Best Shots Extra: WOLVERINE & X-MEN, CONAN, BATMAN & ROBIN

Best Shots Extra

 

Wolverine and the X-Men #5

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by Nick Bradshaw, Walden Wong, and Justin Ponsor

Letters by Rob Steen

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

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Now that it's begun moving out of the shadow of "Schism," Jason Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men has really started hitting its stride. The book had a relatively strong start; the cast is diverse and compelling, and Chris Bachalo's art is energetic and engaging, but Jason Aaron, despite all the time he's spent with the X-Men, has a few too many flaws in his style for me to unabashedly love his writing. That said, this issue finds a much better balance between Aaron's occasionally puerile sense of humor, and the necessary pathos of the X-Men. Nick Bradshaw's art may not be as effortless as Chris Bachalo's, but his grasp of storytelling leaves little to be desired. If Wolverine and the X-Men is this interesting moving forward, I'll leave my trepidation behind in no time.

The main strength of this issue is the kind of outrageous sci-fi tone of the whole thing. There's a lot to be said for the idea of the X-Men as the team that deals with the stuff that's even too weird for the Fantastic Four, and Beast's "Fantastic Voyage" tour of Toad's innermost majesties and digustitudes sets the stage for some real down and dirty adventures to come. There's a bit of a bait and switch with Kitty's "pregnancy" later in the issue, but I have to give Aaron credit for not letting the issue end on that note, but using the device to build some great internal tension within the issue, leading up to the revelation of the issue's real conflict. It's that kind of storytelling sense and taste that is occasionally undercut by Aaron's odd-propensity for fart humor, but also to his credit, there's very little of that at hand despite a plot that is absolutely rife with opportunities to "go there."

Aaron's partner on this issue, Nick Bradshaw, has some major shoes to fill going up against legendary X-Men artist Chris Bachalo, and generally finds himself up to the task. The main flaws in Bradshaw's style are his cartoony and distorted faces. That's a hallmark of Bachalo's art too, but Bachalo's characters wear an element of charm that seems lacking in Bradshaw's characters. Fortunately, he handles less human looking cast-members like Beast, Broo, or Kid Gladiator with enough aplomb that the occasional misstep, such as with an almost manga-esque take on Wolverine, don't drag the issue down. Bradshaw also has a bit of a leg up on Bachalo when it comes to storytelling, as his page and panel composition rarely loses itself in hyper-detailed seas of black splotches and intricate lines. He's also propped up by Justin Ponsor's well-balanced colors, which add just the right amount of vibrance and mood to make Bradshaw's slightly distorted characters convincing and weighty.

It seems like a little bit of time with this dynamic and concept has helped Jason Aaron get the hang of balancing the idea of a fun, lighthearted book with the temptation to lose some of the thematic bitterness that goes along with the X-Men franchise. This is certainly a more readable book at issue #5 than it was at issue #1, and it wasn't bad to start. That's a pretty good track record for a book that could easily be dismissed as being just another X-Men team title. There are a lot of compelling characters in the mix, and seeing newer additions such as Broo and Kid Gladiator take the spotlight in this arc goes a long way to fulfilling promises made by the potential in the book's premise. Wolverine and the X-Men #6 is a step in the right direction for a book that's meant to anchor a franchise. Let's hope it stays on this track.

 

Conan the Barbarian #1

Written by Brian Wood

Art by Becky Cloonan and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Richard Starkings

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

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Adaptations of beloved and legendary characters and stories are never easy. There is simply no way a writer and artist can make everyone happy. Stay too true to the source material, and you're called a simple plagiarist. Veer off too far from the original writing, and we fans cry foul, asking why you even bothered to adapt the work in the first place. And having been to my fair share of gaming and comic book conventions, I can tell you, there is no more fierce a fan than those that call Robert E. Howard's Conan their hero. They may not be a large as the Trekkie or as vocal as the Browncoat, but they are by far the most intense. You get Conan wrong and these fans will never forgive you. For years now, Dark Horse Comics have been the keeper of these fans and they done a good job in finding that balance. Which brings us to Conan the Barbarian #1 from writer Brian Wood and artist Becky Cloonan. This first issue adapts the most requested tale in Howard's long list of adventure by the Last Cimmerian, that of Conan and Queen of the Black Coast.

For people that only know Conan as the man that brings "the lamentations of the women" and turns the Wheel of Pain, this issue is a wonderful jumping on point. This is a much younger Conan. While he has already tasted blood and felt the ringing of battle in his ears, he's yet to become the cynical Barbarian most know him as. From the opening line, “Abstract corruption of the upper classes translates down to a knife lodged in the ribs of a man dying in a dark alley... Conan the Cimmerian does not notice this divide”, Brian Wood firmly establishes both the setting and the man. His Conan is the classic rouge, one that does not yet wish to save the world from evil, but will be damned is he allows a fair lady to suffer an injustice. But we already see what will darken this character in the years to come as he threatens to kill the very ship captain he needs in order to escape certain death at the hands of the city guard. Brian Wood injects the same mix of other worldly yet wholly familiar dialog he's known for in Northlanders in this new Conan series. These might be fantasy characters speaking of dark goddess in far Northern lands, but they do so with such emotional honestly that you can make a real connection with them. For the first time, perhaps since Howard put typeset to paper, Conan truly sounds like a real person, and not an ideal or icon.

However, for as great as Brian Wood's words are, the book would suffer greatly were it not for Becky Cloonan's gorgeous art. Now I must admit, I have been an admirer of her work since day one. I have yet to see a piece by Cloonan that does not impress. Still, readers of Conan have come to expect a certain level of intensity and power in their comics and I wondered if Cloonan was up to the task. I shouldn't have. Not in the slightest. While she doesn't draw the muscle bound savage or Austria action hero we all assume, her Conan is no less dynamic. What Cloonan's Conan lacks in raw physical power, he more than makes up for in presence. When he turns to the reader, looking back at those that chase him, you can see the pure whimsy in his eyes. He doesn't care that dozens of bloodthirsty guards are barreling down on him. Life is to be lived with passion and vigor, if that means running for your life, then Conan shall do so with a smile upon his not-yet-troubled brow. Cloonan also breathes a sense of age into this setting. While nothing is utterly decrepit, nor is it without flaws. Even Conan, in his younger state, already claims quite a few scars upon his body; a reminder of his violent past and future. And where Conan is angled and sharp, Cloonan's depiction of Bêlit the Queen of the Black Coast, is curved, organic, exotic, and wholly deadly. While we don't see much of this character in the first issue, what we do see is enticing and frightening. This Bêlit is a character that reflects an almost uncontrollable lust, both for power and pleasure. This is a very primal character, and will be more than a match for the brash barbarian that does not yet fully understand his own limits.

It should be plainly obvious by now that I thoroughly loved this comic. Wood and Cloonan are an amazing team and if I had one worry, it would be that Cloonan might not pencil Wood's planned 25 issues. I've read this debut issue a few times now, looking for a flaw. But, when you combine Brian Wood's writing, Becky Cloonan's art, and Dave Stewart's stunning colors there simply isn't a flaw to be found. Dark Horse Comics has produced some fantastic Conan in the past, but this is the Barbarian we've all been waiting for. Well done.

 

Batman and Robin #6

Written by Peter J. Tomasi

Art by Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray and John Kalisz

Lettering by Pat Brousseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Click here for preview

What is the greatest nemesis of Batman and Robin? Turns out, it's exposition. Because while this comic looks downright gorgeous and has plenty of compelling character beats between the two leads, Peter Tomasi also manages to get himself a little tangled up in the story's byzantine plot.

But I will say this: this book starts off strong. Tomasi had some big shoes to fill, coming off of series originator Grant Morrison's run, but I think this issue is where he's really made Batman and Robin his own. It's not the flagship book or a comic that pushes the boundaries of high concept, but instead is a book about a father and son who are both struggling with just how similar they are to one another. Yet that character-driven approach really justifies this title, when months ago I would have said that it was too much of one kind of archetype. You get Bruce's self-recriminations, as he thinks back on a time when he nearly crossed his line in the sand; you get the feeling of satisfaction Damian experiences when somebody finally compliments him on his skills, no matter how close to lethal they might be. And when you introduce a character like the techno-super-assassin Morgan Ducard, who forces a wedge between these two already-unsteady heroes, you have a foundation for a really accessible storyline.

And the art. Guh. Pat Gleason is just a force, with some really fluid, in-your-face composition. Small details like the bend in Robin's arm as he incapacitates a hostage, or the bundle of clenched muscles in Bruce Wayne's neck as he tears through an assailant's windshield, it all plays up just how powerful and dangerous our heroes can be. Ducard's costume, looking insectoid and muscular, plays to Gleason's strengths really well, letting him play with reflections and a not-quite-humanity coming from this not-quite-human killer. Colorist John Kalisz does some great work keeping the energy pumping through this book, and brings together some interesting color combinations — there's an image of Batman with one red eye, one blue that really plays up both the tension and how conflicted he himself is over his role in his son's life.

So where doesn't it work? Well, that's the ending I was telling you about. Tomasi starts really strong, but towards the end he begins to get really jerky, trying to suddenly explain all the dips and turns of the plot in the span of maybe three panels. It's all too much, even flat-tiring a nice emotional denouement for Damian later on that page. It also highlights some structural issues with the overarching plot, once you realize that this isn't the end, there's a whole extra issue left of this storyline. It's too much — Tomasi had already hit the sweet spot by showing Bruce and Damian's emotional turn, so trying to extend the tension of Damian in danger feels a little overplayed. This isn't so much a story about a physical fight, it's an ideological one, with the fate of Bruce Wayne's son hanging in the balance.

While it doesn't quite stick the landing, Tomasi has at least given himself some more room to make it right. The mystery of Batman and Robin — whether or not Damian would turn to evil — was never really a mystery, just by virtue of this book's title. The thing that was most important was how Bruce was going to connect with his son. And that conflict is still intact. Now that the explanations are over, I'm feeling confident that Tomasi will bring an even more satisfying emotional reunion when this storyline concludes next month.

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