Best Shots Advance Reviews: WINTER SOLDIER #1, VENOM #13

Marvel First Look: WINTER SOLDIER #1

 

Winter Soldier #1

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Butch Guice and Bettie Breitweiser

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Meet Barnes. Bucky Barnes. Once a star-spangled patriot, the former sidekick of Captain America has had a hard life since World War II, as he was brainwashed into becoming the Soviet assassin known as the Winter Soldier. While Bucky had a nice redemptive arc over the past few years in the hands of Ed Brubaker, the former Cold Warrior is getting back to his nittier, grittier roots in the first issue of Winter Soldier, a challenging but stylish read that'll make a lot of Bucky's fans plenty happy.

For my money, Ed Brubaker is at his best when he's able to take superheroic characters and make them more human, something that's always been a bit of a problem for Bucky's mentor Steve Rogers. But Bucky himself has feet of clay in the Mighty Marvel Manner, constantly brooding on a past that was out of his control. Yet that sort of vulnerability makes you connect with the Winter Soldier, particularly with the sweetness between him and his significant other, the ex-KGB superspy known as the Black Widow. It's very Nick and Nora, shaken, not stirred, as they dodge bullets, break into clandestine facilities and bet breakfast over who is going to be spotted first.

And putting Brubaker's Captain America accomplice Butch Guice on art is an obvious choice. If it ain't broke, why fix it, right? Guice has a very moody, atmospheric style that gives this gritty world some real weight, drenched in black inks and lit up with seedy colors from Bettie Breitweiser. Guice has some amazing skills for layout, and in particular, I really enjoy the way he illustrates Bucky's slightly surreal past as the Winter Soldier. Still, realism rules the day, even in the over-the-top action sequences, which gives both Bucky and the Widow their charm and keeps the stakes high. If things get ugly, Guice assures us, they could get really ugly.

That said, this story is challenging and ambitious, but not perfect. Winter Soldier occasionally takes that line between a static comic and a moving screenplay and pushes it a little too far — there are some talk-heavy sequences near the middle of the book that don't feel that visually engaging, which makes it a little tougher to engage with the plot objectives as much as you did the leads. Part of this is Brubaker not giving Guice enough to do in these scenes, but part of it is that Guice's ultra-moody inkwork can sometimes do its job too well, dropping the energy levels below where they probably should be. That makes the end of the book drag a bit, requiring a bit more willpower to keep yourself acclimated than many may be used to. It's a challenge, which isn't a crime, but it's a challenge that I do feel could have been mitigated.

Ultimately, Brubaker, Guice and Breitweiser are so good at working together, watching this jam session in Winter Soldier #1 works even when the story starts to stumble. Die-hard fans of Brubaker's Captain America run are going to be thrilled to get more of the same, and I don't doubt that the consistency of this book is going to be epic. It's certainly the best book in the Captain America franchise right now, and the best part is, it can only get better from here.

 

Venom #13

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Tony Moore and Val Staples

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

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When I first heard about Marvel's "Circle of Four" idea, I was a little bit less than impressed. I dig Rick Remender, but the idea of putting together Venom, Red Hulk, X-23 and Ghost Rider together was... less than appetizing. It felt like a cash-grab, an artificial way to bump up the sales on four struggling books, and even the idea of a dark and/or extreeeeeme twist on the New Fantastic Four (aww yeah, '90s!) didn't really do much to float my boat, conceptually speaking.

So did Rick Remender win me over for Venom #13? No — but he did surprise me. With Tony Moore at his side, this first chapter reads a lot better than I would have thought, bringing high-octane action and some sparks of characterization to an idea that would otherwise feel both forced and distasteful.

Remender, more than anybody in the Marvel bullpen other than maybe Zeb Wells, has some of the strongest pacing in the Marvel Universe, and I think that goes a long way towards easing readers into a book that no longer has one protagonist, but four. (Well, technically five, and a villain. More on that later.) That said, for those who want to learn more about the new Venom, this is not the place to go — this isn't really Flash Thompson's show anymore, with Johnny Blaze and X-23 having just as compelling of a reason (probably more so) to join the fray.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the overall plot isn't still kind of dumb. That's a harsh thing to say, but it's very much a "throw these concepts together, blend, see what that kind of bad guy would look like" sort of concept. In certain ways, it's a very cagey way to get Ghost Rider some air time before the Spirit of Vengeance movie (although they're still canceling the ongoing series, so...), but sometimes the coincidences bringing them all together feels way too convenient, in a way that makes you strain your suspension of disbelief. On the plus side, Remender gives great voices to all of his characters — X-23 might be the best I've heard outside of Marjorie Liu, and I like the idea of the Red Hulk judging Venom for his alleged dereliction of duty. Johnny Blaze steals the show every scene he's in, and makes me miss when Jason Aaron was writing the equally kooky adventures of the Spirit of Vengeance.

So how about the art? Well, to be honest, it's smart that Marvel went with their biggest gun, Tony Moore, first. Moore's sense of design is what gives this book a surprising amount of legitimacy — there's a craziness to the forces of Hell, a rubberiness to the character movement, a real energy to the expressiveness. Tony Moore, ladies and gentlemen, is a hero, and the wind beneath Rick Remender's wings. Yet there are some things that I think even slow this champ down — first, his layouts do skew towards the flatter side, whereas I feel like some more vertical panels might have helped with the visual pacing. The bigger obstacle is that Moore is inking himself, resulting in a somewhat chunkier, less polished look, particularly for characters like the Red Hulk or the new Ghost Rider, who sometimes needs a double take to remind you she is in fact a lady.

So is the Circle of Four still a cash-grab, a stimulus plan for the darker denizens of the Marvel Universe? Yes, and if you're looking for a natural, organic method to bring this New Fantastic Four together, you're going to be disappointed. But ultimately, that's a critique of concept, not execution — if this isn't up your alley, chances are you won't be convinced, but if the idea of Venom, Red Hulk, X-23 and Ghost Rider tickles your fancy, you're probably looking forward to the crazy action over the internal story logic. I can appreciate the appeal, and applaud the attempt, but this Circle of Four is about to get bounced. 

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