moments and even one page that will just break your heart in this Christmas tale where everyone gets what they want for one night of the year. Lee’ mostly wordless story gives Grist an open canvas for his wonderfully theatrical artwork. Grist captures the movements and expressions of the 11th Doctor so perfectly that no words are needed to let us know who this sprightly character is.
Jingle Belle: Gift-Wrapped (Published by Image Comics/Top Cow Productions; Review by Amanda McDonald; 'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10): For those of us that lean a little more toward naughty than nice, or are looking for a recommendation for teen comic readers, Paul Dini's Jingle Belle: Gift-Wrapped is a Christmas story that really shouldn't be missed. Jingle is the rebellious daughter of Santa and the Mrs., and while she's bounced around from publisher to publisher since her creation, she seems to have happily settled in with Image, earning herself a one-shot this holiday season. Gift-Wrapped collects the story "Grounded," which appeared in last year's Top Cow Holiday Special, along with two single page stories, a double page story, and a small back up (co-written by stage magician Misty Lee) featuring Jingle's Halloween-centric friend Polly Green. While "Grounded" is the bulk of the issue, the addition of the smaller stories make for an ideal way to introduce readers to the character and provide a good number of festive chuckles. Stephanie Gladden's art is the perfect fit for these stories that could just as easily be animated cartoon scripts, and it's easy to imagine Gladden's characterizations jumping from the page to the small screen. Dini's scripted for television before and shared his thoughts on an animated feature with Newsarama earlier this year. Upon getting the issue, I looked at the table of contents and was excited to see that Tom Feister, known for his G.I. Joe covers, did some of the colors and lettering — however, when trying to flip to the back of the book to look specifically at his work, I discovered that the short features do not have any title panels, and you have to really read the strips to figure out which is which. This is small annoyance that gives more panel space to tell these stories, but makes the book feel a bit disheveled. All in all though, this is a fun holiday romp — and well worth checking out.
Star Trek/Legion of Superheroes #3 (Published by IDW Publishing; Review by Deniz Cordell; ‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10): I cannot lie – it’s sort of nice to see that even a Star Trek comic will use the Vasquez Rocks as its primary exterior location. Three issues into the story, and writer Chris Roberson finally has our two groups meeting for the first time. Naturally, both groups initially misunderstand each other’s intentions, and there is a bit of knuckle-dusting before things are resolved peaceably. The character interactions are fine, but Roberson takes particular pleasure in putting Spock and Brainiac 5 together. Perhaps the highlight of the book is Roberson’s quick condensation of the ideals that lurk behind the Star Trek and Legion ether – both of which are given well-illustrated double-page spreads which attempt to encapsulate highlights from both franchises. In addition, there are some nice nods to other characters from The Original Series as a variant of “Ruk” (played memorably by Ted Cassidy in What Are Little Girls Made Of?) leads an attack squad featuring other Trek-types that have been fused with a few Legion elements. The art team of Jeffrey & Philip Moy do fine work, though there is a sameness to some of their faces – still, they stage the fighting well, and the colors by Romulo Fajardo, Jr., lends a sheen of comic book zip and pop to the book. All of this said though, despite a well-conceived temporal mystery at its heart, the story has a pace that at times is far too sluggish – the action just seems far too decompressed; and, while the Legion is handled well, some of the dialogue from the crew of the Enterprise just seems slightly off – yes, it hits notes from the series (Chekov stating a style of fighting was “a Russian invention” – and kudos to both writer and letterer for not spelling it as “inwention”), and yet, it lacks that almost intangible acerbic sense that made the characters so memorable on television. Still, it ends with an interesting visual (think a cosmic treadmill by way of the Bridge-railings on the Enterprise, and leaves our cast in a curious situation that promises to reveal more about this bizarre alternate universe they’ve found themselves in (wouldn’t it be a bizarre choice if Lazarus from the howler The Alternative Factor, proves to be a villain somehow?), and will show the two teams working together more closely, and split up in fascinating configurations in the next issue. It’s certainly enough to make me curious about the next step.
The Occultist #2 (Published by Dark Horse Comics; Review by Aaron Duran; 'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10): College student Rob Bailey is still the wielder of the Sword, a mystical book that seems to have the powers of, well, I don't really know. Lots of folks are mad he's running around with these powers. Folks like a demonic assassin, a teleporting bounty hunter, Cthulhu eye guy, and Foxy Brown as Pandora. Then there is the cop he spelled into tagging along, as well as his on again, off again girlfriend. (Whom he also spelled into loving him). Really, this is all to say that there is a lot going on in this book. Which would be fine and dandy if I was at all interested in these characters. Writer Tim Seeley is normally very good at presenting downright you-know-whats as genuinely likable characters. (I mean, Cassandra Hack in Hack / Slash is a nasty little so and so, but dang is she a blast to read). This Rob guy just isn't all that interesting. In fact, he's pretty boring, as is most of this book. Sure, there is plenty of action crammed into the pages, but it feels more like a series of storyboards than actual comic book storytelling. I don't know if this is a fault of the writing or artist Victor Drujiniu, but there is little life to this book. Each panel is just another in a long line of “something happens” with little connection to what came before or what's happening next. The coloring from Andrew Dalhouse does help raise the book a bit. As is expected from a book dealing with magic and mysticism, the Occultist has some wild coloring and Dalhouse does his best to work with rather limited pencils. I know I'm being overly harsh on this title, but nothing frustrates me more than wasted potential. With weird characters, unfolding mysteries, strange powers, and Tim Seeley; the Occultist is the very definition of wasted potential.
Locke and Key: Clockworks #3 (Published by IDW Publishing; Review by Deniz Cordell; ‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10): It must have been “temporal mystery week” at IDW, for here is another book that uses time travel (in a totally different fashion and application, of course) as a key plot point. There exists within the book the sense of an ever-deepening mythology, and the charm of it lies in the notion that the reader is discovering it as the characters are. Beyond the main thread of our time-hopping protagonists, there are also little moments and clues relating to the present-day storyline as well. Particularly disconcerting are the moments that draw attention to the smell of gasoline, which seems to prominent in the house – a not-so-subtle hint at what may be an inevitable moment. There are some finely crafted character moments throughout the issue, particularly when our two protagonists first travel back in time – they end up in a pre-American Revolution setting, and what they witness simultaneously unnerves and opens them up – it’s a well-done sequence, simultaneously sobering and humorous. Other nice character notes arise out of their attempts to learn the rules of the clock which allows them to move backward in time, and artist Gabriel Rodriguez gives the cast expressive faces and body language which lends an air of reality to Joe Hill’s finely tuned script. Rodriguez uses the old suspense/horror trope of figures suddenly appearing in the foreground to excellent effect, and Jay Fotos uses drab and dingy colors to support the bleak air that permeates the book. It’s a fine issue that moves the plot forward, introduces a few new story concepts, and provides a somewhat startling conclusion – an ending made more powerful by our protagonists’ inability to prevent it from happening in next month’s issue.
The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold #14 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Aaron Duran; 'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10): With DC skipping any holiday special this year, The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold #14 is the closest we're going to get. But you know what? This issue has Ragman. Yeah, that's right, Ragman. Christmas (and Chanukah) are saved! The story by Sholly Fisch is rich and fun in its simplicity. Thugs are threatening one of Gotham's extra rundown neighborhoods and while Batman is busy fighting super criminals in fancy Gotham, poor Ragman is having a spiritual crisis while defending his neighbors. Teaming up, Batman and Ragman save the neighborhood and the local synagogue (called a Shul, hey I learned something) from the greedy MacGuffin Group. Artist Rick Burchett and inker Dan Davis work wonderfully together in crafting a bright and vibrant book. Their character are highly expressive and in constant motion. It doesn't matter if it's the Caped Crusader, a hapless thug, or some random background person, everyone has a sense of movement and life. This issue deals with people and cultures that could very easy slip into cliché and stereotype. Thankfully, everyone involved fully understands the difference between writing for kids and writing down to kids. Indeed, for a few months now The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold went from a casual pick up to a full-blown monthly requirement for this long-time Batman fan. When you toss in the concepts of religious tolerance, cultural understanding, the current hosing and economic crisis, you'll find yourself discovering a smart little title from Fisch, Burchett, and Davis. Not bad for a book geared to the under 10 crowd. It might not get the headlines or the glory, but this is definitely the title vying for the heart of DC. Buy it. Read it. Share it.
Hawken #2 (Published by IDW Publishing; Review by Deniz Cordell; ‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10): Timothy and Benjamin Truman create a west of emptiness and death – an evocative place of shadows and blazing sun, and in Hawken they find a main character who chooses to free himself from morality, and still finds himself haunted by it. It’s a complex psychological portrait, and the Trumans really take the time to develop and exploit their character in moments both visceral and contemplative. Timothy Truman’s black-and-white line work has weight and presence, and evokes a more detailed version of the aesthetic of such fine western artists as John Severin and Tony deZuniga. There is one panel that particularly caught my eye – in the aftermath of an attack on a town, Truman uses high contrast to his advantage, and create a diffuse light around a silhouette – the effect is chilling in its application. The story cuts between psychological drama and the sort of dark, recklessly violent western aesthetic that has been all the rage for at least the last fifty years. The dialogue is filled with smart patter, and Benjamin Truman evenhandedly provides moments of startling brutality with illuminating character bits. The highlights are many, and the series has a smartly conceived villain in the form of “The Ring,” and his minions, but the opening segment, detailing Hawken’s brutal interrogation of a horse thief, and the sudden breaking-out of the gruesome “Sombre” feels rent from a picture like High Plains Drifter, and combines all of the elements that distinguish the book into segments that naturally escalating in drama and tension. It’s pulpy, it’s intelligent, and the art really shines from first panel to last. Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!