Best Shots Reviews: EXTERMINATION #5, AQUAMAN #43, INFINITY WARS #6

Infinity Wars #6
Credit: Mike Deodato Jr. (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Mark Brooks (Marvel Comics)

Extermination #5
Written by Ed Brisson
Art by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

It comes to this and the fate of the original Five X-Men hangs in the balance. Thankfully, Ed Brisson, Pepe Larraz, and company stick the hell out of this landing in Extermination #5 - delivering a strong conclusion that folds the time-displaced X-Men back into the annals of X-Men history without sacrificing the stories that came out of Brian Michael Bendis’ run. Retcons are one of the trickiest tasks that a comic book writer will ever have to face - especially when the publishing line essentially demands that it happen - but Brisson and Larraz sidestep the idea that an editorial mandate has to be scorched earth for good storytelling. Both creators present a solution that might stretch the limits of suspension of disbelief if it wasn’t already in an X-Men comic book and give us one of the most satisfying X-Men stories in the last decade.

Like them or not, the original five were the best thing to happen to an X-Men franchise that was treading water in the lead up to and aftermath of Avengers vs. X-Men. But the longer the O5 stuck around after Bendis moved on, the more problems they caused for incoming writers who struggled to balance what their presence and legacy meant in the grand scheme of the X-Men despite telling compelling stories with them. Extermination seemed at first like it would be a mutant massacre that would serve only to erase those stories and that development, but Brisson does what the best X-Men writers have always done: put the characters first.

The finale of Extermination is part action-packed thrill ride and part emotional character study. “Going back” means resigning themselves to their fate. It means that Jean will become the Phoenix. It means that Scott will kill his surrogate father figure. It means that Angel will succumb to Apocalypse and Beast will become blue and furry. And for Iceman, Brisson recognizes that it means going back into the closet for much of his life - a fate that to many might seem slight compared to cosmic forces and patricide, but one that helps ground the emotional stakes in a tangible reality. That’s an incredible emotional beat, and the kind of thing that has been missing from the X-Men on a consistent basis for far too long.

Pepe Larraz turns in the best issue of the series so far, really saving the best for last. A bunch of X-Men get turned into hounds, forcing the younger X-Men to have to hold them off, and Larraz gives us a big, bombastic double-page spread that shows off all of their powers. Meanwhile, Larraz is able to intersperse the character drama that’s so intrinsic to this issue (and the series as a whole) working. Kid Cable explains the stakes of what he’s got to do and what happens if Ahab wins, which Larraz gives some great expression work. But it really comes back to pages like the Iceman moment mentioned earlier. In the middle of a battle young Bobby comes to the realization of what this all means for him, and Larraz’s staging is perfectly well-paced. To be honest, the show Larraz puts on this issue is unmatched by any of his other Marvel output.

The ending of Extermination always seemed like a foregone conclusion that would awkwardly clear the table for the next run of Uncanny X-Men. But what we got was actually an incredibly emotional story that was still fun and fast-paced while not erasing anything. The stories with the original five still happened and still have weight and still have implications for the older versions of those characters. The events of this limited series wing nicely into the status quo of the younger X-Men at the start of the new Uncanny run. An event book with this level of impact that feels this organic probably hasn’t existed since the "Messiah Complex"/"Messiah War" era. (Yeah, it’s been a while.) There’s a lot of good work here that hopefully signals a bold new direction for the X-line.

Credit: Robson Rocha/Daniel Henriques/Sunny Gho (DC Comics)

Aquaman #43
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques, and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Kelly Sue DeConnick brings that Pretty Deadly lyricism to the DC Universe in her Aquaman debut. Picking up after “The Drowned Earth"'s amnesiac cliffhanger, DeConnick brings us to the sleepy hamlet of Unspoken Water where Arthur Curry doesn’t know who he is anymore or how he got there. Complicating matters is a seemingly powerful water-witch and villagers who know more than they are saying. Though this arc’s opening issue takes a bit too time establishing this mysterious new village and Arthur’s new mental state, DeConnick, Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques, and Sunny Gho present a burly, poetic opening issue, one that aims to bring the Aquaman back to basics.

Arthur Curry is no more. Now he is simply “Andy,” having washed ashore and been rescued by the citizens of a coastal town. Though he is living a simpler life essentially acting as the town’s unofficial handyman, something still nags at him; memories and faces from a life he barely remembers. Therein lies the main crux of KSD’s first effort with the king of the sea. Though not exactly a substantial debut in terms of plot, DeConnick taps into a neat well of poetry with the issue’s opening narration and establishment of the village.

Though the previous runs have gone for bombast or some version of kingly intrigue, DeConnick’s take is much more grounded. Reader’s mileage may vary on the approach, especially since the plot is fairly scant besides establishing Arthur’s new status quo, but it is still an intriguing first issue. One that keeps the Mystery Box sealed tight for now, but finds a nicely grounded in on the character after several larger scale stories and characterizations.

Helping that more down to earth take on the regent are artists Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques, and Sunny Gho. Trading in vast undersea cityscapes for idyllic horizons and rickety seaside shacks, the team downshifts quite nicely from the bigger superhero visuals. Again, some readers might bemoan the loss of the high fantasy-esque looks and tone of the Dan Abnett run, but to me, #43 reads like a good, fairly low-key re-introduction to the character, without all the pomp and pageantry of the previous runs.

But this opening issue isn’t just all landscapes and salty tides. The issue can comfortably be called “action-light,” but the team at least give us one dynamic showing of their handle of action, while still keeping the whole affair’s feet planted firmly on the ground. In the aftermath of a storm, the villagers attempt to pull in the fishing nets, but one villager who has shown Arthur kindness is swept out to sea. DeConnick doesn’t clutter the sequence with needless dialogue or narration and allows the artists ample room to stage the scene as they will.

The result is a wonderfully taut battle against nature as Arthur thinks quickly and throws the man a rope instead of leaping into the water, like he would have done in his old life. Colorist Sonny Gho drenches the pencils in foamy, white capped colors that sell the fury of the waters well while Robson Rocha and Daniel Henriques deliver expressive hero poses of Arthur and his new friends working in tandem to save the man before he is dragged under the waves into oblivion. I know it is a far cry from alien undercities filled with humanoid fishes and sharks, but Aquaman #43 finds a real power in base elements and more realistic action sequences.

Decidedly lower stakes than the previous runs Aquaman #43 is a wonderful entry point for new readers and for Kelly Sue DeConnick, who makes her DC debut with this issue. Backed by the swarty, expressive artwork of Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques, and Sonny Gho, DeConnick plays it safe, but solid here with her first major DC work and while that may not hook people as much as it should, it is a fine first effort from her and the new team taking on this sea salt crusted corner of the DCU. You have to start somewhere when it comes to new arcs, and Aquaman #43 starts this one off on a fun, but scant opening note.

Credit: Mike Deodato Jr. (Marvel Comics)

Infinity Wars #6
Written by Gerry Duggan
Art by Mike Deodato, Jr. and Frank Martin
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

“I feel like a piece of me is missing.”

When it comes to the anticlimactic finale of Infinity Wars, this might be an understatement - this has been an event seemingly in search of a purpose, as writer Gerry Duggan and artist Mike Deodato, Jr. never seemed to free themselves from the quagmire of continuity and the baggage that came with the discordant “Infinity Warps” concept. In many ways, Infinity Wars feels almost like a patchwork of recent Marvel events such as Secret Wars and Original Sin, but only emulating those books’ weaknesses.

With a cast spanning across the Marvel Universe, Duggan deserves points for bringing together an eclectic and unique team to stop Gamora and her Infinity Stone-fueled quest - but after six issues, a line-up including Ms. Marvel, Hulk, Kang, Emma Frost, Ant-Man, and Loki never seems to feel more like props rather than characters, an empty exercise used to justify the convoluted “Infinity Circuit” premise in the front of the book. Ultimately, the unwieldiness of Infinity Wars’ high concept should have been the first clue - even experienced veterans of Marvel lore will have a tough time making heads or tails of what’s going on here, in part because Duggan has to jump from premise to premise, making bits like the mashed-up Warp heroes or major shake-ups to the Guardian of the Galaxy feel like afterthoughts rather than the main event.

Additionally, given the scale of the threat, the biggest omission of this book is that things never feel particularly tense. We get pages and pages of characters standing around talking with one another, with no sense of urgency that not one, but two universes could be snuffed out at any moment. (In particular, the monster world-eater known as Devondra gets KO’d with barely any sweat by the Hulk, whose pithy one-liner doesn’t do much at reducing the anticlimax.) But what’s just as frustrating is that this feels so similar in premise to Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Wars, down to the idea of rebuilding the Marvel Universe from scratch. Given that Infinity Wars won’t have any greater fallout - it’s not even tying into any mainstream MU books, mercifully enough - do we really need to go through these same motions once more?

Speaking of repeating the past - Mike Deodato, Jr. didn’t particularly blow any doors off portraying the Marvel Universe in Original Sin, so the idea of him doing another major Marvel crossover feels like an unforced error. Some of Deodato’s pages feel drained just by courtesy of the script - like I said before, we get plenty of pages of characters just standing around and explaining things to one another - but this also doesn’t play to Deodato’s strengths. Adam Warlock, chief expositioner of this series, has his features distend from panel to panel, while personality-driven characters like Emma Frost and Ms. Marvel all feel expressionless and stiff. Characters seem to drift in and out of scenes with little introduction or fanfare - again, a problem shared by the script - and oftentimes Deodato relies on colorist Frank Martin to cover for a lack of background, drama, or mood.

Given Thanos and the Infinity Stones’ role in the cineplexes this year, it’s no surprise that Marvel would commision an event like Infinity Wars, but the end product feels more than a little half-baked. And that’s a shame - on paper, there is some real potential to a brand-new universe of heroes, as well as a brand-new Infinity Watch plucked from various corners of the Marvel Universe. But this series feels like an event with no real destination, about as vibrant and resonant as the arid Soul Gem in which the final battle is fought. It’s clear that Duggan has much better stories in him - his work in this month’s Defenders one-shot is more than enough proof of that - but the breakdown from concept to execution rings particularly loud here. If you’re looking for a companion piece to the Infinity War film, you’d be better served reading other stories than this.

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