Best Shots Reviews: SPIDER-MEN II #1, WONDER WOMAN #26, LAST SONG #1

Black Mask Studios May 2017 cover
Credit: Black Mask Studios
Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Men II #1
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponsor
Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

When Spider-Men came out in 2012, the concept was one that many fans had been clamoring for: a true crossover of the 616 and Ultimate universes! Despite that initially long-awaited team-up, the story itself was kind of a dud, doing little more to excite fans than deliver on the two heroes meeting. Fast forward five years, and the sheen has really worn off, especially after the events of Secret Wars that merged the two realities together anyway. So Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli really have their work cut out for them trying to make readers care about something that feels like it could happen in either characters’ main title in any given month. Pichelli and colorist Justin Ponsor hold up their end of the bargain, but Bendis’ script is sorely lacking.

Team-up books like this can work really well. Hell, Marvel is bringing back Marvel Two-in-One - proof positive that they have faith in the concept. Then what’s missing here? There’s a pretty thin line between a Bendis book working or not. He’s employed largely the same writing style to every book he’s done over the last 15 years, and the name of the game is decompression. While this issue isn’t overly decompressed to the point where pages are reduced to a series of panels of talking heads, there’s still not a lot going on. The opening scene gives no context for what the two Spider-Men are doing together in the first place. And Bendis’ Peter Parker is mostly just kind of a jerk to Miles. It’s almost like Bendis hasn’t read anything Dan Slott’s been doing with the character but needs Peter to be disapproving just to create story tension.

One some level, Peter’s disapproval of Miles as Spider-Man might work if he was still 12 but Miles has aged in almost real-time since the last time they met. It’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle black in that case and it doesn’t work for the story, partly because Miles is so passive. Peter says something and Miles just takes it. You’d hope that a writer who's made a career out of dialogue and witty repartee would use these opportunities to show some of those skills off. You can have characters act out of character if someone will call them on it. After all, people don’t always act consistently. But that doesn't happen here and it feels like a missed opportunity. Later on, Bendis basically has to have Spider-Man recount the entirety of the events of the last mini to explain the existence of a portal. It comes across as unnatural as you’d expect a recap page inserted as dialogue to be. There’s just nothing redeeming about this script.

But the art team, for their part, shows up. Pichelli helped create Miles and she’s just as at home with him as ever. I like that there’s a little bit more of an edge to her line work across the board, as her early work had a gloss to it that could sometimes make her characters a bit rigid. In this issue, her characters are much more expressive and that helps in the moments where she has to help a joke limp along to a punchline. There’s not really any physical comedy present, but she does her best (with a huge assist from letterer Chris Eliopoulos) to make the script feel more natural. Justin Ponsor’s colors are worlds away from the first Spider-Men miniseries in that he allows Pichelli’s inks to create contrast on the page. In the first miniseries, he overwhelmed the inks on the page, erasing what little contrast there was with washes of colors that ended up muting the pages altogether. He avoids that pitfall here and the book is better for it.

There’s not really any reason to pick this up unless you’re a big fan of the art team. The story at this point has basically no major thematic or tonal elements to it. It’s hollow. Bendis seems to want to tell the story of the second Miles Morales, but we only get a small tease of that character. Bendis seems to want to tell a story that is a sequel to the last miniseries, but so far he’s basically only rehashed parts of that plot. It’s hard to know what the appeal of this story is supposed to be and it doesn’t matter how much the art team flexes their respective muscles, they’re not going to be able to save a book that has no emotional stakes and almost nothing unique happening.

Credit: DC Comics

Wonder Woman #26
Written by Shea Fontana
Art by Mirka Andolfo and Romulo Fajardo, Jr.
Lettered by Saida Temofonte
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Following up Greg Rucka just two weeks after wrapping his run seems like a daunting task, and I can’t say I envy Shea Fontana in being the one to undertake this. That said, her recent Justice League issue had a strong balance and banter and light-hearted fun the title hadn’t seen in a while, and I was looking forward to seeing what she’d bring to Wonder Woman #26. Her debut issue isn’t as focused as that one-shot was, starting with a heavy situation and eventually transitioning to a wedding which is, for the most part, a more light-hearted affair. For an arc which is looking to be about finding some peace, however briefly, it can’t help but feel a tad busy.

That heavy situation takes place in a Greek U.N. refugee camp that’s in disarray as Diana laments how much time she spends in places of that nature, aware she can help many people, but not all. What follows is a flashback to her time as a child on Themyscira, which is sure to come across strongly to fans of the first act of her recent solo outing on the big screen. Part of this is because how focused the sequence is, having a clear end goal which it reaches without real distraction, while the scenes that follow in the present day have a lot more to deal with like following up on the scene in the refugee camp, while also introducing Etta Candy into the story in order to get to the wedding. Fontana has shown she works well with an ensemble, so the issue may arise from some characters involved in these sequences being bit players, rather than being more intently focused on Diana, Etta ,and Steve Trevor. Fontana’s script is bursting with ideas, but doesn’t have the breathing room they require.

On colors is Romulo Fajardo, Jr., who allows for some consistency between Rucka’s run and Fontana’s issue, the palette looks to be without drastic change and fits with Mirka Andolfo’s art reasonably well, albeit not as perfect a fit as it was with Nicola Scott’s. While this issue is not beholden to Rucka’s run and where he left off, Fontana hasn’t completely ignored it, Diana still comes across as compassionate and Etta’s involvement show the supporting cast isn’t being jettisoned. These qualities stand as enough reason for this issue to feel like it’s following on and it might have been preferable that a completely new creative team had the chance to establish a look and feel for their run. Regardless the pair give the issue a soft, but textured feel with the Themyscira scene letting Fajardo do wonders with the lighting and proves Andolfo’s character expression to be a clear strength of their work. It allows for a quiet discussion to unfold, where changes of emotion are evident without the need for dynamic blocking where the characters need exuberant gestures to convey how they feel.

As I already said, I don’t envy Fontana’s position, not in the least because she’s only getting an arc so any ideas she has need to be packed into these five issues. If there’s any disappointment to be had, it comes more in the form that she writes an introspective, thoughtful and caring Diana, but like the plot, she hasn’t had chance to dig into that yet. Overall, arcs which have too much going on are preferable to ones which have to stretch a thin amount of material into the length of a trade and Fontana’s looks to err on the side of the former. With any luck, these are purely growing pains and Fontana will be able to properly examine these ideas.

Credit: Black Mask Studios

Last Song #1
Written by Holly Interlandi
Art by Sally Cantirino
Published by Black Mask Studios
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Black Mask Studios has consistently pushed the boundaries of direct market comic books with incisive tales like Matteo Pizzolo and Amancay Nahuelpan’s Young Terrorists and Calexit and strange sci-fi tales like Magdelene Visaggio and Eryk Donovan’s Quantum Teens are Go or Fabian Rangel Jr. and Alexis Ziritt’s Space Riders. But what Holly Internaldi’s Last Song brings to the table is just as vital for the medium and Black Mask’s identity as a publisher, even if her tale of young Californians chasing rock stardom lacks the bombast of mad science or the sharp and vital political undercurrent of other books from the Black Mask catalogue.

As writer Holly Interlandi describes in the backmatter of today’s debut, Last Song was conceived as a novel first drafted when Interlandi was 19. A decade and a half later, after nursing the novel through countless prose drafts, Last Song has taken shape as a compelling exploration of grief, mental health, and relationships against the backdrop of the California indie music scene beautifully illustrated in black and white by Sally Cantirino. Black Mask gave Interlandi the freedom to transmute Last Song from a full-length novel into four quarterly issues, each oversized and capturing a season of protagonist Nicky Marshall’s pursuit of a music career with his best friend and bandmate Drey Shannon.

There are hints of Phonogram or The Wicked + The Divine in the content of last song, but Interlandi and Cantirino shake off the supernatural elements and lean whole-heartedly into the passion and uncertainty of the indie rock scene of the ‘80s. Last Song reads as much like a prose novel as it does a comic book, interspersed with journal entries illustrated by Sally Cantirino with paragraphs captured in tidy cursive, crafted in second person, reading like a gentle admonition of the reader as much as they appear to function as a pensive moment of personal reflection from Nicky.

Cantirino’s black and white illustrations are moody and thoughtful, tidy panel layouts making Nicky’s messy thoughts and flighty choices easy to follow through more traditionally laid out pages and capturing Nicky and Drey as dark silhouettes in private moments where they struggle to work through what reads as a troublingly uneven relationship - Drey, emotionally invested in Nicky in a way he at times struggles to articulate, and Nicky unaware of the depth of Drey’s feelings (platonic or otherwise - it’s unclear in the issue) and still to haunted by the emotional tailspin of the aftermath of his father’s suicide to articulate his own emotional turmoil.

The choice to use Cantirino’s black-and-white inks with no colors gives Last Song a nostalgic vibe backed up by the ratty composition pages Nicky journals in, and the carefully illustrated photos scattered throughout. Last Song #1 feels at times like an artifact from a life the older Nicky of the opening pages wishes he’d left behind, bolstered by Interlandi’s wistful writing and the careful, building tempo Interlandi keeps throughout. Interlandi’s script makes Last Song feel like the introductory track of an EP, building to an emotional crescendo that will pound in your ears and heart like a strong bass beat and trailing off into a thoughtful refrain that feels like it’s preparing to transition into the next song.

Last Song #1 is as much of a journey as any new album, a full arc wisely released in one oversized issue - though the series is a well-executed blend of prose and comic books, it’s also clear the series wouldn’t work as well in shorter installments. To get the full emotional impact of Nicky and Drey’s first few months as a fledgling indie band, you need the full 60 pages in one sitting; following Nicky in fleeting monthly moments rather than through a full long season would drain the book of much of its emotional impact. There’s a case to be made for more arc-based, oversized quarterly printings like this. It’s fortunate for readers that Black Mask took the chance and gave Interlandi’s powerful prose a home, and a testament to Cantirino’s skill as an artist and storyteller that she was able to work with Interlandi to maintain the spirit of the original prose in such a gripping fashion.

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