Best Shots Reviews: FABLES #150, UNCANNY X-MEN #35, CYBORG #2, More

"We Are Robin #2" cover
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics / Vertigo

Fables #150
Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, Dan Green, Jose Marzan, Jr., Lee Loughridge, David Peterson, Andrew Dalhouse, Russ Braun, Mark Schultz, Lee Garbett, Joelle Jones, Gene Ha, Peter Gross, Neal Adams, Teddy Kristiansen, Bill Willingham, Lan Medina, Mark Farmer and Megan Levens
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo
Review by Vanessa Gabriel
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

When reaching the end of a satisfying, multi-layered story with a broad scope of characters, have you ever asked yourself if a writer always intended it to be that way? It’s like their imagination is a god in a strange land, and the destinations of their characters could be no other way. In Fables #150, we meet the fates of beloved (and despised) characters in just that way.

To say that Fables is a character-driven book is true, but short-selling it tremendously. Yes, there is a cast of over 170 characters spanning 13 years. But there is also an intricate, long-game plot that finds its twistedly delightful, dark and inspired end in these 150 pages of conflicts and resolutions. Fables is the epitome of well-crafted intention and graceful storytelling, and its grand finale befits that tradition.

The end of the last story arc, "Happily Ever After," saw Rose Red resolute on destroying her sister, Snow White. With a measured pace and either side armed with truly epic alliances, "Farewell" is their battle with each other and its memorable ever after. While the blood feud between Snow and Red is at the heart of this massive issue, we get the suspense of seeing Flycatcher face Brandish, Cinderella and her charms taking on Totenkinder and the manifestation of Ozma’s remaining prophecies for the Wolf cubs. Fables #150 does its damnedest to give the brightest stars their due. Long-time Fables readers will be pleased, even if they’ve been out of the loop for a bit.

What is most pleasing about Fables’ "Farewell" is its enormous scope of cohesiveness and purpose in story and themes. The definition of a fable is a story that conveys a moral. Yet, Fables has always been a tongue-in-cheek, contemporary take on that idea by casting universally known characters in various shades of moral ambiguity. Fables #150 punctuates some of the bigger ideas and morals (or lack of) that have existed throughout the series, and throws in a revelation or two.

Through her unfiltered and beautifully vulgar vernacular, Rose Red testifies on the ills of hope. Hope is often seen as good and pure, but it can also be false and cheap. Sometimes by letting go of hope, one can find their power in the moment. As it pertains to fate, even if you believe your fate to be sealed, there’s still a chance that maybe the most powerful of family cycles can be undone. It’s nothing a little gambling, bargaining, killing and feuding with your sister can’t hash out. And as any fairy tale should, there is an undercurrent of love and belonging to something bigger than yourself, which ultimately is the point, even if it takes 1,000 years to get there. In the end, Fables #150 is about finding your way home (especially if the one that you live in got completely demolished), wherever that may be.

A swelling round of applause to Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Lee Loughridge and the rest of the art team for instilling Fables #150 with a resounding sense of familiarity, detail, awe and depth. They wonderfully illustrate the immense gravitas of Snow and Rose’s impending battle with gorgeous splash pages of gods, monsters, demons and everything in between. They display Flycatcher’s nobility in another splash page with stark sincerity in his eyes. Bigby is terrifying until he is faced with the bizarre and grand shape-shifting abilities of his cubs. Snow’s magical dark armor made of crows is just exquisitely detailed and deserving of many years of cosplay to come. Most of all, it’s an outstanding accomplishment to display so many characters so distinctly and full of life.

Willingham and Buckingham honor all of the characters in this final issue, and it is nothing short of proper. Snow Queen, Pinocchio, Geppetto, Lady of the Lake, Flycatcher, Brandish, Cinderella, Frau Totenkinder, Clara, Grimble, King Cole, Beauty, Beast, Briar Rose, Boy Blue and most importantly, Rose Red, Snow White and Bigby Wolf. In the end, I felt my throat get tight and my eyes burn with tears, and I thought, “How perfectly poetic.” Farewell, but certainly not forgotten, and always good for a reread.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Uncanny X-Men #35
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Valerio Schiti and Richard Isanove
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge, III
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Celebrity is a fickle mistress. The students of Scott Summers' mutant school have learned a great many lessons but this one may be the hardest one yet. Uncanny X-Men #35 shows us just how high our young mutants can rise and how quickly they can plummet as Goldballs, the team’s most unlikely of heroes, finds himself wrapped up in a whirlwind of fame, only to see it violently crash and burn when his mutant genealogy becomes known. Heading into the grand #600 of Uncanny X-Men, Brian Michael Bendis and Valerio Schiti offers up a quick and breezy tale of celebrity, youth, and the ugly face of a once adoring public. Uncanny X-Men may be ending, but this issue shows that it hasn’t lost a bit of its thematic power and poignancy.

The issue opens with a familiar Uncanny X-Men troupe; a new mutant has manifested their powers and it is up to our team to quell their fury. However, not so familiar, is that during this incursion someone has taken a video of the team and the overzealous Goldballs and posted it to the Internet. After shutting the mutant down and retiring to the abandoned Hellfire Club, the team awakes to a completely different world than the one they knew last night. Thanks to the video of the team, Goldballs has gone viral, becoming an instant superhero celebrity in the span of a day. Then things start to get even crazier as we are treated to a montage of the highest order, complete with talk show appearances, magazine covers, and access to the hottest clubs for the whole team. Schiti and Bendis contain all of this to a single, effective splash page that illicits laughs as well as narrative momentum, detailing Goldballs’ meteoric rise through just a few panels. But of course, good things never last, especially for the X-Men. In that same splash page, we see a row of panels on the bottom of the page in which Fabio’s parents are on a talk show discussing how proud they are of their mutant son and how far he’s come, which triggers Uncanny X-Men’s most harrowing scene to date.

As the team basks in the glow of their stopping Ulysses Klaw, a mob starts to form around them and a bottle is thrown. The glass shatters against Fabio and a piece of glass pierces his neck and blood starts to flow freely. Valerio Schiti wrings every bit of tension he can out of this moment, framing the shattering bottle and Fabio in stark white with a simple "SMASH" sound effect. The very next panel shows Fabio, bleeding profusely and framed in the center of the Cuckoos, all looking completely dumbstruck. It only gets worse from there as the Cuckoos respond in kind with a powerful psychic attack as Triage and Hijack attempt to quell the rising fury and save Fabio’s life. Its a jaw dropper of an ending that powerfully reminds the readers, and the team itself, that the world, no matter how much it appears to accept you, can still turn vicious at the drop of a hat. Uncanny X-Men #35 shows that even though a team is committed to protecting a world that hates and fears them, the world still hates and fears them and it proves this point in bloody and terrifying fashion.

Uncanny X-Men #35 might not be the blockbuster people will expect going into a huge finale, but it is an effective and emotional entry into the Uncanny X-Men canon. This team, though eager and skilled, still has no idea just what it means to be a mutant in the Marvel Universe. Yet, they are reminded exactly what that means thanks to a single thrown bottle from a scared woman. Brian Micheal Bendis and Valerio Schiti aim right for the throat with this issue and hit their mark in bold fashion that never feels like a "Very Special Issue." Uncanny X-Men #35 puts the audience in the perfect thematic space going into the finale. One can only hope that they stick the landing.

Credit: DC Comics

Cyborg #1
Written by David F. Walker
Art by Ivan Reis and Adriano Lucas
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Recently reimagined by Geoff Johns as a founding member of the New 52's Justice League, Cyborg has always been DC's take on technological body horror. Once a promising high school football player, Victor Stone suffered horrific injuries as the result of an explosion at his father's laboratory. To save his life, Vic's enterprising dad grafted otherworldly technology on to his body, saving his life and turning him into something greater. Best known as a member of Teen Titans, DC have worked hard to establish the modern day Cyborg as a key member of the Justice League, as relevant and important to the team as the hallowed Trinity.

Cyborg #1 is the next stage in Vic's ascent to the A-Team of DC superheroes, but can David. F Walker and Ivan Reis' world of alien-infused chaos and incomprehensibly clever artificial intelligence maintain Vic Stone's first ever solo ongoing series? Well, kind of.

Character-wise, there are some nice moments here. Walker's Cyborg is a melancholy soul, tired of being scanned and prodded by scientists who fail to engage with his humanity. The classic “man vs machine” trope is in full-force with Cyborg (and indeed, Vic's 1980 debut predates Robocop and The Terminator), and Walker understands that, for Vic to work as an empathetic hero, we must first understand the poisoned chalice of his robotic augmentations. Walker utilizes narration to give us a peek into Cyborg's psyche without leaning on it as a crutch. It's easy to cover an entire issue in wall-to-wall narration, telling us everything at point-blank that we should be picking up through action, but Walker's restrained approach to narration never outstays its welcome.

On a less positive note, Walker has a tendency to beat the reader over the head with the over-arching themes of the issue. “Thank you, Sarah.” says Vic on page 17, after the bulk of the book has centred around how people treat Vic more like a machine than a man. “For caring more about the man than the machine.” A little more trust in his readership would go a long way.

Away from Vic's inner turmoil, Walker sets the stage for the book's first story-arc by establishing the chitinous Technosapiens. These few pages of intergalactic terror are compartmentalised “somewhere in another galaxy”, and as a result feel completely disposable. Walker's villainous dialogue feels as if it has been written on autopilot. The head Technosapien screams “Kill them all!” whilst the opposing alien forces cry “Time to die, Technosapien scum!” It's poorly realised stuff, a killer weak point in an otherwise enjoyable title.

Penciller Ivan Reis is DC's go-to guy for a big title, and his cinematic and heroically chiselled style elevates this less-popular character up to the big leagues. Reis' work is conservative, his characters are all conventionally attractive and even his take on the prosthetic-waving angry veteran looks immaculately clean. There's undeniable skill in Reis' artwork, but his style often seems clinical and free from expression. Away from their close-ups, Reis' characters often find themselves stripped of features, becoming blank figures with three dots to denote two eyes and a mouth. On another galaxy, Reis' Technosapien designs crib heavily from H.R. Giger's school of hideous creatures, complete with spindly limbs and shining black biomechanical features. They sure look evil, even if they're not exactly the most original-looking aliens in the world.

Cyborg #1 is the first time that Vic Stone's really been able to pause for breath since he joined the Justice League. Walker offers some meaty insight into Vic's fragile state but his paper-thin villains need some serious fleshing-out in order to become worthy adversaries to Cyborg's conflicted mix of man and machine. There's real potential in the solo adventures of Vic Stone, but Cyborg #1 hasn't fully realised it just yet.

Credit: Marvel Comics

E is for Extinction #2
Written by Chris Burnham and Dennis Culver
Art by Ramon Villalobos and Ian Herring
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

E is for Extinction started out on the right foot, but Chris Burnham and Dennis Culver’s story has quickly fallen prey to the X-Men’s greatest foe: impenetrably confusing continuity. There’s a lot of fun to be had here if you can keep up, but readers unfamiliar with the world of Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and other’s New X-Men might be lacking some of the context for what's happening here. Xorn always has the potential to be a really interesting and dynamic character but his significance is lost here. Ramon Villalobos’ work really buoys the issue, but if the narrative continues to be this directionless, I’m not sure it will matter moving forward.

Burnham and Culver write in a few great moments. The opening gambit is a great bit of psychic trickery that truly showcases Emma Frost’s powers. It’s the kind of sleight that plays so well in comics because for a fleeting moment it even makes the reader do a double take. And I have no issue with the writing duo’s characterizations here. They’re perfectly in line with what we would expect from these characters despite the influence of Secret Wars. So what’s the problem then?

The problem lies in resting so much of the weight of the issue on Xorn, a character with a dubious history at best. Grant Morrison revealed him to be Magneto. But that was retconned by Chuck Austen. So a character without a clear identity or motives makes it hard for any reader (let alone one unfamiliar with the character’s history) to form a clear understanding of what we’re seeing here. X-Men infighting is almost always entertaining. When it served to pit the new versus the old and support a theme of change that fit in quite well with Secret Wars, it was working but with that framework breaking down here, I’m not sure that it does.

Villalobos still gives us some great work. I love his character designs for all of their wonderful imperfections. Villalobos isn’t afraid to draw ugliness and let’s face it, these characters aren’t exactly the prettiest. But that’s what makes Villalobos’ art so raw and visceral. When Magneto crushes Xorn’s helmet or Beak smashes Martha’s casing, there’s a lot of power in the pencils and inks. I mentioned Ian Herring pop art sensibilities with his color palette in the last issue and that continues here. I think it definitely gives the book its own sense of identity but it completely destroys any sense of setting. Obviously, Villalobos’ strength is his character work and you want to call attention to that but I have no idea where these characters are and at times that’s a bit jarring.

Don’t get me wrong, I like E is for Extinction. It’s refreshing to see a creative team do something weird but this issue loses the themes that were built up in #1. Without that focus to help ground the book, this issue turns into a trippy fight comic that lacks the context to really pack a punch. I even like that the final page reveal comes out of left field. This creative team is keeping us guessing and that’s always good. I’m just hoping for the return of a more nuanced approach in #3, as well as a little more influence from Secret Wars.

Credit: DC Comics

We Are Robin #2
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 Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The balance between original creations and paying service to the fans is such a difficult recipe in mainstream comics, as the attrition rate of DC’s New 52 proved over the last four years. This is especially true of the Batman universe, where the insatiable demand for tales from Gotham peaked at about a dozen titles or so a month. Yet with We Are Robin, writer Lee Bermejo had so far achieved the unlikely, marrying a character created over 75 years ago with someone (or more accurately, a group of someones) that are mostly new. What began as a curious slow burn finds its feet in this issue, expanding the Bat universe in a wholly unexpected way.

The second installment’s chaotic opening pages make good on the promise of the first issue, presenting a chaotic melee of a rescue, leaving the default protagonist of Duke Thomas worse for wear and in the hands of the law. Where the first issue spent much of its time building up the character of Duke and gambling that we’d invest in him, Bermejo cashes in on that bet in this sophomore issue by throwing us in at the deep end. Characters barely introduced last month are glimpsed initially through their actions, and like Duke, this is all we as readers have to judge them by at the moment. It’s a refreshing storytelling approach that puts us on equal footing with the lead, playing a guessing game about the true intentions of multiple factions.

This approach in turn leads to some of the biggest mysteries in this chapter, and more interestingly, some of the twistier surprises. Nothing is as it seems, from the police that “capture” Duke to the plot involving the placement of bombs placed in subway stations. This is especially true of the stylistically different epilogue chapter (thanks to guest art from Khary Randolph and Emilio Lopez), hinting at a dark presence behind much of the sinister plot. It’s not just a mystery to be solved, but rather a puzzle that we want to unpick. There’s also still the thread of Duke’s missing parents left dangling like a carrot, indicating that we’ve only just begun to scrape the surface of what this series potentially offers.

Jorge Corona’s art could not be more different from writer Bermejo’s own stunning pieces, lavishly teased on the cover art, but it’s hard to imagine a style more appropriate than Corona for this title. Staying on trend with the youthful vibe that is characterizing DC’s current crop of new releases, the fluid motion of Corona’s art is tightly cinematic thanks to Rob Haynes’s filmic breakdowns, using long and thin panels for much of the action, packing short bursts into tiny cutout shapes of action. Conversely, vertically elongated panels stretch out time, such as the moment Duke fades into unconsciousness in the headlights of a police car. Trish Mulvihill’s earthy color art, even muting the traditional red, green and gold of Robin’s costume, adds to the “street” feel of the piece.

The concept of a book that sits somewhere between The Movement and Oliver Twist’s street urchins is an exciting one, and those who may have dismissed the slower pace of the first issue should be encouraged to return and give this series a second chance. Without falling into the trap of a labored exposition, Bermejo has put all of the pieces on the board, and now we simply get to sit back and watch it unfold.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Star-Lord and Kitty Pryde #1
Written by Sam Humphries
Art by Alti Firmansyah and Jessica Kholinne
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

If there's been any one problem with Secret Wars as a concept, is that while the individual realms are incredibly cohesive, the main Battleworld locale is frustratingly unfocused. Factions from dozens of worlds clashing together in an ill-defined space may make for some weak storytelling, but surprisingly, it also provides a fitting locale for Star-Lord and Kitty Pryde, an offbeat love story that also is a strong launchpad for a hot new artist.

Following the destruction of the Marvel multiverse, Peter Quill was one of the few survivors of the original 616 dimension. Hiding out in Black Bolt's club in Manhattan, Peter belts out the best Disney hits, all while pining over his lost love, Kitty Pryde. Writer Sam Humphries keeps the exposition moving briskly, and while songs from "The Little Mermaid" might run counter to the '70s and '80s-infused Star-Lord from the movies, it's effective in establishing Star-Lord as a romantic lead.

But of course, in a romantic comedy, no relationship is ever simple - in this case, Peter might reunite with his long-lost love, but is it the Kitty Pryde he fell for in the first place? Not hardly - it's a smart move on Humphries' part to instead bring in the Age of Apocalypse Kitty Pryde into the mix. The possibilities here are self-evident - will lightning strike twice? Will Peter get Kitty to fall for him a second time? Humphries has a smart high concept here, one that will really help solidify and justify this odd coupling by showing what makes them click.

And the art - let me tell you, it's out of this world. If you haven't heard of Alti Firmansyah before, that might be forgivable - however, she might be the best thing to come out of Secret Wars thus far. While there's the occasional bit of smashed faces in the big crowd scenes, there's a liveliness to all of her characters that reminds me a lot of a Disney cartoon. While it does come off as a little unpolished with some of the settings, for an unknown talent this is positively marvelous work, almost like a mix of Art Adams and Ben Caldwell.

Between the striking artwork and some smart moves from Humphries - including a great bit about luck-infused knifes made from the bones of Longshot - Star-Lord and Kitty Pryde is a surprisingly effective book. While it's unclear if the murky setting of Battleworld might undermine this book's plot, there's something here, something about this unlikely couple finding their way back to each other once more, that gives this book its potential. Here's hoping it reaches it.

Credit: DC Comics

Prez #2
Written by Mark Russell
Art by Ben Caldwell, Mark Morales, Sean Parsons and Jeremy Lawson
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Anybody want to buy a NASA?

With their second issue of Prez, Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell have further perfected their out-of-control world, as high schooler Beth Ross unwittingly ascends to the highest office in the land. Packed with cynical backroom dealing and outlandish takes on journalism, medicine and technology, Prez succeeds not just because of its skewering of American politics, but because it's also one of the funniest books on the stands.

With the presidential race locked in a tie, this script breathlessly cuts back and forth between our teenage heroine and the political power brokers looking to tip the scales in their favor. And it's here that Mark Russell's script is wickedly biting - as Beth checks in on her father, who has been stricken with cat flu ("Mee-ouch!" a floating poster reads), Beth desperately asks if her father's work benefits might help. "What did he do?" the nurse asks. "He was an adjunct professor," Beth replies. The nurse's is as funny as it is earnest: "Then there is truly no hope." I can only wonder how a comic book reviewer might rate.

It's these jokes - perhaps a bit cynical, but in keeping with our material and status-obsessed democracy - that make Prez stand out amongst DC's catalog, even more than its political premise. Caldwell happens to sell so much of the physical humor here, including Carl, the marijuana-dispensing End-of-Life Bear, with one particularly funny gag where it seems as though the robotic bear is ready to smother Beth's father with a pillow. There are some other great bits here as well, particularly how Caldwell portrays Congressmen like a bunch of pre-teen girls, lying happily in their beds alongside their boy band posters and calling each other "skank."

But underneath all of this dumb humor, there's a real intelligence to Prez that might surprise you. Beth's father, for example, gets a wonderful monologue that might galvanize this young president into action, and Russell sums up the political establishment's fears quite succinctly: "A president who doesn't owe any favors? Who does not fear any humiliation? That's a risk I simply can't accept." And in many ways, it feels like Prez has that same sort of freedom, in a company that's known for some pretty rigid control over its creators - this isn't a superhero comic, it's not part of some sort of big marketing push or a big event. It's a comic that has to stand on its own two feet, and it does so with humor and charm.

In other words, it's far from politics as usual. And that might be what makes Prez stand above the rest.

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