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Winter Soldier #3

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Butch Guice, Stefano Gaudiano, Brian Thies, Jordie Bellaire and Bettie Breitweiser

Letters by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Winter Soldier is turning out to be the sleeper hit of 2012, if you'll pardon the pun. For all the nonsense surrounding its launch, and the circumstances of Bucky's return to the perplexing mantle of the "Winter Soldier," the book itself has turned out to be an excitingly edgy take on superhero spies. I admit, the first issue felt a little strange; Butch Guice's almost Sienkiewicz style brush inking created a moody atmosphere, but didn't really sell the story. Now, the work is starting to streamline, and combined with Ed Brubaker's hard-boiled script, and a hearty helping of super science and classic Marvel madness, Winter Solider is beginning to ramp up quite nicely.

This issue sees the next logical step in the war against Lucia von Bardas's war against Dr. Doom, as she activates her Doom-Bot, and Winter Soldier enlists the help of Doom himself in preventing an international incident. There's a lot of Marvel history flying around these pages, but much to Ed Brubaker's credit, he doesn't let the story get bogged down by the continuity, instead providing just enough background for a new reader to appraise himself of the status quo as the players enter the field. It's cool to see characters like Red Ghost and his Super-Apes used this way, as scheming ex-Soviet super agents instead of almost laughable lackeys and fodder for clobberin' time. Honestly, perhaps the biggest strength of this title right now is its use of Marvel's history to secure its place in the canon, while still occupying a niche that has been unfilled for too long.

Butch Guice is starting to find his feet a little more on this title, achieving a better balance of storytelling and style than in previous issues. There's still plenty of Guice's crisp, flighty brushwork, but it takes a bit of a backseat to the more hard cut, almost choppy lines provided by co-inkers Stefano Gaudiano, and Brian Thies. Guice's Black Widow is pure Modesty Blaise, and his Winter Soldier is all John Wayne, resulting in a thrilling blend of stylish '60's style spy fiction and over the top superhero grit. Bettie Breitweiser and Jordie Bellaire are perhaps the unsung hero of this book, though, as the title almost wouldn't work without their deep, moody palette.

I worry that a lot of people have avoided this title over their frustration with Marvel's rampant bait-and-switch style of storytelling that lead to the launch of this series, and while I won't say the false nature of the story that lead to this title was worth it, I will say that Winter Soldier is a much needed and well-deserving book that doesn't suffer from its inauspicious origins. There's a corner of the Marvel Universe for this type of super spy adventure, and Winter Soldier occupies it as well as any title in recent years.


The Manhattan Projects #1

Written by Jonathan Hickman

Art by Nick Pitarra and Cris Peter

Lettered by Rus Wooton

Published by Image Comics

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

To say that Jonathan Hickman has an active imagination, would be an understatement. It seems like everything he writes has a ridiculously high-concept premise that ends up completely taking readers by surprise with its originality. He even manages to bring this unique talent to his Marvel work, putting original twists on classic characters and tales. The Manhattan Projects is no exception to this rule - the series is an alternative history story that asks the question “What if the research and development department created to produce the first atomic bomb was a front for a series of other, more unusual, programs?”

It’s certainly an intriguing premise, and puts an interesting conspiratorial slant on key historical events of the 20th century. In this first issue, we are introduced to a fictionalized version of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and are told his life story through a series of flashbacks, which reveal that in this history he is actually a twin. We also follow Oppenheimer on his first day through the Manhattan Project facility, witnessing all manner of fantastic technology and bizarre invention, as well as an attack on the labs by Japanese ninja robots (yes, you read that right).

As first issues go, this one is brilliantly executed, really grabbing the reader’s attention from the first page, and not letting let go until the very last, leaving us with a clever twist ending that will have readers desperate to find out more. The story is very well paced, and Hickman spends just the right amount of time on each of the story elements, running the two threads in parallel until they come together at the climax. The story is told through a combination of dialogue, narration, and what look to be entries from an historical document that reveals the truth behind events. Hickman’s script is very impressive, with some engaging dialogue, and some highly convincing technical jargon - as a scientist myself, I could almost believe all these high-tech gadgets that he’s invented could actually exist. Hickman’s character work is also top-notch, and while he obviously has to tread carefully when dealing with actual historical figures, he manages to find an angle whereby he is able to play around a bit what we know about these people.

This series finds Hickman once again working with Nick Pitarra, with whom he collaborated on last year’s Red Wing miniseries. Pitarra’s linework on this issue has a very clean and open look to it, with some cartoonish elements that remind me somewhat of the style employed by Frank Quitely. Pitarra draws some amazingly well composed scenes in the issue, awash with intricate detail, and utilizing a number of interesting viewpoints from which to show the action. He has a slightly exaggerated sense of anatomy, which works to help develop the characters - with Oppenheimer being an spindly legged, gaunt scientist, and the military general being a bulky behemoth of a man, with a puffy face that looks ready to shout orders. With his inking he mostly just adds definition to his pencils, and doesn’t do a lot of filling blacks, shading, or hatching, which adds to the clean and light feel that the art has. He does add a number of interesting finishes though, which gives the final art a very textured look, which is what I think generates the Quitely-esque feel it has to it.

Cris Peter is the book’s colorist, and does a great job putting the final touches on the artwork. He utilizes a vibrant pallet that works to enhance the feeling of adventure that the story has. Also impressive is the way in which he colors the flashback pages, with the story of Robert Oppenheimer being colored in shades of blue, and that of his twin brother being colored in shades of red. This helps the reader follow the narrative, and generates a highly impressive effect when the two stories blend together at the climax.

Also worth noting is the overall presentation of the book. It has a very smart design aesthetic about it, with a trade dress cover, chapter title pages, and quotes presented throughout. It reminds me of the look of several of Hickman’s previous creator-owned ventures, so I imagine he had a hand in this design himself.

The Manhattan Projects #1 is a thrilling series debut, packed with alternate history, conspiracy theories, brutal slaughter, ninja robots, and super science. You’re going to want to jump on this one early, because pretty soon everyone will be talking about it.


Fairest #1

Written by Bill Willingham

Art by Phil Jimenez, Andy Lanning and Andrew Dalhouse

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by Vertigo

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

I wanted to like this book. I really did. Fables has been a smart concept from Bill Willingham and Vertigo ever since the first issue, but it's easy to look at it through rose-colored glasses when you read it at the beginning, in trade format, no less. So it's sad to see Willingham's latest spinoff, Fairest, struggle out of the gate like this. Lacking that sort of strong, cross-genre high concept that the original Fables or Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love possessed, there's an awful lot of slow setup to this opening issue that doesn't yield much in the way of big results.

In many ways, that lack of enthusiasm comes from a surprising simplicity on Willingham's part — this is the most straightforward narrative I've seen in his "Fablesverse," as we follow Ali Baba, the Prince of Thieves, as he teams up with a bottle imp to try to find treasures undreamed of by man. Of course, things get a little bit complicated when not one, but two sleeping princesses get thrown into the picture. The problem? That's about the only wrinkle this story gets — on a conceptual level, this first issue doesn't grab you with any sort of big question or investment. Perhaps this will read differently in a trade, but as far as first issues go, not enough happens to justify a return trip.

Yet lightness of plot can often become an asset, if the characters are likable and well-developed. Unfortunately, Willingham hasn't won us over with these players. Ali comes off as bland and stilted, while his snarky imp sidekick Jonah just feels tired right out of the gate, with his over-the-top "American" lingo, spouting off immediately dated references spinning off "Touched By An Angel" and "Firefly." Combine that with some jerky pacing from scene to scene and a talky, seemingly half-hearted attempt to talk about some of the previous invasion-based Fables storylines, and you have a missed opportunity. It's a shame, because Ali Baba's motivations are entirely self-aggrandizing, which could lead to some interesting dynamics... if he had some unexpected things to say or do to get our attention.

That all said, I can't fault this book too much on the art. Phil Jimenez provides a very clean, muscular vision for Fairest, where the princesses are gorgeous and the rogues at their most roguish. While his layouts veer a little too often towards the oppressively horizontal, Jimenez knows how to distance his shots, whether he's showing us the detailed wreckage of an entire city, or getting in close for what could be true love's kiss. Colorist Andrew Dalhouse really elevates Jimenez's work, providing a warm texture to what could have become some very flat artwork. Dalhouse pushes the envelope a bit with our twin princesses — one auburn like fire, the other blue as ice — and while sometimes the effect overpowers the page a bit, it's still a memorable effect.

When Fables first began, it had the strength of a powerful high concept — namely, a fairy tale mystery — to keep readers invested long enough to discover Willingham's clever riffs on long-standing characters. When they spun off Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love, Chris Roberson did one better, as we introduced a plucky, Buffy-esque heroine into a fairy tale spy narrative. Fairest doesn't have that sort of exciting elevator pitch evident in the first issue, and it doesn't have the enthralling characters to back it up, either. It may be a pretty book, but first impressions are more than skin deep — and in that regard, Fairest doesn't quite live up to its name.

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