Best Shots Advance Reviews: SECRET AVENGERS #1, BATMAN #29, MAGNUS #1, More

Marvel previews for March 12, 2014
Credit: Marvel Studios
Credit: Marvel Studios

Secret Avengers #1
Written by Ales Kot
Art by Michael Walsh and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Run the mission. Don't get seen. And don't be afraid to laugh a little.

Taking more than a few pages from the old Hawkeye playbook, the relaunched Secret Avengers mixes mad science and quirky characterization and throws them together into a blender of fast-moving plots. The result is a reinvigorated first issue for Marvel's premiere spy team - now the big challenge will be whether or not Ales Kot and Michael Walsh can make that momentum last.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Both in terms of tone and aesthetics, it's easy to see the similarities between Secret Avengers and Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye. Take larger-than-life superheroics and put all-too-flawed humans in the mix? That's the new Marvel method, and Ales Kot has used that formula to great effect to make this S.H.I.E.L.D.-sponsored team relatable. Gone are the high-concept tricks and mind-wiping stunts that have failed to distinguish this series in the past. Instead, Secret Avengers goes for a simpler solution - laughter. Not bwahaha, Justice League International laughs, but the quips fire faster than the Black Widow's handguns here, with cutesy bits and in-jokes (including a knowing wink at Hawkeye's "this looks bad" mantra) that reward new and old fans alike.

Of course, this isn't a book that you can just pick up off the bat - these are not Marvel's marquee heroes by any stretch, when Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury 2.0 and Agent Coulson are your big names. For the most part, though, you can just roll with it - M.O.D.O.K. has defected to S.H.I.E.L.D.? Okay. Hawkeye has a romantic past with both Black Widow and Spider-Woman? Got it. (And let's not forget Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye-shaped censor that had historically covered up any nudity. Yep. It's back.) In a lot of ways, this comic is even more user-friendly than Kot's previous arc on Secret Avengers with Nick Spencer, primarily because Kot is just putting the team in constant yet indistinct peril. The real message behind Secret Avengers is the nature of the threats themselves don't matter, but the characters and how they respond to them do.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Speaking of the Hawkeye aesthetic, Michael Walsh channels the best bits of street-level comic artists like David Aja, Superior Foes of Spider-Man's Steve Lieber and even Daredevil's Chris Samnee. Here there are no big splash pages or flashy layouts, but instead seven-panel conversations and gritty inks are the norm. It'd be easy for these beats to flop just on the script level, but Walsh breaks down each page with enthusiasm and a real sense of visual diversity. (Particularly a page where he jumps between Phil Coulson dodging the mechanical behemoth known as the Fury, while Spider-Woman and Black Widow engage in some target practice, while M.O.D.O.K. lurks in his mad science lair.) Similar to Lieber and Aja, Walsh has a sketchy vibe with his artwork, but he does great things with both the action composition (check out the A.I.M. troops landing on a rooftop) as well as his expressiveness (like Coulson smiling bemusedly about his soon-to-go-drastically-wrong space trip).

The one thing that holds back Secret Avengers is that even for a niche book, this book has had an ultra-niche audience, and I'm not sure that Kot adds anything new to the dynamic that might broaden that readership any. But to be fair, this book has tried and tried (and failed) to add wrinkles and twists to bring in new people, and it's never, ever worked. Certain people historically have not bought Secret Avengers, and many of those people will likely still not buy it, just based on them not clicking with the lower-tier characters or the core concept. That's okay. Sometimes there's something to be said for just having strong execution and two great creative talents on board. Kot and Walsh may not rise up to the sales levels of its sister titles, instead toiling away excellently in the shadows with a gun in their hand and a smile on their lips.

But that's okay. The shadows are where the Secret Avengers work best.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #29
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Lettering by Steve Wands Published by DC Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It's been two months since readers last looked back into the "Zero Year" story arc, and this double-sized issue provides a fast-paced conclusion to the "Dark City" chapter. Lieutenant Gordon and the GCPD attempt to cope with the power outage and flooding while Batman dances with Dr. Death all the while Riddler's endgame becomes apparent to all – do-gooder and reader alike. So was it worth the wait?

Credit: DC Comics

Artistically? Most definitely, as the greatest elements of this issue revolve around the art. Greg Capullo is arguably doing some of his strongest work of the run as it relates to his ability to convey emotion in his characters' facial expressions. Not only do we see Riddler running the table, but he exudes hubris like no other. For a character without pupils, Capullo is able to render Batman's eyes in such ways that they range from seething anger as he prepares to exact brute violence upon Dr. Death to unabashed horror as he realizes his abject failure to spare Gotham from a watery grave. And for all of this, I think Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia's efforts will be what sticks with readers long after they finish reading this issue as these two deliver what is arguably their best work on the title to date.

There is one splash page early on in the issue depicting Batman flying across the sky with a lightning bolt splitting the night sky behind him – sound familiar? In spite of continuing to pay homage to the great stories of the Bat-canon, however, this kinetic image of Batman possesses less certainty and deadliness as Miller's iconic cover. This "Zero Year" Batman is still figuring out how to become the Batman cemented in readers' minds over the years – a message this single, powerful image conveys powerfully. It's the mix of darkness and light with the vivid colors that brings this splash page alive and gets the message across to readers. This is only one such example of this dynamic duo bringing their talents to bear on Capullo's already dynamic visual sense. Admittedly, narrative tension and dirigibles may not seem a likely pairing, yet the continual threat of lightning crackling around Batman and the GCPD brought a threateningly real sense of danger to the page. Additionally, the shift in color palettes to one similar to the Batman: Year One storyline in certain scenes was a great throwback as well.

Credit: DC Comics

The last four pages were especially effective in building tension and capitalizing on the emotion playing out across Gotham at various points in time. Each panel seems to drop onto the page resonating with the reader in a similarly way as the pearls from a broken necklace slowly dropping onto a lonely street. The second-to-last page is especially poignant with the image of Martha Wayne as she transcends her past life to a Madonna-like icon whose death inspires her caped son in his crusade in the years to follow. It would be easy for Snyder to include a simple caption with either Batman or some unnamed narrator telling us that his parents deaths would go on to inspire Bruce Wayne to become Batman; instead, Batman #29 wisely makes use of the artistic talents of Capullo, Miki and Plascencia to show these momentous events.

All of this is not to say Batman #29 was without its fair share of issues. The fight scene with Dr. Death is slowed up with a lot of expository dialogue that works to tie up loose ends with this plot thread to clear the stage for "Wild City" and the third villain on the "Zero Year" undercard. It is interesting to get a sneak peek into the Riddler's machinations as heard from Dr. Death; however, the connection he makes to the occupation of Japan gets a bit murkier. He mentions his grandfather heard it in 1942; however, this is not possible since Japan was the occupier at this time (the Philippines, the Indies, Singapore, etc) and was not occupied by Allied Forces until 1945. Additionally, Dr. Death attempts to explain the meaning of a particular song – one introduced in the beginning of Batman #27 set in 1946 - but there wasn't a clear context for the lesson he sought to impart upon Batman – or the reader. The notion of "someone watching from above" makes sense given Batman's relationship to Gotham, but it's not clear why Dr. Death would be the one to deliver this message as his role in this story has been more on the ground level as opposed to Edward Nygma who has been operating from on high.

Credit: DC Comics

These certainly are not deal-breaking criticisms, but they are ones many critics and some fans are likely to notice. Overall though, it's an ambitious story that contains two major successes. First, it shows Batman failing in epic proportion. If Batman seems possessed of a manic desire to save Gotham from whatever dangers present themselves, readers now know – from a "New 52" perspective – why this is so: Batman utterly failed to save his city from destruction in "Zero Year." But even more important than showing Batman as fallible is the humanization of Thomas and Martha Wayne that have slowly taken place over the course of this story. Readers only know of the significant impact their deaths had on a young Bruce Wayne; yet, few writers have taken these icons off the mantel and out of the portraits found on the walls of Wayne Manor to flesh them out as living, breathing people. Like previous issues in this run, Batman #29 does an excellent job of showing the loving relationship shared between these two parents and their sole child…before it was brutally taken away.

There is little denying that Snyder and Capullo's origin story is one that will be remembered in collected form years from now alongside other canonized graphic novels and story arcs. Whether readers are on board for this decompressed retelling of those events that form the core of who Batman would eventually become will be up to individual fans to decide. Personal tastes aside, there is something admirable in seeing a creative team "go big" and not simply retread familiar ground in familiar ways, and this issue – like those preceding it in the "Zero Year" story – does so both narratively and artistically.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel #1
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by David Lopez and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Carol Danvers has been through a lot since she finally took on the name Captain Marvel way back when Kelly Sue DeConnick took the helm of her solo adventures. And now, with a new #1, it seems it's time for Carol to take the next leap, becoming a space-bound hero, and the Avengers' representative among the stars. Trouble is, this issue is so grounded in the trappings of the previous volume that it feels more like the countdown than the launch. Despite some killer art from David Lopez and a handful of really exciting elements, Captain Marvel #1 hits the stands feeling a lot more like it should've been the final issue of the previous volume, rather than the opening volley of something new.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel #1 starts out really strong, diving right into Carol's new life as the head of a ragtag crew of space adventurers. There are hints of Star Wars in this scene in an alien market - a comparison compounded with several apt references throughout the book - both in terms of the visual display and the self-aware wit of DeConnick's script. This is David Lopez's strongest scene as well, with Lee Loughridge's simultaneously earthy and unearthly palette complimenting Lopez's excellent character acting and lush linework. It's when we jump back six months, in the next scene, that the issue takes a bit of a nosedive, leaving behind the subtly building - if a little well-worn - mystery of this alien market.

Plummeting back down to Earth, what follows are a series of staccato beats introducing readers to everything Carol is leaving behind, from her residence in the Statue of Liberty (how cool is that?) where she lives with her friend Maria and Maria's daughter Kit, who Carol affectionately calls "Lieutenant Trouble." Elements like this are introduced without much exposition, a fact that may lead readers hoping to jump in with this issue feeling cold, especially since these are all plot elements and supporting character that will, presumably, be left behind as soon as Carol takes orbit. As we delve further into the life Carol's built on Earth since fully embracing the role of Captain Marvel, DeConnick plays Carol against Tony Stark in a bit of well-scripted banter, leading to Carol deciding it's time to leave her world behind and break up with her boyfriend, the ever put-upon James Rhodes. It's disappointing to see elements like this relationship left behind, as there was so much promise in that pairing, but it's even more disappointing to see so many endings spiraling out of an issue that's meant to feel like a beginning.

Credit: Marvel Studios

David Lopez and Lee Loughridge are easily the best part of this issue. DeConnick's script is sharp and witty, but the personality and composition in Lopez's pitch perfect art are what really make the script palpable. Likewise, Loughridge finds a perfect balance of naturalist colors without being too literal, and always finds ways to bring Carol to the forefront of her scenes. Lopez has also toned down Carol's hair, and eschews her mask entirely, which is exactly the right move for the character. Carol's Captain Marvel costume has been something of a fan-favorite since it was introduced, and it has never looked better than it does here. There's something so human about Lopez's portrayal of Carol's facial expressions and body language that it would be a shame to lose that grounded approach, not just to her character, but to her more realistic physique behind a mask or a more exaggerated physicality.

When it comes to Captain Marvel, the bottom line is, she deserves to be not just Marvel's premiere female hero, but one of its biggest names in general. Kelly Sue DeConnick definitely has a firm grasp on Carol's personality and what she wants out of the character, and taking her into space where she can really display Carol's humanity and juxtapose it with her cosmic power is a great step. Unfortunately, this relaunch hesitates too much on its first step to really soar, focusing a little too much on what Carol is losing by leaving Earth and not enough on what she gains by taking to the stars. Still, with a strong script from DeConnick, and tremendous art from David Lopez, it's too early yet to call Captain Marvel #1 a failure to launch so much as a brief pause before take off.

Credit: Dynamite

Magnus: Robot Fighter #1
Written by Fred Van Lente
Art by Cory Smith and Mauricio Wallace
Lettering by Marshall Dillon
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Who do we become once we’ve lost everything? This is the question at the center of Fred Van Lente’s reboot of the Gold Key Comics staple Magnus: Robot Fighter, the 2nd title in Dynamite’s recent re-launch of the classic line. Van Lente’s take moves a bit slower than the original sci-fi pulp yarns that make up the majority of the old arcs, but based on this first issue, we are in for more than our fair share of robot punching supplemented with larger themes of class, loss, and individualism.

Credit: Dynamite

Though the character of Magnus is known for shredding robots with his bare hands, Fred Van Lente takes a more subtle approach and gives us the calm before the storm as it were, showing Magnus’ quiet life in a town where robots and humans live in conjuction with one another. He is contented, with a great job as a teacher and a baby on the way. Of course its only a matter of time until this peace is shattered and here is where the comic’s namesake kicks into full gear. Van Lente drops both the reader and our hero into an unfamiliar world of robotic oppression and insane technological advances. It's a jarring change of pace from the tranquil opening, but its just enough future shock to really hook new readers into the world of Magnus.

Van Lente is throwing a lot at readers (and Magnus) in this first issue, but his reach never exceeds his grasp. Van Lente has a mammoth job to do in this first issue and for the most part, he accomplishes the task of delivering a great first issue, while never skimping on character. The slower-paced opening serves to give us a real sense of who Magnus is and what he stands for before tossing him through the ringer. Those unfamiliar with the character of Magnus may find the thought of a guy running around punching robots a bit too silly to take seriously, but Van Lente writes Magnus and his new surroundings with enough weight that it never feels outright goofy.

Credit: Dynamite

Artist Cory Smith and colorist Mauricio Wallace also keep the comic from falling into full on hysterics, striking a perfect balance between pulpy and realistic. Smith is basically doing two different stories here. The first being the tranquil setting of Magnus’ former life and the second being the dangerous techno city. Both of them have very distinct looks and designs, with the former rendered in a hazy, sepia toned flashback view. This choice makes the transition all the more jarring and unexpected as the linework and colors in the city sequences are crisp and metallic, much like the majority of Magnus’ new surroundings. The pages crackle with a energy that the opening lacks but only because the opening serves a very specific narrative purpose. The pages in the future serve to display just how out there this comic can and will be in the future and Cory Smith cuts loose in the last twelve pages. Magnus is very much a stranger in a strange land by the end of this issue and Cory Smith goes out of his way to make his new surroundings feel and look as alien as possible without falling into the trap of over design.

Its a classic fish out of water story - except this fish can break a robot’s face with just one well-placed punch. When the Gold Key relaunch was announced I was hesitant to get as excited, because I was worried that some of the character’s more dated aspects wouldn’t translates well for a modern comic audience. But now, with Magnus: Robot Fighter, I see that these fears were largely unfounded. Dynamite seems to understand that they can use these characters to tell unexpected stories about larger issues than just fighting robots and dinosaurs. These classic characters have more than earned their place on the racks next to their contemporary counterparts.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Avengers Undercover #1
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Art by Kev Walker and Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Spinning out of the aftermath of Avengers Arena, Avengers Undercover revisits the deadliest kids in the Marvel Universe as they struggle to come to terms with recent events. Arena creative team, Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker are back for the ride, providing a welcome bit of consistency between the titles. But where Arena had a concrete concept and major conflict at its center, Undercover is more abstract. As a result, this issue doesn’t quite get over the hump in terms of setting up the story, and that weighs it down.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Hopeless had it easier when he had all of his characters generally in the same location in Arena. Despite a large cast, he was able to check in with them while using fewer scenes. But with a smaller cast sprawled across the world, we get what amounts to small vignettes about each character as a means of bringing the team together. And they vary in quality. Deathlocket and Hazmat’s scenes are a disturbing reminder of the desensitizing power of the media. Meanwhile, Chase and Cammi’s scenes serve mostly to include them. Arcade still remains on the periphery in this issue but it's unclear how he’ll be worked into conflict with the team.

The “undercover” portion of the title has yet to be relevant, as well. Hopeless essentially takes this issue to reintroduce his characters, catch up with where they are now and insert a problem that needs fixing. But considering who they’re up against, one must wonder if the big league Avengers will be brought in and if that will have any effect on the team. Arcade was appropriately small-time for a group of beloved B and C-list heroes but the Masters of Evil as presently constructed are a lot more formidable.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Kev Walker is a stellar artist and he really knows these characters inside and out. It’s a shame that they spend almost all of their time talking and not really doing any exciting. Walker’s best moments in this issue feature Cullen Bloodstone and we will inevitably see more of him in the future. This is a set-up issue and a melodramatic one at that. Walker sells the kids’ emotions through great expression work. It helps sell Hopeless’ script even in its somewhat duller moments. Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s color work is nothing to get excited about. Up to Deathlocket’s scene, Beaulieu’s work is satisfactory but after that it gets murky. As blacks start to eat up more and more of the pages, Beaulieu’s palette darkens and details are obscured.

Avengers Undercover #1 reads more like an epilogue to Avengers Arena than a debut issue of a new series. Considering Hopeless and Walker’s good work with these characters in the past, it will be exciting to see them in a new setting but we haven’t gotten to anything exciting just yet. Kev Walker remains a great fit for Hopeless’ style and the tone of this book. A lesser artist wouldn’t be able to keep a slow issue like this one afloat. Arena stumbled similarly at its debut until Hopeless really hit his stride and it became one of Marvel’s most entertaining books. Here’s hoping that’s what we’re in store for with Avengers Undercover.

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