Best Shots Advance Reviews: WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN, More

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Wolverine and the X-Men #31
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Nick Bradshaw, Walden Wong and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Carmagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

And you thought the Jean Grey School was demanding. Welcome to the Hellfire Academy, readers — you might not survive the experience. With 30 issues of setup, it's nice to see a plan — or in this case, an alternative curriculum — come together, as Jason Aaron introduces a dark mirror image of Wolverine's ambitious school, manned by a faculty of some of the worst and weirdest threats to mutantkind.

Since its inception, one of the hidden strengths of Wolverine and the X-Men is that it really has had two casts — the superhero faculty members like Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Beast and Iceman; and the colorful, ever-growing cast of students such as Quentin Quire, Idie Okonkwo and Broo. Lately, Aaron's been focusing primarily on that latter group, so by pitting them alongside essentially an evil version of their instructors is a nice twist. Aaron skews comedic rather than dark with the Hellfire Academy, which is a smart move given the overall tone of this series — it feels more accessible, more energetic, as Quentin and Idie do their best to infiltrate the Hellfire Club's educational institution from within.

For the most part, this issue also reads as a clever inversion to the opening arc of Wolverine and the X-Men, as we got a sense of who the faculty were and what they taught. Aaron kicks up the pacing here as he introduces Mystique, Sauron, Dog Logan, Master Pandemonium and more as the Hellfire Academy's ruthless team of instructors. It's very much a Jason Aaron kind of team, with an emphasis on weird and black comedy akin to his run on Ghost Rider. Yet Aaron isn't just purely self-referential, bringing back characters like Mystique or Dog, but also ties into some key parts of Chris Claremont's X-Men lore.

The art in this book also really sets the tone. Nick Bradshaw's cartoony, expressive pencils really pull you into the book — in particular, Quentin Quire steals the show, as Bradshaw portrays him as precocious and mischievous rather than as an out-and-out villain. (The look on his face when he offhandedly dispatches a classmate is probably the highlight of the book.) Bradshaw's choreography looks great, as well, particularly when we watch the Hellfire Academy students go one-on-one with each other in the Danger Room — in only three panels, Bradshaw really shows the diversity of fighting styles that all these different powers can afford him. Laura Martin also adds in a lot of energy with her colors, particularly the shocking purple of Quentin's hair.

The one downside for this particular issue is that the gag goes on just a little bit too long — there's a subplot with Wolverine and his faculty that helps give this issue a jolt, but ultimately the idea of supervillains as unqualified teachers is a joke that eventually feels a bit one-note. But one could easily argue that's the price you pay for decent setup — you know exactly what you're getting into in the Hellfire Academy, and it's nice to see Wolverine's students demonstrate what they've learned while deep inside enemy territory. If this issue is any indicator, the Hellfire Saga is going to achieve high marks for Wolverine and the X-Men.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Savage Wolverine #6
Written by Zeb Wells
Art by Joe Madureira and Peter Steigerwald
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Wolverine. Joe Madureira. If that sounds like two great tastes coming together for you, then you'll love Savage Wolverine #6, as the fan favorite X-Men artist takes on off-continuity adventures of the Ol' Canucklehead. Teaming up Wolverine with the assassin Elektra, this is a stylish but low-calorie introduction for this series' sophomore arc.

In certain ways, the timing for this comic couldn't be any better — with Wolverine having a ninja-centric movie coming out later this summer, Zeb Wells' story featuring Wilson Fisk fighting to retain dominance over the Hand is a smart move. And where the Hand goes, Elektra can't be far behind — and that's Wells' hook for Wolverine. Wells introduces Wolverine's loose-cannon, anti-authoritarian steak with a surprising economy, as he goes head-to-head with Captain America himself over whether or not to use lethal force on a supervillain. Wolverine's central theme — is he a man with self-control, or a killer beast? — is on full display here, and it gives this story a little bit of extra heft.

But that's probably not why you're here. Joe Mad is the real draw here, and he's exactly what will make or break this book. If you like Joe's over-the-top, manga-influenced anatomies and expressive faces, you'll like this book — if you want something more subdued or realistic, well, this is definitely not the comic for you. His fight choreography for Elektra looks particularly dynamic, and even his group shots — such as half the Avengers having to hold Logan back from Captain America — look pretty badass. Madureira also does great work with eyes and faces, making even the masked Spider-Man emote in a funny one-page (and one-sided) dialogue with Elektra. Peter Steigerwald's colors occasionally drain the energy with their coolness, but it does lend a more contemporary, realistic vibe to the book.

That said, there is a bit of decompression here, which hobbles this comic a little bit. Wells has to get in all the backstory with Kingpin, Elektra and the Hand, not to mention Wolverine and the Avengers, so aside from some fairly shallow characterization on Logan's part (and some fan service featuring Spider-Man), this is mostly just plot progression. Furthermore, with all these additional moving parts, there is the danger of Wolverine becoming a guest star in his own book — while Frank Cho was able to get away with that by his seamless meshing of his panel layouts and text, eventually readers are going to want to see Wolverine do what only he does best: taking bad guys on a trip to Claw City.

In its second arc, Savage Wolverine lives up to its reputation as the "artistic" Wolverine book, acting as a strong visual platform for one of comics' biggest names. Does that mean that the story is perfunctory? Perhaps. But Wells deserves credit for introducing all of his players quickly, all while giving Joe Madureira enough material to strut his stuff. Now that the setup is over, I anticipate Savage Wolverine will claw its way back to the top.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Star Wars #6
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Carlos D’Anda and Gabe Eltaeb
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Issue #6 of Star Wars finds each of thread of the storyline threatening to quickly unravel for the members of both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. Leia’s X-Wing is disabled and the members of her covert squadron attempt to get her back to base while fending off the forces of Colonel Bircher, who is hot on their heels. Meanwhile, Han and Chewbacca find themselves hunted by Boba Fett on Coruscant, as they try and secure an arms deal for the Alliance. The result is they have millions of the Rebels’ funds but are forced to go off the radar, but this results in questions about their motives with Rebel command. Finally, Darth Vader’s most recent protégé — the newly minted Moff, Birrah Seah — takes command of the reconstruction of the Death Star II while Colonel Bircher discovers the dangers of placing one’s self on the “wheel of fortune.”

While juggling multiple plot lines can be disorienting for some readers, Wood pulls this feat off with ease as he continues to deliver a comic that will no doubt put pressure on certain screenwriters to try and exceed the quality of the work he’s been producing for the Star Wars brand. The action is generally fast-paced and keeps the reader moving along. The only part of the comic where the pacing slows down a touch is when the dialogue becomes a little heavy with the technical jargon of flight maneuvering. Although readers know how the story will ultimately end given the original cinematic trilogy, Wood does find a way to weave in questions about character loyalty to one another, particularly with Han and the introduction of a new smuggler. It’s this ability to keep readers guessing and interested when we already have the big picture in mind that serves as just one of the many reasons Wood’s writing has elevated a franchise that has often produced less-than-stellar storylines in the years following Return of the Jedi.

D’Anda and Eltaeb continue to produce sequential work that is both pleasing to the eye and complementary to the storyline. The thoughtful line work really helps to create a sort of three-dimensional effect so that these images pop off the page where some objects are outlined in heavier, darker inks than others. The result is that these panels — most often seen in the scenes with the X-Wings and Tie Fighter jets — pop off the page and produce a much more dynamic reading experience. The artistic team also creates a nicely textured feel to the art as well, from the flight suits to the wrecked X-Wing, which helps add a sort of tactile feel to the reading experience. Finally, I continue to really enjoy the way each different character is rendered. Because D’Anda avoids aping the likenesses of the original actors from the films, it subconsciously encourages readers to forget some of what they’ve seen and heard about these characters and allow this creative team to fill us in about what we didn’t see in between Episodes IV and V.

While past issues of this series have challenged Star Wars fans’ preconceptions of who Princess Leia was through demonstrating her command presence, fighting prowess, and aptitude in the cockpit, Wood shows readers Leia’s ability in this issue to discern when to let others step in and take the lead without brushing her to the side in the process. Needless to say, readers who are enjoying the opportunity to rediscover their love of Star Wars and its cast of characters will not want to miss this issue.

Credit: Oni Press

Helheim #4
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Joëlle Jones and Nick Filardi
Lettering by Ed Brisson
Published by Oni Press
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

When you see a comic like Helheim, there are certain expectations from within that you simply take for granted. I mean, this is basically a slice of Frankenstein's monster by way of Skyrim or every metal album coming out of Northern Europe. At least, that's what you're led to believe in the beginning of the series. Reaching the penultimate issue, it's clear Helheim is so much more than that. Sure, all the gleefully vicious dark ages slaughter is there, but so is something else. There is a beauty to Helheim and Issue #4 is the one where both Cullen Bunn and Joëlle Jones play their cards.

Although not a recap in the traditional sense, Helheim #4 opens with an example of the toll the witches war has taken upon not just the people, but the land itself. From there, we see how Rikard's young (and dangerously knowledgeable companion) attempt to rally what is left of the living to confront both Bera and Groa. This is still, however, a book with undead vikings and all manner of beast. As such, the blood and bits do fly off the pages in time. Even with all that in mind, it's the quieter moments that truly stand out in this issue. Bunn's use of narration on the opening pages are succinct and effective. When paired with Jones' haunting pencils and landscapes, they take on a life of their own. You could almost hear a sickening wind shift through the trees. It's a powerful opening that sets the tone for the rest of the book

Bunn is working with a lot of themes in this story. Sure, you can simply read Helheim for the crazy action, but to do so is to miss out on so much. There is the use of the innocent to bleed for those that wish to exert control over others. Even Rikard, all but unrecognizable in his current form, is but a child for these witches to exploit. The loss of innocence in a young girl that has seen far too much death, and now fully embraces that image as her savior. Or that of father wracked with guilt over not protecting his son, or at least his son's soul. Angry that he failed in the one task the gods demand of him, yet feeling a slight twinge of pride as this monster before him rallies good people to fight for what is right. Even if it does mean doom for all that he has left. Heavy stuff? Absolutely, but Bunn manages to weave these themes with skill that never once bogs down the overall narrative.

When I first read Helheim, I said this was the best work to date from Joëlle Jones. It would seem I now need to amend that statement, or at least emphasize the “to date” portion. Helheim #4 is hands down some of the best art Jones has ever produced. The rare moments where her line work slipped from the controlled chaos is completely gone. She has mastered the look this book requires and each panel is a compelling story unto itself. The expressions on the faces of both man and beast are wonderful, each one reading as a living creature that wants to tell it's tale. Her landscapes capture a land that is beautiful and unforgiving, peppered with reminders of the violence that's befallen. Finally, when Bunn's script asks for that violence, Jones doesn't hesitate. The battle scenes are visceral and will please all but the most virulent of gore hounds.

There really isn't a weak link to be found in Helheim #4. The colors by Nick Filardi work perfectly with Jones' pencils. Together they bring to life a setting and mood normally reserved for film. The lettering by Ed Brisson is never once intrusive and indeed ups the ante in more than one occasion. Oni Press has something special with Helheim and the team that makes it. This is easily one of the best books on the shelves these days. If one simply must find an item to complain about, it's that we only have one more issue to go.

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