Best Shots Comic Reviews: ACTION #24, ALL-NEW X-MEN SPECIAL #1, Much More

DC October 2013 solicitations - New 52
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for the big Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, as we take a look at last week's biggest releases! So let's kick off today's column with some action, as Brian Bannen takes a look at the latest issue of Action Comics...

Credit: DC Comics

Action Comics #24
Written by Mike Johnson
Art by Tyler Kirkham, Jesus Merino and Arif Prianto
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Sometimes, even Superman is his own worst enemy.

Being born an alien and raised on Earth has given Clark many advantages we well as a few disadvantages. Everyone knows about Superman’s amazing abilities of flight, super strength, heat vision and freeze breath, as well as a bevy of creative ways he uses these, but everyone also knows that what makes Superman one of us is how he was raised. He’s a regular person, raised on a farm, and taught how to tell right and wrong the same way the rest of us learned.

This kind of humanity, however, is usually his undoing, and who better to capitalize on this than Psycho Pirate. Mike Johnson leads readers through Clark’s mind, showing us that all of his fears lie in his alienation. Because despite all his powers, Clark really just wants to be accepted, and Johnson makes this the focal point of his story.

Johnson splits the issue up this way, focusing half his story on the Psycho Pirate’s origins, and the other half showing us how he uses his abilities to take down even someone as powerful as Superman. The memory lane trip doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know -- Clark wants to help people but can’t communicate this because most people fear him, and while he has a lot of power, he has to learn to keep it in check all the time.

But watching Clark suffer through his biggest fears is difficult, only because it shows us how human he really is. This also makes Psycho Pirate a pretty formidable opponent. Personally, I like his new design and in the wake of the new 52, I think the character’s gotten a bit of an upgrade. Plus, Johnson does a great job on the dialogue so Psycho Pirate doesn’t come across as a complete idiot, nor does he come across as a complete nut job. Instead, he’s a guy who really enjoys power, and who has more of it than Superman?

What I really enjoyed about the issue, though, is Tyler Kirkham and Jesus Merino’s art. The imagery is a bit shaky in the opening, but gets more dynamic as the issue progresses. Once Psycho Pirate is able to enter Clark’s mind, the panels gain some sharpness and clarity. Where the previous pages are over inked and over cross-hatched, here Kirkham and Merino scale back on their designs, giving the pages a smoothness, particularly when Clark’s thoughts return to his escape from Krypton.

With Mike Johnson at the helm, Action Comics is in good hands. The writing is much improved from previous issues, and the humanity that Johnson brings to Superman makes the character interesting. While the issue is light on the action, it definitely builds up its tension so that when Clark is free from the Pirate’s clutches - and we know that he will be - he won’t hesitate to use all that power to bring his opponent down. Plus, given what we see on the final page, Lois Lane has a party to play in this story, and who better to defend Clark than the one person who understands him best.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New X-Men Special #1
Written by Mike Costa
Art by Kris Anka and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

You'd think that a crossover between the All-New X-Men, the Superior Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk - all three being critical darlings over at the Marvel offices - would be a crass way to try to leverage these books into greater sales. But not so here - while the overall crossover element of this book feels somewhat perfunctory, the characterization and stellar artwork are anything but.

In terms of the writing, it's to Mike Costa's credit that he really encapsulates the endearing characterization that has made All-New X-Men such a surprising treat. Using young Hank McCoy as our point-of-view character, there's a slight melancholy beneath all that nerdy charm, as Hank knows exactly what his furry blue destiny looks like. So when Hank winds up meeting a poetry-reading time travel PhD student, well, you can't help but feel glad for the guy, and that winds up being a great entree to when a time-displaced Dr. Octopus attacks - bringing the Superior Spider-Man in for this issue's second act.

But while Costa's storyline is well-structured, it's not particularly flashy, and doesn't really give us any smart new insights to Xavier's original students. But that's okay when you have Kris Anka on art. You might have seen Anka's work elsewhere on the Internet as he's redesigned superheroes (and even Marvel's Uncanny X-Force!), but seeing Anka on interiors is a whole new ball game. This guy is a real gunslinger, as his clean linework conveys an impressive amount of thought and expressiveness - think of David Lopez but with just a hint of that Guillem March attitude, and you're headed in the right direction. Not only do character beats like Hank going ga-ga over a girl look great, but his fight choreography is superb, particularly the way that Hank bounces in between Otto Octavius's cybernetic tentacles.

That said, while I love the momentum and the execution, there are some hiccups in the plotting and pacing that might give a little bit of pause. First off - at least for now - the Superior Spider-Man's appearance still feels a little forced, the Otto Octavius connection notwithstanding, but for the sake of the plot he winds up saving the day and making the X-Men seem like chumps. Additionally, Hank gets so much page time that Marvel Girl and Cyclops (and even Iceman) wind up feeling a little bit like background characters. And as clever as Costa's opening sequence is, with the X-Men struggling to deal with the noise pollution of Times Square, it comes off as a little much (and a little too soon, given that Bendis used a similar gag in an earlier issue of the series).

Still, a solid if understated script still can work well, particularly when the characterization and artwork are all on-point. All-New X-Men Special #1 might not be one for the record books, but it's definitely a fun diversion that shows how well Marvel's various properties can fit together. If nothing else, come for the characters and stay for Kris Anka's gorgeous art.

Credit: DC Comics

Swamp Thing #24
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Andrei Bressan and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by Noelle Webster
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Swamp Thing 24 begins the Seeder arc, and it’s a good place for people who haven’t been reading to start. It’s a good set up issue, but it doesn’t quite have the impact on the reader as Charles Soule’s previous issues. Much of this is due to the confines of an issue hoping to accomplish much, but there’s more than enough good stuff here for fans of Swamp Thing or new readers to be happy.

The identity of Seeder is revealed in this issue, and it’s nice to finally see him front and center. I appreciate that the identity is revealed in this issue instead of being drawn out, and look forward to seeing him up against Alec Holland for the Parliament’s approval. Most important, though – when Seeder’s hood was pushed back to show us who he was, I got excited. The choice is a good one, it fits with the current Swamp Thing storyline but is also a nice throwback to pre-New 52 Swamp Thing. I’m sure we’ll get more information on this man in upcoming issues for those unfamiliar, but what’s important is knowing what Seeder wants to accomplish, and this is clearly laid out for readers.

This is a great time to talk about guest artist Andrei Bressan, because oh my, does Seeder look grotesque. He looks like a cross between a junkie on Breaking Bad and a monster from a Del Toro film. You have to wonder what the Parliament is thinking here, because that dude looks nuts. Swamp Thing is no beauty queen, but Seeder isn’t really the face I’d want representing my company. You have to wonder if there’s something else going on with the Parliament. Another highlight from Bressan is the bit of action we get at the end. It’s quick, but it’s a nice blend of action and the grotesque, and has a nice kick from Capucine. I also appreciated Bressan’s use of vines for panels early on in the issue. This is something that’s been done before in Swamp Thing, and here it was a fun little flourish that flowed very well.

The issue isn’t action packed, but (when not saving the world) Swamp Thing is often a quiet kind of sad creature and this issue has some nice moments reminding readers of this. There’s a scene where he tells Capucine that before he was the Avatar, he was a scientist. She asks “Aren’t you still a scientist?” But of course, no, he's not. He's the Avatar. He can't even respond to the question, but merely thanks her for asking it. It’s a quiet, tragic moment that embodies Swamp Thing. But Alec knows his role as the Avatar is important, and that it's for him alone. He’s sacrificed a lot for this, so it’s completely understandable when we see him livid at the end of the issue. The Parliament’s decision to pit Alec versus Seeder for the position of the Avatar is a slap in the face, and makes even my worst job interview seem like a breeze.

It’s an interesting point to make: is Alec relying too much on the Parliament? Has he become too content that he assumes he will be helped and therefore doesn’t have to worry? He’s going to be up against someone given the exact same power and opportunity, so it’s up to Alec Holland and not the avatar win now. While the issue doesn’t have the same urgency as the previous issues, it lays the groundwork for a story that I think will be exciting. A battle royale to be the Avatar of the Green? Sign me up.

Art from CBLDF Liberty Annual 2013
Art from CBLDF Liberty Annual 2013
Credit: Image Comics, CBLDF, Various Artists/Writers

CBLDF Liberty Annual 2013
Written by Fabio Moon, Richard Corben, Corinna Bechko, Gabriel Hardman, Jeremy Adkins, Steve Seeley, Mike Moreci, Josh Williamson, Art Baltazar, Franco, Paul Tobin, Leah Sottile, and Tim Seeley
Art by Fabio Moon, Richard Corben, Gabriel Hardman, D.A. Cox, Andy Owens, Joe Elsma, Greg & Fake, Dennis Culver, Art Baltazar, Juan Ferrerya, Emi Lenox, Michelle Madson, Andy Kuhn, Zac Adkinson, Ron Chan, and Dave Stewart
Letters by Fabio Moon, J.W. Campbell, Art Baltazar, Crank!, and Nate Piekos of Blambot
Published by DC Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

A host of creators rally around the anti-censorship flag of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, putting together stories that generally center around the idea of creative freedom in an anthology that’s a significant improvement over last year’s collection.

For those who don’t know, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is an organization founded in 1986 to defend creators, collectors, and shop owners who are prosecuted for a comic-related offense. They operate like a specialized branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and can sometimes take on cases where the defendant isn’t popular. This is one of their many fund-raising efforts, and it’s a good one this time around.

After Fabio Moon opens with a one-page tale of a girl who learns of the forbidden art of imagination, Richard Corben’s Mag the Hag greets us from a dead tree and tells the story of a creator who brings back one of his characters, only to find a prosecutor willing to do anything to stop the comic from happening. Corben’s distinctive and blocky characters reveal a demented morality play where the establishment wins in the name of censorship. This one could easily be found in Creepy without any changes.

By contrast, Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman give us a story where the good guys win. Going back to the early days of Hollywood, we find a group of filmmakers trying to avoid the corporate arm of Thomas Edison, who was ruthless in his desire to stamp out freedom when it came to areas his company specialized in. Hardman’s simple, sketchy style is perfect for a historical story, and this is some of the best coloring work Dave Stewart has done recently, making this a highlight of the issue.

Given the nature of their comics, it’s no surprise that the Seeleys have a heavy presence in the annual. Steve Seeley and Mike Moreci turn the tables and have their characters be the censors, as the Hoax Hunters team use blackmail to stop a rogue media personality’s slander against Bigfoot. It’s a pretty funny piece that does lose a bit from Joe Eisma’s thin, stiff pencils, showing how much the media influences public opinion. Meanwhile, Tim Seeley, with Andy Kuhn on art, break all the rules-and the fourth wall-in a hilarious piece that finds Cassie and Vlad taking on “the Censor,” who keeps blacking out anything he finds unpleasant. Filled with jokes about naked people and having a very Looney Tunes feel about it, Kuhn nails the visuals of characters walking across comics pages. Despite all the jokes, Tim Seeley gets his point across as well, about how protecting folks from bad things doesn’t help anyone.

On a more serious note, arguably the most powerful story in this anthology comes from Leah Sottile and Emi Lenox. Taking on a real life situation, they narrate what happened to an all-female Russian punk rock band, mincing no words and discussing its wider implications. The idea that so many praise their courage, yet watch as things happen around them without saying or doing anything really registered with me. Lenox lets the words and message dominate, making her visuals trigger additional thoughts by what she depicts, not how she depicts it.

The comic ends on a funny note, with Josh Williamson’s second contribution to the anthology being a hilarious send-up of the idea of comics being dangerous by having the discovery of a Superman book lead to mass murder. Ron Chan uses a style that makes it feel like a cartoon, using smiling characters who turn to sheer panic while Williamson gives them over-wrought dialogue to finish off the parody and packs as many catch phrases into a splash page as possible. The preposterous nature of the situation makes for a good, light-hearted ending to a comic dealing with a serious topic.

There’s not enough room to discuss every story in depth, but editor Scott Allie really did a solid job this year with finding stories that hit on the idea of censorship without feeling like you’re being hit over the head with the message stick, a trap I’ve seen more than a few comics with an issue they want to push fall into over the years. This annual is a comic you should pick up, both to support the CBLDF and to read good stories from some of the best creators working in comics today.

Credit: DC Comics

Earth 2 #16
Written by James Robinson
Art by Nicola Scott, Trevor Scott and Pete Pantazis
Lettering by Dezi Sienty
Published by DC Comics
Review by Brian Bannen
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Heroes face crises all the time. Their friends turn into enemies, they find themselves struggling with their identities, and occasionally, more often than any other threat, they find themselves on the brink of extinction at the hands of some psychopath who wants to take over their world. This is a story we’ve all seen before, and when Steppenwolf announced his intentions to be the new supreme ruler of Earth 2, I thought this was nothing new.

Until I turned to the final pages of Earth 2. There, James Robinson delivers his knockout blow, and turns a decent comic into a great one. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but believe me when I say that in one page, the heroes’ situation went from bad to terrible in a very awesome way.

Robinson’s story is destructive and chaotic, with his villain taking down armies before turning his attention to the superheroes. Where the comic disappoints is in the execution of this battle. Much of it occurs off quickly, and through narration. Robinson clearly wanted to get the major battle out of the way in order to bring in the good guys to get revenge on the bad guys, but with how much Robinson has built up Steppenwolf as a violent soldier, we don’t really get to see him in action. Instead, much of his conquering of Earth is told to us rather than us seeing it.

What’s more impressive is how sharp the art is. Previous issues of Earth 2 lacked their usual clarity, but here Nicola Scott ups her game with sharp character designs, and clear action amid all the bedlam. Her best work comes in the final moments when Brutaal’s true identity is revealed in a savage and shocking act of violence that is only trumped by the learning who the man behind the mask is. Kudos to Pete Pantazis for some truly stellar and vibrant colors. Images really come off the page due to his work.

The final moments of the comic really sold me on Robinson’s big plan, smartly tying Earth 2 and Earth 1 together as well as outlining the bigger picture. I’m excited to see how Scott’s heroes will save the day because they have a major uphill battle ahead of them. And even if they manage to defeat the real bad guy, the world will never be the same, for a number of reasons.

Earth 2 has really amped up its game, and this issue is a good indicator of where Robinson plans to go with his story. Personally, I’m hooked. I love what I saw this issue, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next. Regardless of its narrative hiccup, the issue paints a broad picture of what’s to come, and for the heroes of Earth 2, the future is anything but bright.

Farlaine the Goblin
Farlaine the Goblin
Credit: Farlaine Studios

Farlaine the Goblin #1
Story by Farlaine the Writer
Art by Farlaine the Artist
Published by Farlaine Studios
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Although I love reading and reviewing mainstream superhero comics, I equally love comics outside the genre including those published for an all-ages audience (being a parent of two boys: 2 and 4 years old). When I discovered a book that seemed suitable for my oldest – who is an active fan of Superman Family Adventures, Aw Yeah! Comics, and all things Carl Barks – I thought I would enlist his aid in reviewing Farlaine the Goblin #1. So for this review, I'll provide a brief rundown on my thoughts – both as a regular comic reviewer and parent – followed by my son's first impressions of reading the book with me.

My first impression of the book is how it was definitively not the same sort of book one might (unfairly) expect to get a small, self-published operation. The gloss cover gives the comic a smart, polished look, and the quality of the cover design and coloring make for an equally eye-catching book. And at $5 for over fifty pages, it is a pretty nice deal compared to the industry standard of $3-4 for only about twenty or so pages of reading. It is also a nonstandard sized comic (7"x12"), and while this does make for holding it in one hand a little tricky, it seems this choice was made to help this comic stand out even more.

Since it was intent of the creator of this work to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to this person by the comic's namesake as I move into my review of the story itself. The first thing most readers will be impressed with is the high quality of the artwork. I was immediately reminded of Jeff Smith's Bone and Peyo's animated The Smurfs (never having read the comics). Farlaine the Artist does a really fine job of using his line work to create texture on the page and to convey tone and emotion from Farlaine the Goblin. Perhaps the only problem I had with the story was that it is done completely in black and white. Now, I am an unabashed fan of black and white comics; however, this comic – especially after seeing the lush and animated colors from the front cover image – really seems as though it would come even more alive for its readers if it was republished in color format. That said, Farlaine the Artist's work is certainly strong enough that it stands on its own without the need of a colorist to help finish the panels on each page.

Regarding the story, it has a lot of potential, but there still seem to be some elements that need to be fleshed out more as the tree goblin's journey continues. Farlaine the Writer tells a story of a goblin who seeks to find a home in a forest, so he might become the tree shaman for that land. Unfortunately, he has traveled many lands and is discovering there are few options left for him. Overall, it is the sort of plot that will work well for an all-ages story. One of the challenges in this story, however, is the lack of a supporting cast of characters who either help or hinder Farlaine in his journey to find a home. There is the small tree, named Ehrenwort, who accompanies Farlaine; however, he is a completely passive character as readers never see him speak (we are only told his thoughts based on Farlaine's responses), and he generally does not help Farlaine resolve conflict nor create conflict for the little goblin to overcome. The result, then, of this lack of characters for Farlaine to interact with is something of a one-sided conversation had by the little protagonist – who is quite charming – and the reader.

So what did my four-year old son think? First, he couldn't wait to get his hands on the "goblin comic." Once we sat down and began reading it, I did find he became a little impatient with the amount of dialogue, so I paraphrased that for him. Fortunately, the action in the panels is pretty well paced and clearly laid out for him to follow. He really enjoyed seeing the little goblin "be nice to the shrubby tree" as they "walked around on an adventure." When I first asked him how he would rate the comic, 1 being like "stinky cheese" and 10 being like "cookie and chocolate milk," he responded by telling me he wanted to hug Fairlane. All in all, I think that translates to this being a good comic. He then proceeded to put this book in his comic box alongside Superman and Action Cat – yet another high mark from the boy.

Overall, the story may meander a bit for older readers; however, it is a fine-looking comic that possesses a good deal of charm and visual appeal that is perfectly appropriate for readers of any age. That's something which I think is arguably this book's greatest strength and is why it now resides in my boy's comic collection, where it will continue to be enjoyed.

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