Greetings, 'Rama readers! Hope your weekend went swimmingly, as Best Shots has your Monday reviews! So let's kick off with a blast to the past, as Jake Baumgart takes a peek at the latest Before Watchmen series, Silk Spectre...


Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1

Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner

Art by Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts

Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual

Published by DC Comics

Review by Jake Baumgart

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

If the new Star Wars film taught the geek community anything, it’s that prequels are the perfect example of the law of diminishing returns. However, no one can argue with the sheer amount of talent on the controversial Before Watchmen series, and Silk Spectre #1 is no exception. Writer Darwyn Cooke knows his way around American history period books, but it's writer/artist Amanda Conner that stands out in this issue with both her pencils and the perspective she lends to the character.

It’s the perspective that Conner brings that really sells the issue. The creators aren’t churning out origin stories or gritty additions to the classic series. Instead, Cooke and Conner are building in a separate part of young Jupiter’s life that wasn’t really touched on in the source material. Not only does this keep them clear of stepping on too many of Alan Moore’s extra sensitive toes, but gives them the creative range to work.

Although Laurie Jupiter may be the protagonist of the story, the tale concerns itself equally with that of Sally Jupiter It’s a story about the relationship between mother and daughter that’s exasperated by Sally’s crime fighting and “modeling” careers. Cooke and Conner have really nailed what the relationship between these two women must have been like and it stays very true to what fans have seen between the two in the original Watchmen.

It might be easy to remember Watchmen for its graphic content, and the easy way out of writing these prequel books would be to hand out some grisly origin stories. Not here. That isn’t a part of young Laurie’s life yet. However, there is a particular scene in which involves a local bully and whip cream that can turn a reader’s stomach and root for the young Silk Spectre to clock the ditz. It’s a subtle enough move that doesn’t knock to story off-course but reminds the reader where these characters are in the world. This isn’t Leave it to Beaver, but it’s not quite Watchmen… at least, not yet.

The interiors are really impressive on a few levels. First, Conner pays homage to Gibbons by using a similar panel layout style that’s based on variations of three-by-three equal windows. Conner is able to flex some muscle here by using perfectly rendered facial expressions to tell the story. This also provides the chance to observe to nuances in a conversation this way from Sally switching from hurt to anger or Laurie about to release her bird out the window.

Conner’s style, cartoony and almost Archie-like, are a great fit for this period of Laurie’s life. Besides all the training, her life is pretty typical for a teen in the 1960’s with an overbearing mother. Teens are leaving behind the whiz-bang soda shops and drive-ins and looking for something else both more real and optimistic from what their parents provided. Conner is able to convey this in her pencils by keeping the young couple of Laurie and Greg cute but expressing the rage and violence in Laurie’s life — both with her mother and in herself. Conner also provides some adorable cartoons that blend into the gutters of Laurie’s mental evaluation of her life, whether it's her going over the moon in excitement or falling into the bottomless pit of her mother’s seedy sexploits.

Although back-up story "The Curse of the Crimson Corsair" might be worth a read collected, here it is only a sort of misplaced punctuation on an otherwise great comic. With the tone of Silk Spectre #1 somewhat light and Riverdale-esque, the grim pirate story at the end just seems anachronistic and tacked on. At only two pages long, it kind of leaves the reader feeling like they changed channels too quick on TV.

It’s going to be a hard run for this series, considering the prestige the source material enjoys. However, it's also important to look at what this book has already accomplished and what it could be in future issues. The necessity of a prequel to Watchmen will surely be debated long after the initial print run. However, you can’t argue with results — and Silk Spectre #1 gives fans of the original series hope for something amazing out of this run.


Conan the Barbarian #5

Written by Brian Wood

Art by James Harren and Dave Stewart

Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The barbarian from the north is in chains. Trapped in a city that wants him dead, Conan must fight against the worst foe of all — despair. With no god but uncaring Crom to guide him, Conan puts his faith in love in this excellent middle section of the second arc of Wood’s Conan the Barbarian.

Conan the Barbarian and Robert E. Howard are my favorites of the pulp era of fiction and so any adaptation gets close scrutiny from me. After starting a bit slow out of the gate, Wood’s handle on Conan is strengthening by the issue. He’s really got the single-minded determination of Conan nailed perfectly, and the inner monologue where Conan faces off against the city’s champion is spot-on, even though I believe it’s completely original to Wood. (It has been quite a while since I read the original story with Belit, a pirate queen whom Conan comes to love.)

Wood also gains his grasp on how to narrate the tale. The first few issues were a bit too full of melodrama for my taste, but his descriptions here and in the previous issue capture Howard’s distaste for civilization perfectly, without trying too hard. Wood is a great writer, but I think he was fighting his natural writing style and Howard’s initially. There’s a much better blend now, and that puts this Conan to the level of quality we saw in the old Roy Thomas adaptations.

Though his Conan sequences are excellent, the highlight of this issue is Belit’s second appearance. Having convinced the head guard to allow Conan a fight to the death, she now takes her lover’s captor down a merry chase that ends with a character moment that is absolutely chilling, as we see that Conan’s new partner is every bit as deadly as the barbarian himself. It’s brilliant pacing and plotting and tells us so much with only a few words and panels.

I was not terribly impressed with James Harren’s artwork in Issue #4, but he is so much stronger here that if it were not for the credits and the matching cityscapes, I’d swear it was a different artist. While last issue characters changed shape with little purpose other than to distract the reader, there is a far more consistent look to Conan, his jailors, and the rest of the cast. I don’t have a problem with experimental art styles (I am big fan of Bill Sienkiewicz), but it has to match the story and hold through the entire issue. Harren did not do that, and so the changes were distracting.

There is absolutely nothing distracting about Harren’s work in this issue, however. Once again, Argos looks amazing, gleaming when viewed from afar, but dark and grimy if you look inside. Harren’s portrayal of appearance versus reality matches Wood’s script and Howard’s themes perfectly. His characters are varied and look a lot more human this time around. They scheme and plan, react to the action, and do a lot of little things to interact with each other, touches that give a lot of life to the proceedings. There’s a panel where the old soothsayer gives Conan a knife, and we get five completely different facial expressions, one for each character in the panel. There’s more life in that one shot than I’ve seen in entire issues of other comics.

Harren's shining moment is the big battle between Conan and the giant who serves as the city champion. He’s a foe worthy of Conan’s proess, and looks the part. Their struggle is bloody, fierce, and unmerciful. Both fighters are put through so much and it shows on their body. Wood and Harren even give a nod to the bloodiness of the original tales, as we end the fight with a very dramatic splash page that gives full release to the tight panel work and close-ups that dominated most of the struggle. Dave Stewart’s bright red blood punches up the browns that dominate his color scheme here, and I don’t think either the fight or Belit’s mindset would work nearly so well without this strong distinction.

Conan the Barbarian #5 is filled with violence, the cruelty and greed of civilized man, and a figure who rises above the baseness of his world. This is Howard’s vision on the page and Conan fans should ask for nothing less.


Green Lantern #10

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Keith Champagne, Mark Irwin, Tom Nguyen and Hi-Fi

Lettering by Sal Cipriano

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The rings don't matter. Courage does.

Underneath all of the mythology, that's always been the enduring message of Geoff Johns' run on Green Lantern, and that's why it's such a delight to see this theme get such renewed prevalence this week. Hal Jordan and Sinestro, in all the ways that matter, are very much the sons of Abin Sur, and seeing them embrace his legacy — and their roles in it — makes for a solid conclusion to "The Secret of the Indigo Tribe."

Ever since he relaunched this series, Geoff Johns has been a bit off with his balance, turning what had been a rigidly defined space epic into more of an interstellar, violent buddy-cop series. Yet I can't help but think he must feel some sense of vindication for staying the course with this issue, as both Hal and Sinestro get their moments in the sun fighting off the berserk ex-cons that make up the Indigo Tribe. Suddenly, all the themes that have been on the backburner for years — courage, legacy, determination, coercion, even hope for a different kind of future — ignite like a Lantern's ring, weaving a thematic structure that is far sturdier than the green and indigo light-shows would lead you to believe.

That said, while the heart of this book is in the right place, there are some flaws in the execution. Considering how much exposition there was last issue, Johns succeeds in making this installment very accessible, and really packs in a good amount of story for the finale. The downside? Sometimes the story moves in a little too convenient of a direction, with two abrupt heel turns that help save the day. The other issue is that, particularly where Hal's concerned, the book does occasionally get a little overwhelmed with the word balloons.

The art here is also a strong showing by Doug Mahnke and his silent corps of dedicated inkers. There's definitely a more lush kind of inking going on in this issue, giving Mahnke more shadow on his characters and imbuing the book with an altogether more animated look. This smoothes out the occasional stiffness Mahnke can give his characters, particularly in their faces, allowing us to focus on the composition and hard-hitting fisticuffs. Sinestro in particular steals the show in one sequence, where Mahnke masterfully cuts between him fighting a horde of homicidal ex-Indigo Lanterns and Hal trying to stop the problem at the source.

"The Secret of the Indigo Tribe" isn't an arc that will remake the DC Universe like Blackest Night — and to be honest, I'm thankful for that. Even an event-spinning juggernaut like Geoff Johns needs a recharge every once in awhile, and this arc brings him closer to his roots than I've seen in a long time. In brightest day, in blackest night, and even with some rough edges, it's always the men, not the rings, that make Green Lantern shine. Beware their power, indeed.


Uncanny X-Force #26

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Phil Noto and Dean White

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

There's fighting ugly — and then there's fighting X-Force. What once gave this title its edgy tone has started to make it a bit difficult to read: there's challenging your heroes, there's torturing their heroes, but I think I'm getting to the point where even I'm desensitized.

In other words: Rick Remender, can this team quit losing for a minute and get to kick a little bit of ass, superhero-style?

Maybe I'm coming off as jaded. But after coming back from a few-issue break, I'm finding the Uncanny X-Force in the same position I've grown accustomed to seeing them: Under some bad guy's boot. Wolverine gets his gross-out overload of his healing factor, Psylocke gets guilted, Deadpool cracks wise while being splattered with viscera. The problem is two-fold: Not only have I seen this before, but I'm starting to wonder if these characters will get some dynamic moments to balance the scales.

That said, the art will draw in plenty of eyes, since Phil Noto and Dean White are on the case. White's magentas and yellows continue to unify this book visually, allowing different artistic style to still mesh cohesively in this branch of the Uncanny X-verse. Noto, meanwhile, embraces his goofier side with a Wolverine who is literally set to burst with a kind of super-lupus — it's not particularly grotesque (thankfully), but the character composition does leave me a little cold. Noto excels when he's playing it straight, whether with the background players of Fantomex's crazy party or the gaunt fury of the new Omega Red.

Still, the only reason torture works in these kind of books is if we like the characters. Just because Wolverine is awesome in Wolverine and the X-Men doesn't mean we can keep watching him get cancer-fied every six months without some sort of comeuppance. This kind of win record makes me think of Justice League International, only with better art. The Uncanny X-Force need some swagger in their step, stat.


Batman #10

Written by Scott Snyder

Art by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion and FCO Plascencia

Lettering by Richard Starking and Jimmy B

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Batman #10, at it's heart, is about heroes and villains. The villain, revealed after months of punishing Gotham's Dark Knight, is a twist that will leave readers debating for months.

But the hero of this book is obvious. His name's Scott Snyder. And this is the moment where he banishes any doubts that he's earned the right to steer one of comics' biggest franchises.

Talk about the power of a reveal done right, huh?

"The Night of Owls," in a lot of ways, has been the sort of sprawling, gorgeous catch-all Batman comic that we haven't seen since Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's hyper-successful Batman: Hush. It's gone from high-speed action to near-torture porn to crossover fodder, but Snyder takes an interesting direction for the conclusion: this has been a mystery all along. The bruising, painful what doesn't matter without a why, and you don't get that without discovering the who. Spinning his own methodology in real-time, Snyder answers all these questions with style, anticipating critics' concerns, deflecting them, and batting back an answer of his own.

It's damn smart, is what it is. The Court of Owls have dug a lot deeper than even Batman would expect, and their closing gambit? That's an addition to the Bat-mythos that Bruce Wayne has long been missing: an equal.

But this book wouldn't be a fraction as good without Greg Capullo. Memo to DC: Give him a raise, chain him to his desk, offer him a title, but whatever you do, don't let Greg Capullo leave Batman. Seeing Batman leap out of a window and soar through the streets of Gotham is a sequence that is so iconic, DC should pass out prints during "The Dark Knight Rises" — it's just the right balance of gritty and animated, the perfect mix of safe and hard-hitting. Yet I think people will praise his action sequences without also acknowledging Capullo's gift for storytelling — he paces Snyder's denouement with a film editor's eye, slowly introducing new details and keeping things visually interesting while the clues unfold.

If all comics could have a conclusion this well-conceived, we would be celebrating a golden age of storytelling. At the very least, we can celebrate a vindication. For those who doubted Scott Snyder — and yeah, I counted myself as one of those skeptics, for sure — this is the comic to watch. Because deep in the dark streets of Gotham, hidden away beneath secrets and scars and lies, a bona fide comics superstar is being born.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Color Classics #2

Story by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird

Art by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird and Tom Smith’s Scorpion Studios

Published by IDW Publishing

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Defeating Shredder was only the beginning for this group of young teens, as they quickly find that the city is a dangerous place for those who live within its sewers. A new initiative to clear the rat problem leads to a mechanical mayhem as the Turtles find they may have bitten off more they can chew! It’s the second issue of this delightful look at the early years of the heroes on a half-shell, reprinted by IDW.

While the first issue of TMNT Color Classics was fun to read because it showed the Turtles at the beginning of Eastman and Laird’s ideas for them, there were a lot of rough edges. It was clear they were strongly influenced by Frank Miller, and the result was a comic that was just a bit too overwrought. Here, however, the pair start to come into their own, creating a comic that has its origins in ideas from Miller’s Daredevil and classic samurai stories but does not feel like a direct copy.

The Turtles start to be more fun loving, with their distinct personalities showing through on the first page, where Raphael bounds out at the reader and implies that he is going to kick the crap out of them. It leads to a splash page where we see each turtle in his element, either fighting, planning, or working. Splinter is the moral center of the group, sensing that the new robot “Mousers” will lead to trouble.

Meanwhile, we get the introduction of April, who in this version is Stockman’s (the Mouser creator’s) assistant. The story brings everyone together organically, and once the pieces are in place, it romps nicely to an amusing finish.

Eastman and Laird still have some growing pains here, but the whole thing holds together much better than the first issue. Stockman is clearly evil, and the revelation of this fact is incredibly clichéd and the weakest point in the comic His plan is fairly boilerplate, but I do like the way there’s a fake-out before the actual devastation begins.

While the Eastman and Laird team is not the strongest independent art duo, you have to admire that they never let their limitations impact on the story they wanted to tell. Even though there are a few places where the action is clearly above their ability to portray it, the pair still uses difficult camera angles and panel placements that indicate action.

There’s a real attempt to keep the story moving through the ways in which we see April, the Turtles, and Stockman move around. You can clearly see the terror in April’s eyes as the mousers chase her, for example, and the body language and character placement is excellent. The art is still at a level that is one step above primitive, but you can see the effort and craft in the process, even if the results are earthy and might have trouble getting recognition today.

There are a few exceptions to this overall style that are quite striking. Stockman’s army of Mousers is terrifying and is arguably the best-drawn panel in the comic, even though it’s only a medium shot with only one mechanical creature fully drawn.

I also really liked the double-page splash of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo taking on an army of the mousers as they close in on them from seemingly all sides, fighting desperately to buy Donatello time to use his technology skills (shown all the way back on page 2!) to save the day. By the time we reach the end of the comic, Eastman and Laird have one last visual trick to play, using the old trick of “what you don’t see is scarier” to set up Leonardo’s great end line that closes this issue.

Once we reach this point, it’s clear that this group of strange superheroes is going to be a something special. Though the art is a bit rough on the eyes from time to time, Eastman and Laird have a sense of timing and pacing, combined with witty dialogue and strong characters, that creates a story that lives on closing in on 30 years later. Many love the Turtles now, and reading Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Color Classics #2 is a great way to see why.

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