Best Shots for 9/7/09: SUPERGIRL ANNUAL,

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Greetings! Your Best Shots Extras (BSEs) and Best Shots Advance reviews from the past week were …

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #2

Strange Tales #1

Sweet Tooth #1

And the rest …

Supergirl Annual #1

Written by Sterling Gates

Art by Fernando Dagnino & Raúl Fernandez

Published by DC Comics

Review by THE Rev. O.J. Flow

"Well, just because Supergirl can't help, doesn't mean someone else can't." – Lana Lang

Twenty years ago, I always looked forward to the Annual issues DC produced because they frequently served as the climactic finales to storylines that ran in the regular monthlies. Back in its Wolfman/Pérez heyday, New Teen Titans was as good a title as any in giving a multi-issue story arc a double-sized conclusion that rewarded the readers in spades. By the Nineties, Annuals were more often used as stories that spanned the DC Universe as an alternative to self-contained miniseries (Armageddon 2001, Eclipso: The Darkness Within, Bloodlines).

After all but scrapping the Annual concept the better part of this decade, DC has found something of a happy medium in the last couple years in giving monthly series a supplemental, extra-sized issue if the tale being told can barely be contained in 22 pages a month. More than anywhere else, this revival has found its way to the Superman books. While the stories relayed in this debut Annual for the Maid of Steel do not contribute to "New Krypton" in the most immediate sense, they are most purposeful to Supergirl fans who have been enjoying her stories in the last year as much as I have. The bigger epic does get advanced in one key aspect (more on that in a bit), while Kara – or, should I say, Linda Lang – finds that all the superpowers in the galaxy are not going to enable her to develop as a hero and a young lady any quicker than they are.

Forty pages gets us two distinctive stories, and what's welcome is that they're both produced by the same writer/artist team, giving Supergirl Annual #1 nice flow and consistency. Regular Supergirl writer Sterling Gates handles the scripts, and his words are visualized by the duo of Fernando Dagnino and Raúl Fernandez. Some readers initially may be turned off (like me) if they didn't care for the covers of last month's "Codname: Patriot" books (like me). I know that I wasn't the only on who saw those half-hero/half-villain covers as a detriment to an otherwise decent sub-chapter to "New Krypton." But given a lot more pages and panels to work with, Dagnino and Fernandez show that they can contribute with the best of the artists who have driven the Superman books since 2008.

Supergirl Annual #1 kicks off with "Secret Identities," and Gates finally gets a good opportunity to play with Kara Zor-El's earthborn alias as the niece of Lana Lang. We're brought into the story as an armed-robbery-with-hostages situation has already been diffused. While one would assume that the emergence of the Science Police on the scene would put the would-be hostages at ease, the authorities' immediate suspicion that a Kryptonian is in their midst (very illegal at the moment) makes the situation just as anxious, if not altogether hostile.

Linda Lang gets the chance to use her superspeed to successfully assist the civilians, but being new to the whole secret identity thing, she finds out the hard way that she needs to work on her back-story big time. Supergirl gets a very convenient "out" in the form of unknown Kryptonians who are outed themselves.

Without giving too much away, a couple observations. I don't know if the Science Police have a full understanding of red kryptonite, but their usage of the alien rock was quite possibly one of the dumber things they've done, and that was after they needlessly created a very hostile environment among the civilians who were all but forced into fearing the "dreaded Kryptonian."

The other thing that stuck out was seeing Supergirl basically shit on again (second time this week alone, if you read Justice League: Cry For Justice #3) by a fellow native when she did the right thing for the most part. While Kara's input in averting a near-fatal robbery exposed some more Kryptonians laying low on Earth (with the best of intentions this time around), a suggestion that her late father would have been just as down on her borders on absurd. Anyone following the story of this father and daughter knows better, yet that patented guilt trip has been used on Supergirl more than kryptonite.

Which leads to another father/daughter team and the second story found in this Annual. The multi-part "Who is Superwoman" is dusted of as we finally get the story of how Lucy Lane became the lead weapon of General Sam Lane and his underground war on all things Krypton, under the guise of a mystery member of the El family.

The most peculiar thing is that, historically, the father of Lois and Lucy Lane was viewed by both as an absentee parent. Lois would have you believe that there was really no pleasing her old man, him always wanting a son. But if you hear it from her little sister, it turns out that Lois was a prize of a daughter and that it left no room for Lucy to be appreciated. Having not followed it myself, I don't know if Lucy was retconned into Amazon Attacks when a dubious reunion took place. Regardless, artists Dagnino and Fernandez give this story and the one prior a tremendous amount of energy. At times I was reminded of Alan Davis, though it'd be decades before I could say "as good."

Gates' background of Lucy and her identity as Superwoman ultimately makes a lot of sense, and I can't honestly say that there's any twists in "Second Born: The Secret Origin of Superwoman" that take us in any unexpected directions. However, I'm puzzled as to why a vital discovery eventually made by Gen. Lane's covert team would be received as bad news. We'll have to see how that plays out later this year.

As it stands, if nothing else, Supergirl Annual #1 took me back to a time long ago where an annual with a little something extra could do a service to the monthly series.

Invincible Iron Man #17

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Salvador Larocca

Coloring by Frank D'Armata

Lettering by VC's Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Matt Fraction, with his "World's Most Wanted" arc, has gained fans and foes alike, with his long-form chronicles of Tony Stark's last stand. As someone who has really dug this arc, I'm a bit torn about this particular issue of Invincible Iron Man – it looks good, and it sounds good, and when the whole series finally plays out, it'll make for a nice story beat. But as a single comic, it feels like something's missing.

I say this in the most positive way I can. In this issue, everything goes to hell for Maria Hill, the Black Widow, and Pepper Potts, as Norman Osborn literally drops the H.A.M.M.E.R. on this motley trio. Fraction truly has a gift for writing Norman Osborn, as he comes off as a wonderfully deranged character, whether it be blackmailing the Russian government for access or coming oh-so-close to choking the life out of a subordinate.

Yet you can see Fraction's true affection is for Tony Stark, as he makes a sad, lonely journey to the deserts of Afghanistan. On the one hand, Tony's emotions are pitch-perfect, as he struggles with the guilt of leaving Pepper Potts behind in the last issue; on the other hand, I feel like Fraction might be pushing Tony's increasing intellectual impairment too far, as he narrates with an e-mail that's just a little over the top with its misspellings.

Salvador Larocca and Frank D'Armata, meanwhile, are the team to beat in terms of the art. D'Armata creates a wonderfully bleak atmosphere with his colors, while Larocca excels at making his protagonists – whether it be Tony or Maria – into broken, sympathetic characters. One cameo by a certain Star-Spangled Avenger is probably the highlight of the book, one that doesn't need any of Fraction's heartfelt dialogue to make sing. And Norman Osborn – wow, does he come off as a charismatic character, even for someone who styles his hair with a Brillo pad.

But with all this good stuff, what do I mean about something missing? The issue starts out with everything going to hell... and pretty much ends that way. Norman Osborn and crew certainly seem to be on their way to success, but I feel like this issue was missing a hook, missing just a flicker of set-up of how Pepper or Maria are going to get out of this pickle. Once you get to read this series from beginning to end, this issue will make perfect sense, but right now, it just feels like half a beat, y'know? I've been able to get behind the last 10 issues of Iron Man because it felt that each chapter kept the story moving along – this felt a little bit too much like epilogue from the last issue.

Still, even if it's not the most satisfying chapter of the run, Matt Fraction and company have made me far too invested in this hero's redemption to cast it aside now – not every team can bat a thousand, but Invincible Iron Man comes close. If the worst crime they can perpetrate is creating a single issue that'll work better in a trade, this is a comic well worth defending.

Army of Darkness #24

Written by: Mike Raicht

Art by: Mario Gully

Published by: Dynamite Entertainment

Review by Erich Reinstadler

I’m going to make a confession here. I have never read an Army Of Darkness comic. Not even the Marvel Zombies crossover. And it’s no accident. I’ve gone out of my way to not read them. There’s no way, I’ve always felt, that they could manage to meet the level of manic fun that the legendary Bruce Campbell movies have provided us. So, when I was assigned AoD #24 to review, I came in as a total newb, full of trepidation. Would I like it? Would I hate it? Or would it be total indifference?

As it turns out, I was surprised. It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but that likely has to do with there being 23 issues prior to this that I haven’t read yet. You can’t start a book in the 24th chapter and expect to understand what the #%$ is going on.

That said, it was an enjoyable read. Writer Mike Raicht was smart enough to start the book with a brief recap of recent events. Ash, it turns out, has been possessed by Hell’s Prophet, a generally not-too-nice guy, and HP comes out to play when Ash falls asleep. Teaming up with Brad the American Werewolf, Damisi the African fire controller and Cybil the European ghost speaker, Ash finds himself searching for Shangri-La.

Zombie Nazis, a fallen angel, and the tragic story of the fabled city of Shangri-La made for a surprisingly interesting story. Raicht’s writing captures the spirit of the Evil Dead/AoD movies and characters without going overboard. Artist Mario Gully, along with colorist Rael Sidharta, capture the appropriate look for the book. Cartoony, but not overly so.

All in all, a fun book. Having read this issue, I plan on finding the back issues, so I can get caught up. I want to know what happened before, and I’m interested in seeing where the story takes us from here.

Cable #18

Written by Duane Swiercynski

Art by Gabriel Guzman

Coloring by Thomas Mason

Lettering by VC's Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

I'm a man of two minds when it comes to Cable. On the one hand, I love the high concept – Cable and Hope, running through time and space to escape the clutches of Bishop. On the other hand, no matter how strong the script is, I think it's the kind of story that requires strong visuals, laced with moody atmosphere and sharp action.

The story leads off of the last issue, in which Duane Swiercynski has made an interesting choice to avoid painting himself in a corner – what happens when you go as far as you can into Earth's future? You escape into space. On the one hand, the transition from last issue, of Cable and Hope blasting off to Cable being locked in the brig, comes off as a little jarring, with not quite enough set-up to make it make sense – that said, the pacing and the sense of tension, especially when nuclear-armed Bishop arrives, is really strong.

It's the art that doesn't sell me. That's not to say that Guzman isn't a decent artist – he is – it's the fact that I don't think he necessarily presents Swiercynski's story with the right sort of mood. It's certainly straightforward storytelling, but I really think it could be so much more. It's because of this that lots of little moments – whether it be Emil seeing Hope again, or Cable being locked up in a dank prison cell – lose a lot of their potential heft. That said, Guzman does draw a mean final page – you'll know it when you see it – certainly intrigues me.

All in all, I really do dig the direction that Cable is going in, especially with a little bit more realistic art than the series' inception. But realism doesn't have to come at the cost of drama – Cable and Hope are fighting through hell, and it's a shame this issue doesn't show it. With the right artist on board, this could be the sleeper hit of the X-books – but even with its interesting script, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get art slows this book to a crawl.

Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 23: Bridge of Tears

Written & Illustrated by Stan Sakai

Published by Dark Horse

Reviewed by Michael C Lorah

Bridge of Tears indeed. Readers should not read this book in public, because people are going to wonder about you when they see you sobbing over your rabbit samurai comic book. The gist of the latest Miyamoto Usagi adventure is pretty clear: tired of his intercessions in their operations, the assassin's guild directs one of their best to kill Usagi. Meanwhile, the ronin rabbit doesn't know what to do with Mayumi, the (cute) tag-a-long he's picked up. Suffice to say, it gets hairy when assassin, Mayumi and a weakened-by-poison Usagi all come together in one place.

Probably the most impressive aspect of Bridge of Tears is that twenty-three volumes into the series, Stan Sakai continues to do a brilliant job of balancing long-term and short-range plotlines. An interlude with bounty hunters Gen (my favorite supporting player) and Stray Dog in pursuit of Inazuma (still the scariest villain in all of comics) lays groundwork for coming stories, while keeping readers alert to subplots that have been percolating for a long while.

Sakai's able to up the drama by shifting the narrative's point of view, giving each of the book's three major characters time in the spotlight. Giving a peek into each character allows the tension to mount, leading to a finale that's among the best in comics' history. Smart, heart-breaking, explosive, and deadly, Bridge of Tears' finale is the perfect ending to a momentous build-up.

Matching the writing, Stan Sakai's cartooning remains a lesson to anyone wanting to learn the craft. Well researched details ground each scene in reality, while the carefully chosen angles and zooms maximize the humor or drama of each story beat. Most important of all, each panel operates as just that – a beat of a narrative story, dedicated to carrying forward the story.

Bridge of Tears concludes with an unusual moment in Usagi history – the 100th issue of Usagi Yojimbo to be published by Sakai's current home, Dark Horse Comics. The mocking "roast" is cute and has some good gags, and it's a treat to see revered pros such as Frank Miller, Matt Wagner (with editor Diana Schutz), Rick Geary (with Dark Horse honcho Mike Richardson), Andi Watson (with former editor Jamie S. Rich), Sergio Aragones, Scott Shaw! (with Mark Evanier), Jeff Smith and Guy Davis pay tribute to one of their peers.

Long story short, Usagi Yojimbo continues to be the best adventure comic in the world today, and Bridge of Tears is simply more evidence. Readers are strongly encouraged to pick this one up.

Under Red Sky #1

Written by: Mike Gallinari

Art by: Lee Cutrone

Published by: Southpaw Studios

Review by Erich Reinstadler

The time – 1860. The location – Rust rocks, in the Arizona Territory.

Patrick M. “Paddy” Kelly, an honest man in dishonest times, is running for mayor in Rust Rocks. However, like all good politicians, he said the wrong thing about the wrong people. Being the old west, however, those “wrong people” were able to do more than just file lawsuits or sabotage his political career.

Sent from Chicago, a group of desperados, for lack of a better word, confront Paddy over his remarks. The men they represent aren’t happy with Paddy, and an apology will not suffice. What follows is retribution of the cruelest kind.

Mike Gallinari and Lee Cutrone, the creative team behind The Crush, present in this first issue the first chapter of a tale of old west justice, of murder and revenge, of good men and evil incarnate. Gallinari’s scripting is tight, with sparse dialogue, depending on visuals to tell much of the story. Fortunately for him, Cutrone is up to the challenge. His art is perfect for the black and white book, the fine lines of his pencils and ink able to deftly capture the mood and feel of the story.

A highly enjoyable, tightly written story, Under Red Sky #1 had more than a couple unexpected moments. The storylines being put into motion are definitely more than just a standard story of revenge. There is a lot of back story to be uncovered, and I look forward to finding it all out. Gallinari and Cutrone are a very impressive creative team, and I believe that they have a bright future in the world of comics.

Hercules: The Knives of Kush #2

Published by Radical Publishing

Writer: Steve Moore

Art: Cris Bolson

Review By: Jeff Marsick

The best thing about this lackluster series is the covers. Marko Djurdjevic’s vision of stoic Hercules is imposing and awe-inspiring (although the light whorls in the background are a poor choice, giving the unintended effect of intimating that the headdress has Aquaman-like telepathic powers: “You WILL buy this book…you WILL buy this book…”) while Clint Langley’s berserker version is simply gorgeous in its ferocity.

Unfortunately, this is about as manly as the demi-god is inclined to get in this series as the mere act of turning the cover emasculates him into nothing more special than merely a-guy-with-a-club-talking-big-but-doing-little. The series loses its way somewhat with this issue, as Hercules and crew go from bodyguards to erstwhile detectives and the book turns from adventure tale to improbable mystery as the mercenaries are now tasked with finding the traitor within the Egyptian king’s walls. The story wanders wordily for far too long, especially when they try to glean details from a necromancer and his prophesying corpse (who speaks in an annoying font and channels her inner Etrigan with irritatingly cutesy rhyming couplets).

Cris Bolson’s artwork is decidedly more cartoony than the last issue and seems to take perverse pleasure in climaxing every evisceration and beheading with a laughably corny Dario Argento-inspired geyser of crimson. Writer Steve Moore also needs to work on ending an issue, as this is now two in a row that doesn’t end in a cliffhanger as much as it does a guillotined truncation, leaving the reader to wonder if a page is missing. Twenty-eight pages for $2.99 is certainly a value, but this book is no bargain. The first series was much better and this one sorely pales in comparison. Save your money and spend it on Radical’s Hotwire instead.


Hotwire: Requiem For The Dead #4 of 4 (Radical; review by Jeff Marsick): This has been a very enjoyable series, and with the gorgeous art by Steve Pugh probably one of the top three best looking that Radical has ever done. Steve Pugh deserves another pat on the back for assuming the writing duties off a concept by Warren Ellis, and doing an admirable job.

This issue wraps up the cyberpunk adventure starring Detective Exorcist (what a great title) Alice. In this issue the populace has been roiled up nice and tight into a right angry mob, and it’s all the coppers can do to restrain themselves from exercising lethal force in order to contain them. Alice, thought drowned in the last issue, races against time to defeat her savior and the mob’s puppet master, the blue light known as Malik. It’s a frenzied pack of action in cool Blade Runner-meets-The Matrix style, but given the build-up and coiling of intensity is resolved a little too quickly for full satisfaction.

The last page is especially poor, wrapping up such a fine series on a quote that all but screams out for a rimshot, a laugh-track, and ‘80s Mike Post end-music. Tragic ending aside, this is one of the most entertaining bangs for your buck on the market, and if you’ve not collected the series thus far, I highly recommend picking up the hardcover collection when it comes out later this fall. Catch up on Alice’s adventures, because this surely won’t be the last Hotwire series.

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