Best Shots Comic Reviews: ANGELA #1, SECRET SIX #1, HELLBOY & BPRD #1, More

Marvel previews for December 3, 2014
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Angela: Assassin of Asgard #1
Written by Kieron Gillen and Marguerite Bennett
Art by Phil Jimenez, Stephanie Hans, Tom Palmer and Romulo Fajardo
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Angela seemed like an odd addition to the Marvel Universe from the get-go, but she’s settled in nicely with the Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s rare for a character of her level of visibility to be thrown in with no context, but all the writers who have handled her have quickly established her as a no-nonsense warrior princess who doesn’t take anyone’s guff. Basically, she’s a perfect complement to the glut of hyper-masculinity present in Marvel’s version of Asgard, and her status as the lost daughter of Odin makes her something of an equal to Thor, something that Sif and Valkyrie cannot claim. Kieron Gillen and Marguerite Bennett might actually have Marvel’s equal to Wonder Woman here, especially with the added bonus of stellar artwork from Phil Jimenez and Stephanie Hans.

Unfortunately, we get beat over the head with narration that’s ouroboric in its inanity. “The angel that wasn’t an angel.” “The desert that wasn’t a desert.” It’s a hamfisted attempt to try and elevate the narrative, but thankfully it gives way to some humor. That’s where the script really picks up. It’s easy to draw parallels between Angela/Sera and Xena/Gabrielle - the killing machine who is great at hiding her feelings (until she isn’t) and the plucky yet capable sidekick. This book is at it’s best when Angela is kicking ass and taking names. Sera is the point of view character that Gillen and Bennett lean on to give readers a way into the story that’s a bit more relatable. There’s a slight detour that explains how Sera and Angela came to know each other that is timed just right. Fight scenes can often be overly long and lose their impact but Sera’s story allows us to get a break from the action, provides some needed exposition and best of all, it’s interesting enough to hold our attention.

Phil Jimenez is a name that comics fans are sure to recognize and his work here is really excellent. It’s fitting that Marvel would tap the former Wonder Woman artist/writer for this book. Angela’s costume might be revealing (she basically wear a giant belt on her lower half, not an exaggeration), but Jimenez’s artwork isn’t overly exploitative. His character designs are effective. His fight scenes are well choreographed and they work especially well in a digital format. I was very impressed by his expression work as well. There are a number of non-human characters that he nails the expression of sheer terror. But while Jimenez clearly brought his A-game, Stephanie Hans somehow still manages to one-up him. Her painted pages explaining Sera and Angela’s past are a great fit for the flashback nature of the scene and her Angela exudes strength and tenacity.

The opening pages are rocky, but the creative team overcomes a bad start to deliver a fun debut issue that sets the stage for what’s to come. Angela has become a character that thrives in just about any story she’s been placed in, so fans worried that she might seem out of place can breathe easy. The final page reveal gives us a reason to keep checking in on Angela, as her tenuous relationship to her newfound family is sure to keep this book going for at least the first couple of arcs. The editors made the right decision by putting two artists on this issue, as they’re able to provide two different looks that enhance the reading experience and don’t overwhelm one another. Angela is a good start to this book and a reminder that while they might stumble once in a while (ahem, Spider-Woman), Marvel isn’t afraid to give a diverse cast of characters a spotlight.

Credit: DC Comics

Secret Six #1
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Ken Lashley, Drew Geraci and Jason Wright
Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

One of the sad casualties of the New 52 was Gail Simone's Secret Six, a spiritual cousin to Suicide Squad featuring a rotating cast of supervillains, heavy doses of violence and more than its fair share of jet-black comedy to lighten up the mix. Sadly, the resurrection of Secret Six has come at a perilous cost, as not only does Simone have to rebuild her team from scratch - and largely without the sense of humor that made her previous run so critically praised - but is also completely hamstrung by some wildly inconsistent artwork.

That's not to say, of course, that Simone isn't trying. She starts off her story with a smart choice, focusing on Thomas Blake, the semi-feral fighter known as Catman. Yet Simone spends nearly a third of the book focused on Catman trying to evade the authorities, all without giving us a reason to actually like Blake as a character, aside from everyone discussing how "scorching hot" he is. (Threatening to "spray in your face so you know whose property you are" isn't particularly cool or even funny, but just kinda gross.) It's definitely badass, but badass is also a dime a dozen in superhero comics.

Once Catman is put in a room with the rest of the Six, however, the book does start to regain some momentum. Unfortunately, this team is nowhere near as exciting as Simone's original team - gone is the black comedy of Ragdoll, or the steady leadership of Scandal Savage, or the disturbing paternalism of Bane. Still, Simone deserves the chance to leave her mark on a new cast of characters, and you can already tell who her favorites are. The Ventriloquist serves as the team's resident scary creep, even if a joke about seeing her unmentionables completely falls flat, and Simone seems to be enjoying the Britishisms of team bruiser Big Shot.

That said, the team doesn't exactly do much besides meet each other in this first issue - there's an unknown captor giving them demands, and they fight amongst themselves as villains tend to do, but this is an issue that needs to survive on chemistry if not narrative substance. Most of the characters thus far come off as one-dimensional, or worse - Strix, an alum of Birds of Prey, is reduced to just writing "I kil peepel" on Post-It notes, and Porcelain feels less like a fully realized character and more of just someone for Catman to talk to.

While this is definitely a shaky introduction in terms of the writing, that could be overcome by the art. But as far as first issue artwork goes, this is a tremendous miss for DC. Ken Lashley's artwork starts off decently enough, even if it is overwhelmed by bloated pacing and some overdone colorwork by Jason Wright. Yet once the issue gets going, the overcrowded, hyperrendered artwork winds up becoming distorted on a page-to-page basis, with some pages, like Catman being magically thrown by Black Alice, not even looking like it was by the same artist. Backgrounds are reduced to scratchy scribbles, with Wright overwhelming the pages with the same colors again and again and again.

For a cult classic like Secret Six, that mistake might mean the kiss of death. The reason why this book clawed onto life for as long as it did was because it was a good comic book that just didn't happen to have a broad market like a Batman or a Justice League. But this comic feels only like the original Secret Six in name, and while one could easily argue that that makes sense in a post-New 52 landscape, it was Simone's secret recipe that kept this series going. With a bad first impression on the artwork and no chemistry between the characters, Secret Six might already be dead on arrival.

Credit: Image Comics

Chew #45
Written and Lettered by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory and Taylor Wells
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

John Layman treats readers to a sweet-and-sour conclusion to the "Chicken Tenders" arc of Chew, as Tony Chu reels in horror in the aftermath of the Collector's brutal assault on his fellow FDA officers - as well as Chu's teenage daughter, Olive. This issue doesn't have the blood or shock value of the previous one, but honestly, that may be a good thing. This issue trades in this series' trademark wittiness for something even more valuable: heart.

For those looking for resolution following the cliffhanger of last issue, you'll likely be disappointed - we're in the same boat as Tony is, as he watches from a hospital waiting room as doctors frantically try to save Caesar, Savoy, Applebee and Olive. And while we share in Chu's apprehension and fear, Layman actually sets up this issue with a truly sweet subplot - namely, the story of NASA Director Paneer Sharma. At first, Layman sets Paneer up as an overenthusiastic creep who is stalking the Chu brothers, but his motivations all make sense in the end.

Plus, getting to see NASA in action might be the most badass action sequence Chew has ever printed. Let's just say that in the Chew-niverse, our space scientists are packing a lot more heat than just a fifth-dimensional bookshelf.

While Layman dazzles by showing us how our doomed FDA agents made it out in one piece (well, maybe if you round up), Rob Guillory really shows his range with the artwork. His scenes in the hospital are foreboding and sad, particularly as you watch the doctors operate on Savoy, whose large frame is ripped open and vulnerable. You'd also be forgiven if you get a lump in your throat in a silent sequence, as Tony realizes someone who's been helping him all along.

Perhaps the most interesting sequence in this book is Guillory's staging of a fight between Chu and his partner, Colby - a partner who not only has been working with a criminal behind Tony's back, but even brought Tony's daughter into the fray. There's a real tendency in comics to make fights "pretty," with complex choreography and an eye for composition. And usually, that's what works. But Guillory actually seems to do the exact opposite of what you'd expect for a comic book brawl, as his characters aren't going for stylish combat. Instead, they're diving at each other and punching each other in the face, occasionally zooming in with their enraged expressions. It's not a pretty fight - and thing is, it's not meant to be.

In a lot of ways, the last issue of Chew was the real conclusion to the "Chicken Tenders" arc, with this being a haunting epilogue to the carnage of the previous issue. After all that action, Layman's made the right call by giving us a quiet moment to feel - and to mourn. And with a shocking twist on the final page, this arc looks to be the one that will inspire Tony Chu to take the fight back to the Collector. Coming after the holidays with a bleak finale, it seems that even with the increased body count, Layman and Guillory are giving us plenty to be thankful for with Chew #45.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1952 #1
Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Art by Alex Maleev and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Hellboy is probably one of the most consistent properties in comics today. For 20 years, creator Mike Mignola and a host of collaborators have brought the world and characters of Hellboy to life, and while that much material might make a new reader trepidatious, they’ve returned with a flashback story that works as an effective reintroduction to the concept. Alex Maleev joins the fray, providing work that is comparable to Mignola’s in terms of use of shadows but still maintains its own certain edge. This isn’t yet the Hellboy that many fans have come to know and love, but that’s okay. It’s an interesting peek into the past that help provide context for future adventures.

Mignola and John Arcudi stay in the pocket on this one. The plot is simple. The B.P.R.D. are being sent to investigate a supernatural occurrence that has taken the lives of at least 30 people in Brazil. We meet Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, the Director of B.P.R.D., immediately, as nightmares awaken him from sleep, allowing Mignola ad Arcudi to establish early on that the things you see in the employ of the B.P.R.D. stay with you. Agents Archie Muraro, Jacob Stegner, Susan Xiang and Robert Amsel are quickly introduced as is the main conflict. The agents are a bit plain at the start, and that makes the absence of Hellboy all the more noticeable. When he is introduced halfway through the book, he’s used as a foil to help characterize the agents. His origins have been discussed, his past troubles have been noted and he’s been cleared for his first assignment. but I think that might be the weakness of the first issue. The first scene is a great hook, but it devolves into an overlong briefing situation. Longtime fans won’t find any problems with it, but newer ones might find it a little dull.

Alex Maleev is just as much of a known commodity as Mike Mignola or Hellboy, and his work here is perfectly complementary. He’s always used a lot of photo reference, but considering the time period of the book, it helps enhance the world we’re seeing. It’s the shadows that really make their mark. Maleev’s strong character designs and settings are doused in deep blacks that make the mystery of the B.P.R.D.’s mission even more evident. Colorist Dave Stewart really shows up in this issue, too. He’s long been known as one of the top colorists in comics and by using a limited palette of murky blues, grays and purples mixed with highlights of red, orange and yellow, he’s able to highlight the darkness and place it front and center.

This is a standard installment in the Hellboy universe. Mike Mignola gathers top-flight talent for his property, and the pieces fall into place. That said, this is a very introductory issue. Not much happens, but the exposition isn’t so heavy-handed that you feel like you’re just getting an information dump. It’s paced well enough to keep readers enticed while still setting the stage for the rest of the story. It’s a welcome reintroduction to this world and a reminder that Hellboy’s still got it after all these years.

Credit: Image Comics

Nailbiter #8
Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Mike Henderson and Adam Guzowski
Lettering by John J. Hill
Published by Image Comics
Review by Kat Vendetti
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Aside from the whole serial killer thing, there are two consistencies within Buckaroo, Oregon: it rains a lot, and there is a weird presence of bees. First seen stinging Finch way back in Nailbiter #1 and flying out of Warren’s house, their presence starts to get an explanation in Nailbiter #8 as Joshua Williamson adds yet another layer to the growing mystery of Buckaroo, and it may have a lot more to do with the Butchers than you’d have thought.

After two one-off stories following the first arc, Nailbiter is back to tackling the mystery of the Buckaroo Butchers after Carroll was found, along with all the information he’d collected. It’s easy to lose sight of all the developments that had been built so far with so much time since they had been established, so Nailbiter #8 spends a lot of its time recapping those events. From Crane’s history with Warren, to the alarming influx of mysterious murders of late, and to the jam-packed conclusion of the last arc in Nailbiter #5, this issue brings us back up to speed and situates us back into the central focus of the story. It can make this issue a bit slow-moving, but luckily, it doesn’t suffer from feeling too expositional; the dialogue feels natural, especially with the use of Finch’s interrogation skills that make the review and elaboration of past events into part of the narrative, rather than an info-dump. And what Williamson has to offer in terms of the bees’ connection to Buckaroo makes this issue an intriguing vehicle back into the action. Nailbiter #8 is alluding to some pretty creative conclusions with this new piece to the puzzle, and from the first page, Williamson makes the situation into the kind of creepy only Nailbiter can offer.

However, the mystery is more compelling than the threat in this issue. With all that Nailbiter has given us so far, this issue’s developments come quietly, and with all the time Nailbiter #8 spends picking the story back up where it had left off, certain moments intended to feel threatening or foreboding don’t quite hit the mark just yet. It’s in part due to this issue’s pace, which takes its time addressing where each character is in this point in the story before delving into the heart of the mystery. In turn, some of Mike Henderson’s panels can come across a little wooden; as the plot starts to build towards the climax of this issue, the art gets weighed down by the dialogue, leaving little movement on the closing pages so that this issue doesn’t really feel like it picks up the pace by its conclusion.

Despite that, Henderson does deliver a few new characters that fit right into the framework of Buckaroo with their expressive and detailed designs as Williamson gives these new characters their own unique perspective on the town’s secrets. And though Warren has been taking up less of the spotlight, Williamson adds extra moments to remind us that the Nailbiter has not been forgotten.

By addressing seeds that had been planted very early on in this series, Williamson shows that there are still places for him to take us in Nailbiter. Though it’s a steady start, Nailbiter #8 sets the stage for what answers these new clues may give, and with Adam Guzowski’s gray hues to set the mood for Buckaroo’s signature rain, it feels like we’re back in business.

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