Best Shots Reviews: X-MEN '92 #1, BATGIRL #41, THE FADE OUT #7, More

"The Fade Out #7" cover by Sean Phillips
Credit: Image Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with a ton of reviews featuring the industry's biggest releases. And not only that, but the Best Shots team has grown by one - everyone please welcome Robert Reed, who joins us from Adventures in Poor Taste to cover last week's The Fade Out and Grimm Fairy Tales: The Little Mermaid.

And as a personal note from yours truly, this column marks the five-year anniversary since I took over Best Shots back in 2010. I said back then that we at Best Shots were committed to having a variety of voices and talent leading the way for comic book reviews on the web, and half a decade later, I can't even begin to say how proud I am of this team. I want to thank every writer who's ever graced us with their byline, as well as all the readers and creators who have taken the time to read, share and comment upon our work over the years. Especially uber-fans Rob Perry and Alex Minor, to whom I wish to dedicate the next five years of Best Shots Reviews, exactly as it currently stands. ;) But seriously, thank you to everyone who has supported us, in all the myriad ways you have -- you definitely rate a 10 out of 10 in my book.

So now that we're finished with the waterworks, let's kick off today's column with C.K. Stewart, as he takes a look at the first collected issue of X-Men '92...

Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Men ‘92 #1
Written by Chris Sims and Chad Bowers
Art by Scott Koblish and Matt Milla
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

X-Men ‘92 is a Secret Wars spin-off that seems to have flown under the radar, but it’s easily one of my favorites to date. It lacks the immediate emotional tug of other Secret Wars revivals like Old Man Logan and Years of Future Past, but for fans like me whose earliest exposure to comics was the X-Men cartoon that ran from 1992-1997, this series is well-worth a read.

Writers Chris Sims and Chad Bowers have crafted a core team of fan-favorites from the cartoon’s roster and deliver solid, spot-on writing that reminds you exactly who these characters used to be right from the opening page with a laser tag battle in which Jubilee rightfully smokes all of her older teammates. It’s fun moments like this, replete with snappy dialogue and teasing (or taunting) jabs between teammates that make it clear X-Men ‘92 is a labor of love for the entire team.

Artist Scott Koblish has recreated the original character designs with a modern touch that passes on some of the cartoon’s more outlandish artistic inconsistencies (see: animated Sabretooth’s weird abs, or every woman’s hair). The lively expressions in quick close-ups of each character in the opening pages captures their personalities perfectly.

These faces are familiar, but not identical; Koblish and colorist Matt Milla have refreshed the animated series’ designs in their own style in a way that perfectly captures the spirit of the show. There are plenty of tiny cameos littered throughout, too, particularly at the Clear Mountain ‘home for wayward evil mutants’ the X-Men visit in the story’s second act.

Where X-Men ‘92 could have struggled, compared to its other revival/retelling counterparts, is the plot. Where Old Man Logan gives you an immediate sense of where the action is going, or at least where it’s starting from, X-Men ‘92 is harder to pin down. The show already incorporates several classic X-Men storylines like "Days of Future Past" and "The Dark Phoenix Saga" with its own twists. How interesting could it really be to revisit a series that was already revisiting other material?

But instead of adapting an adaptation, the Battleworld realm of X-Men ‘92 is a world that incorporates much of the events of the animated series and simply moves forward from there. After years of what seem like neverending battles, X-Men ‘92 opens on a Westchester seemingly at peace with itself. Local Baron Robert Kelly is on good terms with the X-Men, and Magneto is gone for good. With the introduction of Clear Mountain, it seems like the X-Men may be out of a job, and it’s when the X-Men visit the facility that readers are introduced to Sims’ and Bowers’ villain of choice: Cassandra Nova, Charles Xavier’s evil psychic twin.

Nova is updated as well, and in tying the Shadow King to Cassandra Nova, Sims and Bowers have deftly blended her into the original show and created a creepy new antagonist. Some particularly striking artwork from Koblish makes Cassandra Nova’s psychic battle with Xavier intimidating and a bit gruesome; it’s clear from the art and writing that this is a power the likes of which this X-Men team have never seen. These choices by Bowers and Sims, paired with strong work from Koblish, easily turn X-Men ‘92 from a fun nostalgic buy to a strong new story.

If, at first glance, you were writing this title off as cashing in on nostalgia, I can’t blame you - but lucky for you, I wasn't afraid to go back down memory lane, and can kindly let you know that you’re way off-base. Having read X-Men ‘92 #1, I can safely say that Chad Bowers and Chris Sims have elevated it beyond an event tie-in to a legitimately interesting story in its own right. Fans of the X-Men - whether just the show, the comics, or both - won’t regret giving this book a shot.

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
Reviewed by Kelly Richards
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Opening with an almost Scooby Doo-esque set up that sees a mysterious cult trying to reanimate the evil social media network Hooq, #41 feels more cartoonish that ever. With Batgirl coming face-to-face with the new Batman and the reintroduction of the villain Livewire, the new arc feels as though it is off to a solid start.

Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher continue to provide a space for Barbara Gordon to grow as character without the restraints of Gotham or, for the most part, the rest of the Bat-family. Newcomer Frankie is confident and commanding in her new role and the developing relationship between her and Babs feels startlingly genuine. Stewart and Fletcher provide a touching father-daughter moment that’s looks as though it will inform the coming arc as Batgirl faces off against the new Batman. The language, fashion, use of technologies such as social media, and general tone of the book feels so in keeping with the college aged cast, and delivers something far more authentic than other stories which aim for a younger readership but instead present as awkward and condescending.

Babs Tarr’s cartoonish style seems like the perfect fit for the slightly more optimistic approach that Batgirl takes to the Bat-universe. Tarr’s art succeeds in pushing Batgirl further still in a direction that is in opposition to the male gaze as even a scene that shows Babs changing into her Batsuit in the bathroom of a bar is played off as innocent and tongue in cheek rather than sexual. The action sequences are incredibly dynamic and the use of irregular shapes and overlapping panels brings a layer of energy to the page that is difficult to capture with more traditional layouts. While still a relative newcomer to sequential art, #41 feels like Tarr’s strongest work to date and with a strong and diverse female cast, fashion forward costume designs and the little details like the reflection in a mirror Batgirl continues to be one of the most visually appealing books on the shelves.

Colorist Serge LaPointe ties the book together with a bold, energetic palette that centers on the yellows and purples of Batgirl's uniform and makes the book feel like an animation still. The way LaPointe uses light to inform his colors is astounding and the powder blue electric glow that can be found emanating from nearly every page is stunning. Its application to Livewire is particularly eye-catching and as such she ends up being the star of every pages she graces.

It is not difficult to be impressed with what the creative team is doing to both appeal to, and secure a younger and more diverse readership for the book. They are considerate of their fans and work for them rather than in spite of them. Even with the controversy that has surrounded the book since Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr have taken the reigns they seem to be taking it all in their stride, quick to respond to criticism and willing to resolve anything that may alienate the many marginalized voiced within their fan base. With a story and artwork that is as fun as it is charming, Batgirl #41 feels like a step up for everyone involved.

Credit: Image Comics

The Fade Out #7
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

"The Sound of Waves" could not be a more apt title for The Fade Out #7. Waves can roll in, seductive in their calm. But they can also crash violently. The newest issue of the 1940s mystery captures both kinds of waves as writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips slow down the pace and take the focus from the mystery of actress Val Sommers’ death and puts the spotlight on the characters that try to make it in the glamorous land of Hollywood.

Ed Brubaker’s script here is a slow burn, playing on the tensions that have built throughout the series. Much of the apprehension that builds here is due to the way Brubaker lets the murder mystery aspect of the story rest just under the surface as his characters take over. Consider Victory Street Pictures’ PR rep Dottie in the issue’s opening. Her job requires that she spin everything related to the studio in a positive way, and the way she handles the physically broken Hollywood actor Tyler Graves speaks volumes about her character. This is a woman who takes charge, even if her era’s politics require that she does it from the background. Just as readers begin to sense how informed she is, Brubaker segues to the more literal waves of the beach where series protagonist Charlie has eloped with the actress Maya Silver.

In what is supposed to be a private getaway for the new lovers, Brubaker begins to drop hints that Dottie may know more about Charlie’s secrets than she’s letting on as it is revealed that Dottie has the phone number to the reclusive beach home. Does Dottie know more about Val's murder? Is she using Maya to keep Charlie away from those involved? Those questions aren't answered, and Brubaker leads the audience away from such suspicions by focusing on the blissful weekend Charlie and Maya share. Brubaker wisely uses captions here, internalizing the erotic passion between the two, as well as allowing his partners, artist Sean Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser, to take command of the story.

Sean Phillips uses his vast library of facial expressions brings the characters to life. Attentive readers will notice that he gives his characters various tics. When Maya’s interest is piqued, she’ll raise an eyebrow and purse her lips into a smirk, and Phillips gives each instance its own nuance, varying the line weight to convey different meanings that match Brubaker’s dialogue. It’s this attention to the organic details that make the characters pop off the page. When Charlie and Maya engage in a vexing scene of lovemaking, Phillips turns to subtlety. While there are some explicit images in this sequence, the focus is not on the mechanical act of intercourse, but on the erotic way the characters are losing themselves in one another. He does this by juxtaposing the more suggestive material in the foreground with intimate close ups of the pair in the background, displaying not just their ecstasy, but emphasizing the time they spend together.

Aiding Sean Phillips is colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser, whose palette strikes a great balance between natural and mood lighting. The sequence uses hazy grays to help emphasize the blissful nirvana the lovers share, and Breitweiser contrasts nicely the cool blues of night with the warm pinks and oranges of sunrise. And when the issue reaches its climax, the color palette is narrowed to a stark contrast of reds and blacks, emphasizing the vast change in tone as Charlie returns to the cold underbelly of Hollywood.

While smaller in scope and much more intimate, The Fade Out #7 doesn’t forget that it is a murder mystery, and the final pages prove that while a sea can seem calm, waves can come crashing in at any moment. Ultimately, his is an issue that’s concerned with showing characters in their vulnerability. It’s a credit to the synergy between Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser that a series can slow down to a pace like this without missing a beat. Their ability to focus in and deliver solid character moments really shows in this issue. The Fade Out #7 is another enthralling chapter in a great series, and will please new and old readers alike with its intimate character work and exquisite art.

Credit: DC Comics

We Are ... Robin #1
Written by Lee Bermejo
Art by Jorge Corona, Rob Haynes, Trish Mulvihill, Khary Randolph and Emilio Lopez
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“I have long watched people choose to defend this city. It seems only fitting that eventually there will be those chosen.” These are the thoughts of the mysterious and anonymous grand architect who seems to be responsible for the We Are ... Robin team for coming together. As a premise, it’s an inherently intriguing one; put into action, writer Lee Bermejo creates a story full of what appear to be a diverse cast of characters and a promising storyline for future Robin Duke Thomas.

We all remember Duke Thomas from the events of Batman's "Endgame" storyarc and seeing him as Batman’s possible future Robin. This Duke Thomas is far from the one we see as Robin, but that’s not such a bad thing. Bermejo paints a Duke Thomas that’s rough around the edges, likes the flair of combat, and has an intellect and wit to match his fighting prowess. In essence, he feels like a combination of the best parts of Dick Grayson, Jason Todd and Tim Drake. Whether or not that’ll prove to be an asset or a liability remains to be seen. Within We Are ... Robin #1, it’s Duke that ultimately closes the deal and ensures that this series will be one to watch. We’re given a clear goal that Duke’s trying to achieve – finding his parents. Bermejo sets up clear obstacles for Duke to overcome in achieving that goal – being a part of the foster care system, feeling like no adult is there to help him, and now running into the new team of Robins and getting mixed up in their shenanigans.

Unfortunately, prior to learning Duke’s goals, We Are ... Robin can start off a bit slow, hampering the momentum of this debut issue as a whole. Jorge Corona’s art was a highlight of the issue overall, particularly in the beginning where Duke’s fighting against another group of kids while the narration built up momentum. We’re thrust into this fight which seems to be utterly irrelevant to the overall plot and doesn’t serve to characterize Duke beyond that he has a love for Lord of the Rings. What ended up being six pages could have easily been one of two, especially when the real start of the story didn’t happen until after the fight.

That said, the artwork in general worked really well throughout the entire issue. Corona’s pencils are sharp and elongated, creating limbs that appear more like swords and weaponry. With how much activity and dynamic action there is throughout the story, this works to enhance the physicality of what we’re seeing on the page. The breakdowns were fairly straightforward, but were done in such a way that leant itself to Corona’s striking lines and helped naturally let the eye flow from one panel to the other. You can tell that Rob Haynes, who is responsible for the breakdowns, really understands Corona’s strengths as an artist, especially in creating fully realized backgrounds. However, it’s Trish Mulvihill on colors that really brings the artwork to life. She does a great job in capturing the grittiness of Gotham City and conveying that throughout all the different settings. From the basketball court to Leslie Thompkin’s office to Gotham’s underground, Mulvihill has captured the perfect aesthetic that really helps the reader understand what it’s like to really live in Gotham City.

We are ... Robin is a great example of how comics should bring more diversity into the mix. Bermejo first and foremost creates a compelling story, which ultimately allows him to talk about things like the foster care system, what it’s like being a teenager in today’s society, and creating a Gotham that actually looks reflective of the world in which we live. Just looking at the team itself, there appears to be multiple backgrounds, perspectives, and walks of life being integrated into the team. Ultimately, this is a book that anyone who wants the comic book industry to reach a wider audience and be more inclusive should support.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Howard the Duck #4
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Joe Quinones, Joe Rivera, Rico Renzi, Rachelle Rosenberg and Katie Cook
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

If you aren’t already on-board the Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones Howard the Duck train, it’s time to grab your tickets. Having already established its self-referential willingness to mock not only the titular duck but the wider Marvel universe as well, this fourth trip out ensures that there are no hallowed bovines. Building a narrative around the Abundant Glove and the mildy-megalomaniacal Talos the Untamed, it’s anything but a straight parody of anything with “Infinity” in the title. As a bonus, if you’re experiencing the effects of event fatigue, the cover reassuringly informs us that this is firmly “Not a Secret Wars Tie-In.”

The elevator pitch for the issue is “Howard the Duck meets Doctor Strange” in a quite literal sense, but it only takes a passing familiarity with the former to recognize that this encounter won’t be over a game of cards. Except that it is. Entering the Objectivist Realms of Deet-Ko is a world only slightly weirder than the world Howard “has grown accustomed to,” and Zdarsky wastes no time in poking some much-needed fun at the über-serious master of the mystic arts. Strange plays poker to escape his “sometimes... annoying” companion Wong, “confer with... contemporaries. And gamble a bit." The absurdist depiction of Strange, coupled with a slightly more subtle dig at the notion of objectivism only accepting one individually built reality, is an exemplar of how Howard the Duck works for multiple audiences simultaneously, as the best years of The Simpsons so often did.

The humor ranges from the broad parody in the names of the Abundant Gems (“Compassion. Laughter. Dance. Respect. A second Dance Gem.”) to the more meta variety in a cameo from Johnny Storm. His sequence mirrors the Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars approach by taking an alternative view of the original event to bear that name, painting the Torch as a shameless and unsuccessful womanizer. Quinones apes the 1980s Marvel house style for the sequence, right down to the choice of colors from Rico Renzi and Rachelle Rosenberg, finding hilarity in Spider-Man trying on many variations of his infamous black costume.

Few books use the comic book medium so thoroughly and thoughtfully as Quinones and Joe Rivera in Howard the Duck, from flashback inserts to events that only happened last month, abstract paneling in the Objectivist Realm to title cards with letterer Travis Lanham that are in on the joke. It’s all designed to poke fun at the format, but it’s also entirely a tribute to the medium as well, including a swirling maelstrom of astral planes that tips its hat solidly to Steve Ditko’s “Eternity Saga.” The pure cartoon style allows for anything to happen, including the sincerity of a completely ridiculous villain reveal in the final pages.

There’s also a delightful backup story backup story called “Logic and Proportion” written by Zdarsky, which plays completely into Katie Cook’s distinctive style (My Little Pony, Gronk) that has recently had a run in Marvel’s animal variant covers. It might also be the best case ever made for the ongoing adventures of Ant-Man and Howard the Duck as a morning cartoon, or a twisted expansions of the movie universe.

Howard the Duck has undergone many changes over the last few decades, from failed movie star, to a mature readers line and a recent cinematic cameo. This issue hits the stride of the best aspects of all of those incarnations, proving that any character - regardless of how “fowl” they might be - has an amazing comic book inside of them.

Credit: DC Comics

Grayson #9
Written by Tom King and Tim Seeley
Art by Mikel Janin and Jeromy Cox
Lettering by Carlos Mangual
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

"Am I straight?"

It's a cheeky line, but it ultimately hits home at what sets Grayson apart from the rest of its sister titles at DC Comics. Make no mistake about it - Grayson is a spy book. But what makes spy stories so interesting? I'd argue it comes down to two things: sex appeal and stylishness - and those are two qualities that Grayson has in spades. While this issue may feel a little light in terms of content and plot progression, there's just enough sparks to Tom King, Tim Seeley and Mikel Janin's work that you can't help but enjoy the ride.

Coming out of Convergence, Grayson has doubled down on the ever-shifting loyalties of Dick Grayson's double agent status. With Spyral undergoing its own executive shuffle after the death of Mister Minos, suddenly someone has begun picking off spies. In many ways, it was almost easier for Dick in the first arc, when all he had to worry about was his bosses finding out he was a mole for Batman - now nobody can be trusted for any reason. It's a decent hook, although it's one that almost requires readers have read the last arc - if not, chances are you won't empathize much with Helena Bertinelli as the new head of Spyral, nor will you feel much in the way of tension when Dick Grayson's colleagues suddenly become murder suspects.

But what excels, as always, is Grayson himself. This take on the character works. He's self-assured, ultra-competent, and perhaps most rare in comic books these days, he's downright beautiful. King and Seeley keep teasing Grayson's sexuality with lines about him taking off his clothes or whether or not he (and his tie) are straight, but I think it's an interesting bit of role reversal for a genre that's used to having scantily clad and gargantuanly proportioned women. If anything, Grayson feels like he's meant for the female gaze as well as the male one, given all the fawning he seems to get from both genders over the course of this series (not to mention on countless Tumblrs online). When he's seducing a woman for a priceless jewel, it feels like he's channeling James Bond - he's not just sexy, he's stylish. He's not just a deadly weapon - he knows how to use it.

And much of that comes from the artwork of Mikel Janin. While occasionally Janin's work might look a little too polished - sometimes even evoking Sterling Archer when Dick is suited up - Janin has a lovely taste for page layouts and panel designs, particularly as we watch a Mission Impossible-style fight along a speeding train. That said, that scene may trip a few people up, thanks to a few too many small panels that hamper the introduction - it took me several reads, for instance, to realize that the spy known as Nemesis was the big, bald guy, and not the blond-haired Grayson. Still, Janin's clean style looks great, especially when its punctuated by the psychedelic coloring of Jeromy Cox - it's got this great old-school spy vibe that really sets the book apart.

That said, if there's anything that keeps Grayson from the A-list, it's that occasionally the script feels a little bit lightweight. It's a case of style trumping substance - while it's cool to have moments where Grayson gets to stretch his sex appeal, the overall plot feels like it's missing something. Similar to the issue where Grayson and the Midnighter are stumbling through the desert, this plot doesn't go nearly far enough to make it memorable - yes, someone's hunting spies, and Dick Grayson may be the next target. But what about someone actually taking a swing at him? Where's the danger or the conflict here? There's just enough set-up that when the comic ends, you can't help but wonder why we didn't get further along in the storyline.

Despite this issue of decompression, Grayson #9 still skates by based on his good looks and his debonair attitude - at least for now. Because the creative team has such a singular voice, it's forgivable to have one issue not quite connect, but if it becomes a pattern, things might be going south for the former Nightwing. If Grayson can add a little more substance to its swagger, however, this spy gig might be the best job this ex-sidekick has ever had.

Credit: Zenescope Entertainment

Grimm Fairy Tales: The Little Mermaid #5
Written by Meredith Finch
Art by Miguel Medonca and Jorge Alberto Cortes
Lettering by Ghost Glyph Studios
Published by Zenescope Entertainment
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Zenescope’s publishing line has usually been summarized – and often criticized – as being defined by babes and battles. But for some fans, this has its place – unfortunately, with those criteria in mind, Grimm Fairy Tales: The Little Mermaid #5 is a disappointment, squandering its opportunities to deliver on either front. 

While the previous issues have focused on the magnetic schemes of writer Meredith Finch’s Sea Witch, whose risqué design and masterful manipulation proved to be this book’s most fun attributes, this issue instead forces readers to sit through a mundane plot about a scientist using Mer-people traits to create an army of super soldiers. Series newcomers are likely to be lost here, while veteran readers have likely seen this a thousand times before, and unfortunately neither Finch nor artist Miguel Mendonca make the proceedings stand out.

The issue opens in the aftermath of Erica’s escape, but the focus of the story largely focuses on a battle between the Atlantean forces of King Issoro’s army and the Doctor’s warriors. Mendonca’s lines are sleek and his figures are both muscular and buxom where appropriate, but the layouts and designs here are standard at best. When King Issoro leads his Atlantean soldiers against the Doctor’s mutant super soldiers, they do so in gold plated armor and spears that could just as easily belong to an army of Spartans. Nothing about this group feels like a group of underwater warriors. The super soldiers are equally disappointing, being nothing more than green musclebound monstrosities. The battle itself is lackluster in its presentation. There’s a couple panels that have blood, but the lack of detail in the rendering removes any oomph the images may have had.

This feeling of going through the motions extends to the writing as well. This comic lacks an internal consistency, and one of the worst instances of this comes right at the start as Erica, having just escaped from imprisonment, debates as to whether or not she will fight her captors or flee them. For new readers, this internal conflict may not be much of a hindrance, but for those who have been following the series since the beginning, it makes no sense. Erica just spent the entirety of the previous chapter fighting her way out of imprisonment and she looked quite capable in the escape. If she wanted to fight, there didn’t seem to be much in the way that could stop her, and it’s hard to believe that she couldn’t use the oceans to escape her captors. 

Along with this false debate, there’s a serious lack of tension. The series thus far seems to have built towards a clash between Erica and the Sea Witch, something that never comes to fruition. Instead readers get a battle between groups of men that are dully staged and poorly executed, while the series’ titular character is no more than a cipher. Throughout Grimm Fairy Tales: The Little Mermaid, readers never truly get to know Erica beyond the fact that she doesn’t want to be tortured, and so there's no reason to invest in the story. When Erica receives her father's crown and title, she laments that she has traded one prison for another. But when, after five issues, a comic still can't give the lead a personality of her own, the question becomes, why should readers care?

Grimm Fairy Tales: The Little Mermaid was never aiming to be a masterpiece. Zenescope's books have always been about delivering sexy women and brutal combat. But in abandoning the series' sensual antagonist and focusing on a bland conflict, Meredith Finch and Miguel Mendonca have wasted an opportunity to give a satisfying conclusion to this limited series. A lack of focus on Erica as a character results in a comic that can’t pull its audience in, especially when the book veers off to a battle that she only joins in the end. Ultimately, this is a disappointing conclusion to a subpar title that couldn’t deliver on its own promises. 

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