Best Shots Reviews: AERO #1, SUPERMAN: UP IN THE SKY #1, CROWDED #7

Crowded #7
Credit: Ro Stein/Ted Brandt/Triona Farrell (Image Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

Aero #1
Written by Zhou Liefen and Greg Pak
Art by Keng, Pop Mhan and Federico Blee
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

As a series, Aero was, in many ways, born behind the eight ball. The MCU films rake in over 10% of their mind-boggling overall profits from China, so it makes sense that there would be some attempt to see how a Marvel comic would fare in the same environment. With Aero as one of the inaugural titles, it was destined to be straightforward, almost to a fault. You can’t throw narrative curveballs or subvert expectations when you’re primary goal is to establish conventions. Still, there’s enough about this book that feels new to look past that and see what is, ultimately, a satisfying introduction to the character. Writer Zhou Liefen and artist Keng’s “Protector of the City” main story is followed up by the back-up “Aero & Wave: Origins & Destinies”, penned by Greg Pak, drawn by Pop Mhan, and colored by Federico Blee, which is strong if tonally and thematically disconnected from everything that comes before it.

“Protector of the City” is mostly interested in showing readers Aero’s double life as both an architect who is responsible for much of the Shanghai skyline and the superhero wind-controller Aero. The threat introduced in this issue is several buildings, buildings that the heroine designed herself, that have transformed into humanoid monsters. As she battles and defeats these threats, she sees what looks like an entire inverted skyline descending from above on a collision course with her city. As military crafts approach their target, it transforms into serpents. All of this interrupts Aero’s attempts to fly to a date with her partner.

Aero shares the spotlight with Wave in Pak’s back-up story. Much of this involved Wave’s origin, which is covered very quickly and largely glossed over. Wave was working for villains without realizing it until she found herself in conflict with the superhero team Triumph Division. It’s honestly a really interesting story, and one which could provide a fun twist on a Weapon X-type superhero prologue, but it’s a shame that its used in another hero’s book. This introduction to Aero needed more Aero characterization, and as fun as this back-up is and as good as it is at characterizing Wave, Aero still feels largely undefined.

Liefen’s half of the story has one glaring flaw. It is obsessed with telling readers information instead of showing them the story unfolding. We are told that Aero lives a double life, but we don’t see much of it, and we certainly don’t see the two halves in conflict. We are told that Aero is a successful architect, but we don’t see much of that life. There are thankfully some moments where we see her working at her office, and that’s when the character is at her most enjoyable, but there’s no mention or hint to her personal life, such as the date she was en route to before the attack on the city, being in any sort of turmoil because of her being a superhero. The execution is all very safe, but that’s to be expected given the context of the series.

Keng’s artwork is going to be one of the most defining characteristics. It is so vastly different than most of Marvel’s artistic offerings that it feels refreshing. There are some inconsistencies in character designs that hold it back, and its near obsession with displaying motion blur does end up hurting it, but there’s a magic behind the character’s flying through her city, and Keng’s colors are great at juxtaposing her against industrial colors. Mhan’s art in the second half is solid, and at its peak in a stellar opening of Aero descending upon Wave as the latter sits on a beach. The framing is fantastic and Blee’s colors give the scene a vibrancy in sync with its more tropical locale.

Where the Liefen/Keng half of the issue exceeds the Pak/Mhan/Blee section is in giving the series its own sense of identity. While obviously this is largely due to how there isn’t much else at Marvel that looks like what Keng is doing here, it’s in the narrative too. Apart from a casual mention of Tony Stark, Aero #1 feels refreshingly self-contained, and is already tied to Shanghai in a way that Spider-Man was with New York in pre-MCU films. With the first half serving as a more character-heavy introduction to the protagonist and the second story showing her in the context of the larger 616, Aero #1 shows delightful promise as a debut issue.

Credit: Andy Kubert/Brad Anderson (DC)

Superman: Up in the Sky #1
Written by Tom King
Art by Andy Kubert, Sandra Hope, and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

The elusive “Walmart Superman” comes to comic shops finally in the debut of Superman: Up in the Sky #1. Collecting the first two installments of the initial Superman Giant, Up in the Sky #1 combines the splashy action of Andy Kubert with the lyricism of Tom King. The result is a surprisingly engaging side-story, one that both displays the latent kineticism of the Man of Tomorrow as well as the breadth of emotion and scope his stories can have.

A home invasion in Gotham City is nothing new. But intergalactic kidnapping is, as a home invasion brings a young Superman super-fan off-world with a black market Zeta Beam. Superman obviously knows that he can’t save everyone, but that isn’t going to stop him from trying.

Up in the Sky #1 is working against a few things, one being its very decompressed pace even with the doubling up of installments and the fact that we know that this story goes to some pretty problematic places, as the “Many Deaths of Lois Lane” issue is still looming in a future issue. But just as a single issue debut, it is a pretty good one, succinctly laying out the story in cinematic newsprint pages scaffolded by King’s solid narration and punchy dialogue. While not the “game changer” that the Giants line were touted as, Superman: Up in the Sky #1 is a fun start to a previously scarce Superman tale.

From page one, readers will notice its decompression. We open in the middle of Superman putting down a robot attack in Metropolis, one of many sumptuous single page splashes from Kubert, inker Sandra Hope, and colorist Brad Anderson. From there we ping-pong from tight, vignettes staged all around Gotham, Metropolis, even the Kent Family Farm. Obviously Tom King has a lot of story ground to cover in not a lot of pages, and you can feel the story economy at play in both sections of this first issue.

This definitely adds a speed to the story that is appreciated. And the hook is a really good one, one that King also seems to be contending with in a real way emotionally through Superman. All throughout the first installment, we see Clark struggling with the girl’s plight and the fact that he would be leaving Earth defenseless in a probably vain search. It is a very “Superman” problem, and one ready made for serialization.

But I worry that the slightly choppy scene construction will keep readers gaining real purchase with it. Couple that with Tom King’s prosaic style and you have the potential for disaster. A pure example of this is the issue’s second half, which finds Superman on Rann exposing his mind to the Zeta Beam to try and track the missing girl. Though narratively this turn makes sense, again we open on the turn midway through and then are treated to a sort of thematic dream sequence, in which Clark has retired after a young boy dies trying to fly. While I appreciate the theatricality and the exploration of similar themes, I can’t help but wonder how weird that must have been to read as just a single entry. It is weird to read even in a “collected” format! I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me nervous for the future installments.

That said, it is undeniable that Up in the Sky looks great. Though the “one-act”-like nature of the script is a stumbling block, Andy Kubert, Sandra Hope, and Brad Anderson thrive with it. Taking each page and turning them into showy displays of either action or character moments. Moments like a tense editorial meeting between Clark, Lois, and Perry White, rendered in an expressive eight-panel, cross-cutting grid, or a gauntlet of Superman fighting through his grief in single page splashes filled with villainous cameos. Anchored by the fine inks of Hope and the rich colors of Anderson, if anything Kubert is getting a welcome regular showcase of his artistic superpowers.

Superman: Up in the Sky #1 is kind of an odd one, but a fun read nonetheless. Though slightly hampered by its format, Tom King, Andy Kubert, Brad Anderson, and Sandra Hope swing for something more ambitious than your standard grocery store digest. Time will tell how this story stands up once completed, but Superman: Up in the Sky #1 heralds a good enough start.

Credit: Ro Stein/Ted Brandt/Triona Farrell (Image Comics)

Crowded #7
Written by Christopher Sebela
Art by Ro Stein, Ted Brandt, Triona Farrell, Katie O’Meara and Holley McKend
Lettered by Cardinal Rae
Published by Image Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

One of the reasons (of which there are many) that Crowded’s debut arc stood out when the series premiered last year is the manic energy that emanates from the book’s dystopian depiction of late-stage capitalism and the gig economy. The world’s gone mad and everyone’s in it for themselves, because as far as they’re concerned, no one else is looking out for them. The freelance hustle has reached the point where signing up to be a contract killer is just as easy as joining a rideshare app to help make ends meet.

The level of gonzo carnage on display has not diminished with this first issue of the second arc, picking up with human target Charlie and her perpetually put-upon rent-a-guard Vita trying to make their way out of Los Angeles by road while newscasters bounce between delivering their reports and trying to kill them. (Yes, even being on TV in this time isn’t enough of a guarantee that the bills are covered.) Kinetic, bombastic, dynamic with a hint of Fury Road; it’s a strong showcase of what the creative team are capable of.

Christopher Sebela’s scripting of the scene mines humor from the mannered performances being given to the cameras versus the outlandish attempts at offing the two. Ro Stein and Ted Brandt deliver some great physicality in their cartooning that adds to the slapstick quality of the scene and the damage to Vita’s car conveying how much the duo have already been through is a detail that only adds to the scene’s texture. The bright and clear sky provided by Triona Farrell’s colors make it seem like a scorching summer’s day, and so only serves to further emphasize the warmth of a flamethrower’s heat, while letterer Cardinal Rae uses sound effects to express segments of the action like the arc of an explosive or the way a bullet passes through a body part.

This is just a small section of the issue’s narrative, however — the bulk of it revolves around Vita and Charlie looking for a way to get to Las Vegas, which is necessary considering how much of a beating the car has taken over the last few days. They opt for the hypertube, something born from the mind of an Elon Musk-type that can get there in an hour… if they survive the ride. It’s not a spoiler to say that this journey goes south at some point, though as with the opening scene, it’s carried out with a level of hyper-violence that’s pitched perfectly in conjunction with the odd couple dynamic that the duo have going on.

Sebela’s script does allow for a reprieve between these two beats of action that begins to dig further into the pair’s characters. Charlie gets a specific scene devoted to her backstory, a monologue about her upbringing that defines her worldview, though there are details peppered through the issue that help to further define the series. A friend in LA, a mention to a character from the previous arc, a question that Vita conveniently skips over rather than answers, a later answer she gives that isn’t fully comprehended. What helps to make Crowded a living, breathing world is that its worldbuilding is in service of character. Things like background gags help, but the clue’s in the title — they’re meant to be in the background, not the primary method. Tying elements to the protagonists of the piece makes both them and the setting at large all the more intriguing, even as the narrative puts the former under a microscope.

That level of care with regards to character extends to how Stein, Brandt and Farrell express this story. As already mentioned, the cartooning on display is exquisite, in both the sequential art as well as a single piece like the cover. There, both Charlie and Vita’s expressions make their dynamic and personalities clear, while the threats that surround them on both sides being so varied helps to sell the situation. It’s not just one demographic of people who are picking up contracts on the Reapr app to earn some extra cash, it’s become a side-gig for so many across America. Also, it’s hard not to find a small child wielding a dagger funny.

All of this builds to an action scene that’s the wildest of the series thus far. In getting to that point, the creative team layout the constrained dimensions of the hypertube only for the climax of the issue to completely upend the space. Despite the perspective becoming destabilized, there’s nevertheless a level of control on the material that keeps things moving along to a big crescendo of a character moment. A new city awaits in the next issue, but it’s good to have Crowded back on the stands, where even the transitional parts of the story are a full realization of its potential.

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