Best Shots Reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: LOBO Villains Special, More

Justice League: Lobo villains special
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Justice League #23.2: Lobo
Written by Marguerite Bennett
Art by Ben Oliver, Cliff Richards and Daniel Brown
Lettering by Sal Cipriano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The Main Man is trouble. Just ask DC Comics. As soon as they released the all-new design for Lobo, well, the message boards went into a furor that would make even a Red Lantern jealous. To compound the fan rage, you can't really judge a book by its cover, as Aaron Kuder's cover reflects the old Lobo design, along with a number of Justice League details that don't actually appear in this story.

Which, speaking of... How is Justice League #23.2 anyway?

Well, maybe it's coming after the heightened oversensitivity of those on the message boards... but it's not terrible. And considering this is not the first, but second time that Lobo has been introduced to the New 52, that's saying something. That all said, this book isn't a knockout, either - the leaner, meaner Main Man does kind of feel like he's just going through the motions. Marguerite Bennett proves here she knows how to construct a well-paced thriller... but does DC have a solid plan for revising the character underneath?

Credit: DC Comics

Maybe it's shallow to start off with looks, but comics are a visual medium, and there's been a lot of hubbub about Lobo's new design. I will say that out of the three artists we've seen take on this new look - Kenneth Rocafort, Aaron Kuder and Ben Oliver - Oliver wins, hands-down. Lobo isn't as self-consciously svelte as those embryonic designs DC released online, although his pompadour and crystalline blue tattoos are a bit distracting. Lobo isn't the pastiche of '80s and '90s excess, and interestingly enough, Oliver kind of fakes you out by playing up this newer, dandier character on the second page... before drenching him in shadow and glowing red lights as he carves somebody up on page four. The thing is, in those shadowy pages, Lobo actually looks like the old Lobo we know and love... so it winds up being a weird exercise in showing how not different this different character can look.

Marguerite Bennett, meanwhile, shows some promise on the writing side. She writes Lobo with a real snarl to his narration, and that kind of sass actually goes a long way towards giving readers a reason to give this twice-relaunched character a chance. She's way more reserved than you might expect for a Lobo story, although she does deliver a twist that shows we should never look at the Last Czarnian as a hero. Her pacing is strong, giving us several instances of Lobo tearing loose, although the actual choreography isn't quite as explosive as it could be. What does Lobo do that no one else in the DCU can? Where's his bike, or his chains? Considering the editorially-driven landscape at DC, that may be out of Bennett's hands, but the idea that we don't even know who Lobo really is a smart conceit on her part.

Credit: DC Comics

But as I've said before, this comic also is missing something. An essential spark, a new direction in the storytelling that shows readers there's a plan for this character. Part of that problem comes from this being a one-shot, and not only that, but it's a one-shot that might not even be tied to the greater Justice League story - if this issue is any indication, Lobo's story could really go into any Earth-bound DC title. Is this a story about a space biker? Is this going to be an entree into a more esoteric space opera? Why do we care about Lobo? In that regard, Bennett and company don't succeed, and that's what keeps this comic as more of a surface-level victory rather than a grand slam. Justice League #23.2: Lobo doesn't crash and burn, but it doesn't shoot for the stars, either.

Brain Boy Cover by Ariel Olivetti
Brain Boy Cover by Ariel Olivetti
Credit: Dark Horse

Brain Boy #1
Written by Fred Van Lente
Art by R.B. Silva, Rob Lean and Ego
Lettered by Nate Piekos
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Brain Boy is the latest superhero concept to be revived by Dark Horse Comics. But while Ghost and X are retreads of the publisher’s 90s superhero attempts, Brain Boy is something different. Editor Jim Gibbons and writer Fred Van Lente dig deep into the Dell Comics archives to unearth a six issues from 1962 by Herb Castle and Gil Kane and bring this concept to the 21st century: teenager Matt Price is a telepath but he’s secretly working for the government. And this one passes the sniff test. Though it’s the strength of the art that shines through the clutter of scripting in this one.

My first introduction to R.B. Silva and Rob Lean’s work was on DC’s New 52 relaunch of Superboy. I thought the art was solid. The lines were clean, the storytelling was clear, but it lacked the kind of dynamics that you hope for in a superhero comic. Nothing jumped off the page at me. Brain Boy is the exact opposite. It’s big and explosive and it’s the inking that really stands out. Rob Lean brings a moodiness to the book by providing deep blacks to counter Ego’s generally bright colors. Ego also provides excellent shading to keep Silva’s character expressions from being too flat. There are a few missteps with regards to the clarity of a few of the backgrounds and a certain revelatory splash page that is almost entirely unimpressive but on the whole, the art really shines.

Fred Van Lente delivers a compelling introductory script that sets the stage for what is to come without bogging down the reader in backstory. But the villain we’re introduced to feels dated (which makes sense considering that it’s a 50 year old property) and the pacing of the issue is affected by the overuse of caption boxes. It’s understandable that we would want to know the thoughts of a brand new character as he walks us through the status quo of the book but too many captions clutter the art. Van Lente has always been known for providing fun, fast-paced scripts and Brain Boy is no different. The main character has a snarky wit about him, stemming from his psychic abilities and Van Lente establishes a heavy reliance on them early on to immediately posit the question, “What happens when a government psychic can’t read minds?” The stage is set for a sci-fi thriller that treads into superhero territory without all the spandex and muscles. In fact, it feels much closer in tone to an espionage TV show than a comic book.

Only time will tell if this iteration of Brain Boy will stick around longer that its Dell Comics predecessor. All the pieces are here to really build a world but it’s unclear whether or not we’ll see Brain Boy as a part of the larger Dark Horse superhero line. While Van Lente turns in a solid effort, it’s really the art team that’s firing on all cylinders. If they keep this up, Brain Boy could very well be a hit.

Credit: Dynamite

Kings Watch #1
Written by Jeff Parker
Art by Marc Laming and Jordan Boyd
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating 8 out of 10

The cover to Kings Watch will pull in any fan of the classic pulp era. I mean, it's hard to not walk by the new comics wall and think, “awesome, The Phantom, Flash Gordon, and other guy.” Come on, all but the most ardent of comic book historian thought the same thing, or you wondered what Doctor Strange was doing with those other two dudes. Regardless of what you thought (he's Mandrake the Magician, in case you were wondering), Kings Watch #1 from Dynamite Entertainment promises high pulp adventure. And, with very little exception, the book delivers on that promise.

Credit: Dynamite

It's always tricky to bring characters that are solely a product of their time into the modern era. Too often a writer, in an attempt to stay true to the character, also brings with it all the baggage of the times. For as much as we love the pulp era of comics, they were neck deep in a time of horrible racial and religious prejudices. So, just how much do you reinvent or modernize, while still managing to keep the charm of the original stories? Upon reading Kings Watch, I think writer Jeff Parker understands the best way is to simply take the core concept and let them grow naturally. Mandrake is powerful, but unsure. Flash Gordon is smart and strong, but too cocky. The Phantom is driven, but to obsession. These characters are almost totems of the superhero myth and their introduction into the modern era works well. Nothing fancy, no time travel, no dimensional shifting; they simply exist in our time. Parker drafts a solid base of fantastic adventure as mysterious forces crash into our world in thunder and lighting, while humanity is haunted by horrible dreams of destruction. The perfect setting for our heroes to face the danger.

Marc Laming's pencils are a great fit for the series. All of his characters, even those lacking the classic square jaw, are strong and commanding. Everything about this book requires a style that elevates all the big players. Laming does just that. His attention to detail, especially backgrounds, creates a real sense of believability within the setting. You can almost hear the roaring engine as Flash launches into space with Dr. Zarkov, or the rustle of the jungle as the Phantom leaps out to fight a horrible beast. While it does look like there is some heavy use of photo references for inspiration, Laming's art is never stilted or flat. Jordan Boyd's use of colors also goes a long way in revealing the theme of each hero. Mandrake, though gifted with amazing powers, still lives in a world of darkness and shadow. Whereas the Flash all but radiates sunshine, even in the darkest of hours. There are a few panels where the inking caused some of the pencils to lose detail, sadly during more intense action scenes. Still, visually this is a fun comic that serves this heroes well.

For a book that hasn't even let the so called Kings Watch meet yet, it was a great time. Dynamite Entertainment has a strong team on this book and I really can't wait to see how this adventure plays out. As a longtime fan of these characters and setting, I've been looking for a book that captures the spirit of these stories, without having to quantify the tone of the era. Parker, Laming, and Boyd are on the right path. While Kings Watch #1 isn't quite the perfect adventure, it's darn close.

Credit: First Second

Boxers and Saints
Written by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien
Published by 01:First Second
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

I'm going to go on a limb and guess the majority of Western readers aren't terribly familiar with the Boxer Rebellion, which took place at the turn of the 20th Century in China. Yet, this is where award-winning creator Gene Luen Yang sets his sights for his two-part original graphic novel set, Boxers and Saints, which tells two stories: The first book - Boxers - tells the story of a young boy who becomes the rebellion's leader while the second - Saints - focuses on a young girl struggling with both faith and self-acceptance. Although Yang's book takes on a true-to-life historical event, he demonstrates his ability to masterfully weave fiction into facts that results in what is arguably his most ambitious work in comics to date.

The first book, Boxers, constitutes the bulk of the two-part narrative as it explores China from the perspective of young Bao – the young Chinese adolescent who finds himself leading the resistance against the colonizing Western powers. It is a powerful story of a young dreamer finding himself the agent of the traditional gods of his people as they seek to wipe the ever-spreading influence of the European and American powers in their homeland through the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. Or perhaps, one it is a case of the reader simply experiencing the hopes and desires of the people embodied in the imagined Chinese pantheon. Regardless of how one interprets it, Yang deftly blends historical fact with elements of traditional Chinese lore to elevate this rebellion to a near epic level. Not only does Boxers readily lend itself to postcolonial readings of the ways Western powers have historical victimized the people whom they have conquered, but it also opens itself to a larger discussion on the nature of national heroes and the ways their true identities can be romanticized. While Bao finds himself at the center of ballads being sung in his and the Society's honor, the book shows that there are steep costs to pay for being a hero in the eyes of one's people and only a select few are truly willing to pay this pirce. And this notion carries forward into the second part and the conclusion of the work as a whole.

In Saints, Yang shifts the perspective to a different narrator in order to provide an additional layer of depth to the grand narrative he is telling. In this second book, readers hear from Four-Girl – a young girl from the same village as Bao – who relates her experience of living in the Beijing providence during the time of the Boxer Rebellion. She is never given a name as being the fourth-born was an omen of death in traditional Chinese culture, and her grandfather did not expect the young girl to survive past her infant years. Although she does go on to survive, she is never given a name and the psychological impact of this failure to be named drives her character's actions until the book's end. Where she found only rejection from her family's Chinese culture, Four-Girl finds acceptance from the rapidly spreading Christian culture brought to China during the European-American colonization of China – the very catalyst that gave rise to the formation of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. Her story then becomes one that stands in contrast to that of Bao – instead of finding her identity from within her own culture like Bao, Four-Girl creates herself anew through adopting the foreign culture of the Christian missionaries. Yang makes a few really interesting decision, however, in the way he presents this conflict. First, Christianity itself is never presented from a singular perspective. Instead, readers get different depictions of what Christianity means to Four-Girl, to her family – and by extension, traditional Chinese culture – as well as other Chinese Christians, all of whom perform Christianity in ways somewhat different from one another. Some use it as a means of aligning themselves with the European powers in order to gain material and political benefits; on the other hand, there are some who appear to understand and believe in the religious precepts of the faith. Four-Girl, however, sees it as an available means of breaking away from the culture, which previously rejected her, and finds a new identity with a name of her own: Vibiana. Although she never truly seems to grasp the Christian faith as seen in her awkward, and at times, disinterested response to her teachers, it is in the legend of Joan of Arc that she finds her patron saint whom she models herself after amidst a similar period of cultural conflict.

Artistically, Boxers and Saints both share the same visual aesthetic that marks Gene Luen Yang's body of work: Clean, cartoon-inspired line work that is both enjoyable to take in while still proving capable of conveying the emotional weight of his story. With this work in particular, Yang manages to strike a balance in his depiction of violence to underscore the life-and-death nature of this conflict and the costs of standing up for what one believes in along with keeping the focus on the characters and the story – not on glorifying the fighting and resulting deaths of those involved. In Boxers, Yang's means of representing the fighting spirit of the Chinese people through the deific possession that takes place is something that works incredibly well in the comics medium that might have otherwise been lost in other mediums and serves as one example (of many) of his skill as a comic creator. I also found his judicious use of colors in Saints to be highly effective as he employs a muted palette for the entire book with the exception of those scenes in which Christian icons appear as seen when either Joan or Christ appears before her. Given that these are the moments that are arguably the most influential in forming her notions of self, the coloring provides an important means of cueing readers in to not only their otherworldliness but also their significance to Vibiana.

Yang's two narratives complement each other as they provide readers with dual views on many of the same events. While it might initially seem to make sense for these two parts to have been published together, I argue the emotional impact at the end of Saints is preserved through keeping both parts separate and distinct. From tackling issues related to Western colonization abroad to exploring the theme behind Polonius' oft-quoted "To thine own's self be true," Yang's grand narrative is epic in its scope and yet careful in the treatment of its characters as nuanced individuals and not two-dimensional pawns used to move the greater plot forward. Boxers and Saints is truly a creative and thoughtful re-imagining based on historical events that, while having taken place over 100 years ago, still contains lessons present day readers will find all-too-relevant given the inter-connectedness of today's global community. American Born Chinese is the original graphic novel that put Yang on the map and rightly earned him much critical praise and awards; however, I would argue that with Boxers and Saints, he delivers a story that is both deeply personal and global in its concerns setting an even higher mark for any of his past works.

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