Greetings, 'Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood Best Shots Team is at it again, with this week's big column featuring all-new comics! So let's kick off with Earth's Mightiest Heroes as George Marston takes a look at the debut of the Marvel NOW! Avengers...


Avengers #1

Written by Jonathan Hickman

Art by Jerome Opeña and Dean White

Letters by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Marvel's Avengers are poised to take over the world. With the biggest movie of the year under their belts, a host of fan-favorite and marquee characters on their roster, and two of Marvel's most up-and-coming talents working on their flagship title, all of the ingredients are there for Earth's Mightiest Heroes to become the biggest thing in comics right now. Marvel NOW!'s Avengers #1 is a good start, but it leaves too many opportunities on the table to truly capitalize on its chance at greatness.

Now, that's not to say that Avengers #1 isn't a terrific book. Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opeña's technical skills alone make this a worthy read, but there is a sense that it could have been so much bigger, so much more impacting to the Marvel Universe than it actually is. And the problem lies, primarily, with the characters. The Avengers themselves start out strong enough, showcasing the six members of the team showcased in the film. It's a good move, and obviously one designed to help new readers relate to the book. Unfortunately, they're up against a trio of villains that, while visually interesting, are about as generic as they come in terms of characterization and motivation. They're less characters, and more plot devices tailor made to necessitate a new team of Avengers.

And that's where the real conundrum lies. In recruiting his new team, Captain America enacts a protocol that he and Iron Man designed, prior to their encounter with the Garden, to create a team of globe-spanning Avengers. It's a good idea, if not a novel one, but the page that should be the book's "wow" moment, the reveal of the new roster, is somewhat undersold when it's revealed that the team consists primarily of people who were already Avengers, like Spider-Man and Wolverine, or third-tier characters like Gateway's nephew that no one will recognize. That's not to say there isn't story potential, but any chance of that page impacting a new reader is almost lost immediately.

There is a sense, though, that Jonathan Hickman is doing all of this with new readers in mind. Perhaps he's aiming to create a team that will feel like someone who's just coming into Avengers own team. Everyone remembers the line-up that got them into the book, so Hickman may be aiming to craft a team that will appeal to those not mired in Avengers continuity. We also know that the aforementioned movie team is still sticking around for later issues, so it's not like it's a wholesale replacement, it's just underwhelming as a hook. Coupled with a threat that's less than compelling, Avengers #1 has a decent ways to go before it's emblematic of the definitive take on the team that Marvel NOW! has promised.

Fortunately, Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opeña have the chops to really ramp things up. Opeña in particular is a fantastic choice for this title. If he can keep up a monthly pace with the level of detail and personality that are present in this issue, then he's going to conquer the world. His work is very reminiscent of Leinil Yu, but where Yu has recently sometimes seemed bored by big, blockbuster superhero fare, Opeña's work conveys an excitement at working with these characters. Dean White's colors, laid down over Opeña's raw pencils, add a kind of painterly vibe that really sells the look of this book.

There's not a long way to go for this iteration of Avengers to reach its potential. The talent is there, and the book looks, and reads, almost flawlessly. The main failing of this first issue is that it doesn't translate the energy in the ideas into a particularly electrifying story. There's a sense that we've seen this done before — especially with the Avengers — that undersells some of the impact, as does a less-than-surprising or invigorating cast of new characters, but there's so much potential for this book that it's hard to say it's not going somewhere great.


Action Comics #15

Written by Grant Morrison

Art by Brad Walker, Rags Morales, Andrew Hennessy, Mark Propst and Brad Anderson

Lettering by Steve Wands

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Brian Bannen

’Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

From the second Clark met his landlady, Mrs. Nyxly, most readers with a cursory knowledge of Superman lore could probably see the connection to Kal-El’s greatest magical foe, the 5th Dimensional villain Mr. Mxyzptlk. Here, we finally see the link in action.

Told in a mixture of present tense, flash backs and flash forwards (like ), Action Comics #15 runs the gamut of emotions, giving readers intimate insight into some of Clark’s most defining moments, from his senior prom with Lana Lang to the death of his father. Morrison is also re-writing years of continuity and history, but not in a way that shows a lack of respect for those who have come before him. If anything, Morrison is trying to deepen Clark’s history by showing an interconnectivity between al the forces at play in his life.

The crux of the story is a conversation between Clark and Mrs. Nyxly, a woman who up until now has been a cryptic, yet important part of Clark’s life. Here, we find out why — she was a princess in the 5th Dimension, but when a jilted lover enacted his revenge on her, she ended up on Earth, biding her time until her true beau returned to save her. The skill with which Morrison moves between these moments (which can be years in the past or years in the future) is not lost on this reviewer. The story is lucid, and regardless of the time shifts, never loses its focus.

This movement between present, past and future cannot be easy, yet the artists of the book comply with Morrison’s storytelling superbly. Brad Walker and Rags Morales both pencil the comic, but I can’t tell where one stops and the other takes over. Where previous issues of Action Comics have had inconsistent art — characters out of focus, odd postures, and unappealing ink lines — this issue is a noticeable change. With Gary Frank-like clarity, Walker and Morales draw what is easily the best art of Action Comics so far. Images are crisp and detailed, particularly in close-ups. And when Mrs. Nyxly tells the story of her life as a princess in the 5th dimension, the art takes on a cartoonish style with soft colors, a lack of facial definition, and a bubbly, irregular style. Given the offset between the two worlds, one can’t help but be impressed by the tonal change.

Brad Anderson’s colors are also to be applauded as he makes the book come alive through an impressive palette that, for readers, easily distinguishes the current world, the future world, and the alternate world of the 5th Dimension. The future shots, for example, are given a sickly orange hue that makes the world look like it’s dying, if not already dead. The visceral reaction they create cannot be ignored.

When I’m reading a Grant Morrison comic, I know that at some point in time, the small nuggets of the story will come back to play a greater role. This issue of Action Comics is like that. When I finish a comic like this, I’m left in awe of its writer and his skills, and I can only offer a feeble encapsulation of its impact. But if you needed a reminder that Grant Morrison is one of our generation’s greatest comic writers, look no further than Action Comics.


Hellboy In Hell #1

Written by Mike Mignola

Art by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Mike Mignola's artwork in Hellboy in Hell #1 contains mysteries. Back in the land of the Mignola-esque shadows after having Duncan Fegredo and Richard Corben handling the art for the last couple of years, Mignola’s Hell isn't full of fire and brimstone. It isn't some Hieronymus Bosch looking landscape full of horrors and torture. Watching Hellboy fall into a well of darkness, Mignola's Hell is about what we don't see. Mignola's shadows often conceal secrets of characters or locations but now they hide the whole world from us. He doesn't show us the architecture or the details of where Hellboy is. Mignola leaves that up to our imagination in his return to art.

The overwhelming presence of shadow also means that there is a disturbing lack of light in this issue. Dave Stewart has always provided the colors and his work had fought back against Mignola's darkness. The two creators' art has worked in balance. But here, we only get hints if that light, mostly from Hellboy's one remaining eye. Almost brilliantly, there is no other source of light in this issue other than the organ that gives Hellboy vision. Stewart's colors are muffled, fighting against Mignola's darkness and losing here. Hellboy's remaining eye lights the way and provides just a bit of hope for him.

Following his character into Hell, Mignola alters the tone of his story just enough to make it more sinister and dangerous. As the character tries to adjust to his new surroundings, Mignola remains reverential to his story. He's creating a modern mythology around Hellboy that echoes so many ancient stories that we've heard since childhood. Any true hero needs to make some kind our journey into Hell. The question is what kind of hero is Hellboy. We’ve seen him doing his labors and we’ve seen him drunkenly running away from everything. He's spent the majority of the past 10 years running away from the people who loved him and the responsibilities that he had. Just as he began to accept those and make peace with his own life, he has his heart literally ripped out of him in the final battle with a dragon.

After fighting demons in the first half of this issue, Hellboy gets to witness an odd Christmas-time story as a couple of puppets recreate a scene from Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley heralds a night where Ebenezer Scrooge will need to revisit his past and confront his own sins and failures. Hellboy could be the real Scrooge here, having to face his own prideful sins. Mignola doesn't feel like he's ready to let his character off scot-free here, as his Hell may be forcing his character to accept his own weaknesses before there's any chance of him being a true hero. Mignola writes Hellboy as flippant and down-to-earth as possible; Hellboy is just a working man’s demon fighter. But here he is on the start of a Dante-like journey into Hell. Confronting the ghosts of his past may just be the start of this strange new land for Hellboy.

Hellboy’s survived the storm and the fury, but here is something new for him to face. One storm is over but Hellboy in Hell #1 reads like the hours before another storm. Each panel is a clap of thunder. Some of those claps are in the distance acting as an early warning while others rattle your very soul. That’s the power of Mignola and Stewart’s images. Mignola reminds us of the primal forces that exist unseen in the shadows while Stewart provides some hope in the form of light against the darkness. As the character has to face his own past like a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge, he will need to understand everything he has lost. That may be too much to ask of Hellboy, and Mignola knows this.


Before Watchmen: Comedian #4

Written by Brian Azzarello

Art by J.G. Jones and Alex Sinclair

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Eddie Blake is an animal. He's a terror of the V.C., the embodiment of American terror on foreign soil. He is Vietnam. But as Before Watchmen: Comedian barrels towards its conclusion, the punchline is lost under an unfocused, almost catatonic story.

It's difficult to say what Brian Azzarello was going for, here, with Eddie's time in Vietnam. He opens up the story with a war crime, but here's the sad news — maybe it's because artist J.G. Jones shies away from too much overt atrocity, or maybe we as readers are just too jaded, but the stakes are just nonexistent. It's a punch to the gut that never connects, and thus we're led to a bit too much R&R from Eddie's time in the jungle. There are a few moments where we get some nice insight into what a twisted misanthrope Eddie is — it's hard to see him taking two Vietnamese boys under his wing as endearing when he refers to them as "Hearts" and "Minds" — but those moments come few and far between.

The other major hook of this story — namely, Eddie tripping on acid while armed and dangerous in a combat zone — is where Azzarello and Jones show a surprising lack of imagination. It's not the fairest comparison to make, looking at this alongside the drug scenes in Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner's artful , but honestly, we know that Eddie's probably not going to have a experience with drugs. But how does this twist him further? How does this continue to show him that the world is just one sick joke? Aside from the weird historical fixation on the Kennedy Clan this book has taken, there's not much insight, not even much subversive punch to the Comedian trying to end the war single-handedly, even if he has to burn down all of Vietnam to do it.

That all said, Jones does bring a solid foundation to the story, with his characters looking particularly solid (his inking almost making some of them look like Bryan Hitch's ultra-realistic figures). There is one awesome page that Jones produces, as the Comedian tumbles out of a helicopter, where you can almost feel foot after vertigo-inducing foot as he falls into the wild, his smiley-face helmet rolling empty in the distance. Yet this story does seem a little too slow, a little too deliberate for his style, leaving him essentially sitting on his hands, not sure how to stage things. Colorist Alex Sinclair brings some nice energy to the book, however, particularly a scene that's cast in an ominous blood red.

When you have to explain the punchline of a joke, chances are, it's not a very good joke. That's the problem with Eddie Blake's story in Before Watchmen. The message and drive behind this story are so oblique that this just feels like an exercise in wasting time, with no insight gained from Eddie's time at base camp or his slaughter on the battlefield. It's a senseless fictional crime, with the only victim being your wallet.


Daredevil: End of Days #3

Written by Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack

Art by Klaus Janson, Bill Sienkiewicz, David Mack and Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

While the opening issue of Daredevil: End of Days teased a fall from grace epic even by superhero standards, Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack have long since burned through that good will. What could have been a dynamic mystery or an old-school story of corruption instead reads as a drawn-out, decompressed slog.

And considering this is more or less a straight-up homage to , that's kind of depressing. Eighteen pages of story (with eight of those pages being single- or double-page splashes) result in too little story to really draw you in. Phil Urich's journalistic pursuits wind up feeling less exciting than you'd expect, instead serving as a vehicle to speak to two of Matt Murdock's exes. Considering none of these exes even have any meaningful information to give, you wind up wondering what we're even doing here — sure, in the real world journalism can lead you to of dead ends, but do you really want to do that when you have the power to make an entire story out of exciting moments?

Not only does this comic feel almost beat-by-beat a rehash of the last issue (in particular, Bendis and Mack beat last issue's twist into the ground so much it has almost descended into self-parody — seriously, did nobody teach Matt Murdock about responsible himboing?), but it's also suffering from a distinct lack of imagination. Elektra as a soccer mom? That's sadly about as good as it gets here. Matt Murdock's supporting characters have always been gold because of whether they enable or challenge his morally questionable behavior, but without Daredevil, these formerly interesting characters seem like they're just trying to sober up.

The art by Klaus Janson and Bill Sienkiewicz also feels particularly rushed, with the overreliance on splash pages and the shakiness in composition. In previous issues, Janson's scraggly lines worked in his favor, evoking Daredevil uber-artist Frank Miller — but Miller was a master of panel-to-panel layout, leading the viewer through the story with innovative visuals. Here, Janson and Sienkiewicz really only deliver one memorable image here, a single panel of a woman tearing up — indeed, it's the strongest moment in the book on both a visual and conceptual basis, as one of Matt's supporting cast members wrestles with the secrets even she keeps from herself.

Bendis himself says in this story that a book about "Avengers: Where Are They Now?" would be the most depressing book in history. But the reality is it isn't depressing as much as it is dull. Phil Urich is on the prowl for a mystery that doesn't have any clues, for witnesses that don't have anything to say. What's the point of Daredevil: End of Days, when it almost aggressively fails to produce any of the tropes needed to make this detective story work? It's one thing to take a new spin on the genre, to have new ideas — but as this book should teach all of us, an absence of alternative directions altogether isn't revolutionary. It's just a waste.


Legends of the Dark Knight #3

Written by Steve Niles

Art by Trevor Hairsine

Lettering by Saida Temofonte

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Brian Bannen

’Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The first series I ever fully collected was published in Legends of the Dark Knight. I rode my bike to a neaby 7-11 and pulled the books from a wire-rack newsstand, shaking with excitement at having found all five issues of the arc. I had no idea of the importance the story would play in the Batman mythos. Entitled “Venom,” the arc later spawned Bane and led to a series of characters who used performance enhancers, way ahead of baseball legends, to make themselves more formidable opponents for a guy in a bat suit. Imagine my excitement when DC started publishing new Legends of the Dark Knight comics, and when I saw that Steve Niles was going to author one of them.

Known best for his 30 Days of Night series, Niles is a great horror writer with an adept skill at building atmosphere in his comics. How does he fare in the Batman world? Decently, if a bit on the hokey side.

Niles’ story is about Batman capturing the Joker, only to see him escape hours later. Bruce then wrestles with the “revolving door” aspect of the penal system, analyzing the philosophy of his consistent attempts to keep criminals incarcerated only to know that they will, eventually, escape. But then he receives several odd packages — bags of mail addressed to Batman (much like the bags of mail addressed to Santa), and through Alfred’s insistence, Bruce uses his time to read through the letters, learning about the lives he’s touched and the criminals he’s reformed (through brute force, of course).

The story has some great character moments, particularly between Alfred and Bruce. While the Joker appears in the book, he’s really nothing more than a catalyst for the plot. The real meat of the book is in the conversations, and if Niles does one thing well, it’s to show that Alfred can influence Bruce with a minor suggestion, and that Bruce — despite his intensity and ferocity — still listens to his butler when he knows he is saying something important. The letters to Batman angle is novel, and apropos given the time of year, but saccharine especially when Bruce decides to act on one of the letters and find a job for someone. Imagine if Batman walked into your business and said, “Give this man a job.” Would you say no?

Trevor Hairsine, known for his work on Judge Dredd and Captain America, does the art for the book, drawing a super imposing Batman, and crafting great action scenes for the entire comic. Hairsine uses visual filters to create misty imagery in flashback scenes, off-setting them from the present tense moments, but he’s also adept at using light and shadow. Each panel is full of detail, and his inks makes the drawings sleek and glossy. The visual beats, moments when characters don’t speak but emotion is pressed on character faces, are executed with superb skill and the while I found the idea of the story mushy, I couldn’t help but be moved by the accompanying art.

Given its non-canonical story, Legends of the Dark Knight is a freeing read. Regardless of the plot, and its mawkish impetus, the story still carries well, particularly under Hairsine’s talented pen. And while DC is using the series as a way to give well-known writers an opportunity to produce Batman stories, the one-shot technique works well. I can only hope that one of the writers composes a “Venom”-like story that influences the regular canon the same way.

And that some 12-year-old is there to snatch it off the wire-rack shelf.


Hoax Hunters Volume 1 TP

Written by Michael Moreci, Steve Seeley and Jeremy Tinder

Art by Jim Ringuet, Axel Medellin, Emilio Laiso, Charo Solis, Rosario Costanzo and Jeremy Tinder

Letters by Jim Campbell

Published by Image Comics

Review by Rob McMonigal

'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

A team of quirky researchers roams Louisiana, seeking television ratings in strange dealings—but the hoax is actually on the viewers! A secret government agency roams the world trying to prevent the public from becoming aware of the Jersey Devil, swamp creatures, and even more sinister threats in the first trade of Hoax Hunters, which is enjoyable enough but doesn’t cover much new ground.

It is incredibly difficult to be original in fiction. With so many people writing so many stories in so many media forms (comics being just one of those options), it is not surprising to find certain concepts repeated. One that is a particular favorite is the “hidden government agency” trope. We as a society are fascinated with the idea of imaginary threats being real and it makes for a solid plot base.

The key is in what you do with that plot. Unfortunately, I’m just not convinced that the writing team of Moreci and Seeley are breaking enough new ground in this series. I love the creatures they face, starting off with an astronaut who comes too close to another dimension and ends up merging with a crow-like consciousness, but the overarching plot left me cold. I’ve seen the hidden organization turn out to be the organization with something to hide one too many times, especially recently.

Right now, you can find the same hidden agency with dark secrets concept in (also Image), (Top Cow/Image), (Valiant), and even Hickman’s (yet another Image book), just to name four off the top of my head. And that’s not including comics that merely feature a secret team, because I only have so much space. Each of those branches further away from the base plot with each issue. Unfortunately, this book seems to stick closer to the stock script.

That being said, Hoax Hunters does some fun things with its characters and story. I like the idea that Jack is a second-generation member of the organization, with his father’s disappearance shrouded in mystery. There’s good banter between the dead mind reader and the girl who can use energy to affect others. In the main story arc, they face off against threats that really do tax their abilities and tie into the local flavor, like adding voodoo to the mix. It’s clear that Moreci and Seeley have a good handle on the genre and character interaction. Hopefully, that will progress into better plot development as they move into a new arc.

While there are quite a few artists credited in this trade, there is very little reader whiplash due to placing each team on a different story (with Jeremy Tinder writing and drawing an amusing short about Mothman’s love for classic DJ-curated radio). The opening story is given an angular look by Jim Ringuet, with characters and panels placed at odd distances from each other, throwing your eyes off-balance, which is fitting for the weird nature of the story. The characters are squarer than you’d normally see, but it works because the entire world feels a bit cubed and boxed in.

In the feature story, Alex Medellin opts for a more open style that actually bears a striking resemblance to Francesco Gaston, the artist of . The lines are far softer than Ringuet, with an emphasis on creating space and giving the characters room to move through the pages. The faces are more expressive as a result, and we see a lot of emotion come out not just in the dialogue but the art as well. Emilio Laiso draws issue five, but doesn’t do much other than tell the story in a straightforward manner. There’s little to see in the faces of his characters and the panel selections are safe, doing the job without interfering—but also without contributing much.

It’s early yet, so perhaps there will be some twists and turns that move this book into its own area, but right now, Hoax Hunters is a book worth trying if you like the “secret organization” genre but isn’t doing anything to make this worth adding to your book list if you feel like you already have enough top secret stories in your life.

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