Best Shots Reviews: MIGHTY THOR #2, LUCIFER #1, ULTIMATE END #5

DC Comics Decmber 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

The Mighty Thor #2
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Jason Aaron’s various runs on Thor have flown quietly under the radar. While some fans aren’t happy that Jane Foster holds the hammer these days, it’s hard to deny that the direction hasn’t given Aaron more avenues for different kinds of stories. With Asgard in upheaval, Aaron gets to deconstruct and reconstruct what makes Thor so compelling a character - and much of that is the supporting cast. By giving Thor’s friends and foes a little bit of time to become established, the plots aren’t crippled by the mythology associated with the Odinson. And with an artist like Russell Dauterman on board, this book has a strong base that’ll help readers gloss over some of the script’s imperfections.

As we’ve seen with his work on his Secret Wars tie-ins, Aaron is very happy to do take a superhero story and filter it through genre conventions that we’re used to. In this case, The Mighty Thor is firmly rooted in the fantasy genre but takes it to more superheroic proportions. That’s part of the reason that Aaron is able to get away with some of the violence in this script. His take on Loki is particularly cruel compared to what we’ve seen in recent years. Just like a snake sheds its skin, Loki has taken on a lot of roles, but Aaron dives right into how devious and sadistic he can really be.

But it’s Jane Foster definitely adds a human element to this story. While Jane usually fulfills the role of the damsel in distress, Aaron is able to flip the script and allow Jane’s humanity to play a key part in how she handles Asgardian matters. That will prove important as the deck is clearly being stacked against her, but it also gives readers a different perspective on the wielder of Mjolnir. Thor Odinson was bound to the conventions of his reality; a never ending cycle of death and rebirth that ultimately undermined his personal experience. Jane doesn’t have to contend with that fate and so her battles feel more real and her inner turmoil feels more deserved.

Dauterman’s been a breakout artist ever since he started working with Aaron, and all of his strengths are on full display with this issue. Dauterman is able to balance out the huge scale of the story with a lot of really strong expression work. In fact, as good as his staging and panel design is, I’d say that his expressions are his true calling card. And that’s a big deal especially when Aaron leans on a character like Loki and has a tendency to overwrite him. The more Loki asserts himself during his father’s tests, the more we can see his resolve. And even when he’s cracking wise, the contemptuous undertones show through. In this way, Dauterman is able to give the story stakes and maintain the scale without missing a beat, allowing readers to make the connection that while Laufey may dwarf Loki in physical size, he is no match for him mentally.

The Mighty Thor is a solid book. It’s a light read right now but the danger is really mounting against Jane Foster and despite Loki’s sinister machinations, the odds might be stacked against him as well. Dauterman really anchors the book but Aaron clearly has a vision for the future of the title. By calling back to so many different pieces of the Thor mythology and combining them in new and interesting way, the creative team is able to keep things fresh without overdoing it the way some of the other “All-New, All-Different” books have tended to.

Credit: DC Comics

Lucifer #1
Written by Holly Black
Art by Lee Garbett and Antonio Fabela
Letters by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

It has been awhile since Lucifer Morningstar graced the Vertigo line-up, but thankfully Lucifer #1 marks a triumphant return for the Prince of Lies. Someone has killed God, and it is up to the brightest of all angels to find out who pulled the greatest murder in all of religion. Writer Holly Black dangles a great hook for readers with the central mystery of the book, but also takes the time to properly set the mood and tone of Lucifer’s new title. Aided by some smooth pencils from Loki, Agent of Asgard’s Lee Garbett and a smokey color scheme from Antonio Fabela, Lucifer #1 makes one hell of an impact after all those years away.

While Mike Carey was the last writer to deliver unto us sordid tales of Old Scratch in Los Angeles, Holly Black more than rises to the occasion with this new #1. The central mystery of God’s supposed murder is the real meat of this debut but even before we’ve visited the crime scene, Black draws us into the Devil’s L.A. with Neil Gaiman-flavored narration and a teasing glimpse of Lucifer’s painful return to Hell, one week before God’s death. After we are throughly charmed by our demonic lead, Black switches gears into a tried-and-true procedural starring a bunch of angels. While Lucifer gets his feet on the ground with his new club, the disgraced Gabriel is approach by two very higher-ups with an offer he can’t refuse; solve the mystery of God’s death, and in return, he will be reinstated as one of God’s host. That naturally sends him after Lucifer as a suspect and the two join into an unholy alliance to find out who put the Most Holy in the ground.

Black doesn’t try to ape Carey’s landmark run, but the tone and edge of that original run is well-represented here, just with the added hook of having a murder mystery at the center of it. Black’s Lucifer is every bit the charming bastard that we fell in love with all those years ago, but, now with a disgraced angel as a foil, Lucifer has the potential to be a blasphemous buddy cop comedy. Vertigo has always been an imprint that is willing to subvert expectations and twist the conventions of genre in order to suit their stories and this debut fits that description to a tee. While the original series was a bit more ponderous in its execution of stories, Holly Black delivers a focused yet still enigmatically entertaining debut, starting the Morningstar’s new series off on a very high note.

Keeping the highs of Lucifer high is the art team of Lee Garbett and Antonio Fabela, who are well suited to the glitzy cityscape as well as the depths of Hell. Lee Garbett tempers the handsomeness of the book’s leads with more than a few striking monster designs throughout this debut. More than once, I found myself drawn to Garbett’s backgrounds because they were filled with all sorts of insane demonic creatures sure to catch many a reader’s eye. Tying together Garbett’s monsters and hunks are the colors of Antonio Fabela, who completely leans into the William Fredkin-like haziness of a stylized L.A. Fabela coats each page with an almost metallic set of colors that capture the sun-baked artificiality of L.A. Fabela’s colors remind me a lot of the work of Lee Loughridge from Image’s Wolf, another supernatural L.A. tale from earlier this year and that truly works in this debut’s favor. Holly Black delivers the steak of Lucifer #1 by Lee Garbett and Antonio Fabela provide more than enough artistic sizzle for this new debut issue.

It's been years since readers have seen Vertigo's Lucifer, but this debut makes it feel like he never left at all. Holly Black not only picks up the baton from the original series, but runs with it, tempering the charm and style of the character with a metaphysical detective story sure to hook readers of all stripe. Black’s script coupled with Lee Garbett and Antonio Fabela’s stylish pages and colors makes for one hell of a good time that can only get better from here. The Devil may go by many names, but after this week, he will go by another one: the leading man of yet another hit series.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Ultimate End #5
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Mark Bagley, Scott Hanna and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

The Ultimate Universe is dead. And the problem is, it's been dead for a long, long time.

It's funny, how all great things must come to an end. Fifteen years ago, the Ultimate Universe was the secret to Marvel's success - it led the company's post-bankruptcy resurgence, it was the incubator for much of what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it cemented the careers of comics superstars like Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar. The Ultimate Universe was a leaner, cleaner Marvel Universe, channeling teenage angst and post-9/11 anxieties to truly reflect the world outside our windows.

But not anymore. It's sadly no surprise that the Ultimate Universe ends not with a bang, but with a whimper - that this conclusion is not rooted in anything grounded, but with the scattered multiversal drama of Secret Wars. But perhaps most frustrating is that while Ultimate Spider-Man introduced a generation of readers to Brian Michael Bendis's talents, his farewell to the Ultimate Universe winds up only showcasing some of his worst writing characteristics.

Despite clocking in at 32 pages, Ultimate End feels threadbare as a story, and that's because we've have five issues with glacial plot progression. Having the Avengers of Earth-616 squaring off against the Ultimates is a simple but effective high concept, one that could show off the differences between Marvel's more fanciful original heroes and their more cynical updated counterparts. Unfortunately, you don't get that - and even worse, you don't even get a big battle royale to make it worth your time. You don't even get junk food here - you just get Brian Michael Bendis's trademark decompression at its worst, with reused headshot pages and needless double-page spreads taking up a third of this book's real estate. (Did we seriously need Doctor Doom's head taking up two pages? Or three splash page group shots?)

Not only that, but Bendis effectively robs us of an actual story taking place. With Jonathan Hickman's Secret Wars still unfinished, it's disheartening to see that Bendis's story devolving into a series of headshots, rather than watching this assemblage of Earth's Mightiest Heroes actually doing anything. Indeed, once Miles Morales arrives to break up the squabbling superteams - something he does with little to no effort, by the way - Bendis immediately scuttles the threat of the Thor Corps, the Punisher, or even Emperor Doom himself. One of the more aggravating bits of this book is when Bendis cuts away from the final assault on Doom's castle, instead reusing the same headshots with little context. (Although it is a little funny to imagine Luke Cage crying the same single tear no matter where he goes.) While he tries to lampshade this criminal misuse of pages with some voiceovers by Spider-Man, Miles Morales and Iron Man, it doesn't do much to cover up how insubstantial this entire arc has been.

And ultimately, the worst part about this story is what a disservice it does to Mark Bagley, who was there on day one making Ultimate Spider-Man the success it was. While his group shots of the various teams are some decent fan service, Bendis doesn't really give him anything fun to draw. There's only perfunctory bursts of action here, like the Ultimate Hulk randomly deciding to grab Miles Morales for a panel, or poor Frank Castle getting the opposite of a poetic end by getting flash-fried by the Thor Corps, but the vast majority of this story is just crammed with people standing around and talking at each other. It winds up being a big problem when introducing new information, like Old Man Logan appearing out of nowhere, or the teams abruptly making their way across Battleworld to Castle Doom. Ultimately, Bagley's cartooning still looks great, but Ultimate End just gives him zero to work with.

Most of the time, I'd just let a book like this go. People are going to like Bendis's work - heck, I've even liked Bendis's work from time to time. But what gets me is that a franchise that was as revolutionary and as important to Marvel as the Ultimate Universe has had such a long and disappointing decline - not to mention such an ignominous finale - just makes me more frustrated than I can say. This book is flimsy even by tie-in standards. The only silver lining to Ultimate End is that there are no more nails that can be driven into this coffin. Long live the Ultimate Universe - and may your 616 counterparts escape the same fate that befell you.

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