Best Shots Comic Reviews: MIGHTY AVENGERS Stays Strong, FUTURES END Struggles

Marvel previews for May 28, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with a handful of this week's biggest releases! So let's kick off today's column with Jocular Justin Partridge, III, as he takes a look at the latest issue of Mighty Avengers...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Mighty Avengers #10
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Greg Land, Jay Leisten and Frank D’Armata
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Fun seems to be a precious commodity in comics nowadays. In an era where comics are either needlessly violent or far too ponderously serious about the actual narrative and characters that the medium employs, a fun, hopeful comic book yarn starring bigger than life characters engaging in outrageous feats of valor on the city’s behalf is worth it’s weight in your pocket money at the comic shop. Thankfully we have titles like Al Ewing’s sleeper hit of an Avengers title, Mighty Avengers to regularly fill this gap in our fandom’s heart. Now, in Mighty Avengers #10, Ewing and his art team use the springboard of Original Sin to deliver another blockbuster of an issue that refuses to lose its voice and tone to the macro event in which it inhabits.

Mighty Avengers #10 begins with a jet of blood followed by the severed head of demonic-looking chicken sailing past a truly inspiring ad for Luke Cage’s new Avengers unit playing on a store display of televisions. As the captions say, “Don’t say we aren’t good to you.” Al Ewing is quickly becoming one of my favorite current Marvel writers specifically for this cheeky committal to the craziness that is capible with comic book storytelling. Ewing, displaying a freedom newly gained from Ronin’s identity reveal, makes a meal of this first scene featuring Blade fighting a group of were-chickens, the latest set of were monsters that the Deathwalkers have sent after the vampire hunter. Ewing did all he could with the guise of Ronin and it was nice to see that costume back into the fray of the Marvel universe but Mighty Avengers, and Ewing himself, doesn’t seem interested in that mystery box any more. This scene is about reminding audiences, new and old alike, just how incredibly cool Blade is. You could certainly do worse than pitting him against fire breathing were-chickens. Al Ewing is all about making the ridiculous cool again and the opening of Mighty Avengers #10 does that in bloody spades.

While the Blade vs. Deathwalkers story thread has been around since the title’s inception, Ewing uses the events Original Sin to throw the rest of the team into the fray of the larger arc with Luke, Monica, and Sam grappling with a Mindless One on the streets of New York and Blue Marvel discussing Uatu the Watcher’s legacy with his mourning wife Ulana on the moon. This group set piece on the streets of New York display Ewing’s handle on all these characters as a field unit, showing just how effective each of them are in play together - admittedly one of my favorite aspects of Mighty Avengers as a title. Al Ewing has assembled a very formidable squad of heroes and when he gets a chance to show them tackling a problem or enemy at once, he really delivers with enthusiasm. Ewing also uses Blue Marvel’s connection with the Watchers to further develop Adam Brashear, coming off a two-issue arc involving his complicated relationship with his sons, as well as providing a satisfying narrative connection to the larger event going on in the background. Blue Marvel was the character that I knew the least about going into Mighty Avengers, yet with three issues, Ewing has turned him into one of my favorite characters in the Marvel universe, providing a unique, cosmic-level voice amid the fan favorite characters that make up the rest of the team’s roster. Al Ewing is writing the kind of comics that he, as a fan, would want to read, and lucky for us, he just so happens to want to read fun, well-plotted comics.

Series regular artist Greg Land has never bothered me as much as an artist as he has other fans. He is simply a guy who does his job to me; he’s not particularly great, nor is he the worst artist I’ve ever seen either. He simply is in my opinion. His tendency to render insane facial expressions though is used effectively here as Blade unleashes his fury onto the were-chickens in the comic’s opening scenes. Land’s action scenes always seem to pop more than his emotive scenework and in #10 he gives us two striking and fast-paced bits of action that make the comic read like a streak of lightning. A lot of Land’s work sticks the landing thanks to the colors of Frank D’Armata, who colors Land’s occasionally stilted work with a rich and bright color pallet that makes the panels glisten as if filmed with the highest speed film possible. Some of Land’s panels may look a bit hollow, but at least they sparkle with gorgeous Technicolor-like hues.

Like chocolate and peanut butter, fun and superheroes are two tastes that taste great together. Al Ewing, already a Tumblr celebrity with his work on Loki: Agent of Asgard, displays a true affection for superheroes once again with Mighty Avengers #10, balancing their larger than life exploits with genuine human emotion and characterization. Ewing stated in the first issue that these were his favorite comic book characters growing up and now he gets to tell stories starring them. He wants them to be as fun as possible while displaying what made them his favorites as a kid. And they're quickly becoming our favorites, too.

Future's End #4
Future's End #4
Credit: DC Comics

The New 52: Futures End #4
Written by Brian Azzarello, Keith Giffen, Dan Jurgens and Jeff Lemire
Art by Aaron Lopresti, Art Thibert, Keith Giffen and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The DC universe continues trudging towards a catastrophic dystopia, but The New 52: Futures End doesn't quite have the inexorable speed or weight that you would associate with such a bleak conclusion. Maybe it's the sheer pace of a weekly series, or maybe it's stretching out and quartering the stories of half-dozen ancillary characters, but Futures End is coming slower than you might expect, robbing the future of all of its terrors.

The opening scene with Jeff Lemire's Frankenstein is a good example of what's holding this series back. For the most part, Frankenstein's reunion with insane spy op S.H.A.D.E. feels more like telling than any actual showing - besides a scarred Amethyst getting her (re)introduction in the future by chopping off Frankenstein's hand, all these characters do is talk. Talk, talk, talk. Talk about Frankenstein getting his privacy invaded. Talk about Stormwatch. Talk about his ex-girlfriend getting killed. It's all exposition for an event that (theoretically) most of this series' readers checked out a few weeks ago, and what it winds up doing is bartering away the present to serve the past. We don't get to see Frankenstein do anything other than grouse, and that's most of the problem with this series so far.

The trend continues for most of the other storylines in play. Lois Lane's investigation of Red Robin is the best subplot of the bunch, even if we've seen Robins go AWOL from Batman plenty of times before - the mystery of why Tim Drake has left his mentor behind is a decent enough hook, now that Lois Lane has found where the onetime Teen Titan has gone to ground. Other subplots, like Grifter's, still feel like they're running in place - we've gotten used to the unsettling nature of the Daemonite threat that Cole Cash ruthlessly dispatches (even if they look like innocent suburban families), so it feels like three pages of a six-page check-in are wasted. (It especially doesn't help when the last page ends so abruptly.) Combined with a fourth subplot of a former crook getting pulled into one last score against Terrifictech moves the story forward, but at the cost of any meaningful characterization. All in all, it's one base hit and three strikeouts - not the best of averages.

The art here keeps this comic from really breathing or finding its way. Much of that is due to the overwriting of the writing team, but Keith Giffen's layouts are pretty recognizable here - they're workmanlike, they're easy to follow, but they also have very little variation, with the characters often feeling boxed in and too cramped to do anything, since they're so weighed down by panel borders and word balloons. Aaron Lopresti is also an odd choice for a series that's meant to be so dark and brooding - Lopresti's characters, even scarred ones like Amethyst or Frankenstein, feel really clean and full of old-school optimism. Combine that with Hi-Fi's bright colors, and the future of DC actually feels brighter than some of the gloomier titles going on elsewhere in the publisher's lineup!

In a lot of ways, The New 52: Futures End feels like the dark mirror universe version of DC's original weekly series, 52. You combine a lot of little-known or underutilized characters together, have them share screen time, and every week you draw out their story, bit by bit. But beyond the ultraviolence and swiftly rising body count, Futures End is still too much talk and not enough action. Only diehards need enter here at this point.

Credit: Image Comics

Southern Bastards #2
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour and Rico Renzi
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

An old man’s homecoming gets even more mysterious and creepy in Southern Bastards #2. This book is unusually personal to Jason Aaron and Jason Latour — and that’s working for them. Their conflicted feelings about the South continue to be transmuted into a strong, gripping story.

We don’t know why Earl Tubb was gone for 40 years, where he’s been, or who he thinks he is. The long phone messages he leaves show that he cares about someone, but we don’t know if that person will ever call him back. On what should have been his last night in town, he goes to a high school football game and tries to right a wrong.

At the game, Latour and Aaron give us more of the unabashed symbolism we saw with Earl’s failed attempt to chop down the giant tree growing out of his father’s grave. Coach Boss, who has the whole town scared of him, is a massive man and towers on the sidelines in red. The floodlights brighten the white numbers on the Rebels’ red jerseys. With the away team’s blue pants, we have all the colors of the flags of the Union and the Confederacy. It’s an all-American scene in bright primary colors, but it doesn’t feel cheerful or wholesome. Darkness hugs around the edges of the field, and the faces of the yelling fans are angry and cast in shadow. Instead of a high school football game, it feels like Earl Tubb stumbled onto a bloody pagan rite in a moonlit forest clearing.

But Jason Aaron and Jason Latour aren’t creating a dark fantasy for us to escape into. It takes more guts than that to tell a story that expresses their love for the rural South and their anger toward the culture they were both born into. In this story they’ve lashed themselves back to American writers like Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor whose stories were clear-eyed, gritty, and saturated with the places they lived in.

Aaron and Latour can use out-sized symbols and still feel like realists because they create a backdrop subdued enough to balance it out. Latour’s panels are almost always low-contrast. In the day everything is a little washed out and at night there are a lot of dark, drab colors. The red highlights among the grays and browns are like the jokes in this book—too dark to provide any real relief. Aaron’s dialogue feels natural with its pacing and pauses. When Earl walks from the house out to his father’s grave, it feels slow and quiet.

By the end of Southern Bastards #2, the previously stone-faced Earl is on his knees, shouting at the sky. He rails at his father’s grave and the town. His eyes are open wider than we’ve seen them before as rain pours down on him. There is lightning. None of our questions are answered, but we get a jarring information dump on Earl’s emotional state. The wild weather and wild shouting feel out of step with the smoldering build of the story otherwise. Witnessing the wrong intimate moments is the kind of thing that happens in small towns too, but I didn’t know Earl well enough to watch him crack. He’s a hard man, and I didn’t think he would’ve cracked so soon.

I’m worried about the next issue the way I would worry about running into Earl at the grocery store after seeing him break down like that. Has the tension been broken by the storm and the shouting, giving us some respite at the beginning of the next issue? Or will Earl and this story just get immediately darker and scarier? We have to look at a lot of ugliness in this book, but like Townes Van Zandt sang, there ain’t no dark till something shines. This story will stay compelling if it shows us glimmers of something in town that’s worth saving.

Credit: Image Comics

Trees #1
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Howard
Lettering by Fonographics
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Warren Ellis and Jason Howard's Trees #1 doesn't think small. Like the giant pillar monoliths that quite literally planted themselves around the world ten years ago, Ellis and Howard take us around the world to Rio De Janeiro, New York City, China and Norway to show us a world full of rebels, politicians, dreamers and scientists. In four vignettes, Ellis and Howard show us a world that has lived for ten years with an invasion from space of things that don't recognize us as being alive or intelligent. They show just how human life has adjusted to these things, at once living in fear of them while also growing accustomed to them. As in so many Ellis books, Trees #1 is about a new world order that isn't all that new or all that orderly.

Jason Howard’s artwork is very deliberate, moving you briskly through Ellis's story. With strong, charged coloring, this is a world that is very much alive even if it's been invaded from space. With his scratchy line, Howard creates a texture to this world. It's a rough, haggard world. From a drone attack in Rio to an artist's naïveté in China, Howard's staging fantastically sets us into this new world of the unknown. He finds these fantastic point of views in his panels that opens up these four corners of the world to us, giving us the visual clues we need to see the impact if this invasion. Through his staccato line and bright, vivid colors, the energy of this world pulses beneath the surface of the story, opening up a whole new world for the readers.

Ellis and Howard work together to show us just how much the world has changed and how much it hasn't. From the extraterrestrial trees to the seedy Chinese city to the barrios of Brazil, Ellis builds his story beat by beat. Over the years, Ellis's writing has transformed from writing about the effects of the future to humanity to now writing about the effects of humanity on the future. Through the god-like omniscient narration that kicks off this issue, humanity is reduced to nothing. There are things out there in the universe that don't even notice us even as they've planted themselves on our world. Ellis's writing used to be about characters like Spider Jerusalem and Elijah Snow. In Trees #1, he has a much broader view of his characters as they become devices to move the plot along rather than to develop along with the story.

As he takes this broad approach to his characters, Ellis's writing feels like it is being written by equations. The omniscient narrator that shows up occasionally, both cold and calculating and also poetic and descriptive, take the power of observation out of the characters. It becomes a force in this world while the characters scurry around like ants around the huge constructs. This style of writing draws attention to the otherness of Ellis and Howard's story as it stresses these forces beyond humanity that exists in our world. As they bounce from vignette to vignette, Ellis and Howard swiftly settle into a rhythm that lends to the constructed feeling of this issue. Trees #1 follows the structures we've come to know from Ellis stories. There's a syntax that he's developed over the years that has been honed down to his current formal language here and in Moon Knight that is more concerned with how a story is put together more than what the story is. The individual beats of the plot form into an issue even as this issue will eventually develop into the first issue of a collection. It’s a class in Ellis Writing 101.

Jason Howard delivers lively and energetic artwork over an Ellis story that is cold and calculated. With the patterned plot of a world changed by the extraordinary, Ellis is creating the prototypical #1 issue of an Ellis series. The names, faces and events have been changed but the by-the-numbers approach to the story leaves little room for any surprises or delight in a first issue. Full of ideas, Trees #1 hints at a lot of potential for the series but they are only hints in this issue as Ellis and Howard just tease at what this series could be about.

Credit: Image Comics

Deadly Class #5
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge
Letters by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Justin Partidge, III
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Who doesn’t love a good road trip? Especially when the destination is Las Vegas and your traveling companions are your bloodthirsty, assassin-in-training classmates and copious amounts of hallucinogens. This is the situation that our lead finds himself in, strung out beyond measure and stuck in a Las Vegas hotel room. Rick Remender and Wes Craig’s Deadly Class #5, if you’ll pardon the pun, peaks with this latest issue, capitalizing on the increasing grip the drugs have on Marcus’ mind in order to deliver a truly trippy and claustrophobic ending to one of the screwiest road trips in comic history.

The year is 1987, and Marcus is going out of his mind. The last issue of Deadly Class followed our roving band of teenage killers as the made their way to Sin City, stopping along the way to procure all manner of illegal chemicals in order to get absolutely everything out of their illicit furlough. Deadly Class #5 finds Marcus becoming increasingly paranoid as the drugs twist his mind and subvert his perception of reality around him. On top of all of this madness, Marcus still has to stay true to his promise to Billy and help him dispose of Billy’s deadbeat father, who is residing in the very next room. Rick Remender and Wes Craig have a time and a half throwing the reader down the acid infused rabbit hole with Marcus as he grapples with the morality of his current state of affairs and tries to avoid the stares of a clown made of neon lights that is stalking him through the halls of his hotel. Rick Remender reveals in the letters column of this issue that most of the events of this issue are cobbled together from real events that happened to him between the ages of 13 to 26, public beatings and all. The balance of the visceral and fantastical are balanced perfectly by Remender but it is the extra punch due to the autobiographical element that really elevates Deadly Class #5 from a really good comic to a truly great comic. Marcus’ story throughout this issue is truly ridiculous, but not beyond the pale in terms of a bad trip story, aside from, you know, all the murder. Remender just crystallized his experience through the lens provided by Wes Craig and put our boy Marcus through the ringer on all possible fronts of reality. Both his mind and body were assaulted. Where does he go from here? We will see next month.

Rick Remender has always been a writer known for suddenly and brutally ratcheting up the stakes for his characters; This is the guy who threw Steve Rogers into a Heavy Metal-esque dystopia ruled by one of his greatest foes. With Deadly Class #5 Remender tears down his protagonist’s mind as well as involves him in one of the most vicious, tangible feeling beatings I’ve ever read in a comic. The final page establishing shot of Marcus receiving comeuppance in the floor of a convenience store coupled with Remender and Craig’s use of a stark black page (another staple of Remender’s work) carries a heavy weight to it as an ending. This could very well be the last time we see Marcus, or at least Remender and Craig want you to feel that way. Despite solicitations for #6 saying otherwise, they almost make you believe it for a second. It’s not called Deadly Class for nothing. Remender is far enough into the series that he can start now putting them through their paces, Marcus especially. Sure, Marcus has had it rough since issue one, page one, but #5 is every ounce a fall from whatever grace he had achieved at that point. Marcus, and the series as a whole, will never be the same after this issue. If Marcus survives this, he could be capable of anything, which would make for more amazing issues into an already stellar series.

You’ll notice above that I often above I mentioned artist Wes Craig right after Rick Remender’s name when discussing certain story beats. They both share a combined credit in the book’s credits page, much like Superior Foes of Spider-Man’s Nick Spencer and Steve Leiber, and rightfully so. Deadly Class is just as much Wes Craig and colorist Lee Loughridge’s book as it is Remender’s. Craig’s frantically cinematic panel layouts and set piece blocking are very much ingrained into the personality and look of the series as is, but Deadly Class #5 allows him to cut completely loose from even the reality of the narrative, which was already pretty over the top. Craig strips Marcus of the fragile swagger that he displayed through #1-4 and renders him, more than once, as a twitching, babbling idiot, frantically trying to catch up with his ever shifting reality. Craig also uses this to his advantage with certain violent story beats in the issue as well. As Marcus leaps from a hotel window to escape Chico’s wraith, Craig renders his leap with stark white boxes as if he’s jumped into the void between panels itself just hoping that the artist will give him something to land on. As he sprints through the streets after a lucky landing, the panel is littered with tracers and Marcus’ body seems to contort with his speed and his destination seems to be miles away. Its these artist flourishes, bolstered by the harsh ethereal neon colors of Lee Loughridge that makes Deadly Class one of most visually interesting Image books on the shelves.

Everyone has great memories of road trips with friends, but I would be very surprised if Marcus remembered anything past getting in the car to leave. Rick Remender and Wes Craig didn’t start Marcus in the best of places with this series, but #6 just set his world on fire. It’s stakes like the ones presented in Deadly Class that makes for compelling comics that mix the mundane with the ridiculous. Marcus is palling around with the potentially the world’s next generation of master assassins and he crossed one of them in a big way. There was bound to be a heavy price to pay; we will just have to wait until next month to see just much of Marcus’ blood it took to settle the debt.

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