Best Shots Comic Reviews: ARCANE, DAREDEVIL, Much More

Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for the Monday column? Best Shots sure is, as we take a crack at the latest releases from comics' biggest publishers! So let's kick off today's column with 'Rama rookie Noelle Webster, as she takes a leafy look at Swamp Thing #23.1: Arcane...

Credit: DC Comics

Swamp Thing #23.1: Arcane
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Jesus Saiz and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by Noelle Webster
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Arcane in “The Patchwork History” is arguably the strongest issue of DC’s Villains Month thus far. The one-shot finds Arcane post “Rotworld” living in his own personal hell—a place where nothing decays. The issue is a particularly successful Villains Month issue because not only is it a great one-shot, it also adds to Swamp Thing as a whole. There’s interesting back-story on Anton and Abigail, and it also gives the reader a taste of what’s to come in future Swamp Thing issues. It functions not only on its own, but also enhances the ongoing story as well.

If Anton Arcane wants something rotted, he need only look at himself. Juxtaposed with the beautiful “hell” of lush grass and trees, Arcane truly looks the monster he is (though now a more shriveled version since he is cut off from the rot). Oftentimes when you get a villain’s origin story, it serves to make the villain more sympathetic. It gives the reader a look inside the mind of the villain, and gives justifications for their actions—they become understandable. Here, however, the look inside the mind of Arcane makes him even more sickening. Soule doesn’t shy away from the fact that Arcane is horrifying, and in this issue in particular I find him downright disturbing.

The best example of this comes from Arcane’s exploration of the question “What if there could by decay…without death?” Abby wants to know what happened to her mother, and instead hears Arcane’s discovery and fascination of rot and decay. Arcane, sadistic and psychopathic, views decay as beautiful and that sharing it with others is an act of love. What readers get instead is a corruption of love, as acts such as holding hands or a kiss on the cheek turn into something terrible. The result is one of many instances of “patchwork” throughout the issue and, while Arcane recalls it fondly, it is grotesque.

While patchwork might be the theme of the issue, the issue itself is seamless. Much of this is due to the fact that Jesus Saiz and Matthew Wilson’s art complement Soule’s story extremely well (something that not all Villains Month issues can say). A highlight here is the way the flashback sequences are distinguished from the other time periods depicted. Abby’s memories as a child are reminiscent of gothic horror, with her being swept off to Anton’s castle as a child. Anton is portrayed as a sort of inversion of Victor Frankenstein, so this works well. Arcane himself looks stitched together, and the red accenting in the issue is a very nice touch. The issue deals with the patchwork of Abby and Anton’s memories, and this feeling is invoked by the art through changing colors and slight style differences for each time period.

Abby’s presence in the Villains Month issue should not go unnoticed, however. Her character serves as more than just a catalyst for readers to see what Arcane is up to and learn about his past. Abby wants to know what happened to her mother, and assumes Arcane has done something terrible. The truth, she learns, is even more horrifying. Arcane may be a villain, but he’s not the villain of that particular story. The reader is not even shown Arcane giving this information to Abby, merely her reaction to it. It’s a nice touch, making the reveal that much sadder and highlighting that Arcane is not the villain in that particular story, even if he is a monster.

And Arcane certainly is just that—a monster. He notes that he never claimed to be anything else. Soule’s decision to embrace Arcane’s disturbing qualities instead of justifying them make for a distinct issue. Serving as more than just a one-shot, the issue is a great read and a great use of the Villains Month format.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Daredevil #31
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Chris Samnee and Javier Rodriguez
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Truly good comics can spoil a reviewer. Books like Daredevil and Hawkeye so consistently come out with a high level of care and artistry that you start running out of words to describe what you like about them. There is some complacency in consistency. But sometimes a creative team is able to push everything up a level and remind what you loved in the first place. With Daredevil #31, Mark Waid, Chris Samnee and company have done just that.

Arguably, Marvel’s best books have succeeded because they’ve gotten back to telling very human stories without relying too much non-stop capes and tights action. Compelling, dramatic stories use the superhero genre as a framework rather than the main event. Here, Waid riffs on the recent Trayvon Martin ruling, providing a unique situation for Matt Murdock in his superhero life while he also feeling the effects of Foggy Nelson’s cancer diagnosis in his personal life.

The riots that ensue from the verdict are not unlike what happened in reality and Waid really handles this all with care. He’s been setting up the white supremacy group, Sons of the Serpent for some time now and things are starting to really come to a head. Daredevil is singlehandedly balancing misinformation from the media, rioting, a heat wave, protecting the 12 jurors and still looking for a super villain which is where the only problem in the script rears its head: Waid relies on a complete coincidence to break the case open for Matt and it undermines what is overall a strong issue.

What can be said about Chris Samnee that hasn’t been said already? This is an artist that the next generation should attempt to emulate for years to come. Simplicity and clarity in Samnee’s linework is key to his success. His ability to switch fluidly between big and small moments is important as well, especially in a story with some many moving parts. The Hank Pym sequence, in particular, is easily one of my favorite pages of comics in recent memory. Javier Rodriguez’s colors do a lot help set the tone of the story as well. The incredible red and ornages of a city on fire are traded for the blues and grays of a torrential downpour as the tone of the story makes a major shift. Rodriguez is just as responsible for Daredevil’s excellent visual storytelling as Smanee is.

Waid and company provide a nuanced story with a healthy helping of superheroics, suspense and real-life drama. The twist ending could potentially be a big one and so it’s unfortunate Waid takes a pretty weak route to get there. But for the most part, Daredevil remains one of the gold standards in superhero comics today.

Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #23.3 Lex Luthor
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Raymund Bermudez and Dan Green
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Noelle Webster
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

This Villains Month one-shot could be titled Lex Luthor’s Perfect Day. Charles Soule really captures my personal favorite type of Lex, which is the calculating, always-one-step-ahead, smug super villain. While the story is maybe a little heavy on Lex getting everything he wants so easily, it’s great to see the villain back in fine form. Let’s just say if Lex had a week of days like in this one-shot, he’d be ruling the world by Sunday.

Lex, apparently deciding the color orange no longer suits him, decides to leave prison. I know you’re thinking I mean “escape,” but that would be beneath Lex. He no longer wishes to be in prison, so he arranges to leave. While Superman isn’t present in the issue (to the annoyance of Lex), the Superman parallels are a nice touch. The issue is not titled Lex’s Perfect Day, but Up Up and Away. On what is a great first page, we see Lex taking off his orange prison suit in the way Superman does when he reveals the “S” underneath. Only in Lex’s case it’s a literal suit up, as he switches from orange to his business attire and muses to himself that “the world needs Lex Luthor.” Despite Superman’s absence, his presence in the issue comes from Lex’s mind, as he is unable to push Superman from his thoughts. He believes that Superman is obsessed with him, but it’s clear in who the obsession resides. Superman is always with him, in the back of his mind.

When Lex isn’t thinking about Superman, however, he’s thinking about how great that Lex Luthor guy is. Soule has a lot of fun showing readers how self-centered Lex is, his inner monologues are wonderfully psychotic and Lex always refers to himself in the third person. It’s great to see Lex in his element, and he’s in good form here. Always three steps ahead, Lex carries out his schemes with glee. Some of his plans are big picture, and others are just Lex being petty. Regardless of what the scheme is though, Lex does so with the ease of one making breakfast. Let’s just say that without Superman around, everything’s coming up Lex.

Raymund Bermudez and Dan Green give us a gleefully evil Lex Luthor to look at as well. Just looking at his face you know that he’s up to something, and that it’s certainly not going to be good. Lex smirks, smiles, and glares his way through the issue, but all are equally sinister. Some other characters’ faces and action scenes in the issue are without any such flair, but as Lex might tell you those aren’t as important as Lex Luthor. The issue ends on a particularly creepy smile, and you know that Lex is back.

As I mentioned earlier, the issue occasionally feels a little excessive on how easily Lex executes his plans. There’s a delicate line between showing Lex as a genius who is always in control and becoming a caricature, and the issue occasionally crosses it. For example, it’s tough to read the issue and imagine anyone applying to work for him as the life expectancy must be so low. However, Lex is enjoying his perfect day and that enjoyment is infectious. He’s evil, yes, but you love to hate him. It’s a fun issue, and never lets you forget that Lex Luthor is smarter than you.

Credit: Image Comics

Century West
Written by Howard Chaykin
Art by Howard Chaykin and Michelle Madsen
Lettering by Ken Bruzenak
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

In the early days of the 21st century, when it seemed like most of our earthly frontiers have either been conquered or forgotten, Howard Chaykin wrote a story about the early days of the 20th century, when the American frontier was becoming less and less about the Wild, Wild West and more about being just another part of a world full of movies, cars and planes. The Texas town of Century was at the crossroads of the ages, with a Texas Ranger wanting to hold onto the old ways and his two deputies who looked more like city slickers than Texas lawmen. Texas Ranger Bob Ford, unfortunately having the same name as the man who shot and killed the infamous Jesse James, sees a way of life disappearing as Century became more and more modern with the moving pictures and horseless carriages speeding through the town.

Century West looks like a western story, taking place in a small Texas town where the Texas Ranger still wears a cowboy vest and a duster. He looks more like an aging version of a 1950s television cowboy than any rough and tumble cowboy. Bob is a man who looks at the future more as an invasion than as progress. Chaykin shows this just through sighs the man exhales and through his sad eyes whenever he sees some sign of the future. It's not like the past was great though; he's got every young gun coming and looking for him, believing he's the man who shot Jesse James in the back even though Bob was still a kid in Saskatoon when that happened. The past happened and Bob is more comfortable there, riding his horse than in the cars invade his town.

Bob may be the aging Chaykin hero, but Chaykin takes great care to show us that the past wasn't as rosy and perfect as we may want to believe. Bob's two deputies, Yael and Barron, are men who face hatred because of their ancestry and the color of their skin. In one chapter, Bob, Yael and Barron have to join Century's mayor to stage a fake Klan rally, more to just stay off of the Klan's radar than anything else. Chaykin's past and present are peppered by the sins of modern day. There's never anywhere to hide from that kind of personal hatred in Chaykin's books. But there's also the hope for the future as these speeding cars come out of nowhere to take Century by storm. There's the movie people, taking over Century from the background, making their film. It's all new, shiny and somewhat dangerous. It was the future and it was to be feared, respected and desired.

As well as the future bringing things like technology and entertainment, it also brings social change as we see in Yael and Barron. To most of those coming to Century from the outside world, Yael and Barron are defined as a Jew and a black man. To Bob, they're simply his deputies. Century has it's troubles but there's also progress that's happened there quicker than it has in the rest of the country. Lawmen and bounty hunters come to Century, looking to bring their definition of the law to Texas but in the end, Chaykin knocks down all of those old world ideas. Chaykin has always played with social and sexual prejudices, throwing them in our face while laughing at them and us. Century West is full of sexism and racial prejudice but not because Chaykin embraces them. Just the opposite in fact; he can't believe that we still have all of our old hangups about gender, race and religion that we've always had. These are the ghosts of the 20th century that are still hanging around in the 21st century.

Chaykin delights in drawing period pieces. He creates the past through the clothes the characters wear and the buildings and rooms that they live in. He also perfectly captures the changing times in the changing fashions. There are few other artists who understand clothes and fashions as well as Chaykin. As well as placing you in Century, he shows you how fast the times move. Every page is full of panels, details and dialogue. He whisks you through the story, having parts of the story happen in the background. You have to pay attention to everything that happens, whether it's in the foreground or the background of an page. Chaykin and colorist Michelle Madsen don't waste any space, utilizing every inch of the page to keep the story propelled forward. The future is coming fast to Century and Chaykin paces the story to match that speed.

Century West is Chaykin at his nostalgic and cynical best. It's a story about the 1900s but how much of it can also be applied to the 21st century? Chaykin is a child of the second half of the 20th century. He grew up with heroes who looked like Bob Cook so how much of Century West is Chaykin trying to hold onto his past the same way that Cook was trying to hold onto his? Now every phone is its own movie camera and every aspect of our lives are being filmed, just as Century was used as the location for an early movie and its townspeople were used as its cast. Chaykin both loves and fears this, and it shows in this book.

Credit: DC Comics

Green Lantern #23.3: Black Hand
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Alberto Ponticelli, Stefano Landini and Danny Vozzo
Lettering by Dave Sharpe
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Charles Soule doesn’t have an easy job with Green Lantern: Black Lantern. Not only does he have to tell his story in the confines of DC’s “Villain’s Month,” but he has to bring William Hand back from the dead after he disintegrated following the end of Geoff Johns’ run on the series. Soule’s attempt, therefore, is a bit underwhelming as the comic spends too much time returning Hand to his villainous self before finally delivering a pretty interesting climax.

What I mean by this is that just when Green Lantern: Black Hand starts to get good, it ends. Too much of the issue is William Hand wandering around trying to remember who he is and what makes him such a bad guy. The self exploration is tedious, particularly when we watch the realization as Hand sits in a jail cell. When he finally starts doing stuff - and by that I mean raising the dead - we’re more than halfway through the comic so the effect of his rampage isn’t as powerful as it could be.

Even so, I loved the final scene where Hand resurrects Hal Jordan’s father. Their conversation, albeit one sided, is eerie and chilling. By the end, Black Hand definitely embodies the role of a villain, even if we’re only shown a minor glimpse of his zombie powers. This is when the issue works best. Soule isn’t afraid to go dark places with the story, and when he does, the comic feels more like The Walking Dead than Green Lantern.

In this vein, Alberto Ponticelli is a fantastic choice as an illustrator. His rough-hewn character designs and gritty illustrations perfectly serve the mood of the comic. I was reminded of the original Marvel Zombies, and this kind of evocation works well to sell the zombie story Soule tells. Some of the inking is a bit overdone, particularly in closeups of Black Hand, but again, given the darkness that pervades the issue, the inks, for the most part, work very well.

If Black Hand did more than suffer like an amnesiac, the comic would be better because when the story gets going, things start getting interesting. Green Latnern: Black Hand is much more than an origin story, and Soule, in this sense, delivers a decent, if uneven one-shot that does its main villain justice.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Thor: God of Thunder #13
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Ron Garney and Ive Scovrcina
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Talk about corporate synergy done well - looking ahead to Marvel's upcoming film Thor: The Dark World, Jason Aaron and company reintroduce the Dark Elf known as Malekith to the Marvel Universe. With a nice sense of tone and some superb artwork, this introduction may feel a bit low-key compared to Aaron's initial "Godbomb" saga, but it's still a well-crafted read.

The structure of this issue is a particularly gutsy move from Aaron, as he spends the first half of this book not even touching upon the title character. Hell, even Malekith doesn't show up until Page 9 - instead, by focusing on the elves who break into an icy tomb seeking their dark master, Aaron weaves a fun mashup of Lord of the Rings and a prison break, and in so doing, he not only gives Malekith a surprising likeability (despite his one-track homicidal mind), but also builds up just how scary this accursed elf can be.

But the truly memorable bits of this book has to be the artwork. Ron Garney's scratchy artwork could have looked like a throwback, but combined with Ive Scovrcina's colors, the effect winds up becoming breezy, almost otherworldly. These are some of the strongest colors I've seen this side of Laura Martin, particularly the potent blues that make the dark elves pop off the page. Garney's composition, meanwhile, is usually very effective, particularly a page where Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three barrel through the skies, riding winged horses into battle. Sometimes Garney does have some visual hiccups, however, particularly an anticlimatic panel where Thor's hammer gingerly flies to his hand.

What's interesting is that the second half of this book, in a lot of ways, feels actually fairly by-the-numbers - Thor is introduced (albeit with a soft sense of humor, particularly with the Warriors Three), the battle is begun, and Malekith has a moment of brutality before kicking off the inevitable final-page cliffhanger. That's where Thor: God of Thunder #13 drags a bit - beyond the introduction of Malekith (and the allusion to more worlds than just Earth and Asgard), the theme isn't readily apparent yet, keeping this story stuck in the general superheroic mileau.

Still, as far as introductions go, Jason Aaron, Ron Garney and Ive Scovrcina have my interest piqued - Malekith may be one-note for now, but I have confidence that Aaron can make his character more detailed and nuanced as time progresses. Combined with some very strong artwork, this creative team has me down for the next issue.

Credit: Image Comics

Mind the Gap #14
Written by Jim McCann
Art by Rodin Esquejo, Dan McDaid, Arif Prianto and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Dave Lanphear
Published by Image Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Mind the Gap keeps delving further and further into its mythos each month. This time, after we were introduced to Elle’s grandfather in a previous issue, Jim McCann gives Erik Peterssen’s tragic and terrifying past to readers. By the end of the the issue, we finally see the dots connected in a much more lucid way, and as usual, we’re given more surprises than answers. But don’t take this as a complaint because Mind the Gap has shown again and again that while it may be chock full of mystery, it is always intriguing.

McCann shifts back and forth between the present and past, showing us Elle’s existence in the spiritual world as well as what’s occurring around her in the hospital. But these moments are nowhere near as engaging as her grandfather’s story. Erik Peterssen is a mad scientist, but with just cause. McCann makes a sympathetic case for him as we see his wife struggle to give birth a healthy child.

The impetus for Erik’s role as “The Fifth” is revealed here, and I couldn’t help but sympathize a little with the character. Granted, there’s a darkness that McCann hints at and Erik comes off as a bit of a mad scientist, but he’s also driven by love and McCann crafts Erik’s history in a way that makes his determination understandable, if not completely acceptable.

What’s interesting is that Rodin Esquejo’s art is a bit off this issue. The visuals lack their usual clarity and sharpness and some of the drawings look uneven, perhaps even rushed. Dan McDaid’s art, however, more than makes up for this inconsistency. His golden age style, reminiscent of Darwyn Cooke’s art, is more than appropriate for the lens through which we view the past. To this end, he has Lee Loughridge to thank. Loughridge provides the tonal base of McDaid’s world, and when the comic has to deliver its message without words, McDaid and Loughridge work best.

Mind the Gap has really evolved since its beginnings. The comic has become more and more science fiction than supernatural, and this latest issue is proof of that. McCann clearly has an end goal in mind and given that the comic will close its first act with issue fifteen, I’m glad to know that McCann isn’t wandering aimlessly with his story. Given the way the issue closes, I think readers are going to be in for a major cliffhanger that will no doubt deliver some more shocking twists which have become the bedrock of a series that is always impressive.

Credit: Sam Bosma

Fantasy Basketball
Written and Illustrated by Sam Bosma
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Sometimes the best comics come from an unlikely combination of ideas. The words “fantasy basketball” probably conjure up images of obsessive basketball fans adjusting their online rosters and lamenting the poor play of the star performers on a daily basis. Sam Bosma had another idea. What if fantasy basketball was just that? A mix between Space Jam and Dungeons & Dragons, a game of hoops ruled by ancient law where treasure is the prize and death is the only other option!

Artistically, Bosma calls to mind Bryan Lee O’Malley mixed with Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball, Chrono Trigger). He uses a lot of visual langauge and design aesthetics that we’re used to seeing in manga and anime to great effect. All of the characters have incredible designs that allow Bosma to show a range of emotions. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone draw such an expressive bunch of skeletons, even.) Despite the focus on the characters, there is no loss of detail in the environments. There’s a looseness to the lines that suggests that anything could be behind every corner.

The story is pretty straightforward. This is an easy book to get into. Mean Mug and Wiz Kid are treasure hunters. Wiz is Mug’s intern and in their travels they come across an ancient mummy named “He of the Giant Steps” who challenges them to a game of basketball for his treasure of their lives. Inserting basketball into a fantasy setting raises it to mythic proportions but Bosma still keep it pretty hilariously grounded. The visuals of the game itself are particularly impressive. It’s hard to get the energy and intensity of a one on one basketball game acros through static images but Bosma is adept at showing not only the fatigue of the players but the agility needed for a quick steal or the incredible suspense as the ball circles the rim.

Self-published comics are proof that we aren’t limited to the dregs of big-time corporate publishing. There are great artists and writers out there making their own comics with their own characters in their own worlds that can be an excellent change of pace from the normal Wednesday comics crowd. Sam Bosma certainly proves that with Fantasy Basketball, a well-executed and fun reminder that there is no limit to the comic book medium.

Credit: Image Comics

Mice Templar #7
Written by Bryan J.L. Glass
Art by Victor Santos and Serena Guerra
Lettering by James H. Glass
Published by Image Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

There is a saying about "the snake eating its own tail." This can refer to the concept of events coming full circle, that evil will eventually devour itself, or that those who set themselves upon "Fortune's Wheel" will inevitably be crushed by its unstoppable circular path even as it previously raised the individual to great heights. And it's certainly a motif playing out in Mice Templar #7.

Seven issues into the fourth volume of the series and this creative team shows no signs of slowing things down. The overall pace of the story continues to pick up speed as various subplots begin converging in Issue #7 raising the overall tension. Another grand battle is about to take place among the mice before a second great tree, and this runs parallel to the decisive battle that occurred at Avalon resulting in the fall of the Templar. Now, it is the mad king, Icarus, who is gathering his forces in preparation for a final victory to secure his rule over the Shadow Time. Again, there are two "brothers" who seek to unify and lead their people in Karic and Leito. Their individual trajectories seem to suggest this will not be peaceful and collaborative effort, however, and another epic battle to determine who will become the true Chosen One looms in the not-so-distant future. Finally, some characters find it is time to pay the price for the power they once sought and attained.

I know I'm being a little vague here with regards to specific plot points, but there are a number of significant events that take place here, and I don't want to spoil the issue. What I will say is that there is a certain amount of poetic justice that plays out between Leito and Tosk, which longtime readers will find particularly fitting. Rest assured if you've been reading the series so far, you do not want to miss this one.

Issue #7 particularly illustrates Santos' skills in page composition as well as inking, which readers will see in the battle that takes place between Leito and Captain Tosk. Now, I realize it's difficult to know whether Glass' scripts provided panel-by-panel breakdown for Santos to translate or if he took a basic plot description of the page and adapted into the dynamic scene readers find themselves immersed. Regardless, it's Santos pen and inks, along with Guerra's brooding yet brilliant colors, that help keep the pace quick and the reader moving along – not that Glass' writing doesn't inform the events that unfold. Guerra does a great job with keeping to a consistently dark color palette through the entire issue where the lack of light helps lend to the oppressive atmosphere pervading the Shadow Time.

I won't lie: There aren't many comic book series out there that continue to impress me as much as Mice Templar has month to month. Glass, Santos, Guerra and the rest of the creative team behind this series may tell a tale of characters who are small in stature, but make no mistake about it, this is an impressive story they are weaving that is enriched by the emotional conflicts it explores and the many intricate subplots woven into the overall grand narrative of this entry into modern mythology.

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