Best Shots Comic Reviews: AVENGERS ACADEMY, THE RAY, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews

You ready for the big column? Best Shots has your back, with a ton of recent releases from your favorite companies! So let's kick back and start the show, as Aaron Duran takes a peek at the newly-expanded Avengers Academy...

 

Avengers Academy #23

Written by Christos Gage

Art by Tom Raney and Scott Hanna

Lettering by Chris Sotomayor

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Click here for preview

Playing homage to the original fastball special on the cover, the inclusion of X-23 in Avengers Academy #23 has potential for good and bad. Good, because when you think about the twisted experiments Norman Osborn put these kids through, including a genetically breed assassin is a solid fit. Bad, because my favorite team book in Marvel is quickly getting as jammed as my one-time favorite DC team book, the JSA. Thankfully Christos Gage and company weather the growth better than their Distinguished Competition, all while tackling some pretty heavy and potentially maudlin subject matter.

The plot continues the growth and evolution of these up and coming Avengers as they put together the pieces after Fear Itself. Setting up shop in the old West Coast Avengers location, Gage is subtlety placing this team in a brighter place. The old location was perfect for a founding, but this new home works are a stronger environment for growth. Which of course, in proper superhero style, means all hell is going to break loose. And yet, in this issue, it really doesn't. At least, not in the way we've come to expect. The time-hopping, body-swapping Striker continues his slow and deliberate influence on all the members of the Avenges Academy, both student and teacher. What I find most compelling about these moments is how Gage handles Striker. While I can't shake the horrible feeling that not every member of the team will survive Gage's final endgame, I can appreciate the pain he's placed within Striker. This is a character that I fully believe loves and cares for his fellow teammates (both past and present) and it's killing him that he feels this manipulation is necessary.

This is a book that deals quite well with the concept of isolation and outsider feelings. Although these kids live, work, play, and fight together, they are still very much self-imposed strangers to each other. Even the facility consists of the less than social members of the Marvel universe. (True, Hawkeye is a real ham, but pull away the veneer of publicity and you have a very lonely human). Gage wonderfully handled Striker's incredibly awkward coming out to the publicly bi Lightspeed. In lesser hands, this raw moment would have given way to shock value. Thankfully, I believe Gage understands the era of sexuality as a headline grabbing moment has long since outlived its usefulness (assuming it ever did). There were a few moments where I found myself cringing at some of the dialogue, particularly lines like “I can help you be a proud bisexual”, until I realized I was reading the line as a 35 year-old man. I forgot I was reading words coming from a teenage boy. Thinking back to my own personal experiences, that kind of sincerely cheesy line is exactly something I would have said at 15 or 16.

Without a doubt, Gage is turning in some of his strongest writing in the series. Mixing otherworldly plots with just a dash of soap opera drama is exactly what the spandex genre excels at. I only wish the penciling by Tom Raney were up to Gage's writing. That isn't to say the comic is visually unappealing, but it is lacking the heart and energy I've come to expect. His panel composition is very strong, but within the panels, the art falls a little flat. The few action scenes within the issue look a forced and don't have a sense of movement to them. That being said, the bulk of this book plays with subtle human emotions and interactions, with a lot of close up shots. At that, Raney really sells these characters. Their faces are extremely expressive and with eyes that tell a story unto themselves. Indeed, seeing the artistic inconsistency within the book makes me wonder if Raney spent so much time working on talking head moments, that he rushed action scenes. Inker Scott Hanna suffers from a similar problem. Being the more personal moments between characters look and feel natural, while actions scenes look a tad muddled and colors get lost. I will point out though, this is one of the rare books that not only feature ethnic minorities, but also makes sure they share the proper features without being a caricature. This is solely due to artistic teamwork between Raney and Hanna.

This is the forth time I've reviewed an Avengers Academy comic and I feel like I'm starting to sound like a broken record. Well too bad, this is a great title and if you're not reading it you're missing out on Marvel's best team book (possibly best book period). In fact, I'm going to up the stakes even more. While the art is still lacking, I don't think Christos Gage and the Avengers Academy has turned in a bad issue yet. Yes, it's that good.

 

The Ray #1

Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti

Art by Jamal Igle, Rich Perrotta and Guy Major

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Ray is one of those DC legacy identities that has been adopted by several superheroes, going back to the Golden Age. The character has starred in several moderately successful solo series, but most readers will likely know the name from Gray & Palmiotti’s Uncle Sam and Freedom Fighters. However, rather than try and do a muddled reboot of that character’s continuity, Gray and Palmiotti have given us a brand new character here, by the name of Lucien Gates.

As this is a new character, this first issue is mostly concerned with telling the origin story. With the huge amount of re-jigged origin stories we’ve had to endure lately, that will likely make a few readers out there groan. Don’t be put off though, because this is one of the most enjoyable origin stories that I’ve read in a long time. Part of what makes the issue so enjoyable is the fact that Gray and Palmiotti have chosen to have the story narrated by the protagonist in a conversational tone, as if he’s relating events to a friend. This allows them to play around a bit with the standard structure for an origin, and as the character says “to skip the superhero movie montage and get right to the cool stuff.” Adding that we’ve seen it a million times, and we don’t need to see the kid with new powers making an idiot of himself. It’s a great idea, and makes what often comes across as heavily expository monologue into something much lighter and more new reader friendly. At the same time, it’s also a very effective way for readers to get to know the character, which they flesh out so well during the story that you’ll definitely want to read more of his adventures. Considering that they only have a sparse 20 pages of story, they do a great job of packing in a convincing origin, familiarizing readers with the protagonist and his cast of characters, and introducing one of the most sinister supervillains the DC Universe has seen in a long time.

Jamal Igle's open and upbeat linework is sure to be highly appealing to new readers. His panels have a very clean look to them, which suits a superhero title perfectly, and he provides just the right level of detail in his scenes, without becoming distracting to the action occurring in the forefront. His action sequences are well choreographed, and he does a brilliant job of visualizing the light beam weapons that The Ray utilizes, and the damage caused by them on enemies. As The Ray is a being made out of light, Igle only draws a general outline of his body and major features, leaving the rest to be done by the colorist - a technique that works remarkably well at bringing the character to life. Igle’s characters in general all look to have well-proportioned anatomy, as well as a great range of emotive facial features.

Igle is inked here by Rich Perrotta, who in keeping with the open look of the pencils, keeps his inking here rather simple, in that he’s mostly just filling blacks and going over Igle’s penciled lines with a medium thickness line-weight of ink. Every so often though he throws in a nice artistic flourish with a touch of hatching and cross-hatching in shadows, and he makes very effective use of force lines to highlight movement and make impacts and explosions look more impressive.

Guy Major is the colorist for the title, and he uses a very vibrant and colorful pallet here, to make for a book that looks very upbeat and optimistic. He does a great job on finishing off the look of The Ray, using a combination of white and yellow to make the character look like he is glowing, without resorting to using any Photoshop tricks.

I wasn’t actually planning to pick up The Ray #1, and grabbed it on impulse when I hit the comic store. I’m incredibly glad I did, because this is a pitch-perfect debut issue that outshines many of the titles that DC introduced with the “New 52.” This is only a four-issue mini-series, but I hope we get to see lots more of this new character.

 

Uncanny X-Force #18

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Jerome Opena, Esad Ribic and Dean White

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Click here for preview

The second half of "The Dark Angel Saga" literally began with a bang as Archangel, the new heir of Apocalypse, destroyed a small American town to give evolution another chance to get it right. Rick Remender and Jerome Opena had to show us just how far Angel had fallen and how it seemed that he was beyond any possible redemption even as Psylocke and the rest of X-Force lived in denial and tried to save him. This story has touched upon jump-starting evolution, alternate realities, betrayals and the ascendancy of evil, but ultimately Remender and Opena's story is about all of those and none of those. In the end, Remender and Opena tell a love story that is far more tragic than heroic.

The final chapter of the story Remender, Opena and other artists have been telling since the first issue of this series comes down to a lover's triangle, with Psylocke stuck between the man she loves, Angel, and the man who is infatuated with her, Fantomex. One of those men is about to destroy the world and the other has kept a clone of Apocalypse hidden away in an artificial world. Remender has set up the triangle so that if X-Force wins and saves the world, almost no one wins on a personal level. To defeat Archangel, they most likely have to kill him. There's just no other way to achieve any kind of justice.

Remender has set up this story so that in hindsight we can see ripples and echoes of what this team has had to face in the previous issues reverberate in Uncanny X-Force #18. The path they find themselves on now started when they killed Apocalypse. They're saving moment thanks to Fantomex also comes from that act as we learn what the boy that Fantomex has been hiding away in the World really is. The return to the Age of Apocalypse story showed up what happens when one of Apocalypse's heirs took over the world as Wolverine ruled that world in Apocalype's stead just as Archangel is set up to take that position in our world.  Uncanny X-Force #18 is the final echo, as there is no hesitation to kill Archangel, no hoping to rehabilitate him the way that they hoped to do with the young Apocalypse in the fourth issue of this series. This issue comes down to the actions of three characters; Psylocke, Archangel and Fantomex. Theirs is the story that Remender has been telling.

Opena's art creates the realistic setting for this battle. His fine linework and Dean White’s superb coloring creates a world with weight and mass and power. Every punch and every psychic blow have so much force behind them. Opena is fantastic at picking the moments to highlight, from Psylocke delivering what should be a killing blow to the ultimate tragic fate of her and Archangel’s love. Opena draws these moments so frankly and so realistically that the actions themselves are heartbreaking. Cover artist Esad Ribic also contributes a few pages that show the life these two lovers should/could/would have together, the future love they would share with their family. Where Opena captures the moments, Ribic finds the tragedy in his characters' faces. Ribic’s pages are a gift and a curse for the characters forced to live a long life together in the few moments that they have left to each other.

In 18 issues of Uncanny X-Force, Remender has remembered what made the classic X-Men stories great. As we see in Uncanny X-Force #18, it’s not the action or the “kewlness” of the characters or even all-Wolverine-all-the-time storytelling. Great X-Men stories have been about the characters making choices and then having to live with the outcomes of those choices. Choices are made here and the ramifications are immediately evident in the “nothing will ever be the same again” way. Remender and Opena’s Uncanny X-Force #18 caps off a story that’s been running for a while even as it sets up so many questions and so many conflicts for the future. It’s great to see that Marvel’s mutants are capable of stories that can still shock the audience even as the stories break their hearts.

 

Batgirl #4


Written by Gail Simone

Art by Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes and Ulises Arreola

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by Amanda McDonald

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Click here for preview

I've made no bones about my disdain for the new take on my favorite comic character, and with this issue I found myself at a point where if it issue didn't at least warm my Grinchy heart a bit, I was out. Not only did my heart thaw with this issue, but it's now beating double-time with excitement for the next. If you've been looking for a bit more exploration of Barbara's character, a bit of explanation about her miraculous recovery, or a sense of closure on the Mirror storyline — look no further. You'll get all this in issue four, plus a surprise I certainly didn't see coming — but long time fans of Barbara Gordon are sure to find intriguing.

After several issues of Babs just spending most of her time kicking ass, we finally get to see her other side. She's lonely, and just as many of us find ourselves being reflective this time of year, she does as well — and turns to her roommate for a bit of comfort. Just a bit though, and then she's back out on the street. It's clear that we are only going to get tidbits of her story as this series progresses. However, at least being done this way it fits in with the characterization of Babs simply not being ready to really open up about the past few years to anyone else yet. I've really been hoping I'd see some of the great character development I've enjoyed in Gail Simone's other work, and this issue seems to hit the mark spot on. We see Babs' vulnerability, we see her goodwill, and we see her use her brawn as well as her brains, to finally take out the Mirror. Oh, and then there's that twist. Ugh, that twist! Can we talk about it? I'm going to, because I just can't not address it. Barbara's mom is back. So now, not only do we get to see her deal with her physical issues (and the emotional issues that go along with the situation) but we have an entirely new emotional level that will factor into the story as well. Kudos, Simone — you've got me in love with this book after spitting nails for the first few issues.

Visually, Batgirl's traversing about Gotham allows Syaf and Cifuentes to showcase some great detail in the cemetery and city skyline scenes, but I'm still struggling a bit with the action sequences. There is so much detail in most of these panels, that when Barbara is fighting someone and her face is just filled with black — it's disconcerting and takes me out of the moment. Is this an inking issue, or a coloring issue? I've seen Syaf's pencils for earlier issues and they are spectacular. I just wish they'd shine through on the star of the book as much as they do in the settings and other characters. It's a small gripe though, and overall, the book is improving visually. There are a lot of neat mirror effects in this issue that I didn't really notice the first time through, but found worth the time on my second read. Also, aside from the action sequence issue — the facial expressions are rich and varied and Babs' roommate seems much more animated and detailed than previously, and as a result fills the gal-pal role much more convincingly.

If further issues continue the momentum of this one, this book may be on par with my love for previous incarnations of Batgirl. Just one issue isn't enough to say it is quite yet, as I've been kind of tentative on my feelings about any of the New 52 — but this issue really stands out as a fine example of Gail Simone's creative talent.

Hey, That
Hey, That
 

Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand

Written by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl

Art by Ramón K. Pérez, Terry Pallot, Andy Belanger, Nick Craine, Walden Wong, Cameron Stewart, Ian Herring, Jordie Bellaire, Kalman Andrasofszky and Michele Assarasakorn

Lettering by Deron Bennett

Published by Archaia

Review by Deniz Cordell

‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Click here for preview

From the thoroughly researched, well-written introduction, to its final pages devoted to a glimpse into the sketchbook of artist Ramón K. Pérez, Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand is a thoroughly engrossing work that provides not only a glimpse into the ever-creatively-fertile minds of Henson and writer Jerry Juhl, but a story that feels like the graphic and narrative equivalent of a Matryoshka doll. Just as you think the story could not get any farther out there, just as you unlock the latest development, another new knot in the narrative appears, revealing heretofore-unseen facets of the previous complication. It is a bravura work of plotting and scripting by Henson and Juhl (the work is based on an unproduced screenplay the pair began working on in 1967), who manage to not only constantly surprise with a constant stream of marvelous incongruities – such as – but also create a fascinating, almost harrowing character study despite the fact that the beleaguered protagonist, Mac, is never given a moment of contemplation or respite. The story is, in its own fashion, a surrealistic variation on the archetypal “running man” idea, as Mac finds himself running from a gaunt, sinister one-eyed figure, who is pursuing him relentlessly for reasons unknown. This aesthetic is blended with a “shaggy dog” sensibility, as events grow increasingly absurd and dangerous.

Before we get too far along, though, a word about Mac – he is not referred to as such in the story itself, but in both the pages of the screenplay that are reproduced in the book, and in Pérez’s sketchbook (which, in addition to showing the reader the visual genesis of each character, also lends great insight into Pérez’s design and characterization process). The decision to never mention Mac by name is a smart one – whether that is how it worked in the screenplay, or if it was a choice of Pérez’s – lending as it does, the sense of a universal everyman to the proceedings – the notion that we, the reader, could be Mac, increases our emotional investment in the storyline, particularly as it reaches its rather heartbreaking conclusion. 


Though most artistic efforts can be classified as “labors of love,” here is a work that proudly shows the love and care that went into its creation with every panel and every moment. Pérez’s art has that alchemical quality that makes it utterly transporting, and in his expert use of negative space, and two-tone color work for many of his panels, he creates a stylized, but believable desert setting. There is a great deal to recommend here – from the perfect evocation of mood, to the endlessly inventive layouts. Pérez embraces the story at hand, and provides line work of clarity and purpose, and alternates it with brushwork that is bold and detailed – the contrast between his own art styles lends the book further visceral impact, and he gets much effect from his smart, and sometimes sparing use of color. In general, his work is virtuosic, both from the standpoint of narrative design, and his inspired eye for composition. There are several two-page spreads that combine all of the artistic disciplines that Pérez has been experimenting with throughout, and the effect is marvelous – he really captures that sense of mysticism that lurks not only within the script, but in the storytelling and artwork of the American southwest.

It’s the smaller details, the little hints of a living, humorous world, such as the mice watching the bear traps – or the tortoise and the hare seemingly in conversation as Mac enters what seems like a ghost town, that really elevate the art beyond the sheer aesthetic joys held within every panel. There is a tremendous amount of expression from Mac’s face – and the depth of the ‘acting’ imbued into each of the characters only heightens the tension of each segment, and makes the finale – which is not entirely unanticipated, given the surrealist nature of the story – genuinely moving. Other little bits contain that slightest hint of the unexpected, making them stand out in the design of the book - a punch to a shark’s nose, for example, is rendered to look extremely painful, and the resulting panel actually manages to generate the slightest twinge of sympathy for the many-toothed fish – not an easy task, but done with a genuine storyteller’s eye.

Once again, I find myself in a minor quandary as a reviewer, for I don't wish to wantonly give away elements of the story or the grace notes in the work that elevate it to greatness. There are unique choices throughout, such as the occasional use of actual pages from the screenplay as backgrounds, or integrated into the page and dialogue via a type of collage effect – it’s an effect that might not work for every reader, but one can’t fault the amount of ambition that lies behind the choice. The flourishes of visual wit extend to even the dialogue, which at moments veers into the world of iconography – witness, for example, the dialogue from the hulking football players, which appears not as text, (a note about the smart lettering by Deron Bennett – it was designed to resemble Henson’s handwriting – such is the high level of thought and respect that went into every decision of the book) but instead as diagrams from a playbook. It’s a choice that, upon first glance is quite funny, and then, as the characters continue through the book, becomes a fascinating glimpse into the unique psychological portraits the book provides – the characters are only able to communicate in their own vernaculars, creating a sense of loneliness and isolation, not only in Mac, but in the rest of the cast, as well.

I’m incredibly hesitant to give any book a “10 out of 10,” but Tale of Sand is a mature, well-developed story that touches upon primal fears and joys in an intelligent fashion, and it is illustrated and brought together with incredible skill and panache. Henson and Juhl even make a brief cameo in one of the more bizarre reveals in the book, and the endless visual invention on display (from a James Bond-ian death trap, to the opening segment of the book, which bridges us between the reality of the script to the small town where the action begins), and the surprises in setting and cast (I have not yet mentioned “The Blonde” who shows up in distinct guises throughout the book, or the fast-talking huckster, Melrose Mernly) show that this was a script that unfairly languished for far too long. Luckily, Pérez, along with colorist Ian Herring (and the additional inking and coloring team, which included some names I was both surprised and delighted to see) create an incredibly rich experience that touches upon the triumph of human strength, and the inevitability of human frailty. Mac never really stops running away in the story, and the sense of constant motion and energy in the storytelling takes the reader on a remarkable journey through a vast desert of our own creation. Bravo to all involved.

 

Journey Into Mystery #632

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Mitch Breitweiser and Bettie Breitweiser

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Click here for preview

Cuuuuuuute. Journey Into Mystery #632 is one of the most adorable reads I've seen in a long time, and continues to prove why Kid Loki is the most interesting new character of the Marvel Universe. A done-in-one deal, there's a ton of heart underneath some pretty humorous circumstances, but I defy anyone who reads this book to put it down without grinning from ear to ear.

What do you get when you sick your Hel-wolf on a giant Hellhound? As Loki discovers, the fallout from his secret war to protect Asgard is seven homicidal hybrid puppies! Ah, puppies. This is the kind of whimsy I really enjoy about Journey Into Mystery — Loki's not evil, but he's definitely misunderstood, and his actions always seem to have consequences that we never come to expect. And of course, it also means that Loki has to problem-solve, and in so doing, Gillen is able to use his more lyrical narrative chops to take us on a whirlwind tour through the various denizens and associates of Asgard. But the real winning way of this story is that it's not really about Hel-puppies, but about Loki himself. What is a bad dog? Can a bad dog learn new tricks? Or maybe it has to be up to his owners, to learn that maybe he's not so bad after all.

In terms of the art, it's very interesting to see Mitch Breitweiser at work here. He seems to be taking some big chances with his inking style, and that has its ups and downs. In certain ways, his work here reminds me a lot of Chris Samnee, particularly the way he stacks his panels and composes his distance shots. But when you get a little closer, the details don't quite coalesce as well as some of his previous work, particularly with some of the facial expressions of Loki imagining how he would give away the worst of the Hel-puppy litter. Yet while that's a weak spot in this book's otherwise impressive armor, I do have to say that his wife, Bettie Breitweiser, clearly knows how to make the best of her husband's artwork. Bettie really sets up different scenes with her colorwork, whether it's Hell (double-L this time), the realm of the All-Mothers or even Earth itself. It's almost like a children's book, the way she throws different shapes of colors onto the page, but it adds a nice depth to the artwork, and a real sense of calm in this interlude issue.

While I don't think the art is everything it could be, I'd be lying if I didn't say that Breitweisers weren't a huge improvement over some of the previous issues of Journey Into Mystery. And as it stands, Kieron Gillen reminds us of his cleverness with a script so fun that you'd be hard-pressed to match it. With humor, with heart, and even a little bit of sadness, Journey Into Mystery is one excellent read.

 

Magdalena #10

Written by Ron Marz

Art by Nelson Blake II, David Marquez, Sal Regla, and David McCraig

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Have you ever seen a movie that starts off slow and you're really not quite sure where the story is going and then the end comes out of nowhere and you're just hoping you get a sequel? That's how this issue goes, so I'm thankful, yet impatient on having to wait to see what happens next.

When we left off last issue, our poor Patience had been stabbed by a faction that was out to steal a piece from the cross that Christ had been crucified on. Rescued by her Vatican mentor, read "probation officer", Kristof and taken to a nearby hospital. Of course there are more Christ allegories and similarities between Patience and her ancestor along the way. I like the nod that she was asleep for three days until she awoke. Little things like that to remind us Magdalena isn't just another super heroine. Whenever I try to compare to her to somebody so that a new reader that isn't as familiar with her, I always use Thor. Action, adventure, mysticism, related to a deity — all that jazz.

Now the series has had some lulls and this issue starts off pretty quiet and almost like an episode of CSI, but you get to know the villain of the story more and the ending had me surprised. So, you got to hand it Ron Marz for hooking you in at the last second. Which is the pretty much the saving grace of the issue as it acts as more build up and nothing really happens. I mean I understand you can't really have every issue have pulse-racing excitement, I think the bigger fault of that is the storyboarding. Nelson Blake II has been pretty good so far in displaying emotion and adventure, but here it just lags. There is a definite difference between Blake and David Marquez. Where Blake has very clean and sharp lines, Marquez has slightly more complicated approach with some minor crosshatching and a different approach to visual storytelling. Where Blake seems very closed in, Marquez opens up his panels a bit to see the world around better. Dave McCaig does his job well here, and doesn't skip a beat of revolving his work around two artists.

I trust in Marz to deliver a solid execution in the end, but the ball started to roll so slowly. And while Blake's art did the job, I know he's capable of being more dynamic. I'd actually like to see Marquez have some fun and let loose for a bit. I'll definitely be on board for the next issue as there will be two of Top Cow's finest heroines team up.

 

The Storyteller

Written by Roger Langridge, Colleen Coover, Chris Eliopoulos, Jeff Parker, Marjorie Liu, Paul Tobin, Katie Cook, Ron Marz, and Nate Cosby

Art by Jordie Bellaire, Colleen Coover, Mike Maihack, Tom Fowler, Jennifer L. Meyer, Evan Shaner, Katie Cook, Craig Rousseau, Roman Cliquet and Adam Street

Lettering by Rus Wooton

Published by Archaia

Review by Amanda McDonald

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Two minutes into reading this book, I turned to the person next to me and said "I'm already in love with this book, and all I've read is the intro and the table of contents." Little did I know the love affair was just beginning, and each story had me falling even deeper.

In the spirit of the Jim Henson television production by the same name, Archaia's graphic novel adaptation of The Storyteller features folk and fairy tales from around the globe — told by the teller himself, with color commentary provided by his canine companion. All but one of the tales are not from the show, however there is one that has been adapted from an unaired screenplay originally penned by Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella.

I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite segment of this book. There are so many creators involved who I have admired for a long while — but the great thing about a collection like this is the discovery of those not on my radar as well. However, toward the tail end of the book is the story of Momotaro, the Peach Boy. When I was a little girl, my dad traveled to Japan on business fairly often. Each time he returned, he brought me books — in Japanese. My favorite was this tale. As an eight year old, I put together the story from the pictures in that book, and then here, in this gorgeous book that I'm reading (partly because I want to, but partly for review purposes) — there is Momotaro, being told to me by Ron Marz and Craig Rousseau. There are no panels, simply the story heavily accompanied by Rousseau's clean lines and bright colors on Canson colored pages. I'm not sure I've ever said this about a comic — but my breath was taken away and there was a tear in my eye. Not just because this was a favorite childhood story (even though I never really understood the text of the version I had) — but because this book showcases the craft of these talent visual and verbal artists like nothing I've ever read before.

While I've been reading and enjoying Archaia's Fraggle Rock series, this is the first hardcover graphic novel I've read from them, and I can't stress to our readers enough the absolutely spectacular production value that went into this book. The introduction is on paint spattered, aged looking pages, with a note from the Storyteller that mimics quill and ink writing. This alone pulls the reader out of reality and sets the stage for the storytelling to come. These are the stories that the lucky ones of us heard at bed-time, each only a few pages long but crafted to include a little shock, a few laughs, and a lesson learned in those few pages. While taking short stories like these, or taking an unaired screenplay, and transforming to the comic book format doesn't seem like all that big of a stretch — there isn't a page or a story in this book that falls flat, or comes across as having been "easy" work for any of the talent involved. Each writer selected for this project weaves the dialogue of the story in with the back and forth of the teller and his dog beautifully. Each artist keeps meshes that old, warm look of the introduction into their panels so that even though each story is by a different artist, the collection has a solid look. The added pin up pages between stories add that extra bit that makes this feel like more than a comic book, more than a graphic novel — this is a story book that melds so many means of storytelling into one flawless package.

 

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #4

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Alberto Ponticelli and Jose Villarrubia

Lettering by Pat Brosseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

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When I think of Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., one word springs to mind: potential. This book has the potential to be a quirky, stylish, avant-garde horror/action masterpiece — and believe me, it's trying. But as valiantly as Jeff Lemire works to make this book interesting, he's also working with a serious handicap: namely, the rest of his creative team.

Reading this book, it's easy to see what makes comics as powerful as they are — it's the art, stupid. But Alberto Ponticelli doesn't seem to be hitting that polished and true standard that the New 52 was shooting for. Think of Jim Calafiore, only much scratchier, much rougher, and you'll get an idea of Ponticelli's pencils. Inking himself on this book, there's a rawness to the images, like an opening splash page of a psychic screaming, tears running down her face and her skeleton-like teeth, but oftentimes that sort of in-your-face style gets overshadowed by some severe inconsistencies. Even on a panel-to-panel basis, some characters start out covered in shadow and then suddenly lose any definition. To top things off, Ponticelli also seems to struggle with the composition of his pages based on Lemire's script, so that characters like Frankenstein or Father Time or even the hidden menace behind the Monster Planet don't really get very memorable visual introductions. There isn't even a front shot of the main character anywhere in this book, with him instead focusing on back shots and profiles. That's a problem, no matter how you slice it.

The visual issues don't end there. Jose Villarrubia, when he has a deliberate pattern to work off (like his Adam Strange collaboration with Paul Pope), he often hits a home run. But with Frankenstein, he's just going off the wall, and benefiting no one. His colors come off as garish, and often overwhelm and flatten the images rather than make them stand out, with the Bride of Frankenstein in particular not even being consistent in her skin tone. And while I applaud letter Pat Broseau for trying something other than the normal black-text-on-white-balloons, the choice for the narrative captions come off as difficult to read, with the white text being just a hair too thin for the black captions that surround it. The black captions actually clash against Ponticelli's inking, with the numerous shadows making the actual text easy to overlook.

Which is too bad, because if you're able to separate the script and its execution, Jeff Lemire is doing some great stuff here. While I was initially skeptical about the inclusion of other monsters to act as Frank's foils, there's a very Morrisonian whimsy to the way that Lemire has them all interact. Monster Planet? Yeah, sounds like Frankenstein's milieu. Giant alien parasites that think the Mermaid is their mother? That's actually kind of funny. The Bride of Frankenstein poking a manicured finger through the fourth wall by saying she's going to stand around and look good? There are a lot of moments that are sharp and funny, even if they go by so quickly you might miss 'em. But that's what happens when you're moving at a breakneck pace, and believe me, Lemire is, with two different teams fighting two very big monster titans, all for the fate of the planet itself.

But alas, scripts alone don't make comics. They're a two-way street — heck, it's more like a six-way street if you think about penciling, inking, coloring, lettering and editing, not to mention all the other thankless work that goes into production, printing and selling the books. With a different art team on board, like a Doug Mahnke or a Patrick Gleason, Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. could be the next sleeper hit of the DC Universe. Right now, however, it's a book of good intentions that never quite reaches its full promise.

 

Archeologists of Shadows, Vol. 1

Written by Lara Fuentes

Art by Patricio Clarey

Published by Septagon Studios

Review by Jeff Marsick

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

This is a meaty book and not only because it clocks in at over a hundred pages. It's a Čapekian-tempered steampunk fantasy on a world where evolution is the process of organic creatures turning mechanical. This progression from flesh to machine is believed to be the will of the gods and to rebel, as protags Alix and Baltimo do, is to quickly incite the wrath and the punishment of the droidish Authorities. It's hard science fiction, which means that there's a thickness to the storytelling apropos of the genre. While I appreciate that writer Lara Fuentes doesn't drop the reader off right at the beginning, it does feel as if we've been shoved overboard a little too far downstream for it takes a good twenty pages to really get comfortable in the story. Tighter writing and some compression in places would have helped the story from occasionally limping from one scene to the next, but at the end I found myself intrigued enough by the exploits of Alix and Baltimo to want the second volume.

Hiccups in the writing, however, can easily be overlooked by the gorgeous digitally painted artwork by Patricio Clarey. Each panel just lifts off the page, enticing the reader to reach out and touch the machines. (Can't be done. I tried.) It's a hazy planet hued in rusts and browns and Clarey's work is so realistic that you can almost smell oxidation coming off the page. Like the environment, the mechanoids themselves are not pretty, all buffed smooth and gleaming like something fresh off an Asimov production line. Rather, they would be best described by the Wizard as clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk, overt statements on the ugliness that mechanization imparts upon the beauty of nature.

The last fifty pages of the book is a real treat, especially for students of art and fans of digital painting. Sketches, illustrations and a peek behind the curtain to reveal how normal everyday objects like a showerhead or a Norelco electric shaver fuel the creation of industrialized characters. It's fascinating stuff.

Little Septagon Studios has produced a book here that is every bit as good as one put out by a larger, more established comic publisher. Volume One is a good start to this story and I expect the second volume will be even more action packed and intense. Fans of science fiction will surely enjoy this and would be remiss if they didn't pick it up.

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