Best Shots Reviews: ACTION COMICS #1004, BOOKS OF MAGIC #1

The Books of Magic #1
Credit: DC Comics/Vertigo
Credit: DC Entertainment

Action Comics #1004
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Ryan Sook, Wade Von Grawbadger, and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Josh Reed
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Lois Lane is back — but what will this mean for the future of Superman? It’s a question that Brian Michael Bendis poses, but then teasingly dodges any solid answer to — but when the rest of the execution is as superb as Action Comics #1004, that lack of resolution might just be forgivable. With artist Ryan Sook, inker Wade Von Grawbadger and colorist Brad Anderson delivering some of the most gorgeous artwork you’ll see this week, and Action Comics should be at the top of your stack.

With Lois Lane finally making her return from space, the time has come for Bendis to pay the piper. And I’ll be the first to admit it — it’s not the substance of what Bendis says that makes this issue so fun, but the way he says it. The way that Lois and Clark reconnect is about as smoldering and sexy as anything I’ve seen in a Big Two comic lately — if you’re looking for a way to make Big Blue relatable, giving him an actual sex life certainly doesn’t hurt. Bendis’s take on the two characters immediately radiates chemistry and longing, even as he’s trying to pull some continuity sleight of hand by freeing up Clark without having to check in on Lois every single issue.

Even when Lois isn’t on the page, her presence hangs like a ghost over this issue — particularly when Clark is confronted with news that his allegedly estranged wife had a late-night visit from Lex Luthor. This is a testament to the artwork of Ryan Sook — when a wide-eyed Clark quietly says he feels like he’s been “ambushed,” you absolutely feel it, while the warmth and protectiveness from Perry White in the face of these accusations can’t help but make you root not just for the Man of Steel, but for everyone working at the Daily Planet. Like Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s tenure on Gotham Central before him, Bendis’s run on Action Comics has drawn its strength from the various comings and goings within the Daily Planet, and the more we see Clark interact with his colleagues in the newsroom, the more that his world feels fleshed out and exciting.

And even if you were on the fence about all things Bendis, you should really check this book out thanks to the artwork of Ryan Sook, Wade Von Grawbadger and Brad Anderson. Like, there’s really nobody out there like Sook — he’s got bits of Stuart Immonen, of Doug Mahnke, of Gary Frank, but it’s all synthesized into something totally unique. The sheer amount of acting and expressiveness he gives his characters is astounding, and it goes a long way towards making Action Comics #1004 so endearing and engaging. Every scene that Sook draws of Lois and Clark feels instantly iconic — at times it feels like a modern take on the classic Christopher Reeve-Margot Kidder scenes, with larger-than-life kisses and flights across expansive cloud banks colored exquisitely by Brad Anderson. Honestly, this might be one of the single best looking single issues of a DC book since Lee Weeks’ Batman arc — it’s truly striking stuff.

But like I said, this issue’s main shortcomings is that after all the pains Bendis and company took to cut Lois and Jon out of Clark’s story, he doesn’t so much fudge the landing of Lois’s return, as much as he refuses to give any sort of real answer as to her new status quo. It’s a tricky minefield to navigate, with the embodiment of Truth, Justice and the American Way being a little too clean-cut to lose his wife due to a divorce, a mind-wipe, or a shocking demise — but instead, Bendis delivers what might be considered an anti-resolution, with Lois and Clark still being romantically linked but… living separate lives? To be honest, it feels a little like a cheat for now, a way to try to have his narrative cake and eat it, too — it’s an easy way to not have Lois in the picture when she’s not needed, but leaves her available to return anytime the story demands it.

Still, even with Bendis maddeningly hedging his bets for Lois and Clark’s status quo, there’s so much other stuff to like about Action Comics #1004 that it’s hard to be that upset. If you’re looking for stellar character work, incredible artwork, and a Metropolis that feels more real and engaging by the issue, you owe it to yourself to pick up this series.

Credit: DC Comics/Vertigo

Books of Magic #1
Written by Kat Howard
Art by Tom Fowler and Jordan Boyd
Lettering by Todd Klein
Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The Merlin Timothy Hunter returns to comics in the slight but intriguing Books of Magic #1. Though Tim has had a myriad of adventures since his debut in 1990, writer Kat Howard smartly strips all of that away for now - unmoored by his former Vertigo Comics continuity, Tim is now back to being a mere student in London, struggling to regain his power. Howard isn’t really giving us much else to go on this debut, but the supernatural vibe and eldritch energy of the original miniseries is there. And when you marry that energy with Tom Fowler and Jordan Boyd’s expressionist pencils and stone washed colors, you have a debut that nails the tone of the line and brings a major Vertigo Comics player back into the fold.

Once upon a time, there was a boy and a gang of trenchcoated magicians. The magicians gave the boy a choice; to return to his mundane life or to choose magick and become the Merlin, the most powerful magician of all. He chose magick and now… it is gone. While I would have loved to have seen some of Tim’s bigger developments like his ties to the Faerie realm and the Children’s Crusade introduced in this new canon, Kat Howard’s jettisoning of these heavy continuity chains does wonders for the accessibility of this issue.

By starting from the baseline of the original Books of Magic miniseries, Howard essentially reintroduces Tim as a blank slate, aware of his choice toward power and floundering in the mundane world. As an entry point for new readers this debut really works like gangbusters. But by stripping all that away, Howard is working with pretty much a bare stage, which hinders the issue when it comes to plot. She gives us a bit of table setting with the titular books and explicitly makes Tim aware of his “invitation” from the Trenchcoat Brigade, but that’s about it. Howard really does a great job setting the mood of the title and establishing Tim’s new canon characterization, which falls somewhere between the naive child of the original series and the chippy teen wizard of runs like Life During Wartime and John Ney Rieber’s time on the ongoing. But mood and character does not a great issue make, and if it had just a touch more development, this review would have a much different tone.

That said, the potential for this new Books of Magic is there, and artists Tom Fowler and Jordan Boyd really work hard to nurture that potential with their artwork. Taking advantage of the script’s explicit connection with the first miniseries, Fowler and Boyd open this issue with an extended homage to the four original issues. Presented almost like a fairytale retelling of Tim’s first adventures, Fowler and Boyd really open this issue with five dazzling pages that both provide a nice context for the new series and starts the new run with some bonkers displays of magic, alternate dimensions, and murder, all inset in collages or panels that look like they were scanned from a Guttenberg Bible. It is a really ambitious opening and sets the bar high for the kind of visual craziness the title could get up to.

From there the pair downshift into a more mundane and grounded art style, hammering home Tim’s new boorish school life. These pages somewhat sap the energy from the issue, but really sell Howard’s new direction and show that Boyd and Fowler are capable of both school-based hijinks and high-concept magical details. I would have liked for the issue to have at least one more magical sequence just to send the issue out on a high note, but at the very least, this debut is a fine display of Tom Fowler and Jordan Boyd’s prowess and eye for visuals, both in and out of the realm of wizardry.

Though not perfect, Books of Magic #1 is still a solid, tonally sound new effort from the “Sandman Universe,” one that brings back a major player in the Vertigo Comics roster and works hard to make his reintroduction instantly accessible for people who may have never heard of Tim Hunter before now. Let’s just hope the next issue makes good on the potential introduced in this debut and doesn’t slip back into obscurity like its magical leading man.

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