Best Shots Reviews: SWAMP THING WINTER SPECIAL, VENOM #161, More

Lion Forge February 2018 cover
Credit: Lion Forge
Credit: DC Comics

Swamp Thing Winter Special #1
Written by Tom King and Len Wein
Art by Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson, Kelley Jones and Michelle Madsen
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Horror is a dish best served cold in the Swamp Thing Winter Special. Equal parts standalone gut-punch and stirring tribute to the creators of Swamp Thing, writer Tom King and artists Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson do Wein and Wrightson proud with a dark and haunting tale of the superhero of the swamp. Written in King’s trademark poetic style, Swampy protects a young boy from an unseen monster who has cut Alec off from the Green with a never-ending blizzard. Armed with chilly visuals and expansive panel layouts from artist Jason Fabok and colorist Brad Anderson, the Swamp Thing Winter Special #1 is the perfect comic to end this latest frigid season with.

Winter has come to the swamp, but this is a winter unlike any the world has ever seen. With little introduction, Tom King throws us - and Swamp Thing - into the thick of this unnatural snowstorm and keeps us in the dark. As each new scene is labeled with the maddeningly vague “Later,” King keeps stripping away layers from Swampy, taking him from regal warrior king to a foggy-minded father figure to the young boy he is keeping safe from the storm.

This downward spiral of Swamp Thing adds to the uneasy dread of the story and reduces Alec to his basest characterization in order for King’s plot to truly hit as hard as it can. And believe me, when it hits, you will definitely feel it. By melding his unusual approach to plot structure and his evocative, raw character work, Tom King may have delivered one of the most crystallized examples of his unconventional writing style with the Swamp Thing Winter Special (with the exception of Mister Miracle, of course).

Artist Jason Fabok and colorist Brad Anderson prove to be excellent companions for King throughout this special, adapting well to his more lyrical, gothic style of scripting. Opening with a gorgeously macro look at the swamp’s ecosystem under attack by the cold, Fabok then zooms out slightly, putting a premium on posing Swamp Thing and the boy against the constant sheet of snow that beats against his back. Along with colorist Anderson, who really makes the most of the limited color scheme that this snowy special demands, the art team hit the emotional beats harder than they hit the action beats, giving this comic a surprisingly emotional tone as it walks us through a winter nightmare-land.

After the snow melts in the main story, the Swamp Thing Winter Special sends us out on a bittersweet note that fits in right alongside King, Fabok, and Anderson’s fraught and frigid horror-show. Opening with a touching note from DC editor Rebecca Taylor, the special then presents Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein’s very last Swamp Thing story, sans lettering, allowing the audience to drink in its details and flow unabated. Drawn and colored by frequent collaborators Kelley Jones and Michelle Madsen, the special ends with a gut-wrenching look at what might have been, only to take an inspiring upswing as we see Wein’s full written plot of the issue, followed by reprints of their stirring tributes to Wein and Bernie Wrightson as the 80-page special’s coup de grace. Though it is certainly hard being reminded of the losses the industry has suffered as of late, the Swamp Thing Winter Special #1 is a fitting tribute to the creators that gave us monsters with heart.

Winter is the cruelest season, but the Swamp Thing Winter Special never lets the cold slow it down as it eulogizes Swampy’s creators the best way it knows how; with a one-shot that perfectly encapsulates the character’s artistry, horror, and emotion. Though the void left by the loss of Wein and Wrightson is a big one, Tom King, Jason Fabok, and Brad Anderson do the swamp and its keepers proud with a truly superb one-shot.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Infinity Countdown: Adam Warlock #1
Written by Gerry Duggan
Art by Mike Allred and Laura Allred
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

With the Infinity Stones becoming the focal point of the next Avengers movie, it’s only natural that the Marvel publishing line starts to approximate something similar in the comics to try and capitalize on the film’s expected success. Sometimes that means putting a character back in an iconic role or costume. Sometimes it means pushing prominent movie villains to the forefront. With Avengers: Infinity War only months away, the comics are building their own story featuring Thanos and the Infinity Stones. It started with the return of Wolverine in Legacy, and it continues with Infinity Countdown: Adam Warlock, as Gerry Duggan and Mike Allred bring Adam Warlock back into the mix.

Warlock might be the character most closely associated with Thanos outside of Marvel’s personification of Death, and Gerry Duggan takes the right approach in getting readers up to speed. The Allreds have a penchant for twisting the style of any era of comics into their unique visual language, so Duggan takes advantage of that skill and summarizes Warlock’s history to this point. That makes Infinity Countdown: Adam Warlock a great jumping-on point for both new and lapsed readers and provides something of a foundation for the event.

But Duggan doesn’t stop there, and that’s what’s most important here. Duggan doesn’t let this become an illustrated Wikipedia article. Kang’s a fun device for writers to use that allows them to dig into the past, experience the present and foreshadow the future all at once. It’s a clever bit that rings true to past Marvel continuity, sets up Warlock as a potential savior once again and reestablishes that Thanos is not to be trifled with — heroes and villains are working together to make sure he doesn’t win. Duggan is able to recapture some of the magic of the Marvel Universe by reintroducing us to a flawed glam-rock space messiah who might just be the key to everything. In doing so, we’re reminded of all the excellently weird corners of the Marvel Universe that the films have yet to explore.

The Allreds are really perfectly suited for this task. As made clear by their work on Silver Surfer, Mike and Laura Allred bring the cosmic corners of the Marvel U alive in a completely unique way. Allred’s expressive and fully realized artwork does most of the heavy lifting as Duggan rolls out the summary of Warlock's life. But rather than feel like a mere series of static images, it feels more like we’re flowing through these scenes. We feel present for these moments rather than just spectators, which helps add a lot of urgency of the proceedings. But while the recaps themselves don’t hold much in terms of stakes, they help us build toward Kang’s plan and the downright eerie conclusion of the book. This is really smart comicbooking made possible by veteran artists treating every page with care and putting their own spin on historical scenes rather than just aping what came before.

While the larger Infinity Countdown story will likely only bear a passing resemblance to the upcoming Avengers films, if the creative team can keep up this level of quality, that’s okay. So far, this event feels a bit more sequestered to cosmic reaches of the Marvel U (despite Wolverine walking around with an Infinity Stone), but that might be a good thing — it seems that Marvel has learned from the recent past, limiting the main throes of this story to a mere six issues with only a few tie-ins. And more importantly, by building up Infinity Countdown outside the main Marvel titles before involving a larger cast, the House of Ideas might have just figured out the best way to tee up an event.

Credit: Frank Quitely (DC Comics/Young Animal)

Mother Panic/Batman Special #1
Written by Jody Houser
Art by Ty Templeton and Keiren Smith
Lettering by John Workman
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

When Milk Wars kicked off with Doom Patrol/JLA Special #1, it set a tone that was a little more in line with the former than the latter. Considering that Mother Panic/Batman Special #1 is chapter two of the un-event, there’s a real fear that the tone won’t be able to carry into Jody Houser’s Gotham, where Violet Paige moves through consequences in a way that feels irreconcilably at odds with the fast-paced meta antics of the Doom Patrol and JLA crossover.

And yet, it works. Houser doesn’t just knock that tone established by the previous book out of the park, she co-opts it and turns it into something that is both scary and in-line with the Mother Panic tone. The rapid-fire single page recap of Violet Paige’s origin is effective because it’s more about establishing the comic’s setting of Gather House as a significant location to newer readers than it is about catching them up on Violet’s background. Violet as a character has an emotional connection to her background that dwarf’s most DC characters that aren’t named Bruce Wayne, so conveying the pathos behind why Gather House is significant to her specifically is essential. From this opening, Violet learns that Gather House is inexplicably back after being burned to the ground, and as she enters the site of her lifelong trauma, the comic takes a turn for the bizarre.

The new Gather House immediately pulls Violet into the self-aware trappings of “Milk Wars,” but does away with most of humor from the previous installment. The censored swear words that readers likely don’t even initially notice are noticed by Violet. Violet swears frequently, but the comic has literally imposed a censor in her head. The moment is played to add tension to the start of a series of increasingly strange and borderline upsetting moments. Father Bruce leads a band of gun-wielding caped youngsters and preaches to them the gospel of milk. Year One’s iconic “Yes, Father. I shall become a bat” scene is recreated with the bat being replaced by a milk-wielding priest. Artist Ty Templeton alters his style enough to pay homage to David Mazzucchelli’s original panels while colorist Kieren Smith’s use of sepia tones between vibrant and effectively colored pages adds to the moment. Bruce’s tears of milk make the scene unsettling, leading readers directly into the most thematically interesting part of the story.

The Grand Machine sits in the vestibule of Father Bruce’s church. Bruce and Mother Partake send damaged and abandoned children into the Machine to “strip away the tragedy that has defined their lives,” and plan to do send Violet into the Machine. There is scarcely a page in any Mother Panic book where her tragic and abuse-filled past doesn’t cast a long shadow on her actions. To change that would change Violet entirely, but it’s her reaction to the machine being used on other victims of abuse that is most interesting. She wants to prevent them from harm, but she doesn’t want to artificially erase that harm if it has already happened. What is happening to the children is brainwashing and exploitation. It is removing the harm from their lives, but it is still doing the horrific actions that Gather House has always committed. The children at this Gather House are given guns. They are still weapons. Violet might want the innocent to avoid the scar tissue she has, but she also doesn’t think that denying that it exists will do any good.

While the comic undoubtedly has a difficult task, it isn’t always as smooth or effective as its strongest scenes. The climax has some extremely memorable panels, parts of it feel rushed and unclear. Mother Partake as an artificial entity that somehow binds the milk to Batman works in a thematic sense that it allows Violet to destroy a symbol of her childhood trauma and affirm that it is both a part of her and something that she has overcome, but outside of that context it just feels arbitrary. There isn’t much in the comic to lead to it apart from the fact that milk seemingly spews from her hands in one panel. The aforementioned panel is one of the most memorable in the comic, but an initial reading makes it seem more like Mother Partake is dipping her hands into the various milk communion glasses than she is actually creating the milk. In an earlier scene, the hedges outside of Gather House animate and chase Violet into the building. This also feels clumsy due to it appearing in one single panel and having nothing to really lead up to it or to pay off from it.

Magdalene Vissagio’s backup tale continues the nostalgic pulp established in the backup of the last issue in the crossover, but doubles down on the sinister overtones to draw some palpable intrigue at where it could possibly go regardless of how or if it ties into the main story. Sonny Liew’s art in the backup is a highlight of the entire comic with his final four panels being noteworthy in the use of color to both create a sense of aesthetic cohesion, but to also reinforce the tone of the backup. Yellow and red are clearly his markers for violent and unstable scenes. With the creative team of these backups being at the helm of Young Animal’s upcoming Eternity Girl, and knowing that the series’ plot will involve the character of Caroline who features heavily within them, it’s hard to not feel anticipation for the future of that series as well as the entire Young Animal line.

“Milk Wars” is going to be the connective tissue between the previous iteration of Mother Panic and the impending Mother Panic: Gotham A.D., and making Violet Paige’s inclusion into the crossover seamless is essential in making what comes next for the character feel like a fluid continuation rather than a soft reboot. With a character that exhibits as much development as Violet, readers can take comfort in the fact that this middle ground between two series is fluid, and they can revel in an entertaining story with heavy thematic elements. The creative team of Houser, Templeton, and Smith deliver, and Mother Panic/Batman Special #1 keeps the “Milk Wars” ball rolling.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Venom #161
Written by Mike Costa
Art by Javier Garron, Dono Sanchez-Almara and Erick Arciniega
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Everything's coming up Eddie Brock in Venom #161 — and I'm not just talking about a cure for his symbiote's madness. With artist Javier Garron joining the book, Venom is looking better than ever, and with a welcome guest appearance from Spider-Woman, writer Mike Costa's action-heavy script feels like the perfect palate cleanser following the Venom Inc. crossover.

With his suit having taken a bath in Alchemax serum, Eddie Brock is finally in control of his Venom suit, freeing him of the somewhat cumbersome status quo he's been saddled with since his return. But while Eddie's not subjected to a ticking clock anymore, once you've eaten somebody's brains, it's hard to rehabilitate your public image, and it's that struggle that Costa delivers with briskness and a surprising sense of humor. Following a cut-and-dry capture of the D-lister known as the Looter, Costa shakes things up with a guest appearance by Spider-Woman, who provides some truly funny banter with the once-Lethal Protector. ("You are pretty calm," she admits with a shrug. "You haven't threatened to eat anyone's brain this whole time!")

Yet by having the value-add of Jessica Drew to the mix, Costa is able to also provide readers with an excellent jumping-on point for Eddie Brock's adventures, giving us the requisite amount of exposition while also clearing away some of the dead weight like the aforementioned serum. It's old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes superheroing, but in a way that's accessible — and dare I say, even engaging. And given how shaky Venom has been as a franchise — and with a major motion picture on the way — going back to basics is as smart of an idea as you can get right now.

But what's really eye-opening is putting newly minted "Young Gun" Javier Garron on this book, which has been essentially an ancillary Spider-Man title since its relaunch. But maybe this is the work that got Garron the big promotion, because it's superb stuff — he's channeling a little bit of Mark Bagley with his take on Venom, but he's taking an almost piranha-like approach to the symbiote's deadly jaws, while also picking and choosing whether to focus on Venom's large white mask accents or to focus on the smaller eye sockets underneath. It's a cool way to envision this antihero, especially compared to the super-smooth way he draws his ordinary human characters — it's like Ryan Stegman getting a shot of Ed McGuinness, making Eddie and Spider-Woman look great. (There's one splash page of Eddie getting zapped by Jessica that in particular is a showstopper.)

Guilty confession time: I had been kind of checked out on Venom as a title. The high concept of Eddie getting his suit serumed into submission felt like the most naked of '90s tricks, while some of the previous artwork felt almost oppressively angular and overexaggerated. Which makes this issue a welcome course-correction — not only is Costa shaking off some of the jankier elements of his previous stories, but he's elevated to a whole new playing field thanks to Garron's next-level artwork. If you've similarly lapsed on the Lethal Protector, now's the time to check back in.

Credit: Lion Forge

Black Comix Returns
Creative Directors: Damian Duffy and John Jennings
Layout and Design by Andworld Design
Edited by Mike Kennedy
Published by Lion Forge Comics
Review by Robert Reed
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

An introduction by David Walker sets the stage for Black Comix Returns, highlighting the need for representation in the media he was consuming as a young man. From there, creators John Jennings and Damian Duffy highlight the process of creating this second volume after the success of the first. From there, Black Comix Returns really begins.

Black Comix Returns focuses on showing the diversity of talent within the black comics community. The book gives at least one two-page spread to each of the creators listed, with sidebars describing who they are, while their creations take up most of the page. Also included are the websites and/or social media handles of each of the creators, giving readers the opportunity to further research the work and portfolios of the artists they like. Interspersed with the artwork are essays and interviews by some of the creators, giving the book a nice balance. Particularly enlightening is a piece by Lion Forge’s own Joseph Illidge on the work environment as an editor at DC Comics and the camaraderie shared between himself and an artist that he had given work to.

As one might expect in a work covering 80+ creators, the artwork in the volume covers a vast array of styles, from cartooning to photorealism, from panels to cover art and graphic design. The volume is crisp in its production values, maintaining the quality of the artwork. The collection also gives attention to writers such as Brandon Thomas. Men and women get highlighted throughout the collection do creators of varying levels of fame, giving Black Comix Returns an all-encompassing feel. The collection concludes with a listing of various comic conventions that are focused on diversity and black creators.

Black Comix Returns is an art collection that feels particularly timely, especially with its release during Black History Month. Whether you’re simply an art fan looking for new names and styles to study, or an editor searching for new talent, Black Comix Returns serves as a nice launchpad to explore the world of comics in a deeper way beyond the companies and characters that dominate the market. This is a volume that effectively displays the wide array of both creators and comics that are available and proves handy as a resource for those who don’t know where to begin.

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