Best Shots Reviews: DEFENDERS - BEST DEFENSE #1, FREEDOM FIGHTERS #1, SPIDER-GEDDON #5

Spider-Geddon #5
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Defenders: The Best Defense #1
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Belardino Brabo, and Dono Sanchez-Almara
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

”This is ridiculous.” “You think so? I consider it sublime.”

The Best Defense wraps up in with an entertaining trip to Hell and back. Scripted by Al Ewing and pencilled by his Immortal Hulk collaborator Joe Bennett, this finale flings Marvel’s greatest “non-team” to the depths of space in opposition of a planet-destroying cosmic train, piloted by a demonic lunatic. It’s a lot to take in, I know, but it’s precisely the right kind of nuts for a classic Defenders romp. This issue, with its cosmic stakes and twisty puzzle box of a main plot calls to mind the heady days of Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart. Does it all completely make sense? Not really. But is it fun as hell to read? You bet.

Thankfully, one hasn’t have to have read the previous issues in the limited series to enjoy this. Summarized in a punchy, tongue-in-cheek recap page, The Best Defense ends on a shockingly user-friendly(ish) finale. I say “ish” because Al Ewing does take some odd left turns in this finale, like the inclusion of Mephisto and Hell. Not only that, but Ewing can be wordy at times, and here is a prime example of that tendency. With a doomed future version of Strange providing narration throughout, Ewing speechafies a bit, walking readers through the payoffs of the rest of the one-shot’s hanging threads (the Atlantean planet Namor found, for example), which kind of drags the overall crazy fun of the comic down a bit.

But at the same time, the original bugnuts crazy Defenders comic books were filled with text boxes, and they still were fun! This new Defenders finale is much the same, and I’m not sure we can simply ignore the sheer excitement of this comic just based on a few errant text blocks. Ewing is really going nuts here, leaning into the wry, darkly comic tone of some of the early runs, lighting up the end of the universe stakes and Puzzle Box plotting he has to deal with, this being a finale. Most of this comedy is centered around the new Immortal Hulk, putting the fear of a green god into demons. (Though Namor and the Surfer have a real scream of a scene involving the Surfer merging the Sub-Mariner with his own body. Super weird, right?) But it is the fun kind of weird that makes Defenders: The Best Defense so readable.

It could also have to do with the tremendously trippy artwork provided by Joe Bennett, Belardino Brabo, and Dono Sanchez-Almara. Though we know that Bennett is a tried hand at horror, which he also displays in the Hulk scenes here, his style really expands outward in this finale, aided by the deep inks of Brabo and the rich colors of Sanchez-Almara. The trio lean into the script’s out there vibe and translate that vibe onto the page with aplomb, moving us from sweeping Kirby Krackle-seared spaceways to the gloomy, gothic-colored depths of Hell. I am sure this is acting as some sort of backdoor pilot for an upcoming ongoing Defenders series (at least I hope so, based on the issue’s cliffhanger), and I truly hope this team is the art team that will take it forward. All three artists really get the tone and expressive nature the non-street based Defenders books should have and it would be really fun as a reader to see them get to do bigger and stranger stuff together.

Though the plot gets a bit wordy and “inside baseball” at times, Defenders: The Best Defense #1 is a rousingly weird and super entertaining return of the “classic” Defenders. Scripted by a consistently interesting voice at Marvel and given sweeping, black light poster ready visuals, this finale makes a great case for the team’s existence, even if no one on Earth really knows (or cares) what they do together. If you want your team-ups to be esoteric, then Defenders: The Best Defense is the book for you.

Credit: DC Entertainment

Freedom Fighters #1
Written by Robert Venditti
Art by Eddy Barrows, Eber Ferreira and Adriano Lucas
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Spoilers ahead: I have to admit, my experience with the rest of Freedom Fighters #1 is tinged by my uncertainty over the decision to open an issue with Olympic hero Jesse Owens leading a team of anti-Nazi freedom fighters only to have him captured and sentenced to life in a Nazi labor camp halfway through the book. Freedom Fighters is a DC alternate history limited series that follows in the tradition of “what-if” literature exploring a United States subjugated by the Nazis after World War II. This debut issue is a gruesome and bloody exploration of Hitler’s secret police infiltrating a meeting of rebels led by Owens himself, only to capture the titular team of Freedom Fighters and execute them live on television (with the aforementioned exception of Owens’ labor camp sentence). The personification of Uncle Sam watches on, his power sapped by the death of Americans’ hope for a free future. This book is wild and weird, and not necessarily in a good way.

It’s the decision to center Owens specifically that makes the book seem so ahistorically cartoonish, even for an alt-history comic book. It’s easy to see why the team would choose to center Jesse Owens: he is one of the greatest athletes of all time, whose incredible achievements at the 1936 Berlin Summer Games as a black Olympian flew in the face of the hopes of an Aryan German sweep. But just as famously, Owens was very outspoken in the wake of his return to the United States about the fact that it was his own President who snubbed him after his success - FDR notably never invited Owens to the White House in the wake of his Berlin victories, an honor extended to white medalists. Not to suggest that this fictional iteration of Owens shouldn’t have been featured, but in ignoring the homegrown racism Owens really did speak out against, Freedom Fighters breezes past an opportunity for thoughtful, nuanced storytelling that could elevate it above its almost enthusiastically hyperviolent script and art.

That dissonance is what makes this book’s opening gambit feel so cartoonish and shallow. Freedom Fighters #1 has one thing right, in that it’s always a good time to talk about why we should fight Nazis, but centering Owens without ever acknowledging the racism he faced returning home to his own country feels disingenuous. There’s nothing about Venditti’s over-the-top writing in this issue that gives any indication we’ll have characters having nuanced conversations about overcoming their prejudices in the face of a dangerous enemy or confronting the racism and anti-Semitism that made many comfortable turning a blind eye to the gruesome truths of the Nazi regime. Freedom Fighters is a book about beating up Nazis and overthrowing fascism (though its opening sequence is gruesome and hopeless), and that’s great - but the decision to open with a historical figure as important Owens and then immediately sweep him off-camera to a grim fate is not a particularly inspiring decision.

Artistically and narratively, Freedom Fighters is over-the-top - artists Eddy Barrows and Eber Ferreira, and colorist Adriano Lucas, deliver generally solid but somewhat inconsistent work. Barrows and Ferreira do absolutely incredible work with a team of Plastic Men who capture the full and profound horror of what Nazi-aligned metahumans would be capable of, though this grimdark sequence is muddled by Lucas’ murky palette. The faces struggle a bit; static expressions from panel to panel sometimes distract from some of the cleverer details of Barrows’ pencils, such as a two-panel sequence of a face with such an uncanny valley vibe it took me three passes to catch some eerie work happening in the background. Lucas shines more in the book’s final pages, in a fully Nazi-governed America that feels too unsettlingly bright in the light of the sun; Lucas’ vibrant work makes even the lighter pages seem decidedly uneasy.

All in all, Freedom Fighter #1 is - well, something. This debut issue dives headlong into its premise without pausing for breath or to consider the implication of some of its choices: Venditti is making a book where a team of heroes fight Nazis to revitalize Uncle Sam, the human embodiment of the American spirit. On its face, that premise is great, but in terms of execution, the debut issue stumbles at times under the weight of the historical reality of what it’s attempting to explore - a not uncommon problem with “what if the Nazis won” fiction, which sometimes gloss over what very real people lost at the hands of white supremacy and Nazi ideology. If Freedom Fighters can find the space to explore this premise with more nuance, it could turn into a solid maxiseries, but this first issue doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in that regard.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Spider-Geddon #5
Written by Christos Gage and Dan Slott
Art by Jorge Molina, Carlo Barberi, Stefano Caselli, Joey Vazques, Jay Leisten, Jose Marzan Jr. and David Curiel
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

There’s a lot going on in Spider-Geddon #5, and not a lot of time to enjoy any of it. Writer Christos Gage’s script moves at a breakneck pace to wrap up the remaining loose ends in this week’s final issue of the Spider-Geddon event. The Inheritors have Ben, Miles’, and Otto’s ideologies remain at odds, and in the opening pages, Miles’ attempts to engage with the Enigma Force don’t seem to be going particularly well. With little hope for supernatural intervention on the horizon and many of the Spiders still reeling from what seems like a stinging betrayal by Otto Octavius, Gage has set up a dramatic finale that doesn’t leave a lot of breathing room to enjoy the tail end of the Spider team-ups in this storyline, or to fully appreciate the implications of what the book could lead to in the future.

Spider-Geddon #5 isn’t bad by any stretch, just constantly busy - with so many Spiders in one book and the final major confrontation looming, there are few moments in the book that aren’t packed with a fight or heavy with exposition. There are five credited inkers and pencillers in here, plus colorist David Curiel, and no clear indication of who worked on what. The art is impressively consistent given the size of the team involved, and on the whole the issue is well executed; a full page of Spiders piling on an Inheritor is fantastically done and would make an exceptional poster (hop on that, Marvel) for all the Spider-fans out there. Towards the tail end of the book you do get the impression the team was ready to wrap up - there are a few panels where the non-featured Spiders are simply silhouettes in the background, which isn’t an unreasonable way to deal with the volume of non-speaking cast members the book includes but does give the sequence a much more ominous vibe than intended.

The silent silhouettes encapsulate the dangers of having such a massive cast in a book. There are a handful of Spiders with speaking parts. Most appear as a fun cameo in the background, and even Octavia Otto, a not totally insignificant character in one of the major threads of this issue, is more of an unspeaking figure (though she is one of the more eye-catching and emotive character designs in this issue). Gage does a solid job navigating the expectation in a book like this for a huge number of cameos without the book getting too bogged down, but there’s a constant sense that the cast and us as readers are two ships passing in the night, with barely time for a hello or goodbye. A whole Spider-horse turns up, and only gets to be on one page. And yes, reasonably there’s not a lot for Gage to do with a Spider-horse in a storyline with the weight of “life-force vampires attempt to exterminate Spider-heroes,” it’s a little disappointing to have so many heroes show up and spend so much time as silhouettes.

Ultimately, Spider-Geddon #5 does an excellent job wrapping up the dangling threads of the Spider-Geddon storyline at the expense of the issue’s pacing. Gage’s script breezes from big moment to big moment, and while the art is solid there are moments when the emotion of the script and the art are at odds, particularly with the Inheritors - their cold, callous attitudes are sometime at odds with the intensity of the lettering in a way that makes the art feel flat. If you’re a dedicated fan of the Spider family of products, you’ll have a good time with this, but the event does require a solid amount of recent Spider-knowledge going in to fully appreciate what’s going on up through this week’s final issue.

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