Hello, Rama readers! Ready for some Rapid-Fire Reviews? Best Shots will cut to the chase, with plenty of books from Marvel, DC, Image, IDW and more! Let's kick off quickly with our friendly neighborhood Jamie Trecker, as he takes a peak at the latest issue of Flashpoint: Batman, Knight of Vengeance...
Flashpoint: Batman, Knight of Vengeance #2 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Jamie Trecker): Who is the Joker? Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso take their reimagining of the Batman mythos to the next level with a comic that should go down as a classic. Even if you don’t care about Flashpoint this taut miniseries — an “Elseworlds” tale, if you will — is a must-read. Azzarello is already the best noir writer in comics working today, with streamlined plots, clipped dialogue and the pervasive air of corruption essential to the genre. Noir is not hard-boiled detective fiction — though it is often confused for it. It is a genre instead in which the “hero” has no hope of redemption, being just as diseased as the world around him. Of course that’s not Batman, who at root is not only the world’s best detective but a fundamentally moral man. Not here: Azzarello, given full license to unmake the character has a “Batman” in Thomas Wayne that is rotting from the inside out. Everything and everyone this Batman touches is doomed and it’s all too clear that what is driving Wayne is hardly vengeance at all; it’s his own fear of death. There’s not a word out of place in Azzarello’s script, all the beats are hit and all the clues are there if you look closely enough. Risso’s artwork is stark, languid and gorgeous. If there’s an artist out there that channels the feel of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles better, I haven’t seen him. And who is the Joker? I won’t spoil it, but I guarantee you the answer is both truly shocking and utterly logical.
Red Skull #1 (Published by Marvel Comics; Review by Shanna VanVolt; Click here for preview): Red Skull #1 is a good first issue that hooks the reader before it explains too much. Mirko Colak carries the book with strong depictions that stay true to writer Greg Pak's attempts at historical accuracy. There is no doubt that the creative team wants this to be a heavy book, and this first issue is certainly not for the faint of heart. While I wish there could become some new metaphors on the scene for modern times, the Nazi era is an agreed-upon point of evil, and Pak's writing shows willingness to attempt to understand that evil from which Captain America's most storied nemesis emerges. The panels speak worlds more than the specific scenes they chronicle, which is a testament to the emotional and figurative power of this book. Though the scenes are powerful, not much story development actually takes place in 25 pages. Red Skull #1 is very much an introduction of a book, a peek at what is to come, and it will be interesting to see where it goes. The interior art falls short of the strong Nazi propaganda style of the front cover, but Colak’s dusty Depression-Era orphans read a bit more realistic (if less stylized) for the time period. Pak has a lot of writing ahead of him to pull out an engaging plot from such solemn subject matter. If you retreat to comics to get away from a cruel painful world, stay away from this one. However, if you are looking for a book that mines human atrocities for deep answers, Pak and crew are off to an intriguing start.
Blue Estate #4 (Published by Image Comics; Review by Shanna VanVolt; Click here for preview): I don't know if Blue Estate is going to pick a cast of characters and go with it, or if they are just going to keep adding to the lineup. Frankly, I hope the latter. Each issue’s various situations add another layer of slime to the picture of Los Angeles this book portrays, and issue 4 is no different. While most of the characters are previously established, a web of incestuous Russian mob dealings widens. The four artists can create a bit of confusion in recognizing characters, but Blue Estate #4 harbors a lot of unambiguous personalities. We've got a lot of Hollywood covered so far: sleazy action star turned producer, evil money mob men, intense police chiefs with disappointing Lost-Generation sons, trophy wives with secrets, small time drug dealers turned informants... and the list goes on. There is a catch-up sheet at the beginning of the issue, but I'm sure every reader will get lost somewhere. But it doesn't really matter, because what this book offers isn’t a clear story and flawless panels, but a certain gritty pizzazz. Every time I get fed up with a messy panel, the book offers a deliciously diced panel array that couldn't make its thoughtful way into a big name superhero book. There it redeems its purpose: entertainment. It is not a book with great life lessons that broaden your thought horizons, but Blue Estate offers enough great covers, nervy art, and entangled relations to keep your attention the whole way through. And that is kind of what Hollywood is all about.
Flashpoint: World of Flashpoint #2 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Jamie Trecker; Click here for preview): The only must-read Flashpoint spin-off races on with Traci 13 trying to stop her father and H.I.V.E. from using a (suspiciously familiar) satellite in space to blast the Amazons and Atlanteans to dust. To do so, Madame Xanadu has tasked Traci with assembling her own super-team, but this a mission that Traci both fails to understand and to carry out. This issue, Eduardo Francisco handles the art chores solo (he was aided by Paulo Siqueira for the first issue) and the book looks both softer and tighter as a result. Francisco’s style — a soft-focus, almost pastel finish — works well for a book about a 16-year old girl, even if she is potentially the most powerful figure in the Flashpoint Universe. Some will find her journey around the planet a bit of a time-waste, and they’ll have a point — this is a book long on dialogue and short on doing stuff. That said, the title is intended to give folks a tour of this entire changed world and writer Rex Ogle has done an excellent job of getting everything across in a series of double-page vignettes. Ogle also delivers a great cliffhanger that might resonate best with folks old enough to remember Star Spangled Comics. Suffice it to say that everything you thought you knew about Traci’s father, the “Ghost-Breaker," was wrong.
Reed Gunther #2 (Published by Image Comics; Review by Deniz Cordell): All you really need to know about Reed Gunther is that it’s the sort of comic where – when a character kicks another character in the backside, the accompanying sound effect is “BOOT!” Yes, it’s a reprint – but it has been colorized to great effect, and if you missed out on the initial self-published version, you really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy for yourself – and a couple for your friends. The Brothers Houghton create another utterly delightful western story, and they fill it to the brim with jokes, monsters, high spirits, and a genuinely warm relationship between a cowboy and his bear. When I heard myself audibly gasp (well, it had to be audibly, otherwise I wouldn’t have heard it) at a twist in the story, I knew that the creative team had created indelible, utterly charming characters that you could care about immediately. Credit must be equally split between Shane Houghton’s wonderful script, which is inventive in its plotting, and so carefully attuned to the various character types that litter the comic – and Chris Houghton’s wonderfully expressive art – he gives the characters such marvelous faces, and has a fine eye for action and humor. The story, briefly, deals with some strange monsters who lurk in a cave near a small town – it opens with a flashback that’s given a smooth, diffuse pencil look, and the requisite sepia tinting. When everything leaps forward to the present day, the shift to the standard art styles works terrifically well. This is a brilliant comic – I can’t think of a single person it wouldn’t appeal to – and it’s a terrific book to share with other people who might not read comics, or to younger siblings or children. It’s a comic that I can easily see becoming a communal experience – with family members sitting around the book, reading, laughing, and pointing out favorite bits together. I can’t speak highly enough of it.
Flashpoint: Secret Seven #2 (Published by DC Comics; Review by Jamie Trecker): Dark, propulsive and slippery, Secret Seven might be the most fun team to come out of the Flashpoint event. And that’s saying a lot considering that with only one issue left to go, this team isn’t even together yet. A lot of credit has to go to Peter Milligan, returning to the character that made his reputation in the United States 20 years ago. Shade the Changing Man — an offbeat if fundamentally one-dimensional creation of the great Steve Ditko — was totally keel-hauled by Milligan, who dragged the character through the psychic muck of the DC Universe. Shade now wears the Madness Vest, a device of immense power that allows the wearer to see different realities with the unfortunate side effect of making the wearer go mad himself. When Milligan handled the character in the 1990s, he used this to great effect, having Shade dip in and out of various eras in American history and by repeatedly killing Shade off and then resurrecting him as a fundamentally different character. (Shade has been everything from a mope to a psychotic to a woman, which come to think of it, may be quite revealing about Milligan himself.) When we last saw him in his own title, he had jumped into a time machine, determined to erase a past in which he had killed most of his friends. In this book, it seems Shade has picked up where he left off — killing his entire team for reasons we’re not quite clear about. This issue is also notable for the second re-introduction of Amethyst into the DC Universe proper. Amethyst was a typically ’80s invention: originally aimed at teenage girls, the Princess of Gemworld mutated into a far darker and weirder character that saw her move closer in spirit to characters like the Enchantress and Terry Thirteen. She made a couple of cameos in the Infinite Crisis series, but this is really the first time she’s taken a starring role — but how long it will last with Shade around is unclear. One thing is missing from this book however: George Perez. He did beautiful interiors for the first issue, but this time out he’s been replaced by Fernando Blanco and Scott Koblish. They are competent, but it’s like having a bar band follow the Rolling Stones. That aside, this is a solid book that can be read apart from the Flashpoint event — like Shade, this title is so out there it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the main event. Yet.
That Hellbound Train #2 (Published by IDW Publishing; Review by Deniz Cordell): Joe and John Lansdale continue to bring Robert Bloch’s chilling That Hellbound Train to admirable comic book life – scripting the adaptation with great intelligence. Dave Wachter’s moody art not only creates real horror, but also brings to life the era and setting with carefully chosen details and fashions. His people look like real people, each with their own unique physiques and postures, and his devilish conductor has a mangled appearance and a twisted smile that speaks volumes about the character. The psychological brinksmanship between Martin and the Conductor is done very well, complete with Blochian moments of extremely dry humor, and the hints of tropes well-used by Theodore Dreiser show how well attuned Bloch was as a writer, and how brilliantly the Lansdales run with that thread. The astonishing thing that the team is able to do is make it seem that this is the natural medium for the story – there aren’t any awkward moments where something doesn’t translate. Alfredo Rodriguez’s color work is suitably washed out and bleak. He eschews reds, with the exception of one character who makes her first appearance in this issue — and she stands out because of it. There is a transformation sequence that is done artfully and with a cinematic eye, and the whole issue is suffused with a constantly building sense of dread. This is a deeper horror – one that strikes the marrow and soul – it isn’t about madmen leaping out and stabbing random folks – it’s about a man growing up, and the choices he makes; or chooses not to. It touches upon primal instincts and philosophical quandaries – it raises a question that confronts everyone, but offers the element of the supernatural so that the ramifications of such issues can be directly addressed. Bloch’s work is in wonderful hands – with a creative team that clearly understands and cares about the source material and the author’s sensibilities. Thanks to the careful adaptation, it’s a work that’s equally in tune with intellect and emotion, and the art makes it a rich visual experience. Even though I’ve read the original Bloch story, I still can’t wait for the next issue to come out, to see how the team handles the rest of it.
Flashpoint: Abin Sur – The Green Lantern #2 (Published by DC Comics, Review by Shanna VanVolt): Abin Sur #2 remains on the fringes of the main continuity of Flashpoint, but it keeps promising to get relevant soon. There are hints of what is to come with the reboot/relaunch/DCnU (and whatever else we aren’t supposed to call it), but not too much meat on the bones yet in this second issue. Like many of the Flashpoints, Abin Sur feels a bit like a visit to Limbo instead of to a destination. That said, Felipe Massafera does a sturdy job with limited content, contributing large glossy scenes with dynamic angles and elements. Expect a lot of well-drawn full page layouts. While Massafera’s art is nice to look at, it stops short of being able to carry the book. Plot-wise, it feels a little like DC has just been repeatedly pointing out: Hey! Abin Sur is alive! Look! Abin Sur! Still Alive! -- and not really thinking too much past that. There is a cutesy nod to the recent Green Lantern movie in this issue, featuring Hal Jordan -- just stopping by to say hi, I guess (Why is Hal Jordan wearing a 1930’s flight jacket? I don’t know). There is another contrived moment where ”Flashpoint” as a concept is lazily revealed with much pomp. Shouldn’t we have name-dropped the overarching event an issue ago instead of more than halfway through the miniseries? Anyway, DC is right about one thing: it is cool that Abin Sur is still alive, and it is a pleasure to hang out with him in his books, I just wish he would do more things in less pages so a reader could buy a book and get a full entertainment return instead of an IOU.
Executive Assistant: Iris #1 (Published by Aspen Comics; Review by Deniz Cordell): The old bait-and-switch gets a lot of play in this first issue of the new volume of Executive Assistant: Iris. You know the technique – set up what looks to be one situation, and then present a slightly different outcome. Many of the plot mechanisms in the issue seem to be based on this simple narrative gimmick, and for the most part, their employment is quite effective. This is particularly true of the first major sequence of the book – set at a rather posh restaurant. The narration boxes provide some background as we are supplied with one misdirection after another. After that, the grammar of the book becomes familiar to us, and we are led to expect further bits of convolution – and we get quite a few more. More surprising then, are the moments when the expected happens. Writer David Wohl provides a story of corporate intrigue played out as an action story – as we follow Acteia’s efforts to keep her employer alive. He gets some humor out of the scenario as well – a scene involving a helicopter has a particularly funny twist. The art team of Eduardo Francisco & Alex Lei do a fine job of presenting the violence in a slick, but hard fashion – there are moments of lissome acrobatics alongside more graphic sequences, and the two exist comfortably side-by-side. Teodoro Gonzalez’s color work is varied, and the final sequence of the issue recapitulates the initial theme of “bait-and-switch” to its natural conclusion. Those who have followed previous volumes of the series will find much to enjoy here. Got a comment? There's lots of Newsarama conversation on FACEBOOK and TWITTER.