Best Shots Comic Reviews: NEW AVENGERS #23, DARK HORSE PRESENTS #1, More

Marvel Comics August 2014 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

New Avengers #23
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Kev Walker and Frank Martin
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

This is how the world ends.

But Jonathan Hickman never said which world.

New Avengers, at its best, has been a question of just how far our superheroes would go to save the world. What starts off as just a guy in tights punching out a demigod or an interstellar tyrant becomes a much more slippery slope when it comes to deciding the fate of whole worlds - in this case, deciding which one lives, and which one dies.

This is a story about a group of good men gone bad.

With this issue, Jonathan Hickman spins an interlude following the Illuminati's greatest sin - Namor destroying an entire planet. It's not just somber, it's downright bleak, as the most brilliant minds in the Marvel Universe are completely demoralized, stymied, broken. The end of the world is in hours, and they no longer have the stomach for saving the day - not if it means genocide. Hickman really gets into the groove with his characterization, and it's a wonder he doesn't do this more often. It's great seeing moments like the Beast consulting with his time-lost past self from All-New X-Men, or Dr. Strange's manservant Wong agreeing that, no, Stephen Strange is no longer a "good man." All villains are the heroes of their own story. It just happens to be that these superheroes haven't gotten caught.

Without giving too much away, the twist in this book also hits you like a punch in the gut. It's a simple idea - one that people should have seen coming - but it leaves the reader feeling conflicted. Much has been made of the sliding scale of heroism and villainy, especially with series like Forever Evil or the upcoming Axis - do you subscribe to ethical conduct, or the greater good? Either way, the Illuminati are put in a lose-lose situation - they will soon be up against a powerful enemy, and the ultimate question is, do we even want them to win?

The artwork by Kev Walker is an interesting choice here, but it really suits the broken nature of these heroes. These are flawed men, and Walker's sharp, almost funhouse mirror artwork is a reflection of that. He reminds me a little in this issue of Simone Bianchi, in the fact that his characters are hyper-rendered and made of weird angles. Perhaps his best sequence is an overlooked beat with Bruce Banner, as he casually drinks near an atomic test site in New Mexico, with the ghost of the Hulk sitting right next to him. There's serenity in the face of annihilation, and I think Walker totally sells it. But he also puts other heroes through their paces, whether its Tony Stark gritting his teeth as he pours shot after shot of alcohol, or Stephen Strange sinking into the shadows of defeat.

As far as interludes go, this as actually one of the strongest issues of New Avengers in quite some time. This series got derailed in a big way during the Infinity crossover, but now that we're getting back to the crux of the high concept - namely, how far heroes might go to save us, and what it does to them afterwards - as we delve really deeply into each man's psyche as the end of the world draws near. It may be curtains for planet Earth, but this issue marks a creative rebirth for Jonathan Hickman's epic saga.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse Presents #1
Written by Geof Darrow, David Mack, Peter Hogan, Brendan McCarthy, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Damon Gentry
Art by Geof Darrow, Dave Stewart, David Mack, Steve Parkhouse, Brendan McCarthy, Andy Kuhn, John Rauch, Aaron Conley and Joseph Bergen III
Lettering by Peter Doherty, David Mack, Steve Parkhouse, Nate Piekos, John J. Hill and Damon Gentry
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Rob McMonigal
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

One of comics' most honored anthology series catches reboot fever from its superhero cousins but still delivers a mix of names new and old, one-shots and continuing series, and overall quality level that allows this latest incarnation to hold up its four-color head and go toe-to-toe with its predecessors.

Dark Horse Presents is in its third print version now (or four, if you count the trade paperbacks of the online experiment, MySpace Dark Horse Presents). Though the format has changed slightly, going from a larger, $7.99 near-magazine, to an annual-like comic with a price point to match ($4.99), there is not much difference in the style or tone. We get six stories, headlined by creator Geof Darrow bringing back the satirical Big Guy and Rusty, three of which are one-shots and the other half being the beginning of series work. Four of the tales are established characters (with the best known being perhaps David Mack's Kabuki), while two appear to be newly created.

Leading off with a splash page that makes it clear we're dealing with a parody (featuring a beach of bored people, trash, guns and alcohol), Darrow brings out a conservative robot ready to blast a kaiju by exercising his Second Amendment rights, hysterically spouting right-wing banter at his foe. The action is big and brash, but the best part is watching poor Rusty follow protocol, reading off a card to increasingly uncaring people who take selfies with the monster, make out, etc. It's works because of the slightly gritty nature of the art that reminds me quite a bit of James Stokoe and grounds the scene in the ordinary.

It's easy to appreciate the collage-style artwork of Mack in his latest Kabuki entry, which uses a visit to a fortune teller to set up a new dynamic for future stories. The art feels three-dimensional with borders and lettering overtop of painted art, along with small drawings, magazine clippings, and other ephemera. The style won't work for everyone, but fans of Mack and experimental art will want to linger over the pages to catch the little details.

The Resident Alien prequel is a lot more straightforward, going back to his early days on Earth, as he tries to find a way to make a living. It's mostly setup, with a great commentary on the credulity of folks gambling in Vegas. While Peter Hogan's dialogue is sharp, Steve Parkhouse's art comes off a bit flat here, partly because it has to follow Mack's amazing visuals and precede Brendan McCarthy's innovative use of dialogue balloons in the first part of Dream Gang. As the pages progress, Parkhouse's lines feel less polished, until the close-ups of the men following the alien are more akin to raw, initial sketches instead of finished work. Meanwhile, McCarthy contrasts the black-and-white waking world with a kaleidoscope of tie-dye shades for his dream world, in which a man must face off against strange creatures to save his sanity. Getting sandwiched between intricate collages and a winged lighthouse with demons, backed by random speeches in fluorescent colors wasn't really fair.

Wrapping things up are two tales that keep it light. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are known for writing fun comics, and they deliver with a wrestler and his daughter trapped in a ghost town hiding an intergalactic cage match. Andy Kuhn's human figures are just okay, but the promise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles alum getting to draw monsters should be a lot of fun. The closing short, featuring Damon Gentry and Aaron Conley's Sabertooth Swordsman, is a playful romp in which said Swordsman must recover his stolen pants from giant scarab beetles who take him on a dungeon crawl that includes a Family Circus-style maze, Pac-Man ghosts, mummies, and a surprise too good to spoil here. Conley's art is fluid and more than up to the task of keeping pace with the fast-moving plot, with linework that pays less attention to anatomy than pulling off a visual gag.

The basic mission of Dark Horse Presents, at least in this first issue, appears to be the same as Volume 2-give creators a place to do one-shots with established characters to gauge interest and generate material to put out as one-shots. While it might have been nice to see Dark Horse have this new iteration push the envelope by inviting creators new to weekly comics or feature only one or two established characters, this is a series that does what it sets out to do arguably better than any other comics anthology except 2000 AD, and it will always be a welcome sight on the comics shelf, regardless of its format.

Credit: IDW

Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland #1
Written by Eric Shanower
Art by Gabriel Rodriguez and Nelson Daniel
Lettering by Robbie Robbins
Published by IDW Publishing
Review by Lindsey Morris
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Creating a legacy book based on the work of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland could not have been an easy undertaking. A body of work so rich in character and history, so lauded for what it brought to the comic strip medium at the time - how could anything hope to compare, or even pay tribute to that? Writer Eric Shanower and artist Gabriel Rodriguez do their best in the first installment of Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland.

The plot of the book is a little hard to pin down from the outset. References are made to the old Nemo (RIP?) without a clear indication of what's happened to him, and our new Nemo, a.k.a. "Jimmy," seems to be exactly the same character in all but hair color. It's a strange set-up, leaving the reader wondering why the creative team didn't just do a full reboot of the story. The opening scenes of the issue call back to the previous iterations of Nemo as well, with Jimmy proclaiming that he "doesn't play with girls," only to be lured onto the road to Slumberland anyway with promises of candy and wonder. The rest of the comic sees our protagonist attempting to make his way to the dream city, but is thwarted time and time again through various circumstances.

As with all first issues, this book deserves a little leeway, but there is no denying that the art does all the heavy lifting here. Rodriguez and colorist Nelson Daniel do a superb job of creating a dreamy, highly detailed world where all manner of people and creatures reside. The beautifully intricate cityscapes that McCay was known for also make an appearance, and the whole comic shows the bold primary colors that made the first Nemo series pop. Views of Slumberland and Sky-High-Nimbus are among the most gorgeous shots in the book, and I daresay the this week's comic shelves as well. The panel layouts and story sequences are not as experimental or whimsical as those of McCay, but they have strong visual storytelling and do a fine job of progressing the narrative.

The story does a good job of imitating the source material, but when removed from the overarching themes, it falls flat. The pacing and constant trials of attempting to enter Slumberland become tiresome, and there is no character development to speak of. This might have worked in a weekly one-page script, but in a twenty page comic it becomes ponderous. As a legacy book, this issue assumes the reader has some knowledge of the story already, but with an entirely new character as the lead, we need a little more information on our hero. It comes off as being played very safe, without the much of the innovation that made the original series so fantastic.

It's clear that a lot of thought and effort went into making this book, and it certainly doesn't go unnoticed. The visuals are stunning, and the storyline familiar. The back of the issue also contains a few pages of history on McCay and his original strip, as well as process shots of the comic. The main problem lies in diversity. Since it's not a reboot, there was a lot of room to branch out, and that was not seen this time around. There is plenty of room to grow here and tell a remarkable story, so let's hope that the next issue takes more advantage of that.

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