Happy Monday, 'Rama Readers! Team Best Shots wants to welcome you to the work week with a heaping handful of reviews. From Marvel and DC to Image and Kickstart, your friendly neighborhood team of reviewers has the straight dope for your reading enjoyment. So let's kick off today's column with the Dark Knight, as George Marston takes a look at Batman #2...
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion and FCO
Lettering by Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
Published by DC Comics
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
I was fairly skeptical of the new Batman creative team when the book was first announced among the "New 52." Scott Snyder's Batman has been hit or miss for me, and although I really enjoyed his Gates of Gotham collaboration with Kyle Higgins, the ending of that story left me a little cold. On top of that, I have never, ever been a fan of Greg Capullo. In fact, I've kind of always specifically hated his art. If that weren't enough, I'm a little bitter that Dick Grayson didn't get more time under the cowl. So, needless to say, the chips were stacked against this title for me. But, I am so desperate for a Batman comic that delivers the Dark Knight that I've been missing since Paul Dini left "Detective Comics" that I really felt I had to give this book a shot. I just love Batman so damn much (something that is totally and completely unique in our field). The first issue was a little better than I expected. Only a little, mind you. Just enough to convince me that maybe I oughtta pick up the second issue. I'll tell you what, I'm glad I did, because this issue really kicks into high gear. While I can't say this is the Batman comic I've been yearning for, I can definitely say that it's more than worth reading.
For his part, Scott Snyder does a great job of really showing off all the different sides of Batman. There's an element of detective work, some gadgetry, and a whole lot of Batman kicking ass. The caption box narration didn't really grip me in the beginning, but as the story progressed, I found myself getting more and more comfortable with Bruce Wayne's internal voice. There's something about the way Snyder writes it that gives it a little bit of a cavalier attitude, that makes the character more infectious for me than he's been in a long time. It also echoes what Peter Tomasi is doing in his brilliant Batman & Robin, and there's a lot to be said for feeling like I'm reading the same character in two different books. I guess now that he's been dead for a while, Bruce Wayne finally has something of a zest for life.
Further, the mystery that's building around the "Court of Owls," and their involvement in the history of Gotham, is a nice continuation of the themes that Snyder and Kyle Higgins were exploring in Gates of Gotham, without being so tied to that story that a new reader would need the background. I like that Snyder is starting his with a new threat, albeit one with some elements of previous villains, and that feels distinctly "Batman."
So, how about Greg Capullo? Well, surprisingly, I found myself really enjoying his art in this issue. Last issue, I was sufficiently impressed by just being able to get through 22 pages. This time, I actually found myself re-reading some pages and panels, not out of confusion, but to admire the level of personality that Capullo injects into his characters. There are times when I think he's letting style get in the way of storytelling, but for the most part, I really enjoyed this issue on the strength of his character work. I do think that inker Jonathan Glapion and colorist FCO are selling Capullo's pencils short. Glapion's inks are scratchy and busy when they don't have to be; more stark blacks and negative space could really turn Capullo's take on the Caped Crusader into an iconic vision of the character, but Glapion can't seem to break away from filling every part of the page with tons of tiny lines and hatches. FCO, on the other hand, doesn't seem to get the idea of "mood" when it comes to color. Everything looks fine, I guess, but there's not nearly as much personality in the colors as there is in Capullo's pencils, or even Glapion's inks. I'd love to see Capullo paired with artists like Derek Fridolfs and Dave Stewart, whose approach to his pencils might actually result in something outstanding, rather than simply surprisingly good.
Really, any book that can make me like and defend Greg Capullo's art should be considered a winner right off the bat. On top of that, Snyder is finally crafting a unique and likable approach to Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. He's paid some good attention to the man behind the mask, which is something that many writers have ignored or avoided for too long. Time will tell if the pacing and structure hold up through multiple arcs, but right now, I've been won over. Snyder and Capullo are really on the verge of something great with this book. Now I want to see them follow through.
Fear Itself: The Fearless #1
Written by Cullen Bunn, Matt Fraction, and Christopher Yost
Art by Paul Pelletier, Mark Bagley, Danny Miki, Andy Lanning and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Cory Pettit
Published by DC Comics
Review by Edward Kaye
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Fear Itself: The Fearless is the first of several spin-offs exploring the aftermath of Fear Itself. Specifically, this one expands on the first epilogue, and focuses on the hammers of the Worthy, and what became of them after the climax of the main series. It seems the eight weapons are in government custody, Sin is on the hunt for them, and Valkyrie, believing that they are the responsibility of Asgard, decides to take matters into her own hands. The premise and plot of the series was co-devised by Matt Fraction, Cullen Bunn and Christopher Yost, and is a pretty solid backbone upon which to build in interesting story.
Cullen Bunn is responsible for scripting the issue and the whole maxi-series, and does an exemplary job with what he is given to work with. He opens the issue with a five-page prologue set on the battlefields of WWII, which features Valkyrie delivering a clever little monologue that foreshadows the events to come. From there he sets the scene with an absorbingly tense dialogue between Valkyrie and Captain America that for the most part explains what is going on, without drifting too far into exposition territory. The rest of the issue is set-up for events to come, and is highlighted by some well-paced action scenes, and some great dialogue and character work. The fact that Valkyrie turns on S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers feels pretty natural, because Bunn manages to establish the character’s views and feelings so well in the preceding pages of the story.
There were however a few questions that came to mind while reading though the issue, and those were: How did Sin escape after the battle? How does the government have the weapons when they all flew off during the climax? And why didn’t they just melt them down like the weapons that Iron Man made? Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but it would have been nice to see these points addressed in the story, though admittedly it’s more of a problem with the plotting than the script.
Paul Pelletier and Mark Bagley both pencil the issue, with each doing five pages, before trading off to the other for five, and so on. Both artists do a wonderful job, and to be honest, if you weren’t aware of who drew what, it would be pretty difficult to distinguish between the two artists’ work. Both use nice open and welcoming looking linework that feels very at home on a superhero book. They both add a good amount of detail to characters and figures, but not so much as to make things look cluttered. If I had to pick, I would probably say that Pelletier’s work stands out more, as his backgrounds seem a lot more detailed, whereas Bagley’s backgrounds are mostly plain. He also uses some nice panel layouts and interesting composition, which make his pages look that bit more impressive.
Following suit, the book also has two inkers, with Danny Miki on Paul Pelletier’s pages, and Andy Lanning on Mark Bagley’s pages. Both inkers do great work, utilizing rather similar styles that are quite faithful to the penciled artwork - keeping blacks to a moderate level, and using a medium line-weight - to help keep the look of the art more upbeat. They both spruce the pages up with some elegant embellishments like creative hatching and shading, subtle finishes on faces and figures, good use of force lines, etc. All of which makes for some interesting looking final artwork.
If you were a huge fan of Fear Itself and were eager to find out what happens next, then Fear Itself: The Fearless #1 will be certain to please, with a well-written script, working from an intriguing plot, albeit one that raises a few questions. If you were only mildly interested in the main series, and didn’t pick up any tie-ins, then there obviously won’t be much here for you. Personally, I was somewhere in the middle, but decided to pick it up because I really like Cullen Bunn’s work on The Sixth Gun. I’m not sure if I’m invested enough in the plot to keep picking the title up, but the quality of Bunn’s writing is definitely what would get me to come back!
Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Seth Damoose and Paul Little
Published by Image Comics
Review by Amanda McDonald
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
With zombies and vampires being all the rage lately — aliens have fallen out of favor as the hip subgroup of the unexplained. Josh Williamson brings aliens back into the spotlight with the debut issue of Xenoholics, a book that seemingly serves as a parody of these types of comics, initially calling into question the very existence of the enemy, while also mocking those that are unhealthily obsessed with the unknown.
The premise is based on an ensemble group of characters that attend weekly Xenoholic meetings, for those who have been reportedly been abducted by aliens, or are simply addicted to finding the truth about extraterrestrial life. The meetings work like other twelve step meetings, and as each member shares, Williamson develops their character, but only on a very basic surface level with the exception of two, and even those aren’t too deep. We’ve got a drug addled female rock star, a homemaker, a cop, a prizefighter, a military man, the professor who runs the group, and the mysterious Kyle, who we find out quickly is an undercover reporter. These characters serve as over-the-top caricatures more than actual characters that I feel any sort of genuine interest in. As the story progresses, the reality of alien life is exposed and there is a cliffhanger ending with one of the characters disappearing.
The book opens with a scene that is noted will be continued in issue five. With so many comics on my plate, it's going to take a LOT for me to commit to a book that wants to string me along for that many issues — and so I went into the book hoping to really be wowed. That didn't happen. I didn’t throw it down in disgust either, but I feel like the issue just falls flat of where it’s trying to be. The dialogue is clearly supposed to be funny, but it seems predictable and uses profanity gratuitously. Considering the book’s art has a very cartoony or Sunday comic strip kind of vibe, I’d be genuinely concerned about a kid picking it up off store shelves and liking the art, and finding the first pages about probing a bit disconcerting. I’d much rather see the book in more of the style of the cover art, and of course that’s a matter of personal preference – but the cover art is quite gorgeous and has an ethereal, other-worldly air about it that I’d really like to see more of. The interior art is indeed well executed, the characters have a lot of expression, the backgrounds are solid (there’s a scene where a crop, or rather concrete, circle appears in Times Square that is well done) – and it’s obvious the style was chosen to further the satirical and fun tone of the book, which sadly just never gets there.
I give this book six out of ten for our ‘Rama Rating, because I do applaud Williamson for resurrecting a genre that hasn’t been seen lately, and definitely has a potential fan base. Rather than take an X-Files approach, he’s attempting to create a book that taps into the humor genre as well – but sadly I just didn’t find this first issue particularly funny or intriguing. If you’ve really been craving a book like this, you may want to give the next issue a try, or even keep tuning in to see what big event goes down in issue five – but for myself, I think I’ll settle for giving it a quick flip through in my comic shop before plunking down $3.50 to see what happens.
Wonder Woman #2
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Cliff Chiang and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang have made Wonder Woman something I don't know if it's ever been, a book with a dark and tough attitude. Past creators have told classical and graceful stories. They've told stories of a dignified Diana who is as much an ambassador as she is a warrior or superhero. It's rarely been a book that's willing to get down and dirty but I don't think Azzarello is that interested in writing about ambassadors of peace or superheroes. When we've seen him write Superman and Batman before, he's tried to bring them down to his level in the gutter and that is exactly what he has done in Wonder Woman #2, which more resembles an issue of his 100 Bullets than it does any past Wonder Woman story.
Azzarello's writing in Wonder Woman #2 is sparse. In the span of his couple of issues, we really don't know much about his Diana other than she lives in London. He plays her as much more of a warrior woman of few words. Returning to Paradise Island with an injured god and a woman impregnated by the king of the gods, she's coolly welcomed by her sisters and her mother. These Amazons, Wonder Woman included, do not show much warmth or emotion. The small hint Azzarello shows about their culture is their warrior's pride when Wonder Woman is challenged to a fight by another Amazon. Wonder Woman halfheartedly declines but a smile from the queen, her mother, gives her all the encouragement she needs to accept. Azzarello's Wonder Woman wants to fight; she wants to battle. She's not the peaceful warrior. She's just a warrior.
Just as Azzarello has subtly altered the character to make her both easily recognizable but different from all past versions of the character we've seen before, Cliff Chiang does the same thing visually. The Wonder Woman we picture most often is a cross between an athlete and a pinup, as beautiful as she is graceful. Chiang has put meat on her bones, drawing a warrior. His art in this issue is rough, ready for a fight. Wonder Woman is large and looks ready to explode any moment. Chiang captures her temperament perfectly; she's always ready for a battle. His artwork for this book isn't fine or polished. It has an edge to it that synchronizes perfectly with Azzarello's writing.
If his Wonder Woman is a warrior we know by her actions more than her words, Azzarello is making the Greek gods the stars of this story through their pettiness and scheming. Athena, the wife of Zeus, and Strife, one of Zeus's many children (though is she Athena's daughter?) are some of the most human characters in this story in the way they react to a pregnant woman. Azzarello's gods aren't noble and don't sit in alabaster halls looking down over humanity. They plot against their enemies and try to crush them beneath their heels. There are secret agendas and alliances being built in this issue.
Essentially what it boils down to is that Brian Azzarello appears to be making Wonder Woman into a 100 Bullets-like book and that's a good thing. When he has tried to do longer Batman and Superman stories before, they have ended up being a rough mix of Azzarello's style mixed with playing nice with DC's toys. This time, Azzarello isn't trying to play nice but instead he is bringing Wonder Woman into the morally murky power games he excels at depicting. Azzarello and Chiang's work in Wonder Woman #2 shows us a much welcomed different side of Wonder Woman, her Amazons and her gods. It shows us their dark and dangerous side.
Journey Into Mystery #629
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Whilce Portacio, Doug Braithwaite, Allen Martinez, Arif Prianto, John Rauch and Ulises Arreola
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 1 out of 10
Kieron Gillen is a talented writer — but even he can't overcome bad art. And that is a shame: While I've loved the adventures of Young Loki, what should have been a triumphant conclusion to the first arc of Journey Into Mystery ultimately turns into an impressive failure of execution from Whilce Portacio, who manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
To say that Portacio's style feels like a jarring mismatch for the tone and content of Gillen's script is a bit of an understatement. You have a script with a teenage protagonist that combines a sense of humor, some metatextual magic, and even some sadness among these heady, status quo altering events. This should have been the big one, the issue that made you realize that Loki was sympathetic, that the young God of Mischief really was right all along.
And that's Portacio's biggest problem with this issue: None of this gets reflected in the artwork. On the contrary, Portacio actually seems to ignore all of the emotional content in Gillen's script, focusing on the fighting and fireworks in a story that seems to be shouting "that is not the point." From his scratchy, over-rendered designs — the teenage Loki looks like a wrinkled adult in his first appearance, and his young companion Leah looks like a fully-grown demon of a woman — to the surprisingly small reveals of big moments like Surtur's return or Thor and Odin's reunion, it's pretty amazing to see the visual dissonance on display. Portacio's artwork doesn't just miss the mark, it actually goes so far as to sap Gillen's script of any charm and nuance, especially when combined with the sickly colors of Arif Prianto and John Rauch, who turn Captain America into an aqua green on their first page. This was a story that required some whimsy from its artist, a sense of humor, but Portacio plays everything way too literally.
Coming from someone who has really enjoyed Gillen's set-up for the conflicted teenage trickster god, I can't say how disappointed this makes me as a reader. Gillen had been laying out some particularly clever scenes, and you can see where he was trying to lay out some nice character beats, particularly with Loki's relationships with Leah, with Thor, and his struggles with the price of his unlikely heroism. When you see Doug Braithwaithe draw three pages of this book, you can almost imagine what might have been, a sort of mythic Lord of the Rings-meets-coming of age redemption saga. This is a book that should have made you laugh, cry and call for more — it's not the equivalent of writing with both hands behind your back, it's more like writing while wrapped in a straightjacket, with a bag tied over your face, and stuffed into a closet in the most remote area of the house. The disconnect between the artistic partners here is almost total.
The Serpent has clearly scored one casualty, and it's not the one you'd think. While this issue might have a little bit more heft if you read all the previous chapters in one sitting, that's a fairly damning statement to make for a 22-page comic book. On the one hand, Gillen didn't exactly tailor his script to suit his artist — but considering the production timeline behind these books, he may very well have written this story before his new art team was ever put into play. But the failure of this book falls on the art team, who feel like they could have been better suited on just about any other comic than this. It's unfortunate that the big question you ask at the climax of Journey Into Mystery is: Where did it all go so wrong?
Saga of a Doomed Universe Vol. 1 and 2
Written, Illustrated and Lettered by Scott Reed
Published by Web's Best Comics and Graphicly
Review by George Marston
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Scott Reed's Saga of a Doomed Universe is a rare animal in comics today. It's a self-published superhero story from an independent creator that doesn't seem to owe its existence to a pile of unused Batman scripts, crafted as it has been not because its author doesn't know anything better than superheroes, but because that is the medium in which the story is best told. Chronicling the end of the "Saga Comics" superheroes and their world, Saga of a Doomed Universe tells a story within a story within a story, as it also tells the tale of the downfall of the publishing company responsible for "Saga Comics." Writer/artist Scott Reed insists that the story of the doomed publisher was related to him by "Burt Colt," the only remaining creator of the Saga Comics line. As the story goes, the very existence of Saga Comics has been wiped off the map due to their involvement in a government conspiracy. Likewise, the world of the Saga Comics heroes is on the verge of destruction when the world's ultimate villain sets forth on a world conquering scheme that goes all too well, until getting out of hand.
Not to set a high bar, but the story's dystopian nature and too-human superheroes can't help but raise comparison to "Watchmen," and certainly there's an influence there. Reed's ultra-bronze age style of art calls to mind the prestige format books put out be DC and Marvel's "Epic" line in the '80's, channeling the "cutting edge" charm of those books and their attitude. He manages to pull it off with just enough of a tongue in cheek attitude to really sell his love for the genre, without seeming so earnest as to shut people out. There's a hint of "Venture Bros." style self-awareness to the proceedings that makes it easy not to call the legions of outrageous heroes and villains of Saga Comics into question. Little touches like Burt Colt's editor's notes referring to previous stories in the line help to sell the illusion that there is a whole world beyond these pages.
Then there's the matter of the framing device, the story of Saga Comics itself. Presented as text overlays pasted on top of the actual comic pages, the story is told through transcripts and notes from one-time Saga Comics creator Burt Colt, who saw his life's work ripped away and destroyed when he failed to comply to a government order that shut down Saga Comics, and erased all traces of its existence. At first, I admit, I was a little thrown by the way the text blocks were formatted, with some of them blocking out major portions of pages and art. It started to click though, as I caught on to the storytelling tricks used to get around these obstructions. It's interesting to see how one plans a page that they know will be almost entirely obscured, and still get across the necessary information.
The tagline for Saga of a Doomed Universe bills the story as "1984's most shocking comic!" and the story continues to sell that idea wholeheartedly. The characters are quirky, the art is a study in the genre, and the writing is infectious and authentic. It's easy to get lost in the story, as Reed sells the characters with ease, erasing the concept of meta-text just enough to tell a truly good superhero story on top of the genre-commentary and framing device. With one chapter still left to be published digitally, through Graphicly, there's still just a little time left for Saga Comics. In a way, I'm left saddened that we've only gotten the end of the story for these characters, but there's something to be said for finishing a comic and wanting more.
Written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson
Art by Mahmud Asrar, Dan Green and Dave McCaig
Lettering by John J. Hill
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
For me, DC's New 52 initiative was really meant to serve two purposes: First, it was meant to get DC's creative teams — particularly their artists — reinvigorated and realigned. And second, it was meant to remind readers why we loved these characters in the first place, freed from the imposing shackles of continuity.
With that in mind, I'd argue that Supergirl accomplishes one of these tasks — namely, it's a showcase for Mahmud Asrar, who really takes this opportunity seriously to push as hard as he can to make a name for himself. And while the relentless fighting between Supergirl and her more famous cousin still doesn't have that emotional resonance to make us really root for Kara Zor-El, there's enough spark behind the low-calorie content to make Supergirl a book worth consideration.
Mahmud Asrar does have a little bit of a roughness when it comes to consistency — sometimes his faces have a bit of a misshapen quality to them — but ultimately his work reminds me a lot of a Stuart Immonen solidness spliced with Mark Bagley expressiveness and maybe just a hint of Rafael Albuquerque pizzazz with the design. While I think he does play a little bit of tug-of-war with inker Dan Green and colorist Dave McCaig (whose work does seem a little bit flat here), there's a surprising amount of energy here. I love the snottiness that they give Superman here, with his arched eyebrows and crinkled nose showing that even the Man of Steel is getting a little bit annoyed by his supposed cousin's arrival. Asrar is not what I'd consider a widescreen kind of artist, but at the same time, he seems to be having a lot of fun with the loose fight choreography, particularly the emotional moments, like Kara learning she has the ability to fly.
But fighting doesn't equal a story, and in that regard, Michael Green and Mike Johnson don't quite take this script beyond the appeal of its initial elevator pitch: "Supergirl fights Superman! How awesome would that be?" The pacing moves fast and travels light, but aside from two memorable sequences where Supergirl learns of her powers of X-ray vision and flight, Green and Johnson don't answer the big question that's hounded the Girl of Steel since her reinvention by Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner — namely, why do we care about this girl? Sure, she's an alien, but there has to be something human, something that we can relate to, something that makes us care about her as a character, rather than as simply a familiar superhero property. And considering how long the fight sequence of this comic goes — basically fifteen pages out of a twenty-page comic — you can't help but see where they might have trimmed some fat to add more life between Kara and Clark's relationship on Krypton, which is far more cute and endearing than just about anything else.
Now, don't get me wrong, this book isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination — you can see the hustle behind Mahmud Asrar's pencilwork, and I feel confident he's only going to get better with exposure — but at the same time, there's still plenty of potential behind Supergirl that I think remains untapped. Inside baseball fans I think will find Asrar's rise to be particularly fascinating, perhaps enough to merit buying this book, but as far as mass-market, accessible appeal, that's a whole other question. The book is certainly easy to get into, and the fight sequence has a simple enough hook that new readers may have a blast — but as far as having the character mechanics and lasting power, I feel that Supergirl isn't quite hitting where she needs to be yet.
Book Smart (Published by Kickstart Comics; Review by David Pepose; 'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10): The litmus test might just be the concept — what happens when a researcher winds up being left for dead in Kathmandu, only to wake up amnesiac with the power to knock out any heavy that comes her way? Yeah, it's the Bourne Identity with a romantic subplot, but Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray never really justify their mystery with a sharp enough payoff, making this graphic novel feel a bit like a wasted trip. Instead, this book feels entirely too convenient — it's convenient that Samantha meets Sean, it's convenient that they fall for one another, it's even convenient why these thugs want to kill Samantha in the first place (because I still never felt convinced why she was important enough to matter.) Artist Juan Santacruz, meanwhile, is perfectly clear with his storytelling, almost looking like storyboards for a film — that said, design-wise he's not bringing much to the table here, as there aren't any images that wind up feeling particularly memorable. This book feels a bit like an exercise rather than as a full story with a perspective or even a strong structure — the characters are appealing and attractive but aren't much more than bland archetypes, and even putting them through their paces in Kathmandu feels like kung fu for kung fu's sake. I feel like this story could have been something special, if Palmiotti and Gray had just taken another pass for the concept. Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!