Best Shots Comic Reviews: AVENGERS PRIME, GREEN ARROW, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews

Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the crackshot reviewers of the Best Shots team! And we've got ourselves a new recruit: Coming up from the Great White North of Toronto, the best there is at what he does, snikt-snikt-here-comes-the-review-ity, we've got the amazing Zack Kotzer joining our team. Whether it's writing video game reviews for Dork Shelf or arts and culture coverage for Steel Bananas, it is on like Donkey Kong with the latest member of our team. And wait -- there's more! We've got tons of books from Marvel, DC, Top Cow, Archaia, BOOM! Studios and much, much more for your reading enjoyment. Want some more back issue reviews? Then check us out at the Best Shots Topic Page! And now, let's take a look at Marvel getting the band back together with the third issue of Avengers Prime...


Avengers Prime #3

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and Javier Rodriguez

Lettering by Chris Eliopoulos

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

Avengers Prime: Putting the "bro" into "imbrologio" since June 2010.

And maybe that's what kept itching at me when I read this book, in October of that same year. It's been four months since this book started -- and if there was a lot to chew on, a lot to engage your imagination after those issues, I think this book would hit a lot harder. That's not to say there aren't some fun moments as Steve Rogers and Tony Stark reunite, but you do leave the book feeling a bit unsatisfied about how far these lifelong colleagues have come.

But let's talk about the writing here. If you were waiting for the emotional connection between Cap, Iron Man and Thor, well, you've got it in spades. Or at least two-thirds of it. The sheer number of bro-ments that Brian Michael Bendis gives Steve and Tony almost approaches total bro-verload: "All I need is an outlet and an AC adapter," Tony says. "You used that line during the whole Korvac thing," Steve smirks. Tony's reply: "And many times since." And I won't even get into a moment where Tony rides, er, pillion behind Steve -- suffice to say that slash fiction writers across the planet will probably be high-fiving each other for about a week at Bendis's jokes. Yet in a lot of ways, these are some of the more natural moments for Bendis's style -- well, that and Tony Stark's epic, Old Spice Man-inspired escape plan. With Robert Downey Jr. having successfully co-opted Tony Stark, Bendis's quippy, jokey dialogue fits best for him, the biggest fish out of water in Asgard.

Now, as far as the art goes, well, it's a surprisingly muddy show from Alan Davis. That's not to say that Alan Davis on an off-day isn't what many artists try (and fail) to be on their best, but there are certain cases, such as when Thor is throwing lightning at exploding skeleton creatures, that the imagery occasionally gets a bit cluttered as far as all this stuff that's going on. I think some of this haziness comes from the color work -- Javier Rodriguez uses his colors to Davis's work out in a manner that he doesn't in, say, Amazing Spider-Man, but it's at the cost of making things a little too dark. But that all being said, you have to give Davis a lot of credit for drawing things that he might ordinarily not -- there's Dragon Man, crowd scenes, even a naked guy riding on a horse, and his increasing experimentation with panel layout proves really effective for the density of Bendis's script.

Still, the book has its flaws. As I said before, Bendis has the advantage with Iron Man -- this is a character that has become a quipster. That plays to Bendis's strengths, and he manages to get Steve Rogers in there as the straight man. But as much as I dig his take on Tony -- if Bendis had the sort of high-concept strength that Matt Fraction had, I'd say he'd be a shoe-in to write an Iron Man solo book -- Bendis's take on Thor still feels like stalling for time. It ain't easy, putting words into the Odinson's mouth, but calling someone "you witch from Hell!" feels a bit sloppy. And while I've said these good things about the book, the question remains: Why do I feel like not a lot has happened over a long period of time? That's likely the book's bimonthly status working against it -- while books like S.H.I.E.L.D. invite your imagination to run wild in between issues, the decompressed nature of Avengers: Prime seems to demand a more frequent publishing schedule, not less. It's not a bad book by any means -- but with the lengthy wait time and the main plot still in flux, you could say it's a little bit bro-verated.


Green Arrow #4

Written by J.T. Krul

Art by Diogenes Neves, Vincente Cifuentes and Ulises Arreola

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by Zack Kotzer

Marvel’s no saint, but DC’s had a nasty habit in recent history to overcrowd their cataclysmic events. Sure, typically you’re either exiting one or foreshadowing the next, but with this rapid pattern it’s going to wedge side-line titles into cramped areas, smothering independent arcs. Enter the fourth issue of Green Arrow’s newest run.

Last we saw the emerald archer he was a bit puzzled over the spectacular rejuvenative abilities of Star City’s new lush forest, a mysterious aid who’s under the impression to be from times ye long ago and generally meditating on the trials and errors of his recent life. This is all given a quick pat on the back on the first page then ushered out the door to make room to a dozen page shout out to Brightest Day. This uncanny re-cap of Arrow’s encounter with a manic Martian Manhunter wouldn’t be such a thorn if it wasn’t a photocopy of the event from Brightest Day 9 with less context and no progression. Not to mention bringing the developments of last issue’s themes to a sudden halt. To boot, it looked nicer when Patrick Gleason did it compared to Diogenes Neves’ kind of spiritless imitation. Gleason’s work was a bit more inspired, and the design of his pages were not only more interesting, but got across the Martian psychic mayhem afoot. Neves did clearly carbon copy some images, but it’s bland and routine, and I would complain that it doesn’t help explain what’s going on but perhaps the strategy itself is prompting you to buy the explanation. The story does go on, however.

J.T. Krull has Arrow leave the world of trees and magic to return to the city in turmoil, investigating the assassination from the previous issue. In this time the last pages take a really quick turn to dodge and counter what was becoming a very dangerously predictable conclusion. But that’s all you will really take away from it. When about half the issue gets transformed into an advertisement for another story, it turns whatever’s left into more of a segue than a progression. Sequencing is an obvious tell as to where the ‘heart’ of this issue is. There is no overlap from the last issue, to the Brightest Day encounter, to the final page. It’s all incredibly disjointed for reasons to bluntly forward another book. A simple, ‘Hey J’onn if you aren’t too busy for the next few pages can you help me out?’ could have given some reason to the detour. Star City’s been hurt, destroyed and desolated, trying to tend to their own after Prometheus’ attack. But not as hurt Oliver Queen’s direction. The poor archer is a beloved rogue, but his constant ongoing remodellings are showing a certain lack of confidence about his handling. Being easily shoved around by more ‘pressing matters’ won’t help him take aim.


The Darkness: Four Horsemen #2

Written by David Hine

Art by Jeff Wamester, Jason Martin, and Felix Serrano

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow

Review by Lan Pitts

"I can feel it. The hunger, the rage, the burning fire of terminal disease running through my veins. The awful emptiness of death, opening a void in my soul...and the Darkness screams.

I guess I should make it clear that going into this, I was a bit weary. I am not David Hine's biggest fan. I found his recent arc on Detective Comics to be a bit stale. However, him taking Jackie Estacado's reins and running wild with them had me floored. Essentially, Jackie is up against the Biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are re-interpreted as Hell's Angels biker types. Jackie isn't sure at first if these guys are the real deal, but soon gets a taste of their medicine.

The Darkness that is one of those characters that few writers "get", in my opinion. Either he sounds like the Punisher on steroids, or Batman possessed by Satan. He is neither of those things. He is a hitman who is cursed by his birthright. Hine gives Jackie the proper voice here, with a sarcastic tone in his voice, but somebody who understands that he is the embodiment of shadow. He comes across as the anti-hero he is billed as and not some demonic jerk.

Hine's dialog for the Horsemen is just as sharp as Jackie's. They play games with hostages and curse people randomly. The idea behind Famine, or Ronnie as his name is here, is interesting. Usually Famine is envisioned as a frail individual, but here he's loud, boisterous and quite rotund. The thing about Famine here is not that you are starved to death, it's that he controls your hunger and you never stop eating and you eat yourself to death. The imagery alone was something I wasn't expecting.

Speaking of imagery, Jeff Wamester soars on art. He handles the Darkness armor with precision and doesn't over-render the look or ruin it. It comes across as slick, but still gives the impression it offers protection. The Horsemen's designs are superb and they come across as a valid  threat.  How Wamester shows each of the Horsemen using their abilities is horrific and doesn't come across as pointless. The violence displayed is their big "hello, world, we've arrived" message to the population.

Darkness: Four Horsemen is one of those books where anything can happen. The Top Cow universe has seen apocalyptic scenario after the other, but can Jackie fight off the heralds of the end of the world by himself? I'm not the world's biggest Darkness follower, but this series has me hooked.


Action Comics #893

Written by Paul Cornell and Nick Spencer

Art by Sean Chen, Wayne Faucher, Brad Anderson, R.B. Silva, DYM and Dave McCaig

Lettering by Rob Leigh

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

There's nothing on the stands quite like Action Comics, and for that matter, there are few in the DC lineup quite like Paul Cornell, either. Between this surprisingly light-hearted Lex Luthor tale and his upcoming work on Knight and Squire, Cornell is really taking on a new tone to his work that re-appropriates comicky goofiness with a smile and an ease that's as refreshing as an ape wielding his biggest combat spoon.

Yes, I said spoon. Reading Cornell's work does require a bit of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, especially as he gives you your monthly quotient of monkeys with Super Gorilla Grodd. He's continuing along a trail that Gail Simone has blazed (with the pervasive humor, not the monkeys), but there is brain-eating, android-chomping, spoon decapitation and some bizarre bedroom innuendo between Lex and his robo-clone of Lois Lane. You think this is wrong? Then go read something safe, because this is the tip of the iceberg. It's sick, but it's funny, and most importantly, there's a purpose behind all this. It's that weight that makes this more than a pointless exercise -- it's a rehabilitation, an in-depth look at a character in a brand new context.

And how about the guest art team? I think Sean Chen has been unfairly maligned for his past work on the haphazard Salvation Run, and it's nice to see him acquit himself so well here. Seeing the sharp linework of Lex's face in contrast to the smooth lines of Robo-Lois (can we make that a thing? Please? "Robo-Lois"?) is a nice touch, and the emotion that he gives Grodd and his fellow apes is kind of surprising. The violent moments are perhaps where Chen does his best work, aided with gusto by colorist Brad Anderson's sudden bursts of blood red -- these moments come as a shocking counterpoint to Cornell's jokey script, and the speed at which they take place makes you cringe that there's nothing you can do to stop it.

But let's put the pause button on for a second. There's a backup story here, and you might not think it, but it's actually far stronger than you'd think. There's more character and high-concept weirdness going on with Jimmy Olsen than a quick read would suggest -- Nick Spencer has a bit of a density to his writing, but if you take the time and really drink it in, you'll come to appreciate his style. Whether it's Jimmy asking a superpowerful djinn warrior to wait until he finishes his book -- "Rob Sheffield. So great." -- or him lampshading the symmetry over having his own nemesis at Lexcorp, there's a lot to like here.  

And not least of that is artist R.B. Silva. Like Marcus To was for Red Robin, I forsee big things in Silva's future, because he really lends a "newness" to his style that DC doesn't have anywhere else in its arsenal. He's got a style that's like Stuart Immonen with a hint of Ryan Ottley -- it's very expressive, and really makes use the most of limited space (and a dense script). I'm a little surprised by colorist Dave McCaig, however, who has a rare misstep with his colorwork. The beginning of the book is far too pale, drawing energy away from the art instead of bringing it in, while the second half is a bit too dark and heavy, washing everything with a burnt orange tinge. It doesn't derail the book by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it doesn't quite hit the right visual balance to really put Silva's work in the best light.

All in all, Action Comics is the type of comic that ignores your expectations, instead taking them and making them into a funny hat for your amusement. There's death, there's forbidden love, there's genies, there's monkeys. But perhaps more importantly, I think this book does something important: With its pervasive sense of humor wedded to a deeper, stronger character motivation, this series gives a certain something to the DC lineup that they don't really have anywhere else. In short: Why are you still reading this review? Go read Action Comics.


Captain America #610

Written by Ed Brubaker

Art by Butch Guice, Rick Magyar, Dean White, Frank Martin and Paul Mounts

Lettering by VC's Joe Caramanga

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

Click here for preview

After 62 issues at Captain America's helm, it should be established the Ed Brubaker is in no danger of steering this ship off course.  The first story arc of the "Heroic Age" certainly had its share of skeptics when it was first announced; bringing a villain that had become a fan favorite anti-hero back to his villainous roots is a sure way to alienate the fans of that character.  Indeed, the internet cried "character regression!" when Brubaker brought back Baron Zemo as the antagonist in this surprisingly low key arc, but rest assured, we all get to have it both ways.  Not only does Zemo serve to menace Bucky Barnes and his friends, but Brubaker manages to cast his actions in a light that remains consistent with the work done to bring him to the side of the angels.

As I said before, this story has been surprisingly devoid of fireworks, and not necessarily to its detriment.  Brubaker's writing is reminiscent of Steve Englehart's legendary run on the Star-Spangled Avenger's solo title, keeping Bucky's adventures down to earth, and more than a little dark.  Dark doesn't mean grim and gritty though, and the Heroic Age banner on the cover takes on a very interesting implication in this issue, as Zemo reveals that his endgame is not to destroy Bucky Barnes, but to force him to confront his past as the Winter Soldier, move past it, and truly earn his status as the new Captain America.  It's a very cool twist, and one that certainly mirrors Zemo's own character arc, coming out of his father's shadow, to become his own man.  Bucky is put in a precarious situation, one he's relatively familiar with, and is forced to swallow a little bit of his brashness, acknowledging Zemo's ambitions in the process.

Brubaker is obviously no stranger to these characters, and his handling of Bucky Barnes is top notch.  His swagger, anger, and troubled past do more than enough to separate him from Steve Rogers, but the nature of his troubles draws a nice through line between the two Captains America.  Additionally, Zemo's characterization is brilliant, and while it is no mean feat to cast Captain America and one of his oldest nemeses in shades of grey, Brubaker does so skillfully, and the result is more than a little jarring.  The true impact of this arc will be felt in the upcoming "Trial of Captain America, and if Zemo's involvement continues, and more so, if Bucky comes through this process a more affirmed hero, this year will be truly successful for this title.  

Butch Guice is a great pairing with Brubaker, particularly on this story.  His work is reminiscent of Sal Buscema's work on Cap, focusing on vivid use of blacks, rough-around-the-edges rendering, and solid draftsmanship.  The seams only really show when Rick Magyar is providing the inks.  Magyar is a skillful inker, but his style doesn't quite blend with Guice's.  Guice himself does his best work when Cap and his supporting cast are in the city, as he captures the look and feel of New York with ease.  His scenes at Zemo's castle are a little flat; he handles the action well, but Zemo's costume seems somehow off, and the environment isn't as friendly to his style.  Still, the work fits the story, and sings more often than it lacks.

This arc has wrapped nicely, and while it didn't deliver the big explosive action I was expecting, what it did do was progress Baron Zemo even further as a character, bringing him squarely into the current Captain America mythos, and setting him up as a terrific foil for Bucky Barnes.  Bucky himself is shown the door to a better future, and while what lies past the threshold may be foreboding, it can be assured that, if he survives, he'll only be the stronger for it.  "No Escape" may have come across as a prelude rather than a defining moment, but there's nothing wrong with that when the storytelling is solid, and the next chapter lives up to its introduction.


Pilot Season: Asset #1

Written by Filip Sablik

Art by David Marquez, William Farmer and Jenny Frison

Lettering by Troy Peteri

Published by Top Cow Productions

Review by Erika D. Peterman

As the song says, the men all pause when the mysterious Madeline walks into the room, and even before things begin to go wrong, it’s obvious that she’s trouble. For starters, she considers love a “weapon” and methodically breaks down the way chemicals dictate passion and relationships. As Madeline spins a sketchy tale of romantic woe to a clueless but smitten suitor, you know the guy is going to live to regret this night.

Oh, well. His regret is the reader’s gain in Asset #1, a sexy story of deception and double-crosses. Writer Filip Sablik makes Madeline a savvier, 21st Century Mata Hari, and the intrigue is especially thick because it’s not entirely clear who she is. Her secret agent cred couldn’t be more obvious (or impressive), but Sablik doesn’t reveal her origin or the scope of her mission. Early in the story, Madline is confronted by an acquaintance who has as many questions as we do: What’s she doing in Washington, D.C.? What’s her angle? Sablik’s tale is so juicy and entertaining that I was ready to dive immediately into a second installment for some answers.

David Marquez’s illustrations are seriously good, and he makes Madeline equal parts alluring and deadly. One sequence, which portrays some foot-to-face combat in a Metro station, is impressively constructed and great fun to look at. The choreographed fight scene is a comic book staple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make it genuinely exciting. Marquez pulls that off, and I always appreciate it when characters’ faces are consistent from page to page, no matter their mood. The colors here seem muted, though, which is frustrating considering the comic’s overall sizzle.

Asset seems like it would be most powerful as a limited series, but Sablik may have much more up his sleeve than this first look implies. Judging from the debut, Madeline’s trail of pheromones, broken hearts and fractured limbs is one you’ll want to follow.


Detective Comics #869

Written by David Hine

Art by Scott McDaniel, Andy Owens and Guy Major

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Zack Kotzer

Click here for preview

In its third chapter of its "Imposters" arc, Detective Comics finally begins to show its true colours. The feud between desperate Bat-fans and gas huffing Joker savants ironically sharpens its claws during a ceasefire. Themes and perspectives are finally beginning to come out of the shadows, and while before there was simply madness, there is now some disturbing clarity. While the reasons for the urban contra were staged, the reader is beginning to understand why soldiers rally up for such pointless conflict.

David Hine has given Gotham a Joker impersonator. At first he was simply part of a crowd, not the first, not even in recent memory to don the smile, but developing a cult of personality he’s managed to become an interesting threat, able to play the city like a toy, despite being a mere copycat to the actual clown prince of crime. Against his army, or so we are implied to believe, is a counter-rampage by an army of Bat-men, vigilantes inspired by its most vague definition, bearing guns and a self-fuelled vendetta against crime, essentially going on a clown hunt. As Gordon and Batman clean up the mess, awaiting the next one, the reader is taken down certain detours, giving us a vantage point into both the war makers and ready troops.

I’ve always been on the fence about Scott McDaniel’s art, maybe it’s a personal taste but his faces and figures always seem a bit, if not over simplified, too forced into certain postures and gestures. Like characters had been standing like that for hours. Sometimes images can appear as if they were part of tattoo designs he did as a favour to a friend, faces and iconography donated with curved, sharp lines that look more appropriate on a wrestler’s interpretation of a tribal pattern. The crime of giving everyone the same nose isn’t exclusive to him, but for whatever reason hard to ignore in his case. Thankfully Guy Major on colour compliments McDaniel’s work well, using strong tones to lure out Gotham’s brooding sky and the chaotic green that surrounds Joker-related calamity.

There are some specific elements that are starting to bring this arc above the average in this issue. While tropes of vengeful supervillainy victims and deadly inspiration from both good and evil have always had a presence in Batman lore, comics and film alike, writer David Hine is actually letting these factors play out without ironing them into a paper thin proposal. We’ve seen plenty of dress-ups before, sometimes strategic, sometimes paid for, sometimes just obsessions. Now we are seeing characters, police, civilians and lost souls, instead of a series of visual gags.

Among the ravenous fan, some of Gotham’s own police force have clearly taken arms with the Bat-army during their off time. Replacing these images of the soldiers from ‘zealous nerds’ to ‘frustrated authority’ makes for a more interesting tale to the reader, not to mention finally starts to put a face on a force which has treated itself so far cartoonishly alien. We can see some reason, now. Batman discovers the danger in people intoxicating themselves into the perspective of his most dangerous foe, while his own echoes of ‘vengeance’ resonates with individuals, like the exhausted police force, who have also lost so much in the fight against pitiful insanity. It’s a combination of the evidence and the pathos, and it’s how a case should always unravel, instead of the story pitch perpetuating itself. Addiction to nonsense and nonsense of revenge are much more human causes for distress than colourful costume drawers.  Nothing’s meandering and this isn’t a plateau, this seems to be the calm before the storm.

THB: Comics From Mars #2

By Paul Pope

Published by AdHouse Books

Review by Matt Seneca

At this point we're a good decade into Paul Pope's star turn as one of mainstream comics' most popular, iconoclastic voices.  Those copies of Solo 3 and Batman Year 100 have sat on the shelves so long that it's pretty easy to forget Pope was't always the guy he is now -- more or less uniquely for a member of the Big Two star stable (Ed Brubaker aside), Pope came to the mainstream not from fandom or knockoff books or some third-world country full of eager slaves (that's a joke, kinda), but from alt-comix, that other fully-developed strain of American comic book making that runs perpendicular to the superhero stream.  Pope's heroic-action books have always been interesting largely because of his outsider perspective, which encompasses a gently satirical view into the overly po-faced conventions of genre comics, an emphasis on the purity of his art, and an explicit flair for the avant-garde that keeps him searching for new ways of telling old stories.

In the midst of Pope's long, trailblazing stomp through the Diamond-distributed market, though, we have THB, a very occasional (2+ years between this and the last issue) black-and-white single-creator anthology pamphlet in the finest alterna-comix tradition.  And this book makes it abundantly clear that despite the years in the commercial wilderness, Pope hasn't lost a step as a creator of personal, expressive, idiosyncratic stories with no capes or editors in sight.  THB #2 is largely a sift through Pope's library of influences, turning up stones from three continents' worth of comics-making traditions and melding them all together with the rawest, most gorgeous ink line ever to limn Superman's spitcurl.

The book kicks off with "1977," an entry in the ever-popular childhood vignette mini-genre, David Bowie inspirations fading into intense sheets of scribbly Dave McKean/Bill Sienkiewicz linework, something I haven't seen from Pope before.  It's full of childlike wonder and silence, perfectly mirrored in the massive smudge of Frank Miller ink that slams down an ending on it.  Next is "Action!", a metafictive romp reprinted from the venerable French comics magazine Pilote, trading in the iconography and shorthands of at least three different styles of cartoons to culminate in the full-force expression of Pope drawing one of those fight scenes where the panels are just full of stars and bangs and whirls of linework.  It's a great read, starting out in Milo Manara and ending up in comics as noise-rock freakout.   

After that comes my favorite story, "Brief Career," which melds hugely overamplified Jack Kirby dots and zigzags with the aching, tender simplicity of line and shape found in Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the cat who wrote and drew The Little Prince).  The warmth and familiarity of this style mix-up finds a cold counterpoint in the barren, black-filled layouts, which almost feel like a freer version of Charles Burns; and in the story, a simplified EC snap-ending thing that, like the ECs always did, ignores the human for a cynical shock that gets over on the strength of the panels used to frame it.  (In this case, that's a crazy-psychedelic ink whirl consuming an entire planet.)  "2089" follows, a loose, pure-atmospheric "tone poem" comic created as a mirror to the design sensibilities of Pope's 2008 DKNY fashion line.  There's not much story to these four silent pages, but that's so not what they're about -- there's romance here to make your head swim, and what feels like enough beautiful linework to circle the world.

The longest and most genre-influenced story in the comic, "Masked Karimbah," is next -- a ten-page pop-surrealist squiggle through Golden Age framing and exposition, Lucha Libre plot dynamics, and action manga pacing.  The plot is pretty light stuff, more an excuse for Pope to draw some swashbuckling than anything else, but hey -- the dude can really draw some swashbuckling.  It's a lot of fun, some great action blocking humming along over a truly weird story fragment.  Two pretty one-page strips close out the comic, one a pretty silly space-barbarian gag, the other a well-considered homage to Italian psycho-porn artist Guido Crepax, whose immortal linework not even Pope can match, but whose freewheeling, space-filled composition and layouts he pulls off with a burning grace and elan.

Lest this comic sound like nothing more than the sum of many derivations, rest assured it's something much greater.  Pope chops and mixes like an expert DJ, sampling the muscular and the effervescent in a beguiling rhythm all his own.  Beneath that one-of-a-kind brush line (gorgeously reproduced, I might add, on pages that make me wish the bigger houses would step up their solid-black line repro game), all the artists going into this book come out reconsidered as steps toward the one thing: Paul Pope comics art.  Only a master at the very top of his craft can play this game this well, dancing nimbly between the medium's all-time greats -- but Pope makes it look easy, reining it all into one world-beating display of sheer style the likes of which we see only once in a blue moon.  Put this one on the short list for single issue of the year.


Franken-Castle #21

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Dan Brereton

Lettering by Joe Caramagna

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

There are certain artists out there who have such a unique visual style that any book they work on is ultimately defined by their contribution. One of those artists is Dan Brereton, whose introduction to Franken-Castle happens to be the swan-song of the entire misunderstood run. Whether or not you like this book is ultimately a matter of taste, but make no mistake: This is a surprisingly bold issue, with two creators really stretching outside of the tried-and-true to create a striking exit for perhaps the craziest Marvel move in recent years.

For me, it was almost jarring to see Brereton's work, given the stylized pencilwork I typically see in much of my weekly haul. The exaggerated, triangular eyes and sharp eyebrows were initially a turn-off, and I'll be the first to say that Brereton's action sequences felt a little too static -- when he showed Frank before or after a kill, it looked particularly iconic and downright murderous, but in medias res moments like Elsa Bloodstone kicking Frank felt a little unnatural in its composition. But then it hit me: That's not the game Brereton's playing. And maybe that's been the whole point of the misunderstood Franken-Castle -- it's way different than anything else you could come up with. And that's when you notice things about Brereton's work -- you see the crazy monster design, the sick, garish oranges and reds and violets, the savagery in Frank Castle's eyes, a mouth that almost seems to bare into fangs.

Of course, part of that unorthodoxy comes to the partnership between the two creators involved. Whereas Brereton is "different" in execution, Rick Remender takes a last hurrah with the monster-themed opus -- while he's been thinking outside the box with the premise and ideas behind this book, the fight-sequence execution feels really similar to what he did with the ordinary human Castle. (Perhaps that's why many people, myself included, didn't always take this book as the brand-new venture that it was.) That said, there are some very fun moments in the fight sequence, as Remender reminds us that he's so smart about kicking ass -- but that said, it's smarter on script than it is in execution, namely because Brereton's big strength is mood rather than fisticuffs. What may disappoint, however, is the transformation of Frank Castle back to his human self -- while perhaps it was wise of Remender to not cause a big crescendo that would polarize fans, it feels like Franken-Castle went out quietly, rather than acting like his hulking patchwork beserker self.

If nothing else, Franken-Castle #21 lives up to everything this series was -- it's unorthodox, it's different, and it should get a lot of people talking about the merits of the execution alone. Is it something you'll like if you love rock-solid continuity-laced fist-pumping triumphs? No. Is it something you'll like if you're all about ultra-styled, super-composed pencil work? No. But it is a book that invites you -- or invited you, I should say -- to try something new. And now that Frank is going back to his old ways, it almost feels like the fans ganged up on this resurrected comics monster. Wasn't this publishing industry big enough for the likes of Franken-Castle? Maybe that's how he'll be remembered in life, not death -- this was a monster who we never appreciated, not until we lost him.

The Example

Written by Tom Taylor

Art by Colin Wilson

Published by Gestalt Publishing

Review by Jeff Marsick   

I was considering making this review a single word, but didn't figure an interjection like 'wow' would do it enough service.  Most people would probably not even give this book a second glance, given that it's black and white, weighs all of eleven pages, and is produced by some company no one's ever heard of, which is a shame.  The thing of it is, this book should be used in writing classes everywhere, and should be the primary example (no pun intended) for aspiring comic writers to reference when trying to learn how to write dramatic and compelling dialogue.

Two people are on a train platform:  the woman, Sam, has been a resident for a half hour, and Chris, a business type, has logged three-quarters of one.  Their train due in is ten, now fifteen, now twenty-five minutes late.  Small talk typical of disgruntled passengers ensues, and Sam postulates that it's a sort of game-of-chicken that the trains play where as soon as one would-be rider leaves in disgust, the train will arrive.  It's a boredom alleviator, railway style.  And sure enough, someone from the platform leaves.  But…

He left his briefcase behind.  Right there.  In the center of the platform, clear as day and in the great wide open.

What follows is not only arguably (and I will if pressed) some of the best dialogue written in comics, but some of the best composition of the sequential medium.  Each page is a block of nine panels, where said briefcase is the central character, sitting in Paul Lynde's favorite spot, with the dialogue as a framing device.  In this post-9/11 era, anyone who's done time in our country's subterranean transport system can understand and appreciate what terror a lone briefcase can instill.  And with the turn of each page, the center square gets subtly bigger, indicative of the stakes-raising with each passing minute.

Now, you may think, "You're telling me that eleven pages of yakking about a briefcase is great?  Really?  That's Bendis on any given day."  Except it's not.  This isn't banal back and forth for the sake of filling space, nor is the reader fed fiberless trivia about each character.  We learn what we need from what they say and are quickly drawn to turn the page as Tom Taylor expertly winds up the tension to a climax that will have you wincing as you turn to the final page.

It's a book that tastes like Mamet, Beckett, or maybe even Frayn.  And it's funny that I mention these Broadway masters because that's what I thought as I read this:  "What a fantastic play this would be."  Turns out I was on to something, since The Example is the comic adaptation of Mr. Taylor's ten-minute play of the same name, that has won awards and been performed across the globe from Edinburgh to Sydney (I learned this on Mr Taylor's credit page after reading it).

Gestalt is an Australian company, and if the rest of their line is as compelling as this tiny one-shot, I might become their biggest fan. The Example is fantastic storytelling in a compact form and should be in everyone's pull file.

Pellet Reviews!

Artifacts #2 (Published by Top Cow; Review by Amanda McDonald; Click here for preview): As someone still relatively new to the Top Cow Universe of characters, I am really digging this book. After an explosive first issue, the second issue pushes the story further along while establishing the relationships among the key players. Sara's sister is dead, her daughter Hope is missing, and it's time to figure out who's going to do something about it. Not all of the parties involved care for each other, but are united in the goal of Hope's return and prevention of the thirteen artifacts being collected. Ron Marz is truly an expert at his craft. This story is paced well, engaging, and his script work allows the talents of the artists involved to really shine. I know that at my LCS, this book is bringing readers back on board to the Top Cow Universe, and I hope it is at yours as well.

Ryder On The Storm #1 (Published by Radical; Review by Jeff Marsick):  Radical is still the best value for your buck, and this one is over fifty pages for just shy of a Lincoln.  David Hine writes a story about a paranormal private-eye named Ryder who hunts demons while struggling to keep his own contained (literally).  Ryder, a sort of Kolchak-meets-Harry Dresden mash-up, is called in by a mysterious femme fatale to investigate a bizarre suicide which, naturally, leads to discovering that there's another two-thirds of the iceberg that you just can't see on the surface.  The book is more tell than show, with Ryder leaning heavy enough on the narrative to slow the book a little too much but the real problem is that he's upstaged by demon hunter Charles Monk in the closing pages of the issue.  This is a series that will probably work better when collected in a trade format.  If you want to get your demons on in single issues, your better bet is Radical's Driver For The Dead.

Okko: The Cycle of Air #3 (Published by Archaia; Review by Lan Pitts): I went into this book blindly, knowing little to nothing about the franchise. As a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I knew I'd be drawn to something of this nature. Boy, was I right. While there's no way to tell what's been going on in previous installments and the book just sort of happens, but once it gets going, it gets going. Some parts of the dialog seem a bit forced and out of place. The villain of the story, the demon hunter Kubban Kiritsu, is the most fleshed-out by comparison. The art by Hub and Emmanual Michalak is absolutely gorgeous that flows wonderfully on the page. There's an intense battle scene that just moves as smooth as a Japanese ink brush and the colors are just dynamite. If you can find the other two previous installments, please do, because if you're anything like me who is enamored with oriental mysticism and Samurai history, you'll love this series.

The Incredibles #14 (Published by BOOM! Studios; Review by Lan Pitts; Click here for preview): If you aren't picking up this book for yourself, or for a young reader trying to get into comics, for SHAME! Landry Walker's snappy character work and dialog is pure aces. While there is typecast as a mere "kids" book, it packs a lot of punch. Ramanda Kamarga and Marcio Takara give us some amazing art, with a minimalist style that delivers time and time again. The visuals come across as crisp and clean as you can get and convey each of the characters' powers and abilities. A great book that is a mix of adventure, fun, and a hint of danger.

TV Shot!

No Ordinary Family

Created by Greg Berlanti and Jon Harmon Feldman

Featuring Michael Chiklis, Julie Benz, Kay Panabaker, Jimmy Bennett, and Romany Malco

Filmed by ABC

Review by Teresa Jusino

With Marvel in the throes of The Heroic Age, and DC Brightening its Days, superhero stories have become a lot less cynical. No Ordinary Family, which premiered on ABC two weeks ago, takes that change to television.

At first glance, No Ordinary Family could seem like a live-action The Incredibles. It’s the story of the Powells, an ordinary family that develops extraordinary abilities after surviving a plane crash together. It begins with Jim, the family patriarch and a police sketch artist, worrying that the family has grown apart. Stephanie, mother and a biologist and researcher at a company called Global Tech, is all about her career and often has no time for the family as she’s constantly running around to meetings, leaving the kids – JJ and Daphne – to lean more on their dad for support.

It is here that the series shows how extraordinary it is. What struck me most is that this is a television show that actually dares to show American society how it really is for a lot of people. In the US, there are currently more women than men in the work force. More women are entering college than men, and it’s a more acceptable fact of life that it will be the wife who works while Dad focuses more on the kids. It ‘s refreshing to see this reflected on television. Interesting that we often get our truest pictures of real life on fantasy shows.

The appeal of the show goes beyond that. Several friends of mine have called the show “hokey,” but it wasn’t said as a criticism. They just weren’t sure what to make of the show’s earnestness. It’s not something our ironic generation is necessarily used to. Yet they all hesitated to call it “bad”, as do I, because I think that we’re all a bit sick of irony at the moment. Sure there are great visual effects and cool-looking powers on display, but  No Ordinary Family is a family show first and a superhero story second. It’s about a family that loves each other, and so lacks the brooding tone that afflicted shows like Heroes. It’s a nice change of pace.

I’ve heard some complaint about the fact that each of the family member’s powers directly relates to a problem they were having (ie: Mom doesn’t have enough time for her family, so she develops super-speed. Son has a learning disability, so he develops super intelligence), but this points to what could be some great storytelling coming up. It says to me that you can’t look at the flash of the superpowers without looking at the people. It points to the show being character-focused, and I’d be curious to see what happens to their powers as they resolve their personal issues. Will they only have their abilities until they sort out their family’s dysfunctions? And if that’s the case, will they sacrifice family harmony for the sake of keeping their superpowers?

Intriguing, too, is the fact that the show immediately introduces others like the Powells in the first episode. “Did you really think you were the only ones?” a mysterious villain who can appear and disappear asks Jim as they fight in a parking lot. They’re not wasting any time in building a wider world in which to tell their story.

No Ordinary Family owes a lot of its success to its cast. Jim is played by Michael Chiklis – you know, the badass from The Shield! Stephanie is played by Julie Benz – freaking DARLA from Buffy and Angel! Despite their dark pedigrees, Chiklis and Benz are believably sweet and devoted to each other. Chiklis plays a sensitive father without seeming like a wimp, and Benz plays a career mom without seeming like a frigid harpy. These shouldn’t be remarked upon as extraordinary feats, but with television so often succumbing to stereotypes and cliches, they really are. Kudos should also go to Kay Panabaker as Daphne. As the lone voice of uncertainty in a family that’s kind of excited to have superpowers, she has a difficult role, but she manages to be a cautious voice without whining, which I liked a lot.

Greg Berlanti and Jon Harmon Feldman have given us a refreshing new show in No Ordinary Family. Hopefully they won’t squander the new vibe they’re bringing to the table, but use it to create some original, quality stories for television. They certainly have the potential to do just that.

What were your favorite books this week?  

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