Best Shots Reviews: HIGH LEVEL #1, UNCANNY X-MEN #12, RETURN OF WOLVERINE #5

High Level #1 variant
Credit: Francesco Mattina (DC/Vertigo)
Credit: Guillaume Ospital (DC/Vertigo)

High Level #1
Written by Rob Sheridan
Art by Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Lettering by Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Published by Vertigo Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The recent relaunch of DC Comics’ Vertigo line has already produced some terrific back-to-basics titles with American Carnage, Goddess Mode, Hex Wives, and with High Level, writer Rob Sheridan and artists Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo, Jr. join that sequential art pantheon, creating a gorgeously-realized fantasy/sci-fi world that draws you in with its art and holds onto you with its intriguing story.

After all, it begins with something of a mystery. An aristocratic couple standing on a balcony overlooking a verdant garden seems incongruous with the story that follows, one that primarily concerns Thirteen, a young woman and her sentient robot doing whatever she can to survive in the Onida Flats. Sheridan sets us off on the right foot and encourages us to dip into the colorful corners of this world, from the trucker bar cantina to the titular upper strata of society.

Sheridan eschews heavy-handed exposition by slowly weaving mentions of the High Level into conversations: one person refuses to go there, another believes the promise of working his way up through the ranks to utopia, while someone else sees it as something akin to a brainwashed cult. Thirteen’s misguided heist job might be a well travelled trope, but it allows Sheridan some time to let her act as a tour guide to both Onida Flats and her own moral code. There is, of course, a certain amount of inevitability that Thirteen’s path will ultimately lead her to the High Level, but Sheridan isn’t quite ready to take us there.

Which is just fine when the art is as stunning as it is here. The Omega Men art team of Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo, Jr. are something else, gorgeously blending a gritty dystopia with a some of the most lovingly rendered sci-fi and fantasy landscapes in recent memory. What’s most impressive is the technique itself: in a recent social media post, Sheridan revealed that Fajardo paints directly over Bagenda's pencils and completely forgoes the traditional role of an inker.

The result is something infinitely softer than what we’re used to seeing in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Even as “sewer girl” Thirteen works against an unforgiving landscape, the colors pop as loudly as Thirteen’s purple hair. Then there’s the completely outlandish stuff, like the cybernetic arachnid man with a buzzsaw for a hand. Bagenda and Fajardo’s skill is in seamlessly ensuring that all of these seemingly dissonant pieces work together to create a whole that’s in line with Sheridan’s fast-paced story.

Leaving the reader on a cliffhanger, Sheridan, Bagenda and Fajardo point us in the direction the series will take without spoiling the fun of getting us there. There’s still so many mysteries left after this first issue, from the idyllic family scene in the opening pages to the truth behind High Level, that keeping us on the hook should be a breeze.

Credit: Salvador Larocca (Marvel Comics)

Uncanny X-Men #12
Written by Matthew Rosenberg
Art by Salvador Larocca and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Two issues into his tenure as the sole writer of Uncanny X-Men, Matthew Rosenberg has yet to let his foot off the pedal. “This is Forever” continues to build up the world around Cyclops and Wolverine in the wake of "Age of X-Man"'s start while paying off on some plot points from Rosenberg’s previous work. Salvador Larocca is a little bit more hit or miss this time around, with some paneling and staging choices that aren’t necessarily confusing, but also don’t lend themselves to the clarity of the story. Still, the story has a enough momentum to really pull through the rough patches and deliver another solid entry in the new status quo.

I’ll start by talking about the very first page because I think Rosenberg’s ability to build intrigue is one of his greatest strengths as a writer. He begins the issue with a familiar sight - a black page with a single red caption box. This time it reads “Every ending has a beginning.” In echoing the opening of the last issue in terms of format, Rosenberg adds a new layer to the proceedings - are these pages just a framing device or are they the words of some unknown character? The red, black and white color scheme would seem to signal something most Sinister. In a way, it’s a flip on Walt Simonson’s classic first year on Thor, ending every issue with single “DOOM” before eventually revealing Surtur to the reader. This could be something. It could be nothing. But we’re talking about it and that’s important because it gives the book a little bit more weight - that’s what the flagship X-title should be doing.

With the first page in the back of our minds, we dive right back in with our favorite odd couple - Cyclops and Wolverine. They’re basically where we left them, recovering from the battle at the end of the last issue and moving forward with something resembling a plan to band the mutants that remain together. Rosenberg has settled in easily writing the relationship between Scott and Logan. Their conversations and interactions feel natural and that allows Rosenberg to perform a bit of exposition without it feeling absolutely leaden. With thought bubbles practically extinct in modern capes comics, it can be awkward having characters open up about their feelings but Rosenberg avoids those pitfalls here.

But the plot leads to some interesting choices. Rosenberg goes right for the heartstrings again with a bit of an unexpected twist and does a good job injecting the book with some emotional stakes. Of course, in getting there some of it feels a bit forced even if it’s a payoff for some of Rosenberg’s work on New Mutants: Dead Souls. And some of it feels a bit hand wave-y, working against those very same details from Dead Souls. But ultimately, it all feels like it works and that’s a big part of it. So much of X-Men at this point realizing that sometimes an imperfect solution is the best one if it serves the larger story. We end this issue unsure of what to expect next, and that’s always where a writer should be looking to land.

Salvador Larocca handles the art once again, and there’s an improvement from last issue in stops and starts. He’s still having trouble showing motion and energy in his work, with the exception of big moments like Wolverine diving claws out at the reader. He’s still not providing consistency in terms of facial expression or character likeness unless a character is mostly obscured by a mask (or in Cyclop’s case, a visor), and his foreshortening is a mess. Rachelle Rosenberg has a rough go of it as well. Her palette consists of so many earth tones that even the red of Cyclops’ optic blasts don’t really pop off the page. And she’s not able to bring much variation to the issue because the nighttime setting doesn’t lend itself to more than what she does here. Hopefully, these two can get on the same page at some point because they’re both better than this issue.

With comics being a visual medium, it’s rare that the script is the thing that pulls the book through but Matthew Rosenberg is taking advantage of every opportunity he has to write these characters and so far he’s doing a good job of it. As for the art, I’m a little bit at a loss for what to say. When looking at the talent that Marvel tapped for other big relaunches like Nick Spencer's Amazing Spider-Man, Donny Cates’ Venom and Guardians of the Galaxy, and Jason Aaron’s Thor and Avengers, it’s hard not to feel like the X-Men got a little bit slighted. But if Larocca and Rachelle Rosenberg can get it together, the sky’s the limit for this book.

Credit: Steve McNiven (Marvel Comics)

Return of Wolverine #5
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten and Laura Martin
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 2 out of 10

This is it - after more than five years of faulty healing factors, multidimensional and intergenerational counterparts, and even a healthy heaping of time travel, Wolverine is finally back from the grave.

So why does it feel like readers have suffered a death of a thousand cuts?

It’s difficult to just look at Return of Wolverine #5 as just a single issue, rather than the cumulation of over half a decade of missed opportunities regarding the most popular of Marvel’s merry mutants. Just as Wolverine’s illness and death felt like overdrawn and unfocused affairs, so too is Logan’s resurrection, as we’ve spent five issues (not to mention dozens of spin-off comic books) following a wheel-spinning storyline with no cohesion, no weight, and no purpose. “I’m back and I’m Wolverine and that’s the way it’s gonna be,” says Logan. And that’s fine - but given how long the wind-up for his return has been, it’s profoundly disappointing how little this resurrection has to do with anything related to the character.

And I don’t say this to pick on him, but I think part of the reason it’s hard to see this issue apart from its predecessors is because so much of Logan’s struggles have been masterminded by the same person: writer Charles Soule. And as fractured as his work on Death of Wolverine felt, that at least felt coherent in terms of drawing from different elements of Logan’s disparate past - and given how many different angles you can take from the X-Men’s leading soldier/spy/lab experiment/borderline Highlander, it’s a little surprising that Wolverine’s resurrection draws from literally none of that very well-established history. Instead, this series has hinged on Persephone, a deeply forgettable villain, who we learn with almost a throwaway line wasn’t even responsible for Logan’s return. To spend five years telling us that Wolverine’s healing factor was on the fritz, and then to casually tell us it somehow brought him back from the dead, is a turn that is as infuriating as it is completely unearned - and it can’t help but retroactively make these already shaky earlier stories look worse in comparison.

The other disappointment with this series is that for a book titled Return of Wolverine, we’ve sure spent a lot of time just following Wolverine doing everything but getting resurrected. We basically saw the main twist in the first issue - so instead of giving us much in the way of answers as to the hows and whys of this character’s return (teased for so long in the various Hunt for Wolverine limited series), we’re just treated to boilerplate action, where Wolverine could have been swapped in for just about any other hero in the Marvel Universe. Even with Soule’s clunky device featuring Logan’s various personalities coming out to play, there’s just nothing personal here, and as a result, a lot of the action feels staged - particularly a bit when Wolverine, his skin being cooked off the bone thanks to chemical gas, literally breaks through a space station window and jumps unprotected into the void. Remember the time when Logan was nearly killed by an old man with a wooden sword, or when he was breathing heavy fighting ninjas? Now his healing factor has made him into Superman, literally allowing Logan to survive the heat of atmospheric reentry, as well as the resultant G-forces of crashing down to Earth.

After three issues on the sidelines, artist Steve McNiven returns for this series’ finale, but he’s ultimately not given much of a reason to come back. He and inker Jay Leisten come together for a look that is reminiscent of Barry Windsor-Smith, and while I can understand the impulse behind this choice, it winds up robbing McNiven of much of his signature strengths. It takes 10 pages for this script to even give McNiven any sort of action to portray, and even then, he’s never given those iconic splash pages he needs to really flex his muscles. Colorist Laura Martin does solid work towards the book’s finale, however, washing Wolverine in an alarming red that acts as a strong counterpoint to his blue-tinged mental landscape.

Wolverine’s been through a lot over the years, and it’s a testament to his longevity that fans have been as loyal and dedicated to the Ol’ Canucklehead since his debut. But books like Return of Wolverine aren’t exactly going to endear readers to Logan’s long-awaited return. Even in death, the character has been saturated across the Marvel Universe — there’s literally three different versions of the same man running around at this very moment, and that’s not including his clone or his son — and it’s particularly frustrating as a reader and a consumer to see that there was no overarching plan, no greater point, but instead just a collection of spinning plates, with each of them having little to nothing to do with one another.

I can’t pretend to know the pressures and constraints that Soule and McNiven were working under with this series - superhero comic books work in mysterious ways, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Soule and McNiven haven’t each turned in strong work elsewhere - but at the same time, given how long Wolverine has been on the metaphysical bench, there’s no reason why this series shouldn’t have been plotted and planned within an inch of its life, to give one of Marvel’s most beloved characters the triumphant return he deserves. (It’s telling that Cyclops, another of Logan’s contemporaries, came back from the dead in the span of a single annual - an annual that reads exponentially better than this over-long series.)

Whether it’s a failure of planning or a failure of imagination, Return of Wolverine feels like the most artificial method possible to get the desired result, and as a result feels like one of the more disappointing events Marvel has released in some time. The Ol’ Canucklehead might be back in fighting form, but he sure has killed plenty of readers’ wallets to get there.

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