Best Shots Reviews: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, ANIMAL MAN, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Welcome to the work week, as Best Shots has our weekly Monday column! So let's cut to the quick with today's edition, as we welcome writer Brian Reed back to the Marvel Univeres in the Amazing Spider-Man Annual...

 

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #39

Written by Brian Reed

Art by Lee Garbett, John Lucas and Antonio Fabela

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

A little bit of perspective can go a long way, especially when it comes to closure — and what better character represents catharsis and closure for readers than Amazing Spider-Man? Peter's been a hero to millions because of his dogged resilience through crises many of us can relate to, but Brian Reed and Lee Garbett's annual succeeds because they give our hero an even more unique opportunity — he gets to stare his past right in the face.

Reed's concept, of course, is far from original — all it takes is a techno-doohickey at Horizon Labs to zap Peter out of existence, "It's A Wonderful Life"-style — but Spider-Man's history makes this such fertile territory for readers. Even with Reed's self-deprecating humor, you feel for Peter when you see that characters like Mary Jane, J. Jonah Jameson and even Norman Osborn have done better in his absence — and of course, there's one cameo that provides the heart and soul of this book, which might make even jaded readers shed a tear or two.

But the real strength of this comic is that plenty of readers can say "if I only knew then what I know today." Reed's trajectory is a little similar to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as time quakes bring Peter through different points (and ages) of his life, but instead of drowning in angst, it's funny to see Peter tell off Flash Thompson, or see him try (yet again) to get the Avengers to trust him. There's a reason this concept has lasted as long as it has — who wouldn't want to see their lives from a different vantage point?

Lee Garbett also does some nice work here, especially since Peter is out of costume a surprising amount here. The ol' Parker luck never looked so humorous, as Peter's wide-eyed expressions keep the tone light for this book. That said, Peter's Spidey antics look great, too, especially a mid-air quick-change sequence that's probably the most memorable beat of the book. Garbett's work, inked by John Lucas, does occasionally look a little lumpy, a little sketchy, but he sells the moments he needs to sell with aplomb.

Even with appearances by the Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #39 is Peter Parker's story first and foremost. There are plenty of rough edges here, particularly once you get to a somewhat hasty wrap-up, but the character works so well with the concept that it's easier to forgive missteps with the plotting. This comic doesn't reinvent the wheel, or even have any greater effect on the Spider-Man mythos, but it's still a surprisingly fun read.

 

Animal Man Annual #1

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Timothy Green II, Joseph Silver and Lovern Kindzierski

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

I normally pass on annuals, but I’ve been enjoying Animal Man so much that I figured I’d put my trust in Jeff Lemire, and drop five bucks for the comic. In the end, the comic isn’t really a necessary part of the current arc, but it’s a must-have for fans of the current series.

While some readers might be unhappy with the idea, I was pleased to see that Jeff Lemire stepped away from the current story and delved back into the past to give a richer history of the Red, the Green and the Rot. The comic tells the tale of Jacob Mullin, a farmer who is chosen as an avatar of the Red. Charged with finding the source of a sickness infecting livestock — a moment reminiscent of the biblical plagues in Exodus — Jacob heads out into the woods with several of his friends and two Canadian Mounties. But when the Rot shows itself, surprisingly, Swamp Thing appears as well.

Lemire’s best writing occurs in the shared moments between Jacob and Swamp Thing. The connections between Alec Holland and Buddy Baker are made lucid, and the history given to Jacob is a vital piece of information for fans of both Animal Man and Swamp Thing. Things that occur in this issue are tied back to events in Issue #1, and diehard readers are rewarded for their time.

Timothy Green II fills in nicely for the usual Animal Man artists, yet his art also evokes Leinil Francis Yu. Close-ups of Green's characters are full of cross-hatching, sharp features and heavily inked shadows. Green’s best work, though, is his splash page with Jacob and Swamp Thing. Using tree limbs as natural panel barriers, Green leads readers through a history of the Red avatar. Jared Fletcher’s lettering is key to the flow of the page, and he deserves a lot of praise for his work here.

Additionally, Green illustrates some horrific, Rot-embodied characters. While he doesn’t depict as much asymmetry as Steve Pugh and Travel Foreman, his grotesque deputy Mountie is nauseating to look at. Panels involving Buddy’s daughter, however, are the oddest images in the book. Her head is too big for her body, and her creepy smile and large eyes make her look a bit irregular. These moments bookend the comic, and while they don’t really detract from the story, they’re unintentionally funny.

While Jeff Lemire writes a pretty stellar back-story, it doesn’t have a major impact on the canon, so readers would be safe in skipping this annual. But, if you like depth to your mythos and awesome-yet-disturbing art, this is your comic. Most annuals are not worth the money, but I think Animal Man is. It’s got a lot offer current fans of not only Animal Man, but Swamp Thing too. As a step towards the eventual crossover, this is a nice bridge for those two series.

 

Cow Boy

Written by Nate Cosby

Art and Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Archaia

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Imagine Calvin and Hobbes fused with a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, and you've got yourself Cow Boy, a spectacular action-comedy that will appeal not just to young readers, not just to adults, but to anyone who likes good storytelling. Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos have a concept that could make Pixar curdle with jealousy, and this graphic novel brings plenty of laughs, thrills, and even a few tears.

The protagonist of this story, Boyd Linney, is a cowboy's cowboy, a tough hombre that could even make Wyatt Earp quake in his boots. He's also 10-years-old. The dichotomy fuels Nate Cosby's scripts and never gets old, as we learn there's some real heart underneath all of Boyd's true grit — he's bounty-hunting partially because he's pure of intention, and partially because he doesn't know any better. In a lot of ways, Cosby gets to have his cake and eat it, too — not only does he get to play with the iconic tough-guy elements of the western genre, but he also gets to let Boyd learn some hard lessons... just like any 10-year-old would.

But this comic could have gone in a very different direction — one that probably wouldn't have been pleasant — if artist Chris Eliopoulos wasn't involved. Eliopoulos's Boyd looks straight out of Calvin and Hobbes, with an ultra-expressive face that really plays up the humor of the book. Yet Eliopoulos also has a filmmaker's eye for visual drama, and his cartoony style really plays up the more heartbreaking moments of this book.

Just to shake things up a bit, Cow Boy has a number of backup stories, which appeal more in stylishness than actual cohesive storytelling. Colleen Coover's "Yellow Rose & Black Billy" is a beautifully illustrated two-page tale with a really endearing twist, and Mike Maihack's "A Penguin Never Misses" is a whimsical action romp that will have adults gaping at his linework (and kids trying desperately to emulate it). Roger Langridge, meanwhile, has the slyest laugh of the bunch with "The Man With No Underpants," a subversive little comedy with (a-heh) a happy ending.

The fact that this book starts off strong and only gets better as it continues speaks to the strength of Cow Boy, both in concept and in execution. This is an all-ages book that will appeal to anybody, whether they be young or young-at-heart. For a fistful of dollars, you can join in on the fun with Cow Boy, one of the most fun Archaia books I've seen since Mouse Guard. Best of the west, indeed.

 

America’s Got Powers #2

Written by Jonathan Ross

Art by Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie, Paul Neary and Paul Mounts

Letters by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Image Comics

Review by Erika D. Peterman

’Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

In a city filled with super-teens, Tommy Watts stood out for his apparent lack of a notable gift. When a mysterious crystal cast its glowing spell over San Francisco 17 years ago, giving a generation of kids various talents, Tommy seemed to be the only one who came up empty. That is, until he unleashed a stunning display of save-the-day power that made him an accidental star.

So what now?

Writer Jonathan Ross quickly hooked readers in Issue #1 by introducing a world where super-powered adolescents fight for fame and fortune, gladiator-style, on live television. After an action-filled first chapter that showed the grimy underbelly of the competition, America’s Got Powers #2 reveals some details about Tommy — the bullying he endured in an integrated school for non-powered and powered kids, and his close relationship with his brother Bobby, who died after fighting in the arena.

Tommy, while likable enough, hasn't made a particularly strong impression as a character. As the main player, he has the lion's share of the responsibility in making the reader feel connected to the story. Since there are only six issues of America's Got Powers, he doesn't have long to evolve into a character that inspires emotional investment.

Ross has created quite an interesting world around Tommy, however. Apart from the arena, there’s a dreary facility occupied by teens who struggle not to use their powers. Behind the scenes is the sinister cabal that exploits the gladiators for entertainment and likely uses some for more personal services. The theme of society fearing and abusing the “other” isn't new, but it does remain a source of good storytelling. We’re left with two big questions: Just what is Tommy capable of, and what will he do now that he’s expected to compete in the game?

Bryan Hitch’s illustrations are a visual feast. His character close-ups are expressive and captivating. Hitch also captures the awful reality of arena battle in some devastating panels of contestants being physically broken, if not obliterated. His realistic, meticulous style makes the whole thing feel unnervingly true to life.

With several plot threads running simultaneously, America’s Got Powers has set an ambitious course for its limited run. We'll see whether Tommy is up to the task of holding our interest for the rest of the journey.

 

Batman Annual #1

Written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV

Art by Jason Fabok and Peter Steigerwald

Lettering by Sal Cipriano

Published by DC Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

It's strange to think there was a time in comics where the annual was considered the “event” of the summer. Sure, sometimes a Superman annual would cross-over into an Action Comics annual, but that was for big events. For whatever reason, the annual slowly fell out of fashion. (I'm sure it wasn't helped by lazy padding of reprinted stories to justify the increase in price). With Batman Annual #1, I was hopeful for a return of the classic comic book annual, one that delivered on the promise of “bigger book, bigger fun.”

This issue not only introduces an updated Mr. Freeze, but also acts as a bridging story in the fantastic Night of the Owls event. In a way, Mr. Freeze and Batman are not all that dissimilar. Both are driven by a horrible tragedy in their lives. Writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV do a good job of showing a new past to Victor Fries. One that helps to drive the villains narrative in the rest of the book. However, they also introduce a new element to Freeze and his wife Nora that forever changes how we view Victor. It is this new characterization and how much of the story is built upon Freeze's new past that hinders this book.

Part of the appeal to Mr. Freeze is his sympathy. Although one of Batman's most dangerous and deadly foes, he's also one of the most tragic. We're led to believe that, had events gone just a little differently, Victor wouldn't have walked the path of the villain. Snyder and Tynion remove that element from Freeze. In fact, their attempt to make him seem even more monstrous only added him to the list of forgettable bad guys that Batman just needs to punch a few times and stick back in Arkham.

Although a large stylistic shift from Greg Capullo, I did enjoy the art by Jason Fabok. His pencils are far more traditional then what we've come to expect from a Batman comic, but still very effective. He draws a powerful Victor, one that perfectly straddles the line between coldly distant and horrifyingly violent. He also maintained a very high level of detail in an issue that's pretty dense in the panel layout. There are, however, a few characters that appear to suffer from heavy photo referencing. And while it isn't essential to the book, I appreciated the physical composition between Batman, Nightwing and Robin. Something I still see lacking in the main Batman title.

Peter Steigerwald on colors really helps bring Fabok's pencils to life. There is an appropriate level of emotional content to his shading and coloring. The heavy reds and blues help to set the tone for the page you're reading, while not overplaying the obvious. Together, Fabok and Steigerwald are the strongest elements to this book, which is not something I ever thought I'd say on a tittle by Scott Snyder.

At best, Batman Annual #1 is an interesting if wholly unneeded tie-in with the Night of the Owls event. Thanks to previous titles in the series, we already know the hows between Mr. Freeze and the Owls, and anyone that has a shred of knowledge on Freeze will immediately know the whys. So what we really have on our hands is an annual that promised a deeper understanding of one of Batman's best villains. What we got was just another cookie-cutter nutjob with a gimmick. And that is a real crime.

 

The Walking Dead #98

Written by Robert Kirkman

Art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn

Lettering by Rus Wooten

Published by Image Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Much like the issues leading up to #50, those involving the Governor and all the hell that broke loose at the prison, Robert Kirkman seems to be leading readers down a similar path that is violent and terrifying. The complete lack of safety, for any of the characters, makes reading The Walking Dead an emotional experience, and with strong story telling and Charlie Adlard’s gritty art, Issue #98 is a great lead up to #100.

From the beginning of the issue, Robert Kirkman catches you off-guard. On the second page, you’re looking at a character who has just had an arrow shot through his eye. The moment comes out of nowhere, and as a reader, you’re left looking at the page thinking “Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?” This moment sets the tone for the rest of the book as Kirkman keeps the action continuous, and turning the pages becomes less about reading the panels than trying to see what will happen next.

The two things that struck me the most were Abraham’s speech to Eugene about wanting him to be happy with Rosita, and Eugene’s attack on one of The Saviors — a violent group of survivors who demand supplies from the Hilltop Colony. Abraham has been an interesting character to follow. As a military man, Abraham provided Rick with guidance and protection. To see Abraham be so selfless is touching, especially considering how he could easily snap Eugene’s neck if he wanted to.

Speaking of Eugene: This character, who’s been nothing more than a scared butterball, makes some pretty impressive — and horrific — decisions in this issue. It’s a different side of him, but one that I hope Kirkman explores more.

The only problem with this issue is that I feel like we’ve seen this before. The Saviors feel like another version of the Governor’s crew with Negan, the leader of the Saviors, as the stand-in for the Governor. Keeping this series original and continuous must be difficult, and it’s starting to show a bit here. The last time Rick’s crew faced off against people like this, his wife and baby daughter died, several of his friends were killed, and they were forced to abandon the jail which was, up to that point, their safest sanctuary.

But this is also why The Walking Dead is such a good read. Kirkman isn’t afraid to hurt his characters, emotionally or physically, and I think the characters should fear their creator more than these roving bandits.

 

Monocyte #4

Written by Menton3 and Kasra Ghanbari

Art by Menton3 and Chris Newman

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Edward Kaye

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Monocyte is set in a dystopian future where two warring immortal races rule a scarred world where time has no meaning. Death (Azrael) sits impotent, quietly planning his restoration. He summons Monocyte, a forgotten necromancer who long ago chose sleep in his failed quest to die. With a fatal pact sealed, Monocyte strikes out as Azrael's vicious proxy.

Over the preceding issues of the series Monocyte has laid waste first to the technologically immortalized society of the Olignostics, and then the ancient immortal society of the Antedeluvians. Now, in this final issue, he seeks out Azrael to claim his prize: death. However, the nigh-omnipotent Olignostic known as Grod has come across new information about the nature of Monocyte, and acts to prevent him from achieving his goal.

The description above doesn’t really do the book justice, as Monocyte isn’t exactly the kind of story that you typically find in comic books, and consists of a highly cerebral blend of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, which combine to create an incredibly dark and epic tale. The plot is complex and multi-layered, but not confusing; however, this is definitely the type of story that rewards repeat readings, with each subsequent pass revealing nuanced details and hidden subtext. The issue’s script is well crafted, and the dialogue and narration all have a very poetic feeling to them. Ghanbari develops an engrossing climax that pulls the reader into the story, and with great pacing keeps their attention till the very last panel. The issue closes with a slightly open-ended conclusion, which hints at more to come.

Every single page of Menton3’s artwork on this issue is jaw-droppingly impressive. He utilizes a stunning mixture of intricate linework, oil painting on canvas and digital painting to create some hauntingly beautiful visuals, many of which could easily be appreciated as paintings in their own right. This type of artwork lends itself amazingly well to splash pages, and as such there are tons gorgeous double and single page splashes scattered throughout the book. Sometimes, with comics that make heavy use of splash pages, it’s hard to maintain the feeling of sequential narrative to the story, but this isn’t really an issue here, because Menton3 often includes smaller panels inside of the larger splash page to keep the flow of the story going, and the team makes clever use of lettering to lead the readers’ attention from place to place within the page.

On this final issue, Menton3 is not the sole artist, and eight pages of artwork are provided by Chris Newman. Menton3 and Newman have slightly different styles, with Newman’s style seeming to make greater use of digital painting, and utilizing a much brighter color palette than Menton3, whose colors are far more subdued and subtle. Both artists are quite talented, so Newman acts as great stand-in, and the change in styles is worked into the story remarkably well as a sort of flashback or side storyline, so it doesn’t feel like there’s any interruption to the narrative.

Monocyte #4 is a gripping and enthralling conclusion to an amazing and uncompromisingly smart story that really pushes the boundaries of what is possible with the comic book medium. 

 

Batman: Death by Design

Written by Chip Kidd

Art by Dave Taylor

Lettering by John J. Hill

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Chip Kidd moves in mysterious ways. Unfortunately, for Batman: Death by Design, his ideas come off as more self-indulgent than self-evident. With a name as big as Kidd's, you expect some degree of iconoclasm to this book, but ultimately, Death by Design feels less like a Batman story and more like something the Dark Knight stumbled into by mistake.

Focusing on Gotham's architectural landscape — not to mention some cranes that are falling suspiciously all around town — Death by Design at first seems like the perfect milieu for a Batman story. Kidd's story starts off with hints of that Year One awkwardness combined with that neo-noir, larger-than-life look of the Tim Burton film. Even seeing Batman crash-land during his patrols through Gotham lends something to the mythos — unfortunately, that's also the last time the Dark Knight gets the stage to himself.

Kidd introduces a number of characters that muddy the waters and kill the focus of the piece. Ignoring a love interest who wants to reinvigorate an old Gotham landmark, Kidd includes the villain Exacto into the piece — a hologram-wielding saboteur... who happens to look suspiciously like Kidd himself. It's self-indulgent, certainly, and the problem with the character is that he doesn't have that sort of psychotic mirror quality to Batman. Exacto could be anybody's villain. And the problem is, you probably wouldn't remember him.

Artist Dave Taylor lends this book its more memorable bits, particularly with the designs of his characters — well, Exacto notwithstanding. Bruce Wayne has more character than I've seen him possess in awhile, with his full lips and old-school hairline, and his Batman hovers between the streamlined Mazzucchelli style to something a bit more weathered and vampiric. Taylor's Joker entrance is probably the highlight of the book, with his rubbery expressions and terrifying dark eyes.

The problem is, Taylor's classic art style, while refreshing, doesn't sustain interest as well as a cohesive story might. There's a lot of thematic potential for the rise and fall — and sabotage — of a metropolis, but Death by Design falls victim to convenient plot points and a villain who never justifies his chutzpah. Kidd purists will already be on board, but those who aren't members of the choir already won't find a firm foundation here.

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