Best Shots Reviews: ULTIMATES #3, DETECTIVE COMICS #48, THE FADE OUT #12, More

DC Comics January 2016 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

The Ultimates #3
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Kenneth Rocafort and Dan Brown
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

After a spectacular two-part opening, The Ultimates begins a new story arc. With the series, Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort are pushing the envelope of what superheroes can do, aiming for big concepts that require bigger heroism. But it is their ability to capture smaller moments and build on the continuity of the Marvel Universe that makes The Ultimates #3 a spectacular read.

The issue begins with a recap broadcast by Blue Marvel. This technique was used in the previous issue, and it really does convey to the reader the relationship between this team and the general populace of the Marvel Universe. This is a team of powerhouses, and it is comforting to know that they are open and honest about what they are doing. It’s a nice way to differentiate the Ultimates from any of the other superhero teams that are running around.

From there, the issue truly begins, as members of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard survey the planet restored by Galactus in the previous issue. Fans of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers will be happy to see Izzy Kane still serving as the Guard’s Smasher. The Guard are disturbed by this change in Galactus’ behavior and contact the Ultimates, who are busy preparing for their next mission: assessing the damage to the timestream.

It is here that Ewing’s script and Rocafort’s layouts really meld together. Ewing draws on multiple events that have occurred in the past, using Marvel’s continuity to add to the sense of danger, rather than letting it hinder his storytelling. What could simply be a scene of talking heads is made by Rocafort into an entertaining two-page layout that flows naturally but systematically. It feels like a presentation that Black Panther or Blue Marvel would design, simultaneously informative and engaging.

Rocafort’s art truly shines in the final sequence of the issue. The detailed lines make the moment when the Aboena, the Ultimates’ ship, crashes through Miss America Chavez’s portal utterly spectacular. The beings that inhabit the Neutral Zone are at once familiar and alien, and Rocafort’s design work makes them seem at home in this bizarre void of a dimension. Dan Brown’s coloring also helps this sequence, as the Neutral Zone is given a nebula quality of murky greens and browns that contrasts with the white-blue of Chavez’s portal in a stark way.

Ewing’s penchant for weaving continuity into his story really shines in this issue, especially with regards to character appearances. In addition to the return of Smasher, the issue features a minor appearance by Raz Maholtra, the new Giant-Man. It’s an appearance that not only reintroduces the character to readers, but allows him to demonstrate his own mental prowess amongst geniuses like T’Challa or Adam Brashear. Ewing also weaves in Carol’s relationship with James Rhodes in a way that feels natural, before the conversation between Carol and Monica transforms itself into a discussion on Monica’s evolving powers. It’s small moments like this that not only give readers insight into who these characters are, but who they are becoming.

The Ultimates has quickly become one of the best books in Marvel’s output. Unafraid of both the immensity of Marvel’s continuity or the powers this team wields, the book at times feels like Marvel’s take on Star Trek, boldly going where no book has gone before. Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort bring out the best in one another, making The Ultimates #3 a sleek yet complex book in both design and storytelling. And a final page reveal of a character from Blue Marvel’s past shows they haven’t yet let readers in on all they plan to offer.

Credit: DC Comics

Detective Comics #48
Written by Peter Tomasi
Art by Fernando Pasarin, Matt Ryan and Chris Sotomayor
Lettering by Wes Abbott
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

It’s not easy being Batman – and it can’t be easy writing one of his sister titles.

Peter Tomasi has been a pinch-hitter for DC Comics for the better part of a decade now, dutifully shoring up the publisher’s biggest franchises with books such as Green Lantern Corps, Superman/Wonder Woman and Detective Comics while each book’s “showrunner” establishes their vision for the character. Tomasi is a team player, leaning on characterization and his stellar artistic partners to make for dazzling stories, even when a character’s continuity is very much up in the air.

Unfortunately, Jim Gordon hasn’t quite benefitted from that Tomasi treatment just yet. With the latest issue of Detective Comics, Tomasi does everything he usually does – he makes Jim Gordon a weary, likable hero and reunites with his Green Lantern Corps partner Fernando Pasarin to great effect – but ultimately, his high concept feels goofy even for Gotham, depriving this book of the thing it needs most: a solid hook.

At first, Tomasi’s writing is engaging, with a great bit about Jim Gordon and Barbara Gordon having a fun father-daughter chat as they both hide superheroic extracurricular activities from one another. While Bruce Wayne has taken in wards, one of the things that sets Jim Gordon apart is the fact that he is an honest-to-goodness dad, and seeing these relationships fleshed out is pure Tomasi. But once the game is afoot, and a George Washington impersonator is found dead in an alleyway, the tone of Tomasi’s story suffers, and it never really recovers. On the one hand, it’s pretty weird even by Gotham standards to have Revolutionary War costumes in the otherwise fairly grounded cityscapes Pasarin is drawing, but then Tomasi jerks the wheel in the other direction, having an interlude with Seven-style serial killer.

The other problem is that Tomasi doesn’t have a lot to work with Jim as a character – we know that he’s only a temporary Batman, and unfortunately, that means the go-to characterization is that he’s not particularly good at the job. He nearly falls off buildings, he gets jumped by a shooter in an alleyway, he needs his team to pick him up after he gets ambushed – it’s not a good look for a placeholder, no matter how many times he berates himself for being a “rookie.” The story picks up more when Gordon has a chat in the morgue with Detective Bullock – a nice nod to all those talks Gordon and Batman would have in the past – but ultimately, this sort of characterization typically comes in second to the constant reminders that Jim Gordon is never going to be able to fill Bruce Wayne’s shoes.

But while the story might risk going off the rails, seeing Tomasi and Pasarin team up again is a great treat for readers. Pasarin, like Tomasi, is a monstrously consistent creator, one that I’m sure DC could pop into any book and have it turn out strong. Pasarin adds a lot of humanity to Jim Gordon, sporting a five o’clock shadow even underneath that black cowl – I love the little grin he gives Jim as he watches a father tuck his daughter into bed. What’s most interesting about Pasarin’s work here is that he really takes the “detective” aspect seriously with Detective Comics – there’s very little in the way of overt action here, so instead he focuses on establishing mood, making conversation scenes still feel dynamic and emotional.

And that’s a huge benefit to this book, which is otherwise feeling a little toothless compared to its sister titles, which have far stronger premises and points of view. Detective Comics can be a double-edged sword in its current incarnation – it provides an easy, continuity-free entrée for readers, but only if the high concept of the story is strong enough to support it. Right now, this is a surprising whiff of the ball by Tomasi, who typically has much moodier, much more chilling premises in his work. That said, it's understandable – Tomasi is basically running in place until the main Batman title makes a strong move, and even the most steadfast of team players can sometimes come up short. Hopefully this is just a hiccup, and Pasarin can work with Tomasi on another story that is more worth his time.

Credit: Sean Phillips / Elizabeth Breitweiser (Image Comics)

The Fade Out #12
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Fade Out #12 sees the series close as eerily as it began, as Charlie reels from the events of the penultimate issue. With his friend gone, and no closer to solving the murder than he was before, he must now try to do things on his own.

The Fade Out #12 exemplifies how noir books should end. The reader's understanding of the characters is such that when the characters find the success they were looking for – like Charlie discovering the truth of Val's murder, or Maya becoming a Hollywood star – it feels bittersweet, as the reader knows what they lost. This is highlighted by Charlie's home life. Finally able to live out his attraction to Mabel, he finds himself collapsing under the weight of the lies surrounding Gil's death. It's heartbreaking storytelling that Brubaker and Phillips took time to set up.

It would be simple enough to allow The Fade Out #12 to conclude the story without any real developments outside of Val’s murder, but Brubaker and Phillips are not content with that, and instead continue to reveal things about the characters. In the first few pages, it is revealed that starlet Maya Silver is Mexican, adding another layer to her desire to be famous and loved by a very racist industry. This reveal also adds to Charlie, as it forces him to confront his own bigotry in a way that feels natural. And when he dismisses her, consumed by his own problems, artist Sean Phillips makes sure the reader sees the pain in Maya’s face.

Sean Phillips' artwork is spectacular, capturing the glamour of the studio system whilst simultaneously undercutting it by capturing the fact that it is a facade. When Maya and Tyler hit the red carpet as a new couple, Phillips lets the art focus on the ring and Tyler's sheepish face. It becomes apparent that the ring, and not the couple, is the focus of the paparazzi and this, in turn, sets the stage for Brubaker's next reveal. The marriage was put together by the studio.

The development works well as previous issues spent time developing Tyler and especially Maya, so the audience understands just how this ending perverts their dream. And indeed, the conclusion to the series continues this. While Charlie is able to discover who killed Val, he is utterly unequipped to do anything about it and he has lost so much in pursuit of the goal.

Elizabeth Breitweiser’s coloring really captures the dance between the façade of Hollywood and the reality in her work. The scenes that are brightly lit are often the most damaging for the characters, as when Charlie moves into Gil’s house. Though nearly everything is basked in light, Breitweiser’s palette reflects how hollow Charlie is in these moments. He appears either faded or covered in shadows, a wraith haunting the house rather than a man in his new home.

The final image of the book encapsulates the series. Phillips depicts Charlie drunkenly stumbling down the strip, with the lights of the studios behind him. Though he is completely broken and distraught, the studio will move on, with or without him. The Fade Out #12 does a wondrous job concluding the story, as it both solves the mystery in a satisfying way for the readers while still letting its characters move on in a realistic way. Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser stick the landing by staying true to their genre and to their characters.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Lone Wolf 2100 #1
Written by Eric Heisserer
Art by Miguel Sepulveda and Javier Mena
Lettering by Nate Piekos
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

As someone who hasn’t read the original manga or the 2002 “reimagined” version also published by Dark Horse, Lone Wolf 2100 #1 was a really enjoyable read despite the lack of context. It stands on its own as a solid story that will be worthy of manga lovers’ time.

Lone Wolf blends a post-apocalyptic storyline with action and global politics. With only this first issue, the current state of the world and what’s at stake is clear; more so, writer Eric Heisserer goes the extra mile by playing on the government’s fears of not being the first to stabilize their country. The conversations on not wanting to wait for China or other allies to solve the problem for them echo to real Cold War sentiments that add to the depth of the story. Although global politics don’t interfere with Daisy Ogami, the young girl carrying the key to a vaccine, and her android “Ronin” protector Itto, it adds to the tension to their parts of the story.

Heisserer makes a smart decision to flash back periodically throughout the issue – that’s where we get the global politics as we go between Daisy and Itto in Chicago with a presidential bunker as the Cabinet decides what to do next for the country. These dual storylines work well together, because the latter informs the former. With a clearer understanding of the background, readers will better able understand the context of the story and how important it is for Daisy to remain safe. So, when Itto has to protect her, we’re rooting for him stronger than we would before. It also helps that Heisserer plays up Daisy’s innocence, as it’s hard not to root for the survival of a young girl who holds the key to humanity’s survival.

The characterization in Lone Wolf 2100 is a little flat, however. Heisserer makes it clear who everyone is and what they want, but it all feels flat because there’s nothing that makes these characters particularly unique. We care about Daisy because she’s a small child; we think Itto is cool because his character design is striking and his martial arts skills look flashy with a sword. It leaves something to be desired, however, when you come away from the story being more interested in the global impact of these events than on the main characters.

Artist Miguel Sepulveda’s art has its moments to shine as well. His breakdowns are straightforward and consistent; while there’s nothing particularly innovative about it, the breakdowns make it easy for the eye to travel naturally from panel to panel. The visual choices Seplveda makes with respect to perspective angles and the action is what really sets him apart. Seeing the imaginary camera zoom out with the zombie-like Thrall encircling Itto and Daisy is a chilling image, especially when colorist Javier Mena makes the only source of light be where Daisy rests. It’s those kinds of decisions that convey the theme of the story and Daisy’s importance, which only shows that Heisserer, Sepulveda, and Mena made the effort to generate creative synergy between them.

Despite the solid narrative structure and composition, Lone Wolf 2100 struggles to really make itself distinct with all the other post-apocalyptic material available. There’s a draw because it’s inspired by a manga series, but there’s no overarching, strong pull for readers to stay entrenched in the story for future issues. The ending certainly leaves Heisserer enough to hook readers into wanting to see the next issue as we see more clearly who we’re supposed to be rooting against, but whether or not that translates throughout the issues after that is questionable.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

The Last Contract #1
Written by Ed Brisson
Art by Lisandro Estherren and Niko Guardia
Lettering by Ed Brisson
Published by BOOM! Studios
Review by Michael Moccio
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an unsuspecting old man with a mysterious past gets attacked one day—seemingly for no reason—and has to go back into said mysterious past to find out why. It sounds like Red, but it also sounds like The Last Contract. Writer Ed Brisson’s story is fairly straightforward, following the clichéd opening described above as the protagonist Marley begins to unravel a mystery from his past.

Part of The Last Contract’s problems is that Brisson doesn’t do anything in this first issue to make it stand apart from the cliché. His characters, while endearing in their rugged way, don’t take the extra steps to really make the reader care about the story. We know the conflict and we know what’s at stake, but Brisson fails to answer the pivotal “So what?” question and show us what makes this story worth investing our time into reading. The scenes pass by fairly quickly because the issue is made up of predominantly dialogue: Marley confronting his attackers and others confronting others. The pacing becomes lethargic as Brisson spends more and more time world building and fleshing out the present; the sparse action we do see doesn’t do enough to vary the pace of the story, making the climactic ending fall flat.

The art also compounds these pacing issues. Artist Lisandro Estherren’s breakdowns can become laborious as we see action broken down too far, especially during conversation. His rugged aesthetic and penciling work fits nicely with the overall gruffness of Marley and the story, however, and his strongest quality is in his exterior scenic design. Estherren has a masterful quality for perspective and, combined with colorist Niko Guardia’s talents, makes the setting quite enjoyable to glance through as the story progresses. While the same can be said for his interior work, Brisson and Estherren didn’t do enough to show us more of Marley’s character through the visuals. For example, in Marley’s first confrontation, we see sketches on a wall behind him: we can’t quite make out what they’re supposed to be or why they’re there and it’s never touched upon again. This isn’t a case of the curtains being blue because they’re blue blue—it’s a matter of opportunities missed to take characterization to the next level that ultimately stops The Last Contract from setting itself apart.

That’s not to say this story is bad, by any means. It’s predictable and expected, creating a believable sequence of events that will suspend your disbelief and allow you to dive head-first into the story. It’s a linear narrative, so it’s easy to jump right in and not feel lost, especially because the premise is so straightforward. The dialogue is by far one of the best parts of Brisson’s writing, showing how cruel and impatient Marley can get, though readers will be on his side the entire time. It’s through his dialogue that Brisson lays out the breadcrumbs for readers to piece together; however, when you put important bits of information in the first few panels without highlighting its importance, it makes it harder to appreciate when those clues come to fruition. The onus is on the reader to connect the dots, but Brisson doesn’t do a thorough enough job to make it worthwhile throughout the narrative.

Ultimately, The Last Contract is forgettable. It’s not bad enough to remember its quality, but it certainly doesn’t have anything that sets it apart, either. Since this is only a limited series with three more issues, it might be worth giving it a second shot with its next issue, but it seems fairly predictable with how the story will unfold.

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