Best Shots Comic Reviews: DAREDEVIL, ANIMAL MAN ANNUAL, More

Marvel July 31 previews
Credit: Marvel Comics

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots sure is, as we take a look at last week's biggest releases! So let's kick off today's column with Lan Pitts, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Daredevil...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Daredevil #29
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Javier Rodriguez and Alvaro Lopez
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Lan Pitts
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Stop me if you've heard this one: a blind lawyer steps into a courtroom full of white supremacists...and then proceeds to lay waste to them as a costumed vigilante. Okay, maybe the punchline needs a little work -- unlike this issue, which is nearly flawless. 

While writer Mark Waid seems to be painting a bigger picture with the Serpent Society, it's the small strokes like this issue that build the work in progress so eloquently. We start off exactly where we left off with former Society member and Matt's childhood bully was shot, because as it turns out, the Society has infiltrated  the local government. Problem is Matt is the only "witness", so when the real cops show up, he can't really tell them anything that he "saw". It's little bits of cleverness that make this book so captivating. And while it might be an old dilemma Matt has faced before, Waid's knack for sharp inner monologues help give something like this a fresh coat of paint. 

It's Javier Rodriguez's turn in this team of rotating artists, and the wheelhouse of the artists on board is some of the best. Rodriguez is no exception. True it has to be daunting to follow any issue featuring Chris Samnee's bold art, but here Rodriguez doesn't let readers down with his throwback comic style and doesn't drop the ball. The art here just flows so seamlessly with the narrative, you can jump on board with this issue and not feel so left behind. Alvaro Lopez's inks are a nice touch, too. They definitely distinguish Rodriguez's style from Samnee's as it's not has heavy, but it just makes the art seem so much more fluid. The pages near the end of the book really showcase his skills as a visual storyteller. The scene with Matt walking away from Nate and the panel at the bottom with Daredevil taking to the night really stick with you. 

Rodriguez's colors are another too that should be applauded. For years Daredevil was a more nocturnal creature, murky and downtrodden, but with Waid's turn of more action-adventure instead of gritty noir, has brightened things up and it's reflected here. True, the story primarily takes place indoors, but it's Rodriguez's talent of giving this bright-colored hero a world that he could stand out in.

When an writer brings out the best in his artists, it shows, and when it's vise versa, it's equally noticeable. Team Daredevil seems to be so simpatico it's hard to believe more collaborations don't work so well as they do here. It's the little touches here and there like Daredevil missing the basement sign or the malicious smirk one of the guards give so you know he's up to no good. It all just works so well together. Daredevil #29, even though a small piece to a potentially bigger puzzle, is a great jumping on point for the reader who has heard all the buzz and just hasn't taken the leap yet. Dive right in, the water's fine. 

Animal Man Annual #2
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Travel Foreman and Lovern Kindzierski
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

While there were definitely readers up in arms over the death of Animal Man's young son Cliff Baker, I'll just tell it like it is - losing that tether to his normal life might have been the best thing for Buddy Baker's series. As the man with animal powers thinks back on the life he once had, Jeff Lemire gets to balance the weird with the all-too-human foibles to which we can all relate.

Lemire's story might start off a bit slow, but it's just setup to the story that really matters - namely, a day where Buddy inadvertently took his kid to work. And by that, I mean superhero work. Facing off against the Spider Queen lets Lemire bounce back from the weird, eerie streak that's defined Animal Man, but without drowning in the mythology of the Red. Lemire also leavens this story with Buddy's family - it's much more endearing when we get to see Buddy nerd out over new animals he and Cliff looked up on the Internet, and you can't help but like him when his aggravated wife still finds his peculiarities lovable. It's that kind of heart that's far more powerful than the distended limbs and horror vibe this book has typically coasted upon.

Of course, it's a little too late for Lemire to course-correct that significantly in tone, and in that regard, Travel Foreman is a welcome sight. Considering how quickly the Spider Queen comes into the picture, Foreman's freakish arachnid transformations provide an excellent shorthand for how dangerous she can be. Yet Foreman also displays some surprisingly flexibility here, toning down his rendering when he draws the very pregnant Ellen Baker, making the final scenes in the book seem that much more happy and gorgeous, like a wonderful dream that Buddy will tragically have to leave for his miserable present. That said, sometimes Foreman goes a little too crazy on the lines, such as some panels where Buddy's face almost looks tenderized, there's so much crosshatching.

And while Lemire manages to score some real knockouts with the emotional beats, there's still plenty of rough edges around this comic. His dialogue, for example, occasionally comes off as stilted, particularly when Buddy squares off against the animal-cyborg villain Biowulf. That scene doesn't really establish Buddy as anything other than a loser, slowing down the story with filler rather than giving us a reason to actually trust him as a superhero. Additionally, while there's some excellent payoff with the Spider Queen, the way that Buddy wins over her feels a little lacking in the setup department, coming across as too little, too fast.

Still, there's a lot to like about Animal Man Annual #2, which effective has its cake and eats it, too - not only do we get to watch Buddy act more like a human given the loss of his son, but we also get to experience the kinds of fun adventures that made Cliff such a touchstone in his life to begin with. By the end of this issue, you're feeling the heartache just as much as Buddy, and that's a victory for Lemire and Foreman. If you've been wondering what all the hubbub is about, Animal Man Annual #2 is definitely a book to check out.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Uncanny X-Men #9
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Mark Irwin, Al Vey and Jamie Mendoza
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Alison Blair might have the heart of a superstar, but her choice of bands is seriously questionable. While the mutant superstar's new status quo as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an interesting enough shift to merit a glance, Brian Michael Bendis's decompression quickly burns through the intrigue, making Uncanny X-Men #9 feel as empty as it gets.

Part of the problem is that it feels like Bendis isn't quite sure who he wants his main character to be... and as a result, everybody winds up looking bad. It's hard to root for Alison Blair, for example, when she breaks into Goldball's house and flashbangs his entire family - even though Goldball's dad is brandishing a pistol at her, you'd think that someone with her level of experience might cut down on collateral damage, no? But if you thought Dazzler kidnapping one of Cyclops's former charges might make her look bad, well, unfortunately our heroes don't fare too much better - they still feel like blank slates, and Bendis having them practice their abilities doesn't feel nearly as kinetic or visual as the old Claremont Danger Room scenes of yesteryear. Having Scott Summers refer to Dazzler as an "Uncle Tom of mutants" is more than enough to raise some eyebrows, and you wind up not rooting for anybody at all.

The art by Chris Bachalo surprisingly doesn't lend much to this issue, either. Because he's stretching his layouts to fit the Bendis rapid-fire dialogue (which comes off as repetitive even for Bendis this issue), he winds up not really putting together any memorable panels to tie the whole sequence together. And considering there's a scene where a kid is moving an entire jet with his mind, that's shocking. Even the group shots with the Uncanny X-Men feel surprisingly at a distance, and considering the number of inkers on board this book, that sort of lack of punchy visuals makes for a disappointing read. (That said, a beat where Dazzler is dodging a volley of goldballs is a brief jolt of energy for the rest of the book.)

Nine issues in, Uncanny X-Men already feels like it's spinning its wheels. You can only have Cyclops and company stage so many "daring raids" before you remember that the characterization is still paper-thin - there's no emotional fallout for Cyclops about killing Charles Xavier, no panic attacks about him losing control of his powers... and not only that, but this team feels like it's come together so quickly and (Goldball notwithstanding) very, very little second thoughts. Is the outlaw lifestyle really that compelling that Cyclops's sins can go largely unexamined? And can this team actually define itself beyond the usual Bendis-speak? Without something new to set itself apart, Uncanny X-Men isn't quite living up to its name.

Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril #1
Written by Peter Hogan
Art by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo
Review by Shanna VanVolt
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

 Tom Strong #1 is a good antidote to bad superhero movies. It is written to be a comic book, not a “paper format” television show or a character farm for an action film. If this latest miniseries of Tom Strong’s continuing adventures ups its pacing between herculean drama and plot development, this series could follow its initial run as a true tribute to the comic medium.

This first issue sets up the inversion of the all too common superhero formula. Instead of a promise of action overridden by boring pop culture melodrama and romance, Tom Strong begins at the level of human connection, keeping the super stuff as the subplot. But by the end of the issue, there is no question that things are about to get very super indeed. A slew of genre references (including a nod to the late, lamented Terra Obscura series) keep the reading whimsical, while the hero narrative is retained: relatable problems are cause for epic journeys.

Artist Chris Sprouse returns here again to the characters he co-created with writer Alan Moore. Strong’s square 1950s-style face is flanked by those familiar graying temples - not quite in the shape of lightning bolts, but are darn close to it. That is the hard edge that the Strongiverse rides, in the cosmic space between worlds: the real one and the fake one. When executed eloquently, it can help us explore the reasons the former creates the latter.

Sprouse’s pencils give us just enough to establish settings, but with a dreamlike spotlessness that lets the reader know they have entered the world of the book they are reading, not the one in which they are reading it. The bold inks and primary-triad colors reinforce that base quality of excitement in the air.

The art, like the issue, excels most in the flashbacks and foreshadows, while the present day scenes can feel a little constrained. Plot-setting scenes can come off like the creators are a little bored, forced into establishing realistic connections and background for the unrealistic story that is about to unfold. Expressions and proportions are still spot on, but there is a tension in an artist who clearly wants to draw action and wild environments slowing the pen down to draw conversations.

To its credit, the story and the art in this issue are so in tune that the places where it falters can be explained through either. When you have a beloved character that only rarely pops up in the comic world, first issues have to rehash the whole universe in a digestible tablet so that the real fun can begin. Here, issue one can seem like swallowing that pill in hopes it will allow you to slip into the world of the science hero. All the explanation in Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril #1 does a disservice to the action that is usually leading the charge. 

That said, I wouldn’t miss the next issue for the world. While this one can be a bit of a slow climb, once it reaches its peak, we glimpse a whole magical universe that can be created through comics. Hogan respectfully continues the tradition Alan Moore started, and the recursive nature of a comic book within a comic book opens a needed discussion on the future and past of the medium. But in the forefront, the plot brilliantly builds up to a righteous feeling of human hope. Tom Strong’s hope is refreshing in a comic world where some of our greatest heroes have become emotionally fraught, unable to save themselves, much less those they love.

Credit: Marvel Comics

FF #10
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Mike Allred and Laura Allred
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
  Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

It’s time for an old Marvel tradition! The writer puts the book’s creative time into a fraction of the story as Ant Man’s Fantastic Four works to improve its image while some of the children go mad in an attempt to understand murder as this spectacular series continues its run.

Given the chance to roll with characters no one particularly cares about, save maybe She-Hulk, Matt Fraction is making the most of the chance to play with Marvel’s toys. It’s clear these are toys that Fraction cares about and understands, resurrecting the fact that Marvel Comics exists within the Marvel Universe. He even finds a way to make it work within his overall story (the Scott Lang-led team is taking a beating from the tabloid-style Daily Bugle).

Fraction works a dual narrative, taking two stories that might not have held up on their own and weaving them together. On the one hand, we have the FF taking Fraction, artist Mike Allred, and editor Tom Brevoort on a journey into the microworld, with plenty of inside jokes (Fraction is drawn with an F on his shirt, Allred wears a Madman shirt, and Brevoort has his trademark hat) and of course a bit of hijinks. At the other end of the spectrum is a super-serious discussion by several of the Future Foundation children that leads to a confrontation with one of the most deadly foes ever faced by the Inhumans. Oh, and looming over all of this is the threat of Doctor Doom, whose manipulations from afar is some of the best use of his character in ages.

Mixing up the comedy and seriousness throughout the story makes for a powerful combination and juxtaposition. Scott’s quip that things will get worse presages the peril facing the children. Crazy Johnny Storm’s warnings are downplayed by flying pancakes, drawn only as Mike Allred can. The children are led into a dangerous game by Mad Max, getting caught up without consider the danger, just like kids. Doom’s threats are downplayed a bit by his-creative-positioning on the throne by Allred. Thrown off by little touches like Allred showing Fraction checking out She-Hulk’s attributes or quips at the writer’s own expense, when we realize on the last page that the devil is out of his cage, the impact is huge.

Fraction’s writing is aided by Mike and Laura Allred. Whoever got them back on Marvel books should be given a raise, especially be selecting a series that allows Allred to play to his quirky strengths. This issue is probably the best example of Allred’s abilities as a visual storyteller so far. His depiction of the microworld is Ditko-esque, filled with random squiggles, wavy lines, and other objects that fly past as the Kirby-inspired ship passes them. Doom’s throne room is suitably gothic, but with a touch of the mechanical. The scenes with the children are done as a series of tight framing shots, repeating themes and building the pressure, but what’s amazing is how they’re framed. Only once does Allred go to the standard boxes, using the art itself in other places to box the characters in and show their frustration at not being able to solve the game. In the middle of an unnatural world, Allred draws one of the most realistic tigers you’ll ever see in a comic (while showing himself doodling it).

Despite figures that do not flow across the page, Allred’s art has a kinetic energy to them, as though he’s taken the action with a camera and selected only the best shots. This effect is aided by his wife Laura’s coloring, which is big and bold. She reminds me of Ronda Pattison, one of my favorite colorists. Though rarely using garish colors, she shades the work vibrantly. Medusa’s hair is a dark red that calls the reader’s eyes to it. She-Hulk is a dull green that can be spotted instantly (and is distinct from Doom’s cape). The coloring work is distinct and allows each character and object to stand on its own, rather than fading into the drab background blends that other colorists use.

As Fraction meta-comments in the story, FF isn’t going to be a title for everyone. But if you enjoy quirky comic books, this is one of the best I’ve encountered. It drives the story by being strange rather than doing it for strangeness’s sake. This book gets my highest possible recommendation, with this issue being a good jumping-on point.

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