Best Shots Comic Reviews: ULTIMATE SPIDEY, BATWOMAN, More

Marvel Comics' June 19 2013 previews
Credit: Marvel Comics

Greetings, 'Rama Readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots sure is, with a look at last week's biggest releases! So let's kick off today's column with Forrest Helvie, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Ultimate Spider-Man...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #24
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Dave Marquez and Justin Ponser
Lettering by Cory Petit Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In the year since the end of the “Venom War” story arc, Miles Morales attempts to go on with his normal life following the death of his mother and his decision to walk away from the role of Spider-Man. Issue #24 picks up where the previous issue left off in the middle of his confrontation with Gwen Stacy and the explosive introduction to the Ultimate versions of Cloak and Dagger. For two characters who’ve rarely earned much popularity over the years, Bendis shares much of the spotlight with these two young superheroes shifting away from Miles for the bulk of the story. Risky gamble? Perhaps. Still, it works surprisingly well as it provides an interesting contrast on yet another set of adolescents struggling with what it means to be a superhero. This is a theme Bendis has explored since the beginnings of the Ultimate Spider-Man mythos, and it’s one he continues to expound upon with some new twists in Miles’ performance as Spider-Man.

Cloak and Dagger start off as two normal teens who, after a certain series of events, find themselves subjected to scientific experimentation. Thus, two more superheroes are born into the Marvel Ultimate Universe. Although the pair seems to understand they are superheroes, they’re also fairly confused about who they are and what they’re capable of doing. These are questions Miles has and continues to struggle with, and I’m surprised to find myself looking forward to seeing how Bendis will further develop both Cloak and Dagger as well as their connections to Miles.

Bendis is known for his use of decompression, and this issue is a great example of when he employs the convention quite effectively. In this case, the back-and-forth between Gwen and Miles in the restaurant occurs over the course both Issues #23 and #24, with the weight of the responsibility hanging heavy on the young hero. But for all of the time spent unpacking emotional discourse between Miles and Gwen over his avoidance of his greater responsibility to be Spider-Man – whether in spite of or because of the death his mother – only minutes would have actually passed in real time. Yet, given the nature of their discussion, a slower, more deliberate pace is absolutely called for to allow the drama to properly unfold for the reader. Many readers will already be familiar with the many times both Earth 616 and Ultimate Peter Parker were tempted to turn away from the costumed life and pursue their own interests only to answer the hero’s call. So too does Miles hear the same call – again. He return the costumed life is hardly in question, but Bendis’ continues to show readers this is a realSpider-Man who is not going away and who matters in the greater discourse of the Spider-Man mythos. To do that, Miles – like Peter – has certain trials he’ll need to face and overcome. But it’s a decision he has to make.

Finally, there’s the art. Since Sara Pichelli’s been called away to work on other Bendis related projects, there’s really no one better to fill in her shoes than Dave Marquez. Marquez brings a level of visual consistency to each page so that it’s not really noticeable Pichelli is absent. If I have one artistic pet peeve when it comes to my comics, it is when artists on a title fluctuate as this really pulls me out of the narrative in a significant way. Pet peeve averted. On the other hand, Marquez also has his own distinct style as well, so I don’t really get the exact same approach as Pichelli either. His round, simple and fluid style provides a visually appealing representation of the characters without appearing overworked. It’s easy on the eye while still looking polished. Given the “business” of Venom War, I was glad for a step back as shown in this issue.

While I felt only a touch disappointed the villain was only useful as a plot device, I felt like this story got readers back into the character-driven storytelling from before the “United We Stand” crossovers that make this series worth following.

Batwoman #21
Written by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman
Art by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Usually, a fill-in artist means having to suffer through a comic that lacks the synergy of a longstanding creative team’s work and a story that can be fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But Batwoman #21 avoids those pitfalls with a strong outing from co-writers J.H. WIlliams III and W. Haden Blackman that deals with some unresolved fallout from the Medusa storyline as well as another in a long line of masterpiece efforts from an artist in high demand, Francesco Francavilla.

Art has always been at the forefront of the discussion about Batwoman. Whether it was Williams’ imaginative page layouts and rendering finesse or Amy Reeder’s gentle mixture of those elements with her own unique talents, the books was always one of the best looking on the stands. Francavilla fills in for regular series artist Trevor McCarthy on a story exploring Killer Croc’s fate post-Medusa. Francavilla’s work has always exuded a moodiness that is absent in so many other comics. He achieves this with an exceptional approach to coloring. This book is full of deep greens and oranges that represent Killer Croc and the tumultuous nature of his current situation. The flatness of the colors combined with a complete lack of gimmicky, computer-aided lighting effects bring a lot more weight to the story. It’s easy to accept the things that are happening because they are rendered with seriousness, care and careful consideration for pacing and composition. Even each individual page has it’s own unique panel layout that is sometimes meant to mimic Croc’s scales or some other element of the story.

In the hands of another artist, Williams and Blackman’s story might fall a little flat. Killer Croc has never been a truly heavy-hitter in the Batman rogues gallery. He’s a henchman. He’s a buffoon. And because of that reputation, he’s usually fairly easily dispatched of. This issue finds him struggling to understand his place in the world. He knows what he is. He knows what he’s done and finally he’s starting to recognize a pattern. Of course, this leads him into conflict with Batwoman but his recognition leads him down a different path than where he started. Comics aren’t known for allowing lasting change in their characters. But Williams and Blackman have opened up the doors for Killer Croc to really become something more in the right hands.

Killer Croc has an opportunity to become a much more nuanced character than he’s been in the past and it’s very much in line with the supernatural elements that have always been present in Williams and Blackman’s run on this book. Francavilla continues to exemplify what great comic book art can be and I hope it won’t be too long before we see him in or around Gotham City. This issue is definitely a deviation from your regularly scheduled Batwoman action but it’s an issue that could have lasting repercussions and that’s rare in a fill-in issue.

Mind the Gap #11
Mind the Gap #11
Credit: Image Comics

Mind the Gap #11
Written by Jim McCann
Art by Sami Basri and Jessica Kohlinne
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Image Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

After the big reveal in the last issue, you would think Jim McCann would scale back a bit before moving forward with his mystery. But instead, McCann plows full steam ahead, introducing new mysteries, new elements of his mysterious dream world, and with a fantastic new art team, Mind the Gap delivers one of its best issues to date.

Now, despite there being a new artist on Mind the Gap, you wouldn’t really know by looking at the book. Sami Basri’s style is uncannily similar to Rodin Esquejo’s, except Basri’s characters look a little more lifelike. Esquejo has a tendency to draw people in poses where as the movements in this issue looked much more organic. And it’s not like Basri doesn’t have his work cut out for him. Elle is torn to shreds in one splash page, and then the pieces of her consciousness make their way through the hospital in ghostly forms. It’s really a breathtaking sight.

Furthermore, Basri gets to play with the panel construction a bit more, making for a dynamic issue that sets itself apart from the previous issues. Character faces are a bit more lively this time around, and due to some excellent colors by Jessica Kohlinne, several scenes are made better because of the strength of the visuals.

As for Jim McCann, his writing really pops in this issue. He has to depict Elle’s consciousness in several different ways this issue, and he fluidly moves between moments even in the most chaotic of scenes. He still finds time to expand his mystery, but he also finds a way to add some much needed heart. There’s a haunting moment between Elle and her boyfriend and one that really gave me a pang of sadness. McCann makes you feel a lot in this issue, from sadness to frustration to skepticism, but he does so confidently, and in a way that perfectly sets up the next issue.

Mind the Gap is a solid read. It’s the book you pick up every month knowing it’ll be good, and lately it’s been rewarding its followers with awesome reveals and new secrets to keep people intrigued. And even with a new art team, the comic never loses clarity in its visuals (and if anything, this is a better looking issue than the previous ones). I can’t help but throw in a Lost comparison because this has the same vibe, but where Lost felt directionless at times, Mind the Gap isn’t. And with strong story telling and crisp art, I don’t think you can go wrong in following this series.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Captain Marvel #13
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Scott Hepburn, Gerardo Sandoval, Jordie Bellaire and Andy Troy
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Let’s be clear: comics have a dearth of women writers. Comic creators know this as much as comic fans know this. Rightfully so, people have pushed comic companies to hire more women in a male dominated medium. But I think what gets lost in this conversation is a celebration of the women who, while making up a small percentage of the comic population, churn out good work and bring heroines to the spotlight.

Kelly Sue DeConnick is that such person, and she delivers a hell of a heroine in Carol Danvers. Even in the face of her impending doom, Carol remains poised, focused, and keeps her sense of humor. She gives people an ideal to strive for, and Issue #13 of Captain Marvel provides more evidence of this.

Granted, the issue is not solely about Carol. DeConnick brings in a cast of characters to support Carol in her quest, but these people are not hindered by a brain lesion that keeps them from using their powers. This “power drain” trope has used by many writers, but DeConnick shows us how resourceful Carol is. If she can’t use her power of flight, she’ll take a plane instead. The same can be said for her super strength. Using her resourcefulness, Carol finds a way around expending any of her powers so that she’s in no greater danger than when the issue began.

Additionally, Carol relies on the help of her friends. The extended cast provides some great humorous beats in the opening moments, and in some of the more action heavy ones as well. The comic is split about fifty-fifty between Carol and the guest stars in the story, but these moments lay a lot of the groundwork for the rest of the arc. Where this issue may feel a bit slower than the previous issues, partially due to a bit of a history lesson in the beginning, it definitely doles out the set up so that the finale can proceed without any additional story needed.

While the story is all DeConnick, the art is a mixture of Scott Hepburn and Gerardo Sandoval. This makes for a visual inconsistency and a questionable one at that. The pages Sandoval draws are not anything we haven’t seen Hepburn do before, so I wonder why Marvel needed Sandoval to step in at all.

Plus, while I admire the uniqueness of Hepburn’s art, I find it visually distracting at times. Faces in particular are sometimes so oddly shaped that they look distorted. And in addition to changing artists, the style of the art changes almost completely halfway though, taking on more of a sketched look, like the art of Rafael Albuquerque.

But minus these critiques, Captain Marvel #13 is a fine read, and the shifting point of the arc. Now that Carol knows her villain, she also knows what she has to do. Given what DeConnick has shown already, I’m sure that Carol will emerge heroic and victorious, and I’m excited to see it happen.

Wonder Woman #21
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Cliff Chiang and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

It's a weird time to be a Wonder Woman fan. Case in point: This week's issue.

There's a decent amount to like in this book - they're a sprawling, ambitious plot. There's lots of action. There's even the reintroduction of the New Gods, a DC property that's been in dire need of an overhaul.

But it also comes at the expense of Diana Prince.

To Brian Azzarello's credit, he does make good on the sprawling supporting cast of this book, which I've argued repeatedly has watered down Wonder Woman as a character. The First Born comes off menacing if a bit one-dimensional, and the mystery of Zola's baby finally starts to bear fruit. Wonder Woman's brother Lennox finally gets his moment in the sun, with probably the best bit of characterization I've seen in the series thus far, as he dives into a perilous situation singing football cheers.

Yet the question remains - what about Wonder Woman?

If this book were a New Gods series, I think a lot of people would actually be cheering. The New God Orion basically steals the show, as he dives in at the last second to go mano-a-mano with the First Born. Yet his characterization - not to mention his prominent placement in the script - winds up snubbing Wonder Woman herself. From him referring to her as "Legs" to essentially doing the lion's share of the fighting against the First Born, Diana can't help but come off as ineffectual in her own book. Indeed, while she does manage to swoop in and save the day at least once in this comic, it only comes before several other people wind up doing her job for her.

The silver lining to all this, of course, is the book's artwork. Cliff Chiang draws a sleek, powerful Wonder Woman, and his Orion is easily the highlight of this issue. Chiang's clean linework makes for some expressive characters, such as when Zola flinches when Hera is slapped around off-panel. It also goes without saying that the designs for Orion and the New Gods are particularly nice to look at, as their streamlined costumes still evoke that Kirby quirkiness without being too over-the-top.

Still, despite some decent moments of drama and danger, Wonder Woman feels less like a book about Diana Prince and more a means to an end to explore another corner of the DC Universe. It's easy to be conflicted, when the book is drawn so well and the other characters finally start pulling their weight, even as Wonder Woman herself seems to be an incidental character.

Edison Rex, Vol. 1: Into the White TPB
Written by Chris Roberson
Art by Dennis Culver and Stephen Downer
Lettering by John J. Hill
Published by IDW Publishing/Monkeybrain Inc.
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It’s not easy being a hero, as former criminal mastermind Edison Rex is soon to learn in this first collection of stories that puts a great spin on the Lex Luthor/Superman dynamic. Whether it’s proving himself to the public, fending off his nemesis’ old foes, or thwarting the one enemy who might be able to defeat him, this villain turned hero has his work cut out for him at the clever hands of Monkeybrain co-founder and writer Chris Roberson.

As you read Edison Rex, it becomes very clear that Chris Roberson is a comic book fan. Like other writers, such as Kurt Busiek (who provides the introduction for this trade), Roberson knows his comic history and is able to use that to create characters that have roots in familiar stories. The thing that sets this above other similar efforts, however, is that Roberson finds clever ways to use these archetypes without feeling like he’s making a carbon copy of things we’ve already seen.

A perfect example of this is the Nuclear Norseman, Edison Rex’s first opponent as a hero. Big and brash and spouting neo-Lee dialogue, the Norseman could have stepped right out of a 1970s comic. Using his brains, Rex not only stops him, he uses it as a chance to show he’s a hero against a person he knows is a lightweight. Mocking his language while calculating the effect this battle will have on his new image, we get to see just how this comic will proceed-with winks, nods, brains, and just a bit of snark.

The rest of the issues fall right into line with this basic framework. We’re taken to the dead hero Valiant’s fortress, where Edison Rex hid a super-weapon, showing he was always one step ahead of his foe (though not explaining why it took so long for him to finally conquer him). An A.I.M-like group attacks at his formal hero debut, and he takes them down without firing a shot. At a crucial moment, we find out whether Edison Rex is the hero he wants to be, or if his baser nature will prevail.

Throughout each chapter, Roberson delivers sharp dialogue and quick pacing, taking advantage of artist Dennis Culver’s skills to do some really playful work. Culver’s art, which reminds me quite a bit of Ryan Ottley, though a bit bigger and bulkier, uses a variety of creative layout styles that make Roberson’s script sing. There’s mirrored panels, scene continuations, and other tricks that don’t often make it into a modern comic book because the artist is too busy posing the characters instead of working with the story. I love the self-confident look that Culver gives Edison Rex, who’s only rarely shown to lose that calculated smile, giving it even more impact when his expression does change.

The best part of Culver’s work, however, is in his ability to work with Roberson to make the familiar as different as possible. Sure, that creature who attacks Edison in his home is an homage to Bizarro, but in Culver’s hands, it doesn’t feel like a clone of the clone. A one-panel shot of a mutated Edison Rex with windmills for arms reminds us of an early Justice League of America story without copying it. By the time we get to the climax of the story, Culver has given us a work that shows he understands the vibe Chris Roberson is going for, making him the perfect art partner for this project. Combined with the bright coloring of Stephen Downer, the visuals make this story work.

At first blush, Edison Rex is yet another variant on Superman’s story, this time looking at it from the viewpoint of a more sympathetic (at least so far) Luthor. There’s certainly no scarcity of such comics that start from the premise, “What if Superman…,” with the best of them being Mark Waid’s Irredeemable. Unfortunately, it does mean that they can get overlooked, simply because there have been so many. That would be a shame, because this is a fun take with a very modern outlook that keeps getting better as it goes. If you’re a longtime fan of fun superhero comics, this series has plenty of winks and nods to your favorites, and belongs in your collection.

Extermination vol 2
Extermination vol 2
Credit: BOOM!

Extermination, Vol. 2 TPB
Written by Simon Spurrier
Art by V Ken Marion and Michael Garland
Lettering by Ed Dukeshire
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It’s time to fight to take the Earth back, or at least what’s left of it, but can Nox bend his principles far enough to be the hero this world needs? A combination of heroes and villains unite for one last battle, as our two main characters show they’re far more than just familiar analogues as this excellent series from Boom! Studios wraps up in a second collection.

For those unfamiliar, Extermination spins off from the idea of pairing Nox, a Batman-like figure, with his worst nemesis in a last-ditch effort to save humanity from invaders who treat people the way we do cows. If this were all the story had to offer, it would be interesting. The idea of what heroics mean in a world where almost everyone is dead would be a fascinating case study, as one man turns from villainy and the other must stop thinking of the world in black and white.

What makes this story sing, however, is that writer Simon Spurrier makes it so much more than that. We’ve already had hints that Nox is not as altruistic as he claims, and with the Red Reaper (a science villain who is probably best likened to Norman Osbourne, Marvel’s Green Goblin) egging him on, he moves forward in a character arc that is as surprising as it is logical. As the story builds to a climax that really shows just how flawed Nox is, Spurrier takes the reader from one betrayal to another, as the minor characters are stripped away and we’re once again left with our two protagonists battling it out for control of the world, threatening to lose everything in one final bid for supremacy.

The fact that we return to this basic idea but it doesn’t feel like cheating is a tribute to Spurrier’s writing. Instead of being able to let go of their old ways, we see that Nox and the Red Reaper will always hold true to their essential natures and ignore the consequences. Their egos will always be of primary importance, no matter what they might say. This is particularly true of Nox, whom Spurrier develops slowly but surely, with all the clues leaving the reader up to a climax that, as the narration box notes, makes Red Reaper “look better and better.”

Despite this being Nox’s story, which even Red Reaper acknowledges in a bit of meta-textural dialogue, it is really the latter’s character that makes the story sing. While also being an active participant, Spurrier has the villain serve as a bit of a Greek Chorus, telling Nox (and the reader) the reality of the situation and influencing things as needed. We know from the outset, especially in this second trade, that the Red Reaper is scheming for more than his own survival, and I love how this slowly comes out into the open until it reaches a point of no return. He’s just sympathetic enough to make us want him to succeed, but primarily because Red Reaper may be the only person able to keep humanity alive. (It’s certainly what he wants us to think.) His quips and schemes keep us occupied, which allows Spurrier to spring his revelations about Nox at just the right point to give us a solid sense of closure. It’s an amazing job of storytelling that I wish we saw more often in superhero stories.

V Ken Marion has a lot on his plate as the artist for these issues, but I thought he did a good job trying to keep it all together. He’s tasked with integrating flashbacks with the current storyline and showing just how devastated the Earth has become, to say nothing of creating the monsters Nox, the Red Reaper, and others must fight. The designs and backgrounds Marion creates won’t win any awards, but he does a good job of keeping the reader off-balance with a lot of oddly-angled panels. While I wish the movement of the characters wasn’t quite so stiff, the reactions on the face of Red Reaper are top notch, as he mugs his way through deception, bragging, and the occasional shock.

BOOM! Studios does a great job with publishing short series such as this one that work their premise to a logical conclusion and no further, with strong writing and art that gets the job done. Extermination is another entry in this series, and is highly recommended for those looking for a fresh take on familiar superhero dynamics.

Marada the She-Wolf
Marada the She-Wolf
Credit: Titan Comics

Marada the She-Wolf: Collected Edition
Written by Chris Claremont
Art by John Bolton
Published by Titan Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

This volume collects material that was originally published over thirty one years ago in Epic Illustrated magazine # 10-11 (“The Shattered Sword”); # 12 (“The Royal Hunt”); # 23-24 ( “Wizard’s Masque’). After three decades, Titan Comics released a reprinted collection of Claremont and Bolton’s collaboration on a female fantasy warrior during a period of pop culture that readily welcomed high fantasy epics - especially when taking into account that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s now-classic, Conan the Barbarian had released the same year and Red Sonja, whom she was originally modeled after, would debut on the big-screen the following year. So the question remains: Does Marada the She-Wolf stand the test of time for contemporary readers?

Many readers may not be familiar with Marada or her exploits in Marvel’s now-extinct comic anthology magazine. Fortunately, there is a fairly substantive introduction to bring readers how the character came about and the creative process both Claremont and Bolton brought to the table. But once the context is set, the stories begin.

Overall, this book should be one that fans of the sort of classic, unabashed fantasy from the likes of Robert E. Howard will thoroughly enjoy. It is situated within the first years of the Roman Empire as Marada is born from the First Born daughter of the Caesar– and the granddaughter to Julius Caesar - and a foreign prince taken as a slave. The young girl witnesses the cruel torture and execution of her father, and this experience no doubt serves as the catalyst to her becoming the famed woman warrior whom readers encounter throughout the collected stories. From battling wizards and their servile demons to continually striving to maintain her independence from those same wizards and demons continually seeking to possess her - both mind and body.

John Bolton’s artwork is truly a beauty to behold. In many regards, his style is reminiscent of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, which imbues a sort of classic feel to the work. His lines are controlled and contain a certain sense of realism; although these are idealized representation of beautiful women and muscular men, they seem more attainable than other comic representations of the sexes. Interestingly, these stories were originally drawn with the intention of their being published in black and white. It wasn’t until afterward the decision was made to color them. The result is interesting: While it clear the colors possess a sort of overlay feel to them, they are also add a sort of “throwback” feel to the experience. Given this story is set in the past, I thought this element worked well to enhance each of the stories.

I should add, however, that more contemporary readers may take issue with the regularly recurring theme of Marada finding herself as a sort of sexual commodity desired by the men (or male demons) throughout her travels. It is worth noting this was an opportunity to bring a female character to the forefront. I’m a firm believer our comics need to continue providing a closer representation of its full reading audience, and earlier creators who helped open those doors should be recognized. Yet, the instances in which she is forced upon are problematic to say the least. For example, I found the visual depiction of the rape scene really unnecessary. Bolton’s artwork maintains its same sensual aesthetic, and more than one panel could be taken out of context of the scene and no one would this was part of a rape. If an act like this is to be visually depicted in such detail, I would think more of the horrific emotions would need to be conveyed to the reader. The comic does appear to carry forward the idea that this is a story about Marada’s reclaiming her sense of self after this spiritual, emotional, and physical trauma; however, I believe the art conveys an overly sexualized account accurately of what an abominable experience. While this work does admirably seek to bring its female protagonist to the forefront, she is certainly subjected to patriarchy at its worst.

I am a big fan of Chris Claremont’s writing, and John Bolton’s art is some of the finest out there. Given a more hurried and cursory read, readers of fantasy fiction would no doubt find this an exciting collection; however, I don’t think this was the sort of reading experience either Claremont or Bolton aimed for. . I’m willing to consider that both creators aimed to do something forward-thinking and smart in the story they were telling. But in taking a closer, more nuanced approach to the material unearths some highly problematic concerns with the depiction and treatment of women that does not stand up well given what we know now today about gender, sex, and sexuality in comics. There are a good many parts to this story one can enjoy, but it seems that, in spite of their efforts, Claremont and Bolton’s work does not fully lift Marada out of the problems many fantasy fiction writers both faced and created in the treatment of characters other than heterosexual, masculine man - a change they had hoped to accomplish with these stories.

After Houdini #1
After Houdini #1
Credit: Challenger Comics

After Houdini #1
Written by Jeremy Holt
Art by Kevin Zeigler, Isaac Goodheart and Theo Zeilstra
Lettering by Ryan Ferrier and Ed Brisson
Published by Challenger Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

[Editor's Note: Since the publication of this comic book and review, a revised After Houdini (with a new artist) has been published by Insight Comics.]

This first issue of a five-part mini-series attempts to take a historical character and inject him with one part noir and a second part James Bond. The story opens by introducing both the international stage where the drama will play out as well as its protagonist - the son of the late Harry Houdini. While many readers know Houdini as the master of escape artists, there are some who suggest he played an integral role in the governmental clandestine affairs between the United States and Europe during the years prior to his death, and this comic aims to pick up where history and the conspiracies leave off.

Holt weaves an intriguing opening issue as he reintroduces Harry Houdini to the reader, not merely as the master stage performer but as the master spy as well. It’s clear Holt has done his homework as his narrative is filled with tidbits from works such as William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s The Secret Life of Harry Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero; yet, Holt does not come off as derivative in his approach to the story. Instead of adapting these types of conspiratorial sources, he picks up where they leave off by assuming Houdini had a son, who was fostered by another family for the safety of the boy. Moreover, he introduces some mystical elements into the story – though this is something that the highly skeptical Houdini would have scoffed at seeing. I also really liked the brief scene in the jail cell where the young Houdini escapes with the use of the picks hidden within a fake finger nail cover. It’s not an approach readers will expect, but looking back on past magic shows where magicians escaped from similar circumstances, it seems highly believable. And this sort of attention to detail makes a story all the more enjoyable. There are a few points where the secret agency director’s dialogue does come across as a little forced, but overall, there is certainly a unique and interesting story to be told here.

Strangely, it seems as if independent, creator-owned comics are at the forefront of a renaissance of black and white comics. This issue tells its story in black and white, yet, the lack of color is hardly noticeable. The style is a little rough and edgy, but it works really well as it complements the the story. Zeigler’s style demonstrates a strength in conveying emotion through his character’s eyes, which speaks well of his ability. The one area where the artwork itself was inconsistent was with the panel backgrounds. At times, there was a splatter effect used that, while I wasn’t always certain why it was used, I still thought it looked cool. At other times, there were a few examples where only white space filled the backgrounds where there might have been more cityscape visible. In other panels, however, the cityscapes were detailed and added to the overall visual experience. No doubt, it’s the type of issue where patient readers will likely find the second and third issues deliver continually stronger art as the artist finds his or her “groove.”

There is also a noir detective backup story exploring a Dupin-like private eye who is due to come into conflict with a sort of mutant-like criminal. Goodheart and Zeilstra’s art feels a little more polished than Zeigler’s in terms of its style and use gray tones with the black and white colors. Given the story is about a detective who has all the answers, however, the edgier approach would have been less effective at conveying the polish of this story’s protagonist. In spite of the polish to the artwork, however, Holt definitely gets a little darker in terms of his story’s direction with the introduction of his serial killer. Overall, this comic provides fans of detective and mystery stories with two solid stories that contain solid pacing and will open enough questions to leave readers interested in seeing what will follow in Issue #2.

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