Best Shots Advance Reviews: SCARLET WITCH #1, GWENPOOL SPECIAL #1

"Gwenpool Special #1" cover by Robbi Rodriguez
Credit: Robbi Rodriguez (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Scarlet Witch #1
Written by James Robinson
Art by Vanesa Del Rey and Jordie Bellaire
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Is the Marvel Universe really big enough for two magical super-specialists?

Marvel sure seems to think so. Weeks after the debut of Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo's Dr. Strange, we now are invited to read about the adventures of Wanda Maximoff - better known as the Scarlet Witch. Yet while this could be a much-needed story of redemption - both for Wanda and her writer, James Robinson - this debut issue ultimately buckles under its own weight, falling back into tried-and-true tropes about curing the sicknesses of magic.

But it didn't have to be this way. The beginning of this book shows a lot of promise, particularly because Robinson and Wanda are such kindred spirits. Robinson has written about his fall from grace in this year's Airboy, one of the more intriguing books from Image's lineup. In that book, Robinson talked unflinchingly about the mistakes he's made and the creative hurdles he's had to overcome since his glory days of Starman - and the Scarlet Witch is the same way. As Wanda walks through the streets of New York, she admits that her life has been a "minefield" of mistakes - but she also knows that she is more than the sum of her past pitfalls. It's a great theme, and one the character has desperately needed since her character assassination at the end of House of M.

But unfortunately, Robinson doesn't go further with this compelling - and likely heartfelt - theme of failure and redemption, but instead winds up telling a story that would be better suited for someone else's book. Chalk it up to the post-Secret Wars status quo, but Marvel has already put a lot of spotlight on a character who fixes magical ailments - his name is Dr. Strange. Ultimately, you could swap out Strange and Wanda in this issue and have very little difference, and that doesn't speak well for a character who - beyond a nice Q boost thanks to a certain Avengers film - hasn't had a definitive story in over a decade. Robinson is able to be portentious with a warning about an illness in magic, but this trial doesn't seem to have anything to do with Wanda's very specific demons, and thus doesn't shine a particularly strong light on her as a character.

The artwork is also extremely hit or miss. Vanesa Del Rey does great work with close-ups, where her scratchy linework can really add the weight of worry and age to a character. However, one she pulls back, things get significantly less stylish - her work has some of the scratchiness of a Howard Chaykin, but it doesn't have the composition to make it work. (Particularly with Wanda's new outfit, which in Rey's hands, makes her stand out like a sore thumb in the crowd.) Part of the other problem is that Rey uses so much oppressive shadow, that it's difficult to get a sense of place, or even difficult to make out conversations and important details. Even with Jordie Bellaire's beautiful red and pink accents, this book doesn't just feel dark - it feels oppressively so.

That's not to say that Scarlet Witch can't improve, particularly with the rotating cast of artists who will be working on this book. But debut issues are important in today's crowded marketplace, and it's a little disappointing that Robinson can't dig a little deeper into Marvel's most misunderstood heroine. Right now, we've seen this sort of storyline time and time again - in fact we just saw it a month ago. Wanda Maximoff is going to have to pull some serious rabbits out of her hat if Scarlet Witch is going to get the traction it needs.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Gwenpool Special #1
Written by Charles Soule, Margaret Stohl, Gerry Duggan and Christopher Hastings
Art by Langdon Foss, Juan Gedeon, Danilo S. Beyruth, Gurihuru, Megan Wilson, Tamra Bonvillain and Cris Peter
Lettering by Travis Lanham and Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

'Tis the season for a tie-in - but when it comes to Gwenpool Special #1, this holiday cheer might not feel like a very heft stocking stuffer. Despite clocking in at 50 pages of story, this anthology book feels like a swing and a miss - or the very least, a very mis-marketed isue - especially when you consider that the titular character only shows up for 10 pages near the end of the book.

While the title of this book might be Gwenpool Special, you might be surprised to learn that this is really more of a She-Hulk revival, thanks to the framing story by writer Charles Soule. Soule recaptures the whimsy and fun of this dearly departed title, as Shulkie has to stop her landlord from selling her building to a cabal of insectoid real estate moguls, but Soule's artistic partner, Langdon Foss, is an acquired taste to say the least. His characters feel like they're in that Ramon Villalobos vibe, feeling very lumpy and strange, but that style isn't exactly one that helps hook in readers who are the fence. (Particularly once Foss has to draw dozens of characters from the Marvel Universe - Patsy Walker, for example, looks more like Ms. Frizzle from the Magic Schoolbus than a model-superheroine extraordinary.)

Unfortunately, the missed artistic opportunities continue with a short Ms. Marvel story by Margaret Stohl and Juan Gedeon. Gedeon's compositions are very strong, but his detailwork is so sparse that his work looks almost unfinished - there are panels after panels of characters with little to no lines to show their expressions, and a close-up shot of a nearly featureless Kamala doesn't do much to show how blue she is around the holidays. Margaret Stohl nails G. Willow Wilson's trademark banter for Kamala Khan, but her actual story - which winds up having Kamala punch out an evil Santa - doesn't feel particularly deep enough for someone who feels left out of the traditional Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations.

The third storyline of this issue might be one of the more polished visually, but as a story, it still doesn't really make a strong impact. Gerry Duggan teams up Hawkeye and Deadpool once more, but beyond a handful of gags (such as a Christmas ornament strategically hiding an obscene gesture, or Deadpool telling Kate Bishop she's a "real" Hawkeye), there isn't a ton of substance to Duggan's Christmastime story. Danilo S. Beyruth, however, produces some strong work, with Hawkeye's perpetually annoyed expression serving this story well. (That said, he is encumbered by the fact that one of his leads is a nondescript-looking man in a Santa suit.)

It's only after nearly 40 pages of story that we finally get out title character, and unfortunately, the wait isn't worth it. While Gurihuru is far and away the best artist of this book, Christopher Hastings doesn't give them much to work with for this second appearance of Gwenpool. While Emma Stone's Gwen was charming and quirky, and Spider-Gwen has been a rock star superheroine with a great sense of humor, Gwenpool feels less than the sum of her parts. She isn't as funny as Deadpool, nor is she as endearing as Gwen Stacy, making her fisticuffs with a sword-wielding snakeman feel bloodless and perfunctory. Gurihuru ultimately does heroic work with Gwenpool's expressions - she has a charming half-smile that reminds me of Adam Warren's work on Empowered - but this story doesn't know what it wants to be, and thus goes nowhere.

No one wants to be a Grinch this holiday season, but at the same time, there are plenty of opportunities for sequential good cheer that doesn't have to feel like a punch to your wallet. Gwenpool Special #1, sadly enough, doesn't fulfill the potential of its title character or its holiday spirit, making this feel like a halfhearted cash-grab rather than a solid Christmas special. Unless you are a completist for one of the creators involved, you won't be on the naughty list if you sit this one out.

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