Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the rockin' reviews of Best Shots for some Rapid-Fire Reviews! You know the drill — got some quick comments on books from DC, Marvel, Image, Vertigo and IDW! Want more? You got it, over at the Best Shots Topic Page! And now, let's show FDR who's boss, as Jennifer takes a peak at Marvel's latest event, Fear Itself…
Fear Itself #1 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Jennifer Margret Smith; Click here for preview): Massive company-wide crossover events tend to have one thing in common: their first issues hit the ground running, launching the universe into a new status quo and grabbing the readers' attention strongly enough to keep them coming back for the rest of the miniseries. As the newest in the long line of such events, Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen's Fear Itself opens up with the customary bang, setting the plot in motion as new Red Skull Sin gains immeasurable power from an ancient Norse hammer and the Asgardians subsequently decide to leave the planet. But beyond these big moments, Fear Itself #1 is less concerned with shock and awe than with the slow building of unease, rising tensions and small tragedies building up insidiously into something that could spell doom for everyone involved. Fraction's ability to play to those smaller, less tangible emotions is to be commended, and it gives the book an appropriately “fearful” tone without going over the top and hammering his theme home. Fraction has also proven himself, through his work on Uncanny X-Men and Invincible Iron Man, to be one of the best writers at incorporating real-world parallels into his work, and that skill is on display here as he captures the country's disillusioned, doom-saying mood in his depiction of riots, conflict, and the Obama-like characteristics of Steve Rogers. Of course, Fraction's words would be nothing without the art that brings them to life, and this book features possibly the best art team imaginable: Stuart Immonen on pencils, Wade von Grawbadger on inks, and Laura Martin on colors. Martin and von Grawbadger do their customary excellent work, but it's Immonen who really shines. His storytelling is unparalleled, and he has a way of drawing crowd scenes and parties that look real and inhabited, with minor characters interacting in the background and having conversations we wish we could hear. With such a stacked deck of creators, it's almost no wonder that Fear Itself #1 is such a good comic. It accomplishes everything a first issue should and more, and it has this reviewer eager to see what comes next.
Brightest Day #23 (Published by DC Comics; Review by David Pepose; Click here for preview): There are important books… and then there's knock-you-out-of-your-seat books. I'm not quite sure where Brightest Day falls in that spectrum — chances are, you've had the last page spoiled, and for that I feel kind of bad for Geoff Johns, Peter Tomasi and the DC Comics crew as a whole. But that all said and done, this is really a single issue that hinges on pretty much just one page — namely, the return of a character that somehow gets brought up at conventions even more than Wally West or the return of Nightwing. I'd be a lot cooler with it, but looking back on the previous 22 issues of this series… I'm not seeing the set-up, you know? The threat level has escalated so high, so suddenly, that I don't really feel a whole lot of tension — if the threat pops up this abruptly, chances are it'll go away just as fast. Ivan Reis and Joe Prado's artwork, meanwhile, feels just a touch loose in this issue, as we approach the home stretch. While I understand the basic ideas behind this issue — and you will too just by looking at the cover — this penultimate issue isn't quite grabbing me the way I would expect.
Nonplayer #1 (Published by Image Comics; Review by Erika D. Peterman): This Image newcomer takes place in the not-so-distant future, but it’s still a little too close to our times for comfort. Depending on our access to technology, we’re already able to (sort of) live out our wildest fantasies, becoming whatever we want and interacting with countless others doing the same. But does that undermine our desire to make the most of the life we’re actually living? Or is perpetual escape acceptable when our reality, well, sucks? Ethereal and lushly illustrated, Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer #1 raises those questions and more in its first issue. I guarantee that it’s the most engrossing comic you’ll read this week, and it’s not hyperbolic to say that Simpson’s artwork is stunning. The young protagonist Dana Stevens immerses herself in a virtual world where she is a fierce warrior who’s quick with the one-liners. The landscapes in “Jarvath” are finely detailed and bathed in clear, crisp autumn tones. Who wouldn’t want to disappear into this realm for hours at a time? I’ve re-read this issue and seen something new in its panels each time. That alone would be worth the price of admission, but there’s a compelling story here, too. Unplugged, Dana lives a mundane, slacker existence and works a dead-end job. Her bedroom is a depressing wreck of dirty laundry, and a conversation with her mother reveals that Dana is suppressing some serious disappointment. “Life” in Jarvath has a strong hold on her, and as the final splash page shows, the lines have blurred. I highly recommend picking up Simpson’s book and going down the rabbit hole with her.
Uncanny X-Men #534.1 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Jennifer Margret Smith; Click here for preview): Kieron Gillen kicks off his solo run on Uncanny X-Men with this standalone Point One issue, and if its contents are any indication, the next year of the book is going to be a fine one indeed. Gillen more than proves his utility with big superhero action, as the reunited team from Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men (minus Hank, plus Namor) fights an AIM cell claiming to possess an earthquake generator. It's delightful to see that team back together, and Gillen writes dialogue for all of them – Namor in particular – that is banter-y, hilarious, and totally in character. But far more interesting is the issue's main plot, P.R. guru Kate Kildare's attempt to make Magneto's presence on the X-Men's Utopia palatable to the general public. Drawing on the work of writers before him (including Fraction's introduction of Kildare and San Francisco mayor Sadie Sinclair and Grant Morrison's Magneto arc (or was it Xorn?) in New X-Men), Gillen creates a story that feels true for both the real-world rules of publicity and politics and the in-universe circumstances of Magneto's history and character. Unfortunately, Carlos Pacheco's art, while pretty, sometimes displays muddled storytelling, especially when the clothing and hairstyles of the civilian characters change throughout the comic, and colorist Frank D'Armata switches Kate Kildare's hair color on seemingly every page, eventually settling on red. Since civilian characters do not have costumes to identify them, it's important to keep their character designs consistent, and giving blonde bobbed Kate Kildare a sudden red updo is disorienting. Still, this is a minor point to make about a comic that, writing-wise, was nearly perfect. By the end of the story, as editor Nick Lowe puts it in a text piece in the back of the comic, Magneto has “saved the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, of homo sapiens. And it is IN CHARACTER!” This is a remarkable feat on Gillen's part, and promises an exciting future for Marvel's flagship mutant book.
iZombie #12 (Published by Vertigo; Review by Jennifer Margret Smith): Chris Roberson is living the dream. In his few short years in mainstream comics, he's accomplished things most fans and aspiring creators would never dare hope for. He's written two tie-in miniseries for Fables, one of Vertigo's most successful series. He's written Superman. He's worked with Stan Lee. He's created his own successful Vertigo book, iZombie, and collaborated on it with the inimitable Mike Allred. And now, with issue 12 of that title, he's added another impressive collaborator to his growing list: the legendary Gilbert Hernandez, of Love and Rockets fame. In this one-shot issue that gives the long-awaited backstory for ghost girl Ellie, Hernandez shines with his distinctive cartooning, drawing cowboy legends, Native American paintings, Harvey-esque strips, and the story's primary action with equal proficiency. Roberson's writing, meanwhile, imbues the lives of ghosts in a graveyard with pathos as they tell the same stories again and again, trying to entertain themselves in the endless afterlife. It would have been easy enough to tell a straightforward story about the issue's two major plot revelations: the cause of Ellie's death in 1968, and the circumstances of her first meeting with series protagonist Gwen. But instead, Roberson weaves those two elements into a fully independent tale that provides insight into Ellie's character and continues to expand the rules and milieu of the supernatural universe he's created. It's truly a gem of an issue, and manages to make readers excited about the future of the series even without tangible forward momentum. Roberson's enviable success is equaled only by his abundant talent, and iZombie #12 proves that point ably.
Who Is Jake Ellis #3 (Published by Image Comics; Review by Jeff Marsick; Click here for preview): I think this book is wholly underappreciated and deserving of much more attention. A thrilling spy story in the vein of Ludlum or Le Carré, it’s not your typical run-and-gun shoot-'em-up as many comic efforts in the genre devolve to. Rather it’s a very engaging—and taut—psychological mindbender. This, the midpoint of the series, is the most intriguing chapter with our spook on the run, Jon Moore, not nearly as cool and collected as he was when we first met him. Last issue he got rattled when he learned that Jake Ellis, the enigmatic voice inside his head, has something of a mind of his own, becoming less conscience and more handler, with Jake is directing Jon when he used to be more of a lookout or mind’s eye. Who’s really in charge here, Jon or Jake? It’s an intriguing dynamic at play as Jon seeks to get back to the facility, that place of experimentation where Jon first met Jake, in order to get the answers he needs. Tonci Zonjic’s artwork is simple yet smooth, laid out with all the skill of a veteran cinematographer. You’d think that four-panel pages would be a little too decompressed to really give this book the depth it deserves, but this fantastic creative team shows you how it can be done. This is a series that’s just as good on a re-read and a prime example of everything that’s great about comic books. Run, don’t walk, to grab this issue.
Sweet Tooth #20 (Published by Vertigo; Review by Teresa Jusino): Issue #20 kicks off a new story arc in the endlessly fascinating Sweet Tooth, written and drawn by Jeff Lemire. “Endangered Species” begins with a bloody image that turns out to be a dream, but dreams in the context of this story prove strangely prophetic, which means that this story arc is headed in a potentially heartbreaking direction. The relationship between Gus and Jepperd has never been this complicated, or this with Jeppard protecting Gus like a son even as his own hybrid son has just been killed in front of him. Meanwhile, Gus follows Jeppard as if he were his father, complete with all the adolescent angst and resentment he can muster. It is this relationship that makes Sweet Tooth soar, because as fascinating as a plague can be, it’s always the human stories that give you something to hold on to. This isn’t to say that this issue doesn’t move the plot forward. On the contrary, the women of the story, who’d been caught in a trap, are freed by Walter Fish, a plague survivor who takes them back to the place where he’s been living - a shelter built by an “eco, tree-hugger, off the grid group” inside a dam that is a self-sustaining community complete with artificial sunlight, a farm, and electricity. The possibilities for how this could benefit the survivors of the plague are endless. But so are the potential dangers of sitting on something of which everyone will want a piece. There’s also the issue of Gus being seen as some sort of messiah/prophet, and what that will mean for him, for the other hybrids, and for the plague survivors in general. Sweet Tooth continues to be an intriguing title, examining complex ideas while still managing to give us an exciting ride.
Ultimate Captain America #4 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by David Pepose; Click here for preview): This final issue of Jason Aaron and Ron Garney's Ultimate Captain America is a rock-'em, sock-'em fight sequence that throws a pretty big curveball your way that I haven't decided if it's totally random or actually quite telling of the American spirit. Either way, there are plenty of moments that Aaron delivers where you are pretty much cringing — think of the brutality of The Dark Knight Returns and put it in a "Captain America captured in Vietnam" story, and that's the kind of visceral "holy cow" moments he throws in there. A lot of that has to do with Ron Garney, who is probably one of the best fight choreographers in the business, with some really striking composition and a nice intensity behind Cap's eyes. That all said and done, I think what's going to make or break this book is whether or not you find the injection of religion to be an interesting twist — especially if it stays in Ultimate Cap's character later on — or if you find it to be some sort of weird, jingoistic aside that ends the book on a strange note. I personally thought that Aaron committed to the conceit so tightly that it was just crazy enough to work — but there are going to be plenty of others who don't quite get the swerve.
Dungeons & Dragons #5 (Published by IDW Publishing; Review by Aaron Duran): When IDW first announced they were bringing back the Dungeons & Dragons comic, reception was reserved at best. The game didn't have the best track record in the four-color medium. Writer John Rogers and artist Andrea Di Vito changed all that from page one, issue one. Now into issue 5, Rogers is still telling one heck of a ride. His characters feel like iconic fantasy standards, but sprinkled with the snappy banter that remind me why I loved his far too short a run on DC's Blue Beetle. The heroes (and villains) in Dungeons & Dragons sound just like your friends gathered around the gaming table. Plenty of serious conversation, spiced up with taunts about how you're going to meet your grisly demise. Di Vito's art is functional in this issue, but seems to lack the energy I've come to expect from the previous 4 entries in the book. His actions scenes and layout still catch your attention, yet I can't shake the feeling that everything got rushed in this issue. Even the coloring looks a tad muted this time out. Which brings me back to Rogers’ script, like Di Vito's art, the issue reads like they wanted a few more pages to tell the story. However, these are minor complaints, Dungeons & Dragons is still a book I look forward to month in and month out. With so many serious books out there, it's nice to read a title that just wants to sit around the table and have fun.
Fear Itself: The Home Front #1 (Published by Marvel; Review by Teresa Jusino; Click here for preview): Since Civil War, Marvel has managed to do something great during their events. There’s the main event title, and then there’s the secondary, more personal title. For Civil War, the secondary title was Front Line, which dealt with the events of Civil War through the prism of the press, relating it to the average, non-superhero. Secret Invasion had its own Front Line title. Siege had Embedded, which was like Front Line on a road trip. These titles often surpass the main event title, because they make those epic events relatable to us. Fear Itself: The Home Front is no different, as it looks at the epic events of Fear Itself through the prism of a superhero trying to make good in a community he helped destroy, a Atlas Foundation agent who can’t let go of the past, a mayor who relates all event to his city, and the blue-collar people of Broxton, OK, who resent the fact that they’ve become a tourist attraction even as they suffer house foreclosures and unemployment. Each story included in this first issue gives a beautiful, detailed snapshot of oft-forgotten corners of the Marvel Universe. The least successful of the four stories included was Peter Milligan and Elia Bonetti’s “The Age of Anxiety,” precisely because it dealt with Jimmy Woo, leader of the Atlas Foundation, and not with the average person at all. This story ties in most directly to the main event in that it is the most closely connected to Red Skull, but that’s not really the reason these secondary titles exist. They exist to give the perspective not found in the main event. Sadly, the two stories that were the most emotionally effective, “A Moment With...J. Jonah Jameson” and “There’s No Place Like Homeless”, seem to be one-offs, while the Jimmy Woo story as well as the Speedball story, “Lurker,” by Christos Gage and Mike Mayhew, will be the stories we get for most/all of the title’s run. This isn’t entirely bad, as “Lurker” is an interesting examination of a superhero’s responsibility to the ordinary citizen seen in the context of the age of New Media, so I’m glad that this seems to be the main story that will be present for all seven issues. There’s just nothing about the Atlas Foundation stuff that can’t be included in Fear Itself. Why include it here?