Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots will start your week off right, as we take a look at the latest comic book releases! So let's start off with the newest Age of Ultron tie-in on the block, as Edward Kaye takes a look at Avengers Assemble #15AU...

Avengers Assemble #15 AU
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Butch Guice, Tom Palmer, Rick Magyar and Frank D'Armata
Lettered by Clayton Cowles?
Published by Marvel Comics?
Review by Edward Kaye
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

British writer Al Ewing grabs the reins on Marvel’s Avengers Assemble title for a two-issue run, while Kelly Sue Sue DeConnick prepares for the “Enemy Within” crossover. Both of Al’s issues have been Age of Ultron tie-ins — the first finding Black Widow stranded in an Ultron-decimated San Francisco, and this second finding Captain Marvel stranded in London as the evil robots take control.

Carol Danvers isn’t alone though, as she finds local help in the form of Captain Britain, Excaliber, Black Knight, and two odd new characters: Magic Boots Mel, and Computer Graham. Combined, they band together to take down Ultron’s base of operations in London — St Paul’s Cathedral.

Being a tie-in issue, Ewing doesn’t have much breathing room as far as plot goes, but he does the very best with what he is permitted—chronicling the rise and fall of Ultron in London, and providing honorable deaths for several key characters. The new characters that Ewing creates for the story are a both a great tribute to and send-up of British comic characters from yesteryear (in fact, Computer Dave is a nod to Computer Warrior from Eagle). These new characters fit into the story perfectly and play an integral part in the plot.

The dialogue throughout is top-notch and suits the characters well, it feel like Ewing is very comfortable with these characters, as if he’s been working with them for years. To that end, Ewing’s character work is also impressive, and during the scant few pages between meeting Compter Dave and Magic Noots Mel and their untimely demise, he manages to build them up into strong and interesting characters in their own right. Ewing tells the story with just the right amount of exposition to move the plot along, without being overly explanatory. Reading the main Age of Ultron comic is not at all necessary, as the plot does not depend on it. It’s almost a mini-event of its own.

Ewing also manages to fit in a terrific amount of fun British cultural references, some of which are easy to spot, like the Daleks reference, and some of which are more obscure, such as some of the cult 1980s British video games referenced. All great fun for the 30-something British readers out there (guilty as charged).

Butch Guice provides some brilliantly intricate pencil artwork, bringing to life every nuanced detail of the ravished city streets. He does a great job of illustrating all of the London landmarks shown, making them look authentic without giving them that odd photo-reference/traced look that some artists resort to when drawing real-life buildings. He also does some nice model work, providing great looking characters with well-proportioned anatomy and physical features. All of the known characters look how they are supposed to, and the new characters all look authentically British. All the characters have very emotive facial features, and you can always tell what they are feeling from their facial expressions alone.

Guice is inked by two people here, Tom Palmer and Rick Magyar, both do justice to his original pencils, with some nice dark and brushy inks that enhance the underlying artwork. Tom Peyer is the colorist, and he utilizes a somewhat subdued and dark palette here, in fitting with the post-apocalyptic nature of the story.

Avengers Assemble #15, like #14 before it, has been one of the very best Age of Ultron tie-ins yet. In fact, they were both better than anything yet shown in the main title. Ewing uses the post-apocalyptic background to tell a character-driven story that pulls the reader into tale and keeps them gripped till the very last panel. It’s also great to see Captain Britain again. Ewing has a brilliant grasp on these iconic Marvel UK characters, and it's great to see them back in action. This issue almost felt like a backdoor pilot for a new Captain Britain and MI:13 series. If this is indeed the case, then we say, yes please, Marvel!

Credit: DC Comics

Justice League of America #3?
Written by Geoff Johns?
Art by David Finch, Richard Friend and Sonia Oback
?Lettering by Rob Leigh?
Published by DC Comics?
Review by Brian Bannen?

Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Geoff Johns has really developed a quirkiness for his series Justice League of America. Whereas the regular Justice League is made up of DC’s heavyweights, Justice League of America reads like a team composed of misfits, and the comic is a lot of fun because of it. Granted, Johns has a few missteps in this issue, but the lightness in tone makes the book an entertaining read.

Johns settles the pervious conflict and then shifts the story onto Catwoman, and the purpose of her role in the Justice League. Basically, Johns utilizes Selina as both a burglar and an informant, using her criminal past as the impetus for Steve Trevor’s decision to invite her to join the JLA.

The rest of the issue is based on Catwoman’s prowess, mischievousness and cunning. Her scenes are well written, and she definitely steals the show. While Johns occasionally relies on a few silly dialogue decisions (including a sex joke about Batman), he doesn’t overdo the puns and for that, I was extremely thankful. The other star of the issue is Vibe, and clearly readers can see just how much Johns loves the character. His role in the issue is small, but he’s probably the most vital member on the team. His naiveté in battle humanizes him, and again, I felt drawn into the series through Vibe because he, like us, is much like an outsider.

The artwork on the book is good, and better than previous issues. David Finch’s art is cleaned up a bit, missing some of the errant cross hatching that’s appeared in other comics he’s drawn, but faces still appear odd. Finch likes to accentuate cheekbones, so many of the male characters look either emaciated for strained. But his costume designs are spectacular, particularly for Green Arrow and Hawkman.

The only other visual hiccups occur in distance shots, either because of too much inking or too little detail. Some panels are so dark that the shadows end up bleeding into the characters, creating messy designs. And in other shots, Finch almost eschews facial features all together in favor of thin lines for the eyes, nose and mouth. But these are so vaguely imprinted that they lose all definition and end up distorting the facial features.

Regardless, the comic is solid. It hits the humorous beats just right, offsets itself from the other Justice League books, and it delivers a nice climax that will draw readers in next month. Additionally, Johns has really worked hard on developing the individual personalities of the team members so that each one feels, at this point, fully formed, even though we don’t have all the intricacies of their backstories. Still, Justice League America is entertaining, and worth the price of admission.

X #1
Written by Duane Swierczynski
Art by Eric Nguyen and Michelle Madsen
Lettering by Richard Starkings and Comicraft
Published by Dark Horse Comics 
Review by Brian Bannen
Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Originally appearing in 1994, X was Dark Horse’s antihero, a man who killed with ruthless gusto. His trademark “X” is an indicator of guilt; first, X sends a warning, then he follows up with a second image, which bears an X across the face of his target. Basically, he’s like the Punisher of the Dark Horse universe. But Issue #1 of X is a missed opportunity to give new readers a solid understanding of the character because it spends more time on the people around X rather than on him.

In reviving the character, writer Duane Swierczynski anchors the issue on a blogger named Leigh Ferguson, a tenacious and inquisitive reporter through whom the story is told. She is our connection to the fictional world of Arcadia. Leigh is really a punk rock version of Lois Lane, has a similar relationship with a seemingly inept police force, but she doesn’t write for a newspaper. Instead, Leigh freelances for a personal blog.

But focusing on Leigh instead of X ruins the pacing of the comic. The story gains momentum when it builds the aura of mystery around X, showing him working out and drinking, dressing his wounds in a warehouse devoid of any light. But Swierczynski will just as soon turn back towards Leigh. The intent is to set up her importance in the story, as the final page proves, but the constant shifting away from the lead character puts up a narrative distance that fails to draw the reader in.

When X finally appears, the comic gains traction and the story gets interesting because until this moment, everything we learned about X was through other people. We finally get to see, first hand, how brutal he is. The fight at the end is reminiscent of Batman’s battle with the SWAT team in The Dark Knight, but X’s lack of empathy puts him in a different league than Batman. These moments are bloody and awesome. 

But I also have a gripe with the art of the issue. Eric Nguyen’s gritty style works well for X, but other characters are either too blocky, too shaded, or weirdly drawn. Faces in particular are a weakness. One of X’s targets has the same shaped head as the mayor from A Nightmare Before Christmas and Leigh’s facial expressions distort her appearance. Sometimes, close up shots look like they’re blown up images rather than intentionally drawn and these kinds of visuals end up distracting from the story. X, however, benefits from the grittiness and when the character finally appears in costume, the comic is visually better - tighter, cleaner and more detailed.

X has potential to be an interesting read, if it focuses more on its main character. The surrounding cast leaves a lot to be desired, and the dialogue is a bit too clever -- like action movie dialogue - and these minor ticks add up as major distractions. But there’s potential in X, and I can’t write the book off completely. Hopefully, Duane Swierczynski can capitalize on the promise of the book, and deliver better outings in the future.

Image from AVENGERS #11
Image from AVENGERS #11
Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers #11
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Mike Deodato and Frank Martin
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Take Earth's Mightiest Heroes and a supercriminal think tank, put them together in a Japanese casino, and what do you get? Jonathan Hickman and Mike Deodato may have some strange cards, but they put together a winning hand in Avengers #11, a spy story that shows just how flexible this book can be.

Contrary to the manga-inspired cover, Hickman's story actually owes much more to thrillers like Casino Royale, as Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Spider-Woman, Sunspot, Cannonball and Shang-Chi search for leads as a super-weapon goes to the black market. Meanwhile, after building them up behind the scenes in his second arc, Hickman has brought Advanced Idea Mechanics - or A.I.M. - to the center stage as the Avengers' newest foes. While the Avengers are the ones with the powers, Hickman has smartly made A.I.M. an entire nation of criminal diplomats, a group that can confound even Earth's Mightiest Heroes with a combination of scientific genius, zero morals and a shroud of political immunity.

Throughout his run on Avengers, Hickman has characterized the team as a machine, as a combination of a particular set of people with a particular set of skills - this issue illustrates that nicely, as he uses each set of characters to tell a particular kind of story. Shang-Chi, for example, steals the show as he balances kung fu and zen philosophy while fighting off an army of ninjas; Captain Marvel, meanwhile, puts all her cards on the table as she tries to ply information from an A.I.M. bigwig, while Sunspot and Cannonball score a big win through some hardcore partying. The sheer range of tone and stories is on full display here, and it makes this curveball of an issue feel deliberate and fun.

Secret Avengers alum Mike Deodato, meanwhile, is the man that keeps it all together. There's an air of danger throughout this comic, as the shadows seem to threaten our heroes on every page. (That says a lot, considering they're on an island full of faceless henchmen who seem tailor-made to be beaten up by superheroes.) Deodato's take on Shang-Chi is definitely the highlight of the book, as is the hulking supervillain he goes toe-to-toe with. Considering much of this comic is dialogue-based, Deodato also does a great job at varying up the panel construction and composition, particularly when he makes the transition of Captain Marvel happily cleaning up at a table to outright glowering when she meets her match at the blackjack table.

That said, this comic is far from perfect. The first problem is that, while the casino is a cute concept, this comic still isn't really delivering on the promise of what Avengers should be — namely, a comic where Marvel's biggest characters team up against a giant supervillain and save the world. Eleven issues in, Hickman has been focusing primarily on second-stringers, so those hoping to see Captain America and Iron Man teaming up with Spider-Man and Wolverine are going to remain disappointed. The other issue is that this comic, along with several others, have made the villains the real stars here - much of the team here is simply reacting to what's in front of them, and that winds up sapping the energy out of this book, Shang-Chi notwithstanding.

While action purists will likely make their way towards Uncanny Avengers, the Hickman faithful will still find plenty to like about Avengers #11. Even with its characters out of costume — or perhaps because of it — Hickman shows there are more directions the Avengers can go besides punching a bad guy in the face. As he continues to build up A.I.M. and his secondary heroes, Hickman just needs to start delivering the A-listers, and Avengers will truly live up to its full potential.

Credit: Black Mask

Twelve Reasons To Die #1
Created by Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge
Written by Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon
Story by Adrian Younge, Ce Garcia, and Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Breno Tamura, Gus Storms, Kyle Strahm, Joe Infurnari, and Jean-Paul Csuka
Lettering by Frank Barbiere
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

There's a cliche saying about the ratio of cooks to a kitchen and a spoiled meal, or something other, and the same can be said about artists to a painting; there's just too many hands working. Twelve Reasons To Die is a victim of that concept. Tragic, as it has an interesting set up, but the art fluctuates and it isn't a pretty picture. Shame, as I was hoping more from the new Black Mask label. 

What starts as a simple mafia-type backstory evolves into a murder mystery of almost mystical proportions. The intro is pretty solid showing the different types of gangster cliques of a bygone era and quickly becomes a story of vengeance and long lost vinyl LPs, twelve of them exactly, that cause the deaths of former crimelords after they're played. Hence, the title. But as I mentioned — too many cooks, not enough kitchen. The story seems unfocused and the narration is all over the place. When the book has five different writers all doing different tasks, it looks like there's a bit lost in translation of what they wanted to try to do here.

The art is spastic, too. The flashback sequence in the beginning is the strongest by far. Joe Infurnari has a bold style that mixes the energy of Robbi Rodriguez with the line work of Chris Samnee using broad brush strokes capturing intense moments, and also can work his way down to fine detailed feathering on his inks. He definitely has an eye for design with his panel layouts and a solid knack for storytelling. From there though, things get a bit muddled. 

There's four artists on this book, two being credited as "guest illustrators" and the issue becomes a sort of dirty mixtape of talent that doesn't clash well at all. Kyle Strahm's art is distinct, but almost comes out of nowhere after the first sequence. Breno Tamura's talents get buried here, too. The concept of rotating art teams will continue with the book, but it's doing it any favors. The story doesn't get lost per se when the artists change shift, but definitely wanders for a bit. It's unfortunate as the story is unique, but execution just falls flat. 

Fans of the short-lived Creator-Owned Heroes or Rick Remender's Last Days of American Crime or even old-school Wu-Tang followers might dig this, and while the concept might have me coming back for more, this wasn't the best of starts.

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