Best Shots Reviews: SECRET SIX #3, MS. MARVEL #16, PREZ #1, ARCHIE VS. PREDATOR #1

"Archie vs. Predator #3" cover
Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, as your favorite comic book review team has grown with the addition of C.K. Stewart from Geeks With Wives! So let's kick off today's column with a trip to the suburbs, as we take a look at the latest issue of Secret Six...

Credit: DC Comics

Secret Six #3
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Dale Eaglesham and Jason Wright
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Six crazy super-villains. One house in the suburbs. You do the math.

Gail Simone does a perfect pastiche of The Real World with Secret Six #3, a hilarious book that is almost completely unrecognizable from its pre-Convergence state, and is all the better for it.

Whereas the first two issues of Secret Six had a harsher, more '90s-infused vibe - in part due to the angular linework of Ken Lashley - now that the Six are out of their underwater prison, writer Gail Simone has switched gears entirely. The Secret Six are complete fish out of water, as Simone sets her sights on the so-called "goodness" of suburbia by making these cutthroat villains arguably the nicest people in the neighborhood.

Sure, they might be a little crazy, as evidenced by the couch orgy on the cover (and referenced later in the book), but when you have Catman rescuing a dog from its abusive owner, or Porcelain and the Ventriloquist beating the tar out of some musclebound cat-callers. With a more cartoonish tone reminiscent of Garth Ennis' Section 8, Simone gives a humanity and likability to all of her characters that had been sorely lacking in the previous two issues. Honestly, I'd read the suburban adventures of the Secret Six every week and never get tired.

It's also great to see the return of Dale Eaglesham to the team he helped create. Eaglesham's artwork is bigger, bolder and more cartoony than I've ever seen him before, but it absolutely nails the broad-comedy tone of this book. (Even though it's largely censored, his cover is hilarious, and sets the scene for the rest of the book perfectly.) Eaglesham's characters come off as wonderfully expressive, whether its Porcelain grimacing at a neighbor or the way Ferdie the Puppet gleefully raises both hands when asked who had filthy sex on the common room couch. Occasionally, there's a little bit of stumbling here, like some weirdly angular panel composition, or colorist Jason Wright's palette sometimes being a little too rosy, but all in all, it's a great fit for the book.

Combine all that with a great double-twist at the end of the book, and my biggest complaint about Secret Six #3 is that we likely won't be staying in suburbia for too long. It's a shame, too, because it's a wonderfully goofy concept that lets Gail Simone flex her sense of humor without retreading old ground from her other iterations of this series. Still, this is a huge improvement from the previous two issues, and this is a status quo I hope continues for the long haul.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Ms. Marvel #16
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by Adrian Alphona and Ian Herring
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

We may already be ankle-deep in Secret Wars, but the battle of the Ultimates versus the 616 Universe is only just reaching Jersey City in this month’s Ms. Marvel #16. It’s worth the wait, however, as even at the end of the world, Kamala Khan remains one of the most relatable heroes in the Marvel universe.

From the Inventor's mustache-(beak?)-twirling villainy to Kamran's more insidious betrayal, Kamala’s lighthearted origin story has taken an increasingly more serious turn over the course of G. Willow Wilson’s run. In “Last Days,” Kamala’s troubles peak in the worst possible way, and as her neighborhood devolves into chaos, Kamala gears up as Ms. Marvel to do the best she can in the face of insurmountable odds.

As the fallout of Secret Wars finally hits the relative normalcy of Jersey City, Wilson does an excellent job balancing Ms. Marvel’s typically lighter tone with the grim reality of the end of the world. She touches on other dangling threads from the Inhuman storyline in a way that keeps them relevant and fits them neatly into the action “required” by the overarching "Last Days" storyline. But most importantly, Wilson keeps Kamala true to herself in the face of what could have been a very jarring narrative turn.

Ms. Marvel may have superpowers, but underneath the mask, Kamala is just a 16-year-old girl. It's obvious how natural Wilson is with her character, as it’s Kamala the teenager who struggles with her guilt about avoiding her family even as she rushes to check on them. Her inability to put a stop to ex-boyfriend Kamran haunts her but she keeps going, determined not to let his taunting keep her from helping anyone else. She's resilient, and determined to honor the legacy the former Ms. Marvel left with the title by defending her friends and family.

It's this resiliency that drives Kamala in the face of Jersey City’s seemingly inexplicable panic. Kamala lunges headfirst into the unknown to check in on her family and her friends. She urges Bruno and his brother to find a safe space for their entire community, and they agrees without hesitation. Kamala has surrounded herself with people who aren't perfect, but who care about being truly good, and the world Wilson has built means scenes where Bruno and jock bully Josh team up to defend the school are fun and natural rather than forced, and their efforts inspire Kamala to stay strong.

Kamala is hopeful, but daunted, and a delightful (if well-spoiled) cameo from her hero Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the end of the book -- not only because it’s a crossover we’ve been waiting for since #1, but because it’s a convenient and smart way to keep Kamala’s spirits and the tone of the book from dipping too deep into the existential despair of other Secret Wars lead-in titles.

Artist Adrian Alphona returns this issue, and while Takeshi Miyazawa’s art was a great fit for the title, it’s refreshing to go into the “end of days” with Alphona’s familiar designs. Alphona’s faces tell a story in every panel, with detailed, emotive expressions even on Kamran's Inhuman form with its less distinct features. Alphona builds up every aspect of a character to give them life on the page, from Kamala's anxious hand gestures to Kamran's cocky posture. Colorist Ian Herring balances Ms. Marvel's typically vibrant palate with increasingly more eerie backgrounds, and the stark contrast of her uniform against the grim sky in the final panel captures the tone of the book as Kamala faces an uncertain future.

Ms. Marvel fans will undoubtedly enjoy this first issue of Kamala’s two-part "Last Days" arc. Despite the apocalyptic circumstances, the writing and artwork ensure this issue remains consistent with this series’ more hopeful tone. If you’re new to Ms. Marvel, this is not a great jumping-on point, but this arc will fit in perfectly with previous issues when you're binge-reading singles or a trade paperback later on. Secret Wars may seem like a grim event, but G. Willow Wilson stays true to the headstrong, caring, and nerdy Kamala we’ve come to know and love.

Credit: DC Comics

Prez #1
Written By Mark Russell
Art by Ben Caldwell and Mark Morales
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

A reimagining of the short-lived 1973 DC series of the same name, Prez features Beth “Corndog Girl” Ross and her ascendancy to the highest office in the land after she goes viral thanks to a fast food training video mishap. Yet even as it pushes DC’s boundaries with its premise, Prez #1 spends too much time playing up the farcical aspects of Decision 2036 to make it truly clear whether or not we're supposed to look forward to President Ross in future issues.

Set in 2036, writer Mark Russell describes a possible near-future of politics that relies on familiar dystopian tropes to paint a picture of a frightfully apathetic voting population and the mustache-twirling corporate goons eager to take advantage of them. But perhaps unintentionally, Russell seems to conflate voters with billionaire kingmakers as equally powerful threats to modern democracy. Of course voters in 2036 care so little they'd let Anonymous make a viral video star President – but if the alternatives are choices hand-picked by corporate and political groups in secret, can Beth's surprise election really be that bad?

At a protagonist, however, Beth Ross is relatable and likeable, depicted as a normal girl supporting her family who's catapulted to fame by a deep-fried viral accident. While her backstory is predictably tragic, it does make it clear she'll have a personal stake in taking her presidency seriously. But Beth seems to fly under the radar in this issue, going strangely unnoticed by those around her for someone whose face and name are plastered across national news networks. If Corndog Girl is a threat to real candidates, it would have been interesting to bring her into the election storyline earlier on. Does Corndog Girl do endorsements?

Russell struggles with building a world where a viral video President can be both a likeable protagonist and a stern critique of apathetic voters. Either apathy and corporate elections are equally to blame – which is what the book seems to suggest with a very uncomfortable scene where a hand-picked Presidential candidate lets himself get spanked on YouTube to win voters – or the problem truly lies with the corporate cabal that has rendered our elections both pointless and farcical. These ideas are not new (Idiocracy, The Running Man), but run the risk of punching downwards if the average voter is cast as equally villainous as the billionaires whose profits are tied to keeping voters apathetic.

There are bright spots, however. Russell’s writing is a delight when his jabs are directed at a worthy target. His send-up of an increasing corporate presence in politics and media is spot-on, and concepts like the corporate-sponsored Taco Drone replacing social programs feel like legislation we could see introduced (if on a less outlandish scale) in the near future. Russell is a smart and savvy writer, but Prez feels like too many concepts introduced with too little context right out of the gate.

Artist Ben Caldwell does a fantastic job bringing this strange new political landscape to life. Small details like "sponsored taco content" in the middle of a news program subtly inform the way corporate-run social media has encroached on "unbiased" industries in Prez's America. Caldwell's style is clean and realistic, but makes excellent use of background details like new tech and changes in fashion to emphasize Prez's timeframe. His illustrations of a gruesome new reality show, punctuated by Beth's expression as she waits in the wings, gives the most stomach-turning depiction of what constitutes entertainment 20 years down the line. In its best moments, Prez describes an almost believable future you can envision creeping up on you slowly without the sudden sepia-toned apocalypse often associated with dystopian tales.

There is promise for Prez, but this debut issue still feels like a swing and a miss. Russell's send-up of corporate politics is a valuable and necessary critique of the current status quo, but here the titular teen Prez feels like an afterthought amidst sometimes curmudgeonly perspectives on social media and actual voters. With luck, future issues will bring our new accidental President and her relatable story to the forefront, making her an everyman we can root for against our secretive corporate overlords.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Archie vs. Predator #3
Written by Alex de Campi
Art by Fernando Ruiz, Rich Koslowski and Jason Millet
Lettering by John Workman
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Archie vs. Predator is no flash in the pan. With its penultimate issue, Alex de Campi continues to deliver energy, bloodshed and a vicious sense of humor, as the Predator continues to cut a bloody swath across Riverdale. Archie vs. Predator #3 is the darkest installment of the series yet, but that doesn’t take away from its charm or craftsmanship. Archie vs. Predator may have started as comic’s most insane What If? book, but as it races toward its conclusion, it has revealed itself to be so much more than just a blood-soaked tale of suburban combat.

Archie vs. Predator #3 opens with Jughead being reunited with Archie and what’s left of the gang after witnessing the Predator’s violence firsthand. Jughead wanders through Riverdale's ruined streets as Alex de Campi’s melancholic narration welcomes us back into this macabre team-up. Soon, Jughead finds himself back at Riverdale High, which has now been outfitted with all sorts of deadly traps, thanks to boy genius Dilton - but all the traps in the world can’t save them from an enraged hunter from beyond the stars. While her wit is still on full display, as the series heads toward its final issue, de Campi dials back the jokes. This third issue more concerned with Archie realizing that they are all way in over their head, and perhaps even worse, Archie may have just as much to do with his friend’s deaths as the Predator himself.

While Archie’s worries are front and center throughout Archie vs. Predator #3, de Campi also finds an unexpectedly sympathetic lead in Dilton, Riverdale’s resident science guy. As Archie and the girls deal with the violence around them as it swallows up yet another of their friends, Dilton tries in vain to get them all to follow them to the AV room to find his idea of salvation in the form of a robotic Archie suit. De Campi closes out this issue with an extended sequence in which Archie, Betty and Veronica are lost in their own little, smooch-filled world, while Dilton monologues about having never been picked in a school built around dating. Its really emotional stuff, especially in a comic filled with dead teenagers and an action icon, but de Campi handles it all deftly, never allowing Dilton’s speech feel maudlin. Archie vs. Predator #3 may look tailor-made for the grindhouse marquee, but Alex de Campi keeps it all grounded in human emotions instead of histrionics.

Alex de Campi’s scripts so far have been rollicking gems of violence and teen drama, but the real charm of Archie vs. Predator still lies with the artwork of Fernando Ruiz and Rich Koslowski along with the colors of Jason Millet. Ruiz, Koslowski and Millet, all veterans of various Archie titles, keep the look of Archie vs. Predator firmly rooted in the vintage, innocent look of previous Archie titles with a hefty dose of violence on top for good measure. With any other artist, Archie vs. Predator would feel exploitive, but with Ruiz, Koslowski, and Millet handling the interiors, this series feels like a true entry into the Archie canon, just with much more blood that has ever been seen on grocery store shelves.

Things are looking grim for Archie Andrews and the gang, as Archie vs. Predator #3 continues the Archie Elseworlds hot streak with a violent, funny, and emotional issue that sets up the series for a surely explosive finale. Alex de Campi and her art team deliver an issue that still stays true to the core values and look of Archie, while still standing alone as its own insane tale.

Credit: Brian Andersen

Stripling Warrior #1
Written by Brian Andersen
Art by James Neish
Published by So Super Duper Comics
Review by Erika D. Peterman
’Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

As a gay superhero who also happens to be Mormon, Stripling Warrior's Samuel Shepard is an instantly intriguing character. It isn’t just that he has awesome superpowers; he has God-given superpowers. An angel visits him one night and Samuel learns that he has been chosen to be the hand of God — a righteous, avenging warrior who takes down bad guys.

But the real hook to this comic is that Samuel remains baffled about his anointing even after accepting the challenge. Having embraced his sexuality, he’s estranged from the religion of his upbringing. In fact, when the angel shows up after Samuel and his husband share some coital bliss, Samuel is certain he’s about to be punished.

Stripling Warrior #1 keeps the backstory short and plunges the reader right into the action as Samuel closes in on a bad guy with the aid of his faithful guide, who takes the form of an ethereal eagle. You needn’t know much about Mormonism to get into the story because Andersen does a good job of weaving in pertinent information without interrupting the flow. All you need to know is that Samuel is mighty powerful and has a direct connection to the Holy Ghost. He’s good at smiting.

Andersen certainly has a gift for snappy dialogue. After a stranger in an alleyway makes snide jokes about Gay Pride weekend upon seeing Samuel’s skintight white costume, Samuel replies, “Uh, actually, it was four months ago, boo-boo.” Some sharp, well-timed humor and pop culture references (One Direction gets a shout-out) balance the scales nicely.

James Neish’s art stands out in Stripling Warrior’s lush close-ups, such as the moment in which an awestruck Samuel has his angel encounter, as well as in the lovely sensual scenes. The color palette could have used more variety, but things do pop when the main character shows off his impressive powers. The illustrations unfortunately go flat when the camera pulls back and shows the action from further away, and the green narration bubbles make some of the lettering hard to read.

Those issues aside, Stripling Warrior #1 is a fine introduction to a highly likable, conflicted and unique hero who is on a meaningful journey. It’s apparent that he’s got some major trials ahead, and you’ll root for him as he faces them.

Pellet Reviews!

Credit: DC Comics

Mad Max: Fury Road: Furiosa (Published by D Comics; Review by Jeff Marsick; ‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10): Furiosa is in the title, so if you’re looking for enlightenment about how she lost her arm, why she is considered Immortan Joe’s fiercest warrior, or see her in butt-kicking action... you’ll need to look elsewhere, because she serves this prequel issue as little more than ornamentation in the shadows. Being a female “breeder” for Joe is a truly horrific existence, but taking 39 pages to bludgeon that point home is overkill. Tristan Jones’ artwork is scratchy at times, but it it works well with the overall tone, and Michael Spicer’s colors align it well with the look of the movie. But without action or the fundamentals of a meaningful plot, this issue is more of an "I Was An Immortan Joe Concubine" expose than essential background for the movie.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Squadron Sinister #1 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Jeff Marsick; ‘Rama Rating: 2 out of 10): I’m all for villains headlining a title, but when they’re cartoonish and without redeeming quality as this iteration of Squadron Supreme is, it’s hard to become invested. Hyperion answers the question, “What if Superman was a frat boy?” as he leads a gonzo-Justice League — an apt description which one panel pretty much spoonfeeds you — that beats readers as well as his foes over the head with how tough he's supposed to be. Then again, with Carlos Pacheco’s loose pencils and often too-small heads atop gargantuan bodies gaudily colored by Frank Martin, maybe we’re not supposed to take this issue and this team all that seriously. The Max version from Straczynski and Frank as the featured unit would have been a much more compelling read.

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