Best Shots Reviews: E IS FOR EXTINCTION #1, SUPERMAN #41, RASPUTIN #6, More

DC Comics June 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

E is for Extinction #1
Written by Chris Burnham & Dennis Culver
Art by Ramon Villalobos and Ian Herring
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men is a huge watershed moment in the past 15 years of X-Men comics, allowing the title to shed some of its ‘90s bombasticity and invite some post-Y2K/9-11 paranoia into the character’s world. In revisiting this era with E Is For Extinction, Chris Burnham and Dennis Culver effectively taps into Morrison’s more grounded approach and subtle bits of insanity (no doubt a result of working closely with him over the years) to deliver a book that is unnerving and uncomfortable in its depiction of this reality. But this book would have been a waste if not for the artistic contributions of Ramon Villalobos and Ian Herring, who channel Frank Quitely’s incendiary artwork in such a way that this book stands as both a tribute to the original and a fun expansion of it.

It was easy to get excited about this book when it was announced, but then the expectations hung heavy over it for quite a while. Thankfully, Burnham takes his time reestablishing the world of the story before taking any major risks with the narrative. Burnham sets up a dichotomy between the “classic” X-Men and Magneto’s New X-Men that screams Claremontian drama. As the old guard ages out of their posts and subsequently begins losing their powers, Burnham seems to adopt a narrative of change. Magneto serves as a new Xavier. The X-Men’s approach to field missions has changed. Cyclops’ powers have evolved. The X-gene is more prevalent than it has ever been. But in the words of Alphonse Karr, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.”

Burnham and Culver embraces that maxim to its fullest and that plays out in the story. Secret plots abound. Things are not as they seem. And in mighty Marvel fashion, someone is destined for a fall. The reintroduction of Wolverine is a highlight that is a perfect balance of character development, exposition and even a cute indictment of some of his past portrayals. For writers with as little published work as Burnham and Culver, it’s invigorating to see them display an acute awareness of how to draw out the most in these characters in a relatively short amount of time.

Burnham and Culver also have Villalobos and Herring to thank for providing spot-on visual accompaniment. The line artist and colorist work together as the perfect rhythm section, keeping the visuals in line with what you would expect, which allows Burnham to deviate from what’s been established and include new details that still work within this world. E Is For Extinction has a rock-solid foundation thanks to Villalobos’ well-worn linework, which does wonders to display the differences in ages between these characters. When Scott Summers shows up wearing his ill-fitting ‘90s era costume, he looks out of place and old compared to the sleeker, younger New X-Men.

While more traditional superhero artwork tends to celebrate the idyllic fantasies of humanity, Villalobos’ work serves to ground those model forms in realism, then take the more grotesque character forms and celebrate what makes them so weird. The result is an X-Men book that looks completely unlike any other, and one that is a little bit unsettling. Big Two art isn’t usually this challenging, but Villalobos pushes the boundaries of common taste. It’s really refreshing. His characters and settings take up space and feel real in all their weird, meaty, lumpy glory. And I’d be remiss not to give Ian Herring credit for his excellent colorwork. His color palette adds a pop art sensibility to the work that comes in contrast with the linework but still works really well with the tone of the book.

E Is For Extinction is another one of the better Secret Wars tie-in books. It’s faithful to it’s source material without being slavishly devoted to it and the influence of the overarching event is present without being stifling. I’m very excited to see more from this creative team, and I’m eager to see how they continue to expand this concept. Some of the Secret Wars tie-ins have recalled other events in name only and they were worse for it. This book borrows its title from the first arc of one of the best runs on X-Men of all time. We can only hope that a strong debut issue signals a similarly strong outcome.

Credit: DC Comics

Superman #41
Written by Gene Luen Yang
Art by John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson and Dean White
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Comic books are living in a world of marketing. It's an unavoidable evil at this point, where giant shake-ups are long-spoiled for most readers, hitting everywhere from comics sites like this to the New York Times. Solicits have to be sent, marketing plans have to be launched, and as they say, nothing will ever be the same again.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes awhile for the books to catch up.

Here's the thing: We all know that Superman's secret identity is going to be outted to the world. We've seen it. Many have already read Greg Pak's Action Comics or Batman/Superman, where we've begun to see some of that fallout. Unfortunately, new Superman writer Gene Luen Yang isn't there yet, despite plenty of set-up from his predecessor, Geoff Johns. The result is a comic book that can't help but feel disappointing, mainly because it seems to spend so much time building up for a punchline that everyone already knows.

David Mamet once said, "Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early." In a lot of ways, that's the real problem with Yang's first issue of Superman. Aside from a throwaway page featuring Superman in his new duds, this comic feels like it's way too early, forcing us to mark time with thinly plotted Daily Planet cases until Superman's identity is exposed. Spoiler alert: By the end of this issue, that secret is still intact, which might frustrate you (as it certainly did me). Wasn't the last two arcs plenty of time to wrap up Superman's old status quo? We all came here for what the cover image promised us, so Why not kick off this post-Convergence change-up with a real bang?

But what might irk readers even more is that as Yang builds up Clark Kent's last case as a mild-mannered reporter, our lead winds up coming off as not just skittish, but as a coward. Blackmailed by sources unknown, Clark not only has a freakout on Jimmy Olsen, but actually winds up giving up a young girl - a girl who is barely even sketched out as a character - to some shady gunmen, just so he can keep his identity safe. Yes, Clark may wind up jumping into the fray in an all-black costume afterwards, but still, the damage is done - I get that depowering Superman is supposed to make him more relatable, but right now, he comes across as somebody who's not particularly good at this superhero game.

The other problem with this script is not only is it a bit of a dud in terms of tension and narrative, but it also winds up hampering John Romita, Jr. The pacing here is way off, and that means that Romita isn't able to really get a lot of strong panels, despite two action sequences going on in a single issue. There's a lot of six-panel pages where Superman is seen in the distance, which doesn't help in terms of making him seem powerful or exciting. Romita is able to get a few cool beats going - Clark's solar flare looks really visceral, and watching him jump on the roof of a car in an all-black "covert outfit" looks striking. Unfortunately, there's just too many pages of Clark looking worried at his smartphone for this to be a win in Romita's column, either.

It's disappointing for me to write a review like this, because I believe in Superman as a concept, and I'm even pretty excited for his new status quo as a motorcycle-riding vagabond. Unfortunately, issues like this are exactly what people point to when they consider Superman as passe or uninteresting. The thing is, we've already seen way too many issues of Superman being boring or unexciting - and DC has already long since laid out a bold plan for turning that around. With that in mind, it's a huge shame that Yang isn't able to pull the trigger and start Superman anew.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies #1
Written by James Robinson
Art by Steve Pugh and Jim Charalampidis
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Zombies. A concept so good, Marvel went for it twice.

If you thought Si Spurrier and Kev Walker's Marvel Zombies book was too bright and funny, well, James Robinson and Steve Pugh have upped the stakes even further with Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies, pitting two of the worst threats in Battleworld against one another. And while this first issue does suffer from some tonal shifts and narrative decompression, for now this book coasts smoothly on the strength of its art team and its apocalyptic premise.

Dropping us into the depths of the Deadlands with an alt-universe version of Greer "Tigra" Nelson, James Robinson sets up a wonderfully dismal mood, as he reintroduces the evil - and ravenous - Marvel zombies only to one-up himself with the cold malevolence of Ultron. In many ways, he doesn't even need to give an introduction to these characters, whose modus operandi seem apparent just after one look - while the zombies fight amongst themselves for flesh, the Ultrons seem like more than a worthy threat, as one peers ahead with a one-word accusation: "Imperfect."

While the Zombies themselves have plenty of guts and gore to give them teeth, for my money, Robinson does an even better job painting Ultron. If you're into dystopian timelines, this book is for you, as he tells the story of what might have been, if Ultron had slain his creator when he had the chance, if the Black Knight had not stepped in at a crucial moment to save Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Indeed, this is where Robinson knows well enough to get out of his artist's way, as double-page spreads full of robots and laser blasts tell us all we need to know, of when the heroes of Earth "went screaming to their graves."

And speaking of those two-page spreads - Steve Pugh ahd Jim Charalampidis are doing some magnificent work here. The first panel featuring the Ultrons is just perfection, as their eerie red diodes light the shadowy night, and Pugh absolutely dominates with his big crowd pages, whether its zombies getting torn to pieces or the X-Men and Marvel's street-level heroes getting overwhelmed by a horde of Ultrons. In many ways, Pugh reminds me of Alan Davis crossed with Butch Guice or Patrick Zircher, sort of having that stiffer inking style to ground some really fluid composition. Colorist Charalampidis also knocks this book out of the park, particularly the way he uses the contrast of Ultron's warm energy sources against the cool grays of his metallic body.

Yet if there's something that holds Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies back, it's that once Robinson introduces us to these two disparate threats, the second half of the comic seems to lose its way. Focusing on a Wild West version of Hank Pym from 1872, there's clearly some potential here - an android facing off against the most primitive version of his creator - but it comes off as too bright and too much exposition after such a dark and direct introduction. It's unclear what Hank wants, and with his inclusion, Robinson winds up tipping the scales a little heavily towards his robot leads rather than their undead adversaries.

While it's unclear where this series might head - and I'll be honest, I've had my heart broken by Robinson before, like in his recent Fantastic Four arc - but Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies may also be one of those concepts that proves to be critic-proof. In many ways, this is a book about two extinction-level threats being thrown in the same room together - and no matter who wins, humanity loses. Here's hoping this match-up from Hell leads to some solid storytelling.

Credit: DC Comics

Batgirl #41
Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher
Art by Babs Tarr, Joel Gomez and Serge LaPointe
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

A few months ago, Batgirl underwent a radical change in tone and direction. This proved somewhat divisive amongst fans loyal to the Gail Simone run that had preceded it. However, as the youth-centric approach has found successes in other corners of not only the DCU (Gotham Academy, Black Canary) but at Marvel as well (Spider-Gwen), the innovations of Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr’s run become more apparent. So what happens when that distinctive tone has to meet up with the occurrences of the rest of the DC family?

It’s a question pondered in the latest issue, especially given the massive developments in the Batman universe at the moment. After all, one’s middle-aged father suddenly dropping the trademark mustache and sporting a mohawk is the kind of thing a (bat)girl would probably notice. The first meeting of the new Batman and the Batgirl of Burnside comes via a plot that sits somewhere between Beneath the Planet of the Apes and a Scooby Doo episode, but also serves as a consequence of the arc prior to this. Consequences are the theme of the issue: after discovering her dad’s new job description, she is forced to confront a shocking villain from Batgirl’s past.

What begins as a Saturday morning cartoon maintains the same kinetic energy throughout. This is the real strength of the revived Batgirl, which does not lie in its social media inspired motifs but rather in its inability to sit still for a moment. There’s also a delightful willingness to make fun of itself as well, and the seriousness of Batbooks in general. Bat-Gordon gets incredibly serious in a conversation about his mustache, proclaiming “I can’t grow it back, sweetheart. Not now. And there’s a good reason for it. It’s because...I’m Batman.” Yet the ability to swing between creep Gothic openings, daydream conversations and hyper street fights is exactly what makes this book exactly like a still cartoon.

Tarr maintains the fun in the art department, taking the cartoon ball and running with it. Batgirl herself seems to rubber band on demand throughout this issue, from her impossibly large chin on the first page, to the more manga-inspired pouting, batting of eyelashes and gleeful grinning of her domestic life. A sequence in which Babs is forced to quickly change into her costume pokes a little fun at the frequent near-nudity of similar sequences in other books. The use of speed-lines and sound effects during the fight sequence gives a further illusion of animation. Serge LaPointe’s color scheme is next level material, perfectly replicating the shades of animated sequences, from the moody glow of the opening, the dazzling light of the final action scene or the rarified glow of the flashback sequences.

What may have begun as a cynical marketing attempt to attract a new demographic has evolved into something much more than that, and is perhaps even parodying the very audience that it will most appeal to. Which is why Batgirl has been such a success, balancing that fine line between talking to a younger audience in their own language while never making the mistake of condescending to them.

Credit: Image Comics

Rasputin #6
Written by Alex Grecian
Art by Riley Rossmo and Ivan Plascencia
Lettering by Thomas Mauer
Published by Image Comics
Review by Kat Vendetti
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The first arc of Rasputin constructed its setting and mythology with care, layering on new elements of the Mad Monk's legend while building towards its destination: Rasputin's death, the details of which he knew intimately. That is, until the first arc's conclusion dismantled the expectations it had established in a brilliant twist. Now Alex Grecian, Riley Rossmo, and Ivan Plascencia are back with a new status quo for Rasputin, while making sure not to abandon the intricate pieces they had built in the five issues before.

Set a century after the Road to the Winter Palace, Rasputin #6 has the Mad Monk in the role of political aide to a presidential candidate, and with his healing abilities still intact. There is an immediate noticeable shift in tone in Rasputin #6 that greatly distinguishes it from the series' first arc. Plascencia's colors are much brighter in this new setting, rendering the opening scene with warm blue skies in contrast to his previous cold and bleak backdrop in Russia. Rossmo, meanwhile, reintroduces Rasputin with a completely new look, depicting him sharply dressed and drinking martinis in a limousine.

Grecian continues to utilize a similar narrative structure, where a moment in the present frames the past; shortly after Rasputin's mystic healing prevents an assassination, the narrative takes us back to the Galician border immediately following Rasputin's own shooting in the last arc's conclusion. It's parallels like this that had given Rasputin's various timelines a cohesive feel, and Rasputin #6 maintains that aspect, among other elements that had succeeded in the first arc. Rossmo and Plascencia's art particularly sings; a new spin on Rasputin's abilities in this issue is painted with all the ethereal mysticism that had been present throughout this series, and their always stunning double page spreads provide a distinct transition between present and past.

However, there isn't much information given for this new setting, and with the steadier pace in which this issue is set, a few moments can feel slightly underwhelming; Rasputin's narration refers to "the worst thing [he's] ever done," and the answer to that arrives a bit too soon and robs this issue of an intriguing question that could've lived longer. But that's not to say the start to the second arc doesn't have its own intrigue and advantages. Grecian resets the momentum he'd built in previous issues to present a new conflict for Rasputin, taking the story through a new route without derailing the world he'd built in the first five issues. With the story now set in this new time period, Grecian has given himself extra room to expand this recreated legend even further, and the addition to the nature of Rasputin's powers in this issue proves there's more to the Mad Monk and his legend that Grecian has yet to show.

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