Best Shots Reviews: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD #1, ULTIMATE END #1, ARCHIE VS. PREDATOR #1, more

DC Comics May 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

A-Force #1
Written by G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennett
Art by Jorge Molina, Craig Yeung, Laura Martin and Matt Milla
Letters by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Kelly Richards
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Welcome to Arcadia, home to A-Force. A group of heroes that takes the usual male-to-female team-up ratio and launches it straight into the Deadlands where it belongs - by which I of course mean A-Force is a team made up solely of women. Led by She-Hulk, and featuring all of your favorite Marvel superheroines, A-Force is living up to the hype.

A-force sees G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennett at the helm, and it’s not unfair to say that they pack a lot into this first issue. Don’t, however, let that put you off, because if nothing else, by the end you will have a basic understanding of the current state of the Marvel Universe and the laws of Battleworld - all of which will seem to be fairly insignificant when compared to the story that is beginning to unfold.

Wilson and Bennett definitely know what they are doing. The story is fun and the characters, even those who have yet to have their moment in the spot light are relatively fleshed out. The script is witty and tongue in cheek, with Wilson and Bennett taking it upon themselves to be funny and emotional on the same page, sometimes in the same sentence to great and subsequently heartbreaking effect.

By placing She-Hulk not only as the leader of A-Force but also as the Baroness of Arcadia, Wilson and Bennett have potentially planted the seeds of dissent among her and those who have already ruled or led a team. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case as it becomes clear that both A-Force and Arcadia are more akin to a sisterhood than a dictatorship. They are not fighting for themselves, they are fighting for each other, for their community, for Arcadia. I am, however, interested to see how this dynamic will develop as the story progresses.

With pencils from Jorge Molina, and inks from the collaborative effort of Molina and Craig Yeung A-force is a joy to behold. From the rib-vaulted ceiling of the Hall of Justice to Dazzler’s roller skates every page is wonderfully detailed. Aside from the action sequences Molina strength seems to lie in his understanding of the characters he is drawing. So much can be read from their posture and body language whether it be Medusa’s crossed arms and raised eyebrow, or Storm’s clenched fists. As such you are never in doubt as to the way a character is feeling or the tone in which they are speaking.

Laura Martin and Matt Milla’s choices with regards to color are wonderful and the first double page spread in particular is absolutely beautiful. When viewed as a backdrop, Arcadia looks almost dreamy with its terracotta roofs and azure waters, in comparison A-Force practically glows. Dazzler's costume especially looks incredible and the pastel colored bursts of light that surround her are such a nice touch. Overall, the colorwork is remarkably subtle, which when taking into consideration both the amount of action and the sheer number of costumed heroes in this book, is quite an accomplishment and prevents the book become too overpowering, visually.

The expectations for A-Force have been undoubtedly high, partly because of the creative team behind the book, and partly because this is one of the few Marvel titles that features a team made solely of women, but let me tell you, this book does not disappoint. It’s funny, it’s engaging, it’s packed full of action, and it’s a little bit emotional. A-Force has a diverse cast of heroes plucked from the full breadth of the Marvel universe and believe me, your favorite is in there somewhere. They are all in there somewhere. You can’t deny that even though we are only one issue in, A-Force is pretty tight. Captain Marvel totally punches a shark - what's not to love?

Credit: DC Comics

Mad Max: Fury Road: Nux and Immortan Joe #1
Written by George Miller, Nico Lathouris and Mark Sexton
Art by Mark Sexton, Leandro Fernandez, Riccardo Burchielli, Andrea Mutti and Michael Spicer
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Vertigo
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

What a lovely tie-in - what a lovely, lovely tie-in!

Spinning off of the insanity that was this past weekend's Mad Max: Fury Road, writer and director George Miller has teamed up with Vertigo and a trio of artists to flesh out the backstories of two of the movie's memorable characters. While some critics may argue that we don't exactly need to necessarily spell out everything there is to know about Nux or Joe, chances are, this is not the audience who's going to be picking up a tie-in comic less than a week after the movie came out. But for those Mad Max superfans, there's a decent of additional meat to these tie-in wordburgers.

The first story, in many ways, serves as an appetizer to a greater meal, as the History Man tells us of the story of Nux, Nicholas Hoult's excitable character in the film. In a lot of ways, Nux was a victim of the Mad Max: Fury Road film's editing process, as his journey from homicidal War Boy to sensitive protector of the Wives felt abrupt to say the least. That same sort of abbreviated character development also takes place in Nux's origin story, illustrated by Leandro Fernandez. Scripted by Nico Lathouris and Mark Sexton based on Miller's story, Nux's character feels a bit hapless, as his wide-eyed, smiling enthusiasm carries him into the mountain base of Immortan Joe. Fernandez's artwork, however, reminds me a bit of Eduardo Risso with a hint of Jim Calafiore, particularly the way he uses light and shadow.

Ultimately, though, Nux's story only gets seven pages out the book's whopping 30 - the lion's share of this comic goes to the villain of the film, Immortan Joe. From the get-go in the film, you could sense that there was a lot of unspoken story behind Joe, from his obsession with his wives to the utility of his vulture-esque gas mask. Yet behind that terrifying visage comes the story of Colonel Joe Moore, as artists Riccardo Burchielli and Andrea Mutti tag-team the warlord's rise to power.

Burchielli, for my money, is my favorite artist of the bunch, with his lusher inking and his evocative close-ups on Joe's eyes make for some thrilling fare. Mutti, on the other hand, goes for a much thinner line for the last few pages. But even with the artists changing up, not only can Lathouris and Sexton play off of Miller's gift for uber-metal names - henchmen like Major Kalashnikov, or Joe's son Rictus Erectus - but they also are able to bring their own poetry. "Once, the citizenry slept peacefully in their beds because rough men such as these did violence on their behalf," they write, as Joe's men ride through the cities. "Now, because of these same men... no one sleeps at night."

What will really make or break this comic in the eyes of many is, ultimately, just how much of a fan you are of Mad Max as a whole. If you haven't seen the new movie, for example, this is going to sail right over your head - and for plenty of others, the movie is a standalone work that doesn't need this kind of tangential tie-in. But if George Miller and Brendan McCarthy's insane action and designwork has stoked the fires of obsession in you and you just have to know more about what forces built Fury Road, however, then chances are you'll find something to enjoy in this bit of apocrypha.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Master of Kung Fu #1
Written by Haden Blackman
Art by Dalibor Talajic, Goran Sudžuka and Miroslav Mrva
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With Secret Wars underway, the tie-ins have begun to roll out, and Master of Kung Fu might be one that’s flown under the radar. Shang-Chi is a character that’s been used a lot recently as a support character, never quite getting his share of the spotlight. But in Haden Blackman’s capable hands, readers will quickly wonder why the master of kung fu hasn’t been given a chance. Blackman’s script shares some DNA with ‘90s Jackie Chan films (namely Legend of the Drunken Master), but it’s that approach that helps make Shang-Chi more relatable. Dalibor Talajic’s crisp artwork is a great match for the tone of the book and despite its fairly straightforward nature, there are definitely some big moments.

Blackman knows that to give this story any stakes, he’ll have to quickly summarize some of the mythology that surrounds Shang-Chi. What he ends up doing is setting up a martial arts competition within the world of story that he represents. That works perfectly to introduce readers to this side of the Marvel Universe if they aren’t familiar with any of the recent runs of Iron Fist.

That said, Blackman borrows heavily from his influences. Repositioning Shang-Chi as a sort of lovable Jackie Chan character rather than a more stoic Bruce Lee allows Blackman to capitalize on a tone that Mark Waid and Matt Fraction have used in their runs of Daredevil and Hawkeye respectively. The story feels instantly familiar, but it also lacks a little bit of originality at the same time. I like Blackman’s characterization of Shang-Chi in as much as I like all the things that inform it, but I wonder if we need another character in the Hawkeye/Star-Lord/Daredevil mold.

Dalibor Talajic’s art stays firmly in its lane, allowing the story to be a really quick read. Clean lines and strong character renderings are Talajic’s bread and butter but he does get a few moments to show off. The moment that Shang-Chi’s identity is made known to his attackers Talajic gives us an subtle but powerful show of the master of Kung Fu’s talents. It’s brilliant in its simplicity. Unlike many splash pages that are concerned with an action, this one is a statement in identity. In an era of reduced page counts, it’s impressive to see an artist use a splash page with such aplomb.

Master of Kung Fu is a pleasant surprise. It’s not a particularly weighty book but it is a fun, quick read that sets up the next chapter well and actually makes you excited to see more from a fringe character. That’s a best case scenario for an event tie-in, if I’ve ever read one. Blackman and Talajic’s reinvention of Shang-Chi might not be the most original book you pick up this week but you’d be hard pressed to find another title with such tight craftsmanship.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Archie vs. Predator #2
Written by Alex de Campi
Art by Fernando Ruiz, Rich Koslowski and Jason Millet
Lettering by John Workman
Published by Dark Horse
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Whoever though that Archie meeting the Predator was a good idea, they were absolutely right. It’s not a match that easily comes to mind, but Archie vs. Predator #2 makes all remaining apprehensions vanish at the pull of the Predator’s trigger. There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing the residents of Riverdale fall one by one and writer Alex de Campi makes each loss feel incredibly real to us, while artist Fernando Ruiz does an amazing job at bringing this impossible story to life.

There are a total of nine deaths in Archie vs. Predator #2. Though the core Archie group is safe for now - Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead - most of their friends aren’t so lucky. It felt fitting that so many died in the carnage as the first half of this series finishes up. It’ll allow de Campi to focus on the Archie characters we care the most about and really get a bang for her buck where the story’s concerned. The violence gets a little over the top at the climax of the issue, but it’s welcome to see the carnage happening at all. De Campi and Ruiz are ruthless in what they show in panels: people getting blown in half, heads exploding with eye balls flying away, and having heads with spines still attached ripped off of bodies. The deaths are certainly bloody disgusting, but that’s part of why they’re so entertaining!

The story still revolves around the dagger that Betty swiped from the jungles and de Campi does her best to try and make this story narratively coherent. It’s those moments that ultimately detract from the main draw of the story. When Betty realizes after a gruesome death that the dagger is what’s causing this, we’re infinitely more interested in seeing the Predator kill someone else than finding out what’s the cause. That being said, it was a great move on de Campi’s part to show how this version of the Archie Universe ties in with the rest of the Predator franchise, as Kevin’s dad, a general, confesses that the government knows of their existence. It’s clear that de Campi knows what she’s dealing with when it comes to the Archie residents, as she takes advantage of things like Pop’s diner and Kevin’s father to enhance the progression of the story in a way that’s both emotionally impactful and adds more means of destruction.

The major drawback of this book is how much it asks you to suspend your disbelief. There are so many moments throughout the issue where characters exert poor judgement and literally no one says anything - like Betty and Veronica going to the bathroom while the Predator is outside - or when people are noticeably absent from the narrative - like Sabrina’s aunts when Betty and Veronica visit the Spellman house. This story already pushes the boundaries of ridiculousness and imagination in the best way possible, it’s just frustrating at times when characters aren’t reacting like you’d expect anyone to. That’s not to say that this reviewer disagrees with the progression of the story, it just seems odd that Betty and Veronica, after seeing Sabrina’s head and spine ripped out of her body, they’d immediately move on to rifling through Sabrina’s wardrobe and camera. Ruiz does a good job at making characters cry when something bad happens, but de Campi never remotely follows up with it, so the emotional impact is lost.

All in all, we’re really not reading Archie vs. Predator for a believable story. We’re reading it because the thought of the Predator wreaking havoc through Riverdale and facing off against some of our favorite childhood characters is something too cool to miss out on! Archie vs. Predator #2 really kicks things into high gear and promises that no one is safe and that you have to keep reading if you want to find out who lives, who dies, and which side wins.

Ultimate End #1
Ultimate End #1
Credit: Marvel

Ultimate End #1
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley, Scott Hanna and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

It may be fitting that Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, the two men who helped usher in the Ultimate Marvel Universe back in the heady days of 2000, begin the end of an era today with Ultimate End #1. But instead of this issue acting as a celebration of a line that ultimately redefined Marvel as we know it, this series feels like a grim reminder of just how far the Ultimate Universe has fallen. With a sleepy plot and none of the deep characterization that informed the Ultimate Universe, this is one ending that can't come soon enough.

Part of what makes this issue feel so disappointing is that it feels like it undercuts the impact of Jonathan Hickman's first issue of Secret wars. While that comic pitted the Ultimate Universe against the mainstream 616 Marvel Universe, this comic is largely the same kind of talky exposition that drove critics of Bendis' Avengers run nuts. While the first scene featuring Spider-Man is a fitting introduction, the rest of the book's momentum quickly grinds itself to a halt, as the majority of this issue is just two superteams delivering clunky exposition about a hole in time, which may or may not be involved with the Incursions from Hickman's run.

I say "may or may not" because even if you've been reading the entirety of Secret Wars so far, and even if you've been keeping up with the Ultimates books lately, this story is basically impenetrable. The Ultimates and the Avengers chit-chat about a tear in time and the threat of Doom coming down on their heads, but the context for this conversation seems difficult to peg. Since this seems to come after Doom became a godhead, it feels counterintuitive for two universes full of world-beaters to be nervous - not to mention that it feels weird to see them again, since we seemingly just watched them die two weeks ago. Either way, you're spending so much time trying to figure out what is going on and where these characters are situated, that you can't even get into the shallow storytelling.

The artwork, unfortunately, doesn't help much. Mark Bagley doesn't really get much in the way of room to flesh out the book's one action sequence, featuring Spider-Man and the New Ultimates squaring off against the Serpent Squad - it also doesn't help that Justin Ponsor's colors come off really washed out here, making everything feel flat and low-energy. By the time we make it to the Triskelion, we're tripped up by the two universes' Tony Starks, particularly when we get into a flashback featuring a tear in time - the characters just look and sound way too similar, making it a chore to stop and try to parse out which is which. Ultimately, letterer Cory Petit tries his damnedest to keep the "Ultimate" and "616" characters separate through whether or not they're capitalized, but that doesn't make a particularly fun or clear reading experience.

From the very first page of Ultimate End, there's a scene of the Punisher, aiming his sniper rifle into the distance. After reading this first issue, it feels like Frank Castle might be a surrogate for Bendis, or even Marvel as a company, as he points his gun towards the crowd of heroes. "I should have done this a long time ago," Castle says. "I will always live with the fact that I was not strong enough to act on this until now... this was always the end." And sometimes, the end isn't always a sad thing - sometimes its a release. Perhaps Ultimate End isn't meant to be a celebration. Maybe it's just meant to put a once-great line out of its misery. If that's the case - and reading it, you almost wish it was - you can only hope they end it fast.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

Lumberjanes #14
Written by Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters
Art by Brooke Allen and Maarta Laiho
Lettering by Aubrey Aiese
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Lumberjanes universe is quickly climbing the ladder of fictional universe people should want to be in. I hate to say it, but right now I’d rather be a camper there than a wizard at Hogwart's. That’s because in fourteen issues, Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters have built a small and mighty group of campers that are the envy of any friend group. The level of hijinks they get into is only equivalent to how much they care about each other. It’s inspiring; it’s important. Lumberjanes #14 reminds us again what it means to be a Lumberjane.

This issue marks the beginning of a new, four issue arc. Jen gets separated from the group in a freak snowstorm - more like blizzard tundra - and the group leaves camp to search for her. While it seems strange that no one from the outside world comes in to see what’s going on, it’s easy to suspend our disbelief and overlook the small nitty gritty details we don’t yet know about the storm because the rest of the story is so compelling. All of the Lumberjanes get their fair share of the spotlight, which has been consistent since day one and a real testament to the entire team’s ability to make all of them three-dimensional characters.

It would be a crime not to praise Brooke Allen and Maarta Laiho for their incredible art. As a team, their combined style is perfect for this book. There’s the saying that form follows function, and the artistic form that Allen and Laiho give Lumberjanes serves its purpose as an inclusive alternative to comics. There are so many different kinds of people represented in this book, especially in the background characters, that’s it’s phenomenal to see all the Lumberjanes and all the Scouting Lads huddled up in their respective cabins, as it gives us a better glimpse at the demographics of these two camps. Moreover, Allen does away with traditional panel breakdowns, giving us one panel as the background with multiple panels overlayed on top. This makes the story more dynamic because we’re always in the world and in the moment - we’re always convinced this a reality while we’re reading.

Though it might take a few readers to realize the Scouting Lads were from previous issues, their presence is welcome. Stevenson and Watters do a phenomenal job in creating a narrative is more overtly inclusive for male readers. There are already great characters that anyone can identify with and get behind, but it was also nice to see a boy to be eager to join the amazing Lumberjanes on a journey without being worried about being surrounded by a bunch of girls.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the issue was how much Stevenson and Watters hinted at the backstory of the camp. The Bear Lady makes a reappearance as Rosie goes off to search for Jen and finds out that Abigail - a mysterious woman that saves Jen and who’s more than she appears to be - is back. Hopefully this arc will provide us some more answers on the origins of the Lumberjanes camp and also give Rosie a chance to show us some of her backstory. We already have a good idea of what happened because of the dialogue. Hands down, the dialogue is the best technical aspect of Lumberjanes, simply because Stevenson wastes no words. All the dialogue pushes the plot forward and reveals character, all the while being fun, humorous, and dramatic in the best ways.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t be reading Lumberjanes. It’s one of the best books out now and Lumberjanes #14 is a good enough starting point as any, though it might take some time to differentiate each character and learn their names. Stevenson and Watters have given us something fun. Despite a snowstorm and mysterious woman that threatens the existence of the Lumberjanes camp, the story still makes us feel like we’re in the woods with them on an amazing journey and that we’re a part of their friend circle. And with a motto like “Friendship to the max!,” I don’t think we could ask for anything more.

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