Best Shots Comic Reviews: SUPERMAN #34, AVENGERS #34, More

Superman #34
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Superman #34
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson and Laura Martin
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Superman, both the character and the book of the same name, works best as the "Man of Tomorrow." Long before the countless reboots, crises and the line-wide re-imaginings, this is what Superman was. An idealized version of ourselves, something that we could one day be if we aspired to it. The idea often gets lost in a modern setting, when one starts to think of Superman more as the "Man of Steel," the waters get muddied. Since Geoff Johns took over this title, the back-to-basics approach has recalled this philosophy, and no issue has made that more clear than this one.

With the introduction of Ulysses, whose origin story deliberately parallels Kal-El’s, Johns is able to highlight what makes Superman so unique. An introduction by the mysterious and enigmatic Machinist notes that it is because he “never gave up hope,” and the remainder of this issue is illustrative of the different forms that hope can take. Ulysses was brought up on a world that was entirely peaceful, with equally loving parents as the Kents, but had assumed his birth parents were dead. He’s emerged back into his homeworld as a fully-formed super-being, in some respects the antithesis of Superman. Yet like us, he looks to Superman for his ideals.

In an issue filled with touching moments between parents and their children, be it Ulysses’ birth or wholly alien adoptive ones, the most poignant scenes come between the two super-powered titans. Waking Kal-El in the middle of the night, in a move that sits somewhere between sleepless child and creepy stalker, Ulysses ponders what it is like to dream. His most pointed question is whether his new friend dreams of being Clark Kent or Superman. Exposing his human frailties, Superman recounts a dream in which he is back on Krypton and fails to save his own birth parents. “I open my shirt to change into Superman, but I’m not wearing my suit. I can’t find it... Then I wake up.” It once again ponders which of his faces is the mask: the one he shows to the world, or the one he shows to his friends?

In such a conversation-filled issue, it’s fitting that the single piece of combat in this issue (a few easily dismissed robotic dogs aside) is between Ulysses and Superman, albeit with the former under the old chestnut of mind-control. The sometimes cartoonish flairs to Romita Jr.’s art that we see in his Kick-Ass material has increasingly toned down to meet Superman’s style, itself indicative of the power of the character’s iconography. Following a brilliant red-soaked splash page of first "punch," the entire smack-down is over in seven tight panels. It’s all the more effective when contrasted with the first half of the issue, as Laura Martin’s pastel colors (and Klaus Janson’s expertly delicate brush of inks) give way to the Sturm und Drang of the second part.

As Johns and Romita Jr. continue their first arc on this title, next month’s Future’s End issue notwithstanding, reader faith has been rewarded. This arc is a perfect jumping-on point for the New 52 version of the character, boiling him down to the essentials, although signaling some changes on the horizon for one of DC’s flagship character. This is your daddy’s Superman - just turned up to 11.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Avengers #34
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Lenil Francis Yu, Sunny Gho, Matt Milla and Gerry Alanguilan
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Once, there was a grand idea that grew into the great Avengers Machine, and countless worlds carried the standard of an Avengers world with Earth standing tall at the center. But now, the Machine is shattered, our heroes have been splintered from the inside by betrayal and there may not be a way back. Jonathan Hickman’s run on Avengers has always toed the line between high-concept science fiction and genuine human emotion, but Avengers #34 might be the purest example of this to date. As Captain America concludes his jaunt through time, he comes face-to-face with not only the final future of his and Tony Stark’s grand Avengers Machine experiment, but his own moral code. But Cap is sick and tired of hearing that he just won’t understand, and he is damn well going to do something about it.

Avengers #34 finds our favorite kid from Brooklyn whisked away from fractured temporal space by Iron Lad and transplanted into a time simply referred to as “Betrayal + Forever” by Hickman’s trademark cheeky captions. It is here that Iron Lad reveals to Cap the final fate of his proposed Avengers World in the form of a united Kang, Iron Lad, and Immortus, who plan to keep Steve there with them, leaving Iron Man and his Illuminati to continue the grim work of stopping multiversal entropy. Hickman’s run has been punctuated by populating the title with characters that have either been benched or out of the public eye for a bit, so while Iron Lad serves a defined narrative purpose in this issue along with his grown selves, it still does a fan’s heart good to see that Hickman is more than willing to dust off some of our old favorites for a stirring cameo.

While the three Kangs are fun enough, Avengers #34 is all about Steve, and in that regard, it is a hell of an issue. This current arc has pitted Steve against seemingly impossible odds as he is flung through time, being constantly greeted by the fallout of his and Tony’s mistakes in the present. Here in Avengers #34, Cap finally puts his foot down and delivers an incredible speech that should rightfully stand beside such Cap gems as the “No, you move” speech and various Brubaker era monologues. In it, he laments at just how tired he is of being told by clever people that he just doesn’t understand. While the geniuses and kings of the Marvel universe weigh the lives of people and worlds by declaring it the greater good, Steve Rogers sees someone who is in need and then helps them. He refuses to see things as some grand scheme or design; as he says, “I rescue the helpless. I raise up the hopless. I don’t measure people’s lives, I save them.” With that speech, Jonathan Hickman cuts right to the core of who Captain America is and why we respond to him. Even standing among infinite beings far in the future, he is still a man who will lay everything on the line for everyone else. It is a brilliant character moment amid an Avengers run filled with stellar character moments.

Upon returning to his own time, Cap sets a plan in motion with his most trusted teammates to finally take the fight to Stark and his Illuminati in order to halt universal entropy, save the future and put an end to their schemes once and for all. My only complaint with this issue is that it would have been great to have this twist (as well as some of the twists happening in New Avengers) a bit earlier than Issue #34 in order to give the book a bit more of a rudder, instead of some of the more lightweight issues that we received earlier in the series. This quibble aside, I find myself positively electric at the possibility of these two teams coming to a head and the wealth of stories that Avengers could explore in the future.

Ending this arc with a few literal bangs is the Avengers' star pitch hitting art team of Lenil Yu, Sunny Gho, Matt Milla and Gerry Alanguilan, who once again make the most of their time with the title. While Hickman’s Avengers run has had a rotating stable of talented artists throughout, Yu and his team have represented the bulk of the look of Hickman’s Avengers, providing the closest to a signature look that the title has come to. Yu’s Cap is still the stalwart soldier that we have all come to love, but Yu isn’t afraid to make him look tired and world-weary, giving his speech a slight layer of stubborn indignation on top of the emotion already within the words. Gho and Milla’s colors are on a whole other level with Avengers #34 as they drench the costumes of Iron Lad, Kang, and Immortus in metallic and almost garish colors amid the cool marble of their fortress in the middle of a lush jungle. Avengers sometimes is a title that looks somewhat off depending on who is handling the artwork, but under Yu and his comrades, it always looks pristine.

The Machine may be broken, but Cap will never let go of the dream, nor will he suffer Tony Stark’s machinations any longer. Avengers #34 may not be the most team-heavy issue, nor will it ever be considered one of the best Avengers comics of all time, but it will definitely stand as a major highlight of Jonathan Hickman’s intricately plotted run. The high-concept sci-fi coupled with a fantastic understanding of what makes Steve Rogers just so heroic melds together into a satisfying superhero comic experience that would soften the heart of even the most critical of Cap readers. The greatest thing about comics is that you can throw characters like Steve Rogers into impossible situations just to see how things shake out, and Hickman has done just that, without losing sight of exactly why Captain America is Captain America.

Credit: DC Comics

All-Star Western #34
Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray
Art by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

This is how you bow out.

All-Star Western, as well as its pre-reboot predecessor Jonah Hex, was a book that languished in obscurity, always kept in the shadow of its caped cousins in the DCU proper. Yet with few exceptions, All-Star Western was possessed of strong storytelling and bright but ultimately overlooked artists. But with Darwyn Cooke joining Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray on their grand finale, this writing team ends its eight-year run with one of the best comics of the week.

It's hard to get much more metaphorical than this issue's plot, where Jonah Hex - unscarred and given a brand-new start after a trip to the future - learns that there is a pretender to his name. What's an outlaw to do: let this wannabe take lives in his name and live happily ever after, or fight to protect the Jonah Hex brand and wind up a taxidermied body on display? Palmiotti and Gray lend a real likability to the gruff Hex through his companion, the scarred but beautiful bombshell Tallulah Black. Even though Jonah is a man with a rough past, you can't help but soften up - this is a man who, if he's not in love, at least holds a deep, warm admiration for his passionate, free-spirited companion.

But of course, what sells this book is the fact that some A-list talent is on the art. This isn't Darwyn Cooke's first rodeo with Jonah Hex, but every time he comes back it feels like a special occasion. Palmiotti and Gray oftentimes just get out of Cooke's way, particularly with a gorgeous two-page spread of Tallulah joyously, silently leaping into a lake or a masterful 11-panel silent page where Hex takes the fight to his doppelganger. To say his characters are beautiful is an understatement - even with Hex's stubbly, dirty face or the scars and eyepatch adorning Tallulah, his heroes simply smolder with sexiness and expressiveness. The fact that this book got an extra two pages from the usual spread of 20 makes this even more wonderful - because any page of Darwyn Cooke you can get is a real treat.

What's great about All-Star Western #34 is that while it requires only a minimum of backstory - Hex has seen the future, and he knows it winds up with him dead - there's a huge depth of metacommentary here. For years, Palmiotti and Gray have been fighting, often tooth and nail, to write the adventures of DC's scarred desperado. The finality bleeds through every page: Could these longtime creators not just be writing their last Jonah Hex story, but the last Jonah Hex Story? There's a heaviness here, as it feels like Jonah Hex - a Hex who's grown and evolved since his first issues - is taking on his own sordid past, a grittier, less refined foe wearing his old face. And even if Hex does survive, what's to keep him from an another painful, debilitating future?

You'll have to read All-Star Western #34 to find out. As far as swan songs go, this is about as good as it gets - wonderful characterization, stirring action and art from a master craftsman. It's fitting, in a way, because this series is going to go out as it lived - criminally overlooked, but always packing some major artistic heat.

Inhuman #4 Joe Madureira variant
Inhuman #4 Joe Madureira variant
Credit: Marvel Comics

Inhuman #4
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Ryan Stegman and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Aaron Duran
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

In a subtle use of title synergy that I have no doubt will thrill Marvel, my desire to jump into Inhuman is a direct result of Ms. Marvel. Where it not for the revelation of Kamala Khan's powers in her own title, I may have missed this one altogether. And that would have been a real shame, as even jumping in with Inhuman #4, this is a title that's able to hold a reader's interest, even if there are a few bumps along the way.

The Terrigen Mists continue to activate latent DNA with Inhumans residing on Earth, creating a surge in their population. Nicknamed NuHumans, Medusa welcomes all to the Inhuman city of New Attilan. Hoping they don't have another Siege on their hands, the Avengers send Thor to speak with Medusa - one royal to another - all while the Inhuman Reader seeks out a powerful force in China for his own reasons. Mix in political intrigue with super powered antics, and you've got quite the juggling act for writer Charles Soule.

Verbally, this is a very dense issue. Charles Soule has to cover a lot of ground with this one as he adds yet another layer to the already packed arc. He is at his strongest when discussing duties of state and responsibility between Medusa and Thor. A conversation that could have easily fallen into a dulled example of mid-arc slump is instead an interesting insight into both leaders. Thor has met his match in Medusa, but unlike the Asgardian, the monarch of the Inhumans finds a much better balance between her passions and her duties. There is also more than a sense of fun when you realize she is subtly taunting her royal guest for his own lack of leadership when Asgard hovered near an America city. Soule's dialogue falters a bit when we move to Reader and his actions in China. They aren't bad by any stretch of the imagination. But instead simply shift into exposition mode, and when held up against the Medusa and Thor moments simply feel lacking.

Visually however, new series artist Ryan Stegman brings a nice level of bizarre to the title without making it wholly foreign to the reader. Stegman's panel layout goes a long way in setting the tone of the issue. Regardless of the location, Stegman creates a sense of mystery and awe, allowing the characters themselves to take in the scenery. It's fun to read the nicely drawn expression on Thor's face as he takes in New Attilan. And thanks to Stegman's attention to living backgrounds, that feeling is shared by the reader. There is some strong layering that could have helped Inhuman #4 stand out from the pack this week as well and set a high standard that most titles should maintain.

It is a little disappointing that his style didn't transition well during the action scenes within the book. While I can appreciate the choice to simply reveal key elements in favor of the bigger picture, it feels like a misstep after the attention to detail before. This is an even bigger shame when you see that coloring and tones Marte Gracia brings to Stegman's pencils. Slightly shifting the green and purple palette within the issue adds a lot to the otherworldly nature of these characters. Even as they stand in the presence of an walking god, they read as alien. It's a strong choice that could have sold all of the art, were it given the chance.

Still, as a relative newcomer to this title, the political intrique is just dense enough to keep me interested. If Soule can lock in his pacing issues and if Stegman can open up his art for all scene, Inhuman could shift into a strong title for Marvel.

Credit: Marvel Comics

All-New X-Men #31
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mahmud Asrar, Marte Gracia and Jason Keith
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

With the adult X-Men tied up in the Last Will and Testament of Charles Xavier, the kids decide to continue their mission of finding new mutants without adult supervision. Brian Michael Bendis is continuing his march towards merging Marvel-616 and the Ultimate universes, but the plotting might leave some readers wanting a more complex explanation. Mahmud Asrar turns in his worst issue in recent memory, and this book is continuing to flounder the longer it goes on.

Given all of the dimension-hopping, time-traveling, universe-traversing gadgets and gizmos in the Marvel Universe, it’s really hard to believe that the All-New X-Men aren’t home yet. The book still boasts a generally likable cast, but there’s so much that doesn’t add up. Jean Grey’s casual reading of everyone’s minds seems like it should be greater cause for alarm among the team, considering that they know who/what she becomes. Bendis’ forays into the soap opera drama and relationship schmaltz aren’t as strong as they were in past issues. I like how Angel and X-23’s relationship changes the dynamic of the team a little bit, but they seem like an awkward fit instead of something with more staying power, a la Colossus and Kitty Pryde’s relationship.

Bendis also introduces a new mutant who, it seems, can essentially teleport people to parallel universes. It’s a neat trick that very easily opens up the Marvel multiverse, but it feels forced. Rather than having the characters in the title drive the plot, Bendis just has a random event occur that puts them where he needs them to be. This is the complete opposite of organic storytelling, and while there’s hope that the ends will justify the means, it’s still hard not to get a band taste in your mouth. I mean, a whole issue just so the team can be whisked away to a parallel world? The story would have been better served just getting this part over with and getting us into the meat of the All-New X-Men finding themselves in the Ultimate Universe.

Mahmud Asrar’s usually clean lines and strong character renderings are almost completely absent. Multiple panels have faces with askew features leading to the characters looking almost unfamiliar on the page. Asrar skimps on the details in his panels and while that might work for readers who aren’t reading closely in print, it looks terrible when read digitally. Some characters have panels where they’re speaking but barely have discernible mouths or have no mouths at all. I’m not saying that every panel needs to be incredibly detailed but at least the basic should be there. These problems definitely improve as the issue does on and Asrar really nails the final splash page but overall, this was a weak effort.

All-New X-Men #31 plays more like filler than anything else. In an age where marketing and PR has completely robbed us of any surprises, storytelling decompression has only served to annoy readers rather than enhance their experience. I think Bendis presents us with a fairly classic “X-Men go find a new mutant” story (complete with another “survive the experience” reference to X-Men #139) in order to reacquaint readers with these characters before thrusting them into a new situation. But it only serves to delay the inevitable and it makes the final splash completely predictable. Asrar doesn’t really get much to draw in this issue either. Without any action to anchor the book, the lack of detail almost comes across as disdain for having to draw so many talking heads. Maybe this journey into the Ultimate universe is what’s needed to reinvigorate this book - ya know, if they survive the experience.

Futures End #17 Cover
Futures End #17 Cover
Credit: DC Comics

The New 52: Futures End #17
Written by Brian Azzarello, Jeff Lemire, Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen
Art by Patrick Zircher and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The problem with running concurrent events is that, inevitably, some get overshadowed. As DC ramped up press for its newest blockbuster The Multiversity, both of the company’s weekly events were set aside in favor of the bigger event fish, leaving only the readers of the books to continue to spread word of mouth. But after 17 weeks of story so far, what exactly do the readers have to talk about now? As it turns out, still not very much, as Futures End continues to be a floundering mish-mash of separate groups of characters, punctuated by big-ish moments that seem to dribble out instead of burst forth from the story. Riding the momentum of a truly interesting final page reveal from last week, the Futures End writing team once again forsakes comic book weirdness and fun for portentous storytelling and scenes that just simply begin, end, and then jump to another group of characters miles away. The New 52: Futures End has all the makings to be DC’s wildest and wooliest event yet, but for some reason, it still hasn’t been allowed to get out of the gate.

The New 25: Futures End #17 finds us catching up with Constantine, Deathstroke’s new “team,” and Emiko and Big Barda as they hunt for answers and the murderer of Emiko’s brother, Oliver Queen. Issue #17's big moment however comes with the obvious reveal of the Masked Superman, whose secret identity will likely surprise a grand total of four people. All of these stories are fine enough and the Superman reveal could lead to some interesting stuff in the next few weeks, but it is the way in which they are presented that makes them feel jarring and disconnected from each other. Each group of characters receive a grand total of two to four pages each to carry out their scenes and each scene seems to end right whenever they start to really get interesting.

After Emiko reveals to Barda and Diggle that she is the sister of Oliver Queen, she is allowed only a bit of posturing before we are spirited away to another group of characters without a moment’s notice, thus undercutting the power of the reveal and robbing both Diggle and Barda of their reactions, save for a cool bit of posing thanks to Patrick Zircher and Hi-Fi. These characters are all inhabiting the same story, yet Futures End never seems to treat them as such. Most of the time it feels like each group is starring in their own solo title that just happens to be crammed into one book.

To me, the lion’s share of the blame for this is on the weekly format of the book. If Futures End was a monthly book with possibly a few extra pages each month, the separate plots might actually have been given time to congeal into a singular feeling narrative, but with the weekly format, the emphasis is placed on speed and withholding narrative information as to not give away the ghost too easily or quickly, which almost renders most scenes inert because they never have a chance to fully unfold. Each scene in this book, including the issue’s big reveal of Superman as well as the last page reveal of Constantine coming face to face with Kal-El feels a page too short. I realize that this may sound nitpicky to some, but the point still stands; each of these writers have handled wildly separate groups of characters across all manner of realities before, but yet, they made those stories all feel like one story. The New 52: Futures End has never felt like one story, rather several different stories jammed into a weekly comic and I don’t find it entertaining or particularly engaging. After 17 weeks of story, at this point you would think it would feel somewhat cohesive, but I suppose we will just have to wait a few more weeks and see where we, and the characters, are then.

On the plus side, it seems Patrick Zircher has shaken off the static, wooden look of his previous work on Futures End and delivered a dynamic issue with the help of rich colors from Hi-Fi. There were several times during this book where Zircher’s pencils reminded me of the work of Mike Deodato as Zircher worked with simple, yet defined character poses as well as panel blocking, particularly in the scenes between Diggle, Emiko, and Barda, which uses simple establishing shots of the characters, negative space, and tight close ups on certain props in the scene to hammer home the clandestine tone of their adventure. My own complaint with Zircher’s work during Futures End #17 is that most of the characters look as if they were speaking through pursed lips unless explicitly showing an emotion. I almost didn’t notice it when I was first reading the issue, but upon the second read through, I noticed it happening to every character when they were shown in panel and it became a bit of unintentional comedy throughout. As a said before, despite the pursed lips of the characters, Hi-Fi colors the absolute hell out of Futures End #17, finally using the darker bold tone of the story to inform the look of the issue. The issue’s only real bright spots are the scenes with Constantine exploring the Horn of Africa and Deathstroke, Fifty Sue and Grifter exploring the prison in which the Earth-2 prisoners are being kept and that is only because both settings are naturally bright. Hi-Fi’s best showing however is during the fight between Rampage and Masked Superman as the panels are soaked in flashing yellows, deep oranges, and the ever present iconic red and blue of Superman’s shield. While the script may be a jumbled mess, at least the art team is working in lock step.

The New 52: Futures End has all the makings of a great DC event comic. It has an all-star creative team, a group of interesting characters, and a big, crazy hook that could be too good to resist. But, regrettably, the weekly format of the book coupled with the truncated script weighs the title down time and time again, refusing to let it spread its insane wings and truly fly. If you have been enjoying The New 52: Futures End thus far, or aim towards completion then #17 will be right up your street, but new readers or those curious about where the title is after 16 weeks need not bother. From its eking character reveals to its thudding transitions, The New 52: Futures End #17's outlook appears to be increasingly bleak.

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