Best Shots Extra Reviews: UNCANNY AVENGERS, ANIMAL MAN, More

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Uncanny Avengers #9
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Daniel Acuña
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

"Do you ever wonder if you're being too harsh?"

It's a fair question, and it's one that a friend of mine asked me recently. I review comics because, ultimately, I want better comics. I want to see as many excellent comics as my eyes can take, and sometimes that means praising the good stuff, and sometimes that means calling out when something looks rushed or doesn't pass the rules of story logic or narrative structure. But it's easy to wonder if maybe sometimes you're getting jaded. If maybe you're getting too harsh. If maybe you're expecting too much out of the capes-and-tights crowd.

And then I get to read books like Uncanny Avengers. And they help me remember why I do this job. They help remind me what kind of awesome comics I want to see in today's marketplace. And they demonstrate that it is possible for awesome comics to exist — you just have to be talented as hell to make them.

In a lot of ways, Uncanny Avengers is the book that reads the most like an Avengers book. It definitely earns its spot as a flagship title, as Rick Remender juggles not one, but two factions of Marvel superheroes, not to mention the time-traveling über-villains that are putting them through their paces. A lesser writer might be seen as self-indulgently self-referential for his use of continuity, but Remender manages to dig up Wolverine's dark past in Uncanny X-Force, only to give it even more fallout — if you thought losing Warren Worthington to Apocalypse was bad, what do you think happens when Captain America discovers you killed a kid? That's the man/mutant schism right there, and the fact that Remender keeps finding new ways to touch upon it keeps this series tense and exciting.

But it's not just the character histories that make this book so good. (Although it totally helps.) The sheer sense of scale for this book is pretty astonishing, as well. And this is considered a breather — but then again, considering the last issue ended with a nuclear explosion, everything else is downhill, right? But Remender gives these Avengers a global reach, whether its Captain America and Wonder Man tag-teaming against Sudanese rebels or Rogue and Scarlet Witch sparring physically and philosophically in the Danger Room. (If your hackles were raised by Alex Summers' speech in Issue #5, well, get ready to take some antacids, because Remender goes back to that well with a vengeance. It's thought-provoking, and I love it.) There's no wasted pages here - things happen here, and it's all to progress the story and get us deeper inside the heads of our heroes.

It's funny, thinking about the art on this book. Daniel Acuña is so good, he's not just great - he's so great, you literally can't even imagine having had reservations about his artwork six months ago. From the very first panel, with Wolverine standing alone in a wintry forest, this comic gushes moodiness. Acuña just deftly straddles that line between clean classicism and something a little darker, a little dirtier, something sordid and caked with bad blood and history. In other words, it's a little bit Avengers, a little bit X-Men. While occasionally his pages can get a little stifled trying to accommodate Remender's dialogue, there's just such an energy to his pages — Wonder Man's swaggering entrance into South Sudan, for example, is the best moment the character's had in years.

So back to the critic's question — how much expectation is too much expectation? When does wanting the best from your chosen industry turn into having an unrealistic, unattainable pursuit? Can they all truly be winners? Certainly not — but there are some books that, by virtue of their being printed, are asking the audience a question: Is this more of what you want to see? And ultimately, while voting with your wallet is the best and truest way to get your voice heard, it's never a bad thing to be engaged. It's not always easy — again, it's easier to put out a subpar product under deadline than it is to really agonize over a superior work, even in the face of diminishing expectations — and it's not always easy to read said product.

And maybe that's why it's so much fun to read Uncanny Avengers. It not only promises big names, big talents, big actions and big drama, but it delivers. It's the kind of superhero book that other superhero books should be watching - and should be emulating. Even if it slips - even if it causes a thousand angry Internet posts - there's more care and craft to this book than I might see in a half-dozen of its closest competitors.

So. Am I being too harsh? I don't know — maybe. But if I am, blame Rick Remender and Daniel Acuña. After all, they're the ones setting the bar.

Animal Man #21
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Steve Pugh, Francis Portela and Lovern Kindzierski
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Animal powers. Celebrity sightings. Supernatural phenomena. It's all part of a balanced breakfast, as Animal Man #21 is taking a more unique, more idiosyncratic — and potentially less commercial — route. But sometimes the numbers don't matter as much as the heart, and while there's some unevenness to the story, there's a lot to like about Jeff Lemire's take on this superhero divorcee megastar.

One of the more clever bits in this story is the use of Buddy Baker's celebrity as a Hollywood actor, particularly in the use of ubiquitous Twitter captions that pop up throughout the story. It's a nice way to feed us the exposition of what's happened to Animal Man lately - yeah, he's been nominated for awards for his indie superhero semiautobiopic "Tights," but he's also struggling with the death of his son as well as his wife and daughter leaving him. But there's also this sense of claustrophobia, of the never-ending shriek of the Internet and all the online fans - we might feel for Buddy, but not everyone knows him as well as we do, so we feel that instinctive defensiveness on our hero's behalf when some random nobody starts talking trash about "sympathy vote crap."

The other bright spot to this comic is that Lemire has finally sold us on Buddy's daughter, Maxine. It's funny how much a protagonist can change things - while Buddy's interactions with the Totems of the Red felt overwrought, like gross-out horror for horror's sake, the spin of having this cute precocious kid threaten to go ballistic on these horrific-looking demigods will bring a smile to your face. Even though this book is ostensibly about animal powers, Animal Man is at its best when Lemire is focusing on the human side of its characters - both Maxine's eagerness to be a pint-size superhero, or Buddy brooding in the darkness over his losses.

In terms of the art, this is a smart balancing act between Steve Pugh and Francis Portela. Pugh handles the darker scenes with Buddy with some real panache, channeling that older, moodier Vertigo style (as opposed to the flashy, Jim Lee-inspired house style of much of DC's other publications). In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Mike McKone with a harder inking style. Pugh is at his best when he's letting the emotional content of a scene do the talking, with the intro page of Buddy moping really setting the tone for the rest of the issue. His action sequences aren't quite his strongest, however, with his composition and facial expressions coming off weird instead of memorable. Francis Portela, meanwhile, draws my favorite scenes in the book, making Maxine look adorable in this eerie, misshapen animal world. Regardless, Pugh and Portela do fit together nicely, with colorist Lovern Kindzierski acting as a solid bridge between the twos' styles.

That said, this comic does stumble a bit in the plot department. Part of that is because, well, Maxine is so much more likable than even her movie star father, and that's even with the new wealth of storytelling potential Lemire has cultivated by focusing on the rough life of Hollywood. Maxine has a simple, understandable quest, but Buddy still needs to justify his page count - unfortunately, that still feels like by-the-numbers horror-superhero fare, as he fights some patchwork chimera freak that's been kidnapping and mutilating animals. That's not to say there isn't potential in the future, but for the moment, it slows the rest of the story down.

Despite the occasional wart, Animal Man is definitely a comic that's finding its way again, after months of subsuming its own identity in the "Rotworld" crossover with Swamp Thing. The New 52 has definitely had a place for a celebrity superhero, and the added horror spin? Well, there's plenty of potential there, too. This comic is not as deliberate as some readers might want, but there are a lot of moving parts that are each starting to show some legs. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Superior Spider-Man #12
Plot by Dan Slott
Script by Christos Gage
Art by Giuseppe Camuncoli, John Dell, Terry Pallot, Antonio Fabela
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulis
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

This issue picks up where #11 left off — with Spider-Man in hot pursuit of Smythe, following the failed execution of the villain on The Raft. Slott keeps the story moving at a fast pace as one fight sequence leads to the next. We also see J. Jonah Jameson, like so many characters in superhero comics, prepare to cross a line, and he finds an all-too-willing Spider-Man ready and willing to help him the endeavor.

The plot doesn’t move too far forward in this issue as it is mostly concerned with resolving the current battle with Smythe , in addition to bringing Vulture, Scorpion, and Boomerang into the fray after each has been upgraded with Spider-Slayer technology. We do get a brief flashback to the death of Jameson’s wife in order to remind us of his motivations behind this deadly pursuit, but otherwise, some of the character development from the last issue is less present. Slott continues to drive home the unlikeable characteristics of Otto as Spider-Man through his continued bragging and mercenary-like behavior. Unlike other issues, where the slightly more human side of Otto is shown, readers are generally exposed only to the Unlikeable Spider-Man in Superior Spider-Man #12. This could be an important step within Slott's grand narrative, however, as it continues to seemingly set the stage for Peter's return — that is, if this is the direction Slott is taking. In any event, this issue will certainly create some situations to fuel the fires for Slott’s detractors of his run on this series.

Christos Gage turns in a fine effort scripting Slott’s plots mixing it up between humor (with an amusing nod to Star Wars and the bit from The Incredibles regarding “monologuing”). At times, however, the one-upping between Otto and Smythe did grow a little tedious, but in a storyline where action is the primary focus, I’m not sure what other opportunities there might have been for engaging dialogue between the characters.

Camuncoli delivers penciling work, which continue to be relatively detailed and consistent from one page to the next. He delivers a number of action-filled sequences for readers to enjoy, and this content clearly plays to his artistic strengths. His Spider-Man does lack the sharp and somewhat edgy style Ryan Stegman gives the character, but it is still a visually appealing rendering of Otto’s Spider-Man. Given the prioritization on the fight sequences, however, there is little background to take in as the characters themselves are front and center in nearly every panel. While The Raft doesn’t necessarily lend to the most exciting panorama shots, it might have been interesting to have seen how the scene was unfolding from outside of the prison – was it even noticeable from the harbor? Fabela’s colors were perhaps the strongest on the very first page in the flashback sequence recalling the death of Jameson’s wife with the mix of red and gray set the tone of the scene and aptly convey the emotions present. But his work throughout the entire issue leaves little to complain about as it helps each explosion and punch pop off the page.

Overall, fans of the Superior Spider-Man will enjoy issue #12 as it showcases Otto’s ability to fight, outthink, and trade quips with a number of supervillains. Fans of The Amazing Spider-Man, however, will no doubt find this issue lacks the soul and moral compass of the lately departed superhero whom they loved.

Age of Ultron #10
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary, Butch Guice, Brandon Peterson, Carlos Pacheco, Robert Bonet, Tom Palmer, David Marquez, Joe Quesada, Paul Mounts and Richard Isanove
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

Ending not with a bang and not a whimper, the Age of Ultron feels more like the age of anticlimax, as this no-stakes journey through Marvel history has dug up shockingly few treasures. This concluding issue feels particularly utilitarian as opposed to something driven by a particular narrative or theme, as Brian Michael Bendis assembles an army of artists to put all the Avengers toys back to where he found them.

It's difficult to judge this final issue as something standalone, as it is a capstone - well, a second capstone - to Brian Michael Bendis's time on Avengers. Indeed, this "evergreen" series has been sitting in stasis, waiting for the right time... but unfortunately, it doesn't quite hold up. There's been a loose message about time travel through the second half of this series, but it's all just a transparent way to move the chess pieces around - think Infinite Crisis kind of reshifting, with about as much elegance as a Superboy retcon punch. Even having Wolverine as some sort of moral conflict is kind of a strawman argument, considering how long we've known that he's the best there is at what he does — and what he does isn't very nice. (I.e., murder.)

That said, for stories like this, oftentimes you can justify breaking a few eggs to make some tasty superhero omelettes. Here? Not so much — because there really never was a story. The moment that time travel got introduced into the equation, Brian Michael Bendis never really had to tell a story: whether it was exploring how Ultron took over, or showing us the intricacies of a parallel universe where Hank Pym died too young, every time that Bendis finally set up the stage to actually go deeper, he instead had Wolverine hit the cosmic reset button and start us over from the beginning. It's essentially a narrative bait-and-switch, the promise of even empty action not even being delivered, with a scene against the Intelligencia just passing by, as forgettable as it gets - even the way the Avengers beat Ultron is just way too easy. It took the most brilliant minds of the Marvel Universe to come up with "just go back in time and reprogram him"?

The result is a comic that feels weightless, with even its consequences feeling anemic. For all the media hype about Angela joining the Marvel Universe, her introduction is arbitrary - it literally could have happened in any other Marvel Comic and it would have been just as organic. Another corner of Marvel's publishing line gets what should be a world-shaking change to its status quo, but it just feels like a stunt. It's the snake swallowing its own tail, an event comic designed purely to trigger other event comics - without even having to tell a harrowing story itself!

With that lack of direction in mind — and 10 issues to tell said directionless story — the sheer number of artists feels less like a creative jam session and more like an assembly line just churning the product out the doors. Alex Maleev starts off the comic on a jarring start, his gritty style seeming to be a better fit for the utter destruction of the first few issues, while Bryan Hitch gives a bright, superheroic sendoff when the Avengers fight the Intelligencia. Butch Guice gamely turns in some of the better work of the issue when the Avengers fight Ultron himself, even if his composition for some of the characters is less than flashy - not a great thing to say when what he's drawing is a fight scene. Carlos Pacheco, David Marquez and Joe Quesada mop up the end of this book with three separate epilogues, and to their credit, these are the most visually oriented moments of the book.

Whenever I try to review a book, I always try to think of one question - if this book isn't for me, who is it for? If you're a fan of Brian Michael Bendis, then you'll probably dig this book. If you're a completist, who needs to not just know what's going on in the Marvel Universe, but to have the issue to see it for yourself — although, seriously, you don't see much in the way of actual consequences here, but instead more of a promise of consequences that will take place in other books - well, then I guess you'll want this book. The Avengers do actually fight Ultron here, so if you want to see Earth's Mightiest Heroes do their thing (and aren't satisfied with seeing it done better in Uncanny Avengers), this might be the book for you.

But for me, it's not just disappointing — it's frustrating. Nothing of note has happened in Age of Ultron, and the likely reaction to saying that will be "what did you expect, it's a time travel story?" And judging by how well it's done on the sales charts, no one will see Age of Ultron as anything other than a financial success. But that's rewarding the worst kind of narrative behavior. It's not expecting anything out of our events — it's us tacitly approving that we as readers will read 10 issues of a comic where nothing happens. Maybe that was Ultron's big plan, after all — because even when the Avengers win, we still lose.

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