Best Shots: Brubaker's Last CAPTAIN AMERICA, MADAME X, More

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Even when the weather outside is frightful, your friendly neighborhood Best Shots team has reviews that are extremely delightful — with a six-pack of critiques from last week, we'll get this column rolling with the end of an era, as Scott Cederlund checks out Ed Brubaker's final issue of Captain America...


Captain America #19

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Steve Epting and Frank D’Armata

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Eight years ago, a new Captain America #1 opened with an angry hero attacking terrorists on a train. Without getting weighed down by Avengers continuity, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting told their story of a man who had lost his team and more than a few friends in battle. Their Steve Rogers was a man who was feeling ineffectual in a world that expected much out of him. That was the character that Brubaker and Epting were starting with, as they did what people thought couldn't be done: they resurrected Bucky. To top that off, they then killed Steve Rogers and made Bucky the new Captain America.

It was a story that probably shouldn't have worked. It shouldn't have been any good, but Brubaker and Epting (and an assortment of other artists and at least one co-writer) created an often-thrilling story about what it means to wear the Captain America uniform.

And now, to say goodbye, they tell a story about what it means to be the man who wears the uniform. Brubaker, joined by his original artist Epting, recreates his legendary Captain America run in miniature as he spells out why Steve Rogers is Captain America. It's not just that he is the man with the uniform. There have been numerous men who have worn the costume, and more than a few of them have shown up in Brubaker's run. As much as it was about bringing Bucky back or killing Captain America, Brubaker's story has focused on what the uniform means.

For his final issue, Brubaker shows us that while other men may wear the uniform, Steve Rogers is the one and only Captain America. Opening with a scene that mirrors his first issue — showing someone in the blue, red and white costume angrily attacking terrorists on a speeding train — Brubaker gives us a story of Steve Rogers talking about his history and why at the end of the day, he's still the only real Captain America. He talks about the mission continuing without him, that there will always be someone to wear the uniform. That's what the whole Bucky storyline was about. But in the end, it's Steve Rogers' mission and burden to be the hero with the shield. While others can be Captain America for a short time, Brubaker says that Captain America is more than just the uniform; it’s the man inside it, as well.

Steve Epting may have been series artist for only about a third of Brubaker's run, but he's the artist who defined it. He returns for this issue  and it's like he never left, because his artwork has been the foundation of the run. Epting's rock solid artwork gives Captain America his strength. While not an artist whose artwork is about energy or emotion (two things that this story could have visually used), Epting's artwork is about the quiet strength of the character in this issue. Maybe that's why his artwork better fits Brubaker's stories more than it did on Hickman's FF. Epting fills the pages with images of strength, nobility and reality that plants Brubaker's in a world where you can believe a man with a big shield is a true soldier and a hero.

Captain America #19 is an oddly sentimental story that tries to summarize Brubaker's entire run. Steve Rogers acts as Brubaker's mouthpiece in this issue, explaining the author's ideas about the character just in case you have not been paying attention for the last eight years. Putting aside the notion of going out with a bang, Brubaker takes his last issue as an opportunity to be more introspective. This issue is nostalgic for the run it is recapping as Brubaker pens a final love letter to Captain America. The end that Brubaker gives the character, literally riding off into a red, white and blue sunset after talking to a man who thinks that he is Captain America, is Brubaker giving his character closure without actually ending anything for Steve Rogers. It's the end of an era for Ed Brubaker — but Captain America will live on.


National Comics: Madame X #1

Written by Rob Williams

Art by Trevor Hairsine and Antonio Fabela

Lettering by Travis Lanham

Published by DC Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

So far, the one-shot National Comics experiment from DC Comics has been… well, okay. Nothing really groundbreaking, but no real stinkers either. Indeed, I'd yet to read a National Comics issue that made me want for a continuing series. And while this may have tempered my interest going into Madame X #1, that doesn't mean this title isn't deserving of an ongoing.

Madame X was, at one time, a stage sensation, a truly gifted physic and performer until scandal brought her from her ivory tower and into the world of the working stiffs. Now, she's simply Nima, an employee of a New Orleans law firm that accepts and welcomes her wondrous gifts — if it can help them win their cases. Being one of those dreaded continuity freaks, I was initially put off by the character of Nima. DC already has a Madame Xanadu, this new character just hit way too close for my tastes. Thankfully, writer Rob Williams was able to alleviate those concerns with a strong story of voodoo cults, nasty mysteries in the swamp, and a genuinely believable group of characters with which to follow.

What I really enjoyed about Williams crafting of Nima is her attitude towards her own abilities. They've been a part of her being for so long, she's no longer taken back or angry at whatever forces gifted them upon her. And while jaded is certainly not the word, there is a blasé attitude to Nima whenever someone brings them up or attempts to make a joke of them. When these powers do catch her off-guard, the reader knows that this is something serious, which is a credit to the writer when you consider he only had a few pages to establish the characters.

Visually, Trevor Hairsine has a rough quality that really lends itself to the tone of the book. He has a strong eye for catching characters in mid motion, which always adds to their weight on the page. It provides the reader with a real sense of life and motion. In addition, his facial expresses go a long way in helping to sell Williams dialogue-heavy book. Much of the tone in Madame X #1 would have been lost had Hairsine not been able to capture these nuances. And while there are a few times his backgrounds are lacking as simple color splashes, Hairsine does paint a mighty creepy-looking bayou.

Madame X #1 reminds me of my younger days, when I would stay up late and catch reruns of Kolchak the Night Stalker. That hard-to-find balance of mundane (though no less horrible) humanity mixing with the supernatural. In the end, Madame X #1 isn't the most original of stories. However, a strong lead character, backed with equally strong support and a fully realized world go a long way in maintaining my interest. It's not clear what DC ultimately intends to do with these National Comics one-shots, but if they indeed are a vetting process, this is one reader that wants more of Nima and her world.


Prophet #30

Written by Brandon Graham, Giannis Milonogiannis and Simon Roy

Art by Giannis Milonogiannis, Brandon Graham and Joseph Bergin III

Lettering by Ed Brisson

Published by Image Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Who needs exposition when you've got confidence? Maybe the hard sci-fi gives Brandon Graham and company greater license to go farther afield, but ultimately it's the execution behind Prophet that makes it as dazzling as it is challenging to read.

The credits for this book are as tangled as they come, and I think that's ultimately to Prophet's benefit — the art influences the writing, the writing influences the art, and the result is as organic and holistic a product as you might expect. Brandon and Milonogiannis start us off with an opening that's colder than Siberia, following an alien guerrilla fighter in the middle of an honor killing. It's disorienting, to be sure, particularly since the main character, John Prophet, is nowhere to be seen for a good chunk of this book. Yet at the same time, this feels like world building, and ideas like poisonous walls or the allusions to an ancient alien race war feel all the more tantalizing because this creative team commits to it so much.

Part of that has to do with visuals. Milonogiannis takes point there, with some sketchy-looking characters that seem less like they're ill-defined and more like they're in perpetual motion. Because he's tag-teaming with Graham on both pencils and inks, the end result is seamless. What's interesting about Milonogiannis and Graham is that they rarely get close-up on Prophet or any of the other characters, and while typically the lack of a strong face shot is a turn-off for me, the reasons behind this are evident — they're focusing more on the backgrounds and alien environments to set the tone, as well as making sure the actual panel layouts move smoothly into one another. The colors are also particularly striking, as Joseph Bergin III drenches his panels with navies, greens and the occasional blood red.

That said, this book is a challenge, and nothing is more of a challenge than its titular character. Prophet isn't the spry explorer of the series' first arc, but a grizzled old veteran, a man with a past that demands to be seen, but never spoken. Graham never gives into the weirdness inherent in Prophet's conquests and relationships, but suffice to say they do give us that spark of humanity to root for him later, even if we don't exactly understand the whys and wherefores of the danger he's in now. The inclusion of Youngblood character Diehard was a bit jarring for me, but his conflict as a machine is enough of a sci-fi staple to at least keep me interested.

Think of it as less preaching to the converted, and more of a new Prophet trying to open your mind to some new, wild kinds of storytelling. This opening issue isn't an easy read, but it is gorgeous to look at and definitely seems to possess that same frenetic, hang-on-by-your-fingernails scrappiness that this series has possessed since its relaunch. It's almost Impressionistic in structure, a comic that's more spectacle than story. Prophet is not for everybody, but as far as opening salvos go, I'm on-board with wherever this space warrior goes next.


Red Lanterns #13

Written by Peter Mulligan

Art by Miguel Sepulveda and Rain Beredo

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by DC Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

I picked up Red Lanterns because I wanted to see how it related to the “Rise of the Third Army” arc. The last time the Green Lantern universe had a major crossover event (for example The Sinestro Corps War or Blackest Night), every tie-in issue proved important and impressive. But lightning does not strike twice with Red Lanterns #13. I haven’t read much of this title, but my decision to drop the book early on is only reinforced here.

For starters, the issue takes too long getting to its connection to the “Third Army” storyline. Instead, writer Peter Mulligan spends the majority of his time telling the tale of a slave girl whose pleas for vengeance lead the Red Lanterns to her planet. But the comic takes a hard shift when the newly created Third Army soldiers arrive and start wreaking havoc. Readers learn a few things about these corps-created aberrations, but not enough to justify the entire story.

The Third Army attack comes out of nowhere, and if a reader were unfamiliar with the goings-on in the GL universe, he would feel completely lost. Additionally, the initial story of the abused slave girl dissipates in the face of a new threat, making the first half of the comic feel wasted and worthless. The slave girl’s story is a clichéd tale of kidnap and abuse, and Atrocitus and his corps of rage-powered Red Lanterns are really one-dimensional killing machines, so at no point are the characters developed beyond that.

Furthermore, the artists try to add as much grit as possible to the visuals, so the panels are often speckled with spots of ink. The intent is clear, but the art is not. The overuse of shadow causes the imagery to lose its clarity. Atrocitus, at times, looks massive and muscular. At other times, he looks like he’s a bit too pudgy for such a tight costume. Similarly, some of the other characters are inconsistently drawn so that in one panel, they will appear tall and brawny, but in others, they appear short and fat.

Despite its connection to “Rise of the Third Army,” Red Lanterns lacks the kind of characters towards which readers could feel a connection. The Red Lanterns are always angry, so they don’t move much beyond flat characteristics; their only purpose seems to be finding enraged aliens and indoctrinating them into the Red Lantern Corps (when the Red Lanterns are first shown, they’re just hanging out at a blood lake). But once this purpose loses its novelty, the story fails to keep the reader engaged, and of all the “Third Army” tie-ins so far, Red Lanterns is easily the weakest of the bunch.


Amazing Spider-Man #696

Written by Dan Slott and Christos Gage

Art Giuseppe Camuncoli, Dan Green and Antonio Fabela

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Despite the intensity of its cover, Amazing Spider-Man #696 was a breezy, fun read. The issue is loaded with foreshadowing but writer Dan Slott makes the comic more about two Hobgoblins battling it out for supremacy, with Peter Parker caught in the middle.

Slott does something great in this issue: he writes a Spider-Man comic in which Spider-Man never appears. Instead, we’re given an issue where Peter Parker and Horizon Labs director Max Modell have to escape the clutches of the Kingpin, battle their way out of a ninja-filled courtyard and trying to escape from two warring Hobgoblins.

Given how much occurs in the comic, the story never loses its flow. Slott moves between Peter, Max, the Hobgoblins, and Madame Web without ever obscuring the issue’s thread. The inclusion of Max into the story is frustrating in that the man is a genius, yet he can’t figure out that Peter is Spider-Man (especially given his skilled use of Spider-Man’s web shooters). But this minor complaint isn’t enough to take me completely out of the story as, in his run, Slott has found a way to make Peter’s Spider-Man connection both practical and believable. Plus, the Hobgoblin fight more than makes up for this.

While artist Giuseppe Camuncoli is great at illustrating action sequences, his art lacks detail in certain images. This is partially due to his choice of frame. Some of the panels are awkwardly drawn due to the point of view, and in these panels, characters are not drawn as smoothly as in others. Kingpin suffers most from this, as his facial features are occasionally replaced by vague squiggles.

That being said, the Hobgoblins are impressively drawn and are easily the most engaging visualization in the book. When Roderick Kingsley put on his old Hobgoblin costume, I got chills. The 'goblin fight is illustrated with such precision that regardless of the intensity of the action, the visuals never lose their lucidness.

With issue #700 creeping closer, and the strange premonitions of Madame Web, I have to admit that I’m pretty nervous for Spider-Man. Dan Slott has promised big changes for the character, but this change seems like a fate worse than death. Madame Web’s story is given the least amount of time this issue, but it is clearly the most important part of the arc. The Hobgoblin fight deflects our attention from this. But given how much fun this issue was to read, I’m OK with this kind of entertaining deflection.


Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity #1

Written and Illustrated by Brandon Graham

Published by Image Comics

Review by Pierce Lydon

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Brandon Graham continues to do what he does best: create compelling, weird worlds for his flawed characters to exist in. Anthropomorphic animals, awesome sloth knights and singing cigarettes dot a post-apocalyptic landscape, setting the stage for two separate stories that are sure to intersect later on in the four-issue series Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity. Sexica and Nikolai are on a pilgrimage away from their hometown. Meanwhile, Blue Nura is an organ trafficker riding a half-alive motorcycle and slashing her way to her next bounty with her katana.

The beauty of Graham’s work is really in the details. That goes for both his writing and his art. As Sex and Nik travel, they are forced to take precautions. Sex tests the water to make sure that it isn’t poison or haunted. In a shop, they encounter a squid that they believe the government is using to spy on the public. Nura uses a disembodied magical head to track her next target. When she arrives, she’s met by a Shinx and must use Call-a-Flowers to escape with her bounty. The plot could definitely be carried out without these small additions. Graham could find more conventional ways to get the narrative form point A to point B, but he doesn’t. He wrote in the back of the King City collection that he just wanted to draw as much cool stuff as he thought was possible. That mode of thinking seems to have carried over here as well, and it’s a very welcome development.

The art itself is deceiving. Graham has a simple and clean stroke that keeps his figures, objects and settings from being too busy. But he decides to pack every space on the page with information to the point where it’s almost overwhelming. It’s so packed that it’s impossible to catch every in-joke and reference on first read. The colors are excellent as well and definitely help give the book a Dr. Seuss meets Moebius vibe.

Multiple Warheads is the kind of pure comic-booking that can only happen when you start removing conventional concerns like sales and readership from the equation. It’s funny that not worrying about those things will frequently lead to sales, readership and critical success. Graham has a track record of great work from the otherworldly King City to Prophet, the absolute best sci-fi book on the stands every month. Multiple Warheads continues his dedication to fun, weird and awesome work that everyone should try at least once.

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