Written by Michael Alan Nelson
Art by Mahmud Asrar and Dave McCaig
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
With a new writer and a special co-star on board, Supergirl #20 feels like a brand-new book. Pairing a weakened Supergirl with her interdimensional counterpart Power Girl, Michael Alan Nelson spins together an action-packed (and surprisingly fun) done-in-one tale that starts his run off right.
One of the bigger flaws of the New 52 is the fact that the villains, even more than the heroes that fight them, have largely been based on designs and powers rather than personality. Unfortunately, designs come and go, and powers change regularly, so the impact feels fleeting — and Michael Alan Nelson knows it. With Supergirl and Power Girl visiting Kara's underwater Kryptonian fortress, the base's A.I. doesn't know how to cope — and surprisingly enough, both hilarity and action ensues. Nelson's Fortress is essentially a killer version of J.A.R.V.I.S. from the Iron Man films, helpfully urging Kara (or as he calls her, "Not-Kara") to step into a disintegration chamber.
The other great thing about this team-up is that Nelson uses it as a good way to sum up the character's run up to this point. Kara, in many ways, shows that the Parker luck isn't exclusive to the Marvel Universe — when her own personal fortress decides that she's actually a clone that needs to be exterminated, all she can do is roll her eyes. "Of course I am," she says with a scowl. It's a nice, self-effacing beat that gives a little bit more personality to what had been a blond, bland protagonist with some seriously erratic direction. Using his snarky antagonist as a mouthpiece for the critics, Nelson not only answers our concerns and sums up our hero's positive qualities, but gives Kara more warmth and intelligence than we've seen in the past 19 issues.
And you can sense that that has warmed up the art, as well. Mahmud Asrar has been one of DC's most maddening artists since the New 52 began — he's always been one of those guys you just know has the potential to be the next Stuart Immonen, but has never really lived up to his potential. That's changing here. Little beats like Kara scowling at her Fortress's rejection of her to the design of killer Kryptonian battle droids show that Asrar has a ton of chops, but just didn't have the human beats to tether them all together. Even the difference in body types between Supergirl and Power Girl is a nice touch, and thanks to all the alien technology in Nelson's script, the fight choreography — especially Supergirl going nova with her heat vision — is particularly well done.
Focusing on personality rather than powers, Michael Alan Nelson takes Supergirl to new heights, making this comic easily the most improved DC book of the week. While there are occasional moments that drag with a little too much dialogue, it's no mean feat to synthesize an erratic 19-issue run and create a coherent — even sympathetic — character as a result, and combine that with introducing a fun new villain, and you have proof positive that it's never too late to make a good impression.
Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #23
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Dave Marquez and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
Ultimate Spider-Man... no more? Not a chance — even in the face of tragedy, heroes never die, and in the case of Miles Morales, they don't fade away, either. Jumping forward one year after the death of Miles' mother at the hands of Venom, Brian Michael Bendis and Dave Marquez hit the ground running with a bold new chapter in this reluctant hero's life.
While it's been done before in other comics — usually with limited degrees of success — this book's "one year later" conceit actually makes for some very interesting creative choices. Bendis knows that just by virtue of his costume and powers, Miles is always going to be defined by how he compares and contrasts to his predecessor, Peter Parker. So while Peter immediately jumped into superheroics following the death of his Uncle Ben, having Miles stuck in his shell — really, trapped in a knot of arrested development — provides a poignant counterpoint to the original wallcrawler. In many ways, Miles is less neurotic than Peter, really diving deeper into his sadness and guilt. This not only brings new readers up to speed, but it really drives home the emotional content.
The other thing Bendis does right is he introduces Miles' supporting cast quickly. Jessica Drew, Gwen Stacy, Miles' dad Jefferson, his classmate Ganke, his girlfriend Katie, they all define Miles' world while continuing to hammer home the main point of this comic — when will Miles emerge from his self-imposed exile and return as Spider-Man? The fact is, Bendis could have been content just making these interactions purely utilitarian, but his characterization is also top-notch — moments like Jefferson smirking at his son's newfound game with the ladies and Ganke freaking out about a limited edition Lego set are endearing as hell. It's hard to dismiss this character as an "alternate universe Spider-Man" when he's so three-dimensional.
And the artwork. The artwork. I can't say enough good things about Dave Marquez, and this issue has to be his best yet. It's downright incredible how different 15-year-old Miles looks compared to 14-year-old Miles — this kid has shot up like a rocket, and seeing how puberty has affected he and Ganke and Katie is almost like watching your little brother grow up. Yet even with this new evolution in character designs, Marquez is still as expressive as ever — just the first panel alone, with Miles lost in thought, you can see the tension and turmoil roiling beneath his brow. (And when we see Gwen Stacy, wow, I defy you not to be heartbroken.) Marquez's storytelling is so immaculate, so perfect, you could get the gist of this comic even without Bendis's naturalistic dialogue — and I think even Bendis knows this, allowing him to write tighter than he has in years.
If you haven't been keeping up with Ultimate Spider-Man — and believe me, you wouldn't be without reason — this is definitely a good time to give Miles Morales another shot. While Bendis's penchant for decompression may slow this series down moving forward, there's so much heart to this opening chapter that you can't put it down. One year later can be a lifetime, and seeing just how much Miles Morales has changed is nothing less than amazing. After a slow patch, Ultimate Spider-Man is once again being all that it can be.
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Daniel Sampere, Carlos Rodriguez, Jonathan Glapion, Vicente Cifuentes, and Blond
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Barbara Gordon has not had the best week. Aside from believing she killed her brother, James — clearly somebody hasn't been reading Suicide Squad this month — she feels overcome with intense guilt she feels as though she's shamed the Bat-mantle. Of course with the introduction to the new Ventriloquist doesn't make things easier on Babs, either.
Gail Simone's run on Batgirl since its inception nearly two years ago has been hit or miss thus far. In this issue, things feel pretty much the same of what they have been. I like the fact that Barbara actually goes to a therapist and the fact that she makes time to see Barbara, which gives us the whole flashback sequence leading up to present time where Barbara sheds a little of her guilt to make things right in trying to stop the Ventriloquist.
Speaking of the new Ventriloquist, here is one example of a great redesign that steps out of the shadow of the character's legacy and definitely becomes its own thing. Shauna Belzer was an outcast as a child with disturbing tendencies that certainly grew and festered as she matured. After presumably killing a birthday magician and taking his dummy and renaming it, she tried to start an actual career in show business, which didn't exactly work out. Backstory aside, it's Shauna's visuals that are the best thing here. The concept is essentially making her look like a torn and dirty rag doll; frail and unassuming.
The art team surprised me simply for the fact that usually with that many artists, the art won't have a cohesive flow, but here it almost looks like one team of penciler and inker aside from two pages. Batgirl has had a handful of talented (and not-so talented) art teams on it, but Daniel Sampre, Carlos Rodriguez, and former Batman inker Jonathan Glapion feels like the strongest yet. True, they aren't breaking the mold when it comes to panel layout innovation, but it just looks solid from start to finish. Bab's breakdown evokes great emotion and the rest of the book is heavy with talking heads and close ups. Glapion especially has defined himself as one of DC's best inkers and easily one of the best this generation. Blond's color scheme works fine here and handles nighttime scenes well enough, but much like the case with Sampre and Rodriguez it's strong, but nothing incredibly dynamic.
If anything, Batgirl #20 is a great jumping on point for readers who have heard the hype and looking to jump on board. The past few issues are recapped, but that doesn't slow down the pacing of the rest of the issue or the start of the new arc, even if the last issue's ending sort of repeats itself here.
Age of Ultron #8
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Brandon Peterson and Paul Mounts
Letters by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
While not all of Marvel's major events over the last few years have worked the way they were probably intended, more than any other Age of Ultron is harmed by the idea of what could have been. It's ironic then, that the alternate future that's resulted from Wolverine's murder of Hank Pym is also all about what might have been, the rippling effects of a few bad decisions and missed chances. The comparison speaks to the larger problems of Age of Ultron, like why it took eight issues to get somewhere compelling, why the alternate universe characters we've never met are so much more engaging then the ones who the story is meant to be about, and why the conflict at the heart of the alternate timeline's problems seems so much more exciting than the one at the center of Age of Ultron itself.
Much has been made of the butterfly effect of killing Hank Pym, with Brian Bendis himself elucidating numerous changes and points of interest recently, but the biggest, most palpable change, is a darker, more cynical world. Considering all that's happened in the main timeline of the Marvel Universe, that seems like a harsh assessment, but with the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four all out of the picture, things are even bleaker for the alternate world. As the major historical points of the timeline are explored, it's easy to see that Bendis is excited about the concept. His writing is more pointed and readable than at any other point so far in Age of Ultron. Bendis clearly has a story to tell about these characters, which is why it's a little baffling that it took so long to establish their world, and to strike anywhere near the philosophical debate at the core of Age of Ultron.
With so many of the preceding seven issues spent simply following the characters we know from place to place while they made small talk about killer robots, it's almost disheartening to see the gusto with which Bendis attacks the alternate timeline, establishing characters in short bursts, quickly building relationships worth exploring, and opening small windows into a world full of possibilities. And while striking the balance of establishing the stakes in our timeline against the excitement of an alternate world is admittedly a tightrope act, one can't help but feel that the content all landed on one side, and the passion on the other. There are still two issues to go, so it's essentially assured that at least one of those will be dedicated to the alternate world, but with so little time to invest readers in the characters of the new timeline, and so little done to fill the expanse of time spent on the ones we already care about with anything worthwhile, it feels like a lose/lose situation.
On the upside, Brandon Peterson makes Age of Ultron #8 look fantastic. With his moody shadows tightly balanced by Paul Mounts's electric colors, the alternate world has a definite visual direction that's as engaging as Bendis's excited writing, and does more to sell this event than almost anything else that's happened in it so far. The opening scenes, where Tony Stark addresses Charles Xavier and Emma Frost in his command center are haunting and ethereal, partially because of the striking clash of shadows and holographic lighting, but also because the weight of the art matches the implications of the story. As Age of Ultron #8 moves into more action oriented fare, Peterson hums right along with it, throwing down some absolutely gifted layouts and making next issue's inevitable knock down, drag out fight seem like it can't come soon enough.
Still, fantastic art does little to alleviate the fact that eight issues into a book with his name on the cover, Ultron still has yet to even actually appear. With the way the plot threads surrounding his world conquering are tossed out and forgotten despite being the presumed core of the series, it's no wonder that he hasn't, either. It's as if Bendis simply doesn't know what to do with Ultron other than use him as the catalyst for the story he actually wants to tell. As it stands, Age of Ultron is less a story and more a morass of good ideas bogged down by an almost utter lack of pacing, plotting, or time management. While Age of Ultron #8 is something of a bright spot of the series so far, it only serves to remind readers how good Brian Bendis can be when he's excited about an idea, and how misguided his writing can be when it feels more like an obligation than a story.
Dream Thief #1
Written by Jai Nitz
Art and Lettering by Greg Smallwood
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Even with its masked man on the cover, Dream Thief is definitely no hero. A story of an everyman thrust into a world of supernatural crime, Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood deliver a decent, if somewhat familiar-feeling launchpad with striking artwork and a clever hook.
What truly sets this comic apart from the rest has to be the artwork by Greg Smallwood. He's very much in the Chris Samnee vein of no flash, all substance with just a hint of Daniel Acuña — his self-inked artwork is expressive and very deliberate in terms of character design and page layouts, and it goes a long way towards humanizing our serial screw-up protagonist, John Lincoln. Moments like John's girlfriend's face contorting in anger or bed bud Reggie grinning over the phone makes this story feel more resonant, less disposable. And considering this script is largely an introduction to the characters rather than the high concept, this is an excellent skill set to have — and when Smallwood finally sinks his teeth into the supernatural elements of this script, he really shows off a frightening level of talent, warping his pages and manipulating colors in a way that would make J.H. Williams III proud.
With such a striking artist in his corner, it would be very difficult for writer Jai Nitz to screw up. Thankfully, he doesn't. While Lincoln as a character isn't too terribly new — we've seen this sort of self-indulgent hero we love to hate with characters ranging from Irredeemable Ant-Man to Clerks' Dante Hicks to Wanted's Wesley Gibbs — Nitz does include enough wrinkles in John's day-to-day life that the story doesn't feel too stale. Once John finds an ancient Aboriginal mask — you're seeing it on the cover — the story does take a bit of a dramatic turn, both in terms of content and tone. Think of Boondock Saints meets The Mask, and you've got a pretty good idea of what Dream Thief has to offer: Brief bursts of violence, mystery over how John got there, and a twisted sense of morality that threatens to rob this book of any sympathy we might have for its protagonist.
That sort of tonal shift makes this book a little bit shaky on its initial outing, although it makes plenty of sense that Nitz and Smallwood would flesh out their protagonist before dropping him into a weird world of somnambulism and murder. I would argue that we have seen this sort of violence-for-violence's sake storyline before, and as far as this first issue goes, there's no indication there's a deeper message or theme to justify the sleepwalking motif of this book. That said, Smallwood's contributions are strong enough to justify reading this book, just to see this talented artist before he blows up elsewhere.
While the first issue might not be the most ironclad opener on the stands, there's plenty of potential for Dream Thief — with a protagonist who charms us despite (or perhaps because) of his many, many flaws, with a premise that will leave readers questioning, and with an artist that truly makes this story punch above its weight class, you wouldn't lose any sleep spending your hard-earned dollars on this book. With the central premise laid out and with a bunch of bodies on the floor, if this book can continue escalating both its plot and its main character, this is really Nitz and Smallwood's book to lose.
My Dirty Dumb Eyes
By Lisa Hanawalt
Published by Drawn and Quarterly
Review by Zack Kotzer
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
If you were wondering if Lisa Hanawalt likes animals, My Dirty Dumb Eyes is a strong argument towards: yes Lisa Hanawalt probably likes animals a lot. Her illustrated review for War Horse regales her efforts to drag her boyfriend’s family to the equine epic. There are two separate chapters about animals in hats. The book is infested with a barnyard of anthropomorphic buddies, warm blooded and cold. She even drew me a goofy horse when I just asked her to sign the book.
Hanawalt also enjoys making lists, which are very popular these days too, but if I had my say every list would be made by her. My Dirty Dumb Eyes is a book with devices that sync well with modern readership habits, without being as banal or annoying as Urban Outfitters' register-side library or BuzzFeed’s daily laziness.
I get the feeling Hanawalt is just going to draw what she feels like, and while one segment deals with artistic struggle, you can detect a comfort in what executing she likes. And she likes drawing animals, visual lists, visual lists about animals, notes about film, notes about films about animals, and sometimes, comics, which are consistently absurd but also jarringly earnest. I wouldn’t mind at all if she kept doing that, all of that, because I think it’s all really excellent.
Hanawalt’s first published anthology isn’t a personal journal as much as a whimsical idea catalogue. You can pretty much track her roaming interests, which drift from the absurd details of intimacy and relationships to automotive accidents to what I’m going to guess are evenings in with the Food Network. I can’t say with utmost certainty, but I think just under half of the book is reprinted web material, though having her visual film essays and fear and loathing at a toy fair from The Hairpin on your bookshelf is by no means a sin.
The collected classics are as funny on paper as they were online, but the new material is the most interesting, vantages of a more personal side we haven’t had much of a glimpse into. A lot of the new material is about casual anxiety. A lot of the new material is about sex. One of the larger chapters is about a young moose hanging around the apartment, frustrated with her developing sculpture series. As much as these moments can strike sore parts of your human heart, Hanawalt is a masterful humorist, and she can cozy familiar woes with big smiling fun seamlessly.
Another reason Hanawalt’s animal obsession is so easy to watch is she’s also amazing at drawing them. Her art is consistently good throughout, but it’s still fascinating how many variants within there is, from the bleeding painted, rough handed to utmost primp and intricately designed. Her anthropomorphic anthropology is reminiscent of Matt Furies’ stoned antics, but with the facetiousness trimmed out. Underneath the Hanawalt’s blanketing animal farm goofiness is strong sentimentality for humans.
"I’m a sucker for ugly animals in costumes," she says, referring to outfitted spiders figurines spotted at a toy show. You don’t say, Lisa. Her animals are often drawn in vivid detail; human faces are comically fleshed out, wide-eyed and MAD Magazine standard.
Actually, now that I think about it, "grown up MAD Magazine" is a good description for this book. It’s full of left field cinema goofs and likely the epitome of body humor, the highest class of fart jokes. And like a MAD Magazine, the jokes are stuffed into this turkey. No Aragones border-fillers, but a parade of jokes, with floats and clowns and streamers and everything. When it breaks, it breaks for lush animal tableaus or off-kilter Jurassic Park fan art.
My Dirty Dumb Eyes may not be a cohesive package, its mind scattered all over and its with its arms stretched out. But My Dirty Dumb Eyes is funny — oh my God, is it funny. Oh my God is Lisa Hanawalt good at this thing she does. Whatever this thing is.