Greetings, 'Rama readers — Best Shots is back and ready for action, with this week's Monday column! And let's get things started, as Brian takes a look at the latest issue of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man


Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #20

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponsor

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

When fans begged for an Ultimate incarnation of Venom, Brian Michael Bendis delivered by crafting a truly original character with few connections to the 616 version other than the name Eddie Brock. Over time, Bendis’ Venom has become more ferocious and more psychotic, killing indiscriminately and without remorse. But he’s only appeared a few times, and this keeps the character from loses his allure and ferocity. Now he’s returned, driven to find the new Spider-Man, but his purpose remains a mystery — and Bendis isn’t giving much away.

A lot of this issue is really a teaser for later story. A few cryptic quips are exchanged between Miles and the beast, but the story is singularly focused on Miles trying to figure out a way to bring down Venom. We’re also seeing Miles start to come into his own as Spider-Man, shaking off some of his insecurities in order to protect the people around him. Peter’s journey started with the death of his Uncle; Miles’ started when he was accidentally bit by a chemically engineered spider that crawled into his thief uncle’s dunnage. My point is that Miles has yet to experience the same loss as his predecessor.

Readers also know that Miles’ has studied Peter Parker’s methods, and some of the inner dialogue around this fact stalls the flow of the action. This occurs more in the beginning of the book as Miles tries to figure out a way to disguise himself from his parents as well as how he can beat Venom. As the story picks up steam, however, Bendis cuts back on the words and lets the imagery tell the story, putting the comic in the more than capable hands of Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponsor.

Pichelli’s hulking Venom is terrifying, filling every panel in which he appears. She continuously emphasizes Miles’ tiny frame, making him continuously look vulnerable. The effect doesn’t make Miles look weak; it only makes you care for him even more. And given the amount of darkness in the book -- from Spider-Man’s costume to Venom’s appearance — Justin Ponsor keeps the imagery from looking overly gloomy, adding smoothness and detail to Pichellli’s powerful character designs.

Regardless of the action, Bendis brings a human element to his story, making the final few pages heavy with emotion. The bookends of the comic are Miles’ life with his parents, and Bendis brings that conflict full circle. He hasn’t experienced loss like Peter Parker did, but those days may be numbered, and while the arc is about Venom, the story is clearly about Miles and his family.

But Bendis is leaving that matter uncertain, and we may yet see Miles share Peter’s sense of loss because if Bendis has shown readers anything, it’s that he’s not afraid to hurt his characters.


Batman: Li'l Gotham #5

Written by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen

Art by Dustin Nguyen

Lettering by Saida Temofonte

Published by DC Comics

Review by Amanda McDonald

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The wait since the New Year's Eve chapter of this digital title has felt particularly long — or maybe it's just been me filling with longing for the next installment of Batman: Li'l Gotham. I've found myself re-reading earlier chapters when I'm seeking one of those books to read that just "works." Each chapter of Fridolf and Nguyen's BLG centers on a holiday and the Joker is brewing up trouble in this Valentine's caper. Schemes don't go according to plan at Ivy's lab, resulting in the ladies of Gotham going gaga for the Clown Prince of Crime. As the Joker's catastrophe builds, he weaves in and out of settings that throw him into confrontations with some of Gotham's favorite women — Zatanna, Catwoman, and others, all the while trying to get back to his Harls. These pages and panels have a wacky fun feel to them that may have you turning the pages quicker than usual just to see (and delight in) how much more disastrous the Joker's day can be.

With this particular issue centering on the Joker, Fridolfs and Nguyen are collaborating and creating these stories that can stand alone but clearly reflect their love and knowledge for and about the DC Universe. Both have worked on a variety of DC titles, in both artistic and writing capacities. The Li'l Gotham characters' personas are spot on what you'd expect from a younger version of their grizzled villainous older selves. The JLA makes an appearance, as they are conveniently located in space and unable to deal with Gotham - and the male members are delighted to be unavailable for Valentine's Day. The young heroes of the story have a spunk and exuberance to them that seems to have been lost from many of DC's books.

When you layer Dustin Nguyen's bordering-on-chibi style on this title and his watercolor talents, this becomes a book that should be flying off the proverbial shelves — and hopefully will actually fly off brick and mortar store shelves starting this spring. In the interim, don't miss these issues in digital — the guided view and the ability to zoom and inspect really do bring Nguyen's talents to light more than most of us would notice on the printed page. From the tiny blue hairs blending into Joker's green hair, or the sunset shadows causing confusion in Chinatown, Li'l Gotham is a must-read for comic art aficionados, especially fans of watercolor-centric comic artists such as Nguyen or Jill Thompson.

Li'l Gotham comes to print in April with an issue that will collect the first two digital issues -- Halloween and Thanksgiving. Nguyen has discussed plans to increase the title's digital publications to twice monthly to incorporate more stories in addition to the holiday themes. Batman: Li'l Gotham fills a void that has been growing increasingly larger in all ages superhero comics. With a low price point, all ages appeal, and stellar artwork, consider this one for your comic-loving Valentine.


I Love Trouble #3

Written by Kel Symons

Art by Mark Robinson and Paul Little

Lettering by Pat Brosseau

Published by Image Comics

Review by Lan Pitts

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Since discovering she had the power to teleport, Felicia Castro can't seem to stay out of trouble. Recruited by the blind sage Thomas, Felicia finds out that she's in line to join a mysterious organization called MARS. While the organization is nothing we haven't seen before in comics (think mutant black-ops) it gives Felicia a chance to find a purpose, even if that purpose is incredibly shady.

Writer Kel Symons dives deep here in the end with how much Felicia is messed up. Her borderline kleptomania mixed with signs of schizophrenia, adds to her volatile nature and with a fitting power like teleportation, makes all that much more sense. This issue sets up what Thomas is really all about. The previous installment gave us more of who Felicia is. Symons' approach here using other comic book scenarios was a fun touch. Thomas and Felicia have great chemistry, but there's still a veiled mystery to what Thomas truly wants from her in the end. The Luke/Obi-Wan dichotomy is out there in open, but even old Ben wasn't 100 percent honest to Luke, if you recall.

Okay, let's talk about Mark Robinson here. Robinson's animated style is unlike anything out there presently. It's old-school Disney, but mixed with some Kentucky Gentleman to give it its edge and flavor. The panel layouts are neat, too, not really sticking to standard ideas and going outside the box. Two scenes stand out the most for what I'm talking about: one, the introduction to the MARS offices. While you can't really see a lot of what's going on, Robinson adds a depth and adds a certain level of detail that's easy on the eye without being overbearing. The other being Felicia debating on being a superhero. Lots of Felicia's personality and comedic wit shines through here and Robinson is just brilliant with the presentation.

Colorist Paul Little has finally won me over. While it was a rocky start back in the first issue, it seems he's found what it takes to click with Robinson's art. It's a lot brighter and fills the pages just right. Though I think he has a little more work to do on getting skin tones down, as everybody in this book looked too shiny in some moments. Rest of the time though, it looks marvelous and gives the linework a special kind of flair.

More people should read this book. With Image having a renaissance of sort this past year, I Love Trouble is the epitome of superhero comics without limits. It can be cliché at times, but I'm drawn in to where this leads. Symons and Robinson have a hit on their hands, I just hope readers catch on to what they've been missing.


The Fearless Defenders #1

Written by Cullen Bunn

Art by Will Sliney and Veronica Gandini

Letters by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Vanessa Gabriel

'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Valkyrie teamed with Misty Knight. It sounds good, doesn't it?


Marvel has responded to the call for more diverse characters in comics. The Fearless Defenders is an example of comic book characters broadening horizons in the superhero genre. Telling stories about characters that are relatable to a range of readers is a win-win. The Fearless Defenders #1 has that.

Cullen Bunn presents us with capable, interesting characters - each in very different ways.

Misty Knight is a no-nonsense, quick-witted, bionic "badass private investigator" on a mission. We get to see the most of her in this issue, and her down-to-earthness is a great lead-up to the premiere of Valkyrie.

No one is more pleased by the appearance of the Asgardian Defender than Marvel Universe newcomer Dr. Annabelle Riggs. She is an Indiana Jones-inspired non-super, and has an instant crush on Valkyrie.

While I am all for more LGBTQ characters in comics, it is crystal clear when Annabelle abruptly locks lips with Valkyrie that she "likes girls." Thus, the caption saying that very thing makes the whole scene come off as contrived. If just left as a visual, it would read as remarkably charming. Especially when coupled with Valkyrie's kind but stern response to Annabelle's advances.

Annabelle likes girls. Misty Knight is a badass. OK. I know this is a first issue, but there is some overkill in the architecture. The characterization and writing stand firmly on their own. Punctuating them with banners is an unnecessary embellishment. There is no need to try that hard.

Valkyrie, on the other hand, is written (and drawn) rather flawlessly. There is a sense of duty and care that defines the character, and yet she is fully removed from mortal idiosyncrasy. The result is Asgardian authenticity. Juxtapose that against the grit and spit of Misty Knight, and you've got a world of amusing buddy-cop potential. Add the quirky charm of Dr. Riggs, and it would be enough to bring me back for at least two more issues, unquestioned. But then there is the art.

There are several aspects of the art by Will Sliney that fail while only a few work. The biggest concerns fall squarely on the shoulders of Misty Knight - her design and rendering while in action.

It is an acceptable part of the medium for superheroes to have idealized forms and figures, as they are the allegories of escapist fantasy. There is a difference between ideal and unreal.

I counted five panels where Misty's form was contorted beyond anatomical reason, and three that sexualized her. While she is wrenched in an impossible position with her breasts and derrière prominently featured, this is the moment that Misty Knight is declared a "badass." Yet, all I could do was stare ... at her ass.

The costume is form-fitting, so of course you can see the character's form. But there is a bizarre arch to the back and an elongation of the torso that does not exist in nature, therefore objectifying the character and thus undermining the supposed, simultaneous "badassness." It is an exercise in cognitive dissonance, and it isn't doing the character any favors.

And why on earth would a person wear giant hoop earrings on a recon mission? And why would I nit-pick such a small detail? Because it pulls you out of the story. I have a pair. They are heavy and easily caught on things, and I am supposed to believe that Misty Knight would wear them with an extremely high probability of hand-to-hand combat? Stand by while I prepare my Liz Lemon eye roll.

Speaking of eyes. Sliney does tell the emotional bits of the story with some impact. He nails it with expressiveness, particularly in the eyes. The range of emotion he displays is impressive ... in a good way.

Despite the feeling that The Fearless Defenders #1 is trying too hard, it is mostly excusable because this is a first issue. Bunn really does present us with captivating characters, and the chemistry is definitely there. The concept of The Fearless Defenders is a good one, but I was not WOWED. This is a comic book after all, and the book cannot stand solely on good writing. The art needs to carry its weight. With all the potential a comic book can muster, The Fearless Defenders #1 still feels like a rough draft.


Young Romance: The New 52 Valentine’s Day Special

Written by Various

Art by Various

Published by DC Comics

Review by Erika D. Peterman

’Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Superheroes and anti-heroes lead complicated, over-the-top dramatic lives that inevitably wreak havoc on their relationships. So it’s not exactly surprising that the one-shot Young Romance: The New 52 Valentine’s Day Special isn’t all hearts and flowers. No matter what that passionate lip-lock between Wonder Woman and Superman on the cover suggests — and enough already; we get it — the stories in this collection are not heavy on uplifting, heart-fluttering moments.

While the six stories here range from off-putting to just fine, none of them leaves enough of an impression to justify the $7.99 asking price. The biggest delight comes from the cute tear-out Valentine’s Day cards inside the book.

Some of the couplings are predictable. In "Think it Through," written by Ann Nocenti, A down on her luck Catwoman reflects on her first encounter with Batman, which took place on Valentine’s Day several years prior. Batman comes across as a bullying scold instead of a potential love interest, and he wants her to learn a lesson about stealing so she can make her way over to his side of the fence. Emanuela Lupacchino’s illustrations avoid sexualizing Catwoman to the point of lunacy, but Batman seems impossibly large in some panels. I could have done without all the images of him aggressively grabbing Catwoman the arm and “scruff at the neck.”

Aquaman and Mera are only supporting characters in “The Lighthouse,” the one genuinely romantic chapter in this collection. Written by Cecil Casellucci, it’s the bittersweet story of a young woman and a sailor whose love was thwarted long ago by a controlling father and the sea itself. Artist Inaki Miranda has a light, flowing style, and her art is among the best here.

Similarly engaging is “Another Saturday Night,” which pairs a freshly dumped Nightwing with “protection specialist” Ursa Minor. Though their time together is brief, writer Kyle Higgins manages to establish a believable connection as Ursa relates to Dick’s love troubles and the two share takeout food on a snow-covered roof. Ursa is fun, sharp-witted and ultimately elusive. Artist Sanford Green has a playful style that works beautifully in the scenes of the characters leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

At the less charming end of the spectrum is “Dreamer,” in which Batgirl inexplicably indulges an ex-con named Ricky’s request for a follow-up to a previous kiss. Apparently, the first was just an act to protect Ricky from being branded a snitch. The story fails to establish any chemistry between the two whatsoever, and it isn’t helped by the unpleasantly rough illustrations and murky color palette.

Written by Peter Milligan, “Seoul Brothers” sheds little light on the history between Apollo and Midnighter, though artist Simon Bisley makes the surroundings gritty and visually interesting. But ultimately, all we’re left with is Midnighter’s declaration, however untrue, that he doesn’t want to mix business with pleasure.

The grand finale is date night with Superman and Wonder Woman in Andy Diggle's “Truth or Dare,” which continues the pattern of telling readers that the two are in love instead of really showing them why. Two troublemaking sirens show up, which triggers a big, loud fight between the super-couple. Robson Rocha’s action sequences are well done and full of energy, but haven’t we seen these two throw down a million times?

Like an overpriced Valentine's Day candy sampler, Young Romance is evenly split between short-lived pleasures and duds.


Scarlet #6

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Alex Maleev

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Icon

Review by Aaron Duran

'Rama Rating 7 out of 10

This isn't an easy review to write. Not simply because it's been a year between issues of Scarlet. That's an easy enough remedy. Scarlet #6 presents challenges because I'm not sure this is a book that works in modern America anymore. Or, maybe it's needed more than ever. Like I said, this isn't an easy nut to crack. It's only been a few weeks since the grenade got tossed into Pioneer Square, forcing Scarlet Rue into even deeper hiding. And, forcing the titular character to speed up her timeline and like all leaders with a vision, she's garnering faithful followers. Taking a turn from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (of which Scarlet receives more than one comparison), Scarlet Rue takes to the airwaves to contact the people.

As a form of entertainment, Scarlet is a mixed bag. Artist Alex Maleev takes a lot of hits for his obvious use of hyper-stylized photo referencing. While this is very true, it's not as if Maleev is attempting to hide this fact. It's simply his style of art, and there is enough texture and depth to his work that it's disingenuous to call him out as tracing and pasting. I would actually suggest Scarlet #6 contains some of Maleev's strongest work since he and Bendis' initial run on Daredevil. Unlike last year's Moon Knight, which suffered from art that look rushed. Maleev clearly had more time and passion within the pages of Scarlet, and the art reflects it. That being said, no critic is ever going to sway someone that discredits Maleev's style. For fans, you're in for a treat.

This is clearly an important project for Brian Michael Bendis, with some of his best dialogue I've read in a long time. There is a cadence behind it that is almost musical, but for reasons I can't quite pinpoint, there is little passion behind those words. Scarlet #6 reads like a modern political debate: filled with prepared speeches that are delivered with energy, but no conviction. The strongest evidence coming from the backstory of Isis, Scarlet's newest and likely most devoted follower. The tale of the horrors she saw at the hands of corrupt cops and a broken system is maddening, and yet it rings of manipulative. From the very first sentence in the three page telling, we know how this story will end. While this is probably more insight into my own thought process, by the end, my mind immediately went to Ghostbusters II where Egon tells his assistant, “Lets see what happens when we take away the puppy.” It's an obvious attempt to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Effective, yes, but it lacks the nuance I've come to expect from Bendis and this series.

A few days ago, the news reported that for the first time ever on American soil, an unmanned drone will be used to hunt a killer in the hills just outside San Bernardino, California. That's a big deal. And it's why I wonder if a book like Scarlet is relative anymore. In his postscript (which everyone really should read, as it's more honest than the bulk of this issue), Bendis talks about he and Maleev's hesitation in continuing the series. The world in which Scarlet resides may not even exist anymore, in at least how she wishes to fix it. The powers of oppression learned much from the Occupy movement. Indeed, they may have learned more than those that sat and waited for change. Which leaves me wondering, are Bendis and Maleev even asking the right questions anymore with Scarlet? Is she?

We are watching an almost too realistic portrayal of politics and power unfold in a supposed fictional Portland, Oregon. But in that short year between issue #5 and #6, there was a massive paradigm shift in how we view our saviors and revolutionaries. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure Scarlet, and by extension Bendis or Maleev are up to the task. As new fathers, the both of them, they see the world so very differently than their title character. In that, Scarlet now walks without guidance in her own book. She's still asking the questions, but her creators may not have the answer. Scarlet #6, is both compelling and frustrating. Not unlike modern American life.


Hit-Girl #5

Written by Mark Millar

Art by John Romita Jr., Tom Palmer, Dean White and Michael Kelleher

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Icon

Review by Brian Bannen

‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Hit-Girl #5 is nothing new. We’ve seen this kind of thing from Mark Millar before. The over-the-top violence, excessive swearing, and extensive body count are all present in this issue. What makes this different — and what’s made the entire Hit-Girl series different — is the fun with which Millar has writing it, the light-heartedness in the face of such dark humor, and just how much you buy into the insanity on the printed page.

After dispensing with the main conflict in the first seven pages, Millar uses the rest of the book to wrap up all his loose ends. And he does so spectacularly. Mindy’s Godfather type killing spree is the highlight of the issue as she brings down the ten men on her hit list, closing the door to any possible retribution. Her final visit, a stopover to see mob boss Ralphie Genovese in prison doesn’t last long, and her action echo not only her violent tendencies, but her fierce love for her guardian, Marcus, and Millar makes sure to show readers that while Mindy may be psychotic, she still has a heart.

Millar also sets up Kick-Ass Book 3, scheduled for release in May of this year, by showing how Mindy’s actions have affected the rest of the city. Much like Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, Mindy’s crusade has inspired others to put on costumes and to dispense justice wherever it is needed. Her story dovetails nicely with Kick-Ass, and while Mindy swore to never wear the Hit-Girl costume again, her ability to pass on her knowledge and skill is still a key focus of the series.

The comic also has many elements of dark humor, from Mindy’s creativity in dispensing with her enemies, to her side trip to death row, reflecting the actions of a girl who was raised to hate criminals. Millar also brings back Red Mist as he attempts to learn how to go from “Christian Bale in The Machinist to the hardcore Bale that can throw a heavy light at a sound technician.” The results of this training are hilarious, as are the comments from his trainers who realized just how much money he had, and just how they could get their hands on it.

Of course, the comic is a visual success because of John Romita Jr. and Tom Palmer. Romita’s blocky, gritty style makes the violence all the more visceral, and no one can reflect the power and ferocity of Mindy Macready like he can. His visual shifts also make the visuals come alive, giving the comic a film-like look with nuanced points of view, and strong pacing, especially with its humor. Tom Palmer’s finishes give the visuals the extra punch needed in the action scenes, but also in the more emotional ones. Mindy’s conversation with her father’s ghost has a powerful effect because of the softness of the lighting and smoothness of the character designs.

Millar has definitely carved out his niche, but he knows how to move around in it, be creative, and avoid being repetitive and stale. Whereas some of Millar’s newer works have been hollow and clichéd Hit-Girl has showcased everything Millar does well, using well-known character, but without having them become dull or worn out. Having raised the stakes once again, Millar has set the bar very high for himself to either meet, or hopefully, to exceed. 

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