Best Shots Reviews: PLASTIC MAN #1, VENOM #2, THE MAGIC ORDER #1, MAN OF STEEL #3

"The Magic Order #1" preview
Credit: Olivier Coipel (Image Comics/Netflix)
Credit: DC Entertainment

Plastic Man #1
Written by Gail Simone
Art by Adriana Melo and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Eel O’Brian’s personal and superheroic lives collide in his return to solo adventuring in Plastic Man #1. Written cheekily by Gail Simone and given gorgeous visual comedy by artists Adriana Melo and Kelly Fitzpatrick, this first issue stands as a funny and surprisingly engrossing reintroduction for Plas, marrying gritty crime and the opening act of a superhero mystery. Though the criminals of Cole City can’t have missed him, the comics scene is just so much more fun now that Plastic Man is back on the scene.

Beyond his ability to stretch, Plastic Man’s greatest superpower has to be what a character he is as a person — case in point, when he runs into his former criminal compatriots in the book’s first scene, who proceed to put a beatdown on Eel’s plastic ass. While there’s some surprising violence at the outset, Simone immediately pops the book back into place with a sense of humor that never lapses into annoying territory. Neatly folding his crime-tinged origins into the main drive of this miniseries, Simone enjoys a kind of clean slate when it comes to Eel, allowing her to get him back to basics, investigating crimes and contorting himself into all manner of insane and silly things.

But, like the best Gail Simone works, there is no comedy without tragedy, and Plastic Man #1 is no exception. Through all the banter and the gags, Simone also presents us a tale of a man down on his luck, caught in a depressive state, and newly returned to a world that doesn’t seem to want him. On top of Eel investigating his own origin, he wrestles with violent memories of his criminal past, while another killer stalks Cole City in the guise of a superhero to claim their victims. I was expecting some sort of dark undercurrent to be running through this debut issue because Simone is really good at that kind of dark/light balance, but I definitely didn’t expect a full-on HBO murder-mystery and character study. It’s a gutsy move, and I applaud Simone’s trust in the character and the audience to follow him down this path.

This debut is also graced by Adriana Melo and Kelly Fitzpatrick, an art team that really understands the balance between humor and drama. Employing some of that emotive whimsy that made her Doctor Who comics such a treat, Melo really digs into the weird and gritty world of Plastic Man. We open on a brutal gangland intimidation, framed in focused panels that make every hit feel real and tactile, while Melo’s bloodied character model of Plas and Fitzpatrick’s colors sell the visceral nature of the scene. But then, after the beating, Melo and Fitzpatrick give us our first taste of Plastic Man’s powers as he recovers on the concrete over a 12-panel grid, reforming himself to spring upward in and in size, all smiles and trademark goggles. There are a few more plasticine surprises from the pair, like Eel’s “12-pack” abs and his tendency to wear DC Super Hero Girls crop tops, but if this debut proves anything it is that Adriana Melo and Kelly Fitzpatrick are more than game for whatever weird or dark turns this miniseries plans on making for the remaining five issues.

So Plastic Man is back and doing what he does best — cracking jokes and solving murders. But this time, thanks to Gail Simone’s sharp script and the vertistile artwork of Adriana Melo and Kelly Fitzpatrick, Plastic Man’s reintroduction to the DCU feels that much more personal and compelling thanks to the team’s balance between comedy and crime. Plastic Man may be largely remembered as one of “those characters” on the Justice League or for his animated exploits, but Plastic Man #1 shows how good of a comic you can produce just by taking him (somewhat) seriously.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Venom #2
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“Born and unborn and reborn. Over and over and over again.”

That’s how Venom describes his host Eddie Brock in this week’s Venom #2, and it feels like the central thesis of Donny Cates’ run so far — Brock is a man whose relationship with the Venom symbiote has subsumed every other experience he’s ever been through. But how does one remain human when you have an alien suit that stitches your body back together every time some new menace comes round the block? We get more of Cates’ interpretation of Eddie through Venom’s voice with this sophomore issue, as the symbiote asks some pointed questions this run will hopefully answer: at the end of the day, who is Eddie Brock? What drives him, or this relationship, or his willingness to throw himself into danger over and over again — is it only Venom, or something about Eddie himself?

As interesting as these questions are, though, they feel parallel to the actual story here; the stakes are high as a wounded Venom must muster the strength to take down a symbiote-devouring beast. The action and underlying intrigue of a shady government superhero experimentation conspiracy are exciting, but it’s a little odd to have such a thoughtful, if brusque, monologue opening the issue only to transition into more life-or-death situations without any additional reflection. Why did Eddie Brock become a man who fights for justice? Why is Eddie Brock a man willing to throw himself into preternaturally dangerous situations? Who knows, but he’s at it again.

This disconnect aside, this is an otherwise well-paced issue, and Cates has a strong grasp on who Venom is that shines through the script and dialogue. The series at this point feels like the first big hill on a rollercoaster ride — a slow, steady climb where you’re bracing yourself for something big, but you aren’t sure exactly how it’s going to turn out. Ryan Stegman and JP Mayer continue to deliver solid work on pencils and inks, but Frank Martin’s dark, muddy colors strip the book of some of the finer details. Part of the sense of uncertainty is from the book’s grim atmosphere; Cates’ script feels as if it’s aiming for a psychological thriller closer to a spooky, symbiote-infested Bourne Identity, but the book feels grim and somewhat lifeless. There are flashback sequences of pivotal moments in Eddie’s life, and all are slightly washed out and blurry around the edges, a visual effect that may serve to indicate “the past” but winds up feeling more distracting than impactful.

The dark palette washes out some of the facial expressions, and deadens the impact of some otherwise impressive panels — Martin does some great work with silhouettes and pops of color from flashing police lights or pops of gunfire that can’t quite overcome the drab atmosphere of the rest of the page. Venom and Eddie Brock aren’t particularly bright and cheery characters, but visually Venom #2 feels like it aims too hard for grim and gritty when it could really capitalize on its spectacle with a little more brightness. There’s the potential for a fantastic Eddie Brock story here, though, and with luck, the stars will align in future issues to allow this series to be as truly great as it can be.

Credit: Olivier Coipel (Netflix/Millarworld)

The Magic Order #1
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Olivier Coipel and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Peter Doherty
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

What if Harry Potter met the Godfather? That is the brash, wild premise at the center of The Magic Order, and it’s one that feels almost quintessentially Mark Millar — but what makes Netflix’s debut comic even more impressive is not just Millar’s over-the-top high concept, but the fact that he and superstar artist Olivier Coipel stick the landing so well in terms of execution. Equal parts magic and mobsters, The Magic Order is also the story of the dysfunctional family at the center of it all, giving this debut issue some welcome weight underneath all its clever sleight of hand.

You might think the Moonstone family is an ordinary clan of magicians, but you’d be wrong. While the family patriarch Leonard still catches bullets in his teeth on stage as part of the family’s long-running magic show, he’s also the patriarch of a secret society that battles threats from “a world beyond our world that few of us can see.” But while Leonard clearly commands respect among the Magic Order, his kids are clearly not all right — while eldest son Regan moonlights as a nightclub owner while serving as his father’s brash lieutenant, his sister Cordelia is drinking her life away and getting arrested at children’s birthday parties, while their brother Gabriel has left the wizard’s life behind after an unexplained tragedy.

In many ways, Millar’s archetypes with the Moonstone children feels like a direct analogue to Sonny, Connie and Michael Corleone from the original Godfather trilogy, but also spinning off the intergenerational storytelling of his previous series Jupiter’s Children. It doesn’t hurt that all three leads pack some serious charisma, with perpetual screw-up Cordelia stealing the show as she doesn’t just escape a pair of police cuffs, but manages to slip out of the backseat while the cruiser is still driving down the highway. But Millar also does some choice work fleshing out this magical world and the lowlifes that inhabit it — a magical hit at the beginning of the book proves to be some chilling stuff, while a rival magic boss’s pet shapeshifter just illustrates the level of bad blood coursing through this magical cabal.

And like most other Millar joints, this also is a superb showcase for the artist — and when the artist is in question is Olivier Coipel, readers are really in for a show. Just like The Magic Order feels like Millar at his most refined, so too is Coipel putting his best foot forward — while his layouts aren’t quite as experimental as we’ve seen in his recent works, that means this book is also deeply user-friendly. And while Millar gives Coipel some fun beats to draw, like Leonard catching a bullet in his teeth or the aforementioned magical mob hit, Coipel’s biggest strength is the way he portrays characters, just in terms of their expressions and body language — you can see that Regan is itching for a fight just by the way his body seems coiled at attention, while a subtle sequence of Cordelia at a graveyard shows how this self-loathing screw-up can lose any semblance of confidence in the face of her comparatively put-together family. Colorist Dave Stewart, meanwhile, makes Coipel look better than I think I’ve ever seen him — Stewart’s painterly vibes give The Magic Order a seediness that doesn’t cancel out its magical unpredictability, instead lending a sense of gorgeous realism that really does make this property feel primed for television or film.

There are few creators that do big and broad as well as Mark Millar, but The Magic Order already feels more substantial than some of his other made-for-multimedia comics offerings, like Nemesis or Empress before them. And while Olivier Coipel is as dynamite a comics artist as they come, I don’t think it’s his involvement (as fantastic as it is) that separates this comic from the other bombastic, art-heavy series that have recently come from the Millarworld stables. Instead, this fantastic artwork goes hand-in-hand with some truly engaging character work that helps pin down the sometimes elusive world of magic and mysticism, making The Magic Order a superb first installment for Netflix’s comics ambitions.

Credit: DC Entertainment

Man of Steel #3
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Ryan Sook, Jay Fabok, Wade Von Grawbadger and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by Josh Reed
Published by DC Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

Brian Michael Bendis seems to be settling in just fine at his previous employer’s Distinguished Competition. But three issues in, Man of Steel still has to really turn the corner. If you weren’t onboard for the first two issues, there’s little here to get you more excited even though it’s an effective chapter of this story. Ryan Sook handles the art on this issue, giving readers a range of expressiveness and emotionality that’s absolutely necessary for this script. Comic book writers are only as good as their artists and Sook’s style works so well in tandem with Bendis’ almost sitcom-y Superman. But Bendis’ big story beat in this issue is so obvious that it feels almost like a non-event.

Bendis’ characterization of Superman is pretty spot on at this point which bodes well for what comes after this miniseries but the villainous Rogol Zaar has to be one of the least interesting antagonists in DC’s history. (And that’s saying something considering they’ve got a guy named Nemesis Kid who, uh, nobody realized was evil...) The cover promises that we'll gain some understanding of the villain and instead we get nothing. He doesn’t even get a line on the big last page reveal (if you can call it that). Superman has an immensely deep bench of villains, some of whom are ripe for a reimagining but instead, Bendis gives us an odd mash-up of Vandal Savage and Abomination whose mission is more suited for a Saturday morning cartoon than the launch of a new era of an icon.

I do really enjoy how Superman interacts with other characters. Bendis has really lightened Clark up a bit and that’s a good thing. (He does similar work with Batman that’s good but might be slightly too much given that he’s, ya know, Batman.) The scenes with Supergirl work really well. And I believe Clark’s sadness when he returns to a trashed Fortress of Solitude but Bendis’ inability to get Superman and Rogol Zaar in the same room for three issues seems like a flaw, not a feature.

Ryan Sook is a great collaborator for a writer like Bendis. Bendis loves to toss in quick little quippy bits of dialogue that entirely require a talented artist to sell to a reader. The aforementioned Batman/Superman scene is a great example of this. Sook’s expression work is really stellar and being able to work that humor angle, makes the sadness and anger later in the book more palpable. However, no one can make this villain look good. We’ve seen him in the hands of at least four artists now and Rogol Zaar is a dud visual concept. So for all of Clark racing to meet his foe, it’s undermined by his actual appearance. Sook carries a lot of this book on his shoulders but unfortunately, he’s not a miracle worker.

This all might make it seem like I’m more down on the book than I am. It works for this story, and there are still two issues to go. But as good as Bendis’ character work has been, the pacing leaves something to be desired. The suspense in the issue is almost non-existent because Rogol Zaar is so simplistic in his intent and mission. Of course, that might be revealed to be much deeper at some point but for now, we’ve got a very likeable Superman facing off against a villain that we’ve been told we should be interested in but have been given very little evidence that’s he’s actually up to anything interesting. Sook’s art is a great match for Bendis though and I hope that the editorial team takes notice and puts them together in the future. Man of Steel is an effective bit of storytelling but your mileage with it may vary depending on how much emotional investment you can muster for it.

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