Best Shots Comic Reviews: THE FLASH, STEVE ROGERS, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews

Greetings, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the rocking reviewers of the Best Shots Team! The Wolfpack has grown by one this weekend, as we are proud to introduce Colin Bell to our rag-tag team of sequential savants. Coming from sites such as and, Colin’s dropping some sweet science about Casanova and S.H.I.E.L.D. Infinity. We’ve also got plenty of other reviews for your reading enjoyment over at the Best Shots Topic page. And now, let’s hit the road to Flashpoint, as we take a peek at the latest issue of The Flash


The Flash #10

Written by Geoff Johns

Art by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato

Lettering by Sal Cipriano

Published by DC Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

In certain ways, seeing the “Road to Flashpoint” banner on the tenth issue of The Flash looks almost a bit premature — haven’t we just gotten to know Barry again? Aren’t we still learning about his status quo? But upon further reflection, it’s actually a smart move — it means that Geoff Johns isn’t just going to talk about the high concept setup he needs for his latest event. It means that the Fastest Man Alive will have some human moments to share, as well.

That’s not to say that this is a perfect book — structurally, it’s a little rough around the edges — but at the same time, I think that those human moments are what help give a prelude to an event that necessary heft and emotional momentum to keep you going. So as Johns continues to build up Barry Allen’s world — while of course tracking his extradimensional doppelganger, the superspeed motorcycle cop known as Hot Pursuit — there’s something to keep you going. For those who have been clamoring to see Bart Allen reunite with his grandfather, it’s definitely the highlight of the book, and it’s one that gives a nice relatability to what might typically be considered as a bizarre situation — how does one deal with your grandson from the future? Is it awkward? Is it intimidating? Is it frightening? It’s all of these things here, and it’s a great hook.

But that all said — it’s a hook that I wish went a little bit longer. If there’s one misstep to this issue, it’s that I think Johns introduces one character too many in this issue, leaving a bit of a stop-and-start tempo to the issue that doesn’t capitalize on Bart’s appearance quite as much as I think it could. Johns has a lot of ground to cover, and the new 20 page count I think affects his writing more than most — he’s got Hot Pursuit, allusions to Flashpoint, introductions to multiple characters, a murder mystery, a twist… there’s definitely a lot going on, but there’s not really a single thread that’s guiding all of this, which can be a little bit jarring.

Francis Manapul, meanwhile, takes the other tack. While I’d argue that Johns gives the better part of his focus to Bart Allen, I’d say that Manapul excels with just about every other character ahead of Kid Flash. Barry’s got some nice mood to the glances he gives — and I have to say, Brian Buccellato’s colorwork just makes that costume absolutely pop — and seeing Barry’s reunion with one of his former colleagues has a nice sentimental feel to it. Hot Pursuit is obviously partially Manapul’s baby, and he’s drawing the heck out of that motorcycle as best he can. But Bart, I’d argue, isn’t quite as expressive as he could be — he’s feeling a little plain in the design department, and considering he’s a character with so much energy, it’s too bad he doesn’t quite look the part.

Now, that’s not to say that Flash #10 is for everyone — there are going to be people who are feeling the event fatigue, and there will be some who would have rather gotten to know Barry a little bit better before getting pushed into the realm of Flashpoint. But I feel like that’s bashing the book for what it is, rather than how it tries to execute its story. The pacing might feel a bit off, but I think having the human beats alongside the crossover setup is a smart move.


Steve Rogers: Super Soldier Annual #1

Written by James Asmus

Art by Ibraim Roberson and Jim Charalampidis

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jennifer Margret Smith

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The Steve Rogers: Super Soldier Annual #1 marks the second issue of James Asmus’ three-part “Escape from the Negative Zone” tale. While the first issue, the Uncanny X-Men Annual #3, largely focused on Cyclops, Hope, Namor, and Dr. Nemesis getting sucked into the Negative Zone and captured by the tyrant Blastaar, this issue shifts the focus to Steve Rogers, who decides to take care of the situation himself rather than risk a war of intergalactic proportions if Blastaar’s plan succeeds.

Nick Bradshaw’s art on the first issue of the miniseries felt incongruously cartoony, but Ibraim Roberson’s work on this second issue is much more in line with the series’ tone. That’s not to say that the issue doesn’t have levity – humor abounds in delightfully character-specific ways, like the moment when Hope refuses to rescue Scott from his bonds until he tells her “You are better than me at everything, ever.” But with intergalactic bad guys, a near-feral Namor, and spiky metal shackles filling the pages, Roberson’s classical superhero art is just the right fit. His characters are distinct without being exaggerated and attractive without being overly sexualized, and he gives Steve Rogers the kind of cheekbones that would make James Marsters and/or Marsden jealous.

The issue’s plot and pacing function very well, moving the story from Point A to Point B without sacrificing excitement in what under other hands might have been a relatively quiet midpoint. Marvel’s decision to tell this story over a series of scattered annuals may be a strange one from a marketing standpoint, but from a storytelling standpoint the tight three-issue structure and necessity of moving from one character viewpoint to the next keeps the story moving swiftly without skimping on detail. Asmus’ writing is strong, and he handles the shift in perspective especially well, painting a picture of a Steve Rogers whose commitment to duty and confidence in his abilities are unparalleled.

Unfortunately, Asmus runs into a bit of a problem when it comes to voice. While his characterization across the board is quite good, he’s writing a lot of characters – Emma Frost, Dr. Nemesis, Namor, Blastaar, and Steve Rogers – who have historically had very distinctive, formal ways of speaking, with varying degrees of pomposity or (in the case of Steve) politeness. Here, that distinctiveness is lost, and every time Steve Rogers says “yeah” or Emma lets out a coarse bit of profanity (indicated by random symbols, of course), it takes the reader completely out of the story. Asmus writes dialogue with a colloquial, Bendis-style informality that works well for characters like Hope and Pixie and likely would work quite well for any number of others. But in this book, with its particular constellation of players, his dialogue style is more hindrance than strength.

Still, Asmus’ character interactions more than make up for the scripting missteps. Particularly notable is the first meeting between Steve Rogers and Hope in which Steve gives her some advice, one pedestal-hoisted savior to another. In another scene, Emma brazenly insults Steve while asking for his help, noting how she and Pixie had really been looking for “one of the smarter Avengers” to help them rescue Scott and the others (presumably her former friend-with-benefits Tony Stark). The nonchalance of Emma’s insult, Pixie’s embarrassed apology, and Steve’s willingness to take it in stride all combine to define each of these characters within two panels, an emblematic example of skill from relative newcomer Asmus.

The third and final issue of this story will be next month’s Namor: The First Mutant Annual #1, and only time will tell if Asmus is able to handle the shift to Namor’s perspective as expertly as he did this issue’s shift to Steve Rogers’. But after two strong issues of this mini-crossover, I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.


Casanova: Gula #4

Written by Matt Fraction

Art by Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba and Cris Peter

Lettering by Dustin K. Harbin

Published by Marvel/ICON

Review by Colin Bell

Sometimes the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” does not apply. Or at the very least, in some cases it could be amended to read “if ain’t broke but hardly anyone’s buying it, recolor it and release it again until people appreciate it for just how good it is.”

With the coming of Gula #4 we reach the end of Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s first two volumes of re-released, re-colored and in some places rejigged super-spy pop-culture-in-a-blender-freakout Casanova. As with the last time this issue was seen (under the guise of Casanova #14, close to three years ago in May 2008), it’s a humdinger of a way to go out - revelations, recriminations and even a scene-by-scene music playlist hand-picked by Fraction that applies not only to the action contained in this book, but also every issue preceding it, in one of many little touches that make Casanova a book to pore over.

Wrapping up Gula (last we heard, the proposed seven Casanova volumes were to be based around and named after the seven deadly sins – last time round was Luxuria for lust, now we have Gula for gluttony and the next volume up is Avarita, or greed, with Acedia, Ira, Invidia and Superbia to follow) with a rug-pull that is both audacious and perfectly foreshadowed through previous issues, this issue answers the question of “When Is Casanova Quinn?” in a typically mind-flipping fashion.

Whilst many writers would be happy to play the wacky revelation card and leave it that, it’s to Fraction’s credit that he explores just what the revelation means to nearly all of Casanova’s extended cast, each of whom get their moment to shine across the story. Particular mention must go to a heartrending moment between Casanova Quinn and this volume’s antagonist Kubark Benday, as they try to come to terms with all that’s happened in the past four issues on separate sides of a glass-fronted jail cell. Managing to wring some poignancy out of insane situations is something that Fraction mastered over the original run of Casanova, and that trait has followed him into his mainstream Marvel work.

Fabio Moon’s art remains a treat in all its intricacies, be it the widescreen full-on E.M.P.I.R.E. assault on X.S.M. island, the in-art lettering, or the finer details of his work – Ruby Beserko’s miniature jetpack or the psychic manifestation of a crow peeking out the back of Zephyr Quinn’s neck, which makes far more sense in context than it does written here. Looser and more playful than his twin brother Ba’s work on the book, most notably in a scene that switches from life-threatening danger to screwball comedy in one panel, Moon’s art is transformed from the moody blues of the initial Casanova run to a more entrancing, dreamlike book with the addition of a pastel palette courtesy of Cris Peter’s colors.

As a bonus in this issue we’re treated to Gabriel Ba’s return to Casanova after four years away (admittedly time well spent on The Umbrella Academy and Daytripper) with a short tale from the past featuring the recently assassinated Suki Boutique and new character Luther Desmond Diamond, who’s got more than a touch of the Quinn family’s archnemesis Newman Xeno about him courtesy of his bandages and shades ensemble. All Fraction will say regarding this story in what’s to be the final backmatter of his book is “We are the Dead,” which is surely an ominous portent of September’s Casanova III: Avarita.

Casanova — so good I bought it twice. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and buy it once.


Uncanny X-Force #7

Written by Rick Remender

Art by Esad Ribic, John Lucas and Matt Wilson

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

Click here for preview

Uncanny X-Force #7 does not end with the bang that the first story arc did, when Fantomex proved that this wasn’t going to be your typical X-Men book. After that shocking ending, it makes sense that Rick Remender would follow up his first Uncanny X-Force story with a focus on Fantomex and The World, the Sentinel/Super Soldier breeding ground that follows its own rules of physics and time. Remender’s opening story, with Jerome Opeña on the artwork, was bombastic and loud. For his second story, with Esad Ribic joining him this time around on the art side, is more reflective and deliberate, lacking the verve that the series started and missing the strong characterization that made Uncanny X-Force’s opening arc one of the strongest series debut in recent memory.

The star of this second arc has been Fantomex, who’s floated around Marvel’s X-Men books ever since Grant Morrison created him. He’s what Wolverine used to be; a dark and brooding character with a mysterious past who was violently cool. Fantomex is Morrison’s Wolverine, a calculated character, designed to fit into a specific role in the world of the X-Men. Morrison literally gave Fantomex and future creators a World to play with and now Remender is doing that, in a story that started out strong but limps to the ending. “Deathlok Nation” is filled with convenient and unexplained action and characters, as Deadpool provides almost the same ending as Fantomex did in the first story arc.

For a team made up of tough guys and killers, Uncanny X-Force comes off as a very reactionary and staid team. What does it say about characters like Wolverine and Archangel have become when your wildcard team members are Fantomex or Deadpool, who feel like they’re practically interchangeable in Remender’s story? The first story arc was clever, fresh and inventive. Remender took the X-Men’s sexier characters and basically had them trying to out-sex and out-kill the other characters. Remender made X-Force everything that an X-Men book should be and cranked it up to 100.

Uncanny X-Force #7 is far too measured and paced. Ribic gives Fantomex’s World a lovely, languid feel, which is a marvelous mood for a place where a minute of our time equals a year of the World’s time. It should be anything but languid but Ribic, with Matt Wilson on the colors, slows it down and makes it move more like a ballet or a waltz than like the rave that Opeña drew. Both artistic approaches to this book help define the character and tone of the book.

Remender’s writing never quite settles into the right beat with this story. It wants to be the rave but can’t find how it needs to slow down to fit into Ribic’s ballet. The ending of this issue, with the heroes encountering the villain and being seduced by them, is just a repeat of the story that Remender wrote just a few months ago. Where there it was jarring, here it feels like the series has fallen into a rut already. With placing so much of the focus on Fantomex in this storyline, the other characters become mere background players, filling in space when Fantomex isn’t on the page.

Then there’s the inexplicable expansion of the team by one member. Deathlok has showed up in this storyline and this final issue does nothing to really give a purpose to that appearance. In the last issue, Remender wrote a scene explaining how the Avengers, Defenders and X-Men became Deathloks, which is kind of fun in an alternate future way, but the inclusion of Deathlok in this story is random and meaningless. He shows up, he fights and then he leaves with the team, like a lost puppy adopted by Fantomex. To be fair, this issue particularly, and this whole story arc, have been a lot of set up for the series. Remender builds on the first few issues but lays a lot of new groundwork in this issue, including the mystery of Fantomex’s lab in the World. It plays off of the first arc but feels like it’s building much more for the long haul than that original story did.

If Remender is going to have a number of different artists on this series (Opeña is back next issue followed then by Mark Brooks), he’ll have to adapt to the different artists better than he did with Ribic, who provides some lovely images but never quite catches the manic pace that Remender’s trying to go for. The quick, snappy identity that this book came out of the gate with has been replaced by a more meditative and reflective mood, one that doesn’t fit these characters or their mission. Killing is hard but these are the hard characters. They’re the X-Men’s black-ops team. We’ve seen these characters question their fates and their purposes before. Why is Remender returning to that well with these same characters?


Journey Into Mystery #622

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Doug Braithwaite and Ulises Arreola

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

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Looking at Journey Into Mystery #622, it’s clear that Kieron Gillen knows Loki, the newly reborn God of Mischief, and if this first issue is any indication, it’s clear that this young demigod is up to his greatest heist ever: Stealing the show from his more famous older brother, Thor.

And a lot of that is all on Gillen’s head, because he does two smart things that makes this issue feel a lot heftier than most — it’s not just that he fills the pages with mood, but he makes Loki have to actively work for his quest. In certain ways, Journey Into Mystery is absolutely an Asgardian detective story, showing the pint-sized mastermind as he discovers the reason behind his rebirth — and the decisions he must make with this second chance.

Much of that compelling nature, of course, has to do with Loki’s sympathetic nature. Gillen plays a great pick-up game from Matt Fraction’s run, because we got the sense that Loki wasn’t a bad kid — he was just misunderstood. “Why do people always presume I’m lying?” the young demigod asks himself. In certain ways, Loki has that same impishness that Amadeus Cho did in Incredible Hercules, but thrust through that Tolkien-style prism. Yet Gillen also shows some true wisdom under that precocious exterior, as Loki comes face-to-face with the most important person in his life.

Doug Braithwaite’s art, meanwhile, is an interesting thing to study. Considering the splash he made with Matt Fraction on the bombastic Thor: Secret Invasion miniseries, this is surprisingly low-key — and surprisingly expressive — artwork. In particular, the worry on Thor’s face as he worries about his relationship with his father is quite palpable, and that surprising fluidity to Loki’s eyes is a nice counterpoint to Braithwaite’s more chiseled style. Where I don’t think the art is necessarily a good fit, however, is in the colors — whereas Brian Reber gave a more natural kind of palette in the Secret Invasion mini, Ulises Arreola has a bit more of a garish vibe, which turns the sunsets and otherworldly realms of the first few pages into a bit of an eyesore.

But colorwork aside, this has to be the more entertaining issue of Thor since, well, since probably the giant-sized Issue #600. This is a densely packed read that not only introduces character and concept, but establishes an arc and a depth to an Asgardian who, in certain ways, had previously been one of the more one-dimensional characters of Marvel’s mythology. But consider that in the past tense — Loki is definitely a character to watch in 2011, and I for one can’t wait to follow him next month in Journey Into Mystery.


THUNDER Agents #6

Written by Nick Spencer

Art by CAFU, Bit and Santiago Arcas

Letters by Patrick Brosseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by George Marston

DC Comics' relaunch of THUNDER Agents late last year was met with much anticipation, but also a level of understandable skepticism. The franchise, while storied, and well loved, hasn't had the greatest track record, and, to be quite honest, a lot of DC's recent attempts to merge its acquired properties with its core publications have been lackluster, to say the least. So, what's going right with THUNDER Agents that went wrong in other cases? Well, breathing room, for one thing. I'm still not clear on whether this book is set in the DCU proper or not, but the question is almost irrelevant, as six issues in, this book is existing without influence from the mainstream DCU. The lack of intervention in the story from characters like Superman and Batman adds so much impact to the premise of a world where superhuman powers come at a terrible cost. While some may have hoped for a different launch, Nick Spencer and CAFU have pretty much nailed the superhero/spy dynamic with this title, giving us exciting, twist filled issues full of suspense and action, and occasionally some of that artsy stuff we comic readers claim to enjoy.

While no subsequent issue has passed the high bar that issue number 2 set, they've all managed to tell their own story, while still serving Nick Spencer's endgame. This issue comes hot on the heels of last issue's shocking twist, and turns even that major reveal on its head. Further, Spencer finally delves deeper into the history of the THUNDER Agents, reintroducing their classic foe, Iron Maiden, in a shocking sequence that, in only a few pages, runs the gamut of human ruthlessness. CAFU's art, is, as usual, on point. He manages to give Iron Maiden a look of slender maliciousness that belies her armored frame, and the look of surprise on the new Menthor's face, as he realizes he's been unwittingly drafted into the THUNDER Agents program is subtle and harrowing. I'm still not clear on exactly what happened with the helmet last issue, but that's a mystery that's clearly not ready for a reveal.

If rumor holds true, this issue falls halfway through Nick Spencer's planned run. It's looking good that he'll manage to get out twelve issues, and if the next six form as clean an arc as the one that just ended, this could wind up being the classic run that some people have already claimed it to be. I try not to term books with those kind of epithets before their time, so I'll simply say that THUNDER Agents is a really outstanding comic. Nick Spencer nails the feeling of those Sean Connery era James Bond films, while also injecting some of the superhero weirdness of the original Doom Patrol, or maybe even the early X-Men stories. CAFU's strong pencils, in this issue un-aided by guest artists, are clean and dynamic. It all adds up to a great read, and the promise left by this issue's ending is as good a hook as any for a fan of the classic THUNDER Agents, or someone who's just trying to jump in.


S.H.I.E.L.D. Infinity

Written by Jonathan Hickman

Art by Nick Pitarra, Zachary Baldus, Kevin Mellon, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Rachelle Rosenberg and Dan Brown

Lettering by Todd Klein

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Colin Bell

Click here for preview

Jonathan Hickman’s work on S.H.I.E.L.D. to date has split fans – there are some that dismiss its elaborate plotting and time and dimension-spanning story as difficult to follow, whilst others herald it as a breath of fresh air. I’m one of the latter, but both parties can surely agree that there is no other book like S.H.I.E.L.D. on the racks today, and for me that’s why it’s sad that in S.H.I.E.L.D. Infinity we move away from a storyline that at the end of its sixth and most recent issue was beginning to ramp up, to turn attention to a series of vignettes that do little to further the story at this point.

Split into four chapters, the book checks in with regulars Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Nostradamus, Nikolai Tesla, and Isaac Newton in tales of varying importance to the ongoing plot. With regular artist Dustin Weaver sitting this one out, Nick Pitarra’s illustration of Leonardo Da Vinci’s lesson on the finer points of Archimedes’ Kree Sentry vs. the Colossus of Rhodes smackdown of 226 B.C. serves as a highlight, with his crisp artwork only serving to build excitement for Pitarra’s upcoming collaboration with Hickman on The Red Wing later this year.

As entertaining as these pages are (and they really are- it’s a scientific fact that history plus giant robot fights equal fun), the little weight they add to what the regular reader already knows about the Brotherhood of the Shield leaves them inconsequential, much like Zachary Baldus’ moody, atmospheric short detailing the infiltration of the Immortal City, and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s sketchy, almost Kevin O’Neill-like portrayal of Isaac Newton - in a brief episode that only serves to underline that Newton is the de facto villain of the book, by having him murder his scientific contemporaries. This in itself is slightly regrettable, as it near pushes Newton from being a misguided antagonist to mustache-twirling bad guy, and removes some of the interesting shades of grey that permeated some of the earlier issues.

The only story of the four that looks as though it will be revisited is Nikolai Tesla’s (now known as The Night Machine), chronicling his rebirth and discoveries in the Zargos Mountains. Drawn by Kevin Mellon in a manner that’s stylistically the closest out of these shorts to Dustin Weaver’s work on the regular book, one wonders why this wasn’t woven into the main narrative of the book instead of being mixed in amongst these ancillary tales, where it could easily be overlooked by the less fussy.

Not particularly living up to its promise-filled solicitation, this is one for the die-hards and completists only - if you’ve been sat on the fence when it comes to S.H.I.E.L.D. so far, Infinity isn’t going to tempt you down, but perhaps the start of volume two in June will. For me it’s a case of only feeling slightly let down because the bar has been set so high previously, and if the biggest complaint you can levy against a book is that it’s not in keeping with its usual high standards, then perhaps things really aren’t as bad as they seem. This is not how the world ends, after all.


Ultimate Spider-Man #157

Written by Brian Michael Bendis

Art by Mark Bagley, Andy Lanning and Justin Ponsor

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Teresa Jusino

Click here for preview

I was hard on Ultimate Spider-Man last month. I should have known that my Spider-Man Ultimate title wouldn’t fail me the way Amazing Spider-Man did for a while. Issue #157 ensured that none of the bad I was worried about (a rogues gallery revisited for its own sake, etc) is going to happen. And everything in the Ultimate Universe is going to change.

It isn’t just the “Death of Spider-Man” we’re dealing with either. In the first half of this issue, we deal with the death of a major Spider-Man villain, making the return of that rogues gallery led by Norman Osborn important and necessary. After trying to ensure the safety of his family, and happening upon this villain death, Spidey heads toward the Queensboro Bridge, where an unrelated situation with S.H.I.E.L.D has been going on involving Captain America, Nick Fury and…The Punisher? And then, there’s that “shot heard round the world” that promises to change everything, and it’s in a moment of pure selflessness.

Bendis has created an emotional issue here that was beautifully paced and allowed Peter Parker not only goodbyes, but allowed him to go out in a way that was absolutely true to character. Gwen hugging him as he leaves his house was especially heartbreaking, because it’s so simple and she glosses over the fact that he could actually be in danger in going after Osborn as she says, “don’t be stupid. Kick his ass, nothing fancy.” The last person he speaks to - on the phone, en route - is MJ, and once what happens happens, their conversation seems all the more sad, because it is so abrupt. Bendis also gives us a scene between Osborn and Doctor Octopus that wonderfully distills their relationships to Spider-Man and to each other. You don’t usually expect supervillains to discuss their feelings, but when these two do here it seems not only appropriate, but it gives the story more weight.

Mark Bagley, while not the best at faces and the more intimate character moments, is unbeatable when it comes to action, and so he really got to shine here. His layout for the villain death was beautifully rendered and clear — I never lost what was happening, as so often happens with action sequences in less capable hands. Much of the emotional impact of the final scene was due to Bagley’s absolute control of where the reader’s eye is supposed to go.

Ultimate Spider-Man is breaking new ground here, and as of the next issue will be taking us places we never expected. No mere “event,” this. There are actually big changes happening, and it’s both frightening and amazing. Issue #157 focuses exclusively on the incidents leading to the deaths, so we have a lot of emotional fallout to look forward to. Marvel revealed today that there will be a new Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe - so this is a death that’s sticking and will have actual consequences. I have an idea who the new Spider-Man might be, but I’ll keep that to myself. Kudos to Bendis, Bagley and Co. for giving us an exceptional read and for giving us events in the Marvel Universe that will definitely keep us talking.


PunisherMAX #12

Written by Jason Aaron

Art by Steve Dillon and Matt Hollingsworth

Lettering by Cory Petit

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by David Pepose

Click here for preview

Do you like good comics? Then why aren’t you reading the hell out of PunisherMAX?

It’s one of those things that you know Jason Aaron is already a leader in his industry — he’s got projects out the yin-yang, ranging from the criminally overlooked Scalped to big-name superhero fare like Wolverine. But for my money, Aaron earns his capital-W “Writer” status for books like PunisherMAX, which is an engrossing, even repellent, but altogether irresistible look at a man who is broken physically, mentally, emotionally. The spirit of the skull weighs heavy on this book, and it’s got more steel in its spine than much of the rest of its superhero contemporaries.

As far as introducing new arcs go, this is a pretty striking first issue. While it’s just slightly jarring to go from skylight tumble straight to maximum security, you remember that in this book, Aaron doesn’t give Frank Castle any free passes or any favors — he’s busted up big-time after his fight with Bullseye, and what’s worse, his spirit has collapsed even worse than his bones. And even though the theory isn’t new — that Frank Castle never really left Vietnam, and that the war on crime was what he really wanted all along — Aaron gives this idea some teeth and menace. It’s the wisdom of a psychopath, but Aaron shows just how it sunk its hooks into Frank, and alludes to how it might have led him down his current homicidal path.

The other great strength that Aaron possesses is his use of voice. There’s a subplot in this book about the prisoners converging on Frank — but even though the Punisher is strapped to a hospital bed, his limbs broken and his spirit crushed, these hardened crooks are still scared by that legacy of blood Frank has created over the years. What’s great is, whether its a street gang or a pack of neo-Nazis, Aaron makes them sound subtly different, bringing that sort of pitch-black humor to the fore: “Took on five a’ my uncles an’ three a’ my cousins and barely left enough to fill up one goddamn coffin.” And Frank’s line at the end — them’s fightin’ words.

Steve Dillon, meanwhile, is a great counterpoint to Aaron’s colorful dialogue, in the fact that he’s playing much of this straight. There’s no over-the-top craziness, no larger-than-life expressiveness — outside of the ultra-detailed Frank, Dillion is about one thing and one thing only: Making the story as clear and streamlined as humanly possible. He picks his camera angles and doesn’t get fancy. He lets the timing and pacing speak for itself.

In a lot of ways, you wouldn’t associate a character like the Punisher with deep storytelling. But Jason Aaron shows that even the most focused of characters have plenty of angles to look at, and in many ways he’s picking up on some of the same tones and themes that he did with his seminal work, The Other Side. War is hell, but what’s worse is when the war comes home with you. Frank Castle may be broken, busted and left to die — but even in a hospital bed, Jason Aaron just made the Punisher one of the most interesting characters on the stands. Read this book.

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