Best Shots Advance Reviews: Four MARVEL #1s, Two Image 10 out of 10s!

Marvel previews for February 12, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Winter Soldier: The Bitter March #1
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Roland Boschi and Chris Chuckry
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The name's Fury. Nick Fury.

Despite Bucky Barnes' alter ego getting top billing for Winter Soldier: The Bitter March, the first issue of this series is secretly a James Bond-style spy thriller in disguise. This '60s-era series, featuring the original, Clint Eastwood-esque Fury and his partner-in-espionage Ran Shen, takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you do, you'll be pleasantly surprised with this taut, action-packed opener.

Admittedly, Rick Remender and Roland Boschi's story starts off a little bit clunky. It's a little too easy to overlook that this story takes place in 1966, and the slow reveal of Fury and Shen is compounded by Boschi's static page payouts - which is surprising, considering the opening sequence is a fight on skis upon a snowy mountaintop. But once the quips come out, and you realize how many pages Remender is pulling from the James Bond playbook, the comic becomes a much smoother read. In particular, SHIELD Agent Ran Shen steals the show, as he infiltrates Castle Hydra with a mix of charm and devilishly naughty puns. "Would you like to have a look below?" asks the sultry Hydra backer "W." "I do hope we're talking about the same thing," Shen replies.

Credit: Marvel Comics

With all this episonage and weird superpowering going on, it's almost enough to make you forget about the title character himself. Forget the superhero Bucky Barnes - Remender's take on the Winter Soldier is that of an unstoppable killing machine, almost a force of nature who is willing to take out anyone and anything in his path. Remender wisely keeps us out of Bucky's head in this issue, allowing the reader to build up his fearsome reputation. That said, people who bought this book expecting Bucky to take the center stage are going to be disappointed - while Remender and Boschi whip up an exciting action sequence to showcase the Winter Soldier's inhuman prowess, it might still be too little for people expecting to follow him immediately.

The artwork, by Roland Boschi, takes a little while to warm up, but once he does, he's an effective collaborator for Remender's story. While the opening ski fight comes off a little static due to Boschi's page layouts, he really sells the debonair infiltration scenes, especially the way that Shen and "W" tipsily flirt with one another in the bowels of a Hydra lair. Boschi's artwork reminds me at times of frequent Remender collaborator Mike Hawthorne, with almost a hint of that Frank Miller scratchiness - the pages look expressive when they need to be, and horrific when the action heats up. Boschi really sells the final action sequence, making an aerial set piece look like the SHIELD comic we've always wanted to see.

One might call it a bait and switch - others might call it sleight of hand. This backdoor Nick Fury series reads decently strong, even if the Winter Soldier himself might play second fiddle. But if you give this series a chance, and are ready to accept the comparisons to James Bond adventures gone by, Winter Soldier: The Bitter March is a spy book that goes down surprisingly sweet.

Credit: David Lapham / Image Comics

Stray Bullets: Killers #1
Written by David Lapham
Art by David Lapham
Lettering by David Lapham
Published by Image Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

David Lapham's long-running series Stray Bullets is wrapping up its first volume this week, as a new series Stray Bullets: Killers is set to launch alongside the final issue of its predecessor. It's been a few years since Stray Bullets hit the shelves, with Lapham paying the bills through work for hire. But anyone who's worried he's missed a step in the interim will be pleasantly surprised, as Killers kicks off with a bleak done-in-one that captures the nihilistic spirit of the original series in all its grime and glamour.

Stray Bullets has always been about indulging the terrifying underbelly of suburban life, deeply confirming the worst fears we all have as children and young adults about the secrets that lie at the heart of seemingly idyllic American towns. Everyone in Lapham's world is a killer, a crook, a philanderer, or will have their lives touched by those people at some point. Killers #1 explores this pretense through young Eli Goldberg, and the trouble he gets in when he follows his dad to a skeezy strip club.

Credit: David Lapham / Image Comics

At first it's exciting; Eli's friends are titillated by his tales of female anatomy, and Eli himself is overjoyed when he meets Spanish Scott, a character familiar to longtime readers, who seems just like one of the larger than life heroes Eli adores. But as tragedy strikes, Eli's veneer of safety and invulnerability is challenged in increasingly harrowing ways. It's a classic Stray Bullets tale of the innocence of youth butting heads with the jaded cynicism of a life on the edge, with Eli being seduced by the very element that will tear down his illusions about life and humanity.

Lapham is in full form here, capturing every seedy bit of his strip club scenes with a pock-marked, water-stained fever, balanced delicately with scenes channeling the exuberance of Eli and his friends as they share the secrets they've stolen from the corrupt and criminal adults in their lives. Stray Bullets may have taken a step closer to the mainstream by signing with Image, but Lapham's art has a distinctly DIY feel, with his clear lines interrupted by an almost photocopy like texture that echoes the printing of classic 'zines. Lapham's true charm as an artist comes from his cartoon influences, as he eschews modern panel structure for the classic 2x3 grid, which he fills with as much mood and emotion as his stark, black and white work can muster.

Stray Bullets: Killers #1 may not be for everyone. It's a little chilling, a lot violent, and exactly in line with Lapham's previous incarnation of the title, though new readers will feel no learning curve. If there's any flaw, it's that Killers doesn't stray far enough from the colon-less Stray Bullets, though true to the title, it does focus more on the force majeure of crime and violence through the eyes of those perpetrating it at times. But when the work is this good, and this consistent with the vision of its creator, it's hard to argue with the results. Stray Bullets: Killers #1 is like coming back to a town that you know has dark secrets, but feels like home nonetheless.

Credit: Image Comics

Fatale #20
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Lettering by Sean Phillips
Published by Image Comics
Review by Brendan McGuirk
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The open-endedness of many independent series too often works against their stories' effectiveness. When an ongoing series merely goes on, mimicking their commercially-licensed corporate counterparts, it sacrifices the satisfying thrill of meaningful escalation of stakes in favor of mere self-perpetuation. Eventually, after sales have peaked, plateaued, and dropped off, someone decides it is time to wrap the story up. These series don't conclude; they finish.

Given the inescapable immortality of Josephine, this book's femme namesake, there's a delicious irony to the fact that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Fatale will avoid this undying fate by racing to its conclusion with the desperate urgency of a lust-mad lover leaning on the gas while night turns to dawn.

Credit: Image Comics

Issue #20 marks the beginning of the story's final arc, and as the series' superstructure comes into focus, it becomes clear that Fatale is the most ambitious book in the creative team's long collaborative history. By making the star at the book's heart as mysterious as she is, and by meting out morsels of her past and power through the gazing lenses of the men whose lives she has ruined, we, as readers, are in the dark as they are to the limitations of both.

It felt as though we could watch Jo traipse through the 20th century, watching her desirous curse destroys everyone around her, forever. How could we know whether or not things would simply play out, over and over again, each time with new characters in new worlds meeting the same tragic fate as the last, forever without respite, if Jo herself couldn't see any escape to her suffering, either?

Brubaker and Phillips have too much command as storytellers for that, though. We may not know Jo's every detail of Jo's history, but as the framing sequence that launched the story coalesces as its primary plot, we know as much as we need.

Credit: Image Comics

After the conclusion of the last arc's 90's grunge-rock-murderfest, Nicolas Lash, the writer serving as we readers' point of entry to the dark world of occult and lustful mental slavery, finds himself no longer bookending chapters of the story but trapped in the dark, action-packed heart of it. There have been times throughout this series when Lash's investigation of Jo felt tacked on, like it took you out of the story you wanted to be reading (of Jo wreaking havoc in exotic eras), forcing a slower churn than desired. Of course, this was only proof of how well things were being told, since our increasing sense of desperately urgent curiosity about Jo's life was so completely echoed that of Lash himself.

Now, as Lash finds himself where all curious cats do, the series' intricate weave-work can be fully appreciated. This was always where the story was headed, Jo knows it, Lash knows it, but we've arrived here without the story ever having felt forced or paint-by-numbers.

Getting to know Jo has been a slow burn. The way the narrative has been structured, and the nature of Jo's passive power of mental manipulation, it has, at times, seemed like the men that passed through her life were the ones advancing the plot. The more we've learned, the more we've seen Jo's own agency and influence grow. As she's been become more powerful, and more awake, the stakes have escalated while the story became more immediate. We have seen her go through the cycle of being chased, again and again, and now she's ready to turn around and charge into the hurricane's eye.

Credit: Image Comics

Jo is both a victim and a culprit, and the intrinsic way her femininity informs both makes her one of the most memorable antiheroes of modern fiction. It's taken a lot for us to see how pervasively her power corrupts everything around. This issue particularly creepily illustrates that there's nothing so innocent that it is outside the limits of her lusty pull. But her capacity influence falls short of giving her complete control, so things become as chaotic as they do inevitable.

If Brubaker and Phillips have a shortcoming, it's that they can only put out one series at a time. As they shed light on the blood-inked writing on the wall, Fatale starts to look more and more like their greatest feat yet. They've married the crime noir that they made their bones on with Sleeper and Criminal with Lovecraftian horror without sacrificing any focus on character. These guys do work that elevates all genre fiction. The exacting precision with which they've orchestrated this entire story proves that these are creators whose conclusion will be a realization, not a mere finish.

As a reader, I am completely in their thrall.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Star Wars #14
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Facundo Percio, Dan Parsons and Gabe Eltaeb
Lettering by Michael Heisley
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“Five Days of Sith” concludes in Star Wars #14 as Brian Wood finishes his exploration of Darth Vader after the Battle of Yavin. By telling the story through a new character, Wood draws readers into a story that examines Vader as a tragic fallen hero we know him to be.

Wood brings fresh innovation to the Star Wars Saga as he explores these characters right after the Battle of Yavin. Using Ensign Nadia as the main perspective of this two-part story gave readers a relateable perspective to watch along as Vader progressed through the story. Like us, Nadia has had limited experience with Vader in this setting; her reactions mirror the readers reactions and allow Wood to fully explore the atrocities Vader commits and the effects of those actions. He balances the narrative by giving us scenes where Vader is alone, really fleshing out a character we think we already know. The fact that Vader is still haunted by Obi-Wan adds another depth to the story that changes our perspective of the source material as a whole.

After the end of Wood’s run on Star Wars, fans will probably look at Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi differently, as they’ll know exactly what happened in that timeframe initially glossed over. Throughout his run, Wood has added more and more to Star Wars lore without making it feel like a story we’ve already heard. The idea to have Kell Bircher be Mon Monthma’s nephew shows his out-of-the-box thinking to add new characters to the universe without feeling contrived.

That said, hard-core continuity cops may bristle at the character of Tag Rogaren. Prior to Wood’s run, a character called Bevel Lemelisk was credited as being the architect for the Death Star, including the superlaser, as explored in the Expanded Universe 1995 novel Darksaber. But I would urge readers to relax - that this doesn’t disrupt the story in any way, and Rogaren’s presence only serves to tie up a plot point from previous issues while showcasing Vader’s particular brutality. Wood’s narrative uses Rogaren to show how tenuous loyalty is in the Empire by having the elite storm troopers turn on Vader, which is infinitely more important than an obscure character from nine years ago.

Rogaren's presence is shadowed by the other, stronger characters - particularly Nadia. By the end of the story, she has become a character all her own. As the reader experiences what she experiences, she becomes more than a nondescript pilot we’ve never heard of. Wood ends the story by mirroring the beginning: the story starts with Ensign Nadia and ends with Ensign Nadia. This emphasis on her character is welcoming, and because Vader leaves such a lasting impression on her, one can only hope that Wood has more use for her in the future.

The breakdowns of the issue are particularly noteworthy. Facundo Percio does a great job depicting the fight scene between Vader and the elite Stormtroopers. Considering the fact that the battle happened in an enclosed space, in the hull of a ship, Percio draws the scene so the action feels quick and decisive, while Michael Heisley makes the letters for the sound effects stand out against the cold background of the ship. This makes the entire page feel quiet, save for Vader’s lightsabe and the “krakk!” of Stormtrooper armor. It feels very reminiscent of the short battles with General Grevious during the short animated Clone Wars snippets, which makes the action that much more enjoyable and impactful.

The coloring, however, is the weakest part of the issue. Many times, it the colors appear unrealistic and cartoonish, particularly when it comes to Darth Vader himself. While the Dark Lord of the Sith should be imposing at all times, the coloring done on him, particularly on his eyes, makes him look more like a humanoid bug than one of the most feared men in the galaxy. The colors overall make the starships and characters feel flat; the inking appears too thick, and no amount of shading makes the visuals comes off the page under those circumstances.

Beyond everything, Star Wars #14 marks the end of a great interlude story that ties into the larger narrative, expands on current characters, and introduces new characters as well. Wood continues to craft a great story to add to the already rich expanded universe, leaving the readers wanting for more.

Credit: Marvel Comics

She-Hulk #1
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Javier Pulido and Muntsa Vicente
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

As a practicing lawyer, Charles Soule is particularly qualified to author the adventures of She-Hulk, Marvel's resident skull-busting attorney-at-law. And while some of She-Hulk's previous series have focused on more out-of-this world, or even fourth wall breaking stories, Soule takes a slightly different path, focusing on Shulkie as a more down to Earth - but still super - attorney with a host of decidedly non-super problems. Bolstered by some of the best work Javier Pulido has done, Soule's She-Hulk offers a pilot to one of the best lawyer shows you won't see on TV.

Credit: Marvel Comics

She-Hulk #1 finds Jennifer Walters, Avenger, substitute member of the Fantastic Four, and big time lawyer in a predicament fairly familiar to many of Marvel's heroes. She needs money, and moreover, she needs a new job. One of the things that's immediately apparent about Soule's She-Hulk is that while she's got all of her cousin Bruce Banner's strength, along with all of its costs, she is uniquely capable of channeling her Gamma-ray induced emotional turmoil into determination and self-assuredness as well as physical strength. Jennifer Walters is nobody's stepping stone, and she is not in the business of letting her strengths go undervalued.

That's why, when a woman approaches Walters with a legal claim against her old pal Tony Stark, she not only agrees to help, but also finds a way to side-step Tony's army of attorneys and their labyrinthine offices and draconian legal maneuvering. There's not a lot of smash-em-up action in this issue - though She-Hulk does dust up with some litigious robots - but Soule's pitch-perfect characterization of Stark's dry, unaffected lawyers and Jennifer's determination and exasperation really sell the idea of She-Hulk as a lawyer first, and not just a lawyer, but great lawyer who loves her work.

Credit: Marvel Comics

While a comic that is, essentially, a legal procedural, even an unorthodox one, could easily devolve into a series of talking heads and static set-pieces, Javier Pulido finds ways to keep him compositions engaging, using double page spreads to show just how far Tony's lawyers will go to keep him out of court, and playing the relatively conservative Walters against their mounds of paperwork and legal texts. Even panels that are crowded with legal jargon come off as artistic devices. Much of that probably comes from Soule's intimate knowledge of legal proceedings, but serious credit goes to Pulido for finding ways to keep She-Hulk's emotive face the focus of the page, and to colorist Muntsa Vicente for finding a palette that feels natural, but never drab.

There are some story short-cuts in this issue - everything is wrapped up in a bow that is a little too neat - but the seeds of possible long-term arcs are also sewn. Far more important is that Soule and Pulido have done a bang-up job of establishing exactly who their She-Hulk is, and where she fits in the larger Marvel Universe. She-Hulk #1 is reminiscent of Mark Waid's Daredevil, and not just because they both feature lawyers, but because they are both thoughtful character dramas played with a spotless sense of characterization and humor, and propped up by exciting and engaging art. She-Hulk is a winner on almost every level.

Credit: Image Comics

The Fuse #1
Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Justin Greenwood and Shari Chankhamma
Lettering by Ed Brisson
Published by Image Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Image continues to put out books that stray from what the general public would consider to be a “comic book.” Their innovative storytelling allows for creators to really let loose and see what they can do; Antony Johnston and The Fuse is no exception. A seemingly buddy-cop science fiction story turns to be more than meets the eye as Johnston and his team surprise us with a great first start.

The book’s strongest asset is its limited cast: Dietrich, Klem, Fontanelli, the Chief, and the unknown antagonist are the only real players so far in the book; however, much of the book focuses solely on Dietrich and Klem. Johnston plays a little too much on the humor, but makes both their personalities unique enough to avoid feeling like a rip off of cliché partner relationships. Because of the limited cast, Johnston really has full advantage to explore these characters to their core and really let the readers get to know and care about them.

Credit: Image Comics

The first issue does well to hook the readers to these characters through subtle snippets of dialogue. Dietrich comes from Germany, which was revealed by him saying words like “danke” and “Mein Gott” aboard the transport shuttle—his heritage already makes him interesting because it’s a stray from the norm. Klem, likewise, should be viewed as interesting, especially when her superiors imply she’ll quit when she’s dead. These two already seem like strong personalities—thrown together in a potentially volatile situation, they could make for some amusing interactions. Johnston and Justin Greenwood put the proverbial icing on the cake, however, with the woman’s reaction to Dietrich revealing his profession: by having her stare blankly into space and then side-glance Dietrich, the team lets readers know that officers of the law aren’t viewed in the most positive light.

Johnston capitalizes on the story by stacking the odds against the main characters without the plot feeling contrived. We’re at the end of the first issue and already there are several obstacles for the unlikely pair to overcome: being on the “Russia shift,” they’re alone; they’re newly working together, which means they’ll have to get to know each other before they’re effective; and Johnston establishes the dangers of projectile weapons and lets the reader know that there’s a gun problem on the station.

Credit: Image Comics

The dangers of throwing the reader right into the story, especially stories where the culture is so radically different from the reader’s, often comprised of a lack of comprehension. Although Johnston succeeds from a character standpoint in making the reader feel for these characters from the beginning, he fails to establish enough of a context for readers to feel confident in their ability to understand the unique colloquialism on the Fuse. The names of places, for example, are forgettable and meaningless to the reader, because they can’t know if the names are supposed to hold meaning.

Dialogue is the book’s major weak point, specifically Dietrich’s. It’s unclear whether the lack of contractions are the writer’s decision or because Dietrich is speaking English as a second language. Regardless, there are times throughout the narrative where he repeats “I am” as an opening statement, which quickly becomes repetitive and monotonous. Johnston makes up for it, though, through his smart use of Fuse slang. He introduces the reader to words like “cabler” and quickly defines it and incorporates it seamlessly into the story, showing his strengths as an author.

Credit: Image Comics

Greenwood chooses to stray from a more realistic style, and instead makes his characters lankier and more angular. It doesn’t detract from the story, though, because the art still keeps to normal proportions and realistic position; if anything, the quirkiness of the art fits along with the quirkiness of the story Johnston is trying to tell. There are times, however, where Greenwoods errs too much on the side of cartoonish—particularly with the blood. The blood spatter looks unrealistic throughout the book, and it’s consistently colored with a flat, pale red. Because there’s so much more that goes into the other visuals, this minor detail stands out like a sore thumb.

By starting the story at the moment the status quo gets disrupted, Johnston has propelled the readers head first into the narrative; by clearly defining sources of conflict, Johnston has also allowed the reader enough information to become engaged with the story. At first glance, this series seems like something easily passed over, but given a chance, it shows its true potential to the reader through its smart balance of characters and action.

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Force #1
Written by Si Spurrier
Art by Rock-He Kim
Lettering by VC’s Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

X-Force has really lost its way since the heyday of “The Dark Angel Saga.” Si Spurrier and Rock-He Kim try their hand at a relaunch that parses the team down to only a few core members but there’s no hook in an issue that tries to beat you over the head with one. We already know that an X-Force book can work. We’ve seen it before. But Spurrier’s central concept doesn’t feel anchored enough in the Marvel Universe or even the X-Men one to really matter. Combined with Kim’s bland, uneven artwork, you have to wonder why Marvel even bothered with this one.

Credit: Marvel Comics

The intro page says it all. “Other nations have Black Ops teams. Now the mutants have one.” But Black Ops teams usually answer to someone. Even Wolverine’s squad started as Cyclops’ secret team before breaking out on their own. And when they did, they had a clear purpose. Spurrier starts this one out just about as broad as possible in terms of concept and characterization. The “music” framing device serves to give the book a voice but it comes across stale. But Marrow is an odd choice and she seems like a knock-off Harley Quinn played against Cable’s Expendables-era Stallone impression and Fantomex’s insufferable “Gambit meets Pepe Le Pew” dialogue. Psylocke might be the only character Spurrier doesn’t over-write. Obviously, I understand that these characters have filled these roles in the past but the level of exaggeration on display as a means of characterization is entirely tiresome.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Rock-He Kim ‘s work starts out with some promise in an opening action scene before becoming a muddled mess of different shades of gray. His character work, specifically, weakens from there. Beginning with a debriefing scene, exposition takes the wheel and this book starts to look like rough concept art for a line of action figures more than clear sequential art. Cable looks like Chip Hazard from Small Soldiers and Marrow’s design looks straight out of a second-rate Tank Girl knockoff. Considering the good work that’s been done in the past to redesign many of Marvel’s heroes, it’s disheartening not to see the same level of skill here. Kim does do much better with the more widescreen action scenes than anything else. The opening scene and Marrow’s attack on the battleship at the end of the issue look really exciting. It’s the smaller moments that Kim has trouble with and unfortunately, for an issue that spends most of it’s justifying its existence through dialogue, that’s a big problem.

In the end, Spurrier’s concept comes across as a weak marriage of Generation Hope’s “find new mutants first” impetus and Remender’s “defend mutantkind against the threats it doesn’t know are there” motives. It might be a worthy cause for Cable and his crew but it’s not grounded in anything except itself. Kims art has its strengths but they don’t come through enough in this one. Hopefully, Spurrier can find an original direction to right this ship and take advantage of his artist. Otherwise, there’s not much more reason to care about this iteration of X-Force than there was the last two.

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