Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the Best Shots Team! We've got books from DC, Marvel, Vertigo, Archaia and more, and we've got plenty of other back-issue reviews at the Best Shots Topic Page. And now, let's let Jennifer kick off today's column, with the latest mutant event in Age of X...
Age of X: Alpha #1
Written by Mike Carey
Art by Mirco Pierfederici, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Carlo Barberi, Walden Wong, Antonio Fabela, Paco Diaz, Matt Milla, Paul Davidson, and Brian Reber
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Jennifer Smith
Mike Carey knows how to write horror. As a veteran of Vertigo projects, it's no surprise that he's honed his ability to write the most skin-crawling, spine-tingling moments of horror and despair, the kinds of things that are so uniquely awful that you 'd never think about how bad they would be until you read about them in one of his books. In Age of X: Alpha, Carey puts that talent on display, and it's that horror aspect that lifts the story above the level of a run-of-the-mill X-Men dystopian alternate universe.
This issue, as a prologue to the upcoming crossover, isn't a narrative introduction as much as it is a collection of vignettes explaining the backstories of familiar mutant characters in this new universe. The Guthries, Sam and Paige, discover the corpses of their parents and siblings after a roundup of mutant families. Kavita Rao develops, and then helps destroy, the mutant cure, becoming a mutant ally and essentially destroying Wolverine in the process. And Magneto manages to lift an entire city to escape imprisonment and continue his resistance movement. But perhaps the most viscerally horrifying moment of the comic, more so even than the Guthries' tragedy, is the backstory of Scott Summers, who had been kidnapped and locked up in Alcatraz to be used as a human guillotine for mutants sentenced to death. As Arcade, the warden, pulls off Scott's mask and lets loose his beams on the condemned mutants — having cut off his eyelids to take away what little control he might once have had — I felt my stomach turn even more painfully than it had while reading certain scenes in this week's more overtly grisly Uncanny X-Force.
But horrific as the scene may have been, it served to raise the stakes in what otherwise, so far, is a familiar story — a story of a world where mutant persecution has gone much farther than it has in the regular timeline, where mutants are sterilized and put into camps and hunted down to be put to death. As Carey explains in a note at the end of the comic, Age of X is meant to be the kind of story that starts in medias res, dropping the reader into the tale and revealing the exposition bit by bit along the way. This introduction is true to that form, full of references to past events in this universe that will be explained in time, like a mysterious inciting incident in Albany and some kind of encounter with the Phoenix. But until those aspects are revealed, this story isn't all that different from the myriad dystopian futures various X-Men characters have come from before, or Chris Claremont's much-praised Days of Future Past universe.
This isn't to say that going back to the well is inherently a bad thing. X-Men stories have always been strongest when they've tackled the X-Men-as-minority metaphor head-on, and dystopias like this one are often the best way to extend that metaphor. It's too early to tell, however, if this story will live up to the stories of the past, or distinguish itself in any particular way. What we have instead, with this issue, is a bit of very strong writing from Mike Carey and great visuals from a number of different artists with wildly different styles, from Gabriel Hernandez Walta's appropriately unsettling cartoonish art on the Cyclops (Basilisk) story to Paco Diaz' more standard superhero style on the story about Kavita Rao and Wolverine. As a standalone issue, Age of X: Alpha is certainly worth picking up, and I can only hope the crossover that follows will live up to the example it sets and the intriguing story teases it provides.
Detective Comics #873
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jock and David Baron
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
While I've really enjoyed the creative landscape that Grant Morrison and company have provided since "Batman: Reborn", the one drawback I've noted is this: What about Dick Grayson? Who is this guy? How does his character change the Mantle of the Bat, and how does it change him back?
It's been a while — even to the point where Bruce Wayne is back and globetrotting for business — but I think Scott Snyder finally starts digging into that untapped potential with this issue of Detective Comics. While I found the previous couple of issues a little bit slow with the plot build-up, this issue brings some real flourishes that show what this book can do.
A lot of that comes from a running start. The first half of this book is some of the best character work I've seen on Dick Grayson since Chuck Dixon. The best kind of action is where the slick acrobatics and martial arts play window dressing to the unique mindset working underneath, so Scott Snyder's framing of an escape sequence to Dick's childhood trapeze work is a really smart move. That said, there is one big hiccup to all this, which killed a lot of tension — namely, how Dick Grayson moves from a really tight death trap into the arms of safety. While the big confrontations aren't quite as fully fleshed as they could be, the character beats are what can make this book great.
Now, as far as the art goes, I personally am not the biggest fan of Jock's work — I think his extremely sharp edges mask a real lack of detail — but there are plenty of other people out there who will find this right up their alley. The best part of this book, as far as the art goes, has to be a hallucinatory sequence where panels begin to bend, and colorist David Baron unleashes some hellish greens and reds that flicker across the page. But the end of the book doesn't really play to Jock's strengths — having an armor-wearing Batman means the body language and moody shadows aren't there, and the design for Guiborg's final transformation doesn't really evoke fear in me.
But back to what I was saying earlier — the character. I think, if Detective Comics is really determined to focus on that analytical side of Dick Grayson, Snyder and company don't have to just come up with clues that are logical but hard to find, but they have to imbue the characters with a likeability that makes you care about their pursuit. And in that regard, I think this arc might have had it a little backwards — because the sheer likeability of Dick Grayson is finally coming into the spotlight after issues of exposition. If Snyder can keep showing what makes our man in Gotham different than the others donning the cape and cowl, it'll make Detective Comics a shining star in the greater Batman constellation.
Chaos War #5
Written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Art by Khoi Pham, Tom Palmer, Bob McLeod and Sunny Gho
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
Is this really the end... for the Incredible Hercules?
Thankfully — and SPOILERS ON, by the way — the answer is no, as the ever-talented Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente will be reuniting on a new ongoing featuring the almighty Herc. Which is a good thing, in my mind — because despite the push Marvel has given Chaos War, this last issue lived up to its name for all the wrong reasons.
With so much going on with so many characters, it took a number of readings to really parse through all the tie-in beats and really get to the heart of this story. And in certain ways, I'm not sure how much of that is Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente's fault — likely they had their own directives, as far as what had to be done and what couldn't be done in this final arc, which would likely explain why Thor is front-and-center on the cover, and why he had to have some big moments in what otherwise should be Herc's shining moment.
That's not to say there aren't some funny moments to this book. Having a double-page splash of Herc versus the Chaos King and referring to him as "the bazillion foot tall glowing bearded guy in the skirt" is one of those moments that have made Incredible Hercules such a pleasure to read in the past. But there's some definite streamlining to be done here, with Galactus, the Hulks, even Alpha Flight getting page time that I think could have been better spent focusing on Hercules, sidekick Amadeus Cho and Athena, the mastermind behind Herc's journey all along.
I think the other problem here is the artwork. Having Khoi Pham return to iHerc after helping kick off the surprise hit is a really nice gesture, but the expressiveness — and more importantly, the page design to get all this dense storytelling across — isn't there. In particular, the Chaos King, well, kind of looks just like a ninja version of Venom — hardly the kind of unspeakable, unwavering foe that you really fear for, you know? And I'm not sure if it's just based on his page design, or if letterer Simon Bowland just didn't get the gag, but there's a joke about the Chaos King's haiku speech that totally falls on its face, because visually the gag wasn't there.
But underneath it all, there really are some good character moments, and the plot has a smart "out," even if it needs a decent amount of prior knowledge to understand. But that's underneath it all. There's not a lot of exposition for people in this issue, and unfortunately, the sprawling nature of this arc I think distracted from what should have been the main point — this is how Hercules comes back from the inescapable and triumphs over the impossible. But that's a hard story to get across when you're busy explaining why Galactus showed up for the party, you know what I mean?
So why am I excited that Hercules will get another go-round with Pak and Van Lente, despite the proclamation that this is "the eighth and final volume"? Because Pak and Van Lente shouldn't have to end their fantastic series on this note. Chaos War was ambitious, but I think its reach exceeded its grasp as far as high-concept and theme, combined with an artist that didn't grab you with the storytelling or the design. I don't like saying that, because I respect the hell out of both writers, and have seen them at their best in previous arcs with this very character. So here's hoping that, with the obligatory big-name team-up event behind us, the newest trials of Hercules will be as incredible as the ones that have come before.
The New York Five #1
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Ryan Kelly and Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Vertigo
Review by Erika D. Peterman
You needn’t have read The New York Four to fall in love with this latest chapter of a thoroughly engrossing coming-of-age story, though I highly recommend that you do. It will give you a much greater appreciation of the complex characters writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly introduced so memorably: Lona, Merissa, Ren and Riley, four college freshmen living together in New York City. The bittersweet spirit of that intimate, character-driven series is very much alive in The New York Five, and the narrative doesn’t miss a beat.
Though they are roommates in close quarters, each is struggling with turmoil that is either mysterious or mostly hidden to the others. The implosion of Riley’s reunion with her larger-than-life big sister, Angie, still haunts her, as does the catalyst for their falling out. The void that Angie has left, and Riley’s longing to reconnect, are almost palpable. Lona’s problems are more apparent, manifesting in odd, reclusive behavior that she refuses to explain. What began as frustration over lower-than-expected grades has hardened into something quietly sinister and obsessive.
It’s gratifying to see a fuller picture of the free-spirited Ren and Merissa, the confident bombshell who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world beyond her next date. But Merissa is a great actress, because she’s carrying a family burden that is becoming all but unbearable. Ren’s Achilles’ heel is unhealthy relationships, and she seems poised to go down another stretch of bad road. The fifth element, so to speak, is Olive, a penniless waif who has a brief but warm exchange with Merissa on a random street corner. We don't see much of Olive here, but that shared moment is intriguing.
The New York Five isn't all angst and gloom, however. The book also captures the exhilaration of a certain kind of young adulthood; the newly minted independence and the promise of a new adventure around every corner.
Wood is an excellent storyteller, and he gives each character a distinctive, authentic voice — as well as an occasional, personal soundtrack ranging from “internal monologue” to bands like The National. Kelly’s striking illustrations are perfect for this book, as is the bold black-and-white palette. Every image in this book, from a pulsing nightclub, to a cityscape, to a close-up of Lona’s high-heeled boot, is a visual treat.
The New York Five is likely to become the kind of comic that people become evangelical about, and for good reason. It’s easily the best of many books I pulled last week, and I suspect any discerning reader who gives it a try, regardless of gender or age bracket, will be hooked.
Written by Victor Gischler
Art by Chris Bachalo and Tim Townsend
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
Watch out, readers — the X-Men are getting their second wind, thanks to Chris Bachalo picking up the artistic baton.
The result, of course, is like night and day — while this seventh issue takes a relative breather story-wise after the vampire-laden first six issues, the visuals really hit you in between the eyes to show that this book means business.
What's funny about all this is that, as far as Chris Bachalo goes, this book isn't nearly as avant-garde as some of more recent work, particularly with the colors. But you know something? If this is Bachalo's method of "mainstreaming" his artwork, it still stands head and shoulders above much of the rest of his competition. As he draws a sequence of the X-Men performing various heroic duties across San Fran, Bachalo really brings a nice degree of expressiveness and design to his layouts. So often I think artists forget about backgrounds and foregrounds, but Bachalo doesn't skimp — there's one image of Colossus standing over a pile of bank robbers that's just gorgeous, and really just teeming with details.
But let's talk about the writing a little bit. The reason why bringing the X-Men to San Francisco worked so well is because it forced our band of merry mutants to really interact with the world around them, and so it's really refreshing to see Victor Gischler explore the day-to-day heroism and duties that I think events can sometimes overlook. There's a real snappiness in his structure as he jumps from hero to hero — and while I'm not sure if these quick hits necessarily tell you a lot about the characterization, there is that "wow" factor from just seeing how Colossus, Wolverine, Angel or Iceman might differ in their methods to serve and protect.
That said, this book does have some warts to it. The first is a matter of advertising — we've been seeing teases of Spider-Man joining up with the X-Men since this series was announced in the first place, and, unfortunately, having him on the cover of this issue feels like a no-win situation: You're either disappointed that he's only on one page, or you're just disappointed that the cliffhanger of the book is spoiled before you read Page One. And while the quick policing efforts are just fun to read, I think Gischler could have kept some of his other ideas in the oven a little bit longer — things like naming "The Computer" or injecting a little bit more personal conflict might have really gone a long way to hooking you beyond the visuals.
But as they say, comics are a visual medium, and X-Men has leveled up in a big way in that regard. Because of the muscle Bachalo provides, this book gets the nearest thing to a get-out-of-jail-free card as far as breaking the rules of tight panels and sharp, cartoony linework — it goes without saying that this issue is already the best of the bunch. And with a certain webslinger ready to inject some feel-good cross-property buzz for the readership next month, it looks like X-Men is only on its way up.
The Killer, Vol. 3: Modus Vivendi
Written by Matz
Art by Luc Jacamon
Published by Archaia Entertainment
Review by Jeff Marsick
When The Killer debuted a few years ago on this side of the pond (it was originally a French comic book, published by Casterman) I raved about it, putting it on par with the nigh-peerless Criminal. This wasn’t just a book about a hitman where we the reader hitch a ride for some voyeuristic kicks, rather it was an introspective examination of an unnamed assassin, probing deep into his heart and mind to see what made him tick. The result was compelling and engaging (not to mention addicting) hardboiled noir that ran twelve wholly satisfying issues.
He took some time off (as a character and a book), and then the Killer came back. Bored with time spent away building a family with a wife and son, Archaia’s man-with-no-name has returned to the comfortable fold of his profession. Jobs come, each prosecuted with his typical efficiency and professionalism. But when asked to bump off a nun, the Killer begins to question the reasons why. Connecting the dots, our guy strings together a larger plot, one involving oil, Cuba, Venezuela and the United States. It’s one big global chess match and with the first of his new hits, the Killer has unwittingly become a pawn to elements far bigger than him. How he moves now carries important ramifications not only for those hiring him, but for his own welfare. To kill or not to kill, that becomes the question, and that’s unfamiliar territory for a man who didn’t used to care: backstory not important, just pay me, walk away and read about it in the papers.
This volume handles issues one to six of the mini-series and at first blush it’s not quite as good as the dozen issues that came before. Matz is a terrific writer, but he allows the narrative to digress and bump along a little professorially and preachy (such as issue three) at times, like when he’s providing a primer on assassinations and genocide over the years and how countries use one or turn a blind eye to the other to further their own agendas. Other times his words can be just this side of judgmental in the discussions of foreign policies, especially when Cuba and the United States are the topics. It can be a little tough to digest in the single-issue form, but when read in the context of cover-to-cover in a graphic novel, it goes down much smoother in the understanding that this is how the Killer is providing self-therapy, getting to the brass tacks of what it is his kind are meant to accomplish as well as sussing out his own emotions; particularly why he should be caring about his targets beyond whether he’s got clean exit routes and a cleared check.
The series seems to run in third gear and that’s primarily because it’s a lead-in for Volume Four. Modus Vivendi is six issues of moving the players around the board and setting up the endgame. I didn’t feel cheated on that last panel, though. Just the opposite, in fact. Forces conspire to box the Killer into a corner and he’s making alliances and doing what he can to avoid it. He could just walk away from it all, disappear with his family and be done with it. But, like us, he has to see where all of this is leading.
Typical of Archaia’s books, this hardcover is gorgeous and it is a very good read. I would highly recommend, though, that you read the first two volumes of the series before coming into this one. It’ll allow you to appreciate the character better. If the first 12 issues got a "10" from me, this mini-series gets an 8.5 — which still ain’t bad by half. This is probably my favorite series out of Archaia (their Secret History and Okko series are right up there and I can’t recommend those enough, either) and if you’ve got Criminal and Scarlet on your pull lists, you need to get this as well.
New Avengers #8
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Daniel Acuña
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Jennifer Smith
Early in New Avengers #8, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, out for a dinner date, are approached by a waitress intent on taking their order. Luke and Jessica, in the midst of an argument about whether or not Jessica will become a full-fledged superhero again, completely fail to notice her presence, and the waitress grows increasingly frustrated, red anger lines radiating outward from her body. Eventually she gives up entirely, wandering away from the table as word balloons continue to gather like angry clouds above Luke and Jessica's heads.
This is a fantastic sequence, and emblematic of what makes this comic so good. On the one hand we have Daniel Acuña's art, a heavily stylized production that nonetheless manages to capture the nuances of character and emotion, even from the most minor of background characters. His art is a complete package from lines to colors, and it’s truly stunning throughout the issue. Fantastic as regular series artist Stuart Immonen may be, it's comforting to know that New Avengers still manages to attract the best artists in his absence. On the other hand, we have Brian Michael Bendis' dialogue, dialogue that could never be called “sparse,” as the waitress gag metatextually emphasizes. But for an argument this important, and this key to the characterization of the people in question, no other approach would work.
New Avengers #8 feels like the next chapter in the slowly expanding pseudo-sequel to Alias, one of the precious few comic book issues since the end of The Pulse that has focused almost exclusively on Jessica Jones and her relationship with Luke Cage. And that is a very, very good thing. While almost all of Bendis' Marvel work has been fantastic, Alias has always stood out from the crowd, and every time he revisits that story it's a thrill for fans of the series and fans of the Marvel universe alike.
Here, we see a Jessica Jones who has truly come into her own, who has grown from the damaged woman she was into a loving wife and mother, an integral member of the Avengers family, and maybe, just maybe, a real, competent superhero in her own right. She's still afraid, still second-guessing herself and haunted by her past, but she's slowly beginning to realize just how far she's come. When she rips a fire hydrant out of the ground and uses it to save her husband from a Doombot she believes to be Dr. Doom himself, it's a hugely victorious moment, and while Luke feels the need to protect his wife from danger during the fight, it's clear that he also wants her in that battle, wants her to fight alongside him — as “Power Woman” or otherwise. I'll admit that I was unconvinced before this issue that Jessica should go back to the powered life that had so damaged her before. But after seeing her in action, and hearing her yell “Avengers Assemble!” into her phone, I've become as convinced as Luke — and, ultimately, Jessica herself — that the battlefield is where she belongs.
Though this issue is very wordy, some of the best parts are the things that are left unsaid. When Luke interacts with Carol Danvers, Jessica's best friend, it's clear that they've talked about Jessica becoming a superhero before, that Luke went to Carol to get a second opinion from someone who knows his wife as well as he does. It's moments like this, and similar moments when Victoria Hand talks about Tony Stark giggling or Wolverine calls Mockingbird “kid,” that make this universe feel real. The presence of robot doppelgangers and men made out of rock doesn’t negate the fact that the relationships in this comic are fully realized, complex, and utterly believable. In fact, despite the near-exclusive focus on Jessica and Luke in this issue, the sense that the New Avengers are a family, a family with complicated but loving relationships, is just as clear here as it was in the more ensemble-based previous issue.
With hardly any action two issues in a row, some fans might be tempted to drop New Avengers for more high-octane fare. But for me, this book remains Marvel's flagship title, a book that makes superheroes feel like real people without shrouding them under a veil of pessimism. Wherever Bendis takes the plot next, I'll be along for the ride.
Cursed Pirate Girl: The Collected Edition, Vol. 1
Written by Jeremy A. Bastian
Art by Jeremy A. Bastian
Published by Olympian Press
Review by Scott Cederlund
On a quest to find her long lost father, the Cursed Pirate Girl takes us into new and fantastic worlds. Jeremy Bastian has created a world of sword-fighting swordfish, parrots who use fish carcasses as a disguise underwater and the most adorably precocious daughter of a pirate who desperately wants to follow in her father’s footsteps. On her ventures into the unknown, she quite expectantly also disturbs the home life of the local governor, as his young daughter finds herself wishing she was the Cursed Pirate Girl, trying to have her own adventures as her father wines and dines people of power and influence.
In a wild fantasy like this, you would almost expect the first three issues, like those in this collection, to be about world building; more concerned with establishing the people, roles and rules of the world. Bastian deftly sidesteps that by dabbling in fantasy-building, creating a brand new pirate fairytale out of nothing. With Cursed Pirate Girl, Bastian just plunges his audience directly into the adventures of the Cursed Pirate Girl, not raising any questions about the talking pirates or the gigantic headed aristocrats in his story. He doesn’t lay out his world in any way that asks you to accept it or understand it; he just begins his story with those elements and moves forward full speed.
Beginning with his art, resembling more Victorian-era cartoons and engravings than what’s usually seen in a comic book, Bastian fills the page with ornate details and lavish drawings, creating a new and unseen environment in comics. His artwork, bursting with almost ridiculous details and little touches, invites you to accept this comic as something different, something that you need to immerse yourself in and not question. The story is about the Curse Pirate Girl taking a journey to new places to find her father and Bastian’s art pulls you into that journey into the unknown.
Even as the art is a new experience, Bastian creates a world that’s simultaneously old fashioned (or what we’d want a Victorian fantasy world to look like and wonderfully modern. The Cursed Pirate Girl herself is an incredibly modern character, filled with a zest for life and adventure. Bastian takes a pirate story, which is almost always a boy’s story, and makes it a fun and exciting story about a girl on a grand adventure to find her father, to share in his own adventures on the seven seas. The Cursed Pirate Girl does not let anything get to her. When she loses an eye, wearing an eye patch is just a rite of passage for a pirate. As she fails to find her father on one ship, she knows that there are other ships out on the sea that he could possibly be on. Everything that happens is just part of the adventure she has to be on as she searches above and below the sea for some clue of where her could be.
On that search, Bastian fills the book with action and danger around every corner and in every porthole. Bastian fills the books with wonderful characters and fun action. Everything is so fully realized that he does not need to build the world; it’s already there and he’s taking us on a voyage into it, allowing us to discover the wonderful fairy tale that is being written for a new audience. Creating a new fantasy, Bastian shows us in Cursed Pirate Girl: The Collected Edition, Vol. 1 a far more colorful and dangerous time in the world, when the land was just a bit too civilized and the sea was full of danger and intrigue.