Best Shots: Superman, Black Summer, ASB&R, and more

Best Shots: Comic Reviews

Your Host: Troy Brownfield

Greetings!  Welcome back to the big column.  Let’s go!

Wolverine Annual #2:  Roar

Writer:  Duane Swierczynski

Artist:  Mike Deodato

Marvel Comics

Review By:  Jeff Marsick

If you’re looking for a follow-up to Annual 1, a solid stand-alone tale by Gregg Hurwitz and arguably the best single issue of 2007, you are doomed to be disappointed.  This issue isn’t a story so much as a single scene, stretched dully and improbably by novelist and scribe Duane Swierczynski into thirty-five pages when even the greenest of novice writers could have done it in eight.

We’ve got Wolverine ambling into the desolate desert town of Roamer, New Mexico, looking to slake a thirst but finding, naturally, trouble instead.  Seems there’s a creature that has the local population of nearly three-fifty either terrified or dead, and all of them deaf.  As the title betrays, the nine-foot tall were-coyote creature simply roars and eardrums turn to bursting, our hirsute Canuck included.  Why no one thinks to wear earplugs is the book’s true mystery, right up there with why it takes Wolverine half the issue to finally decide to take matters into his own claws, choosing to waste his time and ours by plodding around the town on a spirit walk of sorts, looking for answers that he doesn’t really need.

Mr. Swierczynski dumbs the issue down further through a Vulcan mind-meld moment that forces a two-page discovery wherein we learn that the creature is a Navajo instrument of revenge for crimes of yore, brought into existence by the machinations of their coyote god answering a child’s prayers.  After the threat is dealt with, the issue ends limply, with stunted and staccato narrative leading to a last page equaling the final line from the movie Volcano for cringe inducement.

There is much incoherence here, from a sheriff who’s chosen to lock himself in his own jail, to a deaf woman with a thing for domesticating Jerusalem crickets.  Why neither went to another town to bring back help or why people cower in their cars instead of simply driving away are plot holes big enough to drive a Star Destroyer through.  Worse yet is why Wolverine, who has gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Magneto, would be punished like he is at the hands of this bantam-weight Wendigo.  Clearly, Mr. Swierczynski does not grasp the character.

A shame, too, for Mike Deodato’s artwork is terrific.  But, like the titular character, it’s forced to roam about, wandering as the script does, decompressing more than is necessary in order to meet the page count.  The fight scenes are well executed and kinetic, and in some frames of the creature I contemplate how I would love to see Mr. Deodato take on some horror work.

Ever since Duane Swierczynski came to the House of Marvel, I have been waiting for him to bring some of the magic that he’s spun in his novels.  Unfortunately, I continue to wait, as this latest, and perhaps to date his best, opportunity is squandered.  For those who look for a grade, I would have to stamp it with a C-, declaring it not worth your money.

Deitch’s Pictorama

Written & Illustrated by Kim Deitch, Seth Deitch and Simon Deitch

Published by Fantagraphics

Reviewed by Michael C Lorah

The Deitch brothers, Kim, Seth and Simon, combine creative efforts in this 200-page selection of “picto-fiction,” namely heavily illustrated prose fiction.  Seth writes three stories, one illustrated by each of his brothers, and one presented in unadorned text, while Kim authors two mind-benders, both complemented by his distinctive sideshow illustrations.  Kim’s been creating comics for forty years now, and to no surprise, his solo work dives into the seedy underside of 20th century pop culture and entertainment, with a particularly keen eye given to the collecting culture.  His brothers’ creative ventures are less seen, though outlets for their work have become more common in recent years.

Seth’s three stories offer a breadth of entertainment.  “Children of Aruf,” a purely text piece, is a dog lover’s dream, a speculation about life if our canine companions were able to speak to us.  Seth’s ability to give Garf, our co-lead, speech, yet still imbue him with recognizable dog behavior, displays a sharp eye for behavioral observation.  “The Golem,” accented by Simon’s terrific pencil drawings, full of emotion and impressive shadowing, is an old school parable of men playing at godhood.  The framing device for the story allows him to switch perspectives, and he changes up the characters’ voices very effectively.  Kim collaborates with Seth for “Unlikely Hours,” an amusing and twisted tale of genetically tested rats plotting revenge on humanity.

Kim, to the surprise of nobody who’s read his work, plays with the entertainment industry to great effect.  Every year, his voice just gets stronger, and readers who’ve enjoyed Alias the Cat or Boulevard of Broken Dreams should appreciate “The Sunshine Girl” and “The Cop on the Beat, the Man in the Moon, and Me.”  In the former, a young woman named Eleanor Whalley tells Kim her account of a long uncle, LSD-laced soda and bottlecap collectors.  Benefiting from Kim’s ability to twist fiction and reality by injecting himself into a story (his 60s character The Sunshine Girl was, in this tale, licensed by a soda company and is the rarest bottlecap in existence), the reader’s world is pulled directly into that of the fictional Ms. Whalley.  In his second solo offering, Deitch is again a part of the narrative, a longing meditation on the lives and fates of the nearly forgotten crooners of the 1920s and 30s.

Although each of the stories are written prose, each of the three tales illustrated by Kim uses the artwork as a physical part of the story, with dialogue appearing inside word balloons next to the image the appears alongside the text, phrases appearing inside explosions to enforce the impact of the moment, and words and images weaving around one another to add pauses or counter-point to the narrative.  As Deitch’s first move into illustrated fiction, it’s an extremely assured and effective piece of work, though the blocks of text could’ve used another proofreading in a place or two.

Twisted and dark on their fringes, yet vibrantly fun and hilarious at their core, Kim Deitch continues to prove that he’s one of the great cartoonists of this or any generation.  In combination with his brothers (and with an introduction by their father Gene, the Academy Award-winning animator), Deitch’s Pictorama is a powerful statement about the ways words and images can combine, as well as a testament to the creative power of the comic book form.

Black Summer TPB

Written by Warren Ellis

Art by Juan Jose Ryp

Published by Avatar

Review by Sarah Jaffe

All superhero comics are allegory to some degree. Some, of course, more than others. They’re myths and legends, set in worlds that aren’t our own but that mirror our own.

Black Summer might hit too close to home for a lot of American superhero fans. It doesn’t give as much distance from reality. When John Horus kills the president, he names off issues that are far too real, though he never names the president. There’s no alternate history here except for the introduction of the Seven Guns, biomechanically enhanced superheroes who’ve fallen apart a bit after years of being, well, superhuman.

Like many books these days, Black Summer deconstructs the idea of superheroes. What is a superhero’s duty? To government? To the people? Are they outside or above the law? It takes a bit of a look at the effects of being a superhero on a person’s psyche, but spends far more time on the action, the consequences of taking the law into one’s own hands.

In the end, it’s a story about the futility of larger and larger weapons, and so it’s an incredibly violent comic to illustrate the uselessness of violence to combat violence. It switches from fairly talky flashbacks to sections long on action, depicted in gorgeous multipage silent spreads of explosions, dripping bright red blood, and the kind of gore one sees more often in horror comics.

The book illustrates the violence graphically because that’s its point—violence begets violence, and it’s not the sanitized type that we often see in superhero books. The Seven Guns kill. They react to killing. The violence doesn’t evoke much of an emotional reaction in the reader since it’s pretty much all done to characters that are introduced solely to be killed, or to ones that were hard to like in the first place, but there’s a visceral gut-clenching reaction to those first panels of John Horus’s bright white uniform spattered red.

Ellis has his characters quote the Constitution and base their reasoning in real American history. The name “Guns” was chosen for a reason, because after all true Second Amendment believers really do want their guns as arms against government intervention. This country was founded on a right to rise up against your rulers, and Ellis reminds us of that many times throughout.

“They don’t get to be right just because there’s more of them and they have guns,” Angela says at one point, which might have been stating the obvious but fairly well sums up the point of the book. Although, are the Seven Guns right because there are less of them and they have guns?

The women on the Seven Guns end up as the “good guys” but are less developed as characters. The story is really about Tom Noir even though he’s gone for most of it. Tom is the least heroic of the Guns, an alcoholic, missing a limb, holed up in his house feeling sorry for himself at the beginning, and yet he becomes the conscience of the book. And in doing so he points out that he was as wrong as any of them.

The point, in the end, is that no one person or even group of people, no matter how ‘enhanced’ they may be, has the answers. All they can do, as the remaining Guns realize, is help: not try to change the world, just try to improve their little corner of it. It’s both a cynical answer and a deeply democratic and hopeful one.

Madame Mirage Vol. 1 Trade Paperback

Story by Paul Dini

Art by Kenneth Rocafort

Published by Top Cow

Reviewed by Lan Pitts

The story of murder, intrigue and revenge with superpowers, this is Madame Mirage. "Mirage" takes place in a world where superheroes are man-made creations through the advances in technology or bio-engineering to turn people into metahumans and metahumans into gods. Though when there are heroes, there must be villains. As people took advantage of the mega-tech for personal gain, the technology was banned, the superheroes became outlawed and the real outlaws went underground.

Aggressive Solutions Int. or A.S.I., is run by a cabal of villain groups. To the people, they are some kind of Los Angeles-based public relations firm or trouble-shooting agency. In reality, they are a front for a gang of powerful villains. All has gone well, until A.S.I. finds itself as a target of a relentless and violent vendetta by the mysterious woman calling herself Madame Mirage.

Paul Dini pitched the idea of Madame Mirage seven years prior to the first issue of the book. The early concept was pitched to an internet animation studio, where they wanted an action-driven femme fatale series. However, the studio had already gone out of business the weekend following the meeting. Following that, Dini put the Mirage pitch in the sketchbook where it remained for years until Jim McLauchlin came on board at Top Cow as an editor, and was interested in creating a new series about a tough new heroine and contacting Paul Dini. He brought back the Mirage concept, updated it because of how many years since the first pitch, and finally he started scripting the stories.

Dini compares Mirage to pulp hero The Shadow with a hint of Zatanna. Mirage employs various degrees of superpowers including mind control, "magic" and shape shifting in order to confound and destroy her enemies. To the point where she confronts an enemy, it is unknown what she will do or use to attack. It is worth noting that Madame Mirage and her visual appearance is based on his wife, Misty Lee, who is a magician and illusionist. The other thing about Mirage is that she has a younger sister named Harper, who acts as her backup on these missions against the A.S.I.

There is a plethora of twists and turns in this book that makes this title worthy to reckoned with. Some of which I don't care to mention because they would ruin a lot, including issue three in which we learn Mirage's origin. The action is superb and never dull. The book feels like a non-stop chase with Mirage just one step ahead of the bad guys. Dini weaves a tale of espionage and intrigue that we have not seen in comics in quite some time. Despite Dini's kid-friendly past with his DC superhero shows, Mirage is a book intended for mature readers with a climax that rivals "Kill Bill". Rocafort's art is simply ravishing. Madame Mirage will keep you guessing until the very end! The Volume 1 trade is the first story arc, but there will be another one coming out next year. Along with the issues, the extras are frosting on the cake. It has a cover gallery by Rocafort and variant covers by Greg Horn as well as initial sketch designs by Dini and Rocafort. It would be a crying shame for anybody to not pick up this collection if you missed out the first time around.

The Complete Terry & the Pirates vol. 3: 1939-1940

Written & Illustrated by Milton Caniff

Published by IDW

Reviewed by Michael C Lorah

Set now in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Milton Caniff’s classic adventure strip follows the mile-a-minute life of young Terry Lee; his friend, the two-fisted journalist Pat Ryan; and their Chinese interpreter, George Webster “Connie” Confucius, joined in vol. 2 of this series by the gigantic and powerful mute Chinese man called Big Stoop.  Extended storylines during this two-year stretch find Terry, wooing the Southern Belle April Kane, and Pat attempting to undermine the extortionist schemes of Baron De Plexus, while both are manipulated by the dangerous Sanjak.  Reunited with their old antagonist The Dragon Lady, they work with her against the despicable Klang, leaving Pat and April separated from the rest and in the company of an old pirate named Captain Blaze.  Upon returning home, Pat makes the association of wealthy socialite Raven Sherman, and the entire group is pulled back into The Dragon Lady’s orbit for another round of conflict between the Chinese guerillas and the invader armies.

Restlessly paced, Terry and the Pirates is a clear inspiration for many of the movie serials that soon entered into theatres, which in turn have provided source material for Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the shape of much modern entertainment.  Caniff’s characters are modeled on classic archetypes, but as a cartoonist, he is extremely adept at mixing and matching their personalities to accent the complexities of each character.  Even The Dragon Lady herself shows hints of a soft side while teaching Terry to dance.  But the series’ biggest strength remains the fast-moving plotlines and imaginative story twists.  Just when the heroes have a plan, something goes wrong and they’re even deeper in the soup than ever.  With the strong dialogue and crisp artwork, there’s little about the adventure not to love.

What criticism can be leveled at Terry largely revolves around the usage of pidgin English in Connie’s dialogue.  The racist caricature of a Chinese man speaking English is hard to overlook, and the flaw is accentuated when Pat or Terry occasionally use simply trickery to outwit uneducated, superstitious Chinese peasants.  Fortunately, Connie, despite the problems of his dialogue, is treated as a resourceful young man who is well respected by his American friends.  Some readers may also find the redundancy of the daily and Sunday strip style tedious.  The negative effect of the daily format, which drove Caniff to provide relentless action and drama, is that dialogue – particularly when transitioning to and from a Sunday page, which may not have been running in the same paper as the daily strips – often repeats information to remind readers what is occurring.

Caniff’s art gets stronger with each passing month, and the variety of characters (particularly the always popular femme fatales) showcases his range as an illustrator.  He’s adept at framing panels to maximize the drama and humor, a particularly necessary talent considering that he’s essentially locked into using three to four strictly sized panels per strip.

Publisher IDW deserves considerable praise for the format of their collections.  The hardcover volumes are well bound and extremely sturdy.  With three black and white daily strips to a page, with a full color Sunday strip on every third page, the pages are used effectively to present the strips.  The sewn binding even includes a cloth bookmark so readers have no trouble picking up where they last left off.

Terry and the Pirates is the very foundation of adventure storytelling, and its dynamic pacing (pacing is the most under-rated key element of truly engaging action-adventure), exotic locations, and Machiavellian characters provide endless edge-of-your-seat reading.  It’s a classic strip that deserves its classic status, just as it deserves this gorgeous collection and a hell of a lot more readers.

Pellet Reviews

All Star Batman and Robin #10 (DC; reviewed by Lan Pitts: I'm the minority here when I claim I actually like this book. Sure, it's Sin City dialogue coming out of Gotham City's mouth, but I think the "All Star Batman" brand is merely misunderstood. 

I have read quite a few interviews with authors, and being a aspiring writer myself I agree, some writers will sell rights to Hollywood for treatment of their material for the cash and for good reason. What do they care if Hollywood butchers it or not? It doesn't change the book, it will always be the same. If anything, it might generate more of an audience for the writer. And as for everyone stating that All Star Bats here isn't worth burning because it's not even worth a match, it's because its not Batman, well, its not suppose to be. If you want the Batman you know and love, just read that. Who wants to just see the same old? I compare it a lot to cover songs. I'm a sucker for a good cover song because I want to see someone else take on a song I may, or may not, already like. Its not the original, but I was never expecting the original in the first place. On that note, not all is lost as Jim Lee continues to give his all on this book. He's given multiple double-page spreads and splash pages to flex his artist muscle and, as always, nails them out of the park. Just like the best artists in the industry, Jim Lee delivers iconic images that pop off the page once his artist team of Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair get a hold of his work. It's just a shame that a Jim Lee and company drawn comic comes so rarely these days because I can never get enough of them. Some of my personal favorites from this month are the image of Batman holding a beaten Catwoman as well as Batman and Robin hitching a ride on a speeding train and to top it off, a touching moment between Jim Gordon and his daughter. That's just some "this is what comics are about" moments that this title is capable of.

Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps (DC; by Mike) – My favorite thing about Jack Kirby is this: Every new series is a surprise.  Jack’s bibliography shows few attempts at tackling established name characters (and those attempts were usually not of his choosing); rather, Kirby continued to create new characters, new worlds, and new cosmologies.  OMAC, set in Jack’s oddly prescient future world where criminals steal youth and wealthy men flaunt laws, maintains Kirby’s frenetic dynamism, yet adds a sardonic commentary on the direction of humanity.  It’s not as engaging as Kirby’s Fourth World epic, but it’s still a delightful, bravura series.  Kudos must also be given to DC’s collected edition department for doing justice to these stories.  I’ll enjoy taking this book out for a re-reading with regularity.

Avengers: The Initiative #17 (Marvel; by Troy):  This one is a funny, often brutal issue of a funny, often brutal book.  I’ve enjoyed this one from the beginning, and I think that the Slott-Gage writing duo is an inspired one (though I also think that Gage will be fine on his own, just as I think Slott has interesting Mighty Avengers stories to tell).  One great piece here is that the book just moves at a mile-a-minute, switching locations on every page at one point.  It lends scope to the overall Not-So-Secret-Anymore Invasion.  The big talking point will be the identity of Mutant Zero, but Irredeemable Ant-Man, the over-the-top Skrull Kill Krew, the Shadow Initiative, and Jocasta are the kinds of things that ice it for me.  Well done.

Superman #680 (DC Comics; review by Rev. O.J. Flow):  There's no getting around the fact that, of all things, a dog is one of the more polarizing characters in DC lore right now.  Krypto, the good boy that makes Superman feel like a complete family man with his wife Lois, is front and center of this final chapter of "The Coming of Atlas," and I am firmly in the camp that the super-pooch's presence here is strong and indicative of the James Robinson era hitting its stride.  What I liked most about this issue is that from beginning to end it felt like a Robinson joint for the first time, reminiscent of the writer's extraordinary work over a decade ago.  Robinson gives the Man of Steel a little attitude best evidenced in an engaging scene with him meeting Zachary Zatara for the first time (Not everyone knows that the original Zatara debuted in the very same book that Superman did, Action Comics #1.  Coincidence here, or tribute?) and a citywide declaration that Metropolis has another faithful protector.  There's no lack of intensity here as Krypto gives the malevolent Atlas all that he can handle, and a shadowy agency tries in vain to give the villain an assist with mixed results.  And in a case of the creators almost reading my mind, I did find myself with a lot of questions at the end of this story and apparently it is being addressed in an upcoming special starring Jimmy Olsen.  Again it must be said that the art has exceptional, and Renato Guedes is without a doubt one of DC's more dependable talents.  Instead of tuning out, they got me eager for more, clearly taking Superman in a solid direction.

Ambush Bug: Year None #3  (DC; review by O.J):  I was singing the praises of this book and then some a few weeks ago, but I do have to admit that the bloom's starting to fade on this rose.  My biggest realization at this point is that it may have been a little more appropriate as a leaner, meaner special issue over a multi-part series.  I could do without the more mean-spirited aspects of the book, especially the potshots at fanboys taken by Keith Giffen.  Keith, believe it or not, these very fanboys are who have kept you in particular gainfully employed for four decades now.  This industry is often a young man's game that casts veterans aside, I'm just sayin.'  I still dig the heck out of the art, and the continuous cameos are a hoot (the ones I actually recognize), I just wish the satire in some instances wasn't so obvious.  From Day One the excesses in Infinite Crisis, namely the epic body count, have been well documented, so Giffen and co-conspirator Robert Fleming seem to be late to the party with all the gags they present in issue #3.  If they want to satirize a comic book trend, perhaps they should cover "waiting for the trade."  I'm half wondering here if I should've.  Not a bad book per se, but not as great as it wants to be.  

Ultimate Spider-Man #126 (Marvel; by Troy):  When I read issues like this, that’s when I start to hope that “Ultimatum” doesn’t change everything too much.  Bendis does a great job with the Ultimates team, and everyone sounds totally in character as they’re called in to take on Rampaging Venom Spidey (coming soon from Hasbro, probably).  The best parts are Fury’s quick-thinking in the field, the post-battle conversation, and Immonen and von Grawbadger on art.  Good stuff abounds.

Fables #76 (DC/Vertigo):  Terrific art from Mike Allred supports the humorous aftermath of the great war.  Gepetto is now a citizen of Fabletown, and has more than a little trouble adjusting.  There are some good laughs in this one, and just a hint of dark foreshadowing.  This wouldn’t make a great first issue for a new reader, but it’s a fun diversion for us long-timers.

X-Men Legacy #216 (Marvel; by Troy):  Mike Carey writes the hell out of the confrontation between Professor X and Cyclops and Emma Frost.  Fine art by Phil Briones and Scott Hanna drives this examination of the things that Xavier has really, really done wrong over the years.  Overall, I’m happy that things went in this direction.  I do believe that there are a number of things that Xavier should have had to answer for, and I think that the resolution here is appropriate.  I’m guessing that Xavier will continue his journey, now trying to make amends with some of the others damaged in the wake of his earlier career.

Advance Pellet: The Boys #23 (Dynamite; by Troy):  One of the most unrepentantly entertaining books on the racks continues along its raucous way with hints of dire things to come.  Vought American is stocking up some big guns, The Boys plan to take on X-analogues The G-Men, and somebody has The Seven’s number.  Seriously, the phone gag in this one is a laugh-out-loud moment.  And speaking of hilarious, that last page . . .geez.  The Boys is not for the delicate; it’s ferociously entertaining.

Comic-Related Review

The Book of Lies

Written by Brad Meltzer

Published by Grand Central Publishing

Reviewed by Erich Reinstadler

"The Book of Lies" is, at its heart, a story of fathers and sons. The way they interact; the lessons passed down from generation to generation. It's a story of love, hate, sacrifice and forgiveness. Also, there are ancient cults, murders and betrayals.

To describe the book, Meltzer says "In chapter four of the Bible, Cain kills Abel. It is the world's most famous murder. But the Bible is silent about one key detail: the weapon Cain used to kill his brother. That weapon is still lost to history.  In 1932, Mitchell Siegel was killed by three gunshots to his chest. While mourning, his son dreamed of a bulletproof man and created the world's greatest hero: Superman. And like Cain's murder weapon, the gun used in this unsolved murder has never been found."

Those facts are true. In the Bible, the nature of the weapon Cain uses to kill Able is never mentioned. Centuries of speculation have not even resulted in a unified theory of what the weapon could have been. Equally true is that the murder of Mitchell Siegel went unsolved. The idea that it even was a murder, not a heart attack brought on by a robbery, is still debated.

Eisner Award winner Brad Meltzer takes these facts and weaves them into a taut thriller. The hero of the book is Calvin 'Cal' Harper, who as a child witnessed the death of his mother at the hands of his father. Nineteen years later, Cal is a semi-disgraced former federal agent who has dedicated his life to helping the homeless of Fort Lauderdale. He and his partner, Roosevelt, respond to the shooting of a homeless man, only to discover that the victim is one Lloyd Harper--Cal's father. The mysterious Ellis, along with his dog Benoni, is on the trail of the mysterious Book of Lies. Their path of torture and murder leads them to the last man known to have the book, Lloyd Harper.

Meltzer's story takes us to Cleveland, Ohio, and the former home of the Siegel family, where a 19-year old Jerry Siegel, still grieving the death of his father, created arguably the most famous superhero ever. Ellis follows the heroes, ruthless in his efficiency, willing to say or do whatever it takes to get his hands on what he feels is tightly his. In his eyes, there are no innocents, there are no guilty parties, there are just Ellis and his compatriots, and those keeping him from the book.

Brad Meltzer is a best selling author, and The Book of Lies is a perfect example of his writing skills. His characters never feel false. There's always a reality to them, a familiarity. The heroes tend to be regular people, as though taken from the streets of any town and placed directly into the written world. The villains, while generally ruthless and horrible, are equally as real. If you know someone resembling one of the protagonists, then odds are you've met someone who has the potential to be one of his antagonists.

If there's any complaint I have, it's more with Meltzer's style than this book in particular. Nearly every book Meltzer has written has had a betrayal committed by a main character. Jean Loring's heel turn would be a prime example of this. If you're familiar with Meltzer's books, you tend to early on try to figure out who the turncoat will be.

But that's a minor, petty complaint. I highly recommend The Book of Lies. As I said, it is a taut thriller. I found it very hard to put down. Luckily I bought the book on a weekend, because I spent roughly 12 hours between Saturday and Sunday just reading the book. If I hadn't started reading the book so late in the day, I probably would have finished it in one sitting. The description in the book of the Siegel house is heartbreaking, yet true. If you read the book and find yourself as moved as I was, then I highly recommend visiting and donating money towards the renovation of the Siegel house. The eventual Superman Museum needs a good home, and what location could be more fitting than the birthplace of Superman?

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