Best Shots Extra: ASSASSIN'S CREED, T.H.U.N.D.E.R.

We usually only do one or two of the Best Shots Extra, but this was a huge week of #1s. For that, we decided to give you nearly a whole extra column, with three #1s (and one #2) that show off different takes on what comic books are all about. Thanks to guest reviewers Lucas Siegel (our fearless Editor and video game expert here at Newsarama) and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. addict Vinnie Bartilucci for their help!


Assassin's Creed: The Fall #1

Written by Cameron Stewart and Karl Kerschl

Art by Karl Kerschl and Cameron Stewart

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Lucas Siegel

As a casual fan of the Assassin's Creed franchise (I've played most of the first game, some of the second), the thing that really drives me to it is the story. As a history buff, the little bits of history interwoven into these epic tales of Assassins versus Templars, and the constant back-and-forth from historical figure to present-ish-day hero is exciting, and a tremendous story telling mechanism.

The same is used in the comic book, which bucks the trend of most video game comics by telling a wholly original story with wholly original characters. That is a surprising move, and a great one for both fans of the franchise and people who have never heard of Assassin's Creed. Everything you need to know about the premise is presented in this first issue; there are Assassins and Templars, and they've been at war for centuries.

This story takes a (new) Assassin in the past, Nikolai, who is near the turn of the 20th Century in Russia. The story follows the AC formula, bouncing to a punk kid in the late 20th Century who doesn't know yet that he has a connection to this world of assassins.

The writing of the story reaches into history for its settings, with actual events no being "assassin-ized." It's a fun way to bring a lot more weight to a story that would otherwise be fairly basic. I don't mean that in a bad way- Nikolai's story has to have a beginning, and I did care about him from nearly the first page. His life is strangely identifiable for a Russian assassin in the late 1800s. The real surprise is how intriguing Daniel's story is. By all counts, he should be an incredibly unlikable guy. He's generally a jerk, and a drunk, and doesn't seem to want to change at all. Somehow though, his story is at once predictable and unpredictable; you can tell where it's going, but not how he's going to get there, and that last page slams his story right into your face.

The part of this book people will be talking about though is the art. Two talented artists on their own, Kerschl and Stewart have developed a hybrid style here that can't be attributed to one or the other. The ultra-expressive faces of Kerschl, the quick action beats of Stewart, and panel layouts that vastly eclipse anything either of them have done before. There are these subtle insets and transitions that bring them both to a new standard, and tell the psychological story better than any words can. While based on a video game franchise, this is something that can only truly work in a comic book, and that makes it oh so much better. The color work by Nadine Thomas stands out in those insets, too, giving us a clear idea of whose perspective we're in at any given moment, and lending a subtlety to the dive into insanity (clarity?) of our characters.

Ubisoft made a bet with themselves- give two talented creators free reign to tell a unique comic book story set in their universe. And that's exactly what happened. While these characters fit into the video game world (and would be right at home in a game of their own), this part of their stories can only be told in this format, the comic book. That's what every creator should really be trying to do, tell a story that can only be told as a comic book. For it to be a 'video game comic' just makes it all the sweeter.


Ultimate Comics Thor #2

Written by Jonathan Hickman

Art by Carlos Pacheco, Dexter Vines and Edgar Delgado

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

For the first issue of Ultimate Comics Thor, Jonathan Hickman illustrated the world of Asgard in the Ultimate cosmology. But in the sophomore issue of the series, I think he does something even more compelling: He shines a light on the character of the God of Thunder, raising the stakes tremendously by making Thor such a compelling lead.

Now, for me, the character of Thor has always been an acquired taste, a tightrope walk between Shakespearean grandeur and some of the more excessive (and inaccessible) flights of Kirbyian superhero flights of fancy. The fireworks are great, but who is this guy, you know?

Well, Hickman has the advantage of a relatively clean slate here, thanks to the Ultimate Marvel Universe -- and so he's able to play up the likeability factor of Thor by exploring his relationships with the other characters. Some of Thor's most resonant stories have delved into his role not as a warrior or prince, but as a brother and son -- in particular, seeing Thor and Odin share a moment over the power and importance of Mjolnir almost evokes the kind of heart that Superman would have with Pa Kent. Sure, Odin might be an imperious, all-powerful being, but the tenderness is apparent when he says "I'd have there be nothing but truth between father and son."

I wouldn't be doing this book justice if I didn't discuss another of Hickman's set pieces -- namely, a battle royale between the three sons of Odin (and Volstagg the Voluminous for good measure). Placing these generals as "The Four Winds" of Asgard is a nice touch that gives a little bit of context to the sprawling mythological hierarchy, and through this little bit of "play-acting," Hickman also really fleshes out how Thor interacts with Balder and Loki. With Loki in particular, Hickman has given a nice sense of humor to clash against what we know will be a menacing future, but it also mirrors Matt Fraction's new wrinkle of characterization in the main Thor book, a wrinkle that helps illustrate Thor's humanity underneath all that godlike power: He loves his brother. Throughout it all, no matter what Loki does, it's still family.

But even with Hickman's talent for balancing the epic scale with the human drama, this book doesn't quite hit you as hard as it could -- and I think that has a lot to do with the art. Pacheco certainly brings a solidness to all the characters, but at the same time, the risktaking and innovation that you typically associate with a Hickman book (look at S.H.I.E.L.D. or Red Mass for Mars as an example) isn't there. In this issue, Pacheco also has a little bit of inconsistency to the characters, particularly one sequence where it looks like Loki has smacked the stubble clean off Thor's face. It's far from accurate to call Pacheco a bad artist, but the straightforwardness to it all kind of flies in the face of the purpose of the Ultimate Universe -- it's to take chances, to relaunch old franchises for a new generation, and perhaps most importantly, to find the new trends and new superstars of tomorrow.

And for those who decide to purchase this comic digitally, well, I will say that Marvel made a smart move matching the right creators with the right platform -- Hickman manages to pack in a lot of plot, and reading it panel-by-panel rather than page-by-page really draws out the story, and Pacheco's clean and uncomplicated linework does wonders for readability on an iPhone screen. With some compelling characterwork and more than one twist for our heroes, there's a lot to like about Ultimate Comics Thor #2, which proves that creative lightning can strike twice.

Wildstorm Presents #1

Written by Allan Warner, Geoff Johns, Paul Jenkins, Brian Azzarello, Ed Brubaker, Judd Winick, Patton Oswalt, Marc Andreyko and Jill Thompson

Art by Carlos D'Anda, Jason Pearson, Georges Jeanty, Brian Stelfreeze, Doug Mahnke, Whilce Portacio, Amanda Conner, Richard Corben and Tony Akins

Published by Wildstorm

Review by David Pepose

I'll be honest, when I saw Wildstorm Presents #1, I wasn't sure what to make of it. In the recent Vertigo Resurrected, the publisher had a never-before-seen set piece -- namely, Warren Ellis's "Shoot" feature for Hellblazer, which was shelved after the Columbine Shootings -- that justified the release of these archived materials. But what about Wildstorm?

Then it hit me -- with Wildstorm's impending demise, the imprint has everything to justify. The verdict might be in, but it's a matter of face -- it's about telling the audience, what did the Wildstorm franchise have to offer? And what will you be missing out on once it's gone?

And in so doing, I'm a little surprised by the 96 pages that the Wildstorm crew picked. Perhaps it has to do with securing rights, or maybe it was making sure that everything else got out -- because, hey, as long as Wildstorm is in business, they've still got some work to do. But the result for Wildstorm Presents is a deeply schizophrenic read -- one that starts off wonderfully, with an eclectic mix of talent and stories, but midway through, that potential is lost, overpowered by multiple renditions of a one-note superhero joke.

The issue starts off on a strong note, with a reprinted Allan Warner and Carlos D'Anda story about the assassin known as Deathblow. Don't know who that is? No problem -- you got all you need on the cover, he's an assassin for the military. While Warner doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel by analyzing the guilt Deathblow carries for all those he's killed, he and D'Anda more than make up for it in sheer stylishness. Watching Deathblow hallucinate is really stunning to look at, especially with the colorwork of Carrie Strachan -- there's an image of him falling into a mouth built entirely of vengeful corpses, and it's a great way to get a good first impression.

And it's on that note that the Wildstorm crew really surprises you -- by pulling out an old story from Geoff Johns and Jason Pearson from Eye of the Storm. Again, don't know the characters? No problem -- Johns' story, while a little rough with some of the "edgy" dialogue, tells you everything you need to know abotu a pack of time-traveling killers, off to take out any target for the right price. Pearson in particular is one of those artists that doesn't get nearly enough credit in the Big Two, with his cartoony lines and immaculate composition (seriously, watching a guy slice up a cigarette with his talons never looked so cool). Combine that with a cute, quirky, all-too-human story from Paul Jenkins and Georges Jeanty about the Engineer and her (lack of) love life, as well as a gorgeously poetic, black-white-and-red Zealot tale carried by Brian Stelfreeze, and you're thinking, "this book is the real deal. This is the sort of stylishness that Wildstorm brought to the industry."

And that's where the book starts to go downhill.

Whereas the first half of Wildstorm Presents bounced around from character to character, from style to style, the second half of the book focuses on Masks: Too Hot for TV. Picture a spoof of the show Cops, lampooning some of the ridiculousness of superhero tropes, and you've got this series in a nutshell.

Here's the problem -- you can change the channel once you've seen enough Cops. But devoting 40 pages to what is essentially the same joke is a dealbreaker, making it a tough sell to pony up $7.99. Seeing Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke before their megaselling days on Captain America and Green Lantern is a cool artifact, and Judd Winick, out of everyone, makes the funniest impression with a twist on the Superman mythos, exploring what would happen if Ma and Pa Kent had the redneck factor cranked to 11. But even top names like Amanda Conner or Patton Oswalt or Jill Thompson, even their individual contributions get drowned out by the same joke: "Man, look how dumb those guys from Cops are. What if we put them in a superhero outfit?"

Which is a shame. There's plenty to like about Wildstorm, and their contributions to the industry -- perhaps best manifested with the widescreen storytelling pioneered by the Authority, or even the tone of hyperviolence and cynicism they helped usher in -- are often overlooked.  If superhero art and capes-meets-Cops sounds up your alley, then you might enjoy Wildstorm Presents #1. I on the other hand, found it a bit of a bittersweet read -- you can tell, just from the first half of the book, how much promise their catalog had, and it's difficult to understand why they spend so much time looking at a property that grates so much.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS Finally Make Debut
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS Finally Make Debut

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1

Written by Nick Spencer

Art by CAFU

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Vinnie Bartilucci, Guest Reviewer

Nick Spencer has fooled us all.  Betraying the promise of the colorful costumes on the Frank Quitely and Darwyn Cooke covers, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 is a full-bore espionage comic, replete with double-agents, triple-crosses, back-room dealings, hastily-prepared sales pitches, and a near-faceless organization treating its staff as more disposable as so many paper napkins.  There’s barely any super-heroing going on at all; the majority of the narrative takes place at a rooftop lunch and in a windowless boardroom.

And I couldn’t be happier.

The original Tower run of the series spent most of its time on the Superhero side of the equation.  Nick, however, has set T.H.U.N.D.E.R. up as a covert organization that has been fighting the evil hordes of SPIDER for decades, by the proverbial Any Means Necessary. The amazing inventions that give the titular Agents their power have passed from person to person, leaving the wearers dead and/or dying.  A new “asset” of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. revealed in this issue is truly horrifying. SPIDER is gently re-imagined as a cabal with cells so deeply buried they don’t know of each others’ existence.  Far closer to modern terrorists than the old school money-mad baddies of SPECTRE and Thrush.

The story is told in various levels of flashback, jumping between modern day to approximately a year ago, starting with the death, liberation and re-capture (not necessarily in that order) of three Agents, and ends with the news that new Agents were recruited, and that they may already be dead before the story is told.  It’s damned difficult to get an audience to care about characters you already know are doomed, but this issue accomplishes the mission expertly, leaving you with an overwhelming feeling of “What do you MEAN ‘To be Continued’?”

For all my personal squee-age about the history of the original run being part of the continuity, you don’t need to know dicky-bird about it to get into this book. New characters are introduced who walk you through the concepts and intricacies of the organization, and make it very clear this is not an operation with a great deal of respect for their fellow man.  You don’t learn everything at once, and you’re not meant to.  It’s quite clear that even the ruling council of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. don’t quite know where all the cards are on the table.

Why-isn’t-he-a-big-name-yet artist CAFU has upped his game once again, jumping his art another step up the ladder.  His lines are white-room clean and razor-sharp.  The faces of even the nameless board members are distinct and detailed, and the odd double-page spreads tell a great story, and not at the expense of being too gosh-wow awesome.  Even the scenes in the aforementioned meeting room are innovatively laid out.  I thought I recognized at least a couple tributes to Wally Wood’s famous “22 panels that always work” ( in the layouts as well.  CAFU started as a good artist, and has only improved in his brief time at DC.

Nick and company have gotten this book out of the gate with a jump.  He’s yet to write a book that follows established expectations, and this is no different.  It Is Not What You Were Expecting.  It deserves your time and attention.

Did you read any of these books yet? What'd you think?

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