Best Shots Comic Reviews: FLASHPOINT Minis, KA-ZAR, More

Best Shots Comic Reviews: FLASHPOINT

Happy Monday, 'Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with the Best Shots Team! Your cadre of crackshot critics have grown by one this weekend, as we welcome Wendy Holler of Four Color Criticism to our ranks. And she is on the frontlines contributing to another big column this week, as we cover the latest releases from Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse and more. Want some more back-issue reviews? Check out the Best Shots Topic Page for hundreds of books from past and present! And now, let's kick off today's column with Scott Cederlund, as he takes a look at that spookiest of superteams with Flashpoint: Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown


Flashpoint: Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown #1

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Ibraim Roberson and Pete Pantazis

Lettering by Pat Brosseau

Published by DC Comics

Review by Scott Cederlund

In Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein, Grant Morrison made Frankenstein a super spy; a Promethean James Bond working for S.H.A.D.E. and trying to save the world.  In Flashpoint: Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown Jeff Lemire and Ibraim Roberson return the creature to his monstrous roots, showing him being used as  a tool and a pawn of an America that needed heroes during World War II.  Instead of heroes, it found its inspiration in a monster, creating more like him that turned the tide in the war.  Lemire and Roberson turn him into a mixture of Captain America (without the jingoism) and Sgt. Rock, a fighter whose days were numbered as the American military viewed its him and his soldiers as outdated and abominations.   Put on ice shortly after they won the war, Frankenstein wakes up in the world of Flashpoint circa 2011.

Lemire's story is brisk and light as it tries to cram as many characters into it as possible.  He focuses on Frankenstein and his place in the world.  Awoken to fight a great evil, he becomes a soldier but he carries a lot of baggage.  He understands his origins and the great hubris that Dr. Frankenstein had to create him in the 19th century and he sees that same hubris in Dr. Mazursky, a scientist who has created his own monstrous soldiers, believing he is creating the next evolution of man and soldier.

Lemire never puts enough of a focus on it but when you realize who Mazurksy's three monsters are, that's when you find the charm of Lemire's script.  An amphibian, an wolf-like creature and a bloodsucker with bat wings are Frankenstein's comrade-in-arms. In other words, Lemire has created a DC comic staring Universal Film's classic monsters, Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.  Lemire never makes a big deal about it, letting the reader discover what's right in front of their faces.  Maybe they don't make enough of a deal about it because while it is a neat fact of the issue, it hardly plays into the story itself.  These could have been any monsters and there's not enough of a reason given for their forms.  Is it symbolic?  Is it thematic?  Is it just a cool nod to the old Universal Films?  Other than Frankenstein, the other three characters aren't developed nearly enough to give the reader any reason to care about them.

Of course, they aren't the star of the series.  In Morrison's Seven Soldiers miniseries, Doug Mahnke made Frankenstein and the world he fought for ugly and horrid.  Roberson is clear and easy but doesn't quite have the handle on creating a visual look for the book.  His Frankenstein is a large and imposing figure and he easily captures the look and feel that Mahnke gave the character.  When we first see the monster, rising out of the European snow asking "Was... Something... Left... Undone?" Lemire and Roberson show that this is not the same character that Morrison and Mahnke were telling stories about.  This is more Mary Shelly's character, a monster unfairly brought into this world.  Roberson's artwork captures the gruesomeness of the creature but the rest of the world looks generic and unremarkable.  There is no way that any version of Frankenstein should not be visually imposing and Roberson nails that but  the book looks too much like any other recent DC book to be stand out from any other book on the comic stands.

The best part of Flashpoint: Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown #1 may just be that Lemire and Roberson wisely ignore that first part of the title, "Flashpoint."  There's nothing linking this issue to DC's mega, continuity changing series.  Lemire and Roberson don't feel like they're creating a continuity-heavy tie-in book.  They're just writing and drawing the first issue of a three issue miniseries.  While there are hints that this may tie in tighter to Geoff Johns' Flashpoint world, there's nothing that obviously makes this issue a Flashpoint crossover and it's all the better for that.  This issue is enjoyable for the story that Lemire and Roberson are presenting and not for any grander world-spectacle that may be going on around it.


Ka-Zar #1

Written by Paul Jenkins

Art by Pascal Alixe

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Wendy Holler

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Welcome to the jungle indeed. Ka-Zar #1 is exactly the kind of introduction you'd want to have to the Savage Land if you weren't already familiar with the tropical paradise hidden deep in Antarctica. The art more than delivers on the pluralistic promise of the setting, and making Pangeans the story's focus feels like a bonus to an experience that's already a win. This issue, the first of five, gets particularly high marks for worldbuilding. The depictions of Pangea's residents and lands are fantastic in every sense of the term. True to its pulp roots, the Land houses winged, maritime, and simian humanoids, to name just a few, and the comic is at its best when sketching broad outlines of Pangea's inhabitants.

Aside from a few unfortunate missteps, Paul Jenkins' writing here is solid. The issue has good pacing for the first of a limited series, complete with setting and character introductions, a dramatic scene designed to evoke sympathy, explanation of the overarching conflict, and a neat cliffhanger of an ending. The biggest writing snarls come from dialogue, particularly with the child characters. Matthew and Zahmis, for example, speak in clipped words that read like a bad accent (like "somefink" instead of "something"). We're not quite at Jar Jar Binks level of bad, but the effect is pretty jarring.

Jenkins gets props for knowing how to step aside and let art carry part of the story, and Pascal Alixe takes that opportunity and runs with it all the way to, well, Pangea. And back. The art's beautiful, and the inking suggests the feel of parchment and a sense of age. The coloring by Jesus Aburto and Jorge Maese washes lush, bright, vibrant colors with sepia tones, and the overall effect is exotic without being overpowering. Alixe also has excellent range, so sweeping landscape shots, close emotional work, and dramatic reveals are all handled deftly.

Ka-Zar #1 has two stumbling blocks for readers. Problem the first is the geopolitical plotline, which sets up the relationship among the United Nations, the Savage Land, and exploitative mining companies. While it's true to the Land's history in the Marvel universe, and there's a truly lovely wedding scene that describes its emotional impact, the talky bits here are where the comic verges on stereotype and is least interesting. Fortunately, neither Jenkins nor Alixe are prone to lingering, and they do a good job of establishing information and then moving on to a different scene of this story.

Problem the second is Ka-Zar himself. In an early action sequence with a wildfire, the most effective things that Ka-Zar can do are warn people to run away and watch as things that he loves are destroyed in the fire. The main fight scene of the issue involves combat with a hidden opponent, so Ka-Zar ends up taking far more damage than he dishes out. In other words, the Ka-Zar of this issue is reactive to the point of being the guy who stands around and emotes.

The problem, of course, with calling this a problem is that it all feels purposeful. In classic fantasy, the link between a land and its ruler can be literal as well as symbolic, and Ka-Zar's reactionary stance feels a lot like the relationship between the Land and its developers. Further, I get the sense that this Ka-Zar is not quite certain of his place. While previous incarnations of the character emphasized his knowledge and authority, this series seems willing to explore a kind of powerlessness that's realistic enough to border on the uncomfortable. I can see what the creative team is trying to achieve here, and while I tend to prefer a Ka-Zar with sure political authority and knowledge, I'm willing to give the comic a pass on this one for the sake of getting to see more of this world.

And what a world it is. Dinosaurs. Giant, saber-toothed cats. Aerians. Tubanti. Treehouses. Abandoned mining platforms. Pangea is a grown up version of Neverland, and Jenkins and Alixe do an impressive job hinting at the different stories going on elsewhere within it. The wildfire sequence is great not only because its conclusion is a moment of effective storytelling, but also because the wrongness of the threat it portrays is an attack on the Land. This comic looks at Pangea and the Savage Land from within. This isn't an X-Men story with a Pangean setting; this is an all-out foray into the world of jungle motifs and the lives of the beings who live there. This mesh of Victorian overtones, prehistoric creatures, and fantastic races is unique in the Marvel universe, and it's nice to see a series gearing up to do that world justice.


Moriarty: The Dark Chamber #2

Written by Daniel Corey

Art by Anthony Diecidue

Lettering and Design by Dave Lanphear

Published by Image Comics

Review by Deniz Cordell

Ah, revisionism.  Like all things, sometimes you work, and sometimes you don’t.

Moriarty: The Dark Chamber vacillates somewhat wildly between both of those schools, taking Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis (who really only appeared in one story, but was mentioned in a few others), and moving him to center stage. The series uses the conceit that stories after “The Adventure of the Final Problem” never happened, and it was Moriarty who emerged alive from the deadly confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls.  While the first issue offered effective moments of ratiocination, and possessed an introspective tone – steeping the reader in the good professor’s thought processes – this issue opens up the canvas a little more, borrowing a tone closer to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes picture.  There is more action on display here, bits of design from the increasingly ubiquitous steampunk movement, and hints of the mystic and supernatural relating to the central mystery.

Writer Daniel Corey captures Moriarty’s voice and internal monologue quite well – with arrogance, and strident intelligence – a tinted mirror of Holmes’ processes and intellectual gears.  He even makes good reference to Moriarty’s history as a mathematician, and incorporates bits of what we know from Doyle into the story quite admirably.  Moriarty’s companion, Jade, proves to be an interesting foil – and she serves as a quiet, efficient character type – suiting her uneasy alliance, and providing contrast to Moriarty – who we are let into at all times.  Mata Hari makes a cameo appearance as well, speaking with one of those regional patois’ that contains semi-mangled syntax, blatant disregard for definite and indefinite articles, and lines such as: “Jes.  Sank you.”  The phonetic spelling is – blessedly – not overused, and Corey uses Hari’s history, mythos, and reputation to good effect.  The appearance of a historical figure also lends an edge to Moriarty’s quest, providing glimpses of how his life intersected with the events and people of the day.  Corey does such a fine job with the segments involving Moriarty’s investigations that I found the action sequences uninteresting by comparison – the fights end up being a distraction from the main narrative thrust – even though artist Anthony Diecidue’s art brings a unique, almost laconic pacing to the mayhem which separates it from its more willy-nilly brethren.

Diecidue’s art is a cross between Kevin O’Neill’s angular work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a scratchy, semi-wood-cut aesthetic.  No attempt is made to evoke Sidney Paget, but this is a story about Moriarty – not Holmes – at least, not yet – but there is much more of an “illustrated” aesthetic that suits the story’s sensibilities.  Diecidue uses darkness and cross-hatching to fine effect – particularly in his foreground compositions.  There’s a quality to the art that I found quite effective – particularly in longer-shots, where the characters appear to be a flurry of ink-lines in motion – it has a simple, primal kinetic energy that lends the book a distinctive look.  The book makes the most of a very limited color palette, enhancing and supporting the Victorian/Industrial Age milieu.

A minor distraction comes from the naming of “The Black Hand” – a clandestine organization that is secretly manipulating world events for their own nefarious needs.  While it’s an interesting idea to see Moriarty combating something that resembled his own network, I couldn’t help but continuously think of “The Black Glove,” which served a very similar purpose in Grant Morrison’s Batman stories.  Would that Corey used a name with less connotations and connections to another fictional world.

The issue’s main stumbling point, however – and what seems to be a cardinal sin – comes at the end of this installment.  Without giving too much away, it was a choice that I limply, but correctly guessed once the character appeared, and I found myself irritated that Corey chose to go the route he did.  Perhaps it’s because the twist of “long-time good guy turns out to be rather evil” lost its novelty after it was done so well in Brian DiPalma’s first Mission: Impossible movie; perhaps it’s because I’m a longtime Baker Street Irregular, so I may well be unable to overcome my own biases – but this plot development doesn’t quite work – playing out a little by rote, and ultimately being somewhat unclear in its implications.

Another example: When Howard Chaykin made the real Lamont Cranston the villain of his revival of The Shadow, it was a startling choice, but it was one that made sense within the world of the story, ultimately enriching the world by acknowledging and reinterpreting the character’s history.  In Moriarty, this somewhat similar story development seems to be a conscious decision to invalidate things we have learned from Conan Doyle’s original stories, all at the expense of making Moriarty our “heroic figure” (but even this is a misnomer, as Corey frequently points out Moriarty’s fondness for his former life of crime).  While this new plot complication may be .a daring decision in its own way, certainly – that doesn’t mean I liked it.

Still, for the issues missteps, and my stodginess, Corey crafts a compelling mystery that plays mostly fair, and its slight supernatural bent pays homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own fascination with the occult.  I have my own theories about what will happen next – surely a sign that the story itself connected – and I’m genuinely curious about what tricks of narrative sleight-of-hand Corey has up his sleeve.


Mystery Men #1

Written by David Liss

Art by Patrick Zircher and Andy Troy

Lettering by Dave Sharpe

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Shanna VanVolt

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This is the pulp I'm looking for. Mystery Men #1 starts this Great Depression-set comic series off and running. As a first issue it succeeds at creating a world and then beginning to populate it. Magical, historical, and pulpified, it pulls you in and then leaves you wanting more. David Liss and company start to set the pieces on the chess board and make you wonder how the game is going to play out.

Pulp is more than a stylistic era, it is an attitude, and Liss has done his research on both. To give mention to a rarely-mentioned role, the typewritten-esque narration boxes of letterer Dave Sharpe give a strong gumshoe pulse to Mystery Men #1. Contained therein, Liss' writing captures the attitude of a man overwhelmed by everything and surprised by nothing. The Operative, our narrator and soon to be accidental hero, glides through the pages with his eyes straight ahead, even though his world is crumbling. And that is important for the era, for the Depression, to keep going even though the world is strewn with iniquities, which is perhaps why that was the peak of pulp popularity.

While most detective pulps adhere to a hard-edged reality, there is an element of ancient mysticism that seems to be the unknown trajectory in this book. It is quite an endeavor to try to capture the tone of a finely executed pulp —which Liss does well — it is another to write a tomb-raiding for god-secrets story without getting tired and corny. That verdict is still outstanding, because only hints have been dropped about the metaphysical power being accessed by our bad guy.

Normally, I'd hope the author would choose a side: Sam Spade or Indiana Jones (but not both), if it weren't for the wonderfully gory art opportunities that the latter affords Patrick Zircher. On the fifth page of this issue lies a portrait of a villain so perfectly creepy that my eyes opened wide and lingered there upon turning to it. Zircher occasionally abuses his negative space privileges with perhaps a few too many dramatic background-free closeups, especially when he demonstrates in scattered panels that he is adept at drawing environments. But overall, his often page-wide narrow panels succeed in zeroing in on a potent motion, be it a pencil mustache or a string of bloody flying pearls.

It is apparent that Mystery Men #1 is opening a wide parcel of space in which to unwind its plot spools. Marvel is billing it as a title to flesh out an entire era previously missing from the Marvel Universe. In this role, issue one is a good opening, enmeshing the reader in a world and immediately introducing a lot of strands from which possible stories could emerge as heroes begin to take shape. This initial immersion into 1932 New York City as the birth of these heroes is a fast paced compelling one, but the creative team should advance with caution at throwing so many balls in the air. So far, it is balancing its history, mystery, and pulp well, but if it goes too far in any of those directions, the plot could easily become overdone.

There are perhaps many reasons that the modern day superhero emerged out of the Great Depression, and perhaps Mystery Men #1 can emerge through this Great Recession to remind us of our strengths. I read many comics in an escapist mindset, but this comic, if it moves its rook at the right moment, may be able to earn my highest honor: relevancy. We could use a new Robin Hood on the scene, a character with whom The Observer seems to have a few things in common, and I hope that Liss can braid the threads together that he started here and give us a tapestry and not just a ball of yarn. Even if it falls short of that, I like a good pulp.

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"All that power… and not a clue what to do with it."

I think this quote definitely sums up Ghost Rider #0.1, a valiant attempt by newly-exclusive Marvel writer Rob Williams that doesn't quite know what direction it wants to take. Does it want to be a black comedy, in the vein of Jason Aaron's run? Does it want to be a more literal superhero story, in the Geoff Johns model? Or more artistic, more expressive supernatural fare? There's a lot of potential for this writer, for this artist, for this character, but I can't help but think this misses the mark.

The biggest problem for this first issue never really decides what it wants to be, which I think is to its detriment. You get the sense that Williams is really hustling as best he can with this story — Johnny Blaze is a surprisingly loquacious protagonist, and you get the sense that Williams is trying to channel Jason Aaron's tar-black witticisms. The only problem? He's not Jason Aaron, and lines like "incorrect Nirvana reference!" ends up coming off as self-conscious rather than hitting the right tone. Blaze almost reminds me of Spider-Man, given the number of one-liners he ends up delivering!

Williams does, to his credit, bring in a nice theme to the Ghost Rider, one that has been apparent throughout the years — namely, someone's always trying to play Johnny Blaze, and this arc is no different. There's some stakes to this book that I think will bear fruit in issues ahead, as Blaze struggles with the idea of giving up the Ghost Rider to parties unknown. But in certain ways, the sort of cynical tone I think gets undercut by the over-reliance on humor. In certain ways, the faux-Western patois feels like Williams is trying just a little too hard to channel Aaron's work — this is a new writer, a new run, a new tone, and I would have loved to have gotten a better sense of sense of Williams' voice, rather than someone else's.

The other thing is, I'm not quite sure that Matthew Clark is the best fit for this book, either. In certain ways, he does evoke previous Ghost Rider artist Tony Moore's style, but isn't quite as deliberate with the cartooniness of some of the characters. I do, however, like the humor that Clark brings to Johnny Blaze, playing him up as a bit of a whiny loser rather than a badass, half-passed out in his own sick on a bar. There's also a beautiful moment where the Rider is barreling down a railroad to Hell, where Williams (mostly) lets the art do the talking. But I think the other elements of this book — namely, the fight sequences, as well as the overall look of the Ghost Rider — still need another pass in terms of the detailwork and composition.

I think what disappoints me the most about Ghost Rider #0.1 is the fact that it seems like rehashing the past, rather than taking any bold new directions with the character. Don't get me wrong — I liked Jason Aaron's run on the series. But there's a reason why Marvel ended it. And even though we have a new writer and a new artist with some great potential between the two of them, surprisingly this book still feels like downright imitation of the Aaron/Moore run. I know that Williams and Company have a great story to tell — but I want it to be something new.


Birds of Prey #13

Written by Gail Simone

Art by Diego Olmos and Nei Ruffino

Lettering by Carlos M. Mangual

Published by DC Comics

Review by Aaron Duran

This is going to be one of those bittersweet reviews. I've been a fan of Birds of Prey since Chuck Dixon first brought the ladies together. And, I will admit. I was one of the naysayers that didn't think anyone could top Dixon's espionage-flavored action, especially this Gail Simone. You're going to tell me that someone that writes Deadpool is going to take over my beloved Birds? I will also admit I was a massive idiot back then. During Simone's tenure, Birds of Prey quickly became one of DC Comic's most consistently entertaining titles. Coming back to the title after her run on Wonder Woman, this new Birds of Prey was enjoyable, but it never seemed to capture the magic before. I never could shake the feeling that Gail's writing passion lived with those misfits within the Secret Six. This would explain why this final Birds arc felt like the title of old; it included one of the Six's biggest foils. The grotesquely disfigured villain, Junior, enacts her total revenge on the Birds as she attacks from all fronts. Black Canary and Dove deal with Junior directly. Hawk and Lady Blackhawk mix it up with Junior's guards, while the real stars of this issue, Huntress and The Question, fight from a Gotham rooftop.

I simply have to ask, where have the Huntress/Question team-up been my whole life? Under Gail, these two characters are an absolute butt-kicking pleasure to read. Finding one realistic female character in superhero comics is rare, to find two of them together in one title is darn near impossible. Even as these two characters face life-threatening danger, Gail maintains her ability to deliver incredibly witty and charming dialogue. When Renee quips to the Huntress, “I just wanted you to ask The Question”, you can't help but chuckle. This is the Birds of Prey we've come to know and love. Genuine love for and between these superheroes, even as they face the most dangerous foe of their crime fighting career. It is those moments that help you forget the story feels rushed. A story that felt like it needed at least one more issue to wrap up all the elements. Much of the smart and story driving dialogue we've come to expect from Gail's writing is replaced with character captions. While these internal captions are still entertaining, it all ends of feeling a little, like the plot itself, rushed.

Diego Olmos' pencils, like much of this issue, are also hurried. While his line work doesn't at all look sloppy, but it does lack the refinement I know he's capable of of creating. His pencils simply get the work done in Birds of Prey #13. You can tell what is going on, you know which character is talking or fighting, but there isn't any passion behind them. This isn't a case of a style not connecting with a reader. Even the backgrounds feel rushed. Many panels lack any form of composition, simply going with a stark black or spectrum of color.  I know I am starting to sound like a broken record here, but even the coloring in this issue feels rushed. Good coloring can make up for a few sloppy lines, but that doesn't happen with Nei Ruffino's colors. Like Diego's pencils, Nei's coloring gets the job done, but doesn't add to the story. Still, with little items beyond the characters to work with, there wasn't much for the colorist to work with. It is simply there.

It is a real testament to Gail Simone's gift for dialogue and relationships that even with a issue that feels so lacking, I still found myself enjoying the read. Birds of Prey #13 isn't for the casual reader, or even for someone new to the title. This last outing for Gail and her Birds feels like a nice as possible goodbye to longtime fans. Oracle, Black Canary, the Huntress, the Question, Lady Blackhawk, and Hawk and Dove; they weren't perfect heroes. But, in a universe where characters to turn back time, stop bullets, or run at the speed of light, they were the most believable and I'm going to miss them. Thanks for the ride, ladies. I hope we'll run into each other again.


Journey Into Mystery #624

Written by Kieron Gillen

Artist by Doug Braithwaite and Ulises Arreola

Lettering by Clayton Cowles

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jamie Trecker

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Journey Into Mystery is the book that used to be called Thor or The Mighty Thor. It is now Thor-less, and has returned to the title (if not the format) of the 1960s book that brought us the blond god from Asgard. This is the kind of nostalgia-fest we usually see coming out from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, and like many titles that mine the past, this book is filled with promise yet doesn’t completely deliver.

For one thing, Kieron Gillen’s actually living up to the book’s title: this really is a journey into mystery: replete with an unreliable narrator, an irredeemable anti-hero as the lead, and a focus on the darker corners of Asgard. Tightly edited to dovetail with Matt Fraction and Oliver Coipel’s excellent Mighty Thor title, Journey Into Mystery is a story of redemption for the trickster god Loki, reduced by his own machinations to the body — if not perhaps the purity— of a young boy.

Yet, this is a different Loki: he is not the scheming madman burning with jealousy that has been a staple of the Thor-niverse since Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the book. Instead, this is a Loki motivated by two things: a desire to win his brother Thor’s love, and an existential confusion over his true nature. His “former self” accompanies him in the form of a bird, named Ikol, doling out advice that always seems to carry an ulterior motive. As such, our young man seems both more sympathetic and complex — and one senses that when Loki’s true nature ultimately surfaces once more, this will hit readers even harder.

This is of course what Gillen is trying to do, and he’s doing it very, very well. From an authorial point of view, Journey Into Mystery has to been seen as a high point in what is inarguably a golden era for Marvel’s books. It is well-written, with nary a word out of place; tautly paced; and emotionally resonant. It would be one of the best books you could spend $3 on. Would be.

Where the title falls apart is in the art department. I have always had a hard time with Doug Braithwaite’s art. His Alex Ross-lite style — all weird camera angles and soft edges — has never worked for me. This is a matter of personal taste; it has to be said that Braithwaite’s work is reliably professional, anatomically accurate and certainly well within the norms for quality comic book art. Taste is not criticism, so what has to be asked instead is: does his style fit this book?

The answer is no. This mischievous little book is made leaden by Braithwaite’s work, and if it weren’t for the light touch shown in Gillen’s scripts, it would be impossible to recommend it. Part of the problem is that Braithwaite’s pencils are used uninked; instead, instead, either colorist Ulises Arreola or Clayton Cowles, credited with both lettering and production, has scanned and digitally darkened the pencils. This is a wonderful way for an artist to retain full control over the final product, but it is a bit like smearing Vaseline on a camera lens: fine for a soupy melodrama and dreadful for a book that needs to be nimble and cunning.

There is no nuance on display, many of his faces look deadly similar, and too frequently emotional cues in facial expressions are simply absent. I don’t blame Braithwaite entirely — he’s just not a good fit, and his editor on the title, Ralph Macchio, should find him a better slot for his talents. Better fits would be the likes of Amazing Spider-Man's Marcos Martin, The Spirit's Victor Ibanez or Jimmy Olsen's RB Silva, all graceful artists with a gift for facial cues, slick movement and a light touch.

If the powers that be make a change, they’ll have a superb title on their hands. Right now, what they have is a frustrating one.


Flashpoint: Emperor Aquaman #1

Written by Tony Bedard

Art by Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes and Kyle Ritter

Lettered by Jared K. Fletcher

Published by DC Comics

Review by Jamie Trecker

Remember that sweet tow-headed guy who talked to fishies and palled around with an octopus? This ain’t him. In fact, poor Topo would probably be fried calamari around this guy.

Part of DC’s major summer event, Flashpoint, this Aquaman is a battle-scarred lord of the seas, fighting an increasingly vicious battle with the Amazons of Themyscira. So far, he’s destroyed most of Western Europe as revenge for the death of his wife; and he has a particularly nasty little surprise for Wonder Woman and her crew coming soon.

Most of this book, the first in a three-issue miniseries, is set-up. For a writer, this is a chore, plain and simple, and to his credit, Bedard competently moves the pieces around the board. His choice to use flashbacks instead of a linear narrative might be questionable, but an edit-driven event series like Flashpoint makes it darn near impossible to cram in all the backstory while telling a compelling narrative.

Syaf’s art is the real draw. He’s clearly a fan of the Kubert family, right down to his aping of the tradmark Adam Kubert scowl for his Aquaman. Cifuentes has more chores midway through the book, where he adds some nice textures to scenes of King Brion Markov in Venice using his Geo-Force powers to beat up some Atlanteans.

Overall, Flashpoint: Emperor Aquaman is a solid, if unnecessary tie-in to the main Flashpoint event. Come for the art, and don’t expect much character development.


The Iron Age: Alpha #1

Written by Rob Williams

Art by Rebekah Isaacs and Andres Mossa

Lettered by Jared K Fletcher

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Jamie Trecker

Marvel Zombies rejoice: The Iron Age: Alpha #1 is just the ticket for those fans who carry around dog-eared copies of the Index To The Marvel Universe. If you love continuity and think Avengers Forever was the sine qua non of Marvel, then get thee to a store and sock it to Shellhead!

Featuring an utterly obscure villain (who appeared once in a 1965 issue of Tales of Suspense) alongside Dark Phoenix (Marvel’s go-to heavy hitter), this little time-travelling mini-series sees Tony Stark stranded in his past. Yes, yes, he’ll get home, but along the way he’ll have to deal with his alcoholic younger self, find a way to defuse that bad Jean Grey, and, oh yeah, save the world.

What’s surprising about this rather hackneyed concept — one that I, frankly, find difficult to take with a straight face — is that Rob Williams and Rebekah Isaacs generally make it work.  This is the second Marvel team-up for Williams and Isaacs (Angel,Magus, respectively). The duo put out one of the better anniversary one-shots for Captain America earlier this year with Captain America & Falcon, and they complement each other nicely.

William’s writing is both clean and winking, with a couple clever nods to the past — manna for the Zombie. Isaacs’ artwork is charming, with a keen eye for details (such as the stubble on Danny Rand’s chin) and a sleek line that makes her robots and Iron Men pop. Overall, it’s fun, if not for the newbie.

One minor quibble: if your book is called “The Iron Age: Alpha” and your next is to be called “The Iron Age: Omega” you don’t really need to also stick the number one on it.


‘Breed III #2

Written and Illustrated by Jim Starlin

Published by Image Comics

Review by Deniz Cordell

‘Breed III is, as composer Alexander Courage once called science-fiction, “marvelous malarkey.”  Jim Starlin’s art remains just as strong and clean as ever – and he walks a unique narrative tight-rope in this issue, as text and artwork vie for dominance.

What makes ‘Breed stand out is its self-reflexive humor.  In this issue, much of the drollery comes from the gimmick of having Ray Stoner (the “‘Breed”) tell the events of the issue to other characters.  There’s a wonderful hindsight to Stoner’s narration, and the interjections from Patrick – a young boy – are knowing and funny.  In this way, the issue becomes more of a series of illustrations supplementing and supporting the text-boxes – complete with frames within panels, creating a very formalist, almost “illumination” approach.  The narration is breezy and never needlessly oblique – and it proves a nice juxtaposition to the forceful artwork.

Starlin brings great variety to his panel designs and page layouts, and his splash pages use deep focus in a way that lends everything a very cinematic quality – and an other-worldly clarity.  His dutching of certain panel boundaries creates a distinct off-kilter effect – different from a Dutch angle within a straight panel border.  There’s a depth to his scenery that creates a real sense of scope, and his characters look appropriately powerful – with a gothic style/science-fiction bent to many of the antagonists.  There are also some incredibly detailed, stirringly psychedelic moments as well, evoking a combination of Ditko and Steranko. The color work is great, even when Starlin is dealing with more monochromatic environs and characters – there’s a shading and weight and energy to everything that is quite fetching.

Starlin’s unique brand of cosmic spiritualism, and the ability of mental will get some panel-time here to good effect in the story, and he also gets some humor out of a scene where the ‘Breed discovers the identity of several humans who work for the antagonists.  Also of interest is certain linguistic similarities between the ancient mystic language, and Turkish – I have to wonder if Starlin just thought the sounds of that linguistic tradition suited the characters, or if there is another, more interesting connection to be made within the plot. The only major sticking-point I have is a typo, that probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much were it not in a particularly large, emphasized font, and so relevant to the plot and characters.

There’s some fun Escher-esque scenery, and the whole thing has a serious yet free-wheeling nature to it.  Perhaps that’s the most endearing quality to the book - Jim Starlin is clearly having fun with the tropes and visual aesthetics he’s been exploring for decades.  He’s throwing around ideas about storytelling – both as tool and method – and bringing out dynamic, and distinct visual designs and concepts with reckless abandon.

Starlin is very good at what he does, and he works with an elegant precision and focus.  This is not something that aspires to change anyone’s preconceived notions of what a comic book can do, but instead uses the tools and advantages of the medium to great effect.  It’s classicism is a strength, and its humor, particularly in the narrative envelope, lends the book its unique charm.


15 Love #1

Written by Andi Watson

Art by Tommy Ohtsuka and Guru eFX

Lettering by Rus Wooton

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by Shanna VanVolt

Click here for preview

15 Love #1 is an odd comic for Marvel to be releasing right now. It is not a superhero book. It has had little hype. Its audience is unclear. Most surprising?  15 Love is charming.

This book is also tough to find. I never thought that I would have to work so hard to pay five dollars (!) for a comic I assumed I would dislike. Apparently, others shared my pessimism. 15 Love was originally supposed to be released in Marvel's Tsunami line. The Tsunami imprint failed to successfully lure manga readers into the more mainstream monthly format, and was dissolved in the same year it was created (2003). The release of this title now just seems like an afterthought, and, registering low on the radar, comic shops appear reluctant to stock it. It took visits to three major Chicago comic book shops and calls two others — one guy even laughed at me on the phone — to even get 15 Love into my hands.

With the deck so strongly stacked against it, 15 Love is going to have to prove that it is more than just bait for young girls and nipponophiles. Unfortunately, for the first couple pages, it doesn't look like 15 Love is going to go further than those boundaries. The first, nearly wordless, layout is just a couple of unrealistically attractive manga girls playing some tennis, standard sport-comic fare. This unexciting match continues for ten pages in the first part of the issue, making for an almost excruciatingly slow start to the plot.

Having said that, page two is when things start getting weird. Andi Watson did an interesting thing when he wrote this book. He introduced a little bit of filth into a pristine world: a drunk who is about to change failing Mill Collins' sheltered prissy tennis academy life. This beauty and the beast pair-up is actually quite compelling with its Karate Kid-esque overtones. There is even a sequence where he makes her do her serve toss over and over in true wax-on/wax-off fashion. However, with the slow start, even after the 56 pages of the double-issue, it is still unclear how this overweight lazy old man and our overwrought, uptight young tennis player are going to fix each other. What their relationship accomplishes so far is the turning of a book that could have been a throwaway flop into an intriguing story.

I must admit that Manga is like Greek (or Japanese) to me. Ohtsuka's art is steeped in that medium. The tendency of his characters to look like they are very excited about things and yelling a lot actually lends itself well to the depiction of teenagers. With the older less-baby faced characters, the fluidity of form is less reliable, but the gut reactions are just as expressive. This blatancy would probably help a younger audience reading the book, but can be a bit alienating for an adult. Also, with the exaggerated drawings of human interactions taking foreground in most panels, the backgrounds look like afterthoughts —flat, sparse, and often overly-digitally rendered. All told, the art, while not my preferred style, is quite serviceable to moving the plot along, and Ohtsuka has some gems of panels communicating a drunk man's range of bleary-eyed silly emotions.

With the too-sexy anime cover and dragging beginning, 15 Love #1 appears to be a Marvel-cleaning-their-gutters book. It will come out for three long issues, then come out in trade form, make a little bit more money, and then disappear. While its trajectory seems predetermined, this book as not as trite as it markets itself (or doesn't). I love superheroes, but 15 Love shines the light more on relatable people, heroes in their own lives, which is a refreshing thing to see being published by the great big M. Maybe if you pick up a copy, you will be as pleasantly surprised as I was... that is, if you can find a store that stocks it.


Baltimore: The Plague Ships Volume 1

Written by Mike MIgnola and Christopher Golden

Art by Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart

Lettering by Clem Robins

Published by Dark Horse Books

Review by Scott Cederlund

One of the more fascinating things to watch as Mike Mignola continues to expand his little supernatural fiefdom is how he manages to keep every story different.  Hellboy is different than Lobster Johnson, B.P.R.D. and Witchfinder even though they all sprung from pretty much the same place in Mignola's imagination.  Through different collaborations, each series and project has been able to tread similar ground but keep different and distinctive voices.  In Baltimore: The Plague Ships Mignola is joined by novelist Christopher Golden and artist Ben Stenbeck and even though Stenbeck does his best Mignola impersonation, the book feels completely different that Mignola's signature series Hellboy.  Golden's writing brings a much more contemplative and literary tone to Mignola's story that has all of the usual supernatural creatures and monster hunters of every other Mignola story.

Baltimore: The Plague Ships is the story of Sir Henry Baltimore, a man who believes he caused a great plague to ravage Europe and lost his own family because of his own actions.  But you may as well call Baltimore "Ismael" and the vampire he's hunting "Moby Dick" in this book as Mignola and Golden are writing a tale about revenge and obsession.  With Golden riding shotgun, Mignola puts all the familiar elements of his stories that we're used to in this book but the book never feels as frantic or adventurous as most of his stories usually do.  This book, following Baltimore on his quest to find the vampire that killed his family is much sadder than most of Mignola's stories are.  Baltimore's tale isn't one of adventure or destiny or even the day-in/day-out workings of fighting monsters; it's the story of one man trying to atone for his sins and that gives it a different feel than almost anything else that Mignola has done.

Stenbeck has worked with Mignola before and here he does his best to make this look like a Mignola book even as his natural inclination looks to try and give the art a Cameron Stewart-like slant.  With Dave Stewart's grayish coloring, the book has a very somber tone to it, punctuated by flashes of violence and horror.  Stenbeck is more workman-like than Duncan Fegredo or Guy Davis whose own styles have taken over the Mignola books that they draw.  Stenbeck's art looks more concerned about serving the story than trying to overshadow it or out do it.  With that, he also knows how to convey the weight of Baltimore's journey to the reader.  Stenbeck and Stewart create a heavy and burdening look to the book, showing how the weight of the world weighs on Baltimore's body.  He may be a man fighting monsters but Stenbeck shows how he's a man who's already been beaten down by the world and doesn't know how or when to stop.

Mignola has a great eye for picking collaborators for his books.  Guy Davis seemed like such an odd choice for B.P.R.D. but Davis made the book his own.  When MIgnola wanted to take a break from drawing Hellboy who else would have thought that Duncan Fegredo would be the perfect artist to pick up the pencil on that book.  Christopher Golden and Ben Stenbeck are previous Mignola collaborators but their pairing on Baltimore: The Plague Ships is a perfect blend of words and pictures to match the tone of the book, a tone that's different from almost anything else with Mignola's name on it.

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The Lone Ranger: The Death of Zorro #4

Written by Ande Parks

Art by Esteve Polls and Oscar Manuel Martin

Lettering by Simon Bowland

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Review by Deniz Cordell

It’s unfortunate that The Lone Ranger doesn’t really appear very much in this issue – as the few pages where he is present are fun set-pieces that have a pulse the rest of this chapter lacks.  Writer Parks also expands upon the Zorro mythos in this issue, with a brief flashback to the late Don Diego de la Vega’s early days in Spain.  Ultimately though, even with those aforementioned scenes, The Lone Ranger and Zorro are essentially non-presences at this moment in the story - and as the conclusion rapidly approaches, that fact is much to the issue’s detriment.  Yes, Don Diego may be dead – hence the flashback – but his spectre does not loom over the action.  His death does not appear to be so much a motivating factor for the characters, but a side-effect of the story.  When you couple that with a case of narrative inertia, this becomes a comic that is distinguished by its undistinguished traits.

The involvement of various Native American tribes provides a nice way to tie-in the two franchises, and Parks continues playing with the ideas of Native American spiritualism, placing increasing weight on the place of the Gods, as more time is spent with the Chumash people.  His dialogue is filled with those sort-of-grandish declarations and spiritual murmurings that populated movies like A Man Called Horse and its half-cousin Dances with Wolves.  While A Man Called Horse is one of my favorite films of that ilk – the story really needed an infusion of a Navajo Joe or Chato’s Land aesthetic in order to temper the more lugubrious sequences.  Still, the story that is really being told is not so much about Zorro’s death, but about the Chutash fighting against oppression – it’s a unique approach, but it has the side effect of making the marquee characters people who seem to be just passing through the story, instead of having an active stake in it.  I actually would have liked the story far more if it were treated as its own entity, untethered from the two iconic masked men, as the Chutash shown are, by and large, nuanced characters.

Much of the issue is devoted Colonel Barton – the story’s main villain – and a flashback to his days in the Civil War provides more depth to the character, if not sympathy.  At this point in the story, this tactic feels more like a digression and distraction –  instead of something that binds and brings all of the elements into a tighter focus.  The Colonel’s character is still seen as a remorseless creature, but his motivations are elucidated upon, and he is revealed to be another of those tortured souls who believes their actions are done to restore nobility.

Esteve Polls' art has a streamlined, European approach (a few panels, for whatever reason, had shades of an over-rendered Hergé), and he provides expressive eyes to the masked heroes.  There also seems to be a Tony DeZuniga influence in Poll’s choice of angles, and some of his detail work, as well. Oscar Manuel Martin’s color work emphasizes earth-tones at the expense of seeming almost monochromatic at times.  He limits his color choices in the flashbacks, which helps delineate the narrative threads.

My main issue with the issue is that even though there is narrative forward momentum, I came away feeling like very little actually happened.  There is too much looking back, too much filling in of holes that probably didn’t need filling in the first place.  There is a well-executed shootout – in which the Lone Ranger and the Chumash fight against several of Barton’s men – but even that feels a little rote, complete with a premature moment of triumph that ends poorly.  A perk to the scene is that Parks uses the fact that the Lone Ranger doesn’t shoot to kill, as we see him strategically firing to wound.  Poll’s framing, which goes from widescreen paneling, to shorter, vertical layouts, lends the sequence some energy.

Don’t  misunderstand, this is not a bad comic, just a fairly uninteresting one.  There’s enough here for those who have been following the miniseries so far; the last few pages offer the requisite amping up of tension, and it’s nice to see a cliffhanger that is a bit more subtle, almost introspective in its intimate simplicity – as opposed to our heroes seeing an enormous army waiting at their gates.  It’s very much a “calm before the storm” type story, something echoed literally in the second-to-last page – it’s quite possible that the final issue will offer a tremendous, and satisfying apotheosis, but if the pacing is as glacial as this entry’s, it may end up being a missed opportunity to create a moving elegy for the heroes of the west.

A Kid-Friendly Cowboy & His Brainy Bear
A Kid-Friendly Cowboy & His Brainy Bear

Reed Gunther #1

Written by Shane Houghton

Art by Chris Houghton

Published by Image Comics

Review by Deniz Cordell

Yes, this new colorized version of Reed Gunther came out two weeks ago.  Nevertheless, I wanted to briefly point it out because if you haven’t picked it up yet, it’s well worth your time.  Image is republishing the original four, self-published issues (in living color!) and following them up with six all new issues, which, based on the issue’s closing text piece, should be quite a lot of fun.

The high-concept is a difficult story-sphere to travel in, as in order for the idea to really sing, it must transcend itself, and bring out something beyond its one-line idea.  In this case, the high concept forReed Gunther is “A cowboy and his bear ride the west.” Yes, it’s a very vague riff on John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean in that regard (where Paul Newman adopts a giant black bear for a pet), but the team of Houghton & Houghton bring spirit, whimsy, and a rollicking – but sometimes laid-back – pace that makes the book zip along.  The comic is as good natured as its main character, and it makes sure that Reed and his ursine companion, Sterling, are given clearly defined characterizations, and a charming friendship.  Even the issue’s “guest star,” a beleaguered new ranch owner named Starla, is given plenty of moments to shine and reveal glimpses into her character.

Chris Houghton’s art is cartoony – the purity of line is everything here.  The sound effects are used to great effect, and quite hysterical.  The comic pacing is well executed, and the consistent use of “takes” from Sterling lend a surreal beat to much of the action.  The story is a fun light-adventure yarn, involving a giant snake, befitting the slight hints of the supernatural, and the cryptozoological that the series possesses. Writer Shane Houghton brings a wry twist partway through the story that, even when expected, is still very funny, and the story’s payoff is satisfying – building as it does off an earlier gag, and drawn with concision and little further insights into the characters.

Everything comes together to make Reed Gunther a tremendously enjoyable comic book, poking a pin in the balloon of the gravitas-laden old west, and setting off on its own zany trail.

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