Best Shots Advance Reviews: CAP REBORN, INCORRUPTIBLE, More

Best Shots Advance Reviews: Marvel, BOOM

Best Shots Advanced 12-15-09

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Your Host: David Pepose

Miss us, Rama readers? Well, we certainly missed your smiling-emoticon faces -- so much that we literally broke the space-time continuum to give you some advanced reviews from pretty much all over the place! Now that's dedication. Looking at some advance books from Marvel, Image, Top Cow, BOOM! Studios, Radical Comics, and Zenescope Entertainment, Best Shots is locked and loaded with tons of reviews, all for your reading enjoyment. As always, if you can't get enough of the Best Shots Crew (and to be honest, who can?), be sure to check out all our previous reviews and BSEs at the Best Shots topic page, right here. Now put on your safety goggles, because we're about to ready, aim...

Dark Avengers #12

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Mike Deodato and Greg Horn

Colors by Rain Beredo

Lettering by VC's Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Considering they're the worst psychopaths and serial offenders that the Marvel Universe has to offer, the current of arc of Dark Avengers has felt a little less than threatening to me, even with the nigh-omniscient powers of the Molecule Man. But every cloud has a silver lining, and this one in particular has the power of a million exploding suns.

That's not to say that this issue doesn't have its flaws. In order to lay down the exposition, Brian Michael Bendis gives his protagonists -- namely, Victoria Hand, deputy director of HAMMER -- a threatening amount of word balloons, as there is a lot more telling than there is showing.

Something else that should be noted is that while the title is Dark Avengers, most of them are off the board and out of commission for the duration of the issue -- if you like Norman, Victoria, or the Sentry, you're fine, but don't count on seeing the team dynamics at play here. Additionally, there was one sequence in particular -- I don't know if it was Bendis or Mike Deodato was the one who came up with it -- with the Molecule Man burning away Hand's armor to reveal just a tank top and panties that felt more than a little distasteful.

It all changes -- and I never thought I'd say this about this particular character -- with the Sentry. Mike Deodato is an artist that thrives on power and action, and in those few pages, he certainly delivers. There will certainly be a number of people who are upset about the Sentry's new status quo -- I'll be honest, I'm not particularly sold on it myself -- but you can't deny that seeing him finally cut loose looks particularly awesome. Colorist Rain Beredo in particular deserves some praise on that sequence, as he really lets the energy rip.

All in all, I don't know if I'd say this is a great issue of Dark Avengers, but part of me has the feeling it might be an important one. The Sentry's place in the Dark Reign is crucial to the Marvel Universe, and based on what images I've seen of the upcoming Siege, I wonder if he will be on Norman's side in the days to come. If you can handle a lot of talking in exchange for some brief but beautiful action sequences -- or if you're a Sentry fan -- this a book to pick up. If you're waiting for the Dark Reign to take some serious risks, however, Dark Avengers might just be a pass.

Captain America Reborn # 5 (of 6)

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Bryan Hitch and Butch Guice

Colors by Paul Mounts

Letters by VC's Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Brendan McGuirk

There's something about having a crimson skull for a face that makes a fella desperate to assume the identity's of other.

Well, it's almost time. It's been over 2 years since Steve Rogers was shot on the steps of a United States criminal court, seemingly a victim of public assassination, just before he could stand trial for crimes against his country. Just as wary comicbook readers predicted that very Wednesday morning, the original Star-Spangled Avenger will indeed return, and we're 5/6ths of the way there.  

It's difficult to find much fault this issue. Rarely, if ever, has there been groundwork more meticulously laid than for this superheroic tour de force. After skillfully planting the seeds for his master stroke since issue one of Ed Brubaker's volume of Captain America, the Red Skull's plan is finally bearing its poisonous fruit. He has taken control of the body of his patriotic arch-nemesis, trapped him in a mental prison, played politics and made good with America's new favored son, Norman Osborn; now he needs only has to sit back, and wait for the last vestiges of his adversaries to bring themselves to his feet, and meet their extermination.  

In this era of patient drama and long-format storytelling in comics, the most noticeable casualty is the satisfactory explosive payoff. Raising the adrenaline levels to match those expectations set by parades of tensely quiet moments is simply a difficult undertaking. Brubaker seems to realize this, and therefore sets this penultimate issue to two separate concurrent conflicts; one in the physical world, where Captain Buckmerica and his rag-tag team of Steve Rogers disciples launch an assault on the Red Skull and his A.I.M. cadre, and another on the metaphysical plane, where Captain America wrestles with Skull to regain control of his personal faculties. The contrast between widescreen, blockbuster excitement and the visual representation of a shattered mind-as-a-battlefield keeps things engaging at all times without causing any sort of eye-candy fatigue.  

One thing upon which Ed Brubaker has consistently thrived with Captain America is the realization of the power, myth and metaphor of the flag-wearing hero. The resounding strength of that “Death of the Dream,” story was the way it tapped into that aimless sense of lost identity many Americans felt, and gave that sensation story and structure. Here, the battlefield itself provides the metaphor, taking place on the very steps that best represent America's hard-fought liberty; the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall. This is a reclamation story, and little doubt is left about that. The “American Dream,” the one Captain America serves to protect and uphold, is being defended on the grounds that define it.

Artists Bryan Hitch and Butch Guice bring equal flair to renderings of the nightmare--Nazi America in Cap's mind, and the nationally-monumental battleground of an Avengers team evocative of Cap himself--an underpowered group full of heart and smarts (with Hank Pym as a representative for the founding Avengers), duking it out with Rogers' greatest villains--Red Skull, Crossbones, and a legion of... oh, I can't spoil the surprise. Brubaker also pens more that one splash page with these artists in mind, not shying away from the opportunity to give the fans a good money shot.

This series was originally solicited for five issues, but was given an extra chapter to allow this final battle to fully breathe (as explained by editor Tom Brevoort to Word Balloon). Next issue is somewhat forgone. The book's conclusive cat is out of the bag, with spoilers having made it out into other Marvel series, as well as, y'know, the title of this miniseries. We know what happens by the end of the next, final issue, so there isn't too much suspense left. There is, however, plenty of room for satisfaction and payoff. Long-term investments are finally paying dividends. With the killer line that closes this issue, odds are good that this miniseries will end in fireworks.

Incorruptible #1

Written by Mark Waid

Art by Jean Diaz and Belardino Brabo

Colors by Andrew Dalhouse

Lettering by Ed Dukeshire

Published by BOOM! Studios

Review by Russ Burlingame

Mark Waid’s follow-up to Irredeemable, in which the world’s most dangerous supervillain decides, in the wake of the Plutonian’s rampage, to go straight, is a page right out of the Irredeemable playbook. If you didn’t know the setup of the story when you opened it, it took you a few pages to get right onboard with it—but really who in the comics community didn’t?

Jean Diaz’s art is nice—not entirely as impressive as Peter Krause’s work on the companion book but in the same vein, which is important when the stories interact so closely. In the final pages of Incorruptible, you learn that Max Damage didn’t “find Jesus,” but “saw the face of God,” when he narrowly avoided being killed during one of The Plutonian’s rampages. It was then that he went underground (his disappearance has been referenced in Irredeemable a handful of times) and started formulating a plan to defeat his old nemesis—by going straight.

He makes his first grand gesture, though, not by simply rescuing some people from a natural catastrophe or facing off against The Plutonian with their normal roles reversed. No, he takes down a couple of his own flunkies, who have appropriated some experimental weapons from his armory to stick up a diamond exchange. There are a pair of guys who end up going to jail and Damage’s girlfriend—“Jailbait”—who flees the scene only to throw her arms around him when he returns (with a cop in the trunk) to their hideout. Apparently his moral compass has so completely reversed its polarity that he’s unwilling to be physical with the girl, which should raise some interesting issues of its own down the line. Furthermore, I have to wonder if once the book really gets rolling and we start dealing with plot points that don’t directly relate to Irredeemable, if we’ll get a flurry of old Jailbaits, who have aged out of the role and now are hurt that their lover spurned them in favor of next year’s model. I’m calling my shot now, that he’ll end up in a relationship with one of them if they start to appear.

This issue sets a lot up and promises a lot, but it’s largely an extended action sequence, much of which takes place on a suspension bridge (Hey! Just like in Kingdom Come!) with the cops and Max facing down his old sidekicks. That said, the characters are compelling enough, and Irredeemable has been good enough, to bring me back next month regardless of the actual plot of this one lacking some punch.

Daredevil #503

Written by Andy Diggle

Art by Roberto De La Torre and Marco Checchetto

Color by Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by VC's Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

The Devil has teeth -- but does he have bite?

It's a question that pops up fairly consistently for me in Daredevil #503, which has some immaculate set-up and gorgeous art for the new master of the Hand, but also occasionally seems to dodge the truly compelling issues.

Where Andy Diggle truly succeeds is making Matt Murdock's defining characteristics -- guilt, and making bad decisions -- and spinning them into the real world as he tries to control the bloodthirsty pack of ninjas known as the Hand. How far will Murdock go? Will this hero issue the order to kill? It's some great set-up...

...That unfortunately, doesn't get answered in this issue. There's a chance of Diggle redeeming it -- if this is a truly important plot point, that will get flashbacked upon once this tragedy truly unfolds -- but as far as single issues go, it really defangs Murdock's great new status quo. Still, you can tell that Diggle really loves the Man without Fear, as the scenes with him always crackle with rage and intensity. That said, be warned -- this issue also has to deal with Matt's supporting cast, and Diggle's efforts there feel a little more half-hearted.

The art, meanwhile, doesn't necessarily stumble -- but it does stutter. What do I mean? Roberto De La Torre continues his streak of perfection with some solid and moody artwork, as he gives some great composition to both Daredevil and his new legion of assassins. But De La Torre isn't doing the full book -- he is helped out by Marco Checchetto with a few of the pages. Checchetto's style isn't bad, but it can't help but pale to De La Torre's shadows and composition. Being a little bit more cartoony, his style is just dissimilar enough to De La Torre to the point where even colorist Matt Hollingsworth can't completely merge the two, taking readers out of the story a bit.

Ultimately, I feel Matt Murdock's new status quo really takes the character's central themes and gives them some potentially horrific consequences -- so it's a little disheartening to see that, despite great art and solid characterization, this potential is being squandered. Right now, this book feels like a PG-13 version of a bloody action film, which robs it of its strength. In so many ways, Daredevil is a good book -- but if Diggle and company could really take the plunge (or at least show some sort of emotional fallout, if nothing else), Daredevil could be tremendous.

FVZA: Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency #2 (of 3)

Written by David Hine

Illustrated by Roy Allan Martinez, Wayne Nichols, Kinsun Loh and Jerry Choo

Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft's Jimmy Betancourt

Published by Radical Comics

Review by Brendan McGuirk

It's difficult to approach a title like FVZA: Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency with anything short of skepticism. The warring cultural movements of both ends of the undead spectrum are pervasive enough that genre fatigue sets in by the time you've finished reading the designation from the stands. That said, it's unfair to enter any creative-consumption experience without some semblance of an open mind. Don't judge the cultural context, judge the work. On those grounds, FVZA brings some new ideas to the well-trodden landscape of undead comics, with a story that doesn't short the adrenaline or excitement.

In a nutshell, there is a human agency that combats both, you guessed it, vampires and zombies. This chapter opens with a battle sequence that is at least a little evocative of a video game's opening training sequence, in that it is full of action, but short of consequence. When it moves on to character work and expository fill-in, it takes some unexpected turns, diving into some of the sociological issues of a world war-torn by zompires and vambies (no, wait, flip that), and putting an accessible family dynamic at its heart.

The issue isn't this book's competition in the comics' field. The problem is that even the more ingenious aspects of this book; the political power structure of a vampire empire, the use of a zombie-virus as a biological weapon- these concepts are being ably explored in other media. As the mass-market narrative artform with the quickest turnaround, it is the responsibility of comics, of new comics, to be out ahead of these cultural trends, setting the pace. They can't be reactionary to that which has already broadly gained hold, because they then feel derivative and uninspired, even if, by chance, they are neither.  

In terms of visual representation, the result of an entire team of chefs at work in this sequential art kitchen is something of a mixed bag by committee. The storytelling is clear and unmuddled, and the figure work is, above all else, consistent, but there is some element to the product that lacks the familiar“comic art” feel, instead treading closer to static illustration. Ironically, (and perhaps intentionally), the portrayal of humans are somewhat stiff and posed, while the zombies and vampires have some life to them. But characters are recognizable, the action is kinetic, and there is adequate range shown between the living and the dead to sell the viability of the story.

In the end, with art that manages to avoid distraction, a sturdy enough story structure, and enough concepts to keep things interesting from page to page, FVZA is imminently readable. In the same way that “Twilight,” uses supernatural trappings to tell stories of romance, FVZA uses those same elements to tell escapist action-adventure fare. It doesn't revolutionize the genres it mines, but it doesn't rest lazily either. This isn't a predictable book, if you can get past the name.

X-Force #22

Written by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost

Art by Clayton Crain

Lettering by VC's Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Reviewed by Kevin Huxford

I haven't picked up an issue of X-Force since the first few came out. This Necrosha story seemed like an interesting enough idea to give it another try. Sadly, this is certainly not an event that you can jump into the middle of and hit the ground running. This was evident from the convoluted recap page.

There's so many little things going on in this issue and jumping around from group to group, location to location, that it becomes a bit hard to follow. There are so many characters present that you really need a scorecard or two to keep track. Even then, the panels tend to be a bit too muddied to make everyone out.

That's one of the complaints I have with the art here. Clayton Crain is, no doubt, capable of beautiful artwork. But the more panels and characters you throw on to a page, the more you diminish the returns. His art can come off very static at times, which you can forgive when the trade-off is some really purty pictures. But it isn't suited for a story that goes wide-screen action movie as much as this current issue does. Many of the brief panels meant to show different fights going on around Utopia are just dark, muddy and ugly, making them harder to follow and almost impossible to appreciate. I get that overly dark is how this series has gone with the artwork for a long time. But in this type of issue, it goes from just being a style choice that opinions can differ on to a hindrance to the ability of the reader to follow the storytelling.

With this being a one issue glimpse into the larger tale, it is harder for me to be critical of the writing. Much of the issue seems to be the "necessary evil" book where a lot of scenes are thrown on to the page that seem to be of little consequence other than demonstrating the scale of the conflict. There are a few moments that appear meant to redeem the book beyond being just filler and make the reader say "holy crap", but they're lost on me as the knowledge necessary to be stunned by them isn't contained in the recap page or the rest of the book.

Certainly not the issue to jump in on if you haven't been picking this up of late. I would imagine that, if you're interest is really piqued by this Necrosha storyline, you should dip back for the preceding issues or pick up the trade, rather than try to catch up as it goes. If you're already picking this series, you may want to temper your expectations for the issue and increase your chances of being pleasantly surprised by it while waiting for bigger payoffs in issues to come.

Underground #4 (of 5)

Written by Jeff Parker

Art by Steve Lieber

Published by Image Comics

Review by Henry Chamberlain

Jeff Parker (Agents of Atlas) can be relied upon to create fully realized characters and entertaining stories. Teamed up with none other than artist Steve Lieber (Whiteout), Parker takes you down a terrain that is decidedly offbeat for an action adventure in Underground. The action takes place primarily inside a multi-chambered cavern full of spooky dips and turns, stalagmites jutting out here and there. It's all the result of a surprising chain of events that finds two young lovers fleeing for their lives from a group of desperate men.  

First off, you want to care about the two main characters and Parker sets this up nicely in the first issue and keeps the tempo going throughout. Parker began the story with the morning after a romantic encounter between Wesley and Seth, two park rangers. By issue #4, Seth and Wesley are as bound together as they could possibly imagine as they are both fighting for their lives. The supposedly well-meaning business interests to make Stillwater Cave a tourist attraction, led by local big-wig Winston Barefoot, are corrupt to the bone. Seth happened to spot some of Barefoot's goons as they were about to take matters into their own hands and start excavating Stillwater Cave and, after a struggle, Seth was knocked out and left for dead. Fast forward to this current issue, and you find that Wesley has joined Seth in the cave and the two of them are frantically attempting to avoid the thugs who now have reinforcements. Meanwhile, outside the cave is a media circus waiting to see what happens next.  

Steve Lieber is sensitive to every detail from compelling facial expressions to dramatic compositions to convincing scenes into the labyrinth of cave tunnels and dank deep canals. Having established two main characters we can care about, Parker and Lieber work together to give you quite a thrill ride. It easily brings to mind the chemistry between Parker and artist Tom Fowler on Mysterius The Unfathomable. That's a totally different set of main characters but that's all the better and shows how versatile Parker really is. Getting back to Steve Lieber, this comic shares a punchy vibe with his work on Whiteout as well as an all-around tough girl feel like you'd find in Ryan Kelly and Brian Wood's Local. If you're looking for a comic that has a tough girl in control that knows how to kick ass, then this comic is for you.

Angelus #1

Written by Ron Marz

Art by Stjepan Sejic

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow

Review by David Pepose

As a casual-at-best reader of the Witchblade titles, I was interested to check out the first issue of Angelus, which takes a different spin on supernatural weaponry and warfare. But despite being a first issue, it feels like Ron Marz and Stjepan Sejic are preaching to the choir rather than focusing on converts, as the first issue is an uneven but action-packed beginning to the series.

The issue of exposition is a tough one for just about any writer -- and Ron Marz does his best to get it all out of the way as fast as he can. The only problem with this approach is that -- to repeat myself from an earlier interview -- there's more telling than showing, as Dani Baptiste pretty much tells her whole life's story to her new landlady. Once the exposition bomb is dropped, however, there are some fairly compelling scenes -- namely, her struggling with her sexuality as her "roommate" Finch tries to clarify their relationship.

But here's the problem. Comics are a visual medium, which means you can get away with flashbacks, with revealing new nuances to a character's past, and other devices that will get new readers on board to who this person is and how they do business. Instead, Marz focuses on the supernatural world -- complete with the warrior host of the Angelus -- without giving us a human character to anchor it. The result makes it tough to grasp onto the story, with the details slipping away as soon as you put the book down.

How about the art? Stjepan Sejic is sort of an artistic grab bag -- there's the bright colors, the computer-generated effects, the angular characters, the occasionally painterly touch. From a design perspective, I feel like the Angelus is a little gaudy, but that's not this issue's fault -- I will say that Sejic does a decent job with the talky sequences, and does a nice looking job with the chimera monster that Dani ends up having to fight. That said, there are times where I feel the Angelus' design -- with the armor, the scales, the wings -- actually works against Sejic, as he has to cram all this detail into one page (that occasionally has to cram in a lot of word balloons, too).

After reading the first issue, I don't know if I'd necessarily consider myself a convert to Angelus. There's a lot going on here, but nothing to make me really root for the character, or to draw me into the elaborate mythos of her world. That said, if Ron Marz can really dig into Dani as a person -- to give us interesting angles of her life that compliment her romantic entanglements, as well as to really define how she operates as a hero -- the Angelus might be able to survive as an independent title of her own, rather than a reflection of another book.

WAKING Into Horror With Raven Gregory
WAKING Into Horror With Raven Gregory
The Waking #1 (of 4)

Written by Raven Gregory

Art by Vic Drujiniu

Colors by Garry Henderson

Lettering by Crank!

Published by Zenescope Entertainment

Review by Jeff Marsick

I don't know about you, but I've had it up to my temporal lobes with zombies. In the past couple of years, from one end of the entertainment spectrum to the other, the undead have been flayed and pureed sixteen ways to Sunday, each subsequent entry in the canon bringing nothing new or terrifically creative to the genre.*  We've reached the point of supersaturation, and any advances beyond this point aren't innovations as much as gimmickry, awkward prestidigitatious flailings (and failings) attempting to convince us that 'new' isn't just old gussied up in different clothes and slapped with a fresh coat of makeup, or simply shot from a different camera angle.  In short:  zombies have become the poster children for boring.

But lo, a hero to the cause has emerged, a writer who has twisted the latticework of the genre around and about, peered through the multiple layers of redundancy and cross-fibers of imitations, and discovered a small plot of pristine real estate upon which he can lay his unique vision. That voice of originality? Raven Gregory, he of the deliciously cheesecakey and wickedly violent Grimm Fairy Tales fame.

Except for a creepy two-page opening that drew across my paternal heartstring with the grace of a rusty length of barbed wire, most of issue one is standard mystery thriller fare casting a line to hook us in:  two detectives begin an investigation of a venesected murder victim, while across town another pair of flatfeet start to investigate a hit-and-run homicide that we the reader were privy to witnessing. It's page 18 when the weird starts to happen, which, being a zombie story, means that dead people are a-risin'. To say that Raven Gregory is merely impressive in writing a police procedural is akin to saying that Heidi Klum is merely attractive. At least twice I had to go back and check the marquee to see if I missed a Greg Rucka credit. Solid and believable dialogue with witty banter between characters that doesn't make this reader want to poke his eyes out with a fork, combined with pacing that gives it a sort of you-are-there situational awareness makes this feel less like a comic book and more like the reader is watching a movie. It's too bad Gotham Central went the way of the dodo; I'd sign Raven Gregory on a six-issue arc post haste.

It's issue two that we begin to gather clues about why the dead are rising, why the homeless man from the beginning of issue one keeps (what appears to be) his daughter locked up in chains in a cellar room, and what the latter plot has to do with the former. By this point you're not just hooked, you're fully reeled in.  When issue three shifts to a higher gear on the action front and exits on a Seven-esque moment with the supernatural puppetmaster behind the plot, Raven hasn't guided you or led you into the final issue so much as launched you into it.

Given that this is Raven Gregory and Grimm Fairy Tales is coarse and raw and bloody, you'd probably expect that the pairing of said writer with a zombie element would necessitate gore a-splatter with blood pouring like rain and brains scooped out by the palmful.  You'd be wrong.  Actually, what Raven's wrought is more thriller-noir with a side of zombie as opposed to the other way around.  It's a thinking-man's undead tale, with repercussions and consequences and a lack of truly right or wrong, or good versus evil.  You can certainly empathize with the puppemaster's motivations, just as a hard choice made in issue four by one of the detectives deserves the reader's sympathy.  Zombies as pawns?  Who'da thunk?  Don't assume, however, that this is a hard right at Albuquerque by Raven and that he's gone completely rogue from his roots:  there are buxom babes in various states of scanty cladness, riffs of ribald humor, and (what has to be a first) a male character who actually complains that his two-billion-degrees-Kelvin hot wife wants sex too often.  Yes, that is so Raven.

The pencils by Vic Drujiniu are fantastic, surpassing his work on Alice, the Tales From Wonderland one-shot from last year. Think Dale Keown tempered with Mike Deodato. Vic maintains a consistent level of quality across all four issues that helps in giving the book a cinematic feel. I was very impressed with his realistic rendering of emotions and facial features, as that seems to typically be an afterthought with artists. Now, I read this series as a PDF, with probably 90% of it in black and white. The pages that were colored and inked, I actually found disappointing. The inks were too thick, and the colors too bold and heavy, which washed out the pencils to a considerable degree. The pencils-only pages were like reading something done by the cinematographer John Alton, while the finished pages looked chunky enough to break off and chew.  Perhaps if I read the whole thing colored I would find it more even. We'll see.

What is The Waking?  Easily the best work Raven Gregory has done and a showcase of the talent that is Vic Drujiniu.  The first issue hits stores in February 2010 and you can order it now in the December Previews.  I cannot recommend it enough.

*Okay, fine, I'll concede the World War Z point.  That was a pretty good book.  Especially the Battle of Yonkers.

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