Best Shots Reviews: LANDO #1, CONSTANTINE: THE HELLBLAZER #2, SAGA #30, 1872 #1, STARFIRE #2

DC Comics July 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Greetings, 'Rama readers! Ready for your Monday column? Best Shots has you covered, with the latest and greatest new books from your favorite publishers. So let's kick off today's column with a trip to the Star Wars universe, as we take a look at the first issue of Lando...

Credit: Marvel Comics

Lando #1
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Alex Maleev and Paul Mounts
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

"Why, you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler."

Lando Calrissian has been one of those characters that, through some alchemy of charisma and characterization, has made his way from bit player to strong supporting role in the Star Wars universe. And now, Charles Soule and Alex Maleev have taken that smooth-talking gambler and given him his own spotlight, as Lando #1 brings a ton of atmosphere and charm, even if this first issue might skimp a little when it comes to plot progression.

You really sense Charles Soule channeling Billy Dee W"illiams from the very beginning of Lando, as the future administrator of Cloud City focuses on a much more intimate score. He's not just stealing a bauble, he's stealing an Imperial governor's heart. There are plenty of love 'em and leave 'em" types in fiction, but Soule gives an honesty and vulnerability to Lando that makes him seem likable, despite being such a scoundrel. "I couldn't leave us." Even Lando knows how to break a girl's heart with style.

Where the story starts to lose its bearings, however, is once Soule takes his focus away from Calrissian. Lando's partner-in-crime, Lobot, is a great foil for our hero, as he constantly frets about the steep odds his friend bucks on a regular basis - but soon, Soule starts to pile a few too many characters, robbing him of the time he needs to make them actually memorable or likable. A pair of twin kung fu masters barely makes a blip on the radar, and while the final punchline of the comic books works nicely, the preceding heist is over almost as soon as it begins.

Some of that may also lie in the hands of artist Alex Maleev. That said, Maleev's take on Lando himself is so perfect, it's hard to blame him. Maleev takes a bold chance by making Lando look so realistic to Williams' portrayal, but it's a gamble that pays off - you can almost hear Williams' voice with every bit of dialogue, because he looks so on-model. There's also an angularity and use of shadow that really sets up the criminal atmosphere of this book - even in the light, you sense that there's something seedy and dangerous just around the corner.

Sometimes, however, Maleev's sense of composition can get away from him - there are certain bits that need to be introduced visually, like the Imperial governor or the space heist, which seem way too distant, robbing the book of some of its punch. Colorist Paul Mounts might make some even bolder choices with some of his wild yellows and reds, and while sometimes it may seem garish, it certainly gives Lando its own distinct visual style.

While Lando might not be without its sins, you can't help but admit that this book does more good than anything else. In terms of tone and sheer vibe, this is very different than anything else Marvel is doing in its Star Wars offerings, and the idea of an interstellar heist comic should be a draw for readers just based on the premise alone. This comic could very well succeed or crash and burn, but it's that risky spirit that proves to be such a winning fit for Cloud City's legendary gambler.

Credit: DC Comics

Constantine: The Hellblazer #2
Written by Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV
Art by Riley Rossmo and Ivan Plascencia
Letters by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

There are places in this world where the dead can walk free among the living. Places where energy crackles and the ghosts of the past may impart knowledge, fear, or perhaps a bit of both. These are the thin places of the world and John Constantine knows them all too well. Constantine: The Hellblazer #2 finds our favorite cunning man conducting his own magical mystery tour through these thin places all throughout New York, seeking a way to rescue all of his ghostly friends from a painful second death. Writers Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV offer a simple, yet effectively creepy tale of John’s hubris and his defeat in the face of an unknown enemy that harkens back to John’s days under the Vertigo Comics banner.

Aptly titled “Walk of Shame”, this second issue is a macabre walking tour of the highly haunted areas of New York, visited by John in order to suss out some sort of defense against the creature that is re-killing his ghostly friends. Doyle and Tynion display not only a firm grasp of John’s razor sharp personality, but also his failings as a person and friend. Throughout the entire issue, John’s best mate Gary Lester pleads with him to seek help with the case in order to fully understand just what he’s dealing with. Of course, this advice falls on deaf ears and, of course, Gary is the one to pay the ultimate price. While Doyle and Tynion keep John firmly rooted in the role of ghostly tour guide complete with heavy narration through each ghoulish thin place, they also show that they aren’t afraid to show just how far he can fall thanks to his own arrogance. John’s cheek and bluster was, and will always will be, one of his defining traits, but after a few incarnations that cast him as some sort of quasi-superhero, it is refreshing to see that Constantine: The Hellblazer isn’t afraid to knock him back into the dirt when the story demands it.

Speaking of refreshing, putting Riley Rossmo and colorist Ivan Plascencia on art gives Constantine: The Hellblazer a charge that hasn’t been seen in a Constantine title for ages. Rossmo’s wild eyed and rail thin version of John seems ready made for the dingy, neon soaked streets of New York. Rossmo, no stranger to the macabre and strange, also seems to be having an absolute ball rendering the ghostly citizens of the thin places as each stop on John’s walking tour looks weirder than the last, which is par for the course when it comes to John Constantine. Placencia’s color choices are ready made for Constantine’s wild and wooly world. Each page in Constantine: The Hellblazer #2 is more saturated in color than the last, giving this second issue a true New York punk vibe. Placencia also goes a step further than the dingy streets with multiple filter screens through which each scene is detailed. We start with a basic greyscale through which the issue’s main flashback is detailed and from there Plascencia guides us through the smoky streets, back alleys, and haunts with various effective color screens through which the pages are presented. For too long Constantine titles have looked either too realistic or even drab, but Constantine: The Hellblazer blasts all that away with slick pencils and inspired color choices.

Its hard being a friend to John Constantine and it seems that that difficulty extends to beyond the grave. Constantine: The Hellblazer #2 isn’t just a new status quo for John and his brand of occult weirdness, but also a bold new artistic direction for the character as a whole. Gone is the attempt to bring John into the fold of proper DCU and in its place is personal, creepy stories of woe and loss, just like the bad old days. Writers Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV, along with Rossmo and Plascencia, get Constantine; they get his faults and failings as well as his charms and that shows. John Constantine isn’t a superhero nor a good friend, he’s a con man who just happens to know a handful of spells and that just might get him killed or worse.

Credit: Image Comics

Saga #30
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples
Lettering by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

With a hiatus on the horizon, Saga #30 seeks to close several of the title’s current storylines while setting hints for the future. Unfortunately, this push to clean up the loose ends of the previous arc leads to an issue that is a bit too formulaic for the series. When things are this tidy, it can retroactively lessen the impact of the series’ emotional beats.

Brian K. Vaughan’s script for Saga #30 is a bit of a mixed bag. The issue starts strongly, as the series narrator, Future Hazel, poignantly comments on relationships and how they change one another. This opening sets the theme for the issue as characters push and pull on each other throughout the chapter. The back-and-forth between the characters helps to highlight their own depth. While the issue opens with Marko and Ghüs as they emerge from their crashed vessel, Saga #30 is really about Dengo. The robot came into the series as a vengeful ball of chaos, changing the course of the protagonists in unexpected ways. But his time with Alana has softened his view, leading to a nice heel-face turn here as he seeks to save the infant Hazel and her family from his former allies, The Last Revolution. Vaughan handles the change of heart well. Dengo doesn’t become a gushing ball of remorse, just a man who’s changed his mind.

However, some of Vaughan’s script isn’t as powerful. The issue sees a reunion between Hazel’s parents, Marko and Alana, and while the moment is emotional, it does feel a bit anticlimactic. Part of this is due to the set-up from previous issues. Future Hazel’s narration earlier in the series ominously suggested that her parents had split up, and seemed to hint that the split would last a long time. Seeing them reunited so quickly undercuts some of that buildup. The issue reaches its climax in this moment, and the fact that it doesn’t quite hit the mark is one of the issue’s biggest drawbacks. Readers that are trying Saga for the first time won’t have this problem though, but their lack of familiarity with the series may render a lot of this issue ineffective. To entice new readers into returning after the hiatus, the issue may have been better served spending more time developing the future arc.

The reason for the hiatus is a simple one that fans both new and old are ready to accept. Artist Fiona Staples needs time to get ahead on the upcoming arc. And with her work in this issue, she proves once again why these hiatuses are perfectly fine. With such a character-focused issue, Fiona gets to focus on showing her ability to convey emotions. From Alana’s tearful rage to Marko’s heartfelt relief as he finds his wife, Staples presents an expressiveness in her characters that brings out the emotional drama of Vaughan’s script. But she also conveys these emotions through the body language of the characters. This is most easily seen in Dengo and Prince Robot IV. While these characters do express themselves via images on their tv heads, most of their thoughts are conveyed through their actions. When Dengo supplicates for mercy, he does so on his knees, with his shoulders down and arms out, his body language conveying everything the reader needs to know about his earnestness. It’s character moments like these that keep Saga in such a prestigious status among comic readers.

While not one of the strongest entries in the series, Saga #30 still offers some great emotional moments and promises of changes to come. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples offer some great character work, especially with the supporting cast in this issue, but the reunion between Marko and Alana comes across as forced due to how quickly it came. Saga #30 may have been better focusing on developing stories in the future rather than trying to tie everything together in such a concise manner. It’s a small stumble for a series that has been running full speed since its inception.

1872 #1
1872 #1
Credit: Marvel Comics

1872 #1
Written by Gerry Duggan
Art by Nik Virella and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

Of all the Secret Wars tie-ins, it seemed like 1872 had the most potential in terms of growing Marvel's stables. Neither a tie-in nor a clever spin on a successful crossover, this comic seemed like a clever opportunity for Marvel to capitalize upon that most tricky of genres: the western. But ultimately, this book won't bring any new converts, as 1872 proves to be way too slow on the trigger.

In some ways, it's a shame writing this, as this is a comic that likely has had plenty of challenges to overcome behind the scenes. When 1872 was first announced, it had Evan "Doc" Shaner on board - but judging by his departure post on Tumblr, it sounds like this book already had a rough schedule, which makes it a challenge for any team to pick up the slack. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why 1872 feels like such a slow read. Artist Nik Virella's artwork looks solid, but with Lee Loughridge's colors, the energy feels very lacking - it just feels washed out, playing to a sepia-toned stereotype of what westerns are rather than the dynamic vistas of, say, a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. The very first pages, featuring Red Wolf treking through the desert, don't have any moments that really hit hard - and unfortunately, that lack of a punch affects most of this book.

The other problem is that Gerry Duggan can't quite rework the old Marvel archetypes to make them feel fresh in these western environs. Steve Rogers is a boy scout, Tony Stark is a drunk, and Wilson Fisk is a malevolent jerk - these aren't just constants we've seen in dozens of other comic books, but it feels actually reductive, just too simplistic to engage readers. There are so many pages of characters just talking at one another, rather than any deep or defining action to give this book some energy - shootouts, for example, feel disposable and cheap, namely because Duggan and Virella don't take the time to draw out any tension. And finally, the one-dimensional characterization also hampers the stakes - nothing feels personal here, and so it's difficult to care about who lives or dies in Timely.

The thing is, I love westerns. I think there is so much untapped potential for western comics, especially given that spaghetti westerns utilize so much of the same visual tricks as sequential art. Unfortunately, 1872 feels like the latest example of why so many publishers don't approach that genre. While this book has a solid foundation for its art, it moves so slowly and differentiates itself so little that it just feels like a bunch of Marvel characters randomly thrown together in variant costumes. If you want my fistful of dollars, you'll have to do better than that.

Credit: DC Comics

Starfire #2
Written by Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by Emanuela Lupacchino, Ray McCarthy and Hi-Fi
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Reviewed by Kelly Richards
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Following a shaky but promising start to the series, Starfire #2 sets Kori up with an opportunity to be a hero. As Hurricane Betty batters West Key, Kori is able to position herself as selfless, courageous and possible most importantly as a member of her new community. Unfortunately, Starfire #2 still suffers from the incongruous characterization and disjointed storytelling that was all too present in #1. While the artwork makes up for what the writing lacks, Starfire still leaves a lot to be desired.

Overall the writing feels stunted and both the plot and characters feel underdeveloped. This, however could be due to the sheer number of storylines that Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti have attempted to fit into this book. In an attempt to organize the chaos, the book has being split into chapters, but unfortunately this does little to help with the narrative structure. The dialogue is unnatural and at times cringeworthy, with Stella’s “Wow! Now that’s what I call precision blasting!” being a particularly notable example.

Kori’s characterization is inconsistent to the point where it feel as though the Connor and Palmiotti can’t decide if she is supposed to be naïve but intelligent, or just downright stupid. Kori, for example has never heard the phrase “give me a hand,” conjuring up a rather literal image in her pastel-colored thought bubble. However, this doesn’t persuade the reader to view Kori as innocent – it just paints her as unintelligent. When read in the context of the scene in which she is selflessly offering help to a stranger, it feels almost backhanded to equate naiveté with stupidity, like an attempt to bring her down. Later in the book, Kori is able to perform successful mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She explains that it is because she “previously partnered with those who specialize in rescuing humans.” This further confuses her character as there is no reason for her to not understand basic human interaction, social mores, or common colloquialisms.

The artwork is definitely a high point, and with pencils by Emanuela Lupacchino and inks from Ray McCarthy, Starfire is a truly beautiful book. Together, they have created a lead who is young and beautiful without being either overly sexualized or unnecessarily infantilized. Kori, while slim, looks both strong and healthy. The scenes set at sea are wonderfully dynamic and Kori looks determined and heroic. Hi-Fi’s colors bring Lupacchino and McCarthy’s work to life. The bright orange and purple of Kori’s costume, hair and skin is so vibrant against the blues and grays that even in the middle of a storm she looks utterly radiant. Her hair is especially beautiful as it tapers into a bright white flame.

There seems to be some sort of disconnect that prevents Starfire from really hitting the mark. It is, for example, rather difficult to gauge who the book is really aimed at. It is potentially too adult for the Teen Titans fan base, and too teenaged and female focused for fans of Red Hood and The Outlaws. While not a stand-out issue, Starfire was not entirely unenjoyable, and longtime fans of the character will most likely be able to find something to love.

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