Best Shots Comic Reviews: ANIMAL MAN, VENOM, DEFENDERS, More

Greetings, 'Rama Readers! Your friendly neighborhood Best Shots editor here, coming to you with the latest round of reviews! The Wolfpack has grown this weekend, as we welcome Pierce Lydon of KABOOOOOM to the fold. So let's say a prayer for Pierce and kick off today's column with a bang, as we take a look at the latest issue of Avengers Academy...

 

Avengers Academy #25

Written by Christos Gage

Art by Tom Grummett, Cory Hamscher and Chris Sotomayor

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"Am I really that different? When I grow up?"

"We all are. It's not some big, sudden thing. Just a lifetime of choices."

Christos Gage is a smart guy. But it takes a smart guy to be this consistent. 25 issues into his tenure at Avengers Academy, he knows that the key to making a satisfying, long-term story is to make you care about the characters, and to make their plight as user-friendly as possible. So even though there are easily a dozen characters in play — with a time-travel story, no less — there's a lot to love about this milestone issue.

And Gage's example is one that a lot of other writers should be watching and learning from. Sure, there are plenty of punches thrown, as the newly-expanded Academy takes on the telekinetic sorcerer known as Hybrid. But what I like so much about this book is that these kids — these flawed, screwed-up, all-too-human kids — really step up to the plate and act like Big Damn Heroes. Whether its Mettle and Hazmat having a brief flash of protectiveness for one another, or the once-cold Finesse diving into the fray for her friends, these are nice character beats that show some really organic arcs over the course of the past year and a half. Combine that with liberal dollops of exposition to cover some of the more brain-twisting plot points, and you have a hearty 20 pages of comic book that, to be honest, reminds me just a little bit of Chris Claremont in his Uncanny X-Men heyday. Gage isn't reinventing the wheel with high concepts in the Claremont manner, but he's got that character-infused, soap operatic vibe that I find extremely refreshing.

Of course, maybe that Uncanny X-Men comparison has something to do with Tom Grummett, as well. Grummett's an old-school artist whose work has plenty of influences, particularly that cartoony John Byrne line. What's so interesting is that in this day and age of realistic or ultra-rendered widescreen visuals, Grummett's ordinarily seen as an anachronism. But for Avengers Academy, he's actually a surprisingly good fit — his old-school style works well with the soap operatic tone, and it keeps this comic from getting too dark or too self-involved. No, Grummett is really quite good at bringing together all these random characters into the same page without them looking cramped or out of place, even if by the end the action can be so frenetic you may have to reread it just to understand how it all ties back together. Colorist Chris Sotomayor also lends this book a lot of energy, with lots of reds, purples and greens that feel more gorgeous than garish.

So what holds this comic back? To be honest, not too terribly much. Gage wisely sticks with just the original five students in terms of emotional payoffs, but for those who are jumping fresh into this book, the punches might not hit as hard as they should. That's always been this book's blessing and its curse, is that it always rewards long-time readers, but newbie’s might not appreciate the strides that these kids have made, maturing as both heroes and as some deeply flawed people. The other thing is that Gage's story doesn't quite end on a bang as much as a whimper, as the cliffhanger is something we've all seen at one point or another in just about any team comic. Visually, meanwhile, Grummett's old-school style will likely hamstring him for the widescreen enthusiasts, which is a shame, considering how expressive Grummett's characters get. It's because of Grummett that we really feel the heartbreak between characters like Reptil and Finesse, who provide the thematic heart to this fight-heavy comic.

Lesser comics talent might have tried to pull a stunt for their 25th issue, particularly for a comic that's been as critically beloved but commercially shaky as Avengers Academy. Christos Gage knows, however, that story comes first, and the best way to do that is to make the story about the characters. Heroes live and die, lessons are imparted, and characters grow in this comic. Avengers Academy isn't the flashiest comic in the world, but it shouldn't be — it doesn't have anything it has to prove. These kids have always been the underdog, have always been overlooked and underappreciated. But that doesn't mean that their adventures aren't still deeply satisfying.

Animal Man #6

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by John Paul Leon, Travel Foreman, Jeff Huet and Lovern Kindzierski

Lettering by Jared Fletcher

Published by DC Comics

Review by Pierce Lydon

'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

Click here for preview

 

The honeymoon’s over. I’ve finally been disappointed by an issue of Animal Man.

Since Issue #1 of Animal Man, Jeff Lemire has been relentless in making Animal Man and Buddy Baker a bigger part of the DCU. The first arc didn’t just expand the mythology of a superhero. It expanded the entire world around him, and his family has arguably taken a bigger starring role in the book than Buddy. Unfortunately, this issue pushes Buddy’s family to the background, and I think that might be why it suffers.

The story-within-a-story model is well executed, and the movie that Buddy stars in seems like something honestly would get made right now. But I’m left wondering why it was necessary. There was no indication earlier in the book (as far as I can tell) that this film was all that important to the ongoing struggles of the Red and the Rot. The three pages we get of Buddy and family are fun though and really speak to how well Lemire can write their family dynamic. And it’s hard not to love Socks. (DC should consider an all-cat superteam. Some of these kitties are real characters.) Maybe this issue will have some far-reaching implications down the line, but right now it seems like it exists to fill out the trade.

Artistically, we get a much more mellow issue, just because of the lack of zombie animals, rotting flesh and body organ nightmares. John Paul Leon handles the majority of the art duties on this one, as the issue focuses mostly on Buddy’s movie. While his style definitely evokes the work of Chris Samnee or Sean Phillips because of its moody tones and heavy usage of deep blacks, his strong linework gives every panel significant detail and weight. At times, it reminds me of a less cartoony Mike Allred.

Travel Foreman handles the real-world pages, and his work is pretty much par for the course. Earlier in the run, I was convinced that the relative emptiness of his panels involving the family would get on my nerves, but it’s adjusted the way I read the book. Instead of trying to take in all the information surrounding the characters, I am forced to pay greater attention to the characters themselves. I don’t know if that a conscious decision by Foreman, but it works. And this issue just reminds me how much I would’ve rather a story focused more on the larger cast of characters.

This issue is the definition of a filler issue. While it is interesting to get to see Buddy’s work as an actor, it feels unnecessary. You could probably skip this issue altogether and it wouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the book as a whole. In an age where I’m paying three bucks for 20 pages of story, it’s crucial to me that a fair amount of that story counts. That being said the art is excellent. It’s just a shame that Leon didn’t get to draw something that had a little bit more real dramatic tension. By the end of the issue though, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been swindled.

 

The Strange Talent of Luther Strode #5

Written by Justin Jordan

Art by Tradd Moore and Felipe Sobreiro

Lettering by Fonografiks

Published by Image Comics

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

So after I had some problems with the previous issue, this is how you rev things up and getting geared for the finale. Right off the bat you're going to notice that artist Tradd Moore's art splattering your brains with dynamic energy. Second thing you'll see is that Luther Strode has found himself in yet another world of hurt.

Things aren't really looking up for Luther's mother and best friend Peter engages the Librarian, and we're to bare witness of the his sheer malevolence and strength. The characterization reminds me of a mix of Bullseye and Hulk. Just insanely strong and calculating with a counterstroke that leaves Luther with no choice to see him face to face for one final showdown. If you thought the last few issues, this entire issue has some pretty gruesome moments that Justin Jordan and Moore made me twitch at times, and almost goes over the top and then some. Luther has is own fight, too, saving his would-be girlfriend from thugs...and slowly dismembers them. It's brutal, but something we've come to expect from the series.

While Jordan's script is smart, it's dulled down by the excessive violence at times. Moore's visual storytelling ability definitely moves the story along and gives it that razor sharp intensity that this book has shown since go. Felipe Sobreiro's color pallet is vibrant and paints the pages with that crimson hue with a strong hand, but demonstrates when to pull back and when to pour it on. The more I look into the story, the more I see its influences and it really feels more and more like a Spider-Man story we've seen time and time again. Though Jordan took Luther and went that extra mile with the gore and violence. The adventure has been hit or miss thus far and this issue is the strongest yet, even giving light to the situation that opened in the first issue.

I do wish Jordan had added some sort of extra layer of characterization to the Librarian as he did the rest of the supporting cast, because he's the only one that's really not fleshed out. Then again, that could be what the finale is for and the best could have been saved for last.

Venom #13

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Tony Moore and Val Staples

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Pierce Lydon

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

 

Recycled concepts are the norm for superhero comics. But that doesn’t mean they’re destined to be bad. Rick Remender’s usage of the Age of Apocalypse in Uncanny X-Force was tremendous, and actually added to the mythology of that realm and the 616. Now he’s at it again with the Venom event “Circle of Four,” a decidedly dark take on the '90s “classic” New Fantastic Four storyline.

Remender works fast getting us into the story. He sets up all four cover stars and the Jerry Only lookalike villain in a mere six pages and then proceeds to commence with the punching. With Red Hulk’s quick intro, it’s clear that he’ll be at odds with Venom and their meeting is just what you’d expect. While Hulk and Venom duke it out, X-23’s private stealth mission unveils the first big reveal of the book and Ghost Rider plays Jar Jar Binks, essentially playing right into the villain’s hands while trying to do the right thing.

While the plot is a little too convenient at times, Remender’s character work is solid. Particularly, X-23’s compassion for fellow clones plays well in contrast to her gruff exterior and harsh methods. I wasn’t sure anyone could write her as well as Marjorie Liu but I’ve been converted. Former Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze also plays a vital role despite not having any powers outside of riding bikes and cracking wise. His interactions with Alexandra, the current Spirit of Vengeance, are another highlight of the book.

And as has typically been the case with books Remender writes, the art is stupendous. Tony Moore’s attention to detail is what sets this book apart from most other superhero comics. It’s the little things he adds in his backgrounds like signs for random businesses or a flower pot made of chains or Hunter S. Thompson in the first panel that make each page a lot more fun to look at and give the Las Vegas/Hell setting a life of its own. And his expression work with characters like Red Hulk and X-23 is impressive. And while his layouts and pacing were good, some of his perspective choices do lead to strange of misshapen anatomy (mostly on Red Hulk). That might be nitpicking but it has the potential to take a reader out of the story.

We don’t always need really cerebral, emotional superhero stories that shift the paradigm for all creators who come after. Sometimes we just want to see cool heroes do cool stuff that we could never do against enemies that we never have to face. What’s nice about this book is that it doesn’t get bogged down in pesky things like continuity and it’s similar to Zeb Wells’ Avenging Spider-Man in that regard. So  the inaugural issue of “Circle of Four” has delivers exactly what I expected: big, dumb superhero fun with rather excellent artwork and solid writing. If this is your thing, you’ll probably want to sign up for this one.

 

O.M.A.C. #6

Written by Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen

Art by Scott Kolins, Scott Koblish and Hi-Fi

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Take equal parts Spider-Man and the Hulk, blend it with the Fourth World, and pour it out over vintage Kirby craziness. That's a recipe for some off-the-wall comic bookery, and O.M.A.C. is the result. While it’s certainly an acquired taste, this is a wonderfully weird action romp for those that can appreciate it.

The thing about O.M.A.C. is that it's not trying to be grim and gritty, and doesn't even take the usual rules and regulations of storytelling too seriously. And you know what? It actually winds up doing a better job than many of its sister titles among the New 52 because of it. In the hands of Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen, Kevin Kho is our friendly neighborhood Everyman, struggling with a secret that's too big for him to fully understand, not to mention a relationship and a job that's quickly headed for the rocks. These latter parts just work, and get us rooting for Kevin. Who can't relate to fearing for your job, or worrying that your significant other might be leaning towards somebody else?

But maybe that's too pedestrian for some readers. Don't worry, there's punching, too. DiDio and Giffen bring in hints of the Fourth World to the New 52, as OMAC battles Leilana, one of the Female Furies of Apokolips. It's absurdist action, with almost comical disregard for the human moments that came before, but you know what? That works for this book — that fits the unserious tone of O.M.A.C., putting the small scale alongside the cosmic and epic, and seeing what crawls out of the wreckage.

I think a lot of that eclectic tone also comes from Scott Kolins, Scott Koblish and Hi-Fi. It may be a cover for that old Kirby classic, but man, it'll knock your socks off. Kevin (and his alter ego, the techno-Goliath known as O.M.A.C.) are incredibly expressive, adding a touch of humanity (and weirdness) to the off-kilter story. And once the action takes place, the details just rush you, especially as O.M.A.C. gets tangled up in Leilana's energy whips. Hi-Fi's colors are particularly dazzling, with blazing purples and blues just feeding endless amounts of energy to the pages.

That all said, I can see all these qualities turning off other types of readers. If you need something that's straight and serious, adhering more strictly to the rules of storytelling, this book isn't for you. If you don't like Kirby homages, or can't tell your Fourth World from your Legion of Superheroes, this isn't the book for you. But if you like boldly drawn, wildly choreographed action, get ready to "O.M.A.C.tivate" this comic.

 

The Defenders #3

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, Sonia Oback

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jake Baumgart

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

​The Defenders are in that popular category of comic titles that always seems to get rebooted every few years or so. Nostalgia or taste dictates bringing the group together in different iterations but none really seem to have staying power. However, with this new title set up by writer Matt Fraction and artist Terry Dodson, I think The Defenders are here to stay. The title has really found its niche and balances a fondness for a Marvel Universe past while still keeping up to speed with the medium as a whole.

​One of the best aspects of this book is how much fun it is to just dive in. Full disclosure, I’m not really a fan of any of the characters in this book. However, it didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying what was going on in the panels. A tongue-in-cheek approach has been taken to this team that really elevates the book even when the going gets tough for the team. Half of the pages have little comments written in the gutters. Sometimes the are ads for other Marvel titles, but other times they jokingly put worry into your head, like “what if it’s not just a canker sore?” The dialogue between these guys is not that of angsty teenagers with the world on their shoulders, but of longtime friends and veterans with the world on their shoulders. Sure, the galaxy might be doomed, but they have been here before and have chosen to be here again with their friends.

The narrative voice is even self-conscious about what is going on, remarking that there must be a metaphor in the fact that Red She-Hulk’s blood is corrosive. However, it is here that The Defenders #3 trips up. The it can become difficult to actually keep track of the narration thoughts and the interior monologue of the characters. Sometimes characters share the same color thought bubbles (although different shades) and it can actually slow down the storytelling. This is the sort of thing that can be fixed up by the next issue with clearer designations for the thoughts and corresponding characters. That being said, the pacing was excellent and exciting with keeping the stakes high in a book with little ramifications in the Marvel Universe as a whole. A story where Betty is going to town on a big alien monster while Kirby-esque technology threatens the universe? Make mine Marvel.

​The pencils by Terry Dodson are amazing like always. Recently, I was reading through some of his older work before I tackled this book, and one can really see the artist getting better and better over time. Lines are thin and crisp with hash marks using only when necessary to enhance the depth of the page. It is a clean and solid style that really lends itself more to storytelling than the sort of pencil-mileage that makes a page look cluttered and busy. The designs of the world around the Defenders are excellent as well, harkening back to an era in Marvel Comics when technology was fantastical and mystifying and the King Kirby ruled supreme. It is nice to see Dodson incorporate this and it really helps set the tone of this book even further.

It’s the colors in this book, by Sonja Oback, that lend to a more modern feel. This benefits the book by not making it for serious fans of the nostalgia titles or Marvel history, but instead a new chapter and a modern take on the idea of the Defenders as a team. The colors are muted and realistic, not popping off the page, but instead drawing the audience in like a movie. One of my favorite aspects of this is Red She-Hulks red skin. It isn’t bright red like a fire engine, but instead deeper in tone and resembling flesh rather than crayons.

Fraction and Dodson have been able to take characters on the outer fringes of the Marvel Universe and create a story that is both engaging, light-hearted and exciting. This is the very idea that makes comics fun instead of very serious business, which is definitely needed in a world where titles are getting more and more grim. I can’t say how long this title will run (I mean, it doesn’t have Wolverine or Deadpool in it), but I hope that The Defenders, and titles like it, are around for the long run.

MAGIC: THE GATHERING Returns to Comics
MAGIC: THE GATHERING Returns to Comics
 

Magic: The Gathering #1

Written by Matt Forbeck

Art by Martín Cóccolo and J. Edwin Stevens

Lettering by Shawn Lee

Published by  IDW Publishing

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

I am a real sucker for fantasy comics, but it isn't always the most healthy relationship. Faults I would never ignore in a traditional superhero or crime comic I tend to turn a blind eye to in fantasy. Less than three-dimensional characters or bizarrely proportioned art? Well, that's okay. It's a fantasy setting, none of it is actually real or anything. (You know, as opposed to those folks that flight at the speed of light and shoot beams from their eyes). However, a flood of strong fantasy titles from third-party publishers, including IDW's own fantastic Dungeons and Dragons, definitely opened my more critical eye towards this little slice of genre storytelling. As such, I had high hopes and high standards when I cracked open Magic: The Gathering #1 from writer Matt Forbeck and artist Martín Cóccolo.

The comic opens strongly enough with a fun bit of mise en scene as the title character makes a run for his life after angering the Cult of Rakdos in the plane-wide city of Ravnica — a nod that, while fun for someone that plays Magic: The Gathering (MTG), could alienate the casual reader that simply wants a good fantasy read. (However, as an argument to myself, I would add that not many people beyond the MTG demographic are going to come looking for this title right out the gate).

From there, it is a straight run-and-gun through the city as the readers becomes familiar with Dack Fayden, a Planeswalker and thief, within the setting. Dack's interaction with fantasy staples like the barkeep, city guards, a shady magic dealer and a jilted maiden go a little way in fleshing out his character, but still left me lacking. While I am a big fan of tossing the readers into the middle of action and letting the story reveal itself with little exposition, there is a limit. I don't think Forbeck found that balance in this comic. We learn very little about the main character or his world, save till the end. Where the title suffers from exposition over-load through a series of images and caption narration by Dack. While the overall concept and story has potential, Forbeck has given me little reason interest with a hero that I don't really know or like.

Accurately portraying settings and characters that are so very well known from a product that is such a visual medium is no easy task. Artist Martín Cóccolo does so with limited success. As a physical character, he breathes some life into Dack. However, the book feels very rushed in its execution. You begin to notice that the bulk of the characters share a similar look to Dack, as if he were the model  Cóccolo based the bulk of his design behind, and then lacked the time to go back and fine-tune their individual looks. The various creatures, great and small, that populate the setting look good enough, but also lack a certain finish that would have helped this title rise up. And finally, the action scenes (of which this book has a lot) also read more like nearly finished drafts. Movement is jilted and static with little reason for what came before or after.

Cóccolo's pencils are not helped by colorist J. Edwin Stevens, whose work I am familiar with from his jobs in various role playing game products. Again, his colors look incredibly rushed and by default, rather sloppy. Indeed, there are a few pages where I felt like someone just took the paint-bucket feature on Photoshop and let it ride. Both the art and color frustrate me, because I know from reading Helldorado and various RPG products that both Cóccolo and Stevens are capable of so much more.

In the end, Magic: The Gathering #1 reads like a comic done by committee, and considering the source material, perhaps that is true. Buried somewhere deep in those pages is the potential for a fun fantasy romp. But, like the game in which it's based upon, it might be too little, too late in finding that little nugget. Unfortunately, not even the promise of another bonus card will bring me back for Issue #2.

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